By Nicola Soekoe
It’s not only in South Africa that news of a Yale acceptance letter travels quickly. Soon after I was accepted my whole community knew and my parents and I received many congratulatory remarks. While some were congratulating the fact that I got into one of the greatest academic institutions in the world many were simply congratulating the fact that I got into “somewhere else”. That I found a way to join the global conversation or as many phrased it had “found my ticket out of South Africa”.
This get-out-while-you-can attitude has driven many of South Africa’s most talented abroad. Although the brain drain is partly due to better pay and more security abroad, it’s the negative outlook that many South Africans have about their country that drives the move. I was always on the other side. I prided myself in being a South African that stayed — even though I was too young to have made that decision for myself — and silently criticised those that left for fleeing at the first sign of hardship rather than staying and trying to keep our country afloat.
With this attitude in mind I was set to give a talk on, you guessed it, my love for Africa. At the rehearsal I was advised not to mention that I would be studying in the US as it would leave people questioning my dedication to Africa, or as one colleague put it: “If you love Africa so much, why are you leaving?” I realised I was being judged similarly to the way I had judged South Africans who left for Australia, the UK and other developed countries when our country’s future looked unstable. Suddenly the fact that I was studying abroad made me one of them.
Why was it so hard for anyone to believe that I would come back? That I would choose South Africa — with all its problems — over the US?
It bugged me for the first semester, the selfishness of my choice to study abroad. I would ask myself: “If I am as dedicated to uplifting South Africa and Africa as I say I am, why did I choose to study abroad? If I am so quick to boast about the beautiful South African people to the my American peers why didn’t I stay and live with them. Surely that would leave me better equipped to one day play a part in uplifting my country?”
It was with this guilt that I began attending talks and discussions related to all things African. I joined the Yale African Students Association, Yale Undergraduate Association for African Peace and Development and attended events hosted by the Yale Council on African Studies. If I can’t be in Africa the least I can do is “meaningfully” discuss it from a distance. But my preconceived perception of this type of meeting — that people sit around debating issues in Africa without ever actually doing anything about it — was shattered.
Yes people sit around talking about issues, and yes, in the short term, there isn’t much being done, but these students, from all over Africa and the world, are so highly informed about the subjects they are discussing that positive action in the future seems inevitable. They project an aura not only of passion but of capability and possibility. In fact I believe that if there is anyone who is going to change Africa it will be my peers abroad and not the ones back home.
Maybe it’s the fact that you have to be taken out of a situation to analyse it objectively or maybe it is the sense of “anything is possible” here at Yale that makes these dreams of uplifting Africa seem so tangible. For the first time I find myself in a position where I feel like I can do something, some day. No longer am I the lone dreamer wanting to discuss the education crisis in South Africa. I now attend lectures on the topic and have lively discussions about it. Even though people back home might think I sold out and did something to benefit myself as opposed to benefitting my country, being here makes me feel like when I do come back (and I will, despite what many think) I will be better equipped and more inspired to affect change.
Nicola Soekoe is a 20-year-old South African student majoring in African studies and political science at Yale College. She believes passionately that African youth have the ability (and responsibility) to affect long-lasting and positive change on the continent. An advocate for quality education for all, Nicola recently founded the youth-led non-profit organisation “With Love from the World”. It provides high school scholarships and mentorship to underprivileged South African students. Other projects include volunteering for DA Abroad in New York and serving as the development coordinator for the Yale Undergraduate Association for African Peace and Development.
Nicola was chosen as a speaker at TEDxYouth@Cape Town in 2012 where she spoke about her relationship with Africa.