"A More Perfect Union," or, Oprah Sends me to South Africa, Where I did not Meet Charlize Theron - PART ONE

If we've learned anything from this election and subsequent fallout, it is that parts of this country really, really, REALLY, do not understand each other. There is endless talk now of the "two Americas," divided by political party, socioeconomic class, geography, and a host of heart-wrenching social issues. What will it take to the unite these so-called United States back together?

In the darkest moments, it seems pretty impossible. It is at these times that my thoughts sometimes turn, wonderingly, to the country of South Africa - here was a people divided both in law and in practice, who rose above it to form a nation with so much promise, and who still face such challenges in realizing that promise. When I spent time there, the post-apartheid era was not yet 15 years old, and I could sense the raw hope for a better society. What can we learn from their attempts to mend their rifts, so deeply cemented over so many years? I can't pretend to know the whole answer, but during my time there, I did get a sense of what it takes. Fellow citizen, we have a lot of work to do. 


I certainly didn’t set out to do HIV/AIDS research in South Africa - it was simply the best option at the time. I was a 2L in law school and determined to go abroad that summer. I had spent the previous summer sitting in a deeply air-conditioned office in Washington DC because I had heard that being a 1L summer associate at a firm was both prestigious and fiscally responsible. However, back at school, I couldn’t help but glow green with envy every time my classmates recounted their inspiring work abroad on human rights or war crimes.

So I started looking for public interest organizations needing eager law students. My best bet was Harvard Law’s Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics (a real mouthful). The Center was a think tank for research at the intersection of science, medicine, and law. As one of the first student fellows at the Center, we met in small seminars with a multidisciplinary network of faculty (including then-Professor Elizabeth Warren) to discuss current scholarship. The level of discourse was high. When I wrote a law review article about the regulation of genetic tests, my advisor was Professor Peter Barton Hutt, the guy at the FDA who wrote the key regulation. Talk about access! I was a bioethics junkie at the time and talking about this stuff was a huge part of the reason I went to law school.

Through this network, I met a PhD economist who suggested that I contact his organization in South Africa. The NGO, Mpilonhle, works to find innovative solutions to health and other social issues in rural northern Kwa-Zulu Natal. In that region, the HIV/AIDS epidemic had wreaked havoc on every aspect of society, so the mission of the NGO was really to better people’s lives through public health. The NGO’s name, Mpilonhle, even means “A good life” in Zulu. I had never even thought about South Africa, but I was game for anything, so I spoke to the director, the demanding but imminently humanitarian Dr. Bennish, and he wrote a grant to one of Mpilonhle's funders - Oprah’s Angel Network. Oprah's people approved funding for my expenses, and so that was that! I was going to South Africa! Thanks Oprah!

My assignment for the NGO was to figure out what laws and policies governed HIV/AIDS matters in rural schools, ranging from health services to sexual education. It seemed like a tall order, but with characteristic law student confidence, I figured I would sort it all out once I got there.

Before I could go, however, I did the responsible thing and summered at the whitest-shoe, most prestigious law firm I could find. The two worlds I inhabited that summer could not have been any more different. As a BigLaw summer associate, I did a fair amount of work but also ate at the finest restaurants in New York (with a generous budget cap) and attended endless social events featuring alcohol (no cap). Only after this revelry in the lap of first-world luxury did I pack up my things and lug myself to JFK airport, carrying two suitcases and several new rolls of fat from rich eating. I boarded my South African Airways flight, ready for an adventure and not really sure what I'd find. 

Rolling sugar cane fields of Kwa-Zulu Natal

Rolling sugar cane fields of Kwa-Zulu Natal

It turns out that no amount of preparation can fully illuminate a way of life that is so different from your own - you just have to go and live it. There were many such differences, but perhaps the single greatest difference I experienced was in the general level of civil safety. I'm talking about South Africa's reputation for violent, often deadly, crime. Having grown up in the U.S., I had no way of comprehending how widespread violent crime could be a part of normal life. Yet, in South Africa, it was. I slowly gleaned this situation from well-meaning people who did not want to scare me but also wanted me to be safe. As a result, they would often deliver alarming advice with seeming nonchalance. For example:

  1. Here is a keychain with a button on it. Keep this by your bed and if anything happens in the middle of the night, push this and someone will come. But not the police. They stay away until the trouble is over. That man walking by your window is the guard who spends the night pacing around the house and checking in to a sensor every so often so we know he is still there.

  2. If your car breaks down, do not get out of your car. Lock your door and windows and contact us. We are listed under ICE (in case of emergency) in your mobile.

  3. If you need to lock up the house when we’re out, here are the keys for the gate to the living room, the gate at the bottom of the stairs, and the gate at the top of the stairs. Keep the gates on your windows locked; this room has been broken into before.

  4. Try not to walk on that side of the street where the bank is. When the armored van shows up with the money, sometimes robbers and the armored van get into a gunfight and it's best not to be around.

  5. Make sure to leave the office and get home before it gets dark. Do not drive in the dark.

I took note of these warnings like a dutiful child, but it took me a while to understand the whys. For instance, my checked luggage had gone missing when I transferred through Jo'burg, and when I got it back a week later, it had been meticulously picked through, documents taken out of folders, computer parts stolen and the packaging carefully replaced. It dawned on me, as object permanence might dawn on an infant, that this was a standard op - baggage handlers could remove a piece of luggage for a week, take their time with it, and face no ramifications.

In my naivete, I sometimes resisted the advisories. One day, I was working alone in the NGO office, keeping an eye on the time but really wanting to finish my task. I got an urgent call from the directors back at the house, asking where I was. I wondered why they seemed so pissed. "I'm just finishing something up at the office - I'll be on my way soon," I told them. The sun was still out. It was not yet 5pm. "Don't go anywhere. We're sending people for you," they told me. Minutes later, a pickup truck with a group of armed men standing in the back showed up at the office and escorted my car home. I followed them on the country roads through beautiful, endless acres of tall crops waving in the setting sun.

Looking back, I was hesitant to accept the warnings because I didn't want to believe what I was hearing: that just about everyone in South Africa had a personal story about violent crime; that the incidence of reported rape was among the highest in the world, and that sexual violence was the norm for many; that lethal force was used with callous frequency in carjackings and robberies (see the US State Department's take on all this here). I didn't want that to be anyone's reality. But over my time there, I accepted the precautions, and by implication, the dangers motivating them. As a woman, I was particularly vulnerable (though not any more or less so than any other woman there). Nor was I immune as a foreigner or one of very few Asians - the violence famously permeates all social barriers, including class, race, and geography. 

As my knowledge grew, I expanded my view of "normal" life and stayed calm. At least, I thought I was calm. However, when my return flight landed at JFK airport, something unexpected happened - the second the wheels hit the tarmac, something in me let go and I exhaled deeply. At that moment, I realized that, for weeks and weeks, I had been holding my breath - driving with my body tensed, sleeping with ears perked, and waking with eyes opened wider and wider. The instant I returned to American soil, I felt a wave of relief like I’d never felt before. I had made it home, intact, with an indelible appreciation for the rule of law and newfound shame at how much I took for granted.