Close your eyes and imagine that you are on a mountaintop, like a roof garden with yellow, white, and red flowers and so much green. The top-down view of the clear blue ocean reflects the sunlight, and the streets of the city are filled with people. Souvenir sellers call out to tourists to sell traditional beaded accessories, paintings and hand-carved animal figures. Some tourists don’t even look their way; some interested tourists try to haggle over the price of various items. Then, suddenly, one little black girl with messy hair and bare feet, wearing clothes covered with patches approaches you. She looks about 6 years old. With no hope, she stares into your eyes and holds out both hands stiffly toward you. “Please, please,” she begs you. What do you want to do for her? What concerns come across your mind? This incident happened to me when I went to South Africa three years ago for an exchange program. I knew I wanted to help her but I thought, “Should I?” What if more boys and girls who may be hiding come out and ask me for money? When it happened, I was afraid. I couldn’t do anything for her. Literally, nothing. I just ran away as if I did not see the girl. This was the moment I was tormented by a strong feeling of powerlessness.
After I came back to Japan, I continued to have flashbacks of the scenes I saw in South Africa. Contrary to what I imagined, Cape Town, where I stayed, was an energetic city with big shopping malls including fashion stores like Zara and Topshop. Outside the mall, a group of African performers wearing red African traditional clothes played music with traditional instruments and drums to entertain people. A distance away, there was the memorial museum for Nelson Mandela and South African history. I could see a lot of tourists, even a group of Japanese people. On the other hand, once I left the city, I always saw a completely different scene. In the slum areas, in between residential areas for white people, there were tattered cloths hanging over ropes, and between them, I could see small houses with tinplated roofs. Children were playing soccer out there, but they were all black, while the white children were either horseback riding nearby, or out in the city hanging out with their friends. There were invisible racial lines between the residential areas. Even now, 20 years after the end of Apartheid, which was the racist policy held in South Africa, I rediscovered the fact that racial inequality still exists.
More surprisingly, I found that I judged people by their appearance even though I was taught not to do so in school. When I saw a group of black children in town, I was in fear and I tried to avoid interacting with them subconsciously, but not with the white children. However, when I participated in a service program, I visited an orphanage, a kindergarten, and a hospital where poor children lived and studied and were cared for. All the children were very friendly, winding their arms about my legs and instantly opening the books I’d brought for them. Their eyes sparkled with wonder at everything. They were people, just like you and me, only a little bit younger. Nothing was different.
For me, the environment that I grew up in was nothing special. I had never thought of racial issues living in Japan. However, jumping into a completely different world made me face an unexpected discovery about myself. Putting myself in an unfamiliar situation allowed me to reflect on myself and made me realize two things that I have inside me: prejudice and passion. Avoiding and running away from the girl I met in South Africa was completely unintentional, but after re-thinking the situation, I noticed that I was being prejudiced. Simultaneously, I felt my passion to save those children like the black girl and to help improve their lives.
Most of us don’t consider the things happening around us, but once you get out of your normal life, your so-called comfort zone, you will encounter some unfamiliar situations, and then, you might want to reflect upon yourself for the first time. What you will find through reflection could be positive and negative, like I discovered about myself in South Africa. It does not have to be a special thing. I am not saying that this is why you should go to Africa. But take your time to question yourself and try to look inside your heart. What do you believe? Are you able to put what you believe into action? This might allow you to recognize what you secretly have inside and help you find a new part of yourself.