Week 1 - A Woman from Malawi
Twenty-two hours, two flights, a number of intermittent naps, and then a long-anticipated arrival in Cape Town, South Africa. The city and surrounding suburbs and neighborhoods stretch for miles around the airport: Destitute neighborhoods made of cramped hovels, called the townships, line one side of the highway, where few if any lights can be seen after an 11:45PM (or 23:45) arrival; highways, glimmering towers, and suburban homes stretch out in the other direction toward the bays, giving some familiarity to Westerners who have traveled to the proud and beautiful Rainbow Nation.
The most notable first impression in daylight is, of course, the immenseness of colossal Table Mountain looming above the city (flanked by the less colossal Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head). One of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, the mountain truly deserves a J.R.R. Tolkien quote, or something of similar caliber to capture the hair-raising sensation and awe felt when seeing it for the first (or even second) time.
These and so many other notable experiences stand out for this first week: Visiting the National Library of South Africa to peruse the very-difficult-to-find (at least in South Africa, ironically) Refugee Law in South Africa by Fatima Khan (ed.);
walking up hills of city sidewalks to reach and marvel at the brightly painted, centuries-old houses (mid to late 1700s) of the Muslim-settled and multicultural Bo-Kaap district;
visiting Clifton and Sea Point to watch fire dancers on the beach or view the sun setting aside miles of homes and businesses lining the steep and twisting cliffs along the ocean beneath Table Mountain; and hiking in Jonkershoek Nature Reserve, in Stellenbosch, South Africa, for the incredible views of valleys, mountains, forests, and multi-colored stone peaks looming above (or below) the cliffside trails .
But this trip and internship is not about any of that, really. It is about refugees, asylum seekers, and an organization, managed and operated by former refugees, working tirelessly to bring peace, security, and protection of civil and human rights to African refugees who have fled from horrifying political violence and personal struggle. Each story, each person, provides an opportunity to rethink unity, diversity, and uniqueness of experience.
On Wednesday, one of the former refugees who works as the lead office assistant for PASSOP referred her name to me on a piece of paper. She indicated that I should search for her on Google. Upon doing so, I saw that one of the links was already shaded purple instead of blue, so I had already accessed and viewed the webpage at some point. To my surprise, the link led to a news article I had used for my research during the past spring semester, in completion of a paper for Professor Christie Warren and her course on Advanced Applied International Research. The article details the legal action this transgendered woman and her husband have had to take to defend against prosecution by the state. The case has drawn international attention, with human rights groups and other countries calling for the repeal of laws that criminalize same-sex relations and explicitly deprive LGBTI persons of civil, political, social, and economic rights.
The world became a little smaller, and my understanding of LGBTI Africans’ plights and struggles took a personal turn that I did not expect. I feel very honored to know and work alongside this woman who has helped shape a more positive future for LGBTI Africans. Whether the person and her story reaches the impact of this woman, whose prowess and confidence is reminiscent of Sylvia Ray Rivera, or the person and her story remains a deeply personal and small-scale matter affecting one person, the fact remains: There are some incredible, kind, generous people working in a small office in the Central Business District of Cape Town, South Africa, to help LGBTI and other African refugees find a new home in a progressive, welcoming environment. Despite all the other issues South Africa faces today, namely severe drought and pervasive xenophobia, there is still opportunity and momentum for change. I am incredibly thankful and proud to play a small part.