A Land of Lines: A Week in the Rainbow Nation

Two Saturdays ago, my fidgety unslumber in the center economy-class seat of a South African Airways airbus, legs and neck braced awkwardly and eyes enshrouded in a light-blocking scarf, was disrupted suddenly when I jolted upright to a single urgent thought: Did we just cross the Equator? I hadn’t explicitly considered the symbolic geographic significance of my flight’s journey from Dakar to Johannesburg before that moment, and to a geography nerd like me, the excitement of being the first person in my family to venture into the Southern Hemisphere was enough to rouse me from the slouchy position of relative un-discomfort that had taken me several hours to find.  A strained glance at the flight monitor on the screen of a man a few rows in front of me (since my own “personal entertainment system” had stopped responding halfway through the charming South African indie film I had attempted to watch hours before) revealed that we were indeed directly over the Equator. I sat there for a few minutes basking in the awesomeness of my “sixth sense” until I realized that that line is imaginary, and that no magic “poof” was going to change our aircraft from Northern-Hemisphere-Plane to Southern-Hemisphere-Plane.


The Equator may have been imagined by humans, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t significant, as I was to discover in little ways throughout my eight days in South Africa. In fact, South Africa is perhaps the best example of a country in which man-made lines – arbitrary lines, carefully-planned lines, lines that separate, lines that shape – infiltrate every aspect of society.


The first lines I encountered on South African turf were the endless queues at customs in Johannesburg. It felt strange to follow the others with passports from countries that didn’t require a visa, meaning essentially [white] Americans and Europeans, while those from other parts of the world were forced to produce their visas. Just because I happened to have been born where I was born, my wait was slightly shorter. Though not much shorter.


After navigating these lines, I had a very confusing check-in for my transfer wherein a bunch of un-uniformed guys kept coming up to me to try to tell me which line to stand in for my flight to Cape Town. With hindsight, I’m pretty sure they actually did work for South African Airlines, but in the moment I felt like they had singled me out to “help.” At one point, with my dad’s voice in my ears, I firmly asked, “Excuse me, sir, but do you work for SAA? You have now made me lose my spot in the line I was in, and I think I was in the correct one. I’m going back.” Of course, I really was in the wrong line, but I figured out the right place on my own without the wild-goose-chase that that guy had been leading me on. And then I kept my cool during a stressful parlance with some kind employees named Chris and Numi upon learning that I was only on standby for my flight to Cape Town (even though I had booked with a student travel agency weeks before) and felt very independent when my communication resulted in me ending up on a flight only fifteen minutes later, though this flight was then delayed for an hour. My eighteen hours of travel-and-transit were well worth it for the hugs and hot chocolate offered by my friend Sarah when I finally disembarked in Cape Town, and we spent the forty-minute cab ride to Stellenbosch catching up.


From there the week progressed with all the pleasantness in the world: sunny days, for the most part, some thirty degrees cooler than Dakar and the cusp-of-spring air bursting with lightness. I stayed in Sarah’s dorm room at the University of Stellenbosch, which meant that I got to experience hot showers, toilet paper, and the Metanoia cafeteria. I got to hang out a lot with the awesome other American students on Sarah’s program, which is also affiliated with CIEE, the study-abroad institution that runs my program in Dakar as well. (People in South Africa say “as well” with ridiculous frequency, something which, once noticed, was something I couldn’t not notice.) And I also got to meet lots of South African students, to whom I was introduced as “Hopey-from-Senegal.” Good conversations sometimes ensued.


I fit a lot into my eight days in Stellenbosch and still managed to have plenty of time to rest a bit. Wine-tasting included a few wrong turns down dirt roads (in the car of a Stellenbosch student I had met a few minutes earlier), a bit of faking it through knowing the difference between wines, and a gorgeous outdoor panorama with a backdrop of soft mountains easing into charming vineyards, a little shimmery lake, budding trees, and a friendly border collie to complete the picture. Much contentment. Contentment could also describe my afternoon volunteering on an organic farm, where we sorted live wriggly worms for compost piles and weeded lines of cute little strawberry plants. Sarah’s program is all about sustainability, and I had fun learning about how Stellenbosch is engaging that subject, especially in relation to the environment course I’m taking in Dakar. Sustainability is such a key part of development, and I think it’s often left out of conversations when there are pressing immediate issues at stake (like the current water outage in Dakar, which has affected 45% of the city for more than three weeks! More about that later…)


One of the highlights of the trip for me (which shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows me) was the afternoon I joined Sarah to volunteer with the Pebbles Project, an after-school program for kids ages 6-15 whose parents work on the wine farms. We supervised the assembly of paper lanterns, which involved a lot of watercolor painting and scissor snipping, and while we waited for the paint to dry, we laughed and shrieked outside in the crisp valley sunset, playing kid-everywhere games like Simon Says and Duck, Duck, Goose (or Rhino, Rhino, Lion, as we played). I had the resist the urge to romanticize the innocence and the colors, because the truth is that although those children love the same things that the children at my daycare center in Georgetown do, their lives are definitely full of hardships that would be foreign to most of the kids I babysit back home. There is real suffering in these communities, from the alcoholism caused by vineyard workers’ being paid in wine to the extreme violence and dangers of rape lurking in every corner of the unbelievably poor townships where a lot of these kids live. And yet there is still something about running races and watercolors that speaks to the simple joy that children everywhere miraculously share. This is why I can’t disentangle myself from the idea of working with kids in some capacity for the rest of my life, for my career.


If I were directing a movie about my time in South Africa, the rainbows that the Pebbles kids were painting would be symbolic of the distinct lines of the Rainbow Nation that I got the chance to observe on Heritage Day, a national holiday celebrating the diverse heritages of the country which happened to fall on the Tuesday of my visit. For a country with eleven official languages, the idea of the Rainbow Nation is something of the opposite of the American melting pot; South Africans celebrate their heritages, plural, and there isn’t a lot of mixing. In fact, there was a campaign a few years ago to change the name officially to Braai Day, because that’s what is really is – a chance to roast meat over a fire, or braai, as Afrikaaners say. All the ethnic groups in South Africa like roasting meat over a fire. Braaiing transcends culture while at the same time firmly separating groups of people according to race and socioeconomic status. We didn’t actually attend a braai, but we went down to the Stellenbosch Heritage Day Festival along the river, where the abundance of food tents, artisans, live music, and dancing children immediately won me over. I couldn’t help feeling like it was all a show being put on for me, the visiting American. That doesn’t take away from the loveliness of it, though.


My own observations on Heritage Day intersected with conversations I had with the other Americans who had been living in Stellenbosch for two months, and with South Africans themselves. Race is still a thing in South Africa. It’s an inevitable lurking thing everywhere, and it was really striking to think apartheid existed in the places I was visiting within my lifetime. I’m only twenty, for goodness’ sake! It was strange to be exploring the adorable shops and European-like cafés of Stellenbosch when I knew that there was an unimaginably poor township just outside the town limits. And it was even stranger knowing that these infrastructural separations are pretty much right along race lines, and that these lines were made deliberately in the years of apartheid.


That’s what was so intriguing about the development differences between South Africa and Senegal. From just my stay in Stellenbosch, South Africa would seem completely developed – in fact, I kept feeling like I was in some hybrid of Northern California and New England. Compared to the unpaved, trash-covered streets of my neighborhood in Dakar, there really isn’t any comparison. One of the things I keep thinking about with regard to Senegal’s development is the fact that you can’t just give people more stuff. That’s not what development is, because it skips so many foundational steps. It’s why Senegal seems so paradoxical at times, where Internet and satellite TV sometimes are prioritized over running water. The infrastructure of Senegal is what needs to be rebuilt completely. And in a lot of ways, it’s the infrastructure of South Africa that also poses problems, but different ones. There, things like roads and sanitation systems exist, but they exist in such a way that the physical space of South African cities is divided along social lines. By contrast, all the many ethnicities of Senegal live jumbled together in Dakar, wealthy houses right next to virtual shacks. There isn’t really such a thing as a physical sorting of people. That’s not to say that there aren’t numerous social problems, they just take on a different form.


I’m not about to complain about my week of “luxuries” like toilet paper, green vegetables, and being able to drink water from the tap. When I returned to Dakar, the water shortage had reached a very tense place. I’ve been blown away by how easy it is to take for granted the fact that I don’t normally have to spend my whole day carrying buckets on my head to the other side of the city to get water from a government truck, or to knock on random doors to see if any lucky unaffected people could spare a bit. Even now, by the chance fact that my neighborhood still has water, I have been spared this experience. (I have had to brave the sticky hot-season night without a fan for the past few days, since mine died epically and hasn’t been replaced yet; this intense discomfort I’ve been offering up for the majority of the population who can never afford a fan blowing into their face every night.) Reality checks are lurking everywhere too.


Let me just describe one more set of lines from my South African sojourn. My last full day south of the Equator was spent hiking Jonkershoek with Sarah’s CIEE program. Nestled in the smallest biome in the world, that of the Western Cape fynbos, this trail took us over misty hills and around lush valleys to two gorgeous waterfalls. We hiked in a single-file line, my eyes on beauty-overload. To reach the second waterfall, the trail turned into an actual riverbed that was surrounded by a mixture of evergreens and tropical plants and was apparently much higher than normal due to excessive melting snow. Rock-jumping, wall-clinging, and eventual shoe-submerging were all necessary at some point. After an intense climb up the riverbed, we finally reached the waterfall, which was well worth the sogginess and the near-heart-attacks caused by slippery rocks. With pruned toes and content hearts, we descended the mountain bouncing songs off the fynbos.


And when we cozied up later in the dorm to nap, after a lovely late lunch (not late by Senegalese standards, of course) at an Italian place, we noticed a beautiful double rainbow peeking over the mountains we had just traversed in the distance. The lines of color shone brilliantly, and I shivered in my insufficient light-sweater-that-was-the-warmest-thing-I-brought. That’s right, the Rainbow Nation treated me to a rainbow as a going-away gift!


When I crossed the Equator again the next day, I was eight days older and wiser than I had been when I first entered the Southern Hemisphere. The thought that jolted me awake on that plane flight was the idea that I was returned “home” to Dakar. I was excited to see my host family and eat spicy food (which apparently I’ve built up quite the tolerance to) and swap travel stories with my American friends. This week since returning has already passed so quickly, but I’ve assuredly done all those things. There’s still so much in store in Senegal, I know it! But for now, I’d like to make a public-service-announcement THANK YOU to Sarah Katie Mock & Co. for immense hospitality, good conversation, and a taste of life in South Africa. I’m a darn lucky duck. Or rhino. However you play the game.

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