Saturday, July 24, 2010

Healing through Happiness and Hope

Perhaps you noticed I have not posted since Wednesday. We left Cape Town as planned Thursday morning, heading for Johannesburg, and our travel went smoothly. I closed Wednesday’s thoughts with the prediction that my understanding of South African’s history and experiences was going to get more intense with our Johannesburg visit. It happened. In fact, to be completely frank, it happened to the extent that for the past two consecutive nights, I’ve been unable to satisfactorily process my thoughts into a coherent enough written (typed) form to be comfortable posting. So it’s not that I haven’t thought about you and about wanting to continue sharing my experiences. But tonight, I have come far enough on this journey to attempt painting a picture for you of what I have seen. I know that my prior posts have been lengthy, no doubt too long according to “best blogging” practices. I have every intention of trying to be concise, but I fear it may not be possible and apologize now if I take too much of your time as I share.

Today, my emotional journey through discovering the lived experience of the South African people became complete. Not in the literal sense, in that we still have two more days in this wondrous country and that it would be impossible to comprehend in a mere 10 days the past, present, and future experiences of a people and country as rich with diversity as South Africa. Rather, I am now able to reconcile the emotions and reflections I’ve been having in my heart and in my head.

On Thursday, we visited the Apartheid museum ( The 2 ½ hours I spent walking through the exhibits with my family and classmates were the two most emotionally painful hours I’ve ever experienced. Through reading and watching, listening and learning, I became more educated as to the horrors that occurred during the Apartheid era. The oppression forced upon non-Whites, the ruthless evictions and relocations of so many non-White families, the atrocious acts of violence and terror aimed at non-Whites…all of these and more, as I read about them, listened about them, watched them in videos, and observed them in photos evoked incredibly powerful feelings of anger, sympathy, disgust, sorrow, and confusion. I was particularly moved (to tears) by South African photo journalist Ernest Cole’s exhibit, which for me brought to life the terror and tragedy of the times. (I found this web site with some of Cole’s photos; click on the categories and numerous photos come up for viewing. My advice is do so when you have time to spend in reflection:

How is it possible that human beings are capable of treating other human beings in such inhuman ways? I realize the terribleness of Apartheid is not unique. One only need consider the experiences of Native Americans and African Americans in our own country, the Jewish people in World War II, or the Rwandan genocides of the 1980’s that also occurred in Africa…these and numerous others unfortunately provide too many examples that demonstrate humankind’s imperfections. Nonetheless, I found myself looking to the sky asking why? And I found myself feeling aches in my heart that were growing stronger.

Yesterday, we visited the University of Pretoria (UPT, UPT was one of the Afrikaans universities, and based on what we heard from numerous speakers during our visit, the institution appears to be facing ongoing, serious internal obstacles in overcoming its racially based discriminatory ways of the past. To cite a particularly alarming example, UPT’s official policy towards its residence halls and room assignments is that any residence hall is potentially available to any student. A quick browse through the residences (as they are referred in SA) section of UPT’s web site confirmed this policy. What happens in practice, based on the comments shared with us by a couple students and administrators is that students are only assigned to live with other students of the same race, and certain residences are unofficially designated as for whites only. The hurt in my heart grew stronger yesterday.

Coming into today’s scheduled visit to Kliptown, the shanty town slum in the Johannesburg suburb Soweto, I was struggling. I need to provide a little context about Kliptown. Kliptown is only one example of the shanty settlements throughout the country, in which it is estimated 1 in 10 South Africans live. Kliptown has an estimated population of 45,000 and is located in Soweto, which has an estimated population of between 2 and 3 million. Through relationships established by our professor for the course, Marybeth Gasman, PhD, we had been invited to visit within the Kliptown community, as guests of her good friend and Kliptown resident Bob Nameng (more on Bob later).

As our bus approached the Kliptown area, we started to drive by shantytown settlements, which seemed to sprawl on across the landscape forever. It appeared as though there was a sea of makeshift homes, made from varying materials with occasional brightly colored panels or roofs catching the eye. (The photo at right is one I took as we approached) The bus wove through the streets of Soweto and into what seemed like a bustling urban neighborhood, where small shops and make-shift vendor displays with people selling fruit, clothing, and a host of other goods. After snaking through some tight turns, the bus drove down a street that dead ended into a small parking lot that abutted Kliptown. I could feel my anxiety and hurt growing. I simply could not believe my eyes as I got my first up-close views of a shanty town.

We disembarked and were greeted by Bob. Bob is a 40-year old man who grew up in Kliptown as one of the community’s many neglected children. Twenty plus years ago, Bob founded Soweto Kliptown Youth (SKY;, and our visit was going to revolve around a visit to SKY deep in the heart of Kliptown.

With my classmates, their guests, my wife and two children, we began our walk down a path, across railroad tracks, and into the community. (See the photo at left) My heart rate quickened as we disappeared into the maze of paths and small dirt roads. The first images of the shacks and shanties, and of the inhabitants young and old, nearly sucked the air out of my lungs. All of a sudden, the horrors brought on by Apartheid and the abject poverty conditions being experienced by so many South Africans were real, I could touch them, smell them, feel them.

We had been given a heads up that the community would be teaming with what appeared to be unaccompanied little children and that they were likely to want to touch us or to hold our hands—on this day, we were privileged to see the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” in action. Within minutes of our group’s appearance, the children began approaching.

The moment the first children approached, I began being transformed. It started with one of my male classmates having his legs hugged by two little boys. Then, children, Katie and Ryan, had a little boy come to and grab a hand from each. And then a little boy started nestling up to me, and the hurt and hatred in my heart started easing. (A picture of Katie and Ryan with their friend, at right) 

We proceeded through the community, Bob stopping us occasionally to explain something, and made our way to SKY’s buildings, all the while with our little friends guiding us through the touch of their hands.

The children of SKY put on a traditional African dance and singing performance for us that I cannot do justice to with words. Never mind that the talents they demonstrated were incredible, but the happiness and passion with which they danced and sang were unsurpassed by any performance I’ve seen before. My son captured much of the performance on video, but out of fear of posting it incorrectly, I’m including a picture (below) of the performance. I spent the entire time watching them, vacillating between smiling and fighting off tears. SKY, through the unwavering dedication of Bob and his growing team of Kliptown resident volunteers, offers to the Kliptown community numerous programs for its youth, including performance arts, sports, girls’ empowerment and life skills classes, as well as services for the elderly and sick, such as finding transportation for medical visits and craft making.

It’s late, very late, and I’m embarrassed how long I’ve gone on. I have so many pictures to share, so many stories and feelings to offer. For now, I’ll close tonight by sharing that the hatred and hurt that was holding me captive has been healed by the purity of the happiness unconditionally shared with me, with all of us, by the children of Kliptown. And most importantly, the residents of Kliptown, young and old, through their warmth and bright spirits, taught us that hope is stronger than hatred and hurt. The injustices that have occurred in the past and continue today are a terrible, terrible thing. But those at the margins, seemingly with no reason to be so, find hope and happiness that should be a lesson to so many of us who live lives of privilege.

I’ll be back tomorrow. And I promise, I’ll be brief. Be well.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting so much about South Africa in this blog! I graduated from Loyola last year and I am going to South Africa in September to do a month-long volunteer project. I'm going alone so it's comforting to know that SA is not a place to be afraid of, but a place I will learn so much from instead.