Sense of Direction

8 03 2010

There are many legacies of apartheid, too many to count. Many are hidden down, away from where you might expect a legacy to live.

One of those is a sense of direction. I’ve been with a number of people who grew up in Cape Town who complain that they can’t find their way around the city.

This weekend, when we were hiking with a local club, four of us broke off from the group to take a different trail. A lively sixty year old woman, who ran circles around us as we panted and sweated our way to the top of the mountain, needed to hurry back to her car and her impending appointment. However, she didn’t trust herself to find the way back. We agreed to accompany her down.

As we started down the mountain, she pointed to the young white guy, and said, “You’re in charge. I always get lost. So, you’ll get us down.”

He humbly protested. She exclaimed, “Come on! You’re a Capetonian! You should know the way!”

Both Sunny and I laughed and teased her, “And what about you?”

But then I stopped, and remembered that I had heard this same refrain from others. I’m not saying it’s true for everyone, but it makes sense. If you can imagine being confined to certain neighborhoods for most of or a significant part of your life, or only allowed to venture out in one direction (namely, to work), one thing that might get lost is a sense of orientation—where you are in relation to everything else.

It’s almost like learning a language. I wonder if there is a window during which we learn to orient ourselves to home, to the map of our community, to the greater world. There must be something to it, because I’ve met several people who claim the directional part of their brain doesn’t feel active. It’s a scar that might not be visible enough to make the TRC, but it sure feels significant to me.

Sunny and I have also been reminded that we, too, are still finding our own way around.

Just the other day, we talked to two wonderful students from a township. Wanting to know what their seemingly superb alternative school had done for them, we asked, “How do you think the LEAP school has helped you most in your life?”

We waited for answers of “a different kind of future”, “a way out of poverty”, “opportunity”, or “university admittance” (as both students are enrolled in college and studying to become teachers).

Instead, one said, “I’ve learned how to have a healthy relationship with my mother.”
The other replied, “I finally feel sure of myself, and I know who I am.”

We were blown away. Not only because teenagers don’t usually talk this way, especially about their education, but also because the direction we expected them to go, the roads we wanted to see paved, were not the roads the students mentioned as being the most important to them.

Maybe we’re looking in the wrong direction.

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