Back to SummaryAllison Bayani - Student Profile
MAJOR: American Studies
MINOR: Creative Writing
Studying in Cape Town gave me insights and experiences that I never could have gotten, never even conceived, if I hadn’t actually been there to experience them myself. No book, no matter how well written, and no photographs, no matter how vivid, will ever be a substitute for being in a particular place, in a particular time.
For most people, South Africa stands out as a country of both incredible beauty and incredible tragedy. The gorgeous, almost idyllic, landscapes of Table
Mountain, Muizenberg beach and Stellenbosch wine country are dramatically juxtaposed with the pervasive problems of inequality, prejudice, and mistrust that plague post-apartheid South Africa. Many people will, unfortunately, choose to see only one side or another. But the Stanford Cape Town program offered me the opportunity to see both and come to a more complete, nuanced understanding of an incredibly complex society.
The program’s orientation allowed us to see some of the most beautiful parts of the Cape in our first weekend—we took the cable car to the top of Table Mountain, checked out views from Signal Hill, visited the penguins at Simonstown, and saw the ocean cliffs as we drove up Chapman’s Peak. On the spring quarter Bing Trip to the Cederberg Mountains I saw the clearest night sky with the most stars that I had ever seen (then again, I grew up in New York City where we trade starlight for street lamps). Even being on the University of Cape Town campus, which is set into Table Mountain, felt like something surreal.
But our second weekend we went to the townships. Some, like Khayelitsha, are giant, sprawling entities unto themselves with their own highway exits. Others, like the Hout Bay Settlement, have sprung up, unplanned, right next to some of the most privileged communities. We talked to local organizations that were trying to help alleviate the conditions of their communities. They didn’t gloss things over for us and spoke frankly about poverty, hunger, illness, HIV/AIDS, and crime. Many of these organizations were simple—one was just a woman cooking out of her kitchen to feed children who would otherwise go hungry. She used donations to pay for gas and to buy bread.
As an American Studies major with a concentration in Civil Rights, naturally I was intrigued, not to mention troubled, by a country where there were such vast inequalities and where such large segments of the population continued to be marginalized. The sharp divisions dominated the way I saw things—rich and poor, black and white, victim and aggressor.
That, I learned, is wrong. To see things in a binary fashion is to oversimplify and, in many cases, to misunderstand. Through my professors I learned about the complicated history that caused divisions, created prejudices, and led to the apartheid state. I read about the hardships of progress and the obstacles that the
country has faced since 1994. What I learned in the classroom provided an invaluable context for understanding the world that I saw around me. Through fields from literature to economics, I came to understand Cape Town as a product of its history, a place struggling to reconcile and move beyond a painful past, rather than a city mired in racism and prejudice out of choice.
For the six months I was in Cape Town I worked at Home Street People’s Ministry (SPM), the organization I was paired with as part of my service-learning. Home SPM is dedicated to helping low-income and homeless people lift themselves out of poverty. Working with clients day in and day out, I saw firsthand the powerful grip that apartheid still has, even sixteen years after Nelson Mandela took power in the country’s first free, democratic elections. Sixteen years isn’t enough time to erase the bitterness of adults who were systematically disadvantaged for most of their lives, or to suddenly endow a population denied education with marketable skills.
But you have to start somewhere, and that’s what I learned from Lorraine Kytides, the founder of Home SPM and my mentor for the time I was in Cape Town. If the classroom gave me context for the real world, the real world helped me to refine and apply what I’d learned, to mobilize it and try to effect change (even if it was small) instead of just keeping it locked in my head. With Lorraine I worked a variety of angles to help our clients, from shelter placement to job placement to workshops on interviews and resumes. As I switched between classes and Home SPM I realized that everything, as I was coming to understand it, boiled down to education—for job training, civic responsibility, healthy lifestyles, and a thousand other things.
In spring we started a school for adult learners, a place where older people who had not been able to continue their education, for whatever reason, could go to learn. Helping with the lessons and tutoring after regular classes was hardly what I had envisioned when I landed in Cape Town in January; I’m quite sure that I expected something bigger, more glamorous. But working with those students, most of whom were older than I was, proved to be the most important thing I did in my time there. I saw the legacy of apartheid weighing them down, but they showed incredible resilience as they moved forward, unwilling to let the past hold them back any longer. It was a privilege to be able to help them reach their goals and to be at our center everyday, doing the work, but I never would have appreciated the full impact of the simple task of tutoring if I didn’t have the context I had studied in my own classroom.
What I learned during my time in Cape Town is that South Africa is not a country defined by the extremes of privilege and poverty, the beautiful and the unpleasant. What it is defined by is the character of the people who live in it, who
take pride in it, and who meet those challenges head on. Lorraine embodies hope and an unflagging faith in the potential of everyday people. The students at Home SPM show the resilience and determination of individuals who strive make themselves better. Meanwhile, the friends I made—with their bizarre sayings, poetry readings, impromptu dance parties, soccer obsessions, and incredible warmth and generosity—personify Cape Town’s humor, its weird vocab, its rhythms, its culture.
Those are all things that you just absolutely can’t get unless you’re there. I was lucky enough to be there for six months and to get to know not just facts and figures but also people. As much as I miss waking up to see Table Mountain through my window, it is the people and the atmosphere that I miss the most. And while the World Cup is over and all of the Bafana Bafana fanfare has waned, that underlying principle of Ubuntu, a spirit of warmth, welcoming, and interconnectedness, will still be there.