The ketchup is different here.
At home, I know exactly where the trusty bottle of Heinz is in the fridge, and where the backup ones are in the cupboard. At school, I know exactly where ketchup is located in every condiment stand across campus. But here in South Africa, the staple Heinz ketchup that I grew up on and cherish deeply is nearly impossible to find. Instead, many restaurants and our B&B in Johannesburg offer what they call tomato sauce: a sweeter, more granular, and likely healthier version of American ketchup. While delicious in its own right, tomato sauce cannot fill the void left in me by the lack of Heinz.
Yes, my ketchup addiction runs deep. But this journal entry is not so superficial as to revolve solely around a condiment. To me, Heinz ketchup symbolizes my comfort zone. It is what I know and what I rely on, much like many of the other aspects of my life in the United States. In Johannesburg, I was forced outside of my plush bubble and into an entirely new headspace. I am visiting Africa for the first time and navigating the customs of a foreign country. I am living with a group of intimidatingly intelligent, insightful people, most of whom I had never met or even seen before Duke Engage Academy. I am learning about issues that merely lap at the shore of the beach island that is my white-washed, privileged life as a Duke student from affluent Northern Virginia.
During this past week in Johannesburg, I saw racial and wealth disparity unlike I’d ever witnessed before. Nowhere was it more apparent than in Alexandra. A mere six kilometers from Sandton, the richest square mile on the African continent, Alexandra is one of the most impoverished townships in South Africa. As our tour van traveled through the township, passersby stared—and occasionally glared—through its barely tinted windows. There we sat, ogling the informal settlement as if it were an exhibit in a museum, rather than a living, breathing, vibrant community. Our experience in Alexandra was deeply detached. We left the luxury of our Mercedes Benz van only to eat at perhaps the single tourist-targeted restaurant in Alex and snap photos of the township’s humble beauty. Stores, homes, and restaurants bordered streets filled with cars and bikes, schoolchildren laughing, and women magically balancing baskets atop their heads. The air swirled with an energy of resiliency unique to a community that has been marred by decades of oppression and systemic inequality. Our time there raised many questions for me and several others in the group. How do we truly immerse ourselves in the culture and community here without imposing on and disrespecting its residents? I feel as if I am straddling the line between learner and intruder, and I hope the next seven weeks bring with them a sense of purpose and clarity as I begin work at Sonke Gender Justice.