Impressions of Africa: Cameron

Cameron Bess
Cameron Bess

This is a collection of stories that show what our trip to South Africa is like behind the scenes thus far. This collection will focus on the moments between camera shots, moments that make this trip what it is to me: a great way to connect with new and old friends.

~Moment 1~
In the London Heathrow Airport I experienced a culture shock that changed the way I felt about our trip to South Africa. We were not even in South Africa yet and I was already amazed by how many things were different.  Let me paint the scene: I was sitting on the airport bench—drinking my slightly rebranded Mountain Dew—tired from the flight we had just taken. I was attached to a nearby charging pole by a phone, charger cable, and a pair of power adapters. Alex was discussing his stock of pounds and pence in an ambiguous somewhat European accent. In this moment I felt small. We had left our small corner of the world and were now in a culture that would probably overlook the rebranded Mountain Dew, the pence, the power outlets. I felt like a cultural vessel. I brought my culture to London and London’s culture was presented to me, and I made a connection with it. I felt excited. I was excited to make it to South Africa so that I could experience their culture and share it with the people I meet. I was excited to make connections.

Cape Town, Table Mountain
Cape Town, Table Mountain

~Moment 2~
When we arrived in Cape Town, the first place we went was directly to the Kolping Guest House, which is the place we have been sleeping and eating the past few days. When we arrived at Kolping we were split into our rooms and given a time to meet up again. I settled down into my room and proceeded to check social media like most teenagers do in their free time. Suddenly my attention was brought to the sliding glass door that leads into the room I was staying in as Alex walked in without saying a word. He just stood there looking around awkwardly until I said, “So we are in Cape Town” to which he responded “Ya” followed by laughter from both of us brought on by how weird the encounter was as well as the fact that I had that odd moment documented through Snapchat video.
The more I think back to it, the more important I realize that this moment was. It was the first moment that really showed me that this trip was not as serious as I had previously imagined. While it is structured and we have serious interviews, the trip has so much more to offer. It offers great fun and great memories that I don’t think I would have made otherwise.

Cape Town Waterfront
Cape Town Waterfront

~Moment 3~
On the wharf in Cape Town we were standing waiting for our interview with Thulani and everything felt weirdly euphoric. I had a sense of awe watching the rotary bridge change colors over the water. I felt joy in that moment as we all had fun and took pictures. Nothing about the moment felt seriously formal. We were just having fun as a group, just like with Alex from the Snapchat video.

~Moment 4~
Music filled the auditorium in the LEAP School of Science and Maths as we danced with the other students. Their percussion had me in awe and the way that it connected our cultures in dance was truly inspiring. It made me forget about the hardships we had just previously witnessed in the Langa township. The township made me realize a harsh irony in everything that we had experienced so far. I had cherished the happy moments and discounted everything serious, yet there is a beauty in seriousness. Without going to Langa, I would never have gotten the insight required to truly connect with the kids at LEAP. Once the connection was made, I felt like I understood them on a much deeper level, and I felt like I had come to a wider understanding of who they were, which made interacting with them so much more raw and enriching.

At LEAP School
At LEAP School

~Moment 5~
Alex and I were assigned to work on Philani spreadsheets during our volunteer hours there. Our job was to enter the dates that the employees working at Philani had missed, so that they can be paid properly. We had to make light of the tedium in order to keep ourselves from going insane; we made jokes and made fun at each other’s horrid pronunciation of South African names. Amid the light we made of the situation dark seemed to spread in. While filing one particular sheet we came across a name we could not match to the company records. I pointed out an entry that had the same first name but not the same last name and suggested, “Hey, what if she got married?” We ended up asking the person overseeing us in the office if that was the case and she confirmed that she indeed had gotten married and changed her last name. Satisfied that I was correct we moved on until later when we met another record with the same name. This time the last names matched as presumably she had been married by the time she filed the second paper but not the first. This paper was recorded one month later as, “Maternity leave.”

Computer work at Philani
Computer work at Philani

The realization of what that meant dawned on me and left me surprised. These are not just names in a spreadsheet; these are people with stories. It turned this silly moment into a very serious one as I once again was reminded not to forget how serious of a place South Africa is. I was just staring at names and numbers on paper and easily dismissing them but this realization of this person’s history brought the words to life and gave them a story, which I could no longer dismiss. In reflection I have done a lot of dismissing.  Early in the year we read Kaffir Boy, a book about a child in the townships of South Africa. I read that book like a homework assignment not realizing the emotion behind every word. Being here in South Africa has shown me that there is emotion in everything, and you need to pick up on it to connect to things on a truly deep level.

  • Tiffany

    Cameron, I love that you remembered these moments, big and small, and took the time to record your thoughts! And your insight on the connection between the LEAP school and the larger reality of the Langa township was incredibly poignant, as was your reflection on the personal lives behind the names and numbers on the paperwork. You are thinking like a historian, sifting through the documents and piecing together the stories behind them. 🙂