Whoever said NGOs are laid back was sadly mistaken. Over the past two months working at the Black Sash, who’s slogan is ‘Making Human Rights Real’, I’ve come to realize that actually making those human rights real can be quite exhausting. I came to the Black Sash expecting to make copies, file papers, and go on coffee runs. Once again, along with the rest of this trip, my expectations were far from reality.

The first day we arrived we were greeted by our intern adviser, Sarah Nicklin. Sarah is the media specialist for the Black Sash, and is definitely a ‘go-getter’ who seems to simply have an appetite for life. She is one of those people you meet in life that you will never forget. Thrilled to have us for two months, Sarah made us all feel extremely welcome at the Sash. As she introduced the project we would be working on,  we were never limited to any strict set of guidelines, but were encouraged to make this project our own. We were told that we would be making learning materials to help teach high school students about the South African Bill of Rights. Not only would we be doing research on the bill of rights, but some of the work we would produce would be going out to 26,000 schools in South Africa. Sounds easy enough, right? Wrong.

There were several challenges that we encountered while working on this immense project. The first one was getting over the challenge of working with two interns from Duke University. Despite the Christian Laettner last-second jump shot in the 1992 NCAA East Regional Final, we were able to put our basketball differences aside and adapt to each other’s work habits. After figuring out where one another’s strengths and weakness were, we began to tackle the next challenge.

The next hurdle we had to climb was the learning gap from simply being in another country. Most Americans could barely tell you exactly what the U.S. Bill of Rights exactly meant with regards to human rights, let alone be able to completely grasp the South African Bill of Rights. The S.A. Bill of Rights contains 33 rights and encompasses just about every aspect of human rights that you could think of. It makes the 10 rights in our Bill of Rights seem even more vague than they already are.

One of the biggest challenges we faced after doing an incredible amount of research was how to present our materials to an audience that might not speak English as their first language. This was tricky because none of us have had much exposure to people who don’t claim English as their native tongue (other than at a Mexican restaurant). Not only did we have these roadblocks to get over, but we only had eight weeks to adapt to each challenge and produce a tangible product.

I never thought that two short months ago I would be as stressed to get a project done for an unpaid internship than during finals week. The people at the Sash, and at most NGOs we’ve been introduced to are a unique group of people. Every person I’ve worked to has their own story and reason for working with human rights. And many of them put in way more hours than they are getting paid for, let alone any credit. It seems like it would be exhausting working for an NGO, especially when you are operating on a year-to-year budget based on what funding you are able to get that year.

Nevertheless, every expectation I had about working at the Black Sash was turned completely upside down. I feel like I just had an intense eight-week crash course in what it’s like working for an NGO. Let me tell you, it is not just a bunch of ladies sipping tea and doing charity work. It is a well-oiled machine that is does not quit. I have grown more these past two months  and have learned more about myself than in the last three years of college. First of all, I’ve learned that I have terrible work skills, thanks to college and too many all-nighters to count. The second thing I’ve learned on this trip is that everything is not going to work out the way you want it to, or even just the way it’s supposed to. The thing is that not everything in life, whether it is work, school, or relationships, is always going to work out. Sometimes you just have to take life with a grain of salt.

While stressful at times, it has been an extremely rewarding experience to work with the Black Sash and all the friendly people there. It has definitely opened my eyes up to see aspects of life, like my human rights, that many of us take for granted every single day. Even knowing that my work may help someone even long down the road makes the entire experience worth getting over those challenges.

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While my time here in Cape Town is almost over, it occurs to me that I haven’t blogged about my internship yet. I guess I probably should before those of you at home think I spent my time in Africa living in a hut helping HIV positive children. While my internship is not as glorious as that, the work I am doing here is very important for human rights education and advocacy in South Africa.

When telling people I would be working in South Africa, it dawned on me that the only knowledge people knew of this amazing country was from what they had seen on Disney’s movie ‘The Color of Friendship’, the romanticized images of Africa played time and time again during last year’s World Cup, and the brief images shown on ABC’s hit show ‘The Bachelor’.

Before I left, I was asked all sorts of questions and was given all sorts of advice. I was asked if I would have electricity and running water. I was asked if I had to get any AIDS vaccinations. I was asked if I would be provided with, or if I had to take my own mosquito nets. I was told not to drink the tap water. And my favorite piece of advice, drumroll please, was to watch out for the kangaroos (I could not make that up if I tried). While most people did have a good grasp of what South Africa was like, it was pretty funny to hear all the misconceptions of this developing country.

I do have to admit though, that when I thought of anyone interning or volunteering anywhere in Africa, I immediately thought of living in a third-world country helping administer vaccinations or bringing clean water to a village. Instead, I have found myself working in the national headquarters of one of South Africa’s leading human right’s advocacy groups, The Black Sash. And as a sidenote, I am not living in a hut in a village, I am living with 8 other UK students in a lodge in a very trendy part of town.

So I guess I’m not roughing it, but that doesn’t mean that the work I am doing has any less importance or value to help give this country an extra lift into the first world. The Black Sash, along with many other NGOs around the world, cannot always afford to have students from overseas come, and I quote, “do a cute little internship in Africa for a few weeks and then leave.” This internship is different in that I am not doing typical, mindless internship duties like faxing, copying, or shredding paper. Instead, I have been assigned with three other students to work on a project that otherwise the Black Sash would not have the time or the funding to work on.

The South African Department of Education has begun to implement new standards of teaching high schoolers about what human rights are. For a country that is just over a decade removed from Apartheid, this is a major move forward. MacMillan textbooks called on the Black Sash to create usable teaching materials that will be used to educate students about human rights. The three other interns and myself have been researching the South African Bill of Rights for the past eight weeks, helping to ‘simplify’ the rights and create teaching materials for South African high school students. When I first heard the task at hand, I couldn’t fully grasp it. But as we have done research, research, and even more research, the magnitude of what we are doing is incredible.

While MacMillan textbooks will most likely edit, cut down, and rewrite the work that we have done to a point where it is almost unrecognizable, it is amazing to think that I have been a part of this pivotal time in South Africa’s education system. After all, the only way to fight for and protect your human rights is to know what they are in the first place. And while I am not fighting AIDS in a remote village, I am doing something just as important by giving a small contribution to help educate a nation.

After being in Cape Town for just short of two months, I have now become a firm believer in the phrase: “The only two things you can count on in life are death and taxes.” As discouraging as that may sound, I say this simply because I have learned that the best way to go about life in a foreign place is to expect the unexpected… at all times. I was actually told to expect the unexpected before I even got here, but it’s hard to prepare yourself for what that ‘unexpected’ may be.

The biggest ‘unexpected’ that we’ve had to get used to is that the customer is NOT always right here. At home, we are used to getting our way when it comes to customer service. Not that there is anything wrong with that, nor do I wish for the level of customer service at home to suffer in any way, but to put it mildly, Americans are spoiled. We receive free refills without asking, custom orders, separate checks, and when that fails, we complain to the management and usually get a free meal out of the ordeal when we determine that the service is not up to our standards.

The lack of customer service here and the awful, sometimes atrocious, wait service was at first frustrating. Now it has become quite comical. It has almost become a game of one-upping one another to see who’s waitress or overall experience was worse. We seem to annoy the waitresses when our entire table asks for just a glass of water in order to avoid the ridiculously overpriced single can of coke they are offering. Sometimes I even find myself feeling bad for imposing on them or becoming a burden when I ask them to bring the silverware that they forgot in the first place.

While the customer service may, for lack of a more appropriate word, suck, the people of South Africa are among the most friendly and hospitable people I have ever met. Every morning at work everyone is genuinely happy to see and greet one another. A trip to grab just a cup of coffee oftentimes turns into a thirty minute conversation about what you did that weekend. This level of friendliness has been one of the ‘unexpecteds’ that seems to more than make up for crummy service.

In America, everyone gets on with their business usually without so much as a wave hello, let alone any genuine inquiry into one another’s life. Whether I am explaining to someone here about how big Kentucky basketball is or that we do actually eat other things than KFC, I feel as if people are truly interested in what I have to say. They don’t just nod their heads while slowly backing out of a conversation. When they ask you how you are, they truly mean it (or they just do a heck of a better job of it here).

There has been plenty more ‘unexpecteds’ here that as of late we just shrug our shoulders and call them ‘learning experiences’. This entire trip has been full of these said learning experiences, but I found the difference between the crummy customer service to the comforting hospitality to be as different as night and day. Not that I didn’t expect South Africans to be friendly in nature, but it is a comforting change of pace to consistently be embraced with a smile and the phrase ‘cheers’. I may miss this constant hospitality more than the place itself. Until then, cheers.

Struggling with what to talk about for this week’s blog, in celebration of the Fourth of July weekend I’ve decided to talk about what I know best: life in America. After being here for six weeks, I’ve gotten over the initial culture shock of being in an entirely different continent. When our group first arrived, we looked hard for anything and everything that was different or authentic to Africa and either complained about it or adapted to it. Yes, it was weird getting used to seeing cars drive on the left side of the road, but the longer I stay here the more I realize that this country isn’t as foreign as I expected it to be. In all honesty, it seems like many of the restaurants, shops, and even people are striving to obtain a westernized culture similar to the American way of life.

This is going to sound like I am being an ‘arrogant American’, but everywhere I go there is always something symbolic of America and the western world. Maybe it’s the Coca-Cola signs everywhere we go, the KFC’s on every corner, the Grease Soundtrack playing at the local bar, the taxi driver obsessed with our American driver’s licenses, or even the ‘Obama Burger’ topped with Slim-Jims at the Tex-Mex restaurant by where I work. Perhaps four years ago it wasn’t very fashionable to claim you were from America (and for good reasons), but anywhere we go and mention we are from the States, we are treated like celebrities.

Locals and even other foreign visitors are fascinated with American sports, music, politics, and even Budweiser. American pop culture has not just shaped America, but it has transformed the world.It has not only provided an outlet for entertainment and enjoyment, but it has also given people hope. I read an article the other day in the Miami Herald about a South African NGO called Hoops 4 Hope that is teaching kids in the townships how to play basketball. The program is offering the kids “leadership training, gender relations, HIV awareness, and ways to cope with crime and violence in their neighborhoods”. I never would have considered basketball an ‘exotic’ sport, but to a culture raised on soccer, rugby, and cricket, to them, basketball represents America. “They want to be playing basketball first, because it’s cool. People who play basketball here think it’s a trend because it’s linked to hip-hop, it’s fashion, and it’s linked to the U.S.A.” That last part of the quote, ‘it’s linked to the U.S.A.’ represents the moral responsibility that America has to the rest of the world. Whether they want to admit it or not, the rest of the world watches what we do and oftentimes tries to imitate it. For impressionable countries like South Africa, it is important for us to serve as an example of what hard work and determination can bring to a country. America’s success story from rags to riches is one of hope that many people, no matter how desolate their situation, can latch on to.

The other day I was thinking about what my favorite holidays were. The two at the top of my list were the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving.  They are my favorite holidays because they are not linked to any religion, you don’t have to buy gifts, and you don’t have to pass out candy to any kids wearing ridiculous costumes. You just simply show up, celebrate American traditions, and enjoy good food and good company. While I thought it would be absolutely unbearable to celebrate the Fourth of July in any other country but America, come Monday, I will proudly be sporting my red, white, and blue while enjoying the good food and good company of Cape Town.

Link for the article about Hoops 4 Hope:

http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/06/27/2286497/south-africa-courts-a-new-sport.html

In the month that I’ve lived in South Africa, I’ve noticed one thing that affects everyone here regardless of race, gender, social status, or nationality. That one thing that unites not only every South African citizen, but occurs everywhere, is crime. One usually thinks of something that unites people as good things like religion, food, sports, beer, and so on. However, crime is something that really seems to have taken a toll on the South African community in general and has almost become a way of life.

In a country where it has been reported that there are upwards of 50 murders a day and just under 3 million total criminal offenses committed each year (http://www.nationmaster.com/country/sf-south-africa/cri-crime), it is no wonder that this is a nation that has bought into a lifestyle of fear. A country that was portrayed during the 2010 World Cup as a promising nation full of prosperity and growth is fighting an uphill battle against an untamed beast. South Africa is consistently in the top-tier of nations worldwide when it comes to violent crimes, muggings, drug offenses, sex crimes, and murders. Looking back on it, it’s amazing that FIFA even managed to transform this place into an ideal tourist destination for the short time the games lasted. While especially the city of Cape Town has benefited from improvements in infrastructure, from the sounds of it, crime is still at an all time high.

It is extremely common to meet someone here who either knows someone personally who has been mugged or they themselves have been mugged (and sometimes more than once). I myself was a witness to the most well-executed (albeit the only) train theft I have ever seen. You’d think the planning, time, patience, and teamwork it takes two guys to steal a man’s briefcase would be better spent somewhere else. Yes, crime does affect all of us at home in the states in some capacity. Here, you can see and feel the fear that people have when it comes to crime. There are gates with live wire and barbed wire keeping burglars out everywhere you go and people are always keeping a tight clutch onto their belongings. It begins to get exhausting after a while not being able to let your guard down and just enjoy walking down the street in broad daylight.

The cause of all the crime here is definitely in the eye of the beholder. Some claim it is a consequence from ending Apartheid, some place blame on race, reverse racism, drugs, alcohol abuse, and lack of education. Personally, I think most crime worldwide is due to lack of education, but regardless of the root of the problem, it seems like the South African authorities are doing almost nothing to stop nor hinder it. It’s no wonder that people live in fear here when you’ve got a country that notoriously under-reports crime and very little is done about crime when you do report it. It is almost more convenient to count your losses after your camera is stolen (which has happened to our group) than to even go and report it. There is very little police presence and an even smaller amount of enforcement. Until the leaders of this country see crime as a legitimate problem, the people of this nation will still be living in fear, and rightfully so.

Our group was recently asked by our teacher what the answer was to solving South Africa’s problems. While the question indeed was rhetorical, it is a very thought-provoking question that has changed the way I’ve been looking at things in South Africa. We were asked this question after discussing what the implications of Wal-Mart coming to South Africa will be. We discussed the positive and negatives that come with Wal-Mart and capitalism in general. While I am very much in favor of capitalism, globalization, and participating in the international political economy, the question of whether or not bringing Wal-Mart to South Africa is a good or bad thing is a tricky problem to tackle. While I’m not the biggest fan of Wal-Mart’s practices and the effects it has at home, I do think that South Africa will benefit from a company that can sell products at a cheaper price and give more jobs with formal training to the community. Whether or not Wal-Mart or the South African Constitution will budge first on its position on allowing unions (the constitution guarantees all the right to join a union, Wal Mart is infamously anti-union) is something that I think only time will tell.

While touring the townships of Khayelitsha and Gugulethu the other day, we stopped at various NGOs in the area that were essentially working from the ground up to improve the community and its members. While at the ‘Learn to Earn’ program, I thought they’re motto pretty much spelled out what the answer was to solving the problems of South Africa. Their slogan was ‘A Hand Up, Not a Hand Out’.  Members of the township pay a small fee to come to the center and take classes that teach them how to sew, graphic design, how to cook, etc. and then build the skills to take their knowledge and either attend a more formal school or begin to work. While this was the slogan of the Learn to Earn program, many of the other stops on our tour offered the same kind of help to the townships. Whether it was teaching people who were HIV positive how to make crafts they can sell, or setting up a place for children to ride bikes and compete after school, one by one each NGO was literally giving a hand up to its members.

After seeing these remarkable programs and meeting incredible people who started something out of nothing, it was easy to see that South Africa doesn’t need any hand outs from the rest of the world. They don’t need our extra gym shoes or our used books to further their community; they need a way to lift themselves out of the third world. In an earlier post I mentioned that South Africa was a ‘one and half world country’, meaning that they are on the tipping point of being a first world country. It has made me reconsider my answer to what will solve South Africa’s poverty. It’s not a concrete answer, but what South Africa needs is not physical ‘things’.  I think the people of the townships have realized it before the rest of the country, but if they are going to join the first world, they are going to have to do it themselves so that they can create a sustainable economy and a working middle class. This is not a nation that needs to be pitied or given hand outs from the rest of the world. Instead, this is a nation fully capable of success that needs the support and confidence from the rest of the global community. For South Africa to prosper as other nations have, they need hands up, not hand outs.

I’ve completed my third week in Cape Town, and the feelings of homesickness have pretty much faded away. Not that I don’t miss the amenities and comforts at home, namely, free refills, good wait service, fresh-brewed coffee, and real Heinz 57 ketchup, but I’m getting used to it and adapting to what I do have. For a lot of this trip, our group has focused on the differences between Cape Town and the States and the difficulties we’ve met so far like learning to walk on the left side and that you have to pay for grocery bags. However, I’m beginning to embrace these differences, and this week, one difference really stuck with me.

While my internship and my class that I’m taking while here are supposed to be learning experiences, I’ve found that the most ‘learning’ I’ve actually done so far has been while interacting with the locals. In general, most people are very interested in why we’ve chosen South Africa out of all the places in the world, and also what we are doing. When they hear that we are volunteering with different NGO’s during our 8-week trip, many are shocked. They almost can’t believe that nine college kids would want to spend their summer volunteering instead of at the pool. We were almost able to bring a grown man to tears as he asked what kind of work we were doing. One by one he was getting even more impressed that we were over here not just working, but doing it for free.

As I spoke with a person from London that was equally impressed with the work we were doing she said something interesting. She told me that back home in Europe, and even here in Cape Town, people go to school strictly for education. They find an interest, take classes, then come out with a degree that let’s the world know they’ve mastered something like French literature or post-Renaissance architecture. Then she commented on American students in that we go to college looking for more than just a certificate that we’ve mastered one subject. She continued that American students go to school not seeking just an education, but an experience.

Many people think we are absolutely crazy to be working here for 8 weeks for free. I’ve refrained from saying that this is how you go about getting a good job in America after college, but it actually made me think about why I am here. From what I’ve gathered, people here don’t just have the time or the funds to just travel somewhere to volunteer their time. It’s not because they don’t want to, but they have to work every day just to make ends meet. They would be considered crazy to take even a week off to volunteer or a few months to intern somewhere. It has made me realize how lucky I am to be a student in the United States where I can get a complete experience by taking a mix of classes, see the world, and work to further human rights all at the same time. I’ve always known how fortunate I was to have a roof over my head and not have to worry about where my next meal will come from. I’ve also always known that not everyone receives a good education, if any at all. But what I’ve really come to learn and appreciate out of all this so far is the opportunity I have as an American student to come halfway across the globe to experience the world first-hand instead of just reading about it. Honestly, how many people are lucky enough to say they fought for human rights, climbed a mountain, went to a professional rugby match, and went to the Southwestern tip of Africa all in one weekend?