November 30, 2015

Ngiyabonga (I thank you)

Emma Milford

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I just want to take a minute to take a step back from reporting on my weekly adventures to acknowledge how incredibly thankful I am for this opportunity to study abroad. I am not even sure how to properly explain how much I have gained from this semester. I’ve learned about the social and political transformation of post-apartheid South Africa, the histories and current discourse of different ethnic groups, the education system, the different political parties, and even a little bit about South Africa’s relationship with surrounding countries like Mozambique. I’ve visited government buildings, Gandhi’s house, the Albert Luthuli museum, various primary and secondary schools, the South Coast, a Zulu culture museum, and so much more. And that’s just from our coursework and classes.

In fact, just this morning we were at a local food market that opened last week in a renovated warehouse building that now houses high-end shops. While some of the students were browsing in a shop, one of the women running it came out and started speaking with me and another student. After some time, the man who was seated nearby sketching various scenes in the market also chimed in. We had the typical “where are you from?” and “how are you finding South Africa?” and “when are you leaving?” conversation, but soon after, they started asking telling us about all these different places in Durban that we should go. I was amazed that probably out of the fifteen or so places they listed, we had been to at least ten of them! We have spent months exploring the city and surrounding areas and even I was shocked by the breadth of my knowledge of local places. Of course, I still have more places to explore and not enough time to see everything, but in that moment, I felt so grateful for how much we have already done, seen, and experienced.

Besides physically traveling around, I am also so thankful for the relationships I’ve been able to form with people here. The three homestay experiences gave me three unique looks into the lives of local families, and I know I would not know as much about South Africa had I not had the chance to meet each family. The two most influential people I’ve met here have been my Cato Manor Mama (first homestay) and my current ISP advisor, the founder and executive director of Thanda. In their own ways, these women are changing the world around them for the better through their kindness and care for others. My flatmates here know all too well that I can talk for days (I mean this quite literally) about the incredible generosity of these women and how they have both changed my life. Maybe they are unaware of it, but their willingness to dedicate their time to my learning and to share a bit of themselves with me has had a life-long impact on me, and I do not think I’ll ever be able to thank them enough.

One final piece that I think is not spoken enough about is the impact studying abroad has on self-development. On this SIT program, we did a lot of traveling around in our vans. I never explicitly talked about connectivity (or our lack thereof), but one of my favorite parts of the trip has been sitting quietly in hours-long road trips with absolutely nothing to do but to reflect on my experiences. Sometimes I journaled, sometimes I blogged (to be posted at later time with connectivity), sometimes I spoke with my fellow students, and other times I would just stare out the window and watch the world around me pass by while I just thought. Being away from home in an unfamiliar place made me reflect upon what I value most and how I want to spend the rest of my time at WashU. I do not think a person needs to necessarily go half-way around the world to reflect and re-evaluate, but I do think that this experience has given me the unique opportunity to think critically about my role in this world.

So much of this abroad experience has been invaluable to my development as an active global citizen, and I am full of nothing but gratitude for everyone who has made this adventure possible!