Tombara and I were leaning against the bookshelf at Exclusive Books, the local equivalent of Barnes and Nobles, leafing through a copy of the official Nelson Mandela comic book when she asked the question.
“The” question. It must be explained; it has become something of a permanent fixture in my life since I first, on a wild impulse, put down the $400 nonrefundable deposit for the Education Abroad Program (EAP) to the University of Cape Town. In its various forms, it has been asked by family, friends and acquaintances. It is usually inflected, depending on the questioner, with varying degrees and combinations of excitement, confusion, interest, amazement and oftentimes fear. I might have announced I was disappearing off the face of the earth for the reactions my decision provoked.
What must cause this reaction? I suspect a combination of illogic nature and general lack of knowledge about South Africa. Naturally, people who knew me found it curious that a rather cautious, maybe even timid girl like me would choose to study in a country that I knew next to nothing about, have never shown an interest in and which just happened at the time to be filling the world’s front pages with bloody images of xenophobic violence.
My impetus certainly wasn’t academic. As a third-year international studies major specializing in East Asia, a semester in China or Japan would make more sense. In fact, the courses I took in South Africa would likely only count as electives. Throw in some terrifying statistics such as violent crime rates and the number of those infected with HIV/AIDS, and people began to treat me with the delicate caution usually reserved for the certifiably insane.
At any rate, I never came up with a really good answer to the question. I usually managed to think of something for the other person’s benefit, but no reason ever felt right. Each one seemed true only in a retroactive sort of way. I was relieved to escape the question upon my departure.
That is, I was relieved to think I had escaped, but the truth was I hadn’t really. Once in Cape Town, the question reappeared. Only now, instead of “Why are you going?” it became “Why would you come?” Almost every single South African I met asked me this. It would come up at bars, over lunch and on the shuttle bus. Yet, this time, it left me even more confused than before, because now I knew what a wonderful, fascinating, diverse, cultured, rich — you get the idea — city Cape Town is.
South Africa’s oldest city sits between the Atlantic Ocean and the beautiful Table Mountain. It is developed and convenient, houses one of the best universities in the world and offers an abundance of cheap, good food and drink.
In other words, besides becoming an employee of the Tourism Board, I was having a blast. Every day I woke up and I couldn’t wait to be surprised with something new. I could not understand why so many of the locals I met found the influx of American visitors remarkable in any way.
So being the inquisitive creature that I am, and having some time to kill, I did what I should have done a long time ago and asked my own question. Putting Nelson Mandela back on the shelf, I turned and said, “Why not?”
“Because, you are from America, the land of opportunity [breaks into giggle fit]. People here want to go there, but can’t. What is here for you anyways?”
A lightbulb flickered dimly in my head, a vague connection between the question and something that had come up in lecture earlier that month. It solidified for several days and many Google searches later. Tombara and the others were not alone and the question was not as senseless as I had thought. They and it are part of something big, something with a huge impact on the future of South Africa.
Educated professional South Africans are on the move and they’re moving out. Referred to academically as “brain drain,” this phenomenon is the reason South Africa, a country facing a severe healthcare crisis, actually exports doctors, mainly to the United States and the United Kingdom. In the most alarming statistic I had seen yet, the BBC news channel reported that 70 percent of skilled South Africans are seriously considering moving abroad. Many already have. Every day, posters on campus advertise companies that place graduates abroad, sometimes with “real” jobs, but often as summer camp counselors and au pairs. Online advertisements promise visas and green cards the way they promise a six-pack and firm buns in the U.S. The very people who are so desperately needed here, like doctors, lawyers and teachers, are abandoning ship, so to speak, and moving abroad. They have lost confidence in their future here. That is why Tombara as well as those abroad and at home found my presence here so puzzling.
I understand the question better now and to be perfectly honest, I wish I didn’t.