Harini Suresh | Celina, TX — Oboe Performance and Chemistry, 2017
Harini Suresh is currently a junior at Vanderbilt University studying oboe performance and chemistry. She hails from the great state of Texas, and is immensely excited to travel to South Africa this summer with OACS to learn through service. The OACS immersion program spans three cities – Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, and Cape Town – with service opportunities ranging from collaborations with local community programs to meeting with activists to volunteering at a primary school and clinic. The immersion program spans six weeks, during which a deep understanding and appreciation for the history and culture of South Africa will be gained.
Blog Post One:
“A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” I worriedly read Nelson Mandela’s words on the arches above me as I descended into the remnants of Johannesburg’s Prison No. 4, bracing myself for what was to come. Learning about the torturous methods of humiliation used against prisoners hours after reading about South Africa’s volatile history in the Apartheid Museum, I was gripped with pain from trying to comprehend the inhumane capabilities of man. That week in Johannesburg, as I grappled with the dark abyss of the human condition, I learned that there is hope in the power of resilience – of the Black culture and of the leaders who forged the future.
Every social, political, and economic sphere of Black culture was flattened into a pitiful condition by the governing whites during Apartheid. From education to art, the Blacks were left with no prospects, forced to the bottom rung of society. Touring a primary school in a historically Coloured township, I looked in on classes and learned that lessons used to be taught in Afrikaans, a language most Black and Coloured students didn’t speak fluently. Walking through the Black artists’ exhibit of the University of Witwatersrand Art Museum, I observed intense suffering in the paintings and sketches of pained Black faces. As I learned more, I realized that despite the oppression experienced, the culture didn’t suffer; rather, it became stronger. School children and university-goers protested for equal access to education, united against their oppressors. Artists previously unappreciated sprung up with more powerful images, yearning to tell their stories. Learning about the South African Blacks’ culture then and now made me aware of the power of resilience.
The Blacks and Coloureds in South Africa were displaced from their homes in the name of racial segregation. From being forced to live in unfit, filthy ghettos to being sent to prison immediately upon protest, they were beaten down physically, mentally, politically, and socially. But that week as I listened to oppressed tell their stories, I was struck by their bravery. One professor we met with described his underprivileged education in a Coloured primary and high school as having a limited staff and lessons in Afrikaans, a language many students (including him) did not speak at home. However, he persevered, excelling in school and pursued degrees in America, returning to South Africa as a proponent for education reform. We also had the chance to meet an ex-prisoner of Robben Island. During apartheid, he left the country twice to be trained militarily to fight in protests only to be forcefully returned both times and sent to prison on account of betrayal. After leaving prison, he continued advocating for equality through the Pan African Council (PAC). Through museum visits, I learned about Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment, after which he returned stronger and more fueled to fight. The prisoners, oppressed population, and underground activists truly exemplified to me the strength of human nature.
That week in Johannesburg, I learned not only of the unimaginable pain suffered by Blacks during apartheid, but also of their strength to fight back. Each painting, tour guide, car driver, and museum exhibit I encountered expressed sadness of the past, but most inspiringly, hope for the future. I came to South Africa with the prospect of learning the history, but took away the more powerful message of resilience.
Blog Post Two:
As my time in South Africa abruptly comes to an end, I am overwhelmed by my experiences in this beautiful, promising, hurting, hopeful country. Observing first-hand the acute injustices that plague the world has not only opened my eyes to disparities, but also led me to ponder what I, as an active global citizen, can contribute to the long drive towards resolution.
From news sources and human geography classes over the years, I have been aware of the pervasive issues of unemployment, hunger, and governmental corruption in impoverished areas of the world. However, I only truly began to understand the vicious cycle of poverty when I became immersed in the lives of those at the Missionvale Care Centre. I learned that there are countless factors that contribute to a child not attending school – inadequate funds in the family, necessary additional income, hunger, lack of uniform or transportation, teen pregnancy, and a host of other psychological and sociological factors. Lack of education breeds unemployment, unemployment breeds hunger, and the cycle goes on. Seeing this in front of my eyes every day while volunteering at Missionvale and hearing from employees of their attempts to pull themselves and their children out of the cycle illuminated how tough it was– especially when the infrastructure and support needed from the government was lacking.
Governmental corruption was a huge theme in our learning experience in South Africa. Three conversations in particular had a profound impact on my understanding of the hopelessness, frustration, and anger the ineffective and corrupt government has inflicted on the South African people. One was with Andrew, our South African tour guide, driver, and father. Possessing an entrepreneurial spirit, he opened an automobile mechanic shop with the intention of empowering and employing youth in the community. However, he lacks the funds to do so. He explained to me that if he were to apply for a larger grant, the governmental agencies that grant this money would inevitably find some way to misallocate the funds to expect more out of him or give him less. While he spoke of the situation, I could hear the frustration and helplessness in his voice. He indicated that people have utterly given up on placing their trust in the government.
Likewise, in a question/answer session with Sister Ethel, the founder of Missionvale Care Centre, the question was posed – “If you were president of South Africa, what is the first thing you would do?” She replied that she would have everyone in power spend a day living in the slums of Missionvale. Her indication of the government’s lack of empathy and utter ignorance again showed me how much more growth the transitional democracy of South Africa needs.
Lastly, talking with a Machiu teacher at our end-of-summer Braai showed me the government’s hand in unemployment. Schools are incredibly understaffed in the areas around Missionvale and Machiu for the simple reason of lack of government funding. One of the more shocking facts we learned on our initial tour of Machiu was that two or three teachers were actually working full-time without pay! I tied this in to the fact of the skyrocketing unemployment rate. It struck me as ironic to have so much unemployed potential in the community with so many vacancies in the job market.
Throughout our service experience in South Africa, we were urged to constantly reflect on what we, as students from America, were leaving behind in that one month. As much as I would have loved to create an avenue of dramatic sustainable change within my four weeks at Missionvale, I achieved something much simpler and realistic – I built lasting relationships and gained inspiration. The Missionvale Care Centre family embraced me with open arms. Daily jokes, hugs, gossip, songs, and story-telling with the ladies of the crafting warehouse, nutrition unit, health unit, and gardening unit instantly made me feel like part of the family. Learning about their lives, children, and culture were treasures I will never forget. Likewise, by sharing my own stories, passions, and ambitions with a few of them, I found comfort and encouragement.
Shadowing in the Missionvale clinic and accompanying caregivers on home health visits opened my eyes to the dearth of healthcare in impoverished areas. A shortage of resources plagues the township – from medical staff to common pills. Observing the hundreds of ailments that passed through the one physician’s door twice a week sparked in me a resolve to return someday to treat people who direly need and deserve better treatment than their environment can provide.
Though I have traveled internationally before, my time in South Africa was my first experience actively and intentionally engaging with communities and learning intimately about the country through immersion in service. I hope to continue internalizing my experiences and growing from the stories and inspiration I gained. South Africa will always hold a special place in my heart.