Bongani Ndlovu '14
Hi and Welcome!
Superman, Batman, Red Ranger, Bongani - enough said, right?! Yeah, probably not. My name is Sabelo Ndlovu, but I go by my middle name - Bongani. I'm currently one of the 6 summer interns at the Office of Admission. I hail from Durban, South Africa. I'm a rising senior. I study Law, Jurisprudence & Social Thought and Biology. I love singing, dancing, playing [read: watching] rugby, climbing, kayaking and cooking. One of my greatest passion is the study of languages. My mother languages are Zulu and English. In addition to these, I speak Italian, French and a few others. Next on the list is Arabic, an undertaking for which I'm extremely excited. I come from a large family, which in enmeshed in somewhat of a complictaed kinship system. I listen to nobody who tries to caution me against the perils of television. I'm also super attached to my beard.
Many people assume I'm a belligerent fellow on the basis of my membership in the Zulu tribe, but I really don't merit that kind of street cred. While I'm not a doormat and do not shy away from expressing my views irrespective of their popularity, I like to think I'm pretty personable and exercise a lot of moderation in confrontation - I aim to challenge by choice. One of my many flaws is verbosity, so if you don't read any further, please retain this point: I love Amherst and I'd be happy to share with you the reasons I do. If you'd like to find out more about all that I do on campus, what sort of guy I am, or just want to chat, shoot me an email.
Involvement in a cappella and friendships forged at an international high school have, cheek by jowl, afforded me some awesome travel opportunities, both within US-borders and beyond. Most of the trips I've made have been to other schools located primarily in the north-east. The latest came this weekend and bore me to some podunk institution that lies at the base of a near-forgotten, barely habitable coulee in hilly western Mass. (The name of said institution is probably not worth a mention). The trip confirmed beyond a doubt what my 3 years of experience suggests: Amherst digs are among the best. It's very easy to forget how fortunate one is when faced with the micro-problems of paper assignments and laundry. Just to think I've pretty much lived in sizeable singles since Freshman year. Amazing.
Here's a poor map that tracks my progess through the various dorms where I've sheltered for a period of at least 2 weeks:
1. Stearns, one of the 7 dorms dedicated to First-Years. Flanks the Freshman Quad, the science buildings and the Mead Art Museum with its obsolescent, but beautiful steeple. Sometimes the building did have a sterile air about it, but I lived with some awesome people on the 2nd floor, so I didn't mind too much. I also benefitted from the music practice rooms in the basement.
2. Taplin. Unremarkable in most regards. I shared a common room and 2 bathrooms with 4 guys in a 2nd floor suite, modest of size but lavish of communal feel.
3. Stone. One of the social dorms. I shared a suite with fellow Zumbyes for a fortnight during commencement/reunion at the beginning of that summer. There as well, a great romance took root. Extremely fun living experience, though things did get a little too shambolic for my liking. I blame my suite-mates, haha.
4. Plimpton. Ex-frat, repurposed into a conventional dorm. Squats on a little hilltop hamlet, bracketed by Tyler and Marsh (the Arts house). I had a large corner room on the 3rd floor, with tall windows through which canopy-filtered sunlight would stream on sunny afternoons. I loved being able to walk or bike from campus through part of town and up the hill, past civilian homes. The climb helped to clear my head and I'd feel like I was returning home. It was also the site of some low-key parties; my favorite kind. Finally, the Plimpton library has some interesting literature.
5. Davis. Now no more, it fell to the idea of the new science building. I was there for 2 weeks in a sweet. The demolition team started to take it apart in my last days as a resident there. I was too engrossed in Game of Thrones and too busy enjoying commencement/reunion to notice any of its dilapidated charms.
6. Morris Pratt. Beautiful, but rank with artifice. The dorm has a pretty, darkwood-panelled, crepuscular ballroom that I found somewhat unduly neglected by the residents at the time. Very conveniently located for practically any student.
7. Chapman. Dingy as. Creaky floors, squeaky doors, allergenic carpets, but decent all in all. I'm in my first proper cohabitation since high school and things are going well.
8. Newport. The French/Spanish Language and Culture House. This is where I'm set to live next year and I'm conservatively geeked. I could have really chosen anywhere to live. Let's hope I made the right decision.
As you can see, I've lived virtually all over campus. Each of these dorms offered something nuanced in terms of ambience and comfort. While the dorms were all up to snuff, Plimpton - musty as it was - snuck its way into my heart. I won't lie; I'm anxious to close the dormroom chapter of my life. As long as I must bear it, however, Amherst dorm living is probably as good as it gets. Besides, with all this Zimmerman madness, who's in a hurry to leave the bubble (excuse the hackneyed image) and enter/return to the real world, anyway? On some level, I'm glad South Africa doesn't have a jury system. I have nothing novel or insightful to add on the matter. For some reason, the words "What is dead may never die" (Game of Thrones) keep coming to mind. The case dredges up many negative "isms" that are source of retrospective shame for the country. As ardently as we try to bury these things with symbols and temporal signifiers such as the prefix "post", they routinely resurface. The wounds are old, but the pain is fresh. The struggle with a history that keeps seeping into the present is a struggle we know only too well in South Africa. Trayvon Martin has, without willing it, become a symbol. This symbol incites me to reflect on my own privilege and all that I've acquired on account of membership in this shielded community of means. Two such privileges, rudimentary and mundane as they seem, are safety and peace of mind. Don't imagine I'm tailspinning into an existential crisis. I've just been shocked into heightened self-awareness. How does the saying go? "To whom much is given, much is expected (from?)" I'm not sure. My hope is that all the grooming we receive while here will inspire us to pay it forward. May that symbol never die.
Learning to view myself with ambiguity
One of the most poignant criticisms I’ve ever been dealt is: “You suffer the diplomat’s curse. Stop trying to be all things to all people.” These words, steeped in more dejection than scorn, came from my mother. They left that sweet, 13-year old boy discombobulated. How could a mother be displeased with her son being a people-pleaser? Shouldn’t she have been proud that she’d raised a pleasant child who made a point of and could get along with all people? Did it not mean I was probably going to do well for myself in a world where dissenting views can make or break a person? Hadn’t this desire to show my best face at all times been the source of my motivation to be a high-achieving student? If this was her comeuppance, could she not be considered one of the luckiest mothers alive? The years to follow would teach me that she had been correct to worry. I expected to be everyone’s friend and would be depressed whenever it turned out not to be the case or when a friend and I would grow apart; I was vulnerable to disparaging views and manipulation, perceiving any difference in opinion as diagnostic of flaws in my own character; I was prone to bootlicking and was weak of backbone.
So when a friend told me a few years ago, just before I came to Amherst, that she thought I was “a person who is intensely aware of his intellectual and personal identity”, you can imagine my ambiguity. The sentiment excited me because it meant I’d finally shed the character trait that my mother had found reprehnsible in me. And I was crestfallen, all at once, because this friend’s compliment could also be interpreted as an observation that I’d become overly critical, if not a judgmental. As in, "Bongani, you're too quick to set others in opposition to yourself." Could I, now, be pigeonholed in this way? I remember agonizing over these questions and struggling to reconcile these two personalities in my first few months at Amherst, my ambivalence compounded by the understanding that there’s a fine line between self-awareness and bigotry – a line that is often drawn extraneously as a function of dynamically equilibrated social attitudes.
I don’t know when it happened – when my personality began to evolve in this way? I look at that consistently affable lad with misrecognition. I’ve developed a critical edge which sometimes make me nervous (because - you know - nobody likes an overtly rude individual) and renders me prone to typecasting others. My time at Amherst, however, has shown me that it is neither intelligent nor fair to make assumptions about people simply based on their membership in a group. I (un)fortunately remain a finicky person, but I’ve come to love the fact that I stand to learn something from everyone here at Amherst and that people here have layered personalities and life stories. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by so many people I hadn’t thought to consider and I’ve been disappointed by others whom had knowingly or unwittingly given me cause to expect great things of them. I’m pretty sure many can say the same of me. It’s a hard thing to come to terms with, but c’est la vie, I guess. Just yesterday, I had a conversation with a casual acquaintance (a germane description, in all likelihood, of anyone who is not a friend at Amherst – yay small community!) about my thesis project. She surprised me not so much with the great insight with which she spoke, but more with the genuine interest she showed in the topic and my rant about it. It is these types of conversations that remind me just what a magical place Amherst is.
It pools together some pretty amazing people, which is imagine is true for many institutions of higher learning. One of the more bottom-line oriented deans at the Admission Office never fails to reassure prospective students visiting college campuses that they will go to college. I think the reminder is a wonderful antidote to the stress of college applications. Get excited for college. It’s an invigorating experience.
Nimbus clouds and silver linings
I lost my wallet on the 4th of July. Granted it isn't my country'sIndependence that’s celebrated on this day, the irony of it all remains indubitable. The proverbial spanner in the works: In a moment of stupidity, all of my plans for the weekend had gone from being exciting prospects to hopes well out of reach. I left home and retraced my steps to the site of the carnival, scouring by phonelight the fields and walkways where I had been frolicking just minutes before. Needless to say, in that desperately mournful state,the fireworks were lackluster. After all that, I set to calling Bank of America to cancel my debit and credit cards. Fortunately, no unusual activity showed up on my accounts, so I replaced the accounts without too much hassle. This left me with only one important lingering concern: my social security information. I'd been idiotic enough to keep in the wallet and, now, I counseled myself by reasoning that nobody would want to knick the swindle the identity of a young and broke foreign student.
I was up at first light the next morning to continue the search. After having returned to the field and having checked in with Campus Police and the UMass Police Department to no avail, I was beginning to lose hope and patience. For all my stubborn despair, some unsolicited advice lead me to check in with Town Police to find that it had been turned in there. The storm was over and, in its wake, I was left to wonder at the generosity of some Amherst souls and to confront the results of my stubbornness.
"I told you so" is the worst combination of words ever authored, haha. My identity was secured and I'll have my new bank cards in a few days. My weekend fun could now resume. Off to Rhode Island it was for Matt and me to findsome salt, sun and sand. We tried a few things on the mainland before we decided to cross the bridges Jamestown and Newport, both of which are probably unnecessarily elevated but awesome all the same. We drove through the rows of mansions and finally hit up Eaton's Beach where I got cut on barnacles as I pulled myself up onto the rocky slabs after a dip. Bleeding, I decided it would be better to find a spot where the corrosive forces of the sea had been successful. Middletown Beach was the pick and it was good to us. The ride home wasn’t too much fun. The weekend ended with a trip to Zoe's Fish House in Hadley. Delicious. It's definitely not a hang out spot for college kids, but if you have some cash money to spare and a penchant for seafood, I highly recommend it.
PS: See below photos of a beach and traffic lights I took while I was bored. Also below and totally unrelated is a photo I took of the view over Greenland from the window of my Icelandair flight back from Paris. I like it so much that I thought I'd share.
Practice (hopefully) makes not sucking
You know how sometimes you imagine yourself as having perfected a certain skill and then it turns out that you haven’t? Well, perhaps some of you can’t respond in the affirmative, but I certainly can. I’m a confident cook and often try my hand at improvisations. Some people ask me where this confidence to experiment originates. I usually hit them with an infusion of the old yet pertinent adage, “Practice makes perfect” and a call to “take a leap of faith”. It is because I’m confident that I experiment. With a little appreciation of retrocausality (I despise LSAT prep), I can equally say it is because I’m confident that I experiment. I’m not really sure which of the two it is. At any rate, the beautiful thing is that with each experiment, cooking becomes less of an exercise in faith – belief in the absence of evidence. Once you have evidence of your own ability to handle an experiment, you become less likely to psyche yourself out into making mistakes. Most of the time, my culinary experiments turn out well, but every now and then things go mildly or even terribly wrong. This past week I tried to make a chicken casserole-like dish. Disaster. It tasted of nothing but sea-salt and its consistency was all wrong. I tried to fix these issues, but my efforts were as futile as trying to cook a phoenix.
To the right: Chicken à la fail - Don't be fooled by its appearance
I wouldn’t say that I’m a gastronomical snob or a foodie. It’s just that, if it’s not good, I’m not eating it. Once I’ve identified any flaw in a dish, I become completely blind to any redeeming qualities it might have and cannot enjoy it (Luckily, this does not apply to how I feel about people). In light of the failed experiment, I went out into town for the “Taste of Amherst”, an annual food festival at which various eateries make samples of some of their specialties available at “marked-down” prices. As an independent student, you very soon realize that the prices are not that attractive. In any case, I like this festival for a number of reasons that go beyond the food options. It is one of the cursory events that inject a jolt of life into the town. The air is tinged with savory scents, there is an assortment of live music performed by some locally-grown bands and people of all ages dance and hula-hoop. Quaint, I know, but over the summer one savors any sort of diversion. The town of Amherst is really invigorated by the presence of 30 000+ students and deflates with their departure during the summer. This is my second summer in the area and I’ve personally found that it is easier to fall into a routine at this time of year than during the school year. Awake, shower, go to work, hit the gym, cook, (sometimes read), and pass out. Festivals help us break routine a bit.
Left: Stolen moment - Enjoying the grub.
I fear I’ve painted somewhat of a somber picture of what goes on in the summer. It’s not all doom and gloom. There are a number of fun things to do in the area. I don’t have a bucket list, but here are some things that I’ve done: I’ve gone kayaking, tubing, hiking, dancing at a salsa club and fruit-picking. I’ve considered purchasing a season pass to Six Flags, but I’ve thought better of it given my past experiences with amusement parks. Upchuck, tears and exhaustion – all that ugly. In essence, there is a ton to do even during our off-season and things get better with time. I’m on the ‘better’ side of that 21-year age marker and thus enjoy access to the 21+ facilities on offer. Don’t worry; you’ll get there, too, one day.
So there was a lot of anticipation in the office yesterday pending the Supreme Court's decision on the important case that will probably determine the future of affirmative action in the United States and the consideration of race as one among many factors that enhance the diversity that many colleges seek. Granted it's a difficult issue, the court skirted around it by remanding the case to the lower court. Today, we found out that one needs to speak in order to invoke one's right to remain silent, lest this silence should be used as evidence of guilt by the police. We're due to discover the justices' collective stance on marriage equality tomorrow. These are, indeed, exciting times.
Spoiled by too much work
…Selfhood begins with a walking away; And love is proved in the letting go.
– C. Day Lewis “Walking Away”
The sun recently set on my study abroad experience. As I walked up the Champs-Elysées towards the Arc de Triomphe, where I would take a right turn onto Avenue de Wagram, following it all the way to my apartment, the feeling of awe and ecstasy in which I had been enveloped for several months gradually subsided until a bitter-sweet ambivalence took its place; I was filled with an admixture of regret and excitement. The regret had hatched in mourning all the things I could have done (differently). My first 3 weeks in the city had been dedicated in large part to seeing all the tourist attractions. At some point in the semester, however, I had stopped actively seeking out things to do with my free time because I’d come to feel that every corner of the city was replete with jewels, some renowned and others more obscure. Although it in no way compares to the scale of some American mega-cities, Paris is rendered larger than it actually is by what my friends and I call cultural density. This city, the edges of which are demarcated by the Périphérique highway, is circular. This is all to say that, ideally, I would have liked to see it by choosing a diameter at random to walk its length until I would have covered all ground.
The Eiffel Tower lit in the colors of the South African flag, which I thought was pretty dope.
My strategy instead consisted in taking the metro or the bus to a spontaneously selected stop where I would explore the neighborhood. Naturally, I only half-committed and wound-up seeing a lot of neighborhoods that resembled each other, an assortment of churches, bakeries and regrettably nothing much of anything else. I also wish that I had put more effort into making local friends. In spite of all this regret, I was excited because I felt I had accomplished most of what I hoped for going into study abroad. My French improved in leaps and bounds – I can now hold a stimulating conversation and field questions on almost any subject, but even more importantly, and that which I consider the best measure of fluency, I have developed the capacity to tell funny stories in the language without losing my audience.
Also exciting was the prospect of returning to Amherst to see the friends who would still be around following commencement week. I had missed the graduation ceremony and it was a great comfort to know that I would at least be able to see some dear friends off. Commencement and Reunion week are some of the most magical periods of bonding and school spirit on our campus. While Orientation and Homecoming are important contenders, in my opinion, at no other time does Amherst College feel more like a family than when we send off brothers and sisters whom have contributed to the community for 4 years and have held our hands, blazed paths for us and shown us the way. The hills swarm with Alumni, all of whom readily attest to the formative and lasting impact that being a student at Amherst has. And, of course, it is one of those rare and special moments at Amherst where one can enjoy “unfettered” freedom from work and to play.
I’ve brought back a lot from abroad and I’m anxious to see what senior year has in store for me. I already have somewhat of an idea, just having come into my term as the business manager of the a cappella group The Zumbyes and the preparatory path towards my senior thesis on which I’ve embarked. There are a few parallels to be drawn between my experience in Paris and the average Amherst College student’s experience. There is a lot to discover and explore about oneself and one’s community as an Amherst College student. Amherst College facilitates, one might even say encourages, the flourishing of a diversity of paths in a secure and supportive environment. The recipe for Amherst’s success includes the open curriculum which essentially invites a freedom to manage and craft one’s own education, a committed and inspiring faculty – one of my professors describes teaching as “walking students from the familiar into the unfamiliar” – the wide variety of cultural and sporting activities, affinity groups and support structures. My path thus far has been somewhat atypical or improbable, yet I’ve never been made to feel I could not enjoy full membership in this loving community. While I loved Paris and was well-served by being away, I’m happy to be home. I’ve been spoiled by the attention I receive here.
Disclaimer: My entries won't always be this long, haha.