Benji Clarke, WIP Class 2012 discusses host family and SAWIP fellow student Kwadwo.
The time that I spent with my host family was amongst the best and most memorable of my WIP summer. I was especially lucky to be staying with a large, diverse group of people: my host parents, their son and daughter, their grandfather, an American intern, a South African WIPer and four dogs! At first I was a little daunted: this busy household was very different to my small family at home. However, the experiences that I had with the Lynchs’ were amazing.
The relationship that I formed with my fellow South African WIP student was particular valuable. Throughout the summer, Kwadwo and I grew very close. The fact that he and I were going through very similar experiences, as we were both on a WIP program, allowed us to have insightful and reflective conversations. We could easily relate to each other. Kwadwo gave me great advice and support throughout my summer in Washington DC. I hope I did the same for him.
The personal relationship that grew between Kwadwo and me was only one aspect of my experiences living with a South African. The cultural exchanges that we enjoyed were another important part of our relationship and greatly enriched my summer. Kwadwo and I had many, long conversations discussing and learning about each others’ backgrounds and countries. Contrasting the differences and similarities between our culture and politics was fascinating. I found Kwadwo’s thoughts on the one-party political landscape that exists in South Africa and the problems of political stagnation that this brings particularly interesting. I compared it to Northern Ireland, which also suffers from a lack of truly competitive politics for very different reasons.
Kwadwo spoke a total of seven languages. Not only was this extremely impressive, but also displayed the diversity that existed within South Africa. South Africa has crafted a national identity for its citizens in spite of a racially, ethnically and politically diverse population. In fact, I feel that diversity is central to South Africa’s post-apartheid identity. For me, this is epitomised by the South African national anthem, which I had the pleasure of hearing for the first time when the SAWIP students sung it at their farewell ceremony. The anthem is a hybrid song that contains five of South Africa’s most widely spoken languages and includes extracts from the former South African national anthem from the apartheid era. In this way, South Africa’s national anthem shows that it is possible to include a diverse range of backgrounds within one national identity, whilst also recognising a difficult and complex history. Northern Ireland can learn lessons from the progress that South Africa has made in creating an inclusive and diverse national identity.
It was also great to compare our thoughts and interpretations of American culture. Kwadwo, who studied constitutional law, made a particularly insightful comment regarding the differences between the South African and American constitution. He remarked that the two documents rested upon differing core principles: America’s embodied liberty, whilst South Africa’s embodied dignity. This is an example of how Kwadwo interpreted American life in an interesting and different way to me due to his South African background. Kwadwo went on to tell me how the South African constitution was unique as it was more progressive than South Africa society itself. Kwadwo explained that progressive policy, such as the acceptance of gay marriage, is embedded within the institutions of South Africa: in this way, government attempts to tackle the social divisions that still exist in the country through leadership.
At the end of my summer, I had gained a much better understanding of the American way of life. I had expected and hoped for this: experiencing America first hand was an important reason for me applying to the Washington Ireland Program. However, unexpectedly, I had also gained deep insights into South Africa. Kwadwo imparted to me an understanding of South African history, culture and politics that I had not expected from my WIP summer. My time living with a SAWIP student sparked an interest in South Africa that was not there prior to my summer in DC. I made a great friend in Kwadwo, and I would be extremely proud if he learnt as much from our experiences together as I did.