Tumelo Lisulo talks South Africa, universal racism and the importance of being kind

Tumelo Lisulo talks South Africa, universal racism and the importance of being kind

Photo by Valeria Ramirez

I chatted with freshman psychology major Tumelo Lisulo on a particularly rainy Tuesday afternoon. Tumelo was born in Lusaka, Zambia and spent the first two years of her life there. Her family then moved to Cleveland, Tennessee, where they lived until Tumelo was six. But the place she calls home is South Africa.

“My parents are missionaries, and they felt the calling to go back to Africa,” Tumelo explained. “When we moved to South Africa we were trying to find a place to build a church, and after a while we found Cape Town, South Africa, and it just became our home for twelve years.”

The transition from the United States to South Africa wasn’t too hard for Tumelo since she was young enough to easily adapt to a new culture.

“South Africa is called the Rainbow Nation, meaning that we have a bunch of different cultures coming together just like in America; it’s kind of like a melting pot. We are very loud mostly: there’s a lot of singing and our churches are loud with drums and dancing all the time. There’s just a lot of life. When you walk outside there’s always kids playing music and people cooking on grills and women making their rice, there’s a lot of life and colors.”

However, because of the history of segregation and the apartheid system—a policy making segregation strict and systematic that began in 1948 and ended in just 1991—Tumelo noticed a really prominent division between black and white people in South Africa.

Tupelo smiles with her family.

Tupelo smiles with her family.

“There is a lot of racism. The black people and the white people aren’t really friends at all because of the history there. In other countries, most people can’t really remember the days in which all the bad stuff was happening, but in South Africa our grandparents remember because of how recent that history is. Racism is everywhere, not just in the United States.”

Tumelo experienced racism herself when her parents thought it would be better for her to go to a white school in South Africa.

“At that school they would just say things like, ‘You’re not smart because you’re black,’ or, ‘You must live in the villages.’ I couldn’t wear my natural hair; I always had to have it straightened because they said that wasn’t how they did things,” she recalls. “Then, when I hung out with black people, the black people would say, ‘Well you talk like them [white people], so you must be one of them, so we can’t accept you either.’ I never really knew where I fit in because the black people wouldn’t accept me because I hung out with white people and lived in the white community, and the white people wouldn’t accept me because they still thought I was different from them.”

However, Tumelo remembers the time she spent in South Africa fondly, and she has a love for the vibrant life found there.

“The biggest positive for living in South Africa is the amount of color and culture we have. The way people dress, the way people sing, the languages that you get to hear, the dancing—that’s the biggest positive. When you go, you just feel so mesmerized.”

When Tumelo was sixteen, her parents decided to move the family to Texas. She says this was one of the hardest transitions for her because of how different everything was from South Africa.

“I kind of had the [American] accent, but on the inside I wasn’t American. When I moved here people didn’t even know what I was saying half the time because I was saying words that they don’t say in the United States. I did love the Texan accents and the southern hospitality though. I love the fact that people there are nice because it’s contagious, whether it’s genuine or not.”

Since the educational system in South Africa is different from the one here in the United States, Tumelo was put in ninth grade even though she was sixteen.

“I wasn’t where I should be according to American educational standards, so I had to start all over again and go through freshman and sophomore year again because of this. It was hard, but at the same time I realized that God had a plan the whole time. I was not prepared to be a junior,” she admits. “At the time I was really angry because I was the oldest in my grade and I would be walking the stage at twenty, but my mom always told me that just because my story takes longer doesn’t mean that God isn’t writing it.”

Even though Tumelo originally wanted to go back to South Africa after high school, she felt that Lee was the place she was supposed to be.

“I wanted to go back, only because I hadn’t come to a peace about our move here. I wasn’t really on board for moving to Texas because my life in South Africa was pretty good,” Tumelo said. “My plan was to finish high school and then move back, but then I realized that my wanting to go back came from a place of anger and it wasn’t really logical. Also, my dad was already in love with Lee years ago, so when I went to Texas it was an option now that we were actually in the States.”

Tumelo wants to pursue a career in child psychology or school counseling, and she wants to mostly work with kids in elementary or middle school. But her passion for kids comes from the lack of emotional openness she found in South Africa.

“We are always raised to be tough and to not understand that we have feelings. If you’re having a bad day at school you don’t tell your parents; you don’t talk about your problems,” Lisulo said. “There are kids who are struggling, but they have no one to talk to. Here, there are teachers who truly care about their kids, while in South Africa most teachers only care about a paycheck; there’s not a lot of people who actually want to invest in the kids. Knowing where our parents came from and the struggles that they’ve gone through, I understand why they want us to be strong. However, I feel like it’s in our weakness that we are strong. When parents always tell their kids that they have to be strong, it slowly breaks the kid down; I had that break, and I don’t want other kids to go through that. I want to be that safe place where kids can understand that it’s okay to have feelings.”

Even though Tumelo is looking forward to the next four years at Lee, she opened up about the difficulties she's dealt with throughout her transition to Lee.

“To be completely honest, it has been really tough for me. Like I said, when I attended a white school in South Africa I wasn’t treated right, and to come to Lee knowing what the predominant race is was kind of hard for me. I have to keep telling myself that they love me for who I am, that this is different from before,” she said. “I need to stop putting myself down around other people. I have to keep telling myself that I am not inferior and that at Lee nobody looks at me in that negative way. Getting past the fears has been the hardest part of coming to Lee for me. However, I like the feeling of being uncomfortable because that’s how I know that I am growing and changing.”

In her final words before we parted ways, Tumelo said she wanted to remind Lee students to always seek out new relationships, and to be kind to everyone you come across.

“Do not take any interaction for granted. One thing that amazes me is that everyone has a story, so when you interact with people, do it with the knowledge that when you talk to them you are going to be impacting their story in some way; make sure that what you say is something that they can remember in a good way. Also, embrace people that are different from you—there’s no fun in staying in your comfort zone.”

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