Something I’ve realized since coming back to South Africa is that wherever you are, you develop relationships not only with people (the obvious relationship type) but also with places. By place I don’t mean just the physical things that you can see, but many of the unseen things like the institutions, the cultural practices and norms, and the general environment and the feelings that those evoke.
I can compare my relationship to South Africa very much to a bumpy romance. My first experience in Cape Town was a sense of bewilderment and awe as I stepped off the plane: bewilderment praying that our study abroad program coordinator would find me since I had no contact information or address for where I was supposed to be staying and awe for the spectacular mountains and coastline that I had just flown over. The mixture of feelings grew even more complex when I was briefly informed that the house I was staying in had been burgled the night before my arrival. Fortunately, none of my soon to be housemates were injured, but everyone was feeling unsettled. I had that classic pit of your stomach churning feeling, “Girl, what have you gotten yourself into?”
Indeed that question is still unanswered to date, but I am so grateful that God has somehow helped me coordinate or orchestrate my life into this place. The “infatuation” phase probably started after our first field trip to Cape Point and to see the penguins in Simon Town. I couldn’t stop “oohing” and “ahhing” at everything that I saw. Once we took our field trip to the Cederberg and watched the most amazing sunset I have ever seen to date whilst sitting in a quiver tree forest, that was it. South Africa officially had me.
Road trips across the country and daily explorations around Cape Town made me realise how little I knew about my newfound love. I was barely scratching the surface of its complexities between urban and rural, rich and poor, white and black, and all of the shades in between: the constant sing-song of the minibus drivers driving up and down Main Road, “Cape Town... Wyaanberg,” the ever present profile of Table Mountain demanding attention and admiration, as compared to the open blue skies and softer rolling green hills in the Eastern Cape, which quietly steal your heart. I was enamoured with all.
Leaving Cape Town that first time was completely heartbreaking. I was not ready to say goodbye. I felt as if I was being cruelly wrenched away, although I was leaving of my own volition. There was a small matter of graduating college to attend to.
Returning to my hometown and then subsequently to school made me realise how much I missed South Africa, but also reminded me of the other places I loved. That in fact, there were other relationships (with both people and places) that I had been neglecting. It was so easy to get caught up in the “newness” of my relationship with South Africa that I pined for it initially, even though there were other opportunities to grow relationships with the people and places immediately around me. I recognised it even as it was happening, but the momentum of missing something carried me along for several months.
In a way it was a good thing to have formed such powerful emotional bonds because otherwise I wouldn’t have had the courage to come back, but I have also had my eyes opened to how much I romanticised my study abroad experience. As most study abroad students probably will admit, study abroad is for the most part a glorified extended spring break. Of course there are academics, some programs are much more rigorous than others, but no one goes abroad to study in school. You are much more willing and able to be a student of life as cliché as it sounds, which is one of the main reasons I wish everyone had the opportunity to “study” abroad.
Returning to South Africa to complete a Master’s degree has afforded me the opportunity to live and study here under completely different pretenses, and that has been eye-opening to say the least. The more I learn, the more I realise I do not know or understand and have to be content with my own limitations. The rose coloured glasses have come off as I realise that “laid-back” Capetonian attitude is a veneer in some cases, and some of the vibrancy is fueled by unspoken urgency, and much is swept under the carpet (as with any city). And yet, and yet... I have fallen even more deeply in love with this place and have learned that to really love is to seek to understand and deepen beyond superficial impressions although it comes with a cost.
So when I am asked, “Do you plan to stay in South Africa after you graduate?”, all I can really say is I am still learning each day. I don’t have the answer yet, but we shall see. I’m trusting the Lord with all my heart, and know better than to lean on my own understanding.