I have been very fortunate to come to South Africa and study. My lectures have taught me that regardless of where I may be in the world, there will always be progress that needs to be made in various facets of society. Hearing from South African activists and individuals in leadership positions has solidified in me the importance of being an aware global citizen and someone who practices social responsibility. Before coming on this trip I was prepared for the aforementioned to happen. I was ready for my experiences here to reinforce the importance of my participation in civil service. When preparing for this trip I knew there were going to be issues I came in contact with that would upset me and make me feel strongly for my fellow man’s hardships and struggles. However, when I was preparing for this trip I never imagined that I was going to have to worry about my sexual orientation impacting my experience while here.
For the past six weeks I have been working alongside my peers from GVSU in Manenberg. We have been mentoring students in the afternoon and witnessing the inequalities present in South Africa which linger as a result of the detrimental Apartheid regime that ruled until 1994. In a classroom of a poorly-funded school, where the students don’t even have soap or toilet paper in their bathrooms, both GVSU students and Grade 6 Manenberg students are eager to learn from one another. My mentee is a tiny, energetic, goofy, young boy. His name is Athenkosi. Every day when I get off the bus and we find one another on the grassy filed outside the school, Athenkosi and I exchange nothing but smiles. We chatter about what we have learned earlier that day before we head inside for our lessons.
Monique and Athenkosi
Earlier this week, Athenkosi and I were working on English in our work book. Our activity involved a pride poem about South Africa. The poem addressed how proud the people of South Africa are of their nation and it called to action the children of South Africa for the rebuilding of their country. After reading the poem, we discussed what Athenkosi would change about South Africa to make it a better place to live in for all people. He said he would want the homeless to have houses, for there to be an end to crime and gang violence, for the hungry children to be fed at school, and for there to be no discrimination. He then asked me what I would change about America to make it a better place for all the people that live there. I told him I too wanted the homeless to have homes, and that a lot of homeless people in the U.S. were war veterans. I told him that there should be more after school programs in the U.S. to keep students and children from getting involved in drugs, gangs, and violent crime. I told him that when I was in high school, middle school, and elementary school, the only way I ate breakfast and lunch was through our free lunch program at school, because my single mother couldn’t raise me and my three brothers on her own without child support from our father.
Regarding discrimination, I told Athi that there was still racism in the U.S. I told him that sexism was a problem in the U.S. and that women and men aren’t treated equally. I told him that domestic violence and rape were both issues in the U.S. as well. Then I told him that homophobia was an issue in the States too. He asked me what that word meant. I told him that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the U.S. can be fired from their jobs, kicked out of their homes, and aren’t allowed to get married in the U.S. because of who they are. I told him that was discrimination I wanted to end in the U.S. In response, he told me that “those people” were wrong. “Those people” were wrong because they think God made a mistake with them. I asked him if he thought treating “those people” differently or meanly was okay. He exclaimed, “Oh, no! That’s never okay.” We went on with our assignment, but I really wanted to leave the room crying. All I wanted to do was tell Athenkosi that I am one of “those people.” I kept wondering if he would think differently of me if he knew that about me… if he would discredit everything I taught him because of the fact that I am gay. It hurt to wonder if the friendship we built in the last six weeks would mean nothing if he knew about my sexual orientation.
I have decided not to come out to Athenkosi because our friendship has been so crucial to my experience here. This specific experience between us has impacted me greatly. More importantly, this experience between Athenkosi and I has been a first-hand illustration of something we have learned in our lectures as GVSU students. South Africa’s constitution is one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. It enshrines constitutional rights to LGBT people, in addition to many other progressive policy pieces. However, these paper rights that are enshrined by the constitution are often not carried out in South African society, and there is a disconnect between the ideology possessed by the people of South Africa and what the constitution guarantees. I have learned a lot while being here in South Africa and the actual issues that have presented themselves to me while here have solidified my passion for seeking social justice on a global level.
Monique and Athenkosi during Monique’s group origami lesson.