After eighteen hours of travel, from OR Tambo to Atlanta Georgia, then to Boston, the American dream had finally begun for me. That pounding heart and those sweaty palms, although still present, had dissipated a tad.
The first leg of my voyage started with a week of orientation in Boston. There I met other Fulbright students from all over the world, about sixty of us representing forty-three countries, leading to a remarkable diversity in both thought and culture. What none of us realized until then, was the tremendous obligations bestowed upon us, through this fellowship. Not only to learn, but returning to our homelands to implement our new insights and discoveries.
Something prodigious already struck me in this first week of being in the USA. Something you don’t realize just from watching Hollywood movies or CNN. I noticed stark differences in the mentality of lecturers in the States versus South Africa. In our own context, universities are mainly focused on providing students – those who can afford it, might I add – with the opportunity to get formal education, which may or may not result in getting a job. Our primary focus is not to engage students on a personal level, or for them to know that they too have a role to play in the bigger scheme of things.
We need to ask ourselves how we plan on building a self-sufficient base of individuals who are also driven to make their communities better. Only a few people have the opportunity to engage in “higher” learning, which really should teach us how to achieve a higher purpose. This is vital, as multitudes of our fellow country women and men are suffocating in poverty and the only way out is to work, with the sole purpose of fending for their families. This breaks my heart because we as a society, while drenched in the inequalities of the past, have no vision of making the ubuntu dream come into being. We all strive to better ourselves instead of working collectively to foster social change.
This attitude towards education (basic and higher) appears to be very different in the USA. While having discussions with professors from Suffolk University, I was pleasantly surprised at the number of public schools and universities in Boston. Even more so at these professors’ attitudes toward them. They are pro public and against private tuition. One of professors, who is with child, expressed her desire for her child to be in a public school, a consequence of their reputable high standard and quality of education, but also the possibility of them interacting with children from all walks of life. I was shocked to find out that these schools are free and funded through the taxes paid by the community. Just imagine if that were the case in South Africa!!! The possibilities of the policies laid out post 1994 would be fruitful!
Right now the “South-African dream” seems to be very self-centered: making more money, being wealthy, living in suburbs, at the detriment of others. While all these luxuries may be comfortable, how many children go without even realizing their dreams? We recently heard from Stats SA how 55% of young people are without jobs. While we campaign for them to start their own businesses, are we equipping them with the necessary skills? During my time in Boston I learned of a community outreach program stemming from the university, called Future Chefs. It was created to assist in the development of young people, who will and have become independent and engaged citizens. The passion expressed by the young chefs, products of this program, reverberated amongst us and gave me a different perspective. How do we as South Africa create such opportunities?
Unless we create hope, the future will always seem bleak for our people. We must take it upon ourselves to ensure that we change lives, no matter how small that change may be. While social grants may be good and well, these do not equip people with the skills they need to become better versed in making themselves more productive. Until we change our mindset on how to better people’s lives, we have failed to be what we have sought to become. Our young democracy must be nurtured, and so must its people. A new fire burns within me, to ensure that I make a difference in my society. It doesn’t help to be successful alone while many people suffer in silence. We must make this democracy become a reality. It may not be today, but we can learn from other nations and restructure our thinking. Money may make the world go around but knowledge and skills will sustain us forever.