Abinaya Balasubramaniam is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto
Editor’s Note: This week’s column comes from a Sri Lankan – Canadian university student, who is also taking courses in Caribbean Studies. Her reflections on what she learned while interning in Southern Africa, hold important lessons for us all about seeking out connections across our differences, recognizing ourselves in each other. Abinaya’s story gently instructs us (including in Guyana) that it is courageous, and necessary, to take a leap of faith and step out of the spaces on maps (including the maps in our minds) that are meant to keep us in place, divided eternally from each other.
“With a background in constantly learning about the effects of inequality, there have been numerous times when I had to close my books and go to sleep because I didn’t want to think about it. I did not want racism to exist. I did not want to learn about the effects of colonialism. I did not want to know about economic and social disparities. To be honest, before this internship, I have had doubts of whether I really believed in social advocacy, but after three months of making amazing lifelong friends and working with powerful, inspirational people, I have come to realize that there is a community just for me even if it’s half way around the world. We share the same passion and that for me shows solidarity. As much as I close my books at the end of the night because I feel hopeless, I know that the next morning, I will go back to educating myself about the effects of inequality. This is what I am most passionate about and I am going to continue working towards equity, in one form or another.”
These were my final words at the Final Forum presentation at the University of Namibia a few months ago in front of faculty staff members, NGOs, University of Toronto interns, students, and community activists – words I couldn’t finish because my emotions overcame me.
Looking back at the three months I spent in Namibia working with the Namibian Women’s Health Network (NWHN), I try to trace my reasons for excitement in applying for the internship offered by one of the Colleges at the University of Toronto, New College, which emphasizes equity, diversity and social justice as its mandate.
I was brought up in a household that rarely spoke about homeland. My family migrated from Sri Lanka, a small island in South Asia that experienced a 25-year bloody civil war. My sense of home has always been blurry. Sri Lanka was once colonized by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. Not long after gaining independence, there was growing segregation between Sri Lankan Singhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils. Although the Tamil-Singhalese civil war may have been carried on for 25 long years, discrimination and injustice have been in existence since the day my mother was born, over half a century ago.
Growing up, there were moments when I witnessed my parents cry when they received long distance phone calls informing them about family members being killed in the liberation struggle. I suppose my parents never spoke about it because they didn’t want to look back on painful memories.
This sense of an unfamiliar home only caused curiosity to grow within me. When I did return ‘home’ to Sri Lanka at the age of 13, the suspicious security checks, uncomfortable body checks, and intimidating identity checks, the constant pressure of having to prove myself as a civilian was enough to know I wasn’t wanted in my motherland. Racial segregation and racism were still very much alive.
I vividly remember, at the age of 18, I was fundraising money to go to Kenya as a university intern. One of my aunts bluntly asked,“Why Africa? Why not Sri Lanka?”, as if I should instead be doing something for “my own people”. Back then I didn’t have an answer. Years later, I still get the question, “Why a South Asian girl in Africa?” Fortunately today, I feel as if I do have an answer.
When I was preparing for my three month internship in Namibia to work with the NWHN, a community based organization for those living with and affected by HIV and AIDS, there were a myriad of emotions within me. Excitement that I was going to be in a different continent working with people I have never met, yet doubts about whether I was going to be able to step outside my comfort zone.
After attending intensive orientation sessions and reading exhaustively about Namibia, I set foot into the country, being warned that I might be overwhelmed by ‘culture shock’. I was in the African continent that was never introduced to me as home, but in fact, the feeling of home swiftly settled in.
Namibia is a country that recently gained independence in 1990 from South Africa and is known to have a growing rate of HIV and AIDS with a population of about 2.1 million people, a little less than the city of Toronto where I live.
As an intern in Namibia I had to be aware of my privileges and the space I occupied. Although there were times when I witnessed and experienced discrimination, working with NWHN helped me realize that these issues can and must be consistently challenged.
Arriving in Namibia, I was the only intern not recognized as “Canadian.” I was identified as “the exotic Indian girl.” At first, I didn’t want to be identified as the Indian girl. I’m not Indian. I’m Sri Lankan Tamil, yet my brown skin had people thinking I was from India, not Sri Lanka and definitely not Canada. Canada was where White people lived. However, during my earlier stay in Kenya, I was identified as a ‘Muzungu’, a white person. Intriguing how the construction of race changes from country to country within this single continent. In Namibia, there was something amazing waiting for me every day. I would walk into work be told to go into informal settlements to assist with teaching English (the national language in Namibia) to HIV positive mothers, help with a document for the United Nations regarding the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT), or gather with activists and supporters in Windhoek, Namibia and worldwide for the Forced Sterilisation Campaign.
The Stop Forced Sterilisation Campaign was unquestionably one of the most valuable learning experiences of my internship. Stimulating dialogues were always brought up at the NWHN and in the community regarding the ethics of sterilisation, and the importance and priority of women’s reproductive healthrights.
The campaign began when stories of HIV+ mothers being sterilized came to light a few years ago. Since then, Namibians, with many supporters worldwide, have led a vigorous campaign to bring these cases to court. Through hosting community meetings and raising awareness via media outlets, there was a successful turnout at the High Court to hear the final court judgment. Fortunately, I was able to be present at the hearing.
Two claims were brought to the Namibian High Court on July 30th, 2012. The Court acknowledged the first claim, that it is a human rights violation to forcibly or coercively sterilize a woman. The second claim, brought by three HIV-positive women who were discriminated against and sterilized due to their status, was dismissed. Although there is still work to do on HIV discrimination, the success of the first claim is a step forward in safeguarding women’s reproductive health rights. It is rewarding to know that this case was the first of its kind in southern Africa and people are showing camaraderie across the world to have issues like this come to the forefront.
Working with NWHN has taught me about HIV and AIDS in a way that transcends anything I could have possibly learned from just my studies at university. I have had the opportunity to work alongside dedicated activists who tirelessly work towards the prevention of HIV transmission and decreasing discrimination towards those affected by HIV. I was able to have dialogues with many young men and women about self-esteem amongst youth and those living in poverty. But beyond all this, the women at the NWHN made my stay in Namibia feel as if I belonged to a community outside of my immediate family. My Zimbabwean, Kenyan, Zambian and Namibian sisters spoke about stories of xenophobia, racism, classism and sexism. Together we shared stimulating, boisterous memories of belonging, to different places and people.
Through these conversations Icame to a profound realization. When we have open and honest conversations, we come to recognize that we are all just humans, communicating the spaces we fled, struggled, fought, cried and laughed, as we all continue to find a place to ‘fit in’ or find belonging. And isn’t that what it essentially comes down to?
Communication is a powerful tool. The attempt to master the art of communication and to identify with others’ experiences was immensely liberating for me. I was able to have dialogues of memory and home with people in Namibia. Hearing stories about our journeys in leaving our homeland or moving around within our country to access things such as higher education, or a promising life was really what made us connected.
So, why is a South Asian girl from a small island called Sri Lanka finding a sense of belonging in parts of Africa? Perhaps it may be the Indian Ocean journey of many Africans who migrated to Sri Lanka as enslaved peoples in the 16th century, some of whom still live in Northwestern Sri Lanka. Or maybe it’s my connection to Sri Lankan Tamils who were brought to Robben Island in South Africa as political prisoners in the 17th century.
Although looking back into history may not be as transparent as I hope it would be, I do know that slowly throughout my three months in Namibia and South Africa, I came to an understanding. It wasn’t really about exoticizing me as the ‘Indian girl’. Sure, the color of my skin made me appear different to some extent, but conversations of history and experiences took us beyond it.
People tend to have markers of spaces for everyone on the map where we are meant to stay, and at times we have to challenge it but also acknowledge it as these ideas shift through different time periods and places. Sometimes I wonder if I’d feel at home if I were to ever go back to Sri Lanka, if forms of belonging will surpass the tension of racial segregation.
Before departing on this exchange I had no idea I would be embarking on a journey that would rekindle my passion to work with communities but also bring about a budding historian in me, in search of finding my ancestors not only in South Asia but in the continent of Africa.
These past three months have made an impact on my life more than words can ever encapsulate. It has been a blessing to be embraced by the people of Namibia and I hope to carry forward this palpable experience in a new and inspiring way.