A Letter from Privilege

By Patrick for his homestay sister

Dear Sisi,

I came to your country much like the Dutch and English settlers long before you and I were born and I brought the same mindset as they did centuries before me. Some call it a savior complex, I describe it as a need to help you and your family. I had seen pictures and videos of your country on the news and I thought that maybe I could be the one to fix it. I have volunteered at my local boys and girls club, helping kids with their homework and organised canned food drives at my school to serve underprivileged families in my community. So why couldn’t I help you as well?

Just like the settlers, I traveled to your great nation repeatedly asking myself: What is South Africa?

Wikipedia told me that your nation is a young democracy with an 82.3% black, 15% white, and 2.7% “other” population. That South Africa hosted the World Cup in 2010, is considered a developing nation and exports gold, sugar, and wheat. Yet, I traveled to your nation asking myself:

What is South Africa?

I waltzed around your country searching for answers: Is it the inequality among its citizens? The history of apartheid? The new democracy?

Much like the settlers, I was searching for that thing, that object, concept or sentiment – that inanimate idea that would make me understand the true value of your country. In my place of privilege – my skin color, my place of birth, my male sex – I saw value in the things your country had to offer and I wanted to know more.  To fully understand your country and my own privilege as a white American male, I had to study, read, and observe.

Or so I thought.

Then I met you.

You were jumping ropes in the dirty front yard and asked me to join. My feet were hurting and my head ached after a long day of workshops, lectures, site visits and museums, but you convinced me to play anyway. Our game evolved into hurdling over a stick supported by a precariously positioned pile of rocks. As we jumped back and forth you couldn’t stop laughing. Your laugh grew louder with every jump until we were both in pain, me from exhaustion, you from laughing too hard. As I slowly caught my breath I realized that I had been asking the wrong question all along. What I really should have been asking was this:

Who is South Africa?

South Africa is your grandmother welcoming me into her home, treating me like her son.

South Africa is your sister showing your family South African Idol videos on her iPhone, rolling on the floor laughing as the tone deaf man tries to hit the tune.

South Africa is your neighbors playing outside from dusk till dawn and your brother flashing me a comforting thumbs up in the middle of a rapid fire Zulu exchange to show that everything is okay.

South Africa is you, Sisi. Who don’t need Xboxes or iPads to know that life is good. Who find joy in the face of adversity.

Sisi, you showed me that my real privilege is not having a better life than you. In many ways, your life is just as joyful as mine. But my joy was handed to me while you have to work for yours. It took me 17 years to realize that. And because of you I will leave as a white boy who found a true home in South Africa. Because of you, I finally understood my true privilege. In those ten days we spent together, you taught me more about myself  than I learned the past 17 years.

It makes me sad that you cannot yet read this letter in English, and that I cannot write it for you in Zulu. I hope you will preserve it to keep your memory of me alive for as long as I will keep my memory of you.

With love,

Patrick / Bhuthi (Brother)