April 18 2011
Vicente Gonzalez, BSILR '11, Represents Cornell at World Debate Championship in Botswana
With a lobster roll on hand I stared outside the large airport windows witnessing Boston doing its best to keep my flight grounded. Several flights were snowed in and #1701 to Johannesburg via Atlanta had already been delayed twice. There were six plows clearing the road at Logan and a de-ice working on the wings of the plane at the gate, it seemed as though we would never depart.
Alas we were on our way, 16 hours until we landed in an entire mass of land and culture I had very little experience with. I met up with the 9 other Cornell students at the OR Ambo International Airport in Johannesburg and we ventured together on a van towards Gabriel, Botswana. The temperature was warm and welcoming, and this was the motif for the 17 day 3 country winter break excursion of a life time.
The main attraction was the World Debate Championships which comprises of the largest student event in the World. 640 competitors from colleges and universities around the planet came to this year’s host, Botswana, to engage in competitive British Parliamentary styled debate, meet and befriend students from around the world.
One of the reasons I applied to ILR was its appeal for students who were tuned in to the world around them, who wanted to gain knowledge, skills and experience necessary to create change throughout the planet.
Debate is a great venue for cultural exchange. The activity promotes intellectual engagement between the participants, and this carries on well after the debate rounds are over. I met debaters from all over the world, including the surrounding countries of Namibia and South Africa. We were able to communicate as debaters, but also we shared a similar background of growing up in developing nations. It had been 11 years since I had spent time back in the global south, and I had forgotten to a great degree the embrace and friendliness of these ‘third world’ cultures.
It is important to understand the differences in cultures, and recognize value from those dissimilarities. With globalization in seemingly full force, the true question isn’t about free trade, rather what values will be imported back to the developed nations, and which should we prevent from polluting paradise.
My Namibian friends invited me to road trip across their country after the tournament was over, and I jumped at the privilege to see the African continent through the eyes of locals. From Windowed, to Swampland and SOS, Namibia had a strong and developed tourist infrastructure. All the sites were very well preserved and small towns near these attractions were bustling with activity and work. But it didn’t take long to peel back the pristine city sidewalks to see that racism still dwelled. Centuries of colonialism and apartheid were plaguing the school system. Education was being determined by old models of Afrikaans as a first language, which quickly placed certain groups of students on less favorable tracks.
The same type of dichotomy was present when we entered South Africa. One end of Cape Town was immaculate, with vineyards that hosted a display of a pride of rare white lions. Only a short drive away gets you to the beautiful picturesque beach with Table Mountain as a backdrop. But the freezing waters of Cape Town served as a chilling symbol of the contrast in inequality.
I visited the Soweto shantytowns of Cape Town and came across a weekend festival full of barbequing, dancing, and house music. Poverty seems to be uniform throughout the world; it arises from society’s lack of or restriction of opportunity. It is people like you and me that live in these neighborhoods. Entire populations of families that endure hardships like dealing with little electricity, where clean water is a luxury, and jobs are even scarcer. But with what they have they make do, and what a glorious weekend it was. House music boomed from speakers as the party in Soweto continued, I danced along delighted that this corner of the earth had embraced such a glorious sound. There were different variations of African house, like kwaito that included fusions of more traditional and folkloric beats, lyrics and melodies. There was peace and dance, at all times I felt safe, it was a rare treat experience the smiles and laugh with the people of the Soweto shanty towns.
The peaceful transition of power from apartheid states to democratic governments displays the potential of this southern region. The opportunities are vast in Africa, from health and education, to poverty; it is labor and development which are the crux of Africa’s development. ILR breads student leaders and gives them tools necessary to help and take on such challenges around the world. Courses in ILR along with life experiences had prepared me to view the plights of this Southern African region as opportunities. My sophomore year I took a course in distribution and development which taught me the value of street economies. Along with the series of entrepreneurship classes that were offered in ILR, I no longer perceived my trip as a tourist, rather was identifying opportunities to help develop the region. My career aspirations changed because of this trip, I came back from Africa invigorated and yearning to read more, learn more, and with a more focused purpose to life.