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Breathing Space

Being secluded in the city of Seattle for most of my life, tragedies seem distant, in the past, and forgettable. My trip to Cape Town was a re-awakening to the struggles of Black people. With the construction of race came the destruction of lands, families, values, and ultimately, humanity. No matter how beautiful the nature preserves, or how kind and bright our tour guides, it’s clear to see how race can benefit some and be parasitic to others. Throughout my trip, I was stuck in limbo, between the students who went partying every night and the Black locals who were driven to the townships, by taxis too dangerous for US citizens, every night.

My weekly experiences in the historic city.

Week 1

I met a great-grandmother.

Who shares a room with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The stone house separated into four rooms and an entry way.

Each room housing generations of families.

I was the last to enter the home,

preserving each detail in my mind.

Our tour guide points behind us,

the grandmother, sitting a-top her bed, invites us in.

I am the first to enter the room walking softly

not wanting to disturb her or her belongings.

She grabs my hand and whispers,

“It’s okay, it’s okay, come in.”

12 bodies cramped into the space.

I pull in my belly to make more room for others.

Then nod back at her.


Week 2

I’m feeling out of place.

Intrinsically disordered.

My roommates plan a dinner. Pizza, just a few blocks away.

The restaurant is dimly lit, door wide open, with heater blasting.

The three of us bumble around the entrance until the waiter seats us.

After we order, silence sets in.

I can feel my heartrate increasing,

so, I inhale slower and exhale slower

try not to breathe so loud.

The volume of the wind and the heater are rising,

I look down.

But I want to appear normal,

eye contact is normal.

I look up and make eye contact

and smiling is normal.

I half smile then nod.

One of them asks,

“So, what university do you go to, again?”


Week 3

Cape Town belongs to me,

and I belong to him.

With so many mountains,

to get to know him,

I must climb.

So, I climb.

One leg after the other,

shirt soaked with sweat,

water bottle empty,

skin dry and breeze setting in.

I can’t get enough.

We snap pictures of the sun set,

as true mountaineers pass by.


Week 4

Cape Town is more deceitful than I could’ve ever imagined.

Our guest speakers, advocates for health,

tell us their stories, South Africa’s secrets.


We visit a brand-new Private Hospital.

Our tour guide answers our questions with, ‘This is a business.’

We see only 5 patients of the fifty beds we pass on the 4th floor.

We continue to inquire, “Where are the people?”

Her reply: “Look at this view!”


We visit the public hospital across town.

Blood spots on the ground.

Doctors over-worked.

Community Health Workers in abundance.

People lining the walls, waiting to be seen.

My chest is heavy with the sights and stories of violence.


Week 4 cont’d

After my morning class,

as everyone else is breaking off into groups.

I walk in the opposite direction searching for space.


I walk down to the beach.

Then I walk around the concrete wall.

It blocks the ocean from washing away the city.

I sit as close as I can to the wall.


I have space to breathe here.

Sitting on a large branch,

My chest and throat are tight.


I try to stop the tears, but they keep coming.

I pick up a leaf to distract myself,

tearing the leaf apart.

Finally, I have space!


Then a man approaches.

My view of the ocean, the sky, and the horizon,

shrunk the moment he stepped into it.

His voice interrupts my thoughts and my tears.

He thinks it’s good that I am visiting Africa.

He thinks all Black Americans should visit Africa.

Visit their sisters and brothers from the homeland.

He doesn’t know me, but he can teach me.


“I do not want to talk,” I tell him.


Unless when your mother called,

and you told her about your struggles,

and she said, “Baby girl, they don’t know you are stardust.

But I know and you know. You are stardust.”


You see, you see a Black American woman,

but I know myself to be stardust.


I rise and walk away,

Where can I get some space?

Unable to breathe.

I gasp for air as I walk.

Sunglasses covering my tears.


Week 5

This is the only part of the hospital that doesn’t feel chaotic. With over 200 women waiting to be seen, everyone is calm and quiet.

Bola, the nurse I am shadowing, fusses with a machine. Rearranging cords and insisting that she had to get this particular machine to work, “I want them to hear their baby’s heartbeat, we have to use this machine,” she explains.

Four hours fly by. I don’t want to leave this tiny corner of the hospital. The women are kind, forthcoming with their stories, and bursting with contentment. Bola inquires differently for each woman, guiding them towards greater health.

“How often are you eating? … Well, you got to eat more than that!”

“Are you working out? … You know just a 15-minute walk will do.”

“Are you getting enough sleep? … Well, get as much as you can before the baby comes.”

Some mothers caught in their thoughts, simply answer questions with nods and one-word replies.

Others are chatter boxes, asking me about American Hospitals. Telling me about their special diets and other children.

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