Philadelphia reflected in South Africa to a young traveler

For Black History Month, we're exploring history and identity through the lens of joy. Black joy is the ability to love and celebrate black people and culture, despite the world dictating otherwise. Black joy is liberation.

Marvin Debose, 26, resident director of Temple University

In early November, three days after the  presidential election, I traveled to South Africa. I always thought I was well-versed, that I knew Africa wasn’t like what they showed on TV, but I still kind of expected what I saw on TV.

When I got off the plane, it looked like South Africa, but it didn’t feel like I was in Africa. But then I saw that  90 percent of the people looked like me. I felt at home because everyone treated me like family. I felt like a long-lost cousin.

We were doing a tour to one of the poorest districts of Johannesburg, called  Alexandria. We met an elderly lady who was a family member of one of our tour guides. She was a wearing a plastic smock because she was washing clothes, gray-haired, probably 5-foot-2, and she had a warm smile. She reminded me of my grandma. She saw me and said “You remind me of my son!” She hugged me. I just felt home. That’s something that would happen at a family reunion. I remember going to the mall in Johannesburg, going to one of the stores run by black guys and talking to them about culture and music. It felt like I was talking to someone in my neighborhood.

Camera icon Michael bryant / Staff Photographer

This was the first time that I ever took a vacation and felt such a kinship with strangers.

I got to pet lion cubs and hiked through the countryside of Johannesburg, but visiting the Apartheid Museum was one of the most eye-opening experiences. I saw a lot of parallels between Johannesburg and the U.S.  One of the main things that replayed in my mind was the phrase, "The struggle is global."

When I was thinking of the Johannesburg issues, I still thought about Philly. I was always thinking about how the struggle is all connected. The first step is to work within your own community.


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