The Parallel Universe You Probably Live In

I mean it when I write that my trip to Johannesburg, South Africa is among one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.

By the time I was done teaching STEM and entrepreneurship to incoming high school seniors (called “matrics”) at St. John’s, my heart felt so full I could feel it swell. I remember feeling such overwhelming gratitude, loving the life I get to live. My students don’t know it, but they have made such an impact on me through their creativity, their openness to learning, and their joyous attitudes. One student told us (the teaching team a.k.a the MIT Big 6), that our week with them changed the trajectory of his life. Not only did we have the most perfect group of students, the teaching staff at St. John’s demonstrated an impossible warmth towards us. By our last summer Braai (Afrikaans for BBQ), as we basked in the light of the evening, we all truly felt as though we had a family in Johannesburg we could come back to. We spent our last couple of days riding around in Pilanesberg Game Reserve in a Jeep, and I felt some of the strongest emotions when we rolled through the safari with all the colors of the rainbow sunset reflecting on the hides of the zebra around us. The most brilliant lightning storm enveloped the savannah, and the sheer power and magnificence of it all brought me to tears I still do not completely understand.

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Once in a lifetime experience: A purple streak of lightning crashes the sky

Though I could go on and on about all the things I’d like to be documented and to be memorialized, I want to focus on some of the differences between the cultures of South Africa and the United States that I noticed.

A Culture of Hospitality

I was so astonished at the generosity and hospitality we received. From the very first day, the teaching staff made it their job to take care of everything and anything for us. Not only were we greeted at the airport, but for those of us who weren’t able to find an AirBnB on time, the teaching staff more than welcomed us strangers into the comforts of their own homes. Different directors and teachers invited us time and time again to their homes and to restaurants for dinners, braais, and breakfasts. We were introduced to whole families! This allowed us to spend time with these locals outside the context of the classroom.

Once we were taken to visit the Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO World Heritage Site an hour north of Johannesburg in the Sterkfontein Cave system and Maropeng. This is where the remains of the world’s currently oldest hominid (early ancestors of the modern day Homo Sapiens) were found. I thought it was very fitting for the birth of humankind to have sprung from country known as the Rainbow Nation. Another time, they took us out to a rooftop bar famous for its vertical hanging gardens.

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Touching the bottom of a stalactite in Sterkfontein; Entrance to Cradle of Humankind Visitors Center

One week, I was in the midst of the common college-student crisis of needing to do laundry. It was a “do I wear my blanket to teach tomorrow?” level of desperation. When I told the teaching staff, it was only a matter of minutes before, Lene, a staffer at St. John’s came to assist me in doing my laundry and even provided me with detergent and softener! As we were both struggling to figure out how that particular laundry machine worked (how many MIT students does it take to do laundry?), Lene dialed up her mother who she thought might be familiar with the brand of machine. However, before speaking to her mother, Lene let me know me in the most polite fashion that she was going to begin talking in Afrikaans with her mother as to not make me feel alienated or left out. How many times have I called my mother and never even thought that speaking Bengali might make someone feel a bit worried about what I was saying?

From my experience, the concept of hospitality is very Eastern, culturally speaking. It’s very common in countries in South Asia and the Middle East, particularly in my own culture, to do the absolute most for visitors – a large part of this is because the honor of a person is tied to how well they are able to treat their guests. More than ‘my home is your home’, it is more like a ‘you came to visit this country and didn’t let me host all 25 of your family members??!’ or ‘if you don’t let me pay for this meal I will absolutely cause a scene in this restaurant and we will fight it out’ type of hospitality. This is very different than the social norms in the US or other parts of the cultural West (such as Europe, for example): It’s considered rude to overstay visits and the norm is to book hotels instead of staying with people you know because privacy and the power of the individual (as opposed to the community) are of utmost cultural significance. Not knowing what to expect, it came as a bit of a shock when all the locals I met made me feel so special. I associated hospitality more so with people of color, and to have even the South Africans of European descent go out of their way to help me handle my dirty laundry was an eye opener. I truly felt that South Africa was a place that didn’t strictly belong to the ‘East’ or the ‘West’ but was rather a blend of different cultural values that made it its own.

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Some of the many home dinners we have been graciously invited to!

Attitudes Towards Race and the Past

I don’t think I would do my experiences justice if I didn’t talk about the issue of race and apartheid. As part of a MISTI training session on cultural sensitivity, we were advised not to bring up politics– not that of the US and not that of South Africa. That included race politics, but given the current state of the US it was difficult not to talk to local South Africans about apartheid and the future. Bear in mind that apartheid only ended in the early 90s, and the generations that lived through apartheid are still young and exist today. The memories of apartheid are still fresh, so how could I not take the opportunity to learn and take insights from the locals? On our first night, some MIT students and I were engrossed deep in the topic of systematic racism over a lovely dinner of lasagne and meringues with a teacher at St. John’s and her family. The first thing I noticed was that they were very open to this particular topic. I encountered no defensiveness, nor was there any apologetic tone to the conversation. Compared to the US, it was quite easy to have a discussion.

The nation of South Africa has a modern history ravaged by and arguably defined by racial inequality– and the locals acknowledged that for what it was. I believe it to be what separates South Africa from the US. There was no talk of apartheid being behind them – the teacher’s daughter, an eighth grader, told us about the ‘pencil test’ she learned about from school. If a person had a pencil put in their hair and it slid through – they could be legally classified as white, otherwise they would be legally “colored” or black. Students in South Africa study the topic as part of their education, and the teacher let me know that for a lot of people suffering from socioeconomic issues, it’s as if apartheid never ended for them. Unlike in the US, it was a minority racial group in South Africa that benefited from the system.

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The entrance to the Apartheid Museum is a relic life under Apartheid rule
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Entrance to the solitary confinement cells of the Number Four Prison for incarcerated black men

In one particular conversation, I was speaking to a St. John’s grad about his heritage. He was a fifth generation South African of Indian ancestry. I noticed that there was almost no ambiguity about his ethnicity and this is probably due to the fact that intermixing of races was illegal under apartheid– Indians married Indians (they were classified as “colored”). We started talking about being of the South Asian diaspora and I expressed that I take any opportunity to talk about being from Bangladesh and I take pride in having a second home. I loved being different and standing out starting from elementary school onwards. He told me that if he were to visit India, he would not fit in at all and there have been many instances in which South Africans of Indian descent did not feel as though they belonged there. He explained that he was nothing but South African and I felt as though I was speaking to myself in a parallel universe. We looked like each other with our caramel skin tones, dark hair, and lean physiques yet we were completely opposite otherwise.

A common factor in all of my conversations about race and apartheid was pride. Each person was so proud to be South African and each person was so ready for the future. I could see the look of courage in the eyes of my students as they shared their concerns about the course of the South African people. I now know that I witnessed unity and resolve– something that has been increasingly difficult to come by in the US political landscape. As a low income, first generation American-Muslim woman of color in STEM, I learned about determination and I will work to face the uncertain future of my own country head-on.

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The MIT Big 6 with the some of the nation’s brightest, most passionate, and most inspiring future leaders

Jeba Sania Bio Photo

Jeba Sania is a member of the class of 2020 studying Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. This independent activities period, she taught computer science in Johannesburg, South Africa.