The Long Walk to Freedom

Posted by stephanie on May 16th, 2009
May 16

After leaving Lesotho, I headed to the Wild Coast of South Africa for 10 days of rugged beauty and adventure.  This area is also known as the Transkei, which means “the area beyond the Kei River.”  This was one of the apartheid-era homelands for the black people of South Africa.  Nelson Mandela was born in the Transkei in 1918, and still has a home in Qunu, which I was able to see on my bus ride up the coast!  In 1959, the National Party government introduced legislation to create 10 homelands, divided along ethnic and linguistic lines, for black South Africans so that the government could pursue a policy of “Separate Development.”  The Transkei was one of the areas set aside of the Xhosa-speaking people.  Over the years, the area has become more of a tourist destination, drawing groups of people looking for a “real” African experience within South Africa, which is harder to find if you stick to the Garden Route and Cape Town.  My trip through the Transkei started in East London, then to Chinsta, Coffee Bay, and Port St. Johns.

I choose to travel through the part of South Africa because I wanted to see the homeland of Nelson Mandela.  I believe that so much of who we are is tied to where we came from, and in order to understand the life and legacy of Mandela better, I wanted to see for myself where he grew up.  I started The Long Walk to Freedom while in Uganda, getting about a third of the way through before having to return it to the person I borrowed it from.  I tried again while in South Africa, but if you’ve seen Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, it is huge!  I didn’t have enough space in my bag to carry it around!  Even without having read the book through completion yet, I have learned a lot about the life of Mandela simply by traveling through South Africa, and it is clear how much he means to the people of this country, not to mention the world.  From seeing Robben Island to visiting the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and seeing Mandela’s home in Soweto, I have seen many of the stops on Mandela’s long walk to freedom, and it was certainly a journey.

What struck me most about the Transkei was the blending of the past with the present.  Most of the people are still living in rondevals (the round huts) without electricity or water, building bricks from mud and dung to make their homes.  At the same time, though, you see everyone with cell phones, many of who are wearing western style clothing, talking about US politics in nearly flawless English.  There is so much tradition and culture in this area, but it is an area that is slowly changing, incorporating the new with the old.  It is not always an easy thing to do, being true to a past that is slowly fading.

Traveling has made me acutely aware of how much of who I am is shaped by where I came from.  No matter how much I see and how much I learn, that will always be a part of me.  Like the Transkei, I think I am in the process of incorporating the old with the new.  Reconciling new ideas, philosophies, information, and insights with past beliefs, former prejudices, and previous inaccuracies.  That is the benefit of travel, and I’ve been on my own “long walk” (and long flights and drives) to freedom.  Traveling by myself has been one of the most liberating and empowering experiences of my life.  As I’m nearing the end of my trip, I’ve been thinking back to all the experiences I’ve had, amazing people I’ve met, and unbelievable places I’ve seen and am amazed at how 9 months of travel has taught me and shaped me.  I look forward to the adventures of the next month ahead, the knowledge I will gain, and the ultimate freeing experience of it all.

South Africa elections

Posted by stephanie on May 16th, 2009
May 16

This post is a long time coming, but I headed to Lesotho before the official results of the South African elections were in, and haven’t had a chance to sit down and write about them until now!  South Africans flocked to the polls on April 22 to vote in their 4th democratic election since the end of apartheid.  The African National Congress (ANC) was the ruling party going into the elections, and with the election of Jacob Zuma to the presidency, it continues to be the dominant political party in the country.  There were a lot of passionate opinions on all sides, and one thing that I’ve found while being in South Africa is that most people I’ve talked to have been so open and candid about the parties they support and the reasons why, some of the reasons for support having to do with everything from supporting the party of Nelson Mandela to voting for a party because that’s how their families always vote.  On Election Day I played the unofficial role of international election observer by heading to the polls to watch the South African voting process in action.  The line at the polling place I went to was enormous, which I think is a testament to South African democracy and how much it means to the citizens of the country.   I went back several times during the day to watch everything unfold, and at the end of the day, when the line had died down, I decided to get inside of the polling station and watch people vote, which I did.  There are no electronic voting machines in South Africa, so it’s all done by paper ballots and everyone then puts their marked ballot paper in a box.  Everyone also has to have special ID booklets to prove their identity.

I talked to a lot of the young people in the line about why they were voting and how they felt about these elections.  Many of the people had been inspired by the American elections, and how important the youth vote had been for the election of Obama.  There was also an overwhelming sense of excitement exuding from them about finally having the opportunity to vote, and feeling that it was their duty to go out and vote.  I was impressed how orderly and well run the elections in Cape Town were.  It was an exciting day to be in South Africa, witnessing the elections and democracy in action.  Having spent so much time learning about the history of South Africa, it was great to witness an important moment in the country’s present history that will certainly have ramifications for its future.

Election Day

Where to? Lesotho!

Posted by stephanie on May 15th, 2009
May 15

Where to?  Lesotho!
I’m a huge believer that there are no coincides in life, and that the people we meet and experiences we have are not the result of simply random occurrences.  While on a three-day trip to Stellenbosch in early April, I met a Peace Corps volunteer named Jen who has lived in Lesotho for the past two years.  She is nearing the end of her volunteer service, and invited me to see her site.  So beings my adventure to Lesotho, the tiny country engulfed by South Africa.

I might be crazy, but I decided to take the minibus taxis to Lesotho, leaving from the Johannesburg taxi rank, possibly one of the most dangerous places to be by myself.  I arrived in Joburg a day early in order to be able to leave for the taxi rank early in the morning the next day.  I stayed the night at a B&B run by a very nice, middle-aged, Afrikaans speaking couple who were visibly perturbed by my plan to take a minibus taxi to Lesotho (the only white people you usually find on these taxis are foreigners, and even those are few and far between).  They did, however, agree to take me to the Joburg taxi rank at the train station, and I could see the mortification on their faces as they dropped me off just outside of the entrance, and I am almost certain I heard their tires squeal as they peeled away as quickly as possible.  There I was, left alone early in the morning at the train station, on the public holiday of Freedom Day.  I knew that it was a bit of a crapshoot traveling on one of the many public holidays of South Africa.  Either the minibus taxi could fill up quickly, or I could be sitting around for my many hours.  It was six hours, to be exact, that I sat alone in the minibus taxi, waiting for other people to come alone.  Luckily, during my time in Africa I became slightly addicted to the Twilight book series, and had the final book to keep me entertained for my wait.  If there is one thing I’ve learned in Africa, it’s how to be patient.  After arriving at the taxi rank at 7 am, we finally hit the road at 1 pm, but we didn’t get far.  We arrived in Soweto a bit later, and waited around for about another hour.  At this point I was concerned because it gets dark around 5:30-6 pm in that part of South Africa, and I didn’t want to travel at night not having any idea where I was.  The drive to the border of Lesotho from Johannesburg takes about 4 hours, so it was dark by the time that we got to the border town of Ficksburg.  I decided not to chance it that night and cross the border, and instead spent the night at a hotel in town.  I crossed the border the next day by foot, and ended up in Lesotho where I had to take another minibus taxi to Butha Buthe, where Jen lives.  There are about 80 Peace Corps volunteers in Lesotho, so I met a couple of others in Butha Buthe with Jen as well.  I was even given a new name by the man who worked at the Kodak photo store.  He said my name should be Mamaylo (I’m not sure of the spelling), which means patience.  It was pretty named me “patience” because he didn’t even know about my 6-hour minibus taxi wait.  It did seem pretty appropriate, though.

Jen has been working on HIV/AIDS education at her site, and also works a lot with the youth of the area.  I also met several other PCVs in the area, some of them working at teachers in the schools and others helping to give the local teachers additional training and tools for teaching.  Another volunteer was working at a nature reserve.  The work of the PCVs is certainly varied, and highly dependent on the knowledge and motivation of the volunteer.  I had the opportunity to live like a PCV for several days, in huts with no electricity or running water and glorious pit latrines.  I was happy to have a warm shower when I visited the capital of Maseru, though.  Jen and I went to Maseru to go to an international food festival, which was delicious.  I did have a very “it’s a small world after all” moment while at the festival.  I saw a guy who looked very familiar, and thought that maybe we had gone to Vanderbilt together.  However, after we got to talking we realized that we had both worked as volunteers at the Clinton Global Initiative conference that I went to in Hong Kong in December.  He was also in India at the same time I was, and dated one of the Fulbright scholars that I had met during my time in Delhi.  The world is very big, but it can also be very small at times.

I had a great visit to Lesotho, which is a beautiful, mountainous country with equally beautiful people.  It was nice to go back to “real” Africa after spending so much time in Cape Town, which is a place that can make you forget that you are indeed still on a developing continent.