Like many teenagers, it was a bit disastrous when I learned to drive. My dad took me out first and decided we would stay in the confines of the gates of our neighborhood. Just one hill and cul-de-sac into the lesson, I veered too close to a garbage can for his liking and he warned me too strongly for mine. Flustered by his “yelling,” I turned bratty and his tone and volume grew. Within ten minutes, we were driving back to our house, him in the driver’s seat, both furious. We decided that my mom would teach me to drive.
My driving lesson in South Africa did not start off feeling all that different, sans angry father and hormonal teenager. I found myself picking up the manual rental car after a brief lesson up and down a street in Portland, many kind offers in San Diego which I did not follow through on (thank you for your willingness), and one practice run on a dirt road an hour before we got the car. I literally pulled out of the rental car lot and up to a stop sign on a hill. I was to make a right hand turn (the equivalent of a left in the States) onto the tarmac. There was some traffic and I knew when it was time to go that it was a perfect window. Naturally, I stalled. The line of cars behind me grew.
My companion smiled. “You got this,” he said in his charming South African accent. The look on his face made it clear that he was not so certain. I took a deep breath and started over: neutral, e-brake (already up, pulled by Steve), engine on, clutch in, shift to first, look both ways. There was a small window, but a window. I eased off the clutch and waited for the bite to put the brake down. As soon as I felt it, I wrestled the brake down and went to accelerate as the car approached. Steve cautioned, “I would maybe wait.” To wait, I’d have to break again and likely stall again. Pressing down on the accelerator, I quickly jumped out and around to make my turn before the driver passed.
As my heart rate slowed and I shifted to second with the expanse of the highway stretching in front of me, it hit. “You’re in South Africa,” I thought to myself.
Its been over a month since I last posted and there are countless “shifts” I’ve made. I transitioned from my family in Rwanda to my new staff in Vermont. Together, we dove into wilderness medical training and a discovered love of Portland. Finally, I enjoyed time at home as I adjusted to my sense of place being more transient and fluid. These changes- and all that came with them- felt as bumpy and slow to progress as my driving here does.
Perhaps the greatest adjustment, though, is my move to South Africa. I arrived two and a half weeks ago with sixteen students and two fellow Program Leaders.
One thing that immediately jumped out was the extent of wealth and access to things from the West. In general, it is far more “developed” than anything I experienced in East Africa. And as much as it is my pet peeve when people talk about Africa like it is a single country rather than an entire continent, these differences highlighted the ways that I still subtly thought of it as such in my mind. As I observe the culture, I find myself holding it to the cultures and communities I know and love in Rwanda and Tanzania. And honestly, I miss the “Africa” I knew before. There is no shortage of beauty here, to be sure. But, I grieve the simplicity and community of rural living.
There are a million blind-spots in this thinking. I acknowledge the obvious problems and questions of which areas of each country I’ve spent time in, how long I must stay somewhere to think I understand a culture, etc. Beyond these lie the questions I am interested in- the ones that raise deeply rooted inconsistencies and assumptions that shape my understanding of self and of the world.
For example, what criticism of my own culture is underneath my experience of South Africa? Is my preference for East Africa actually rooted in an underlying dissatisfaction with life at home? On the flip-side, in calling South Africa more developed, I must ask: in what ways do I conceptualize “development” as conforming to my own culture’s practices? And in doing so, am I not just placing the culture I escape as the marker or standard of what others should strive toward?
These two sets of questions alone reveal the paradox of my cultural identity. They demonstrate my push and pull between a critique of individualism and consumerism and an appreciation for the resources and comforts such systems provide.
To me, at the heart of this tension is a dualistic framework that I am seeking to transcend. In the preceding paragraphs, I begin with black/white sentiments of “developed” as bad, or at least disappointing. Simultaneously, I treat “rural living” as all things beautiful and lovely in the world, romanticizing the places I’ve previously resided.
My intention is to allow cultures to be merely different. Not better or worse. Not as static as any one adjective. Dynamic, changing, a marble of beauty and sorrow. I want to celebrate the things of the West that honor human dignity, and dig into the ways we deny it. I’ll rejoice in the ways the developing world lives into community values and think critically about the constraints and limitations present.
As I adjust to my manual car, I adjust too to Plettenberg Bay: a sleepy town with gorgeous views and glaring inequities. From my ocean-view at the flat I live in, I realize that my uncertainty around South African culture is predominately resistance to the mirror it holds up to my own contradictions. The similarities of my life here and at home remind me of the countless ways I neglect to live into my values. In thinking about inequity, I face where I land in this lopsided world- most frequently on the privileged side. And I wish for the world to be different.
I then find myself wondering how I stand in this wish and in my privileged reality with any sense of congruence.
It is not as simple as moving to a village in Rwanda, for this tension exists within my being, not place. When I make false dichotomies of good and bad between “the West” and the “developing world,” it is not actually about those places. Rather, it is about my relationship to the pieces of myself from both [all] of the cultures that shape my sense of identity. Just as I am seeking to hold the paradox that culture is, I must learn to hold paradox within.
The further I get into my twenties, the closer I feel to my teen years- not in my driving experiences- but in my nature. I am changing, in-motion, immersed in the discovering of self. This time around feels like a manual change. Unlike my tweens, I have the awareness to take each step with intentionality; I choose which gear fits. As South Africa’s coasts welcome me, they invite me into a series of choices. Sitting in this ocean of decision, I hold an image of cultural integration that allows for both/and- in my travels and in my being- and I move toward this place, sputtering and stalling along the way.