Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Return to Cape Town

As I near the halfway point of my 17-day graduate seminar in Cape Town, South Africa, I continue to reflect on what it means to return here nearly six years after my first arrival in Cape Town, when I was a junior in college beginning a semester here with the South Africa Service Learning Program.  In my conversations with my fellow American University graduate students and with South Africans, in our lectures and site visits, and even just by physically being again in this complex and fascinating city, I find myself reflecting from time to time on the changes the past six years have brought.  I’m not primarily referring to the changes in Cape Town though there have certainly been many.  I have quickly noticed prominent physical changes in the cityscape, such as the improvements made for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, but two weeks is far too short a time period to claim to “understand” the evolution of this city and its inhabitants, as if it could even be said that I understood the city after living here for those five months in 2008.

No, I am largely referring to my reflections about how I have changed in the past six years.  Study abroad programs, like any quality informal or formal education, should be as much about self-discovery and self-knowledge as about mastering some set of relevant facts and skills.  Given my decision to make sub-Saharan Africa my regional focus within my Comparative and Regional Studies course of study, there is always a temptation to pretend to “master” the “subject” of “Africa.”  Rather than adopt that flawed approach, I will hopefully always be learning and listening as I move through life and become more aware of the realities of the world around me and the people I share it with.  That process includes listening to myself as I process my feelings, thoughts, and experiences.  As I have gone through my first week here and had the joy of getting to know the amazing group of colleagues I am blessed to be here with, I have continued to remember and reflect on how I have changed in the past six years, where I have grown and where I have perhaps lost a bit of myself, how my faith and my ideals have shifted in some ways and remained constant in others, how conscious I am of my own shortcomings but occasionally also of who I am becoming.

Although I would not have said this six years ago, the friendships built and the self-knowledge received during my previous time studying abroad in Cape Town impacted me as much as the important and fascinating knowledge I have gained about South Africa.  I look forward to the remainder of my time here and all that I will learn.

[A note on photos, or my lack thereof: On my flight to Johannesburg from Washington, DC, I watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  In this movie, reclusive photojournalist Sean O’Connell explains to Walter why he sometimes doesn’t take photographs of compelling scenes:
 If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don't like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.
That approach really resonated with me, perhaps a way to justify my own failure to take many pictures, and probably explains why pretty much the only photos I have so far are from our game park safari last weekend, an experience completely different from my experiences in Cape Town. Hopefully, I’ll pull myself out of the moment just long enough to take a few quality photos to post next time.]


  1. Thank you, Andy, for your thoughtful and reflective post! And to be honest, I'm a lot like you and Sean O'Connell when it comes to taking photos :)


  2. Nice post Andy! I watched Walter Mitty on my flight to CT, and I completely agree with Sean. Though as for I, I cannot resist taking excessive pictures. Except my excuse is my laptop failed me. I really want to write!