An American in South Africa

This past summer I left the country for the first time and struggled tremendously with overwhelming feelings of excitement and anxiety. In mid-July I eagerly packed my belongings, flew over 7,000 miles away from home, and participated in a three-week program studying health and healthcare in South Africa.

The chance to travel internationally and study abroad was such a huge privilege for me, especially considering that only five percent of college students that study internationally are black. My scholarship covered most of the costs and getting on that flight in itself felt like an act of a resistance, resistance against a system rigged to my disadvantage.

For many years I romanticized countries outside of the United States as a sort of utopia for black people. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve faced the hard reality that anti-black racism occurs worldwide. Black women face discrimination all over the world because anti-blackness is global. Anti-blackness is global. Anti-blackness is global. I repeated this to myself as a sort of depressing mantra in mental preparation for the trip. I knew it wouldn’t be perfect and being thousands of miles away from my family, my support system, only heightened my nervousness, but if I let anti-blackness determine where I travelled, I wouldn’t have left my front door.

I resolved to go on the trip knowing that I would be the only black person taking the healthcare course, knowing that we would live in a small town, and knowing that we would study at a predominately white university. It meant that I had to prepare myself to come across symbols of prejudice and hate that were not very different from those I would see at home.

We traveled for over 24 hours to make it to the Western Cape in South Africa. Keeping a journal during the trip helped me sort out my feelings. The soft lilac, hardcover journal would become my go-to for jotting down quick thoughts and observations. Looking back through the journal brings back the vibrancy and clarity of the emotions I felt at the time.

I'm in Africa?! I'm not sure where we are exactly right now, but our last stop was in Dakar, Senegal. It still hasn't hit me that this is real. I don't think it will until I get off the plane. I definitely cannot take this opportunity for granted. Some people never leave the city they were born in, and here I am halfway across the world. This is wild.

Once we made it to the Western Cape we wasted no time in beginning our orientation. Between visiting rural clinics, hospitals, and resource centers as part of our coursework on healthcare, and cultural excursions to a penguin colony, game reserve, and museums, I was mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted. There was so much to take in and so little time to understand what it all meant.

Day one is over and it feels like a thousand have passed.

We spent most of our time in Stellenbosch, a small town tucked away in a valley bounded by several mountains and littered with wine vineyards. Walking through Stellenbosch felt familiar with its coffee shops and bookstores. It was hearing the occasional Afrikaans and Xhosa that would yank me out of the familiarity of being on a college campus and thrust me into reality.

I became hyper aware of my American-ness and wondered if it was obvious. Routine things like grocery shopping and going to a café turned into hours of analyzing my surroundings. Like the time a security officer stopped me on the way out of the mall. She asked to see my wallet and any receipts that I had. I couldn’t stop thinking about that moment and what it was about me that told her something was not right. I had never received that kind of suspicion before. I wondered if it was my Blackness or American-ness that set off an alarm in her mind. Maybe it was a combination of the two. It was wildly apparent that I was a foreigner when we checked out the open markets after class one afternoon. All of the art sellers there wanted to capitalize on a false sense of kinship to get me to buy more stuff.    

Today we also stopped by the vendors in the courtyard and it's the first time I've been called "sister" by so many men.

It was hard feeling out of place in a country where I thought I would feel some sort of magical connection and intimacy. It was naive to think I would feel, but could never completely unroot, these unrealistic expectations. Instead I found myself isolated and dejected, trying to work through different feelings on my own. So I continued to write through it. And cry a lot too.

I wonder how many people can hear me sniffling/playing Sam Smith through my headphones. I wonder how many times I'll cry on this trip. Lol I'm always on the verge of tears so there's a good chance.

I had a really great cry and near meltdown a few days later.

Today was an entirely different monster. We drove to a vineyard to meet with two women that work there, Ms. Kathleen and Ms. Eva. That was an experience. I don't want to feel numb but I can't handle all of the anger I am feeling. We brought them treats from the wine shop and it just felt wrong to get them things from a store they would never belong in.

Maybe it was because I was so angry about their situation, or because Ms. Kathleen reminded me of my own grandmother, but I completely broke down after we spoke with them. I climbed back into the white van and started shaking and crying uncontrollably. Hearing their stories of living through apartheid and the daily struggles they still face felt like someone took hold of my heart and pummeled it.

This morning with Ms. Kathleen and Ms. Eva was very emotional. When I looked at them, they reminded me of older women that I know in my family. In their wrinkles and old age I was reminded of all of the wisdom and knowledge my elders have. I was very angry. Listening to their story and everything they went through. I was so overwhelmed that I started crying. I related to Ms. Eva a lot because she was either crying or on the verge of tears for most of our time with her.

The hardest part of the entire trip was trying to reconcile the absolute beauty and devastation. Jumping back and forth across the fine line that segregated the wealthy parts of town from the absolute poverty, left me up late at night thinking about how people experience such drastically different lives in such close proximity. Days of working in a school in an area with the highest rates of fetal alcohol syndrome were followed by day trips to museums with entrance fees the price of the school’s yearly tuition. When I couldn’t find the right words to describe the total turnaround in a single day and record in my journal, I would just talk with my roommate about the latest pop news from back home, focusing on more trivial things in hopes of getting rid of the overwhelming sadness.

One of the most impactful moments of the trip was when we visited Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years.  

Today we had an early start for our 9am Robben Island tour. It was a lot and it all felt so surreal .While we were at one of the shop things, this tour guide came up to me and tried to holla. He was asking me about where I'm from. And then he was like you'll never know if our paths will cross again lol. But then he brought up the Charleston shooting after I told him I live in North Carolina. He told me that it's safer to be a Black man in South Africa. I wish I could've talked to him longer but I felt uncomfortable because he had a goatee and was wearing sunglasses inside.

It was moments like that and countless others that forced me to understand what it meant to be an American in South Africa. For the first time I really had to sit and think about what it means to be a Black-American. I had to address the second part of my hyphenated identity in a way I never had to before.

We visited Be Part, a clinic in Mbwekeni and drove through Kayamandi. It was sad. The little kids started waving because they knew what white vans driving through their community means. It's hard to come to understanding that it's the people that look like you that are suffering the most in places around the world.

During the drive back, I wondered how many white vans filled with foreigners had driven through Kayamandi that day and why we didn’t get out to speak to anyone. It was hard to be so close, nearly face-to-face with some of the people I wanted to get to know the most, and not being able to say anything to them.  

My time in South Africa was emotionally overwhelming in a way that at the end of the third week of our stay, just as I was beginning to decompress my feelings and peel back the layers of everything I was experiencing, it was time to fly back home. I’ve been back in the US for months now and I still can’t make sense of everything that happened.

I quickly fell back into the rhythm of school, going to class and writing papers, and now struggling through the last few weeks of the semester I can’t stop thinking about how I’ve neglected to really understand what the experience meant to me. Keeping up with my journal, with the goal of sorting through and making sense of everything at some point, was not in vain though. At the most random times of the day, I will think back to the summer I spent in the small, little South African town of Stellenbosch, admiring the view of the beautiful mountains, writing through pages and pages late at night in bed. One of these days I will resist the complacency I’ve settled into and dedicate time to sit and reflect for a long while, eventually making sense of all of the ridiculousness that I jotted down in a purple hardcover journal months and months ago.


Joneka is a third year college student that enjoys dancing with her sisters, cooking risotto with her roommates, and watching Beyoncé videos when she should be studying. When she's not tweeting or writing endlessly, she likes to explore the representation of Black women in the media and encourages young girls to express their unique stories through art. She hopes her next travel endeavor, a semester in Seoul, South Korea, will     be one of her many more adventures to come.