Moe Suzuki - Combined Law & Human Rights in South Africa
South Africa was a country that I knew very little about; and yet by the end of the two weeks that I spent there I had learnt so much.
I have been questioning the existence and the extent of inequality and conflict in the world ever since I saw the conditions of refugees on the television, while I was sitting comfortably on my sofa at home in Japan. What made us lead such different lives? Reading articles, browsing web pages and listening to teachers did not seem to answer this crucial question and this was why I decided to participate in the 2-week Special Human Rights program hosted by Projects Abroad. Spending two weeks of my summer vacation in an exhilarating country, South Africa, to pursue my area of interest seemed to be the perfect option for me. I was also hoping that this experience would guide me through the stressful and confusing process of choosing university courses, which ultimately shapes my future.
The wind was blowing hard and the rain was smashing the ground on the day that I arrived. On the contrary to the weather, my host family, the Howa family, was extremely welcoming and friendly. During my short stay at their home, I learnt so much from them and it changed my attitude towards life. I particularly remember one conversation I had with Nawaal (my host-mother) about how many people become increasingly afraid of facing challenges in life. The story of her life, filled with passion for music and the desire to accomplish her goals, was truly inspirational. I realized then that being fortunate enough to have all the opportunities floating around me to be grabbed, I have to love every moment of life and try my best.
There were twelve of us participating in the 2-weeks program, and in the first week we toured around Cape Town, absorbing the fantastic culture while deepening our understanding of the divide within the country. The list of places that our group visited and the activities that we enjoyed seems incredible knowing that we only had the first week to do so. Just to name a few, we went Cango-caving and zip-lining; visited an elephant sanctuary, Table Mountain and Robben Island. We also went shopping, often purchasing souvenirs from local markets at various places.
My first encounter with the entrenched divide in the South African society was when I was on the way to my host family from the airport. There I was, simply glancing out of the window: on the left hand side there was a shanty town crowded with fragile-looking houses, while on the right there were huge concrete houses standing powerfully. It amazed me how different the scenery was to my own country, Japan. I was able to visit two of the several informal settlements, Vrygrond Community and Lavender Hill. Having never been to such areas, I absorbed everything with all my senses. I very much remember the cheerfulness of the teenagers on the visit to Vrygrond community with other volunteers to host a workshop.
At other times, our group visited St. George’s (a shelter home for girls), Youngsfield Refugee Camp and worked on a gardening project with Lucinda (a member of staff working for Projects Abroad). One of the girls at the refugee camp told us a story about how the government had stormed her house and took everything away; it was heart-breaking and I simply could not believe that just by living in a different country you were exposed to such threats.
Since we enjoyed visiting the refugee camp and interacting especially with the children, we decided to hold a sports day on the Friday, our last day of stay. This event was extremely successful; we played football, created pretty bracelets and did some creative drawings with chalk, while others enthusiastically chased soap bubbles flying in the air. Even though some could not speak English, it was wonderful being able to spend this invaluable time together just having fun.
Not only has this experience enhanced my determination to help people in need, but also taught me that my life has been dominated by so many misconceptions of developing countries. I have frequently seen South Africa (and indeed other developing countries as well) being portrayed in the media in an extremely negative light, often as being very underdeveloped and constantly in need of foreign intervention as if everyone living there needs some sort of help. I have learnt that this is completely false.
Social divide exists not between countries but within a country, as I saw from the distinctive difference in living standards between certain social groups within South Africa. Lucinda, who did an amazing job at guiding us through Cape Town, told us several stories and opinions that were far too different from that of what is often viewed as ‘Western’. It was eye-opening to hear other interpretations and perceptions to what I have been taught at school or have seen in the media.
Perhaps two weeks sounds too short for some. Yet this is the perfect project for anyone who wants to get a taste of what is like to be a volunteer; those who are interested in Human Rights, poverty, equality or development issues; or those who are aspiring to work for people in need in the future. There is a limit as to how much you can contribute to changing people’s lives in two weeks, but I certainly gained a sense of achievement through the work that I did and through interacting with the local people.