By Curwyn Mapaling
“We were like best friends and yet we just met that day. It’s so cool that you could come from such different places in the world and still form that kind of connection.”
What happens when American post-grad counselling students from Indiana start talking to a bunch of post-grad psychology students from Stellenbosch? If the diversity dialogues* recently held at Russel Botman House are anything to go by, you get a really inspiring experience with valuable lessons for social cohesion. Three themes emerged from these dialogues.
Simunye, or “we are one”, was one of three re-occurring themes throughout these diversity dialogues that I participated in, which took place at Stellenbosch University between the Ball State University (BSU) students, the Listen, Live and Learn Social Justice House students, and The Kayamandi Group students.
Most comments were related to the “commonality” and oneness between America and South Africa, echoed by the quote at the start of this article, from one of the BSU students.
Anouk Albien, who is researching career resilience and adaptability among Grade 11 learners in Kayamandi for her PhD in psychology, has been volunteering in the community for a few years, and conveyed this commonality by pointing out “how everyone has felt terrible about themselves; how they are all not the mould … the wrong fit … it’s like buying Chinese jeans”.
This made me wonder why sometimes it’s so hard to see the similarities amongst people that we live with every day but we so easily recognise our similarities through our interactions with those from another country. It was quite an ironic revelation to grapple with. Whether we are similar in our common differences or shared imperfections, it is evident that there definitely was a commonality amongst the various narratives being shared. But what was it about this shared space that made this diverse group of students feel so united?
Professor Anthony Naidoo succinctly captured and put a name to the second re-occurring theme by explaining the notion of ubuntu to the Americans. It was so beautiful when another one of the BSU students, Elizabeth Jones, responded to the story of one of the unemployed Chrysalis volunteers, who works in Kayamandi, who adopted a 16-year-old girl. Liz, in response to hearing this story, expressed her sentiments on ubuntu by reflecting, “I have a responsibility to give back. And I can’t make excuses because she didn’t. She had nothing to give but still found a way. I have so much privilege, I surely can find a way to give back too.”
Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu resonates strongly with me as I value ubuntu and the importance of humility. I wondered how many of us truly believe that we are who we are because of other people.
The third theme was the bad habit of misattribution. We had to face the fact that often we believe we know what others are thinking and that we know what they need, when in fact we don’t. Through these dialogues we have been reminded to sit back and listen — and not put ourselves out there until we genuinely hear and understand things first. Too often, I think, people and organisations are quick to enter into communities and impose “needs” based on their own need to help, as opposed to collaboratively working with the community members towards a perceived need that is shared by the community members.
It is worthwhile to ask ourselves, what enabled the creation of these three diversity threads? Personally, I believe that the sheer diversity of experiences, social backgrounds, racial, linguistic and religious diversity which emerged from these dialogues provided a powerful platform with which one can foster social change within communities. Over and above I believe it was the willingness from everyone involved to learn and a mutual vulnerability which led to such a meaningful and impactful experience.
I wonder how we can create many more, similar spaces, to have relevant and meaningful dialogues.
*Background: On Saturday, May 9 2015, five BSU counselling psychology master’s students arrived in Stellenbosch from Muncie, Indiana (US). They were accompanied by the chairperson of their department of counselling psychology and guidance services, Dr Sharon Bowman, and her husband. The Listen, Live and Learn students being referred to are a group of students from various academic backgrounds that live together in the Social Justice Listen, Live and Learn House at Stellenbosch University. The Kayamandi Group students comprised of Stellenbosch University masters and doctoral psychology students who presently conduct weekly psychological interventions in Kayamandi under the close supervision Professor Anthony Naidoo, who is a professor of community psychology. These three student groups facilitated these diversity dialogue sessions that were held each evening for three consecutive nights at the Stellenbosch University’s Russel Botman House.
Curwyn Mapaling is currently reading for a master’s degree in clinical psychology and community counselling at Stellenbosch University as a Mandela Rhodes Scholar. He is one of the founding members of SAScholar and is passionate about improving education and community mental health in South Africa as a servant leader.