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CYC-Online 53 JUNE 2003
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Why am I here?

Miriam Seidenfeld was a student at the Centre for Youth Development & Research at the University of Minnesota, and had done youthwork at the Temple Israel Synagogue and at Project Offstreet, a drop-in centre for homeless youth in Minnesota. She attended the 1989 Biennial Conference of South Africa's NACCW and visited other child care activities in the Western Cape. Many people asked her “Why are you here in South Africa?" Here she attempted to answer this question.

Always in the big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the unknown, and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into. What you are doing is exploring. You are undertaking the first experience, not of the place, but of yourself in that place. It is an experience of essential loneliness, for nobody can discover the world for anyone else. It is only after we have discovered it for ourselves that it becomes a common ground and a common bond, and we cease to be alone.
– Wendell Berry

The one inch journey
I left my hometown, Minneapolis, Minnesota, my friends, my family, my job, and my studies at the University of Minnesota to arrive in mid-September in Cape Town, South Africa. What possessed me to travel so far (nineteen sleepless hours by plane) to a country that I had heard so much of, yet knew so little about? I am often asked that question. Unfortunately, I am not quite as poetic as Wendell Berry. I don't answer, “I am leaving the familiar ground of Minneapolis to step off alone into a new place where I will feel curious and excited with a little nagging of dread, to discover the world for myself". Instead, I usually answer the posed question with a lot of practical idealism and a bit of reality (and absolutely no poetry). So why did I come to South Africa? Practically, I came here intending to find out how the culture of a particular country affects youth, youth agencies, and youth workers' ability to serve the needs of the children in their care. By observing a variety of child care facilities in Cape Town, I had hoped to get a sense of what services are available and how they compare to those in the United States. To gain a deeper understanding of how South African culture affects work with youth, I took a more active route of exploration.

First of all, by living at Oranjia Jewish Children's Home, I can observe and participate in the daily lives of South African children. All of the children and the staff of Oranjia have been extremely friendly and inquisitive since the moment I walked in the door. I thank them all for sharing their space, their stories, and their concerns with me. Secondly, I am trying to establish a cross-cultural (non-racial) program for young people from a variety of children's homes. The program is similar to one that I supervised in the United States. The minimal structure is there so that participants can get to know one another and begin working together as a group. But beyond that, the participants decide what form and function their group will take (forum for discussion, social outings, sports club, etc.) By working through the process to set up this program and observing factors such as:

  1. community support and acceptance;

  2. children's willingness to participate; and

  3. issues that arise in cross-cultural programming, I hope to gain a better understanding of the role that culture plays in youth services.

Now that I have outlined the ideal process and outcomes of my experiences in South Africa, I can more honestly describe the reality of what has happened since my jet-lagged arrival in Cape Town.

My entire excursion was based on a plan that allowed me to “experience the place" that I am visiting as an observer. I thought that I would come to South Africa and see the people, the institutions, etc., and magically understand them and find a useful context back home to apply my new-found understanding of youth work in a foreign country. (Here’s where the reality sets in.) After leaving the security of my past, I am certain of only two things: one, nothing happens magically, and two, Wendell Berry knows best.

I thought that I had left the States to learn about new places and new people. But, instead, I am learning about myself and how I react when I come into contact with new places and new people. I have found how frustrating it feels to be speaking the same language as the person I am speaking to, but I don’t feel that we are communicating. I have found how energising it feels when I am talking with a person who speaks a language that I don't, and I understand them. I have felt the anger and the insecurity of having my most basic values challenged, and I couldn’t find the words or the courage to challenge back. And most importantly, I have realised that it is these uncomfortable experiences that are allowing me to see myself and look at my thoughts and ideas in a new way.

As child care workers, it is our responsibility to ourselves and to the children we work with to challenge our own development. The more we challenge ourselves to learn about who we are in relation to our old and new surroundings, the better able we are to challenge and encourage the development of the children with whom we work and grow.

Travelling “far from home" doesn’t have to mean flying to a different continent. If you live on top of a mountain, it might mean taking a hike along an untravelled path. Or if you have a distant view of the ocean, it might mean you have to get closer and play in the sand or the water. So why did I leave the security of my life m Minnesota to travel to the unknown land of South Africa? Maybe it was to “get closer to the ocean and to play in the sand". But whatever the answer is today, I know that it will be different tomorrow, next week, and when I leave Cape Town in January. That is why I am here.

This feature: Seidenfeld, Miriam. Why am I here? The Child Care Worker, 7, (11), 1989, 10.