Viewpoint: Lessons from South Africa


Published September 5, 2012

When I came home from Africa, I gave away half of the clothes in my closet. After meeting children with no shoes huddled in unheated shanties, I wanted to live with less in order to live with more. Those clothes wouldn't find their way to the deprived communities I had experienced. I suddenly felt disgusting for jamming my drawers with shirts of every style and color of the rainbow. The poignant eyes of the African children looking up at me inspired a lifestyle change.

Let me let you in on a little secret: Happiness can indeed be achieved without material goods. What brings meaning to our lives? Usually pursuing what makes us happy. As students at a top university, we should think persistently about how to make other people - and ourselves - happy, and the world a better place.

On our ten-day trip to South Africa this summer, the University’s Women’s Glee Club had several moving experiences. Not only did we sing with the most spiritual choirs in the world, but we shared our music with people who have nothing more than the shirt on their back - people who live day to day not knowing where their next meal will come from.

In general, the South Africans I met had an easier time seeing the important things in life than Americans. Part of their culture is to embrace ideas that make them happy instead of focusing intently on subjects that don't give them pleasure. They sing in the streets and smile by default. Many are dirt poor with no running water, yet they did not cast judgment when we drove into their shantytowns in Mercedes buses. Instead, they looked up at us with tears in their eyes after we sang, blessing us for sharing our music with them in a church or rustic banquet hall.

When I arrived back in the United States, I had a revelation. I bolted up in the middle of the night - perhaps due to six hours of jet-lag - and made plans to push material things out of my life and pull the spirit in. I sorted my clothes into piles. I took them downtown to a local community center and felt a gratifying twang in my heart when I handed over the bags.

This story is not a pat on the back for donating clothes, nor is it about how you should go clean out your closet (though I do suggest the latter, it’s an amazing rush). Americans, and college students in particular, get too caught up in superficiality. We get too obsessed with the newest pair of rain boots or the costly bottle of booze, and that's without mentioning the new pair of jeans every girl “needs” to make sure she looks just right. On the other hand, the South Africans have an optimistic outlook, originating from a wise sensibility.

We need to look at life like the South Africans I met. I am not saying everyone who cannot sing needs to try; rather, every person should pursue what he or she truly loves. Care less about what you are wearing and more about what you are doing while in those clothes. Try looking at your material goods as non-essential items for daily living, because chances are, half are unnecessary. Here at Michigan, we need to make sure that the concentration we choose is going to help us make a positive difference in the lives of others, not necessarily a difference in our bank accounts.

Maura Levine is an LSA sophomore.