“This Isn’t About You”
Cape Town, South Africa
Heterotopia - spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meet the eye. In general, a heterotopia is a physical representation or approximation of a utopia, or a parallel space that contains undesirable bodies to make a real utopian space possible.
Michel Foucault, the famous French philosopher and social theorist, coined and defined the word heterotopia in his essay “Of Other Spaces” in 1967. As with all philosophical claims and metaphysical insights, heterotopia and its definition are malleable and perhaps solely dependent on our individual experiences and multifaceted personalities. When I traveled abroad to Cape Town, South Africa with 13 other University of Illinois students two months ago, I soon realized that each and every one of us packed our heterotopia(s) with us, but were now co-existing in a space where our previous spaces, mental or otherwise, could not function nor survive, thus unrestricted cultural immersion ensued. The spaces that we were familiar with and comfortable existing in, were now out of sight and pushed to the back of the mind. Travel, whether predetermined or spontaneous, has the potential to strip us of our contrived and socially constructed identities – our “heterotopias” or spaces – and demolishes, reconstructs, reorganizes, and then remodels them, and we must then learn how to find a place to foster and nurture our blooming perspectives and newborn reflections.
Before I departed from the States and landed in Cape Town, I’d been spending an inordinate amount of time posing existential questions to myself: Who am I? What do I want? What’s my purpose? Am I happy? Why not? Who do I want to be? Can I make a difference? Does any of this matter? These questions and their elusive answers quickly began to seem even more mentally and emotionally invasive across the Atlantic Ocean. I still do not have the answers and I did not expect enlightenment nor complete cognitive cohesion when I returned home, but I can say that Cape Town and its people have now made finding and having all the answers seem fruitless.
University of Illinois’ Winter Break Study Tour to South Africa is offered through the Human Development and Family Services department and as a senior studying news-editorial journalism and English I was lucky to go. Despite popular belief, study abroad excursions are not vacations for students who craft winning applications and excel at group interviews; they are learning experiences that are conducted outside of campus community confines. There is an instructor present, a TA, and a pre-departure class – elements that mirror a standard college course and its curriculum. The sole difference lies in location or a juxtaposed “space”. As students who are eager to learn, our educational experience while abroad was amplified by the course’s mandatory two-week volunteer commitment, which began after our one week of tourism and sightseeing. The 14 of us where split into small groups and assigned various work sites: medical clinics in Cape Town and Khayelitsha, homes for children with physical, emotional, and mental disabilities, and Baphumelele, my beloved worksite, a home for children ages 1-18 who need food in their stomachs, a place to rest their heads at night, and a few sincere smiles.
For two weeks I would rouse around 8 am, eat breakfast, board the bus with some of my groggy housemates, and make my way to Khayelitsha township, which is situated a little over 20 minutes outside of Cape Town. Western cultures would quickly label Baphumelele an orphanage, but it isn’t. It’s exactly what it has labeld itself: a home. Not a home for children who don’t have one, but a home for children who are desperately in need of a new one, one with some stability and some refinement. I could tell you that those kids changed my life, and that I wish I were able to visualize life through their eyes, and that I miss them more and more each and every day, but I won’t because I am granting you permission to safely assume that all of the above mentioned is 100 percent accurate.
What I will tell you is this: we are all much more alike than we will every be different and because of this I have more in common with the individuals I spent only two weeks of life with than I do with the people I call friends. This commonality is cemented in the experience itself, an experience that cannot and will not be replicated by anyone who enters and exists my life from here on out, and for that I am grateful. I am grateful for the authenticity that I have captured in this one experience that will rival the authenticity that I am still searching for in my many others.
If I had to personify this experience I would call it Cleverd, the name of the 11-year-old boy I met at Baphumelele who stood out without trying. I believe that children are the most visually observant people on the planet, some more so than others. It’s this same polished perception that facilitates hypersensitivity. Cleverd did not just wear his emotions of his sleeves, but in his eyes and in his voice. “I want to go to America some day,” he told me in perfectly pronounced English (Xhosa is his preferred means of communication), turning away shyly when I smiled at him. “You can,” I replied as he placed his index finger on the painted map decorating the barbed wire enclosed cinderblock walls of Baphumelele’s outdoor play area. He then dragged his index finger from the end of Africa (his home) to North America landing right in the middle of The United States, running off one minute later to go play.
I soon found out that Cleverd had a history of academic truancy and often ran away from Baphumelele. Perhaps his immature desire and will to flee from his current situation mirrors the wanderlust in many of us. We must find consolation in our own vulnerability and the unknown if we wish to be shaped by both. We have to develop the same sensitivity we try so hard to mask in order to experience all that life has to offer wholeheartedly. The unknown is simply waiting for us to reverse it.
On my last day at Baphumelele, Cleverd and I cried for a little while and shared a hug that I can still feel and I promised him that he would see me again, whether he believed it to be true or not, he would see me again. I am still deeply devoted to that promise and have begun making arrangements to bring him to America for a little while sometime this summer. I thank him for allowing me to explore his world and now it’s my turn to show him mine.
When I returned home to Chicago, Illinois my mother dug around in her archived home office and found the scrapbook she crafted after our trip to Lagos, Nigeria in 2000, my father’s birthplace. I then began to compare and contrast my life’s duality. I was just seven years old at the time, but Lagos is still very near and dear to my heart and will always be. If I were given the opportunity to drop everything that seems to matter to me right now and start my life over, I would start it over in Lagos. I firmly believe that there are pieces of myself that were left behind in Nigeria when I was young, as well as pieces of myself I have yet to discover, and I thank Cape Town for lending me the courage I need to start putting them all together.
Travel and all that it entails has strengthened my belief in life and love and all the possibilities both can bolster when they’re united – when we’re united. But I also believe that we all have to be in this together, and that it’s not just about me and it’s not only about you. I believe that the world will stay open to our curiosities and inquiries only if our minds do the same. I believe that it's our duty to provide life when parts of our world seem dead and to provide love when parts of our world seem dim. We have the power to keep all of our spaces lit if we can first learn how to feel the sun's shine on another’s beach.
The number of reasons to visit Cape Town are endless, but here’s a list that’s a bit more concise if you need some more convincing: go because the Chakalaka and Malva pudding are to die for, go because Africa is so much more than lions and elephants, go because hiking up Cape Point is physically demanding, and draining, and exhausting but the view at the top is celestial and breathtaking, go because the Kaapse Klopse Minstrel Carnival will make you wish you were a better dancer, go because this is where Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu pioneered the anti-apartheid movement, go because there’s more than one utopia hiding in South Africa, go because both your heart and mind know cultural uniformity makes life banal, go not because you haven’t seen beauty in a while, but because you may have forgotten what it looks like, go because I promise you these photos do not tell the whole story, go because South Africa will be the reason you have a new one to tell, go if you want the world to make sense for a little while.