“If you love Africa so much, why are you leaving?” and other confusing questions

It’s not only in South Africa that news of a Yale acceptance letter travels quickly. Soon after I was accepted my whole community knew and my parents I and received many congratulatory remarks. While there were some people who were congratulating the fact that I got into one of the best academic institutions in the world, many were simply congratulating the fact that I got into “somewhere else”, that I had found a way to join the global conversation, or as many people phrased it, that I had “found my ticket out of South Africa”

This get-out-while-you-can attitude has driven so many of South Africa’s most talented abroad. Although the brain drain is partly due to better pay and more security abroad, it is the negative outlook that many South Africans have about our own country that drives the move.  I, however, was always on the other side. I prided myself in being one of the proud South Africans that stayed - even though I was too young to have made that decision for myself - and silently criticized those that left for fleeing at the first sign of hardship rather than staying and trying to keep our country afloat.

With this attitude in mind I was set to give a talk on, you guessed it, my love for Africa. At the rehearsal, I was advised not to mention that I would be studying in the United States as it would leave people questioning my dedication to Africa, or as one colleague put it, “If you love Africa so much, why are you leaving?” I realized then that I was being judged similarly to the way I had previously judged South African emigrants who left the greener grasses of Australia, England and other developed countries when our country’s future looked unstable. Suddenly the fact that I was studying abroad made me one of them.

Why was it so hard for anyone to believe that I would one day come back to South Africa? That I would choose South Africa – with all its problems -- over the United States?

It bugged me for the first semester here: The selfishness of my choice to study abroad. I would ask myself, “If I am as dedicated to uplifting South Africa and Africa as I say I am, why did I choose to come abroad? If I am so quick to boast about the beautiful South African people to the my American peers, why didn’t I stay there and live with them, surely that would leave me better equipped to one day play a part in uplifting my country?”

It was with this guilty attitude in mind that I began attending talks and discussions related to all things African.  I joined Yale African Students Association and Yale Undergraduate Association for African Peace and Development and began to attend events hosted by the Yale Council on African Studies. If I couldn’t be in Africa, the least I could do was “meaningfully” discuss it from a distance. But my preconceived perception of this type of meeting - that people sat around debating issues in Africa without ever actually doing anything about them - were shattered. Yes, people sat around talking about issues, and yes, in the short term, there wasn’t much being done about them, but these students, from all over Africa and the world, were so highly informed about the subjects they were discussing that positive action in the future seemed inevitable.  They projected an aura not only of passion, but of capability and possibility. In fact, I began to believe that if there was anyone who was going to change Africa, it would be my peers abroad, and not the ones back home.

Maybe it’s the fact that you have to be taken out of a situation to analyze it objectively, or maybe it is the sense of “anything is possible” here at Yale that makes these dreams of uplifting Africa seem so tangible, but for the first time I have found myself in a position where I feel like I could, perhaps, do something, someday. No longer am I the lone dreamer wanting to discuss the education crisis in South Africa: I now attend lectures on the topic, and have lively discussions about it.  Even though people back home might feel like I sold out, and did something to benefit myself as opposed to benefitting my country, being here makes me feel like when I do go back (and I will, despite what many think) I will be better equipped, and more inspired, to affect change.

Nicola Soekoe is one of our DA Abroad representatives in the USA. She is currently double majoring in African Studies and Political Science at Yale College. She believes passionately that African youth have the ability (and responsibility) to affect long lasting and positive change on the continent.

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