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Notes from Abroad

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I have been in Cape Town for only a week, but I have already begun to fall in love with the city. Even the “commercialized” beauty of the scenic beaches and expansive Table Mountain is more awe-inspiring than it looks in the tourist brochures. Yet for me, the most beautiful part of Cape Town is its rich culture.

During the apartheid era South Africans were divided into 18 different ethnic categories, and each of these ethnic groups has its own story to tell about the time period. Our tour guide demonstrated this phenomenon when she passionately described how her family was evicted from its District 6 home for being “colored.” Her nostalgia for her home was apparent as she recalled the displacement that many families experienced. The District 6 museum itself contains pictures of her family and friends, a testimony to her past suffering and a documentation of this era in history.

Our tour guide also took us to Bo Caap, a predominantly Muslim community. All the houses were painted in bright, pastel colors, apparently imitating the Malaysian style and perfectly reflecting the vibrancy of the tight-knit neighborhood. I was amazed by the cohesiveness of the community but dismayed to find out that this was one of the few communities to remain that way. Our orientation at the University of Cape Town showed us a completely different world, one that from the periphery at least seems comparable to the Stanford bubble. I was most struck by the diversity and elegant dress of the students.

I have often been warned not to enter this country with the expectation of “changing the world,” a mentality that causes resentment among the locals. Yet, after seeing people on the streets and driving by the poorer townships, I cannot help but be struck by the inequalities here and hope to have some small impact.

While I have thoroughly enjoyed exploring the city, I am most looking forward to working with Clothing Bank,

(M.J MA/The Stanford Daily)

a service organization that helps teach women to run small businesses. Our program coordinator advised us not to eat lunch in front of people at the service organization because some of them may not know when their next meal will be.

It was then that the shortcomings of the program struck me–we hope to help the marginalized communities while we have comfortable accommodations and complain about limited Internet bandwidth.

The struggle of identity and our role here is one we will all have to grapple with throughout this quarter. Ultimately though, these questions may become what drives us to act.

-Shilpa Sethuraman