I can officially say I’ve been in Detroit now for six weeks, but I feel like I’ve been here for six years. Not because I know everything there is to know about Detroit; I don’t even have a favorite bar or grocery store yet. It’s because there’s something so familiar in this city that is still foreign to me. There was something about Detroit that stood out to me back in May when I first applied for the Fellowship. And while I alluded to that familiarity in my minute-long application video, I couldn’t quite place what it was.
Then I ordered a steering wheel lock for my car a couple of weeks ago.
And I’ve been using it ever since. And it hasn’t felt weird or imposing, which I didn’t think anything of…until one of my friends said something about it.
It’s a natural thing to have, to me. Because my family in Johannesburg uses them; I remember my dad using one here when I was a kid. And now I use one.
My parents were born and brought up in Johannesburg, South Africa, as were all of their siblings and all of my cousins. Only my brother and I were born and brought up in America, in New Jersey’s many suburbias. I have spent many summer vacations in Joburg, visiting family and understanding my mixed cultural roots. You see, my grandparents immigrated to South Africa from India, chasing opportunity only to find themselves thrust into the tensions of Apartheid.
With Apartheid as a backdrop for their childhoods, my parents and family have a unique perspective on segregation, which has helped me understand some of the nuances in Detroit.
With post-Apartheid as the current backdrop for South Africa, my family knows all too well the issues of bankruptcy and corruption that still even the most forceful of movements. They experience the impact that the lack of foundational education has on high school and college success, and, eventually, the strength of the workforce every day. They know from many home robberies—some unarmed when no one was home; others armed with people around—the problems a city has with crime rates when there isn’t enough manpower or respect for authority. And they understand the tensions and conversations a city so fresh out of segregation experiences.
These are issues that I’m seeing in Detroit that I’ve grown up hearing about…but in terms of a city on the other side of the world. They are issues I never thought I’d experience for myself.
But it’s not only the very tangible, very much pondered problems of Detroit that make me draw these parallels between my new home and my motherland. There’s a sense of community that runs deep in both places, a welcoming treat to any city.
In both Detroit and Johannesburg, residents have lived in the same houses and same communities for over 50 years. Neighbors look after each other, because their parents’ parent’s knew each other and their kids have been in class together since they were in diapers. Houses are passed down through families, and families often stay close to each other.
My parents each grew up with yards shared by four to five households, at least, so they always had a pack of kids to run with in their youths. Households often consisted of a large nuclear family as well as a number of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. So ‘space’ and ‘privacy’ were not words in my parents’ vocabularies until they encountered the teenage versions of my brother and me, born and raised in the U.S. of A., where “Mom, I need my privacy!” is a common teenage saying often accompanied by an eye-roll.
But it’s not an exclusive sense of community, either. Strangers talk to newcomers and welcome them with open arms, eager to share the hidden gems and delights of their hometown. Natives of both cities quickly make you a part of the inner network, introducing you to friends of friends of friends proudly. Detroiters and South Africans are friendly and connected, and make sure you feel the same way when you’re in their neck of the woods.
I think the importance of community to Detroit and Joburg is something that stems from the racial violence that was a part of both cities’ histories. Underneath everything, shared experiences forge strong bonds.
I know I’ve written a lot about the issues that Detroit and Johannesburg both face in the years after formal desegregation. But one of the most important positives is the strong sense of community that rose from the ashes. It’s the community that encourages people to have faith, to keep keeping on.