Tales from abroad: Durban

When deciding whether or not to study abroad, my decision was simple. I had spoken with many other college graduates that had regretted never having done it, so I figured I would. When deciding where to go, my decision was simple again. There were many options, but I figured, why not go to Africa? It was somewhere I never saw myself going on vacation later in life, and being a black American, I wanted to know what it felt like to be in the place many dreamed about, but would never go to. I entered this situation in a very confident manner, but I was soon confronted with experiences that challenged me more than I ever thought I would be. I was taken out of my comfort zone from the moment I got to South Africa.

Durban reminds me a bit of the cities at home. The beaches are extremely beautiful and like nothing I have ever seen. Going to the beach after class is very popular, so I am about five shades darker from lying in the sun all day. The city center, on the other hand, is extremely congested and reminds me a bit of New York City. The downtown has enormous shops and outside vendors, but, partly because of the sheer volume of people, pickpocketing is extremely common. I have gotten into the habit of not carrying anything when I’m out in the center and putting my money and valuables in a money belt. There are some suburbs that are safe, but I have found that all houses, no matter what neighborhood, tend to have very high gates around them.

I have been taking classes that I thought would benefit me because I hadn’t been able to take them at home, but I never realized how much at home I would actually feel in the South African classroom. In every one of my classes — English, marketing, anthropology, and political science — we discuss the United States. We never stop discussing it, and in some situations it is all we discuss. The United States is looked at as a model and pioneer in many fields, and students here at the University of KwaZulu-Natal tend to be taught the “right,” or American, way of doing something and how South Africa fits into that picture. It has actually left me in some slightly uncomfortable situations where I am called upon to speak for a nation of 350 million people, when in some cases my own opinions aren’t even firm.

The best part of my experience here has been getting to know the people. I love just talking to the students. I go to school with people from all over the world, and somehow, 21-year-old college students always have something in common, no matter where they are from. I have learned the most from students my own age. They have been more willing to provide me with full disclosure about their lives because they are less traditional than their parents and are willing to share the good and bad about their culture that others may try to hide.

I have, unfortunately, found out why South Africa, for many, has simply been known for violence and AIDS, and is now known for xenophobia as well. Somehow, in this past week, everyone has been rioting and protesting against something. I have learned that some people have a lot of resentment toward the United States, despite the fact that it is idolized, and I have, unfortunately, been a target of some of these angry feelings.

Many here in Durban watch America on television. They see Beyoncé and Laguna Beach and think that every city is like California and that Americans have more money than can be imagined and live in gorgeous condos. I have had to try to show people a more whole picture of what our country is like, that it has gated communities and ghettos, and even though the dollar is expensive, not everyone has very many to spend. I have learned that rationality is relative, and it has been a struggle to separate myself from the situations I have been put into and to try and look at them objectively.

It seems that in every class, the topic of AIDS comes up in some way or another, and even though it is a large problem here, a lot of the students don’t seem to view it as such. When I asked some of my friends in the dorm if they get tested, they said no and shook their heads as if to say, “Would I ever do that?” I explained that at my home, friends will sometimes go to get tested together, not necessarily because they’re afraid, but just for good measure.

I have been here for a little more than three months, and my trip is almost over. So even though many of my friends have just started their experience, I am reflecting on mine as though it has ended. I have very mixed feelings about experiences in Durban. Don’t get me wrong — I would not rather have gone to Australia, or Italy, or France, but that doesn’t mean that it’s been all good. I have been welcomed with open arms by some people and rioted against by others. I have had the time of my life one week and feared for my life when walking down the street in the next. Being in Durban has opened my eyes to a nation, although famous, that I didn’t know much about. All I knew about South Africa before coming here was apartheid and AIDS. But since being here, I have been able to truly see the toll these issues have taken on the people. As much as we all may look the same, we live in two completely different worlds. It’s been a difficult experience, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.