by Thomas Elliott
Everyday my departure for South Africa comes closer. I wait, I pack, I try to control my excitement, mitigate the anticipation. My old friend David Bowie helps me along, as I alter the lyrics to “Space Oddity” to suit my pre-departure situation:
“Ground control, to Major Thom:
Take your MALARIA pills,
and put your BACKPACK on.”
Packing for a Gap Year means more than just putting material things, like soap, into a backpack. It takes a little creativity. Take, for example, this conversation with a friend: Me (Major Thom): “How am I gonna take all my books?!”
Friend: “Buy an e-reader.”
Major Thom: “Oh.” I was so astounded, I wrote a poem:
How easy can it be?
How I do love thee.
But, and this is a big “but,” no one seems to know what you really take with you on your year. Now, I’ve obviously lived a long, long, long time and know a lot about life and all that jazz, but I still have a lot to learn about myself. And tja, that’s a problem when that’s all I’ve got. I mean, on a superficial level, I also have to figure out which me enters South Africa. Dutch me? American me? That all depends on which piece of paper Mr. or Mrs. Border guard puts their little stamp. “Bam” says the stamp, and it’s decided. This entire summer leading up to my gap year has had a huge influence on me. I’ve changed in ways that I didn’t think were possible. Yet here I am, standing on the precipice of a very big step, and I have to decide how much of that, along with the preceding 18 years, comes along. Sacre Bleu! Quelle Horreur! But, C’est la Vie, and there’s not much I can do about it. No matter what parts of me I pretend to “decide” to take – or leave – I will still arrive in Johannesburg as myself. In many ways, the questions of who and what else comes along are equally as important in the process of packing my mind. In the end, though, I won’t really know until it’s over. So I turn, to Bono, king of Ireland, savior of my conscience. And he says:
“You are such a fool.”
“What for, oh Bono?”
“To worry like you do, about what you don’t really need now.”
But yeah, Dear Reader, I guess you could take this as an official invitation to come along on my gap year. Don’t rub it in. Anyways, while I have you pondering what the world would be like if The Edge was god and Bono was Jesus, I drew you a map so we could get nice and practical about things.
So, on this map you see South Africa. Johannesburg, the city I will be flying in to, is in black. It’s located right on this one huuuge gold mine on a ridge called the Witwatersrand. Incidentally, it’s with the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) that I will be interning in the Limpopo province (everything above the crudely drawn black line). They have a research facility near Kruger national park that is the basis for all of their plant, science, and environmental studies programs. Once I get there on September 4th to help researchers do their work, and prepare that work for use in local communities.
The Limpopo is South Africa’s poorest province, but urban environments are expanding and it is considered important that this land is used in an environmentally friendly manner. This and other subjects like preserving indigenous crops, biodiversity, and, I’ll be working every day studying the communities’ interactions with the environment are all potential areas of study. I intend to remain in the Limpopo through the first conventional school semester. My plans for afterwards are still a bit hazy, in part due to the presence of Ebola in West Africa, but I will provide updates as those plans become solidified.
Phew, that is just way to much practicality for one of my blog posts. So without further ado, here’s one last thought: South Africa, although it is the most developed country in Africa, has an extremely rich and dramatic history that not even Belgium can come close to. For me, the images of Boers on Free State land, or Zulu warriors charging into battle contrast so sharply with the realities of modern daily life after a long history of racial strife and inequality. Hmm, I don’t know where to begin, but begin I shall. Ground Control to Major Thom:
“your circuit’s dead, is there something wrong?
Can you hear me, Major Thom?”
Thomas Elliott is a 2014-2015 Global Gap Year Fellow