SA Journal 2: Overviews from a Mountaintop

I visited Johannesburg for a couple of weeks in 2014, so this is not my first time in the “Rainbow Nation.” It is, however, my first time in Cape Town, which feels like a significantly different place. My memory might not be serving me to excellently, but Joburg felt to me like an African city with an unusual proportion of high-rise buildings, and very, very cold weather. (I visited in southern hemisphere winter.) By contrast, Cape Tows feels, in many ways, like colonialism. I know that’s a strong statement. (Maybe.) Allow me to explain, through my overview of the city and my first impressions.

Cape Town is a city carved out of mountains, and in many places, it is visually stunning. Seeing the city from balconies, or from the top of Table Mountain, might leave you breathless. (Another not-so-great thing that takes my breath away is the hilliness of the roads. Since I’ve been here, I feel like I’ve sat in cars that seem to be going uphill way more often than they’re going down. Because of the incline of the streets, I often experience a sudden lurch in my stomach that makes me feel like I’m about to die, when cars almost invariably jerk backwards before they go forward and upwards. Don’t even get me started on what it feels like when a car parks halfway up a hill and I have to get out of it.)

Spider Kid on Table Mountain

In Cape Town, colors are vibrant, views are excellent, and walking nearly everywhere is a massive workout for your lungs and quads. Modern architecture—like apartments, malls and offices—are mixed in with old, European-style architecture like campuses or historic buildings. These contrasts, I think, are most obvious in town. Like, town-town, where things in this city mostly happen. I suppose this is one of the things that makes me feel uncomfortable; it seems as if the city itself isn’t sure what era it wants to be in. When physically bombarded with the landscape, it is not hard to believe that this country has only been democratic for twenty-four years. (In every other circumstance, remembering that fact is like, “Whaaat?!”)

The contrasts don’t end there. I walk down visually stunning, sophisticated streets and boulevards, which I imagine only rich people could possibly live on… and these streets smell very powerfully like excrement. Rat carcasses are not an unusual sight either. In the most affluent parts of the city that I’ve been to, I feel like I see a homeless person or a beggar every two feet. The gorgeous city garden, where it astounds me that I can find such a large number and variety of plants in a single place, has a huge statue of Cecil John Rhodes right in the middle of it. Do you understand? It feels like colonialism.

View from a balcony at the V&A Waterfront

Now that I temporarily live here, I can confidently say that Cape Town is not the place you should set as your destination if you’re someone trying to “experience Africa” for the first time. Or second time. Or third. A surprising number of Americans on the same study abroad program as I am, gave this as their reason for choosing to come here. Unsurprisingly, one of the most frequent complaints I’ve heard from them is, “There’s no African food!” I hear these things and laugh, but in a sense, it’s not that amusing. Cape Town is tailored for tourists. Only the cute, commodified parts of Africa exist here. (By “here,” I mean, of course, the places Cape Town wants tourists to see, not the townships or areas where large concentrations of Africans live.) I’m talking about gift-shop-type parts of Africa, like elephant earrings, or tote bags with Africa’s outline on it. Restaurants? They’ve got American, Italian, Thai, Chinese, Indian, Dutch—take your pick, tourist, to soothe your taste buds of wherever you lived before you came to Africa. African food? *in T’Challa’s voice* We don’t do that here.

I haven’t experienced many African cities, but if I had to be in a touristy place, I’d much rather have it looking like Osu’s Oxford Street than most of Cape Town.

City garden on a stunningly clear day, with a view of Table Mountain

On to lighter stuff.

A few random quirks I’ve noticed: the expression “this side,” which is probably going to find its way into my own vocabulary very soon. It means “here”; there’s hardly ever a literal “side” of anything that is being referred to. I used to be hella confused every time someone told me to “Come this side.” Now that I understand it means “Come here,” using the phrase often helps me appear to have assimilated, which in turn helps me avoid having the boring, repetitive conversation that starts with, “I can tell you’re not from here.” (My first week here, I swear I was just walking, and some South African bro approached me with those exact words on his lips. I refuse to accept that I simply walk like a non-South African. I’m going to assume it was my TwoCedi backpack that gave me away.)

Another quirk is the expression “just now,” sometimes “now-now.” As in Ghana, they don’t give any real indication of what time a thing is going to happen. If someone tells me they’re going to do something “just now,” I don’t even know how long I’ll be waiting.

A third quirk is also easy for me to understand because I know “chale.” Let me illustrate: “Hi / Catch you later / I agree / Thanks, bro / That’s a good idea / Yeah, I’m down for that” = “Aweh / Aweh / Aweh / Aweh / Aweh / Aweh” and so on. It’s really funny, and I also think it’s really cool. =)

Summary: My first impression of Cape Town is that it is strange, uncomfortable, and full of contradictions. It feels like a piece of the continent that went through something incredibly unique, even within the context of Africa’s “peculiar” history.


SA Journal 1: Moving for the Moon

I almost died last semester. You may think I am exaggerating, but my body, mind and memory completely disagree. I wish I could go into detail about why, but for one thing, if you’ve been following my life for the past six years, you probably know the basic reasons already; furthermore, words can’t seem to do anything justice. I have tried and failed to explain what goes on in my head. It’s okay. Let’s leave it. Some things don’t translate.

The over-arching reason I decided to spend a semester in Cape Town is to avoid a repetition of the near-death experience. To break it down further, I moved to Cape Town for two reasons. The first is that this is where my best friend is. Sometimes, he is the only sanity I can hold on to when my world is on fire. He has the power to make me want to tolerate existence just a little while longer. He is my Moon, occasionally the only reflection of light in the midst of the dark night that is my life. When we are separated by continents, not being able to run to him when I literally feel like I cannot breathe is an experience I never want to have to deal with again.

The second reason is that I was/am dead tired of America(ns). This one is a compound problem that I’m not sure I’m currently able to coherently articulate. I suspect the explanation will come out in snippets, in different pieces of writing over the next few years… or over the rest of my life. Suffice it to say, both inside and outside of classrooms (but especially inside) back in California, I was on the verge of screaming at someone nearly every single day.

The sub-reason of the second reason is that I didn’t think the region of the world I was in was doing my experience of my major (Africana Studies) justice. The Americanness of it all was too greatly obscuring the Africanness—which is what I am most interested in—and so I figured one way to attack the problem was to return to the continent. In many ways, I can say, now that I have spent more than a month at the University of Cape Town, that I am being proved right. It’s a bit satisfying. (But don’t think for a second that school has ceased to make me deadass miserable, or that I hate it any less than I ever have. Again, a topic for another post. Hopefully, it will come soon.)

Of course, my anxiety had to make an appearance, for absolutely no reason, on my first night in Cape Town. My best friend picked me up from the airport, and I was absolutely overjoyed to see him for the first time in over half a year. Why wouldn’t I be? I switched countries partially because of him.

We went back to his house and had a sleepover-ish thing, featuring Chinese take-away and a couple of movies. Although we went to bed past midnight, and jetlag did not apply to me in the transition from Ghana to South Africa, I still found myself awake between the hours of 3 and 5 a.m., staring at the ceiling, tossing and turning, failing to convince my fast-beating heart that I was not in a legitimate panic-inducing situation. I felt lost, confused, and angry at myself, possibly for the “stupidity” of my decision to switch countries on no solid grounds. Luckily, this was one of the more irrational attacks, because since then, I have experienced intense joy, worn smiles I thought my face had forgotten how to form, and remembered what overwhelming love feels like when it’s burning in my chest.


(If you are worried, like I am, that my love for my best friend might just kill me, please send help. And sense, so that I leave him. Because he is very stupid, and so am I for loving him. This is not a joke. Thanks in advance.)

The view from Tro’s house, which is not done even 20% justice by a bloody phone camera. =(