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4 posts from April 2011

04/28/2011

Uni(di)versity: Surviving The Crowd

The University of Cape Town is remarked the world over as being the best tertiary institution in Africa. Its reputation is not unduly boasted: it ranks 170 in Times Higher Education ladder, the academic staff was (and are) trained by some of the best universities in the world, its resources (libraries and research facilities and the like) are competitive and accessible – in short, it is a university that fits its mantle well. On paper, it is the best in Africa.

But being good on paper is not enough. As any person working in the professional field will tell you, a paper qualification will only take you so far. Sooner or later, all of life’s little lessons need to be stacked up and made to fulfil a gap that no amount of teaching, tutorials and assignments can cover. In short, there are some things that cannot be learned in a university lecture hall.  

One of these lessons is how to get along in a crowd of people.

“Crowd” implies being trapped in some room or environment with people different from you in some way. Not so. The word “crowd” in this case is taken to mean people in general – they could be similar to you or they could be different. The point is that if they are not you, then they form a crowd. One of the best things that university teaches, as I have come to find, is how to cope with being in a larger social construct. The University of Cape Town in this regard is truly exceptional.

From the time I could crawl, I have always been surrounded by people. Whether it was my large family, my friendship circle in primary school or my social circle in high school, I have always had people around me. The one common thread that ran through all of the groups that encapsulated me was that they came from the same social background; we all had the same world views, we all thought in similar patterns – I hate to say it but our uniqueness was disconcertingly uniform.

The first time I truly experienced the word diversity was in university – more specifically, at UCT. Because I had the luxury of having been around many people and having been to more places than the average person, I assumed that I could call myself a “diverse person”. Upon arriving at UCT five years ago, my experiences seemed minute – they were one small dot in a sea of 25 000 students who all came from different backgrounds. True, there were some that were similar to mine, but they were different in the same way that cerulean blue and ordinary blue are (trust me, if you look closely, they are).

All of a sudden, I had no idea how to get along in this new alien world where the social rules were different, where my views were not always shared, where I was not always the best at something. Suddenly, I was just…me.

I was just a very small “me” in a very big crowd. And therein was the start of my journey to surviving the crowd.

It would be exhaustive to describe all of the little life lessons that can be picked up at UCT. Not all of them are specific to UCT, but there are some that are exquisitely unique to this place. Things like, print assignments on a Sunday evening rather than Monday morning, facing down hungry pigeons or how on Earth one is to find one’s way around campus on the first day of lectures. Most importantly, being at UCT teaches how to survive in a place where cultures and world views are in constant competition – there is not one view that is dominant, each one has its merits and disadvantages, some win certain battles, some lose others. No one can claim to know the UCT pulse through and through. Needless to say that after five years at UCT, I have learned that one of the best ways to survive the crowd…is to join the crowd.

When the latest crop of CIEE students came to Cape Town, it was refreshing (and amusing) to see them totter around UCT, trying to find their bearings on a campus that was so different from anything that most of them had experienced before – the language was somewhat different, the people were from cultural and social backgrounds most of them had only ever read about and the UCT system was different to their home universities as pink and blue are from each other. It was heartening though to see how they adjusted - UCT demands immediate adjustment.

The crowd swallowed them most of them up, it changed quite a few of them. Some of them are not the same people that left home – most will never be. Nonetheless, I am sure that they will leave this place knowing what it was like to have studied at Africa’s finest: they will have left knowing what uni(di)versity is. 

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Remy Profile Remy Ngamije is a student at the University of Cape Town.

Resident Assistant

04/21/2011

Rethinking Township Tours

Even before coming to South Africa, I stressed opposition towards township tours.  They were “objectifying,” “idiotic,” and “demeaning.”  The idea of touring poverty made me cringe.  “But, township tours allow people to understand the poverty on an more intimate level; they expose people to living conditions that they would not be able to see otherwise,” my friend Daysy argued last semester.  She may be right, but after touring Gugulethu today, I find myself disagreeing even more.

I guess I consented to the township tour as a means of seeing more of Gugulethu.  Before today, my experiences in Gugulethu had been restricted to Sundays at Mzoli’s.  I was curious to see more, yet wary to venture without a guide.  As well, township tours are part of the fundamental South African experience.  As a business, they have exploded over the past decade.  The tours provide a means of displaying how people have remained impoverished post-apartheid, despite the democratic transition.  Donald, our tour guide, took extra care to express how the government had failed to deliver many welfare goods to Gugulethu.  “Judge for yourself,” he kept saying, “are living conditions better?”

Our tour began with what can be called nothing less than an invasion of privacy.  Donald led us to one of the shacks perched above Gugulethu, looking out over the N-2 highway.  I felt like I was back at orientation, except this time it was much worse: a large group of Americans, blatantly wealthy, foreign, and out-of-place.  Waiting outside the shack, I tried to focus on anything except my surroundings.  But once we were led inside, it became impossible to avoid the awkward confrontation.  Donald waved his arm, showcasing the room.  “Do you see this shack?  Do you see the wiring, the bed?  Six people live in this house.  Do you think it is good?”  The owner of the house, whom Donald never formally introduced us to, was an older seamstress.  She never spoke, but simply sat behind her sewing machine, watching TV.  The other family members present, a young woman and a boy, also remained silent.  I learned nothing about these people, except that they are poor, which was exactly what Donald was trying to reflect.

The rest of the tour, while uncomfortable, never reached the same level of dread that the shack induced.  We were led through the rest of Gugulethu, to see the local pubs, markets, and main stretch.  We also saw Gugulethu’s two famous memorials, the Gugulethu Seven and Amy Biehl memorial.  The tour ended with Mzoli’s, a relief to be back in familiar territory.  While I will probably return to Mzoli’s over the next two months, I doubt I will ever go on a township tour again.  It was too invasive, too objectifying, and yes, too idiotic.

A comment Donald made at the beginning of the tour stuck with me for the rest of the day.  Discussing European tourists that have come to tour Gugulethu, Donald mentioned that some patrons “weep when they see the poverty.”  Comments like this I especially dread.  If there is one thing I have learned in South Africa, it is to not focus on the poverty.  Such concentration only generates pity; and with pity, comes an unequal stance between the observer and the observed.  Our weekend in Ocean View was meant to undo such perceptions, whereas township tours perpetuate them.

Our generation did not witness apartheid, and cannot fathom the violence and repression of its time.  Older generations did, and will forever view apartheid’s repression with a sense of guilt.  Township tours, I feel, feed off of this guilt.  The family in the shack was not empowered by my visit, but was objectified in order for me to feel remorse for the effects of apartheid. 

 As the guilt of apartheid begins of fade, one can only hope that the business of township tours will diminish as well.  Younger generations will no longer view township tours as a means of “learning about the effects of apartheid,” and will (hopefully) come to view them more as a source of objectification.  Township tours do not undo apartheid’s effects, but perpetuate a sense of “white guilt.”  While older generations may be quick to feel pity, ours experiences discomfort.  As much as Donald means well, I can only hope that he will eventually move on from the touring business, to pursue more beneficial means of empowering the people of Gugulethu.

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Margaret Yukins is a student from Columbia University.

04/19/2011

A very bad case of F.O.M.A

One of my housemates remarked to me that there was a bad case of F.O.M.A going around. I had no idea what it is that she was talking about and since it was said in passing I just assumed that it was something akin to a common cold or something. At the time, I was too busy to pursue the matter further and let it slip.

A couple of days later, I heard it again in a conversation – it was a heated conversation about peanut butter on apples (which in Africa is just alien!) and how much humus American exchange students consume (which is a lot – again, in Africa this is very alien). I was too busy trying to explain why peanut butter and apples just does not fly around here, why it could never catch on when the word was thrown into the mix so quickly I did not notice it come and go. Again, I was not sure what on Earth was – I assumed that it was some word that was mispronounced or spoken with an accent. I was too embarrassed to actually ask what it was so I let it slip.

Three days later. I heard it again. F.O.M.A. I was in the kitchen trying to chef it out when one of my housemates came in and said that because UCT was starting to kick into high gear, F.O.M.A was at an all-time high. This time I had had enough. I had to find out what F.O.M.A was.

So I did the brave thing and asked.

It turned out that F.O.M.A was actually quite a very bad disease going around the CIEE students – all of them had it. From the healthiest athlete right down to the laziest couch potato it had them. Black, white, Indian, boy, girl, Penn Staters, Trojans, the lot – it had them all. No one was immune from it. The symptoms were actually quite distressing – a chronic addiction to Google, characterised by search words like “South Africa”, “tour guides in Cape Town” and “things to do in Cape Town.” Some gave of signs of irritation while other students tried to cure it by being out of the house and around Cape Town as much as possible. Still, it plagued them relentlessly.

Like the good concerned RA that I am (*round of applause*) I decided to try and remedy the situation. You see I have this dream that I will make medical history one way or the other. The opportunity presented itself and I obliged – I was going to find a cure for F.O.M.A.

For once, Google was useless, there was nothing about it anywhere. I consulted doctors, therapists, and anyone with an –ist in their job description. All of them were stumped.

And then the idea struck me. After some quick website searches (this time, Google was more amenable to my cause) I managed to find a couple of websites that provided some solutions to the problem. None of the solutions were permanent; at best they would slow down the symptoms for a while. I was desperate though and forwarded the links to my housemates. Anything was better than nothing.

In the space of a day or two, the students seemed to improve. Granted that there are still one two that are under the weather, I still think that I deserve some kind of mention when they consider the next round of Nobel laureates. Because to date, I think I am the only one that has found a cure for the Fear of Missing Anything.

And to find that cure, you’ll have to come to Cape Town to see it. :)

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Rémy Ngamije

University of Cape Town: Postgrad LLB (Law)

Resident Assistant

04/15/2011

A very steep learning curve

I imagine that it cannot be easy adjusting to the African way of life coming from the US – it’s faster and more frenetic over there, everything is bigger and louder, the stores never close and I presume people grow older even before they are born. That is how I envision life in the States; it seems like another world out of another time. That is the impression I get from students who are living in my house from conversations that we have had – the US another world unto itself.

In certain respects, so does Africa – all 52 of them.

A common mistake that is made by people not from here is to think that Africa is one country – that from North to South, East to West it is one homogenous territory where everyone speaks the same language, where people have the same cultural practices, religious beliefs and political agendas. Not so. Africa, like the US might represent a common group of persons from a bird’s eye view of the world, but if you look closer, it is quite different on the ground. Down here, at street level, Africa has a million faces, each one distinct and different from the next, each one filled with ideas and dreams, biases and world views that cannot be accurately mapped by any anthropologist.

For me, having lived here all of my life, this I not new to me – but for all of the students studying abroad on the CIEE Cape Town program, it is something of a cultural shock. True, there are some that have been here before and others that read up a little on Africa, but a great many of them arrived in Cape Town preparing to see “Africans” – people that could be placed in one neat little adjective. I doubt that any of them have met such a person.

When asked to relate the people that they have met and how they would group and describe them, quite a few struggle – many give up. That is a good sign. It shows that they actually have no descriptive genus to place them in. Africa is like that. Even in a small environment like Cape Town, it is so hard to group people from Rondebosch together, people from the Cape Flats, Gugulethu or Camps Bay – two people will share one thing in common and rarely more. It is always interesting hearing students relate their tales of the people that they have met, what they think of them and how they compare to whatever preconceived notion that they had of them prior to landing. So far, I am proud to hear that none of them are “what we thought they were”.

The purpose of studying abroad is to “learn something of a different culture” – to immerse oneself in an alien environment where things work in a manner different from what you are used to, getting to grips with challenges and life situations that are not common to you – CIEE Cape Town, I think, allows its student to experience all of this. Not all of them will have the same experiences – nor should they. It is all about having a personalised experience different from anything that might have come before – something that will not be repeated again. So far, all of the students have met have had those kinds of experiences.

Africa is a steep learning curve. And just like Everest, you cannot summit it from the US. You have to actually come here and do it. 

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Rémy Ngamije

University of Cape Town: Postgrad LLB (Law)

Resident Assistant