Since I arrived in Pretoria, three short weeks ago, I have seen more sunrises than I had in the rest of my life. Nearly every morning I wake up around 5:30, admire the city sprawling under the early dawn, then burrow in my blankets and sleep until it is time for work. And Pretoria is a lovely city to see the sunrise; nestled in the hills of the Gauteng Province and dotted with jacaranda trees, the city is known for its beautiful, leafy neighborhoods.
While I arrived not having long-term living arrangements, I quickly found a place to stay in one such leafy suburb. I managed to work out a home stay with a Portuguese-Afrikaans family that rents out rooms to students. Staying with them has been a great way of starting to unravel the complex social realities of South Africa. It is an interesting exercise to attempt to cobble together a picture of South Africa when sourcing information from Afrikaners, Xhosa, Venda and other groups in the country. Topics of race and ethnicity are never far from private and political discourse, as controversial Black Economic Empowerment schemes divide the nation.
And yet, despite all the division, there is still an underlying feeling of togetherness, Ubuntu, that unites the nation. Watching the State of the Nation address, by President Zuma, I was struck by how he focused on working together, engaging stakeholders, and promoting social cohesion. On a more personal level, the people I have met have been genuinely kind. South African hospitality has kept me busy as my coworkers and host family have been showing me their favorite parts of the city.
In my pre-departure security-briefing I was told that Pretoria was highly developed, with most informal settlements and poorer areas pushed to the outskirts of the capital. It is easy to get caught up with the profusion of malls, the opulent diplomat homes, and the impressive administrative buildings. It is the stories of overburdened transportation systems and long waits for licensing that remind me that I am in a state that is struggling to grow its capacity. The few glimpses I have had of townships emphasize the immense inequality in this country. The corruption that occurs at every level, from the government to NGOs, highlights the difficulties facing successful development. While my daily life does not lack the comforts of a Western lifestyle, there are constant little reminders that I am in a developing nation.
My experience with the work of development has been interesting, but far from what I expected to be doing. My placement in the regional office has been very unique. Instead of working with a development project, our branch of the office has the role of supporting the operations of different AED projects. My role, as research and database management support, entails finding new donor opportunities and inputting contact information into our database. I am also attending various meetings and conferences which have helped me to build a picture of the activities of an INGO like AED. I have been learning so much since my arrival, but as my internship continues to evolve, I can’t wait for the experiences to come!
It’s hard not go get early-onset nostalgia for a place you will soon be leaving. As I stop at my usual coffee place and settle in at my desk, I feel as though I’m concentrating extra hard on documenting every moment and committing it to memory. It’s hard to believe that today is my last day at the office and that I am leaving South Africa in a few short days. I’m excited to head home and see my family and friends, but I’ve bonded so well with this country; it’s hard to leave.
My internship, which consisted of a steady dribble of work, has picked up immensely in the last few weeks. My initial position of conducting market research for business development opportunities was made inconsequential by the decision to sell AED. Luckily, the regional office works in the same space as several projects, and I was picked up by a grants management group. Working on a project has been a wonderful experience. I’ve had the chance to visit partners in the field, interview beneficiaries, and develop success stories. Located in the regional office, I have been able to sit in on countless meetings between partners and USAID and understand some of the processes in the NGO world. My work is becoming so interesting, it makes me want to stay; I have so much left to learn.
My time in South Africa has showed me how welcoming people can be to a total stranger. I have made some great friends at my office, at the local university, and through ultimate frisbee. People are always willing to show me around, take me out, and help me sort out different logistics. The family I stay with has been instrumental in helping me travel through the region. My coworkers threw me not one, but three 21st birthday celebrations, leaving me with more cake than I could handle. People are very friendly, very open, and very willing to discuss their lives and experiences. I’ve learned so much about the history of South Africa just by talking to people.
My experience here has ranged from frustrating to inspiring, from aesthetically pleasing to delightful. Frequent run-ins with racism dampened the joy that generally characterizes the way people interact with one another. This country, beautiful and welcoming, is still healing. While there is still hatred here, it is complex and nuanced, difficult to dissect. More importantly, there are a host of triumphant stories; many of my coworkers came from experiences of intense poverty and oppression and are now successful and committed to giving back.
I could try to characterize this land that I have grown so attached to, but I’m afraid it’s impossible. Beyond all the intellectualizations about South Africa there is a lure emanating from the red dirt and thorn trees. And it’s a lure that just might pull me back.