Thursday, March 10, 2011

It's a Small World After All

As I sit and stare at the cold white world outside my window (it was a stiflingly 38 degrees and sunny when I left East London and I landed to -24 with windchill in Winnipeg), there is so much that I will miss and reminisce about and really the only person who will know what I am feeling and will understand is me.  Because, yes, I learned a lot from the work I did and the organizations I became part of, but the internship became so much more than that.  How do you explain what felt like a lifetime of meeting people and forming relationships, travelling and learning about a country and its history, professional lessons, and personal growth?

I boarded the Canada-bound plane from South Africa and knew that I had an experience that few people in the world will ever have.  I can confidently say that I journeyed through much of the Eastern Cape Province and took full advantage of my ability to travel and learn.  No, I didn’t see Johannesburg or Krueger National Park, but I swam in Coffee Bay, hiked to Hole in the Wall, almost broke my knee in Qunu, got chased by elephants in Addo, picked up hitchhikers in Peddie, sang Oh Canada on a bus to Hogsback, got stranded in Mthatha, and sat on Sarah's lap in a Chico from Nxarhuni, just to name a few things.  I will have nothing but incredible and warm memories of speeding down the N2 without a seatbelt, whipping past Butterworth and Idutwya with a roasted mealie and Red Grapetiser in my hand, laughing at Umhlobo.  Maybe it was because the Eastern Cape was the first place I saw in South Africa, but there is something about the province that got in my blood and I was always happy to get back in its borders. 

I astonished people with my ability to speak Xhosa and it’s incredible how telling a group of women that "I don’t want to leave South Africa and need a husband. Do any of you have sons?" can win you friends and a whole bunch of new mamas!  I’m proud that I can strip a t-bone steak or chicken thigh bare, I made umngqusho and umvubo, and while I will never put in as much salt as some may like, I can cook a pot of pumpkin or turn a bag of tough beef bones into a tender stew.  I understand the subtleties of hailing a share taxi to town and can even collect other passengers' fares.  I still can't really dance or sing, but I feel much more comfortable with my body and now quite frankly, I don't care about what other people think.  I appreciated the dance lessons and chiming in to the 4 part harmony on songs I learned--I didn't mind being a source of amusement because at least I was trying and I even got to like some Xhosa house music. 

I had the privilege and luxury to see parts of the country that many of the people we met have never seen and may never get the chance to.  And it’s difficult because I see the huge mansions on the Indian Ocean and the brightly painted rondavels and livestock that dot the green hillsides with maize fields blowing in the wind and it looks so idyllic.  But we know that part of why this province is so fascinating is because of the huge inequalities that exist and the fragile tension that feels so close to the surface. To be a young Canadian immersed in a world where the colour of your skin is the first thing that people see is an experience that I will hold on to forever, but will not miss.  The novelty of being a blonde celebrity in an Idutwya Spar grocery store can wear out quickly...
Living here has forced me to more deeply analyze what exactly is Canadian culture; it is not one where I can cook one food or wear one dress or sing one song.  There is such a strong and vital connection in being Xhosa and I could spend the rest of my life trying to understand it all and still fail.  Through working and living here, my beliefs are strengthened that the more you interact with all kinds of people, the more you realize that we are all human beings with the same vulnerabilities and the same wishes.  But that we also are shaped by our histories and our experiences and that often dictates our beliefs and behaviours.
I’m expecting a period of mourning because I am the only person who will know how much changed for the girl who got on the plane in September.  I will be content if I can continue to live on the outside--dance and sing with true confidence and abandon, express what I'm feeling or thinking without trying to fit it in a box, be grateful for the opportunities I have, ardently pursue what I want and need, and share my love for the people around me.  And at the end of all this, what you remember are the people. Those who invited me into their homes, taught me their language, fed me, included
me in their important work, were proud of their country and heritage, showed me that a township is filled with life and happiness and hope, laughed at me, loved me, begged me to stay or wanted to jump in my suitcase! 

There is no perfect place on this planet and you realize there are things you love and hate about anywhere, but I've discovered that it is a small world after all and that this modern marvel called an airplane means that I don't have to say goodbye to the Eastern Cape or my friends for good!  There's no reason why I have to leave behind anything that I've learned--I'm excited to say that in my "life suitcase" (which is seeing more and more of the world), I have packed a lot of lessons from South African life that will stay with me.  Just as important is that I have left parts of me behind that I packed in September and I don't need to carry around anymore. 

I would like to thank Niagara College for selecting and supporting me, my family and friends and blog readers throughout the world, the friends and colleagues in East London and Mthatha who I won't forget, Jason, Sarah, and everyone else who loved me and changed my life in South Africa!
Ndiyakuthanda & Ndizakukhumbula

Abeke babonana bayakuphinda babonane!

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