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One month ago I boarded a plane to South Africa. I was expecting to enter a world of people speaking other languages that I couldn’t understand, African dances that I wanted to learn, and a different culture filled with safaris and rituals. Most of all I wanted a better understanding of the South African health care system and the growing epidemic of HIV/AIDS.

Some of my findings reflected my expectations. I watched young children try to teach me to dance. I listened to them sing the South African anthem. I watched every single one of their eyes glow and their smiles would go from ear to ear when I would take their picture. They all were so happy. Amazingly enough I was the one that was sad. I watched these children play by themselves in piles of garbage with tattered clothes and dirty little bare feet. Behind their happy smiles, in the distance, I could see beautiful mountains and the bright sun. Somewhere there was something beyond the piles of garbage and dirty little feet running around. All I could think of were the times that I was frustrated that the cable was out, or my internet was working too slowly. All that time I never looked past for something better. I can’t say whether these children were told there was something better; something beyond the present. Maybe since they didn’t know any different, they were brought up to make use of all they had and appreciate it.
I was able to experience animals that I would never dare to see outside my car window. The lions were relaxing two feet away from our safari jeep, and elephants trotted past the van with their tusks dangerously close. I jotted down every fact I could remember that our tour guide would say with enthusiasm almost not realizing that I was standing next to these amazing creatures.
I spent many days before the trip wondering and thinking of ways to get across the repercussions of unprotected sex, the dangers in sharing needles, and the possibility of infecting the unborn child. I assumed a large portion of the population was just uninformed and we would go and help to spread our knowledge. After working within the South African hospital systems and multiple clinics, I realized that my original ideas to educate the population of South Africa were not feasible. Many of them are educated about HIV/AIDS. The clinics have hand outs, voluntary counseling and testing, free ARV medications, free contraceptives and still over one third of the population remains infected. When I wanted to know why, many of the nurses said it was ignorance. They spent countless hours educating and trying to get people tested. In turn, patients would giggle at the talk of contraception, not show up for clinic “appointments,” and not take their ARV medications. Patients would purposely stop taking their medications in order to have their CD4 count drop below 200 to be eligible for government assistance. That was the most baffling part to me. These people would run themselves down so much, and become so sick that they can’t do anything for themselves only to try to get government money. What will they do with that government money if they are too sick to use it?
At the clinics, pap smears were done with re-useable speculums and popsicle sticks. Patients would stand in a line every morning even before the sun came up to be able to get into the clinic. There is no privacy. TB patients would sit in the TB area, same with HIV/AIDS patients and the same with mothers and infants. Everyone knew your diagnosis. You sit in a room as a female and expose your breasts to the nurses, while two seats over a male patient is having a check up done by another nurse. There is no heat or air. Windows are left open for ventilation and flies swarm above patients. Fly paper dangling from the ceiling with dead flies garnishes the public hospitals. The smell of feces permeates through certain wards as well; all while the private hospital patients are allowed to order the seafood medley from the lunch menu. It seems there is no middle ground. Women only have funding to have one Pap smear every ten years and there is no funding for colonoscopies at all. Breast cancer is high as well as prostate cancer if you are lucky enough to live to the age where you are likely to see it occur in men.
My experience here has been one that I could never replicate. I have gained so much knowledge and wealth. I could never explain this experience in words. The magnificent views that I encountered while jumping off of the highest bungee bridge in the world, the exotic animals that I was so dangerously close to; these were things that were a once in a lifetime opportunity. I could never explain what it felt like to want to bring all of my belongings to Africa and leave them there. I could never take someone by the hand and walk them into the villages and townships and make them understand what poverty is, because we did that, and people still took things for granted. People still wanted to go home and still were not satisfied with what they had. I can only speak for myself where I say that before I complain, I will honestly remember that I am very fortunate. I am lucky to be alive and to have a healthy family and supportive friends in my life. Going to South Africa has truly been a rewarding and enriching experience. I feel very privileged that I get to be part of the first group of study abroad students to go there. I would do it again in a heartbeat; even if it means taking prophylactic aspirin before a 20 hour flight, wearing uncomfortable compression stockings, and being sprayed down with Malaria spray on return to the United States.

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