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The past week’s reflections and activities focused on cultural diversity and the history of the townships and South Africa. On Tuesday night, MC, a local GVI staff member who grew up in a Xhosa township, came and spoke to us about the traditions and culture within the townships, especially those among the Xhosa people. We also had Stanford Professor Dr. James Campbell speak to us about the history of South Africa as a whole. Lastly, we toured the District 6 Museum in Cape Town, which taught us all about the uprooting of about 60,000 people that lived near Cape Town’s city center. Each talk and lesson was similar in their descriptions and history of South Africa, but each came with its own variation and differences. Some were first-hand accounts, while others were based on extensive research and years of understanding. However, each story and representation of history and culture were equally important to our understanding of the context around the issues and traditions that are present in the country.

On Tuesday night, MC joined us for dinner and a talk about the culture within townships and more specifically among the Xhosa people. His being a Xhosa himself allowed for a first-person look into the traditions and culture that exist. He discussed topics such as the initiation of young men, the family setting and structure, and prominent issues in today’s society, among other things. MC’s unique perspective helped us to better understand many tribal customs that otherwise seemed foreign to us, and this mutual understanding is important in our work here as it allows us to interact with locals while coming from a place of empathy rather than judgment. It’s necessary for us to keep this open-minded attitude so as to better understand the situations that both the children and women that we work with are coming from. The circumstances and traditions present among those that we work with are different than ours, but learning more about the history and the context of the environment we are in can help us to better understand their perspective and views which will help us to help them.

Later in the week, Dr. James Campbell came to teach us about South African history over pizza. Dr. Campbell talked a lot about the history behind the formation of townships and how this complicated history affects race relations in the country today. We discussed everything from diamond mining under Cecil Rhodes to the 11 different tribes in the area. Dr. Campbell helped contextualize a lot of the information MC gave us by explaining the historical background that set the stage for today’s political and cultural climate. He discussed politics and the social scenes as far back as the 1800s and how the country reached the apex of apartheid. He also taught us how the Apartheid government created tensions between different ethnic groups by physically forcing them to live in different areas and encouraging Black South Africans to identify by tribal affiliation rather than race. Dr. Campbell gave an overarching history lesson on many of the key events that occurred that have greatly influenced South Africa and helped lead the nation to where it is socially and politically. Learning from Dr. Campbell gave a third-person account from someone who studies racial divide and segregation extensively. He helped give a fact-based understanding of the history and of the current climate that we are experiencing during our time here.

“Learning about the culture of where you are at, especially if you are immersing yourself into the community and trying to help is vastly important. Not only does learning more about the history and culture of the place allow for greater knowledge, but it changes and affects the perceptions and views that we have about the people and place we are in.”

Finally, our group visited the District 6 Museum. We had the opportunity to tour the museum with Mr. Brown, a volunteer who grew up in the District 6 neighborhood. He gave us yet another valuable first-hand account, speaking enthusiastically about the diverse, close-knit community that lived in District 6 and lamenting on what a horrendous a crime it was to tear down his childhood home. Apartheid left a scar in the landscape here: barren fields with a few buildings scattered among the unrecognizable city blocks where once a vibrant neighborhood stood strong. Learning about District 6 demonstrated how segregation and the uprooting of townships occurred. Hearing from someone who was personally impacted and was physically affected by the laws put in place at that time allowed for a better, more comprehensive understanding of just how personal and real these experiences were. It is one thing to hear of such stories, but first hand accounts give different meaning and context to what it was really like for those affected.

The three history lessons each had their own approach and aims, but all were similar in their educational value. Learning about the culture of where you are at, especially if you are immersing yourself into the community and trying to help is vastly important. Not only does learning more about the history and culture of the place allow for greater knowledge, but it changes and affects the perceptions and views that we have about the people and place we are in. Learning about the history and context of where we are allows us to be more open-minded and insightful about the situations and lives of those we are helping. The accounts may have been different depending on who they were coming form, their approach, and their personal interest in the topic, but each stress the importance and diversity of culture and the significance of understanding how and why things are the way they are. Having a greater understanding about the culture we are in will help us better work with those within and affected by this same culture.

Poem on the Floor of the District 6 Museum About Trials
A poem on the floor of the District 6 Museum about the trials of the time

Christine: “I felt it was important to discuss culture during this weeks blog post because of how much we learned and about who we learned from. I think perspective is such a huge and extremely impactful reason for why and how people view and understand things. The perspective that each person had impacted their approach to the topic and also how they view it. I also felt that understanding the touchy subject of race and culture can and will impact how I approach working here within the community.”

Maya: “Writing these blog posts gives us a platform to be heard, and I wanted to use this platform to be a voice for stories that otherwise may not reach certain audiences. The complicated history of South Africa makes race and culture a bit of a touchy subject, but these are still topics that are important to discuss. Therefore, I wanted to make sure that the unique first-hand accounts of people like MC and Mr. Brown are recognized as valuable perspectives on a controversial history.”

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