This summer, Ph.D./MSW student Sara Pilgreen shares postcards from Johannesburg, where she is living and working.
Week 1- Johannesburg, South Africa.
I finally arrived after 20 hours flying (5 hour flight from the west coast to NYC, followed by a 15 hour direct flight from NYC to Jo’burg) plus a +9 hour time change. Customs was a breeze, so much so that I was not sure if I had actually passed through (there was not even a person to stop and ask if one had anything to declare). I did not need any information at all at passport control -- only that I would be leaving the country within 90 days. After picking up my huge bag (75 pounds!) I walked through the sliding doors and immediately saw my South African welcoming committee -- Stephen and his fiancée Charlene. Stephen Narsoo is an alumnus of the UCLA Luskin Urban Planning Department and a South African citizen. He works in the government in Johannesburg and has been the main contact for me in facilitating this internship.
After leaving the airport we drove back to Stephen and Charlene’s house. The ride took a little getting used to as Stephen drove on the opposite side, drove a manual transmission shifting with his left hand. Even though I knew all of that, the intersections still had me gripping the door handle! We went to their cute 2-story house with amazing views of Johannesburg in the Kensington neighborhood and had breakfast. Later that day I finally crashed out, sleeping for 6 hours straight. That night Stephen and Charlene brought me over to meet Sam and Nadine, with whom I'll be staying during my visit. Charlene has known Sam for over 40 years, both having grown up in the township of Lenasia -- or “Lens” as the locals refer to it.
Sam is quite the woman. Spiked bleached hair, she was wearing knee-high black boots, torn nylons, long black shorts and a glittery black and white top on the night that I met her. She works at the local University of Witwatersrand. Her daughter is 25 and lives with her while her son is almost 30 and lives with his partner. We had a great dinner (Charlene and Stephen are both cooks); I mean the food was incredible. We topped it off with some local South African wine and great conversations.
One thing that is very different here is the topic of race. Even post-apartheid everyone seems to prefer to refer to one another into one of the four categories: Black, White, Coloured, or Indian/Asian. We have had some great discussions about this as Sam, whom I originally miscategorized as black, is actually Coloured in the eyes of South Africans. Nadine, her daughter, is Indian. And Barack Obama is Coloured as well; they still can’t understand why we Americans think that we have a Black president.
After dinner one of Nadine’s best friends came over with her boyfriend. Copi, her best friend, is considered Black and her boyfriend is Black-Zulu from Durban. We had quite the night. They had numerous questions for me, mostly surrounding American pop culture. (“Well surely you have finished Gossip Girl season 5, eh?” Me: “Um, no actually I have only seen a few episodes here and there.” Nadine & Co: “See, that is amazing, American TV, you guys really do have hundreds of channels don’t you?”) And the standard questions of 9/11. They all recalled exactly where they were and what they were doing when they found out about it. By the end of the night I was beginning to question my own pronunciation of words. South Africans have so many differing accents that it took me a day or two of intense listening to really follow along in conversations. Especially those had with Nadine and with her friends with the amount of slang that they use.
My new place of residence is in the Bedford View area. It is a wonderful suburb, very safe, and there is a huge shopping mall literally across the street from the apartment complex. I have found the South African versions of Trader Joe's and Whole Foods and even started a gym membership. It is winter here and it is cold. Not so much that it is literally freezing but the wind is strong and there is no central heating anywhere, which makes for the need of heavy jackets and long pants especially in the mornings and at night. This weekend I will be taking a city tour of Johannesburg with Stephen on Saturday and then heading to the townships of Lenasia and Soweto on Sunday. On Monday I will begin work at the Department of Health and Social Services.
More updates soon to come!