When people hear “Africa”, they think: poverty, wild animals, the Lion King. Initially, my brain was flooded with these same ideas, scenes of singing animals contrasting the reality of starving children. I went to South Africa, and to my disappointment, I saw no cuddly lion cubs belting out “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”. However, I glimpsed plenty of children – poor yet optimistic and kind. With People to People student ambassador program, I discovered a country, recovering from the evil clutches of the cemented system of apartheid, Afrikaans for segregation or apartness. South Africa still struggles despite her recent transformation from a white-controlled country to a land of equal opportunity. She still battles with the same issues plaguing the whole continent of Africa: poverty, AIDS, discrimination, yet these problems are masked by big, grand cities: Cape Town, Jo-burg (Johannesburg), and Pretoria.
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Regardless of the difficulties South Africa faces, she is a jewel in a giant collection of gems that make up Africa. Whatever fascinates the mind – the animals, the history, the geography, the food – South Africa never disappoints. The animals of Tshukudu Game Reserve are fantastic; I came to Africa to pet a cheetah, to skim the wild brush as I spotted a warthog or water buffalo or a giraffe, and my wishes were fulfilled. The real reason I found, though, to entice people to love South Africa all the more, is the children, the culture, the sea of faces who all smile at you and me and welcome us to their country, their home. People to People brought the people’s story into focus. Families invited us into their homes and churches and served us home-cooked meals. In one township in Cape Town, a community center called Khanyisa housed forty of us in order to warm us with a hearty stew, mealie pap, yams, and sweet amalfa pudding. Afterwards, we were treated to the traditional dances of the Xhosa tribe. Leaving just that one place was difficult; as we boarded our bus, children waved to us and pranced about rejoicing in the beautiful day and the visitors from a different, exotic land. How ironic! Typically, we think of Africa as exotic, but for the first time, we were considered the strange foreigners… exotic.
From Cape Town, we flew into Oliver Tambo International airport. Location: Johannesburg. Staying at the Southern Sun hotels, Garden Court de Waal in Cape Town and Southern Sun Grayston in Jo-burg, I lived in comfort, much like the comforts at home, yet the experience to open eyes and hearts is traveling into the center of activity, the townships. Upon arriving in Jo-burg, we immediately took to the road, towards Soweto, the community where Nelson Mandela lived. Stopping for a quick lunch detour at Wandies- great food- we finally arrived at Mdelwa Hlongwane school. The highlight of my trip…Our delegation was paired with seventh graders, and my partner’s name was Boni. Upon introducing herself, she told me she had a feeling we were going to be best friends. Every child that day, not just Boni, taught me that love and kindness are the best remedy for a globally united country. They showed us their games and sang us their songs- of course, “Waka Waka” appeared seeing how South Africa just hosted the World Cup.
Leaving all our new friends and our new “home” only a few days later, South African Airways, though it was luxurious, seemed liked a cruel device separating me from a world I had only just begun to discover. Simba and Mufasa didn’t even enter my mind. My view of Africa had changed.
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