First, a note: I’m back in Atlanta! Clearly, I was not able to follow through on my goal of blogging every day. The trip was more exhausting than I had anticipated, not just because of jetlag but also because our days were filled to the brim – we were constantly on the move from sun up to sun down.
However, I took extensive notes and more than 1,000 photos!
Our trip to South Africa was not all sweetness and light.
On the fourth day, we woke up before dawn (see, this is where exhaustion began to kick in!) to catch the early flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town. Don’t worry, here’s a map:
Pro Tip: Even two hour flights on South African Airways serve a meal! We landed in rainy weather, slightly to our dismay, but also understanding that in the midst of a drought, as our captain pointed out, this was good weather.
When we walked out from baggage claim to meet our guide, we found him standing there with a hand-written sign that said “Ebony University.” A foreshadowing?
Thus began an… awkward relationship.
We got to the bus and began driving out to a animal reserve where we would get to experience some of South Africa’s natural beauty. The guide kicked off the tour by explaining a bit about himself. He made clear from the get-go that he had been totally against apartheid at the time, especially because he grew up on a farm where he got to play with blacks and never saw their color.
He also had a daughter who sometimes brought black friends along on family camping trips. He was totally impressed, he said, by the fact that these black kids could speak English. Not just any English, very good English and without any accent. Incredible!
Are you catching my drift?
Over the next three days, he would go on to describe immigrant laborers as incredibly “obedient,” women as “ladies,” something akin to shock that ladies eventually found their way out of the home and into the workforce, and gave us a stern finger-wagging command to avoid giving anything to homeless people.
Props to the woman in our group who decided not to let it slide, and spoke up to directly contradict him. That seemed to prompt our group leaders to call a meeting to discuss the situation. It turns out, everyone was fully aware of and uncomfortable to varying degrees with how problematic his comments were. This information was relayed to the travel agency and the following day we had a new guide.
After talking with a few members of the group, I think many of us actually found his comments eerily familiar. These are the kinds of off-color comments we hear just about every day in the U.S., from your step-uncle-in-law at Thanksgiving dinner, someone at the office, maybe even a friend, and as is our politics, many people in positions of power.
Even after we got a new guide, we continued to have rich conversations about how we choose to handle these situations in different contexts. What do such comments reflect about the person making them? When do we speak up or let it slide?
When we speak up, what’s the best way to do it? And most importantly, I think we need to ask our selves: why?
There are no easy answers. What is clear is that prejudice still exists in post-apartheid South Africa, as it does in the U.S. On the one hand, I think it was important for us to know that. On the other, there was no good reason to have that be the dominant narrative of our trip.
I’m thankful to have traveled with a group of people who displayed tremendous grace, thoughtfulness and courage in the face of this challenge. On a lighter note, here are some images from the safari at Aquila Game Reserve* 🙂
*Note: Aquila Game Reserve has a mission focused on conservation. Many of the animals on the reserve are rescues and there is no hunting here.