My experiences in Cape Town so far have been overwhelmingly positive.
I continue to explore the beautiful beaches and gorgeous sights;
I have met several amazing friends and families who have helped me explore both my project and the Cape Town area;
I live with a fun, supportive, and caring host family;
And I have learned so much about my project while spending time with wonderful staff and children at the children’s hospital and the school for the deaf.
While there is so much beauty to be found in my project and in South Africa, it is also important that I acknowledge the not-so-pretty side of my project experiences and Cape Town.
Every day while I travel through Cape Town, spend time at the school, and visit the children’s hospital I see a completely different side of South Africa.
I see people sleeping under train bridges and in alleyways.
I see adults and children rummaging through garbage cans as they eat any scraps of food that they can find.
I continuously hear stories about violence and robberies and I am frequently warned by friends and colleagues about how life here can be very dangerous.
A few locals have bluntly even told me that I shouldn’t be out at night, that I should never walk around alone, and that I should stay away from certain types of public transportation.
Unfortunately I have also learned through first-hand experience that Cape Town can be a dangerous place.
While climbing the cliffs near the ocean I encountered a troubled man living on the rocks who threatened my friend and I with a giant rock as he defended what he considered to be his home.
I also had an older woman intervene and ultimately save me after two men followed me, cornered me, and tried to rob me on the train.
I also find myself in the uncomfortable yet insightful position of acknowledging and learning about my own privilege as I learn about and experience race relations in South Africa.
Every day I see how Cape Town is still unbelievably stratified with a clear racial hierarchy and racial divide.
Restaurants in areas populated by primarily white South Africans have signs on their doors that say “right of admission reserved.”
Public transit is segregated by social economic class and by race as there are private and public taxis, different kinds of city buses, and different train “classes”.
The Cape Town area public train system is the only public city train system that I have encountered so far with specific and differentiated train “classes” that (whether intentional or not) keep people in almost completely racially segregated train cars.
Every week when I buy a train ticket, I am expected to purchase a “first class” ticket. I have even been told by an attendant that I shouldn’t and couldn’t purchase a “third class” ticket. Despite having my “first class” ticket, I still often sit in “third class” and every time I then receive strange and curious stares when I enter the train car.
The racial divide is also clear in government and social services.
The government services that I have experienced have primarily black South African students and patients. When I asked the staff why I received different answers.
Some staff who identify as white or colored South Africans stated that they believe that the racial divide is an unintentional consequence of socioeconomic conditions where government services are rarely utilized by white or colored South Africans because they can usually afford private services. Some staff who identify as black South Africans stated that there is an inherent racism in the South African institutions and culture that results in black South Africans being disproportionately represented in the lower socioeconomic groups and therefore in a position where government services are their only options for assistance and help.
I am also seeing the grim reality of abuse and trauma in South Africa.
Every day I learn about how so many children face unfathomable situations of abuse and trauma.
As I toured the classrooms and talked to the staff, it became clear that experiences of abuse and trauma were the norm rather than the exception.
I visited a classroom where the teacher pulled me aside to tell me that every single student in the class had a complex history involving abuse and trauma.
I also learned that the children face disturbing situations of abuse and trauma as many of them report having witnessed or experienced extreme violence, gang violence and murders, theft of their school uniforms and books, drug use, and sexual assault and rape.
Many of the staff have expressed concerns that the children are exposed to such heightened levels of abuse and trauma that their response is to normalize what has happened to them and joke about their experiences. Many of the staff worry that the children are not able to understand nor acknowledge the severity and the significance of their experiences.
Fortunately, there is help for these children.
Despite a lack of resources and time, the school and the hospital have taken action to try to help their students and patients who have experienced abuse or trauma.
The school has counseling services and a therapist that help children, but unfortunately these services are unable to help all of the children in need.
The counselor only takes the most “desperate cases”, leaving many children without sufficient help. Because of this “the urgent but not desperate cases” are not immediately helped, which can lead to those situations worsening and eventually becoming “desperate cases”. Then the school and the services face a problem as they try to decide who receives immediate help and who does not receive help.
The school also has utilized their hostel to help children in need. The hostel on the school grounds is ordinarily used to house children during the week if they live too far from the school, but the hostel has evolved to also be a place where the school can house students if the staff believe that the student’s home situation is unsafe.
Unfortunately, utilizing the hostel in these cases is far from an ideal solution.
For many children the hostel just provides a short term solution to their family or home problems without addressing the root of the problems. As one administrator explained, “when the children live in the hostel because they were not safe at home, there aren’t many services that are then put into place to address the problems at home, so eventually many of the children return home to the same problems”.
Also, because of the mischievous and naughty behaviors of a few older boys, the hostel now has a policy that they do not house boys aged 14 years or older. Even though I understand the concerns and the reasoning behind the policy, I still struggle to accept this policy since many older boys really need a resource like the hostel since the hostel can help them avoid mischief at home and can help keep these boys away from being lured into gangs.
After spending the past few weeks observing and learning, it is clear to me that there is a need for continued change and for progress. South Africa still has a long way to go to combat the numerous social problems and recognize and change the racial tensions and racial stratification in South African society.
Despite the statistics, the stories, and my own negative experiences and observations, I remain optimistic and I remain hopeful about the future of South Africa.
Every day I meet people who are trying to make a difference.
At the school I have met many incredible teachers. One teacher in particular does so much to try to help her students. She begins every day of class with a “worries jar” where her students write down their worries, fears, problems, negative experiences, and anything that is bothering them. If these problems are urgent the teacher will address them immediately, but if they are not urgent she will discuss them individually with the students throughout the day. Ultimately, at the end of each day she talks to the students about what they have written in the “worries jar”, she helps the students think about what they can do to improve their problems, and she helps them plan how to move forward. She also has a very realistic and compassionate approach to how she helps the children in her class. She told me that she tries to do all that she can to learn their individual stories and she tries to visit the areas where her students live so that she can try to better understand their circumstances.
At a domestic violence shelter that I briefly visited this week (and that I will hopefully be able to visit more during my remaining time in Cape Town), I met a volunteer who had a young “welfare baby” in her arms. His name translated to “gift from god” in his local tribal language. This child was taken from his parents when he was twenty days old and even though he is currently seven months old, it is clear that he struggles with numerous health problems. This volunteer spends a lot of time at the domestic violence shelter and also acts as an emergency placement option for child welfare services so that she can help abused children and families in need.
I also have met a nurse from the children’s hospital who has informally “adopted” one of the young male patients. The little boy is one of the only kids at the hospital who has never had any familial visitors since his family and friends live very far away. Even though the nurse’s placement has now been moved to another hospital, he still comes to visit the little boy once a week and he brings him special food and presents. The nurse also often messages me while I am visiting the hospital and he asks me how his “little man” is doing. Once when I spoke to him about this young patient, tears filled his eyes and he explained that, “all I want to do is make sure that he knows that someone cares about him and that he is loved.”
All of the children at the hospital and the school also give me hope.
Over the past few weeks I have seen amazing progress from the students and patients.
At the school, I see everyday how children form new connections between words and phrases as they learn how to communicate.
At the hospital I have seen children progress from having their leg elevated and held in place by a pulley system to learning how to walk again as they stumble down the rows of beds.
I have even seen many of the children leave the hospital and be able to go home.
Every day I can’t help but feel inspired by how these children remain positive, happy, playful, and strong.
No matter what they are experiencing the children greet me everyday with big hugs, smiles, and high-fives.
Even though I may not be able to spend as much time with these children in the coming weeks since I will start to explore other services and programs, I feel privileged and blessed to have had the opportunity to get to know them.
I can only hope that I have had even the smallest positive impact in their lives because they have helped me learn so much throughout this journey and they have truly touched my heart.