After two weeks of intensive study into the history, customs, and culture of South Africa, as well as two full days of travel, I have finally arrived in South Africa. We took a total of 3 flights to get here. The first flight was 14 hours and put us in Dubai. The airport there was very interesting. There was a prayer room right next to the restrooms, and we heard the “call to prayer” play over the loudspeakers. There was a McDonalds in the airport as well. I saw something called “The McArabia” on the menu. It wasn’t a sandwich, but rather a pile of assorted food items. I wasn’t brave enough to try it, so I stuck with the standard that can be found the world over: the Big Mac. While it is advisable to try the local cuisine while traveling abroad, it is sometimes nice to get a taste of something familiar to stave off the homesickness.
The next flight was 8 hours to Johannesburg in South Africa. After this, we took a 1 hour flight to our final destination, the city of Bloemfontein. The birthplace of J.R.R. Tolkein, and the judicial capital of South Africa (there are three capitals total), Bloemfontein is also the home of the University of the Free State, where the Global Leadership Summit is being held. After a friendly welcome yesterday, I crashed for a four hour nap. Traveling for two days straight took a lot out of me. After the nap, my group of friends from UW Bothell all went out to dinner at the local mall.
Today we attended an orientation where the program was explained to us, followed by a meeting with our “cohort” groups. Each group is expected to create a 3-5 minute video presentation by the end of the conference (in two weeks). The cohort meeting was followed by a campus tour. Lastly, we attended an opening ceremony which included African drumming, a few welcome speeches from notable university officials, and a local comedian.
There are a few things I have been very struck by since coming to South Africa:
First, the culture has been very welcoming and inclusive. We have been told numerous times since coming here that we are not just colleagues or visitors, but more importantly we are friends. The principle of “Ubuntu” was explained to us at the opening ceremony, the idea that no person is an island, but connected (whether they want to be or not) to every other person around them. It’s nicely summarized in the idea that “‘I am what I am because of who we all are“. I find this aspect of South African culture very refreshing, and have immensely appreciated and enjoyed the selfless hospitality I have received since coming here.
Secondly, I have been a little surprised at how Western the culture of South Africa can be at times. I’ve heard American music, heard South Africans talk about American movies and TV shows (especially Game of Thrones!), and seen common American brands at the local stores. I can definitely see the huge influence that Western colonization has had on this area. While the surface of many things here appear Western, there exists a huge melting pot of cultures under the surface. Desmond Tutu called South Africa a “rainbow nation”, and I’m seeing that more and more as I interact with South Africans from different ethnic heritage groups.
So far this has been a fascinating journey, and I’m excited to see where it leads as we discuss difficult issues in the upcoming weeks at the Global Leadership Summit