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MIT student blogger Afeefah K. '21

8,726,400 SOS: When in South Africa by Afeefah K. '21

guest post by a fellow '21

*written by a ’21 as a part of the 8,726,400 Seconds of Summer guest post series*

For as long as I can remember I have wanted to travel the world. I remember the days when my mom would ask 7-year-old me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I would tell her about my plans to traverse the world and help people with the amazing, affordable medical technology I would design. Flash forward 11 years and not much has changed, I still want to travel the world but am now thinking of pursuing medical school. As soon as I realized I would be coming to MIT I began to delve deeper into the possible opportunities a program like MISTI could offer. Being a hopeful Course 10Eng-Biomedical and without fluency in any other language besides English I turned to one of the better suited places to do biology and chemistry research: South Africa. After emailing a couple of professors and departments at Wits University and the University of Cape Town I found a position at the Center of Biomedical TB Research at Wits University. I was thrilled, here would be my first chance to learn in an environment completely foreign to me and see how well I could do.

I arrived at 11:52 AM on June 9th, a cool but sunny day in Johannesburg. I took an uber to my Airbnb and after meeting my host and getting the run down on where I would be staying I slept for 11 hours (Jetlag is no joke). I woke up starving and freezing in a surprisingly cold South African winter and thought to myself how I, a Texan, was going to survive another winter after just barely surviving Boston’s. However, after that initial day, things began to look better almost immediately. I had gotten there a week early and spent the time exploring different parts of Johanessburg. The first day I made my way to the Apartheid Museum and after receiving my ticket granting me white privilege I got to read about the stories and struggles of people during the very recent Apartheid period. I had known about the History of South Africa but somehow sitting there and reading about it and comparing what I learned to the demographics of the country I was seeing for the first time; the history became all too real. The next day I ventured to Constitution Hill in one of the more dangerous parts of downtown Johannesburg, where I got to see the old jail cells in the city as well as the new courthouse and learn about some of the legislature that was being put in place to mend a post apartheid country. I also visited places like the Rose Bank mall, easily rivaling the Cambridge-side Galleria in size and extravagance or the Johannesburg Zoo. Even that early on in my trip I could see clear distinctions in the variety of places I was going and the types of people I could expect to see there and it was slightly disturbing how close what many write off as “history” managed to be.

My first week of work rolled around. A typical day found me up around 7:30, arriving at work around 8:45 and getting home around 5. In that first week alone I learned so much, mostly because this was my first time working in a bio lab so I knew very little in practice to begin with. However, beyond learning how to run an agarose gel and set up a PCR reaction I learned about the diversity of the country I was staying in. I caught a glimpse of it in my tour guide at Constitution Hill, a man who spoke 10 languages in a country of 11 official languages, and I continued to see that diversity everywhere I went. One thing I have really loved about my lab is the fairly even spread of different types of South Africans I have encountered. Black, white, Indian, colored, Tsonga, Zulu, Xhosa. Unlike the divisions I could so clearly see driving from my airbnb on Westcliff Dr. to work on DeKorte St., the lab had a good mix of people. I knew of the diverse and complex history of the country before I arrived and it still managed to take me by surprise. However, I found myself disappointed at how I could still see the remnants of a fierce and bitter discrimination. Obviously these separations were no longer mandated by law and not nearly as complete as they were not so long ago, but the fact of the matter is that they were still there. Maybe it bothered me so much because here I was on the African continent viewing some of the same issues I could see in America, if not worse in some ways. Then I realized I was only really shocked because mine was a plight closer to the black people of South Africa than the Native Americans of the US. I had been taught and conditioned to view the US in a specific way for so long that sometimes I forgot the land never really belonged to white people. On the otherhand, the vast majority of people I was seeing in SA were black so there was no forgetting who had been robbed of their property. At the end of the day SA and the US were shaping up to reveal some of the same issues. I could see it in my sister’s first spotting of a white Uber driver, a month after my arrival, I could see it in the black skin of all the blue collar laborers I encountered, I could see it in the primarily white neighborhood our airbnb was located in, but I saw it most deeply on my visit to Cape Town.

Imagine you arrive in Cape Town at your airbnb in Hout Bay, a fairly upper-class neighborhood. The next day as you’re driving down to the city center you see the beautiful coast to your left and the forested mountains to your right. Magnificent houses line the mountains and the whole scene is just pure beauty. Suddenly a grisly mess of metal and cardboard pops up next to the mansions and neighborhoods lined with 20, 30, 40 golf courses. It is one of the many shanty towns that litter the city of Cape Town. You sit there and you wonder, how can people live in such excess while next door someone lives in a shack? This happens all over the world, and America is no different, but I think in the US there is more of an effort to restrict the poor from making claim to land too close to the wealthy. If they are out of sight and out of mind, then people can continue on with their lives without being bothered to give people who have barely more than nothing a second thought. I found in Cape Town that there was no one stopping people from erecting their shanty towns so that they could be close to opportunities for work, and so the disparity presented itself plain as day to anyone viewing the beauty of a city. As strange as it sounds it was a refreshing sight. Everyone knows that Apartheid is over, just like Slavery ended in the US but just because an expiration date rolls around doesn’t mean the effects of all the actions prior to that date disappear as well. Here I could see that they were not in the business of putting on airs that the effects had disappeared. The country may have finally achieved democracy, but is riddled with dissatisfaction and civil unrest in the wake of Zuma’s dismal reign. These shanty towns serve as constant reminders of the dark history of a nation and will continue to until they find a way to redistribute the wealth, land and opportunity that SA has to offer. They are a constant motivation for the nation to improve and heal until one day they can look out to find that people need not live in those shanty towns anymore. So call me crazy, but the more I looked at these makeshift homes the more I could imagine myself living in South Africa, constantly being reminded to do and be more for the people in this world who have been written off by the mindlessness that is institutionalized discrimination.

Like any country South Africa has its issues, but there was a lot to love about the country and its surrounding countries as well. My trip to the Cape of Good Hope where I got to stand in one spot and view two oceans was breathtaking. The penguins on the beach and the beauty of places like Kerstenbosch Botanical Gardens were all captivating. Viewing District Six and the Bo Kaap, a historically Muslim neighborhood with the most vibrantly colored houses I had ever seen, was interesting to learn about and walk through. Kruger National Park presented a chance to see some of the beautiful terrain of South Africa as well as the famous Big 5 and infamous Ugly 5. Elephants, lions, cheetahs, giraffes (MY FAV ), impala so abundant that we ended up eating it for dinner one evening. Then there was the experience of a monkey actually stealing my banana at a rest stop! Most memorable of all was my trip to Zimbabwe and Zambia where I got to see Mosi-Oa-Tunya (Victoria Falls) in all its splendor both sitting in a pool above the falls and viewing it in the national park across from the falls. I had the chance to walk through the Zimbabwe-Zambia border and white water raft in the Zambezi river despite the fact that I can not swim. I visited Soweto, the largest township in South Africa, and rode to the top of the Orlando towers to watch people bungee jump, thinking to myself maybe next time I would be one of them. Almost everywhere I went, a ridiculous smile was stuck on my face and a laugh tickled the back of my throat because I couldn’t believe what my eyes were seeing!!! I could not comprehend the privilege that was finally allowing me to see more of the world. I had only ever been to Nigeria outside of the US and even then it had always been about visiting my huge family which often takes weeks. To be traveling without family and with no other goal than to experience as much as possible with the funds and time I was given was liberating and its an experience I would repeat without a second thought.

Regardless of where you are in life, whether you’re committed or just trying to decide where you want to apply for college in the years to come, consider MISTI as a major advantage MIT has to offer. Not all schools have such ample opportunity for you to travel and learn, all expenses paid, outside of studying abroad. This is a chance for you to essentially visit anywhere in the world for free, while getting to gain experience in your potential field of research or work from a perspective you never could have imagined on your own. From what I have gathered during my year at MIT, college is all about expanding your world through the people and experiences you encounter and MISTI offers that and so much more! How much do you want to get out of these 4 or so years of your life? Are you the type of person who wants to explore the world? And most importantly how much are you willing to expand your horizons? These are all questions you should consider as you browse through what a potential school has to offer you so you can maximize on your personal growth. My advice to you as you near this time in your life, when people are still expecting you to make some mistakes and learn from them, is to find all the best ways to take advantage of it! And MISTI is most definetly one of those ways.