“…anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”

Anything. Or anyone. That does not bring you alive.

Is too.

Small.

For you.

I’d once heard poetry described as language against which we have no defenses. It is a language whose words at times bring with them truths we didn’t want to hear, didn’t feel ready to hear. They render us unable to deny or hide from some reality we felt hesitant to confront, because confronting new truths usually means confronting our own vulnerabilities and the uncertainties we all possess as humans.

These brief, poignant words from one of David Whyte’s poems had seared themselves into my consciousness since I’d first heard them. Some words are too significant, too evident, too loud to be ignored.

Equally so, some experiences are too loud to be ignored.

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A few weekends ago, I had a chance to briefly visit Johannesburg, the city I had called home for two years before moving to Zimbabwe some months ago. The moment I had stepped off the plane and into the airport, it was as if I had breathed in new life. As I rode the train into the city, the outlines of familiar shapes blurring past my sight amidst the evening lights reflecting off the large glass windows, I continued to inhale the strangely satisfying air. It was as if my lungs were just now able to fully take in the air necessary to expand to their full capacity, whereas for the past months they had only taken in what they could to sustain life, unsatiated yet laboring on in their capacity.

This fullness literally felt in my lungs continued to define the rest of the two days spent in that city. One day felt like a week – from driving through the city centre and taking in all the beautiful grittiness I had always loved about it, even amidst the very real danger and need to remain alert in turning each corner; to revisiting the familiar artsy spaces carved out throughout the town, in the hipster cafes and markets and in the fashionable and unavoidably cool youthful city residents who occupied them; to catching up with familiar faces and friends whose vibrancy, intelligence, and beauty I had the privilege of appreciating anew, the way periods of absence always seem to re-introduce us to the things we come to take for granted in others by way of familiarity.

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Our experience of time is so deeply intertwined with our experience of people and place; of the emotions and diversity of experiences we allow ourselves in each moment of each day. This could not have been more evident than in that one Saturday in Joburg. One day can easily assume months or even years of meaning and depth, depending on how we fill it and what we let in. It is both frightening and liberating to realize the extent to which we control or relationship with time – the way in which one day can seem to pass by in a second, accumulating to months or even years of fleeting empty moments, but equally so, how one day can be filled with so much life that the concept of time in itself seems to become irrelevant and meaningless.

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Relatedly, it is both a deeply beautiful and yet in some ways painful phenomenon to be reminded of the manifold ways our existences depend on our connections with other people. Such reminders may come in the inevitable moments where we find ourselves kept afloat and able to keep at this business of living simply by the grace of those in our lives, but they may also come in those moments where we think we are fine, living, moving, but then jolted suddenly more alive by the influence of another.

I am all for learning to love oneself, or at least learning to be at peace within one’s own self – to recognize the wholeness that is already there, and find a sense of grounding in that alone. It is no doubt dangerous and unhealthy to expect that anyone else can complete us or to rely on someone else to build up those things we must ultimately build up in ourselves. But I’ve also found the beauty and mystery in the power of another person to sometimes expand our sense of completeness. It is not that this other comes in and fills some hole we thought needed to be filled in our lives, but rather, that he or she literally stretches the space that once represented the totality of our identity and human experience. Inevitably, this may end up leaving a sense of loss or incompleteness once that individual is no longer in our lives, but not because we had relied on him or her to fill a certain absence. Still, in stretching the canvas of self we started with, that person ends up leaving some sense of emptiness in the stretched out space they had made for us, but a space whose emptiness is only an illusion – one that, with time, we find a way to fill with our own color, adding ever more shades of beauty to our existence.

It is this sense of expansion I had the privilege of experiencing on multiple occasions throughout the course of that Saturday in Joburg – in the unexpectedly diverse and profound conversations had with both old friends and new. While naturally not all conversations in life must serve to elevate or inspire, I find that for me personally, I rely on such conversations for sustenance. Lately, I’ve come to realize that maybe bringing up my confusion over the nature of reality with random colleagues on a coffee break or delving into the meaning of life with drunken strangers at a party or discussing colonialism and racism on a first date may not be typical contexts associated with certain types of conversations, but I’ve also realized, why not. More often than not, regardless of the context or ‘norms’ for discussion topics in certain settings, simply allowing people the space for expression on those things that matter most creates an instant connection and opportunity for something meaningful to emerge.

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In many ways, these moments transform mere conversation into a form of art: a molding of two or more experiences into some new idea or expression, something never before revealed into the world in that precise way. Simply by nature of the uniqueness of the elements – of the perceptions and experiences and personality of each person – brought together to produce the interplay of thoughts and meaning making in that specific instance, the conversation unleashes something that ripples out in tiny invisible ways into the ocean of meaning that shapes the world.

While the following quote from Rilke was written in the context of marriage, I think it also applies to the beauty of connection, facilitated through the types of conversations had between people in any context: “Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”

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When reminded of the immensity of depth and wholeness embodied by each and every individual in our midst, it is that much more incredible to imagine what is possible by the interactions between them. As Rilke articulates, the point is not a merging together, for such a task is impossible in light of the infinite distances between any two people, but rather, an appreciation of the distance in itself. Conversation is one means of delving into the depths of another person’s immense sky and in the process, finding the horizon of your own sky shifted into ever-farther expanses.

I’m not sure why exactly the conversations in Joburg stood out so much as compared to the ones I’ve been having in Harare. It’s not that I haven’t come across moving people or interesting things worth reflecting on here, but maybe it is also that my excessive focus on work has left me more closed off to the influence of these conversations. And then, there is also the fact that some people just have a deeper effect on us than others, who make us feel more alive for whatever reason. As with most things, this reality becomes more evident in the absence of it. In this case, my experience of leaving those individuals who had been a part of my life in Joburg made their uniqueness and inspiring qualities that much more worthy of appreciation in having the opportunity to once again feel a unique kind of alive in their presence.

These moments of heightened aliveness in the past few months however have by no means been confined to my weekend in Joburg. They’ve appeared in countless and usually unexpected ways throughout my time in Harare, yet often in short fleeting bursts rather than in a sustained and embedded way.

One day, in returning from a work trip to the field, I had been driving back to Harare from Mwenezi, a dry, dusty rural district in the southern region of Zimbabwe, at dawn: the sky was painted with a deep red along the horizon, as the rays of the luminous waking sun pierced through the dust, casting shadows of hazy pink brightness in every direction. The vibrant red horizon softened into lighter shades of pink, mingling with strokes of blues and wispy forms of white, eventually settling on a bluish grey expanse as the eyes journeyed upwards. The reddish pink horizon rested along the outlines of ridged mountains in the distance, appearing in layers of various depths and darkness, broken only by the rounded outlines of trees in their midst. Something about the way the dust from the rocky dirt road we traveled along filled the air around us, lit up by the warm hues of the morning sun, seemed to encompass our vehicle with an inexplicable warmth. This combined with the thick morning soundscape of nature’s silence – rooster calls, cattle bells, and singing birds – felt almost like a warm embrace by the earth itself. Breaking my attention from my concerns of the work awaiting me in Harare, of the millions of things I thought mattered here or there, the embrace brought me into my surroundings, reminding me that all that mattered was what was there, then in that moment.

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Why do I bring any of this up in the first place – this concept of feeling alive, and of allowing oneself to be drawn to those things and people which bring us to feel this way?

Preparing for grad school and working through all the confusing and necessary life lessons and growth that comes with the early career experience, I’ve spent much time reflecting on decisions over the past few months, thinking such reflection necessary in setting a fruitful path for whatever is to come next. But really, I don’t know what the future holds, whether it be 10 years from now or even 10 seconds from now. It is a futile and vain human imagining to think we have any control over our futures – that the decisions we make now will determine exactly where or what we will be doing later in life. I do not know what decisions now will put me in the best position to achieve what I want to achieve in the future. I don’t even know what it is I want to achieve in concrete terms. Or whether I should care about ‘achievement’ in the first place.

What I do know is when I feel alive, and when I don’t. I know what beauty feels like and what the absence of it feels like. I know that beauty – in the world, in other people, and in contributing something meaningful to both – makes me feel alive. I know that I do not want to live a life devoid of actually feeling alive.

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This may all sound extremely basic and simple, and in fact, it is. But how often do we abstract ourselves from those evident truths that are so deeply obvious and glaring in our lives that we forget how important they are to begin with? Amidst so much uncertainty in life and the paradoxical necessity to continue making big decisions anyway, it seems that a useful guiding force (which could be what some already define as ‘intuition’) should simply be whatever makes us feel alive. In making a decision affecting our life context or path, the question to self should always be “does this bring me alive?” and take it from there. This is the accumulation of what the past few months have taught me, and, for the moment, is probably the only basis upon which I feel I can stand firmly with any choice I make affecting how I live my life.

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Scratched and Faded Letters

I’ve lived in Johannesburg for nearly two years. I tell people I can’t believe it, that it doesn’t feel like two years has passed, that I don’t know where the time has gone, but the words fall short of the depth of bewilderment which underlies them. I have significant memories from these past two years, no doubt, and I know that things have happened, time has passed, things have changed, the world has been moving, but at the same time, I struggle to fully grasp and feel the weight of what it would seem two-years worth of memories should contain. In my mind, they feel light and fleeting…as if the time barely existed…as if I just stepped foot off the plane into my new country, my new job, my new life. Somehow that is the memory that bears the greater weight, the deeper sense of reality, than the compilation of two years as a post-graduate adult living life thousands of miles away from what once was home.

This sentiment has felt all the more troubling when juxtaposed with the physical signs of the passage of time, the signs that force the resistant mind to admit to the reality of the fact that time keeps moving. And strangely enough, the one that has incited the strongest emotion has been my travel coffee mug: the thin, translucent tumbler with the Northwestern emblem detailed in purple on one side. The tumbler which, when first receiving it, I so distinctly remember thinking “good thing I came to this one,” after realizing I’d get to keep it as a free gift from one of the many graduation ceremonies I went along to mostly for my parents’ sake in my last days of undergrad. The tumbler which sparks memories of the long, decisive and deliberate packing process I embarked on days before my journey overseas – determining it would make the cut as one of the necessary items to receive a spot in my precious luggage space. The tumbler I remember carrying in my brown leather adult-like work bag, filled with sub-par instant coffee, as I walked into my new office filled with uncertainty and expectation my first day of work, and proceeded to carry with me every single morning since that day. Since then, it has become an invisible staple of my surroundings – an item rendered insignificant by its practical utility and regular presence and use in my daily life.

But recently, something about it caught my eye – something which I found more disturbing than I perhaps wanted to admit: I saw that the royal purple enamel which once formed the perfect block lettering spelling out the name of my alma mater now revealed scratched out remnants of letters – the S and H only half remaining, the Y completely etched away; and the ornate and detailed emblem above NORTHWESTERN now reduced to a barely visible outline of circles, its edges traced by indiscernible symbols and letters – a shadow of what it once was.

As strange as I know it sounds to be rendered dumbfounded by the scratched out lettering of a coffee mug, it was in that instant that a realization of something I was already well aware of in some unconscious part of my mind finally forced its way to the surface and refused to be ignored: that this was undeniable, physical, tangible, concrete evidence that time that had passed.

On the one hand, each time I reflected on my own life with the introspective eye of expectation for what the passage of time and growing up is supposed to look like in an individual, I felt unsatisfied with the inability to see and feel what I knew to be true: that I’ve changed, that I have lived, that things are different now. Looking at myself, I still felt exactly as I did two years ago – not in a negative way exactly, or in a way that implies we all must change drastically with the passing of each year or that any certain milestones must happen, but just simply that it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel right because we essentially are our experiences. None of us are constant beings – from our physical cells to our brain activity to our ever-evolving souls. And with these experiences that become us, with this constant motion all around us and within us, it follows that something should be evident…felt…noticed.

But this didn’t seem the case when I looked at myself or filtered through my thoughts or sorted through my memories. Only in looking at the scratched out purple letters of my mug…or of the gigantic Builders’ Warehouse that stands erect across from the apartment where I used to live – in a spot where once only dirt and bricks stood…or of the mall which has doubled in size, with shiny new stores and large glass windows down my street where once there was only empty space…or of the friends to whom I once ventured in taxis across town to see every other weekend who are now scattered in all corners of the world…or the fellows with whom I had shared the continent a year ago who have now started degrees, found new jobs, established new lives on other continents…or of the high school friends I have long ago lost touch with who I see getting married or having children as I unwittingly yet instinctually click through their wedding or baby photos on Facebook…or of the dear souls I had the bounty of meeting in South Africa and briefly crossing paths with on this earth who are now no longer on this physical plane…

Only then, for a brief instant, do I feel the true weight of time.

But while these concrete signs of time’s passage each capture my attention and open my eyes a bit wider to their deeper implications, they’ve also made me that much more anxious to reconcile the physical and concrete signs with those less tangible. I wonder as well whether time without the physical markers of its passing, or time without the arbitrary numbers we assign to it in an attempt to make it more concrete and feel as though we wield some control over it, would hold the same weight in our minds. If I could not define it as two years of time that has gone by, or define myself as 24 – a constant reminder of my own time on this earth that comes with its own implications – then would I still expect something from it? Would I let time exercise its control over me the way I know I do now?

Maybe it is the misleading impression that time brings with it forward motion which creates these feelings of disconnect and disjointedness. Forward motion implies motion towards something – a direction of some sort that we have envisioned for ourselves or for the things around us. But time does not inevitably bring us towards anything. In fact, it could even take us backwards (or what we would perceive as backwards in relation to whatever it is we subconsciously – or consciously – thought we were moving towards).

I would try to put this in more concrete terms, but in my own case, I am still trying to figure out what exactly it is I had expected to be moving towards that has left me feeling as though time has deceived me…enlightenment? wisdom? understanding? or something more tangible? something to show for when thinking back at how I’ve spent most of my hours these past two years – impact on other people’s lives? new skills and talents from my work experiences? more confidence, more self-assurance in my abilities? or something more abstract? some new experience of love? the capacity to distinguish reason from emotion?

I don’t know. But I can’t help but look back with a longing for more evidence of time’s marker in myself as much as I see it in the physical changes around me. But in saying this, I also recognize the passivity latent in such a desire….one implying again that time itself provides the force for motion in a direction…if there should even be a direction to begin with. But if there should be, then one of the characteristics of time that I find most frightening is that if we choose to not act towards something or initiate changes or make things happen, our lack of ‘motion’ does not reflect stagnation in the wake of potential progress, but in fact represents regression – because time never stops moving. And if we exist in the context of this ever-moving force that is time, then the act of not moving in some ways becomes backwards motion.

I think I find this frightening because, as is well known, when we grow older, time seems faster as each year becomes a smaller fragment relative to the amount of time we’ve spent living. And with each passing year, I feel myself scrambling to hold onto each piece that meant something to me, to internalize and make something of what has passed and ensure that it does not become lost in the accumulation of too many layers of memory and self. I can’t even fully say why this feels so necessary, but perhaps it is to feel that my time has been well-spent and that I am capable of some kind of forward motion — that I have not wasted the opportunities presented to me by the people and experiences that have come into my life, nor failed to enact some kind of positive change, some sort of progress in the world – no matter how small or insignificant…

When Life Hits You With a Big Question

Today, I was basically asked whether I would be open to potentially picking up and moving to a new country (in a conflict-zone area) in two weeks.

It was a hypothetical question, largely dependent on a number of factors and circumstances – but nonetheless a question I had to answer before there could be any possibility of forward motion for it to potentially happen. So there is a large chance that the whole thing could fall through tomorrow, but there is also a chance that the hypothetical situation could actually materialize into a reality.

Regardless of what the outcome ends up being, though, just the mere act of having to come up with an answer in that moment has made me realize a number of important things. And since the outcome could come to a conclusion as soon as tomorrow, I feel like I should take advantage of this fleeting moment to acknowledge the interesting set of emotions/thoughts/considerations that have arisen from this sudden, unlikely question I’ve had to answer under fairly unexpected circumstances.

The main shocking part of this whole thing was the inner struggle/conflict it took to come up with an answer with any certainty.

I realize this doesn’t sound like the strangest of reactions…most normal people will probably experience some reservations/indecisiveness about moving to a conflict zone…or just moving to a new country in general. To give some context though – this wasn’t the first time I’d ever considered this particular option…the opportunity had come up many months ago in a less concrete manner and with no definitive timeframe. But I think having already reacted once to this question when it first came up and thinking back to my thoughts and reactions then versus now is what has made this the most interesting.

The first time it was ever mentioned, I was absolutely overjoyed at even the slight possibility that it could happen – it represented excitement, change, an incredible career opportunity, an important personal development opportunity, etc. But when it come up today – the immediate, overwhelming reaction was just a bombardment of conflicting emotions.

And I think one of the main reasons for that, besides the fact that this time it was asked with much more concrete potential for it to quickly result in something, was my current circumstances. In the few seconds of pause before I responded with an [outwardly confident] “yes” in response to the hypothetical question posed to me, my mind was flooded with thoughts of my lovely new apartment with my lovely new roommate in our lovely new neighbourhood…to the vibrant, joyful, and inspiring Baha’i community I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know these past few weeks….to the amazing people I’ve recently met or begun to form deeper friendships with…to all the unbelievable art, culture, history, and spirit within Joburg that I had recently started to appreciate with more depth and meaning than I had a year ago when I first moved here…

It was a flood of thoughts far removed from the types of thoughts incited from the first time the question came up – which, by contrast, had been far removed from my life in Joburg itself. Looking back, it seems like my attachment to my surroundings was barely existent – I had appreciation for the things around me, for the place I inhabited…but it never really elevated to the level of ‘attachment’. Friends were constantly leaving the country and I was living in the country with the expectation that my time in SA was limited by an eventual end date of my fellowship. It was also my first year as a college-graduate, which I feel comes with a natural subconscious assumption of continued change & movement (whether to grad school or to a new job).

And I think with such underlying assumptions and expectations constantly present, some part of me forms a guard to the possibility of attachment – a small voice in my head constantly reminding me that none of this is permanent, that becoming too close to too many people or getting too comfortable in the place that I live carries with it the risk of attachment…for which I will then have to fight to overcome when the inevitable day of leaving it all behind finally comes. But when I got my contract extension, ended my status as a “fellow” and entered the phase of adulthood no longer bound by periods of certain start and end dates, my inner non-attachment voice started to fade a bit. And I let it.

My perspective suddenly shifted from seeing Joburg as my fellowship placement site to seeing it as my temporary ‘home’ – the word that carries with it so much weight and depth. Moving to a new place, with a new roommate, and making an effort to take advantage of all that my new location had to offer – I’ve allowed this place to slowly become a home. And having once taken a college course in which we had to break down and analyze the concept of “home” in its every facet, I don’t use that word lightly. I’ve also realized that, by far, many of the places I’ve lived had never manifested themselves into ‘homes’ – either for lack of sufficient time or, due to the knowledge of my limited time there, self-imposed lack of freedom to allow my mind to consider them as places of ‘home’.

And for me, I think one of the biggest indicators of having established ‘home’ anywhere, is the reaction to leaving that place (or persons). It’s a shame, but also a seemingly common occurrence, that we really never realize what exactly we have in our lives until we find it being taken away – a realization that seems all the more jarring when the pending removal of those elements of home is compressed into a small time frame. As cliche as the idea is, the weight of its implications never seem to diminish.

Which brings me to the whole point of this rambling post:

That I am just really grateful for these rare moments that force me to examine my own life from another perspective. Whether or not the thing which instigated all of these thoughts and emotions in the first place comes to fruition,  it has done something equally as important: that is, remind me how beautiful it is to have a place (or set of life circumstances) that feel, in whole or in part, as ‘home’. And even more – that the power to create ‘home’ is so deeply entrenched in our own level of openness and willingness to allow someplace new to become home. Sometimes it means moving to a new neighbourhood, sometimes it means investing in friendships even though you know you will eventually have to leave many of them, sometimes it means continuing to explore a place even when you think you’ve explored all the best parts – recognizing that there are always new layers to unfold and new experiences to be had.

If I end up having to leave Joburg in a few weeks, overcoming the attachments I’d let myself form will no doubt be a challenge, but I will also be equipped with this newfound appreciation for the potential to experience ‘home’ anywhere I go. If I don’t end up leaving, I will be all the better off for having been faced with the possibility even for a moment – as it has deepened the pride and appreciation I feel for this perplexingly beautiful city that I currently call home.

Are you black?

“Are you black?” he bluntly asked me from the front of the taxi; a casual question, likely prompted by the boredom of our long and motionless wait behind a never-ending sea of traffic following the New Years celebrations in Cape Town’s city centre. I told him my dad was from Ethiopia. A grin spread across his face. “Ah, then you are a child of Africa,” he replied, with a certain air of approval in his voice. I was instantly filled with happiness at his remark. I nonchalantly smiled back, trying to conceal how embarrassingly overjoyed I was on the inside as I thought to myself, ‘a stranger actually knew I was black.’

I knew that coming to South Africa, race would be something I would be confronted with at some point. Early on, I realized that race dynamics here weren’t necessarily worse than what you’d see in the U.S., but simply more overt. While racism is not something you actually encounter on a daily basis in Joburg (it also might depend on where you are… Cape Town, for instance, seemed somewhat worse in terms of racial divisions), something that does constantly stand out are the definitions. Simply the word “coloured” – something not so politically correct to still use in the U.S. – has survived here as a non-offensive matter-of-fact term to refer to basically anyone who is not white, black, or Indian (the three other political categories during the Apartheid era). Whereas in the U.S., people seem so cautious to use any term which might offend, so much so that the words black and white must sometimes be diluted with African American and Caucasian (words that aren’t necessarily any more accurate in their labeling), in South Africa, the remnants of old racial classifications don’t seem so hidden. 

And in this context, something I didn’t necessarily prepare myself for, was an inexplicable pull towards defining my own race. Constantly surrounded by these categories, and even the evident racial divisions linked to economic circumstances (again, not something unique to South Africa, but perhaps something that just stands out more when white people are actually the minority), I’ve just felt a strange need to somehow declare my own place. And in particular, a need to make known my African side. It is largely irrational, I know – a feeling I think arising from the history of racial divisions here and somehow not wanting to be associated with the side that only 20 years ago was the oppressor. And yet, while irrational, especially considering how much has in fact changed since then, there are still certain stereotypes, assumptions, and in some cases, unsettling power dynamics that do remain.

This fear of stereotypes and assumptions is all the more heightened within my particular field of work: humanitarian aid. While I am not the foreign white person barging into African communities, handing out food, and taking pictures with the hungry children I’ve “helped,” I am still the one helping to write reports and web stories that give visibility to other foreigners who do so. This is not to say that the work my organization does is not absolutely vital and life-saving for millions of people, but just that the kinds of images produced by humanitarian and development work as a whole still tend to lend themselves to divisive racial stereotypes (often by request of the donors themselves).

And by extension, partially because of stereotypes that have arisen through aid work, the matter of entering new communities as a foreigner, and trying to build meaningful relationships with people of different cultures becomes complicated by a range of assumptions. In my own case, at least, I can’t help but worry any time my actions seem to fulfill the expectations of the stereotypical white person going into an African community and trying to make a difference. My concerns of having to overcome these stereotypes, actually, are less about those in the community, and more about those of the outside world.

I’ve been going to one of the townships near my house each Saturday, for example, to help out another lady who’s been running a childrens class there. I’ve been facilitating a Baha’i junior youth group (basically meeting with a group of 12-14 year-olds to do a workbook and art projects that focus on spiritual/moral education). I am keenly aware of the fact that I do not live in the same community, and that my accent is sometimes difficult for them to understand, and that I cannot speak the language that many of them speak at home, and yet I also am aware of how well the kids respond to the group and the lessons and songs and quotes they learn each week. Sometimes I step back and think, from the outside, I probably just look like exactly what is described in billions of articles and blog posts about how harmful voluntourism is: a foreigner going into a community and trying to make a difference. But I know that this is not the same – I do in fact live here, and I do have the chance to invest time in building relationships with these kids, and more than anything, this is not something I would only do in Africa – this is something that I would aim to do anywhere I am in the world, and this just happens to be where I am now.

And yet, a part of me still worries that because of my skin color, my actions and intentions will become skewed somehow. And with these concerns, I’ve also become more aware of the uncertainty that surrounds how I actually define my own racial identity. I realize with the fears I’ve just written about, I’ve basically described myself as white, and also just previously mentioned how happy I was that someone saw that I was black. It’s honestly not something that I’ve felt the need to really decide which I identified more with until now – until questions surrounding racial stereotypes and assumptions of privilege have become a silent, underlying factor in my daily activities.

I still have no idea what my “racial identity” is, but in this context at least, I’ve found myself more and more self-conscious and even resistant of  my “whiteness” …of the fact that regardless of how many times I declare myself to be African-American, or “black” by some definitions, or at least, equally as black as Barack Obama…the truth of the matter is, that from straight outer appearances at least, I am still a light-skinned foreigner. And in this day and age, particularly with this topic of race and ignorance and stereotypes and white privilege seeming to pop up constantly all over the internet, I  worry that anything I say on the matter may be interpreted as a manifestation of my own white privilege….and yet, if I can be considered “black” by some in the U.S….or “coloured” here in South Africa, then can “white” privilege even technically apply to me? (also. don’t even get me started on all the “what not to say to a mixed person” articles I keep coming across and the endless confusion/guilt I feel for not getting offended by all the things that I am apparently supposed to be offended by as a mixed person….it’s not that I don’t get the reasoning behind why calling someone exotic or asking them “what are you?” has its issues, but at the same time, I just can’t personally get myself to feel offended by such comments. And sometimes I feel like there’s  just waaayy too many potentially offensive things in the world to keep track of these days. In fact, even just stating that opinion makes me feel like I’ve probably just offended someone.)

Either way, in the simple fact that for basically my entire childhood, I never remember even thinking about the fact that my parents were different colors, or what my own racial identity was, or wondering where I “belonged” as a kid (for instance, you always hear of people saying they never felt white enough for the white kids or black enough for the black kids)…in that, there was privilege. In the simple freedom to live my life without a thought towards what role race played in my daily interactions or the opportunities I would have later in life, there was immense privilege. Whether that can be labeled “white privilege” or not, I honestly still don’t know…but I think it is irrelevant. Privilege is privilege.

And, when society actually forces you to define yourself, you also begin to realize how completely ridiculous the whole concept of race is in the first place. The first time I ever even used the label “Black or African American” to describe myself was when I applied to colleges, and my parents suggested that I should tick that box. “If Obama is African American, then so are you.” And so it went. From then on, I was suddenly a “black” person by definition. The arbitrariness of race as a category never ceases to amaze me…and yet, as arbitrary as the definitions and labels themselves are, the social implications caused by their mere existence still remain. So for all those who like to argue that race is arbitrary and that by continuing to bring it up as a topic only serves to create tension, they are ignoring the ultimate fact that our imaginary categories of human differences still perpetuate very concrete social and economic divisions. Ignoring race as a whole becomes an excuse to ignore the deeply imbedded inequalities in our social systems.

I think this is the perfect place to end my rant on race. I realize this has been rather long and rambling, and essentially reached no real points or conclusions, but you know what, I think that quite nicely reflects how I feel about the topic as a whole – one big confusing mess of things that don’t really make sense, and yet still need to be said.

The end.

The Danger of Mourning Greatness

It feels too soon to be writing about the death of another inspiring human being just after my last blog post, but I have been meaning to write something about Nelson Mandela for some time now, and now seems as pertinent a time as ever. In a minimal attempt to gain some background of South African history when I first arrived here, I decided to read Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom (since any account of historical and political events will inevitably contain the bias of whoever wrote it, I figured who better than Mandela to influence my view of the country I would be spending my year in). This was probably one of the best decisions I’ve made while being here.

While his story of course provided a wonderful summary of some South African history and the events of the fight against apartheid, its greatest effect on me was deepening my admiration for man, and by extension his country, not for his iconic status as a historic figure and symbol of greatness, but for simply being a human being – a man with a family, a unique cultural background, and a life full of personal challenges, who quite literally sacrificed his entire life to the singular cause of freedom. As President Zuma announced after Mandela’s death,

“What made him great is precisely what made him human.”

This point cannot be emphasized enough. So much becomes lost in the depth of what makes someone great and the significance of their life when they become pushed into an unattainable status of greatness. In reading about Mandela’s life, I was struck most by the brief accounts about his family and his feelings towards his friends and fellow fighters in the battle against injustice.

No one, I think, has had the power to evoke such deep sentiments of sadness in me with so few and simple words. In every short description of what his family had to go through as a result of the choices he made (which, as he also so powerfully conveyed, were hardly choices at all, as living a life without freedom and seeing the bondage of his brothers and sisters was never an option he could accept): “When your life is the struggle, as mine was, there is little room left for family. That has always been my greatest regret, and the most painful aspect of the choice I made.” Or, I will never forget the passage about the passing of his friend Oliver Tambo and the effect it had on him: “I felt, as I told one colleague, like the loneliest man in the world…it was as if a part of myself had died.”

More than anything, these moments instilled in me a sense of sympathy towards his personal struggles that brought me to the important realization that I can relate – not in the sense that I have been through anything relatable in my life or that I have done anything of equal measure, but simply in the sense that I can relate to him as another human being with normal human being emotions, fears, and concerns.

This statement seems so obvious and ridiculous, I know, and yet I think it is still something that the large majority of people mourning for the late hero of justice fail to truly grasp. For when you realize you can relate to someone so great, you realize that you are in fact capable of equal greatness. As Mandela had said of his life, “I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.” He was of course an extraordinary man in his conviction and firm sense of purpose that guided his every thought and action, but not to the extent that he was singular in his greatness.

So much of his autobiography, for instance, is a testament to the greatness of all of the individuals who were integral to the struggle for freedom. He talks about the “unintended effect” of oppression, and that is that it produced so many men of extraordinary courage and generousity: the “Oliver Tambos, the Walter Sisulus, the Chief Luthulis, the Yusuf Dadoos, the Bram Fischers, the Roburt Sobukwes of our time,” and that “perhaps it requires such depth of oppression to create such heights of character.” In all of the narratives of the extraordinary lengths and sacrifices that so many “ordinary people” went through to achieve the tremendous progress in ending apartheid, it reminds us how much incredible power is latent in each person. The long walk to freedom was tread by thousands of people all united in one common purpose and vision of freedom. That these people did not become icons, saints, or historical figures in the public eye should not diminish the ultimate fact that greatness, and even the kind of greatness embodied by Mandela himself, is not something beyond the reach of every individual. This was a point that Mandela seemed to stress so much in his autobiography in reminding us of the “extraordinary circumstances” that made him into the iconic symbol we now remember him as.

It also shocked me to realize that I don’t actually agree with every single viewpoint and decision that Mandela had made throughout his life, one in particular being the emphasis on armed struggle as the only means of fighting an oppressor on the same terms. Mandela himself even acknowledged the foolishness of some of his original approaches in the struggle, attributing them to the passion of youth and to some extent, naivety. In the realization that profound admiration for a person and his qualities as a man does not equate to unparalleled agreement with his every life decision, you also come to better appreciate that person for his individual beliefs and the complexity of the decisions he often faced. (There’s a lot of good articles out there that highlight all of the misconceptions that people commonly have about his life as a result of his symbolic status, which basically enables people to shape the public memory of his life and beliefs by distancing him from his humanness.)

With all this said about how important it is that we not remember Mandela as an abstract symbol of justice and greatness in a way that inevitably lessens our own potential for greatness, I still struggle to fully comprehend my own feelings now in mourning the death of Madiba. As a heavy air of sadness filled the office today at work, a common sentiment I sensed from those around me (as well as in many Facebook statuses the night before) was that the source of such sorrow for most was that they were mourning the loss of a great leader, whose greatness no one else can ever attain and the likes of which we will not see again. In a way, it was an underlying sense of fear and sadness that such an important agent of change, the kind of leader that is still needed in this world, is no longer with us.

This is all simply to say, I hope that in our mourning for this inspiring individual, we are not mourning for the loss of potential for future greatness in the world, but rather drawing inspiration and hope from the life of someone who reminds us what true sacrifice and love for our fellow human beings looks like. And in our mourning, I hope that we also all become closer to each other in our common respect for someone who fought for freedom …As I stood besides my colleagues at work today in our small auditorium, candles in hand as we sung the South African anthem in memory of the beloved Madiba, whose words “united we stand, divided we fall” captured the essence of the struggle, the sense of unity that filled the dark room was truly moving: black, white, and every shade in between, South African, international, some who had lived much of their lives in a divided South Africa, some too young to have seen the worst of it, all standing together in solidarity to honor the memory of one person who helped make our standing there together possible. At least in that moment, I took comfort and hope from the oneness around me, and felt confirmed of the kind of greatness and further potential for building a free and unified world ahead of us.

Africa is Not a Country

I’d like to begin this post with a short feature on Sophia’s Ignorant Moments of the Week:

The other day I met a former Princeton in Africa fellow here in Joburg who was one of the few who just ended up staying in Africa after his fellowship ended. Although he went to school in the U.S., he happened to be from Mauritius, so South Africa turned out to be a lot closer to his home anyways.

But upon learning that he was a Mauritian, I remarked,
“Oh, I thought you were Indian.” (because he looked Indian)

To which he replied,

“Well, I am of Indian descent, but just like Indian people in the U.S. who are still Americans, I am Mauritian. My family has been here for 12 generations now.”

In my head, I just gave myself an eye roll and slap on the forehead for my unbelievably ignorant sounding comment – mainly because, to imply that someone who doesn’t look like they come from a certain place must not be originally from that place is completely contradictory to the basis of what makes up America. To be American is to be Indian, Mexican, African, European, etc etc… everyone is equally American despite the fact that their parents or grandparents or great great great whoever is from some other place. So why would I assume, even for a second, that someone who looks Indian couldn’t identify first with being Mauritian (and, it turns out, a pretty big majority in Mauritius are actually of Indian descent).

But also, this recognition of my own terrible close-minded view of the world followed a series of other realizations about my unfortunate stereotypical American behavior of stereotyping other places in the world.  So many inner eye rolls and head shakes have occurred over the past few weeks as I’ve noted the hypocrisy of my disdain for simplified representations of Africa as a poverty-stricken, exotic, backward and traditional place in the world and my simultaneous tendency to describe South Africa as “not really that different from the U.S. compared to a lot of other African countries” – basically, robbing South Africa of its African identity just as I had done to the Indian Mauritian.

In all my disapproval of the much too common Africa-is-a-country mindset you find in much of the Western world, I have all this time been portraying this exact mentality when given the perfect opportunity to challenge it. It’s funny because, I’ve even come across this attitude from a lot of South Africans themselves. From “South Africa is not really Africa” to “we’re a lot more developed here,” the underlying message is always one of South Africa’s uniqueness in the African context; that somehow, by having big fancy malls, streets devoid of roaming chickens, a lack of informal produce stands on every corner, and most people being able to speak English, it is not your “typical” African country.

And yet, South Africa is the perfect example of what Africa is, but which a lot still fail to grasp; and that is:

A giant continent.

Seriously, just take a moment to think about its geographical size. Now think about how there could possibly be one homogeneous culture/lifestyle/language/political situation/economic circumstances across one entire continent. Of course, you are likely to find similarities across the countries of one continent, but in the end, they each have their own distinct identity while still being part of one larger identity. In the case of South Africa, I think it is so telling how a lot of Americans, including myself, try to define it in terms that distance it from its African identity –revealing of the underlying stereotype that Africa is one single, homogeneous place defined by its foreignness [to American culture] and even more so by its status as “underdeveloped”; such that anything that deviates from this norm must make it less African (think about countries like Egypt or Morocco, even, and how they often seem pushed into other categories like the Middle-East or Arab states, when they are just as much a part of Africa as Ethiopia or Ghana or Tanzania). So if there’s one teaching opportunity I’d like to take advantage of with my year in South Africa and the descriptions I convey to people back home or anywhere else, is that Africa is a vastly diverse continent fully of vastly diverse people; and that even within the different countries themselves, there is so much diversity (economic, racial, cultural, and so on) and every single one of them is still equally African.

You might be wondering why I feel the need to blab on and on about all of this diversity within the African continent. Well, one of the primary relationships between the West and Africa still seems to be that of providing aid for development. And while this is necessary and often facilitated through positive intentions, it also often ends up doing more harm than good. And much of this is due to the Africa-is-a-country representations and stereotypes I just thoroughly referred to. How can you ever hope to institute sustainable, long-lasting change in a country if the assistance you provide is based on assumptions that it is just a place full of underprivileged, helpless people in need? With the realization of Africa’s diversity as a continent comes the realization that every place has its own challenges, but also its own assets and unique potential for growth.

And, with that, I think it relevant to share this lovely video and critique of the video that I happened across the other day and just so happens to be about a PSA made by the organization I now work for: http://africasacountry.com/the-bullshitfiles-christina-aguilera-feeds-rwanda/

I think this is a wonderful summary of the almost unavoidable hypocrisy I feel about some of the messages we send out to the world to encourage donations towards “feeding the hungry”. Unavoidable because, while I totally agree with everything this person has written and all the absurdity in Christina Aguilera’s helping starving children in war-torn Rwandan by serving meals to them, I also have had a chance to look at this from another perspective (p.s. still trying to awkwardly avoid mentioning the name of my organization in this blog so I don’t have to worry about accidentally saying anything I shouldn’t).  The continuation of such generalizing, demeaning representations of Africa in PSAs and most charity ads you find these days is not so much an issue of the organizations themselves as it is of the larger attitudes towards charities and foreign aid. That is, making videos about how complex and unique the people in Africa are and how there is so much potential for economic growth in the country through the kind of assistance that provides people with opportunities rather than hand-outs is not going to generate much money from the big donors, government agencies, and sympathetic individual.  Images of starving children and the emergency situation in a country requiring immediate assistance, however, will.

I find it so frustrating that so many aid organizations such as ours do in fact make efforts to move away from the old model of charity that was essentially all about hand-outs. It’s not that we don’t have activities that work to develop communities or provide people with employment or allow farmers greater access to markets as opposed to simply giving people food (a temporary fix to the problem), it’s that the big donors, and especially governments, just aren’t as interested in funding long-term sustainable projects when they can provide starving people with food and in that way, quickly address a problem and promote the visible short-term outcomes of their assistance to the rest of the world; in the same way that the majority of people who decide to make donations to these organizations are often moved to do so by the simplified, drastic portrayals of starving people and the difference that a few dollars can make in their lives rather than by a deeper understanding of the alternative kinds of support that can be given to empower them to help themselves.

It’s not just a matter of the representations circulated by the humanitarian world. It’s a matter of shifting our entire mindset towards development aid on a global scale and the priority we give to it. Inequality is not going to go away anytime soon, and humanitarian assistance still does play a huge role in saving millions of lives. But until people stop looking at Africa as a place of charity and start seeking ways to strengthen governments’ abilities to serve their own people and people’s ability to support themselves, then life-saving assistance will continue to be a necessity, and the need to fund such assistance will continue to require organizations to promote the starving-African-child representation to simply obtain the needed funding for their work.

Aaaannddddd, to end on a positive note after a rather long rant about challenges in the world, I can at least say that I am finally feeling more confident at work and successfully did two things this week that I rather dislike:
1. Talking on the phone (…yeah, I know I don’t deserve to call myself an adult)
2. Giving a presentation to 1,500 high school students

(The first was to call up a bunch of people from the media to confirm their attendance at one of our media briefings; you’d be surprised at how hard it is to get ahold of some people. The second was to do some UN youth outreach and basically teach them about the UN’s mission/encourage them to get involved. I gave some background info, but luckily we brought along a lovely South African actress named Hlubi who works as one of our celebrity ambassadors against hunger and was able to get them way more pumped up and inspired to save the world and stay in school than did my little UN history lesson)

Image

me and the gorgeous Hlubi Mboya

me looking really awkward while telling kids about the UN

me looking really awkward while telling kids about the UN

Warm Fuzzy Feelings

So, many people have said to me, “Johannesburg is an amazing city. You’ll love it here.” And each time I ask them, “What is it that you like about this place?” Of course, I’ve been discovering this city little by little on my own terms and learning how best to love it through my own point of view, but there is also a lot of value in seeing a place through others’ eyes – through the people who have lived in it 3 months, 1 year, 10 years, or a whole lifetime more than you. Through these conversations, the responses that have struck me the most have been those related to the diversity of people here. Yes, it is a diversity that comes with a fair share of segregation and in some cases even racism, but nonetheless, one that seems to give its own unique vibrancy and color to the city. It has also become probably my single favorite thing here over the past few weeks.

It’s strange because, thinking back to my life in the U.S., I was never really lacking in diversity – from my own multi-cultural family to my friends groups reflecting Indian, Chinese, Korean, Jewish, African-American, Persian, and Hispanic backgrounds to my Baha’i communities with people from all over the world to simply living near a city like Chicago made up of neighborhoods that still reflect the cultural makeup of the immigrant communities that settled there years ago. But somehow, being in South Africa, I constantly find myself in awe at the diversity of people I am surrounded by each day. And, maybe it is the communication studies major in me, but something about hearing the mix of different languages and accents in particular resonates on an even deeper level, hitting me with unexpected feelings happiness. More than simply seeing the evident diversity of the people around me, the sound of the different accents coming together in one place is almost like listening to some kind of harmonious melody containing in it the essence of the beauty of mankind.

As music holds a potency to influence the soul and speak to all people in a way that words alone cannot, I can’t help but compare the intermingling of sounds that reflect the cultural background of each person to something as powerful as music. Accents just seem so beautiful to me in that they carry with them an always-present reminder of people’s cultures or places of origin. While molding one common medium of communication (in this case English) into different forms, they still allow the same message to come through — just seems like a good symbol for the oneness of humanity…how our differences are what add beauty and interest to our interactions and yet don’t prevent us from communicating and relating to each other.

At the same time, I am quite aware that the diversity I get to experience in my workplace – from the French speakers in the office across from me, to the lovely Irish (but sounds more like British) accent and sometimes even a “jolly good ol’ chap” from my one boss and the Italian accent of my half-Egyptian other boss to the always interesting South African accent of my sassy colleague in the cubicle next to me to the Japanese accent of the colleague diagonal from me – is a pretty exaggerated picture of the diversity of the city. Obviously, working in a UN office for an international aid organization comes with its fair share of expats and well-traveled, unique individuals. But still, even reflecting on who I’ve spent my weekends with – from Ethiopian dinner parties and trips to downtown areas where entire streets are full of Ethiopian-owned businesses (and several who gave me discounts just for being Ethiopian…despite my lack of Amharic-speaking skills or the fact that I don’t even look African) to native Joburg people my age (and my one friend who revealed to me that she refuses to speak the South African language she grew up with, Afrikaans, because it is a symbol of colonialism….something I found extremely interesting and a telling example of the power of language as more than simply a means of communication. especially after having read Mandela’s autobiography and all the times he mentioned how his white jailers would only speak Afrikaans and even refer to English as evidence of one’s inferiority) to Persians and Indians another weekend to Zimbabweans and Ghanaians the next. It’s hard not to feel some sense of joy from just simply having the opportunity to meet so many people from so many places in such a short period of time.

And, with all my talk of the oneness of humanity and the beauty of diversity, I realize this post has become rather cliché and cheesy, but sometimes you just have to step back and acknowledge all the warm fuzzy feelings from the good things around you. I could also talk about how it seems like with each new group of people I meet, we all at some point go around and exchange mugging or police corruption stories from our time in Joburg, in a manner always so casual and nonchalant as if a common icebreaker topic. Or about the rather unsettling realizations of how dramatically the racial demographics change depending on the wealth of the neighborhood you’re in. But, every city has its problems, and these still do not overshadow the beauty of the diversity here in my eyes.

All my oneness-of-humanity talk might also be attributed to the upcoming Baha’i youth conference this weekend and the pre-conference meeting I attended this past weekend. For those who don’t know, the Baha’i Faith is a world religion whose central aim is prettymuch to unify mankind and which teaches that all religions come from the same God. (I realize this is an extremely short summary of a religion but in the interest of not making this post a novel, you can also see the basics here: http://www.bahai.org/ or ask me more about it…plus I’m sure I’ll talk about it more in my next post). The upcoming youth conference is nothing short of incredible. One of 114 conferences happening all over the world (literally. all over the world….there was even one in Antananarivo! 😀 ) around this time, the point of the conferences is essentially to mobilize the Baha’i youth and initiate change by having youth (Baha’i or otherwise) plan more ways to serve the communities where they live. As such, all Baha’i youth were asked by the Universal House of Justice (the elected governing body of the Baha’is which is in Haifa, Israel) to only attend the conference where they live…and, seeing as I now will be living in Joburg for another 11 months, I decided not to go to the Chicago conference in August and will instead be going to this one.

And I cannot even express how excited I am. There is nothing I love more than being surrounded by a bunch of people my age with a similar life purpose and vision of the world. Not as in people of the same religion or people who think the same way, but just people who care about the world, love everyone, and want to make a difference. It is that common goal and purpose in life that leads to instant bonds between strangers and ties of friendship that go far deeper than liking the same kind of music. It was the same thing I felt at the 3-day orientation with the other fellows from my program – that instant connection with so many people I’d just met due to a common love for learning about other cultures and wanting to do something good in the world. This conference will be all the more special because I not only will get to meet hundreds of Baha’i youth from all over South Africa, Mozambique, and Swaziland, but will also have in the back of my mind the whole time the knowledge that the same meetings are happening in every part of the globe, with thousands of other youth coming together with one common vision of serving mankind. It is the embodiment of unity in every sense — one that truly extends across the whole world.