Let’s talk about…race

Disclaimer: please note that all of the reflections and opinions in this post come from my own personal experiences, and understanding. They do not represent the opinions and position of the other interns, local residents nor the organizations that I am working for.

It is hard to believe that it has already been two months since I moved to South Africa. Most of the time has been spent working at Slang, and the free time divided between yoga and the booming social life I am trying to maintain.  

A week ago we were invited to a parkrun, which is an international event that takes place weekly in various parks all over the world. While running is definitely not my physical activity of choice, I decided to join as it was an excuse to get out of town and check out the Midlands (local countryside). The invitation came from a fellow South African hiker of colonial descent whom I had met in the Drakensberg mountains the previous weekend. Upon arrival to the site where the parkrun was to take place I was shocked with the feeling of being transported to a scene I have experienced many times before in homogeneous western countries. Out of the one hundred or so participants that showed up for the race I could not spot a single black African face, all of the attendees were of white colonial South African descent.  This may not come as shock for those of you living or interacting in predominantly white societies, but considering that 80 percent of South Africa’s population is made up of blacks, and after living in a full Zulu immersion for two months and coming across an average of 10 white faces a week, I was startled, to say the least when I realized how many white people lived in Pietermaritzburg. More questions arose as I was trying to make sense of what I was seeing: Where are these people during the day? Why do I never see them? Why aren’t there any black people running with us when I see them running along the streets every day? Would the attendance or participation change if there were native Africans running with us?

This was not the first time I took part in an event that was attended exclusively or mainly by white people. And every time I experienced the same shock followed by the same questions. Also, how do the representatives of both races know which event will be attended by who, there are no signs anywhere that forbid the attendance of any individual. This led me to wonder whether although apartheid has ended at the political level, social segregation has been internalized and continues to infiltrate every aspect of private lives.

I did a little qualitative research and luckily people were very welcoming towards my questions and open in their responses. I interviewed a total of 10 people or so, with equal representation of both races and everyone has identified the same two main reasons:

  1. Cultural preferences: based on past socialization, cultural interests, upbringing, and class, the majority of individuals of a given race prefer to attend certain cultural or musical events that the other race may not be interested in or have access to.
  2. Internalized segregation: due to years of forced apartheid, the interests and the cultures were further divided and certain sports, music and arts were associated and labelled with a specific race. Although apartheid is no longer, the segregation on the social level persists. Furthermore certain individuals still feel resentment towards other races and would not attend events that they associate with that race. Currently, although the races are interacting on a daily basis in public, the private lives are often maintained separate.  

It saddens and fascinates me to be a witness of racial social segregation to this extent, but we must remember that this is a young country and the wounds are still fresh. On a brighter note changes are happening, and they are happening fast. Just this weekend I attended an arts event in Durban that displayed a higher degree of social racial integration. Furthermore all of the interviewees expressed hope, excitement and love for their country and its future. I feel very lucky to be able to talk openly about these issues with all South Africans and peel off the complex sociopolitical layers.



Connecting the dots…

It is hard to believe that it has already been a month here in South Africa, time could not be flying any faster, could it? I have settled in a fairly small town by the name of Pietermaritzburg, which is located in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, the land of the Zulus, which is the most predominant ethnic group in South Africa. I am working with Ukalapha (a grassroots organization) as a social worker in Slangspruit Primary school (aka Slang). The school is located in a township, and for those of you who don’t know what townships are, here is a basic definition from Wikipedia:

[…]underdeveloped urban living areas that, from the late 19th century until the end of apartheid, were reserved for non-white residents. During the apartheid era, black people were evicted from properties that were in areas designated as “white only” and forced to move into segregated townships. Separate townships were established for each of the three designated non-white race groups – black people, Coloureds and Indians. Townships were usually built on the periphery of towns and cities.”

Although apartheid has ended in 1994, the townships remain significantly underdeveloped and forgotten by the governments. There are no investments into infrastructure and the schools receive minimal support from the government which means less qualified teachers and fewer facilities for the learners. The private schools in SA can rely on school fees to provide a higher level of education, Slang however is entirely free as most residents often cannot afford to pay even minimal fees. While we live in a privileged neighbourhood due to security reasons, travelling daily to Slang is truly eye opening to the disparity of wealth in this country.

On a slightly different topic, South Africa is currently experiencing a severe drought. The rains are scarce and the dams are drying out fast. In KwaZulu-Natal the drought is at a critical stage and we are experiencing water shortages daily. Slangspruit township has the water delivered by huge water tanks that drive on the main streets and are met by waiting crowds with buckets and children with as big bottles as they can carry.

Now, water scarcity is a reality in many places in the world, and this is not the first time I am faced with it, however it is the first time that I can clearly see the impact it is having on education. In Slang we usually get running water on school premises. On the days when the water at the school is cut off the learners are not fed lunch (often their only meal of the day), they cannot quench their thirst and are sent home early. How can one expect hungry and thirsty children to be able to concentrate and learn, it is no news that nutrition and education are strongly correlated. However it is strongly impressive and inspiring to witness the resilience in the learners and their determination and desire to learn regardless of the circumstances. Could you imagine your child going without food and water for the entire day?

On that note, this year I am participating in VIDEA’s 7th annual Global Solidarity Challenge on Team Education to raise awareness of the unpredictable challenges that many students are facing around the world. To stand in solidarity with the learners at Slang, I will abstain from food and water during school hours (7.00-15.30) from July 23rd to the 28th. Please help me in this endeavour and support the many projects and partnerships of this amazing organization.

Please use this link to make a donation: http://solidarity.videa.ca/participantpage.asp?uid=3391&fundid=1848

Any donation is strongly appreciated! Thank you!!!


Related links:

Global Solidarity Challenge: http://solidarity.videa.ca/participantpage.asp?uid=3391&fundid=1848

Ukalapha: http://www.ukulapha.org.za/

VIDEA: http://videa.ca/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/varonacabrona/

Following Dreams

My mom always encouraged me to have many dreams and to make them as detailed as possible. She believes that by envisioning your dreams you can create your reality. For me, detail was present only in daydreaming, while life dreams remained as vague as they could be. One of those vague dreams was (and still is) to travel. It doesn’t matter where, when, how or with who, as long as I am ‘anywhere but here’, wherever that may be. Thus my education and life priorities were all shaped around this one vague dream. During the long and tedious education years (when all that kept me going was dreaming about the next holiday and researching destinations) I did at least one thing right: getting enrolled in an international development class. This 3 months course not only opened my eyes to the mess we live in and shaped the way I think and reason, but it also sparkled a new dream: to get involved in international development and humanitarian missions.

After graduating, I applied to programs that sponsor Canadians to become involved in international development, and then I waited and waited and waited some more, without success. The two options that remained were: a) pay for my own experience and become a voluntourist; or b) start fulfilling my first dream and hope that the second one will somehow filter itself in. While voluntourism has never appealed to me for a number of reasons (which I may or may not discuss further in another post), the second option sounded as good as it could get at that stage of my life. So I packed my bags and left for a 3 months trip, which turned into 5 years of nomadic life. I tried to be true to my word and got involved with international development opportunities whenever possible, mainly by volunteering for local non-profits. However these opportunities were very rare and short term and I began pursuing other interests and generating new dreams.

Then one day, while doing my yearly check of the available internships through International Youth Internship Program (sponsored by Global Affairs Canada), I stumbled across VIDEA, a non-profit organization that offers a number of internships overseas. I checked out the internships and was surprised to see that I could qualify for a number of them based on education, skills and experience. I also found out that the application deadline had already passed (oops, as always). Nonetheless, I filled out a surprisingly short application form and sent it off , trying to maintain my cool and keeping my hopes low. Needless to say I was exhilarated and stupefied when I received a reply the same day and an invitation for an interview to take place the following day. Everything happened so quickly and before I knew it I was packing the bags to fly off to South Africa for a six months internship.

Moral of the story: dreams are little seeds that fall out of our pocket of imagination. Some seeds are carefully planted into fertile soils, watered, nurtured and may or may not grow into fruitful trees. Other seeds are thrown into arid areas and promptly forgotten about, neglected. It is so much easier to care for something that arises from a solid foundation, but it is so much more surprising and rewarding to find a sprout in the desert. In any case, the most important thing is to never stop dreaming and pursuing those dreams.


Related links:

IYIP: http://www.international.gc.ca/development-developpement/partners-partenaires/iyip-psij/index.aspx?lang=eng

VIDEA: http://videa.ca/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/varonacabrona/