When we walked out of customs and into the crowd of parents I was immediately flooded with questions; “How was the trip? Was it life changing? What was your favorite part?”
In that moment it was impossible for me to fully answer those questions. Now that some time has passed I can try to explain what I encountered in South Africa and how it has affected me.
I have always been one to hold down my emotions. I keep my feelings inside so that no one can judge or hurt me. This has seemed especially necessary because of what Sadanand calls my “Gift of vulnerability.” In South Africa there were many times when I tried to keep my feelings in and failed horribly. The best example of this was when we went to Philani.
Near the end of the day at Philani our group was looking around the store when we heard some women start to sing. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever heard. We followed them into the main room as if in a trance. They sang with such confidence and strength. I’ve never heard anything like it.
The people in the room were standing in groups, South Africans on one side singing their hearts out and the Americans on the other side watching in awe. Then, out of nowhere, the singing women crossed the room and mixed into our group. The beautiful sound was coming from every direction. It was too much for me to handle. I could hear the struggle in their voices. How hard they had fought for their place in the world. I felt so overwhelmed that I became teary-eyed. I noticed that many others had the same reaction. Tears were rolling down our cheeks as we listened to them, not wanting the sound to end. Those women and their songs had the biggest impact on me of the entire trip. I will remember that moment for the rest of my life.
Greet, talk, share stories, home, food, and sleep. This is my usual coming home routine after a long trip. I guess you could say that traveling to South Africa was not a usual trip. I know this because my old routine was totally thrown off as soon as I landed in San Francisco. It went more like: Greet, talk, share stories, questions, guilt, confusion, reality check, and a tremendous drive that I have never felt before. The feeling of being home was nice, but the only thing I could concentrate on was how empty I felt. Since I couldn’t find comfort in my own home I went outside to feel closer to nature; To take big breathes and I think about the question, “What’s next?”
Everyday in Africa I experienced exciting new concepts and ideas. It was not really the environment or how the country looked that interested me, but rather how people in South Africa lived in their environment. Going to Cape Town and seeing Table Mountain and the many expensive homes was amazing but driving ten minutes away and seeing the townships was what really captured my attention. Why were people waving to this monstrous bus filled with noisy Americans? If I was living in the township I wouldn’t want tourists disturbing my home and taking paparazzi style pictures. I don’t know why they were so nice to us. Maybe it was because we noticed them or because we were curious and friendly.
When I got the chance to go into people’s homes in the township I couldn’t comprehend how their living conditions were considered acceptable. Malnourished babies, mothers and babies with diseases that kill, one bed, one counter, no bathroom, flies everywhere, unknown bugs everywhere, no food, and no water. Experiencing the township made me feel antsy and uncomfortable. The houses were made out of garbage scraps. At first I did not understand how these shacks could be homes. Once I entered the houses and experienced how welcoming the people were to me, I realized my definition of “home” altered. It was no longer the big item called a house, but the homey interaction between people. When you smile at someone and they smile back, I think you are home. When people treat you like family and accept you, you are home. I am still working on my definition of home but I believe it can be explained much better through feelings than in written words.
What was the highlight of my trip? Honestly the whole experience. If I were to focus on one thing it would be the people I met. At MyLife, I spoke to a man who introduced himself by telling us his name and explaining that he was an ex-gangster who had spent 16 years of his life in jail. I immediately felt uncomfortable. I was definitely not home. He talked for a long time about his hard life and all of the horrendous things that had happened to him. He got shot in the head, stabbed in jail, was raped in jail, shot his brother twice in both legs, killed people, and lost his family and friends. I didn’t know how to react to what I was hearing. I felt nauseous and uneasy. But then my feeling shifted. After sharing stories and cracking jokes with each other, I began to feel more at home. I thought how extraordinary it is when you just listen to one another. I would have never imagined myself making friends with a man who looked so tough and hard and was called a gangster. I wish he had introduced himself differently in the beginning because being an ex-gangster wasn’t who he was. I really wouldn’t put a title on him at all. Desmond Tutu said, “People are fundamentally good.” I felt the good in my new friend because he had passion, respect, and dreams. I realized that everyone shares the same fundamental needs in life: To be loved, and to love. In order to do this we need each other. People are people through loving other people.
Where is the love? Where is the community? If I am who I am because of others, who am I allowing to define me?
I went to Africa searching for answers, but instead came back with questions. Questions it could take a lifetime to find answers to. New thoughts, ideas, and people who have made me question my society, my relationships, and even my own mind.
Before embarking on this trip, I naively thought I knew what “ubuntu” was. I thought I could define a sense of self that thrives off the community and the well-being of others. Looking back at myself then, I realize that I could not have possibly comprehended “ubuntu” simply because I had never been exposed to a community of hope like the one that shapes South Africa. I still cannot quite put into words my exact definition of “ubuntu”, but I can vividly remember and recall the things I experienced that helped me develop my comprehension of the word.
The first exceptional and memorable experience I had took place at Philani. I was given the gift of touring the township and finally being exposed to the poverty I had only witnessed through numbers and statistics. My heart literally never felt heavier. I remember standing in the home of a family slowly dying of AIDS, yet looking into their faces I saw hope. A hope in the form of an intense, endearing strength and will to persevere; and I found myself turning away from their eyes in an effort to hide the feeling of helplessness and sorrow I felt for them, and I wondered why I couldn’t locate that feeling of hope, they had for themselves, in myself. Has my society taught me that hope is unrealistic? Is my natural reaction to doubt the good and only see the bad?
It was then that I realized that these people were the ones I wanted to define me. These were the kind of people who believe in compassion and a selfless hope for the future and for the current community. If the world would learn to see like this, our visions of our lives and ourselves would no longer be blurred by selfish desires and needs, but rather a belief in the strength of the community to help us succeed. Community is ubuntu. Hope is ubuntu.
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” –Oscar Wilde
The most important thing I learned through my experience in South Africa is what I want to do with my life. The most valuable time spent, in my opinion, was with the people we met there. Through these experiences I’ve discovered that I want to help people around the world who are most in need.
When I saw the kids at Cotlands all of the tension and stress I felt melted away. They were so happy to see and play with us, it felt unreal. It was heartbreaking to know that most of the children were either infected or affected by HIV. The service that Cotlands provides is remarkable and I want nothing more than to be part of such an incredible organization. I also got to witness the power of people helping other people at Philani. It was remarkable how much Fiona Burtt and the founders of Philani have done for the mothers and children in Kayalitcha.
Going to the Fezeka School in Guguletu was another eye-opener. It was amazing to hang out with the students, but like their teacher said, just meeting them is not enough; in order to truly make a difference in their lives, we need to stay in communication and develop a genuine relationship. I made a friend named Mpho at Fezeka, and we found that we were a lot alike. We were both pretty quiet at first, but once we started talking, we couldn’t stop joking around and laughing. When the time came to leave, I’m pretty sure we both teared up a bit. The experience made me realize that there are people all around the world that I haven’t met that I can learn from. Now that I’m home, I’m aware of how sheltered my life is and how I rarely meet anyone new. I have this new found longing to move to a foreign country and give what I can to people like Mpho.
I learned from every person I met in South Africa, but the point at which I decided that I HAD to do something to help was when we met Linzi Thomas at MyLife. Watching the video she showed us was shocking. Seeing what the homeless children of Cape Town have to go through everyday brought me to tears, and I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. I understood how powerful Linzi is when she spoke to us about MyLife. I felt like she was looking straight into my soul and yelling at me. Then I realized that she was angry; angry at the government and the rest of the world for not caring enough.
I’m pretty sure I got infected by that anger because all I’ve been thinking about since is how I want to help people like Linzi Thomas work to improve peoples’ lives.
I have a hard time putting my journeys, experiences and emotions into words, and an even harder time putting them into writing. I’ll spill my heart out onto paper and then re-read my work and find that my writing doesn’t do justice to the feelings I had.
One true statement I can make without hesitation is, I have changed and I’m glad. How I have changed is a more complicated matter, but here is my best explanation.
Walking into the small crumbling building which housed the Mylife foundation I had no idea what to expect. I suppose I should have been nervous, but I really didn’t know I had anything to be nervous about. After polite introductions and some brief chitchat Linzi Thomas, the founder of Mylife, played a brief commercial about the organization. No movie, commercial or documentary has ever brought me to tears so quickly. Watching a young girl about to be raped and seeing the violence and hurt that happens every day on the streets of Cape Town showed me a perspective I had never seen before. I felt crushed for children who fight so hard every day of their lives, while I fight hard to win a volleyball match. The most incredible thing about this experience, the part of it where I could truly see myself changing, was witnessing the hope and will these teenagers had.
These kids made it through situations that I have a hard time believing are possible. One boy, a few years older than me, pulled up his shirt to show his stab wounds. One girl told us about how she held her boyfriend in her lap while he died. What they all had in common was that they didn’t give up. They knew they could change their lives for the better. Linzi gave them that chance and they took it, knowing how hard it would be.
The change that has taken place in me is that I now have so much appreciation for those kids. If they can change their lives after being raped, imagine what I can do with everything I’ve been given.
Since I have been back the main questions I have been hearing are either “What was your favorite part?” or “What meant the most to you?” The truth is I can’t pick just one part. Our trip was about finding the meaning of Ubuntu. So, the whole trip meant a lot to me. I discovered that the people we met in South Africa weren’t the only people that could teach me about Ubuntu. The kids in my class taught me a lot as well.
We met some truly incredible people in South Africa. We met young two year olds who already seemed to know more about love than we did. We met young adults who, at our age, were taking care of full families. We met teenagers who had seen horrors you would only expect to see in movies or TV shows. They taught me that to be a good human all you need is to be good to other humans. When we met Desmund Tutu he confirmed that saying, “If you want to be nice to yourself, start being nice to others.” It was clear that this is what he thought Ubuntu was.
I also learned that sometimes it is your peers who are your best teachers. Throughout the whole trip my class was caring and compassionate toward each other. They taught me that humor can be the remedy in any situation. They taught me that to truly care about someone is to be there when someone is down. They taught me that to truly care about someone is to protect them when you think they’re in trouble.
Most importantly, from small children, teenagers, an archbishop, and the kids in my class, I was taught that we all start out with Ubuntu and it is the choices in our lives that determine whether we get to keep it or not. What I experienced and witnessed on the trip proved to me that every person I traveled with and every person I grew to know in South Africa has Ubuntu.
About three weeks ago 22 of us left our small school in our small town to go to a much bigger place, South Africa. Once there, it was our intention to interview the renowned Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Before we left, I had no clue what to think about the whole experience, and being optimistic, I believed that we were about to make a huge impact on the world and on our community. We received so much support from our friends and family. Their excitement truly made me think that we would come home from South Africa transformed and in a new state of enlightenment. Sadanand classified our trip as a “Hero’s Journey” and that is exactly what I expected it to be. I was so unbelievably grateful for the opportunity and was ready to take full advantage of every moment.
When we got there it was a different story. Never before had I seen such poverty and hopelessness, and at the same time so much wealth. It was confusing; on one side of the highway people were living in small mansions, and on the other side they were in barely standing cardboard shacks. I immediately felt a pang of sadness seeing that there were so many people in need of help. I imagined how depressed everyone inside these townships must be, living with nothing and being forced to watch as other people lived with so much. However, depression was not what I saw when I walked into the township of Kayalitcha. People walked up to me, took my hand and told me that I was welcomed in their home. Never before had I felt so accepted and happy to be somewhere. There was so much life in the township. I would never have guessed this if I only focused on their living conditions. Seeing these people’s lives made me appreciate all that I have. When I got home I felt out of place and guilty that I have so much good.
Throughout our entire journey we were continuously tested by heartbreaking stories and the harsh reality of the “real world” that none of us knew about before South Africa. The hardships of the people we met were endless and many were terrifying. The scariest thing that I have to deal with at home is the dark. We talked to people who had been raped, shot, seen their mothers or siblings killed, and in some cases people who had shot people. How can one stay whole after experiencing something like that? How can you stay positive and believe that your life will get better, when there is really so much to feel hopeless about and to fear? I had a realization after talking to some of the youth in South Africa. I realized that as an American I fear so much when I don’t really have a true reason to be fearful. While South Africans have so much to be fearful about but instead remain hopeful. Being with these people made my experiences seem insignificant. I felt ashamed that I complain so much and never truly appreciate what is done for me. I have always felt entitled to everything I get and angry when things don’t go my way. How could I have become so selfish and self absorbed while some people in the world have nothing? It is not fair.
What I saw on the trip changed me internally for the rest of my life, but not in the way that the community back home expected me to change. They expected our class to be completely transformed, unable to re-connect to our world, and though it did change us, we are still us, we just have a broader understanding of the world and we have seen what suffering looks like. What I have experienced has reshaped my reality and my understanding of how the world works. It made me realize that I have no idea how to fix the world’s problems, but I know now that I will sure as hell do all I can to make a difference. It would be impossible to see all that I have seen and not try to do anything about it. I think that the main thing that all of us can do is to bring awareness to the issues South Africa faces because we have seen them and we know how these conditions affect people’s lives. Our names are not tomorrow they are today, and our class will find a way to help the people that touched our lives.
I’ve been back in the United States for nearly one week and I am still in a state of culture shock. The emotional disconnect and lack of meaningful relationships in our society deeply hurts me to the point where I wake up in the morning disappointed to find myself in my own bed. I didn’t want to come back home, which shocks me because I’ve never felt that before. I have had such an uplifting experience in South Africa. I’ve learned the values of sacrifice, strength, determination, and hope through people who breathe these qualities. I have fallen in love with the culture, the people, the community, the traditions, the environment, and their emphasis on the value of relationships and connections to one another. South Africa is that exact opposite of the United States; we are wealthy in material, artificial happiness while they are rich in culture and connections. It is a tragedy that we unknowingly care more about the possession of things more than the importance and dignity of human life. I feel like the culture here in the United States doesn’t exist and we, both individually and collectively lack meaning. For some reason, we are taught to value privacy, which gives you an excuse to disconnect and stray from the people around you. I was a victim of this conspiracy; I left for South Africa a little disappointed that I wouldn’t have any privacy or time where I could be by myself. I found that this was the “luxury” that I missed the least. Once I was surrounded by loving, caring communities, I wanted nothing more than to remain there. Connection is contagious. If everyone was given the opportunity to travel to South Africa and be exposed to people who believe in and practice a strong sense of community, then concepts like ‘privacy’ would no longer be missed or even exist.
It feels as though I left home when in reality I came home. I find myself quite disconnected from life here in California; I am having a difficult time relating to the culture and environment that I’ve grown up in. My values have drastically changed and I’m not sure how I should go about handling that. But I am trying. It has been challenging to try and explain what exactly I’ve experienced back in South Africa; I lack the words but not the motivation. How do I even begin to express my new found passion and love for the relationships I’ve witnessed and become so envious of? How can we pick back up their lives here without forgetting what we’ve seen and grown to love in South Africa? I am terrified that I will slip back into my routine and role in our artificial society. But I am also positive that I will return to South Africa. That place, those people; they are forgotten and abandoned yet they are still the strongest and most selfless people that I’ve ever encountered. Being given this amazing opportunity to witness and experience the culture in South Africa has been the best, most fortunate event to ever happen to me. I have a stronger sense of who I am and what I value. I want to invest in other people. This has always been a passion of mine but communicating with the people of South Africa has fanned the fire. I will not let that fire die.