Skip to content

“Doing Life”

By: Camey VanSant

By Pallavi

In the first week of my mostly virtual internship, we had an in person meeting with a group of 20 formerly incarcerated men who were members of a project called the “Global Freedom Fellows.” This was a collective a formerly incarcerated individuals being given a chance to reframe the narrative on life after prison in South Africa and offer their opinions on what reform in legislation and culture should look like to properly reintegrate former prisoners into society. South Africa has a huge population of formerly incarcerated individuals, with an overwhelming majority of those people being black, and coming from the townships–living areas “given” to black people by the government post-apartheid that also suffer from extreme poverty, electricity blackouts, and as a result, much higher rates of crime and violence. The government has openly deemed many of these areas as “too dangerous” to intervene directly with. Electricians and taxi drivers won’t even go to some townships anymore out of fear, but that only furthers a cycle of isolating the townships even more and giving poverty even more means to cause crime and violence.

There’s a lot to say about South African government, and any Uber driver would gladly give you the same debrief: loadshedding, which is when the electricity goes out for hours on end every day because the main electric grid for the whole country collapsed a few years ago due to government corruption in the funds that were supposedly being used to maintain it, is overrunning the country right now. Cape Town goes dark in different places 3-5 times a day, and unsurprisingly, the wealthier areas see way less loadshedding than the townships do. It’s an unusual life to imagine planning your meals around when your fridge and stove will work, but the people of South African have adapted and shown a resilience that reminds me of when covid took over. It’s just a new normal.

Anyway, I had imagined that meeting a group of people who had been through unimaginable journeys, many of whom were convicted for crimes committed in environments where joining a gang was a choice you had to make to survive, would be heavy, intense, and emotional. But I was wrong.

We began with introductions, going around in a circle introducing each other’s names, occupations, and stories, The first few people introduced themselves as formerly incarcerated–highlighting that as their main identity. But a few people in, one man said, “My name is Michael, and I am doing life.” He began to explain how he used to introduce himself similarly to everyone before him–leading with his crimes committed, but through conversation with one of the women in the room, had come to the realization that his story is not defined by his past, and who he is depends on his character, his current actions, and how he approaches the future. That really resonated with me.

So he does life. He, similar to many members in the room as I later found out, was working full time, volunteering, rebuilding a family, hanging out with friends, and was here–getting his voice heard. The sheer amount of joy I felt from everyone just observing the conversations they had was so surprising and amazing to be part of. I loved the philosophy of “doing life” but not he cliche “live like there’s no tomorrow” way, more like understanding that you are the one who determines your self worth and can control your impact on the world.

I was very aware of my privilege in just being there as someone who had gone through nothing remotely close to these people, the idea that earlier that week I had been researching brutal murder rates and extreme poverty of a town called Philippi while sitting in a pretty nice cafe of a gym just a few miles over, or the idea that I was an outsider coming in and assessing other people’s ways of life.

That was a trend I saw throughout the rest of my internship: balancing being an outsider and intruding in someone’s community with the genuine want and ability to help that community reach its full potential. My boss was amazing and very aware of all of these dynamics, and she made sure we were constantly in a state of observation rather than participation when having in person meetings with groups covering more sensitive topics, like domestic violence for example.

My friend Isabelle and I at our daily routine of breakfast at the gym cafe before both working our virtual internships for the day. We became best friends with the servers and learned a lot about local South African life from them.

What’s interesting is the trajectory of my internship began with the one in person formerly incarcerated meeting, then 6 weeks of online work on a global index for responsible artificial intelligence, and the one last in-person meeting with a domestic violence organization. And yet every ounce of work felt utterly connected to people. The work in AI was tedious, but so important–I didn’t realize how intertwined AI already was in our day to day life, and the project we were working on was groundbreaking as the first large government initiative on AI led by an African country and by researchers who were overwhelmingly from the southern hemisphere, not Europe or North America. It was seen as a stepping stone for the southern hemisphere, especially Africa and Central America, to establish the same level of framework and policy initiative around AI as America and most of Europe have. There was a lot of pressure to make sure every ounce of the handbook we were creating was perfect, so that it was taken seriously. Even though it was nonpolitical work on paper, in a way it felt more globally political than ever, and it felt crazy to be there writing parts of it while it was all happening.

A visit to Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned.

From my internship, I took away some material skills, but mostly, I observed the skill of navigation: how do you enter a space as an outsider and leave a more positive impact than negative? How do you establish trust with a group of strangers? How do you diffuse tension in a genuine but also professional way? The “work” side of Cape Town was just as rewarding as the “play,” and while sometimes I wished I could be at the beaching instead of staring at my computer for hours, I have never felt so rewarded or lucky to be on a project.

Cape Town gave me so much to be grateful for–life long friends, a new favorite place in the world, a new sense of adventure, many days of interesting work followed by lots of dancing, unparalleled independence, a GREAT tan, and even a few new Duke friends (shoutout George and Ryan if they see this). I miss it so much already. My time abroad has definitely counted as “doing life” but life is also not normally a 17 hour plane ride away. So I guess it’s up to me to continue doing life back home in DC, even if there aren’t casually just mountains, an ocean, and 30 awesome gap year kids in my backyard.

My boss Kelly, coworker Avery, and I at a farewell dinner!


Categories: Pallavi