(For time sake, and because Wi-Fi here is not free, I’ve posted multiple days on one day, as the nifty date markers to your left has shown. It should be painstakingly obvious, but I feel the need to annotate that.)
Today and tomorrow we are at Rehoboth Ageing Center, so in contrast to seeing the youngsters last week, we are spending some time with the elderly, most of who suffer from Alzheimer’s and cases of dementia. Nonetheless, I can already tell that tomorrow holds meaningful insights into South African culture, past and present, from firsthand accounts. It was a bit awkward at first, like being invited into someone’s home whom you barely know. But in either situation, it seems that if you just smile, wave and say hello, it will be returned in kind.
Although, I must say, no matter who I talk to until now, I’m never sure of their proficiency in English, so I’m not sure how to approach a conversation, what kind of vocabulary to use, how to explain things, etc. And I think, as a Westerner, this is a problem and the only real solution I can provide is just to go for it. As soon as I start thinking “oh their English isn’t as good as mine, I won’t get anywhere in this conversation,” which alludes itself to the awkwardness, I’m stepping back into that Eurocentric mindset of yesteryear. I start to see the pattern of dominance, and while I surely don’t have the intention to solicit, exploit, use (other than for further research) these people as Europeans have in the past, it brings up a thought that needs to be addressed when Westerners meet, shall I say, Easterners. How can I meet them on their level, what language (since I don’t speak theirs) should I use, how do I blend in? All I can say is just say something and go from there. If I start having preconceived notions before I even say “hello,” I’m already in retreat from learning something valuable. And that’s something I can take back with me to the States for everyday life and conversation. Relating to people and keeping conversation and small talk, now that’s a different story.
I found that after saying hello a few times, I was wearing a perpetual smile to show everyone I met, whether I actually had a conversation with them or not. In a place of what most would see as pity and misery, there is happiness to be found.
Before lunch today (and tea time for us, which was quite lovely), I pushed a gentleman in a wheelchair to the cafeteria. And when I say gentleman, I mean a gentle man. I could just feel how frail he was, not necessarily decrepit, but how fragile a human life is. For those few moments, I got a sense of what it means to, I guess study people and learn to attribute the human and emotional factor to them, rather than regarding them as a statistic. If someone says 79% of people will believe statistics that are made up on the spot, you just think of a person. You don’t necessarily delve into how that person has a family, needs, emotions, even the shoes they’re wearing. It’s not superficial, our thoughts and actions have real consequences. And whether you’re talking about policy making, individual choices, statistical analysis or “society” that we love to criticize, the people we’re talking about aren’t just numbers but a fellow human who shares the same human experiences. It was a rather humanistic moment for me, and it was nice to know that I can still be in touch with that side of myself. Essentially, in coming to South Africa to do service learning, it culminated in that moment.