DISCLAIMER: I wrote this post about a month ago and never published it, but I’ve since added a few recent details.
“So, why South Africa?”
This question comes up in almost every introductory conversation from the cashier at Woolworth’s to my fellow [North] American and international students.
I knew I wanted to study abroad at some point in my undergraduate career. I stepped down from my full-time job in 2013 to begin my junior year at University of California, Berkeley at the age of 24. And just recently I celebrated my 25th birthday. By no means am I much older than the majority of students in their junior year, but I had specific goals when entering Cal. One of the benefits of taking the long road to university was my coworkers, who encouraged me to study abroad and take advantage of the opportunities that are available, despite my limited time as a transfer student.
The first step towards studying abroad was deciding my country of choice, which was a daunting task. With at least 35 locations in the UC Education Abroad Program (UCEAP), I had to set some guidelines. I knew I only wanted to study for a semester, and I picked the Fall of 2014 as the goal. This narrowed it down a bit, but not enough. Then for countries I decided early on that I only wanted to go to a Spanish-speaking country, an African country, or Brazil. I took two years of Spanish in high school and an immersion program sounded exciting. But after reviewing the programs they did not seem like a great fit in terms of classes I was interested in. I think a large part of me was terrified of venturing into the unknown with my rusty and frankly, lackluster Spanish skills. Brazil took it a step further, with limited English options. I do not consider myself a linguist, and the thought of trying to learn my subject and Portugeuse at the same time was a bit intimidating. Finally I looked at the African countries and was drawn to Ghana. The potential classes sounded great, it was on the African continent, and language was not a large issue.
Now if anyone is interested in studying abroad, make sure you do your homework. UCEAP requires you to take a course that somehow relates to Africa if you want to study in the continent. And because I started in Fall 2013 and wanted to leave in Fall 2014, I needed to have it done by Summer 2014. But summer was not an option, as I needed to work. Instead I looked at the classes for Spring 2014, of which there were few options. I ended up going with South African History, promoting South Africa as the logical choice. While I could have studied South Africa for a semester and gone to Botswana, I figured I might as well put a face to the name and explore race relations, sociology, and sexuality in South Africa. It actually worked in my favor as well, as South Africa is the most accepting country of homosexuality in the continent of Africa, according to polls (I’m definitely dedicating a later blog post to this discussion).
But I must add that South Africa was not my first choice. As a Black man, I wanted to visit the massive continent of Africa at some point in my life because some part of me most likely lies somewhere within. As a human in general, I wanted to visit the continent of Africa because it’s the motherland. But with almost 60 countries and no clue as to where my lineage lies, it felt slightly inaccessible. What I did know, though, was that South Africa felt too close to home in many of the historical parallels and race relations. Why go to Africa to see a very similar composition and even language to what was at home? This was my naiveté speaking, as South Africa is not the same as at home and while there are parallels, the United States has a very different history. After studying for a semester I actually became really excited to see what South Africa had to offer and I’m glad I realized the error of my judgmental ways. As a side note, at least a brief history should be required before studying in another country, particularly in the social sciences. While I’m a huge fan of the arts and happy that some people could take some form of African dance as their requirement–word up to my African dance cohorts here–it has given me such a better understanding. All of my classes reference events I learned in my history course, and one course in particular required that basic understanding of events and apartheid legislation to truly move forward. Coming to study within the social sciences without a background in any of this would have put me at a great disadvantage in comparison to the South African or other students of African origin. That being said, it is completely possible to keep on trucking without this knowledge, but the background put a lot of things in context for me.
So after over two days of travel from SFO to Heathrow, Heathrow to Joburg, and Joburg to Cape Town, I finally arrived on July 5th, 2014 and I won’t be leaving until December. Throughout my time here I hope to continue to blog about my experiences, my impressions, and all of the wonderful things I’m learning both formally an informally. Until next time!