What I Learned the Two Weeks I Spent in South Africa

Over the summer, myself and fourteen other students in my scholarship program were sent on a trip to South Africa for two weeks. This was a life-changing experience. Spending two weeks in a country so different from your own changes your perspective on everything. Since coming back, I’ve talked about this trip every single day to the point where I’m annoying my friends. However, there’s so many reasons why I want to talk about it so much. I’m going to explain them.

Before going to South Africa, I knew only two things about the country. One: that Nelson Mandela was president, and Two: that Apartheid occurred. I didn’t even know what Apartheid was and you might not either. That’s fine! As long as you take time to educate yourself on it, that’s okay, but you might be thinking, “why does this matter to me?” Here’s why.

As Americans, we tend to be very closed minded and a few of my peers agreed with me on this. I admit that I have been part of the ethnocentric population living in the States. When I think about that, it sucks.

I remember we went to visit a group of orphans at a center in South Africa and had the chance to have conversations with them for about an hour. It was astonishing how much they knew about us. They asked us about Donald Trump, BET, and Martin Luther King, Jr. One of them asked us, “how do you celebrate MLK Jr. Day?” Do you know how surprised they were when we told them that we didn’t really celebrate it? We explained that the most that goes on is school is cancelled and some people might just go out of town for the long weekend? A country that’s about 9,000 miles away is taught about a man and holiday that most people just overlook in the U.S. It’s weird. It’s embarrassing.

Like I stated before, South Africa went through an event called Apartheid. It was a period of extreme segregation that lasted for about 46 years. If you look into it, it’s pretty similar to what happened in the United States with the Civil Rights movement for a little over 10 years in the 50s and 60s. However, Apartheid ended in 1994. A lot of us were born before or just after that. Does that not shock you? Black people in South Africa were getting murdered for just existing! They also still face racism there today. It’s very hard for a black person in South Africa to get a job without a college degree; it’s even difficult for them to get one even with the degree.

There is also extreme poverty in many parts of the country. If you drive just a little out of the major cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg, you’ll see giant villages of slums. I didn’t even know slums existed until a few months ago, and I definitely never thought I’d see one in person. It was shocking at first, but eventually, I got used to them. Huge families live in tiny metal shacks, and here I was complaining about being cold at night because our hostel didn’t have heaters. I’m not proud of it, and I’m not trying to be negative. I’m trying to be real and open minded. I had no clue about any of the struggles they faced 30 years ago or the ones they face today. However, they know about all of the struggles we face, from the Civil Rights Movement to Donald Trump. My main point is: pay attention. Pay attention to things that aren’t just about ourselves and the U.S.

On a happier note, I also learned that South Africa is a gorgeous country. Most of my Instagram posts are solely from my Africa trip and I loved it so much, I printed out a few to hang up on my wall. There is so much natural beauty in the country and I can’t wait to one day go back and see it all again. There is also the most diverse culture. Did you know South Africa has 11 different languages? Just imagine how many different, unique, and beautiful cultural groups use them.

This trip was, by far, one of the most beneficial experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I learned to be more caring, thoughtful, and selfless. If I can do this in two weeks, imagine what you could do in four months on an international exchange. Imagine what we could do by just reading about things that aren’t just about people cutting the Nike swoosh off socks. Going abroad or simply educating yourself is one of the best things you can do to grow as a person.

I truly hope that everyone gets to see this country one day.