Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The End's Not Near, It's Here

I guess it’s time for the final post.  As I sit here on the plane from Joberg to Frankfurt, I struggle to find the words to explain the impact that this trip has had on me, my beliefs, my priorities, and my knowledge of the world around me. So here goes nothing.

This last week has been amazing.  Trying to squeeze in all of our goodbyes and last minute bucket list items kept us busy, but our adventures were well worth it.  We spent the majority of our time appreciating the local natural beauty of Cape Town, taking advantage of the good weather on some days, and braving the poorer weather on others.  During “Katie and Alena’s Adventures” we managed to do a sunrise hike on Lion’s Head, a hike in Kalk Bay that took us up the mountain above the clouds, a beautiful bike ride to the beach, and a hike to town from our house via the Table Mountain trails.  Our group had a few awesome days in the townships where we watched the Amy Biehl students perform the traditional dances, songs, and instruments of the area, and on another day we learned some smooth dance moves and songs at a braai in Khayelitsha. 

Traditional Dance at Amy Biehl

Lion's Head Sunrise

Kalk Bay Clouds

I’ve learned so much in these past five months, the list seems absolutely endless.  I’m sure Fairfield and Marquette would love to hear that I learned the most from my education with my classes at UWC, but that would be a lie.  I have learned much more from the 19 other individuals who I shared a house with, the kids in each class that I taught at Zimasa, and the many random people I have met on our adventures along the way.

I’ve learned that the word forgiveness has so many more implications than I ever thought possible, and that the power of forgiveness can lead people to do amazing things.  I’ve recognized the strength that it must have taken for the Biehl family to forgive the men who murdered their young daughter and then to turn around and work with these men to establish a non-profit to help “weave a barrier against violence”--teaching children the importance of humanity over race, gender or religion.  After meeting Amy Biehl’s murderers, I’ve also recognized how hard it must have been for Amy’s murderers, Easy and Ntobeko, to trust the Biehl’s, who are white, after growing up under the oppressive white apartheid regime. 

I’ve seen the practice of ubuntu first hand: the random stranger who stopped to help the group of random white girls find their way to their destination in the townships, the local who followed us literally 100 yards down the road to make sure we were safe while getting a soda, the man in the combi who told me that what I was doing at Zimasa made an impact on the kids and that the whole country thanked me, and the man who invited three Americans into his one bedroom shack and shared his bed with all of us.  This is the stuff you don’t hear nearly enough about.  Sure, South Africa is known for it’s beauty and prosperity, but you often hear about the high AIDS rates, rape statistics, and domestic violence situations because this is the stuff that makes the news.  It seems like we thrive on it, and therefore it fills the headlines, preaching all the dramatic bad news first, blurring out the stories of the local heroes who do so much to help others.  The people that we’ve met: Desmond Tutu, Mary Burton, Judy Mayotte, Easy, Ntobeko and so many others have dedicated their lives to changing South Africa into a place where we can all feel comfortable, where words like white, coloured, and black mean nothing at all, where we live according to our own standards, treating others as human beings no matter how different they are from us—it is this work that needs more recognition.  The things that these people have done are mind-blowing, yet we still focus on the negatives.  How do we change this?  Why are we always struggling to see the good in a person or place, but we have no troubles seeing the negative aspects?

I’ve also learned about the power of love while in South Africa.  I felt the absence of love, arriving in a country without a single person who knew anything about me- where I come from, my experience, my struggles, my LIFE.  But I’ve also felt a huge abundance of love from those same people that I considered strangers just weeks earlier.  We had some of the craziest experiences together, whether we were cheering each other on as we jumped off the world’s highest bungee or holding each other as we cried about situations that we had no control over.  To the nineteen people who have shared the past 5 months with me in the Kimberley House, I love you all more than you can imagine.  Catherine Bruning, Molly Arendberg, Janelle Smith, Charlie Wagner, Tyler Atkinson, Vicky Mei, Sarah Bowen, Caitlin O’Brien, Lydia Gajdel, Brian Mahoney, Dan Beck, Laura Malandra, Kristen Loeser, Alena Owen, Hanna Joyce, Madeline Wadley, Melissa May, Laura Bicknell, and Bailee Lauer, you are all awesome.  This trip would not have been the same if it were not for each and every one of you.  Our theology professor Chris Ahrends showed me that I don’t need to have a concrete definition of God in my life, nor do I need to associated with a specific religion, or set of ideals to be religious.  Our body map projects, where we told our own stories through symbols and pictures allowed me to put my past, present, and future in to perspective.  Our grassroots class with Sharon Penderis taught me so many different methods of development, used to involve the community in a project to ensure sustainability in the area.  The class also paired with my service site, where my learners taught me about living simply and being happy while living in circumstances that the majority of us would consider unbearable.  It helped to put my troubles into perspective.  Today, when I found out my first flight was delayed and hour and a half, I became frustrated, but then I realized that it really doesn’t matter.  I have had the privilege of flying across the world, living in a beautiful house, and getting a world-class education while working with kids who have never had a hot shower.  And here I am getting upset about a delayed flight.  Old habits die hard I guess. 

As I leave the mountains, ocean, and colourful people of Cape Town behind, I do not regret one moment of my time here.  Every experience has been one that I have learned from and grown from and for that I am so thankful.  My time in South Africa was filled with love, laughter, and learning and as hard as it will be to readjust to my hectic American life, I will always carry Cape Town in my heart.

You and I will meet again, When we're least expecting it, One day in some far off place, I will recognize your face, I won't say goodbye my friend, for you and I will meet again” - Tom Petty

Monday, June 6, 2011

Ubuntu speaks of the very essence of being human. My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours. We belong in a bundle of life. We say, "A person is a person through other persons." – Archbishop Tutu

I LOVE long walks on the beach.  As much of a cliché as it is, walking on the beach for hours is one of my favorite things to do. Ever.  Walking while looking at the beautiful skyline of Lion’s Head, Table Mountain, and Devil’s Peak, and the rest of the city of Cape Town doesn’t hurt the situation either.  Yesterday, a few of my housemates and I went on an adventure to Bloubergstrand, the beach where they take the “postcard” pictures of Table Mountain and Cape Town. 

Alena and I

We took the MyCiti Bus to our destination, which was an adventure in itself because we had never been on the bus before, and it is a fairly new transportation system in the city.  The bus has it’s own roads and routes that no other vehicles can drive on, and it runs through the city and to some of the surrounding suburbs.  It was really clean and safe, and also allowed us to see some of the areas of the city that we hadn’t been able to see yet.  We rode on the bus for about 30 minutes before realizing we were on the wrong route, at which point we improvised and got off the bus when we were close to a beach, not knowing if it was anywhere near where we wanted to go.  As we walked over the dunes we were greeted by a stunning view of the mountains and miles and miles of beautiful sandy beach.  We walked along the beach taking pictures of the beautiful scenery and enjoying the beautiful sunny weather, a rare occasion in the rainy season. 

We walked for about an hour and a half until we decided it was getting late and we better start trying to find our way back home.  We decided to go up a random path over the dunes and ended up right smack in the middle of what I like to call Pleasantville, South Africa.  Walking through the rows and rows of perfectly manicured lawns and three car garages, I completely forgot I was even in Africa.  The absence of razor wire and bars on the windows was so foreign to me, and the wealth we were surrounded by was so strange and made me feel uncomfortable.  How could these people be living in these giant houses with multiple cars when a few miles away there were starving kids, struggling to survive in an overcrowded shack the size of one of the bathrooms in these houses?  The inequality present in this country is like nothing I have ever seen before, and I am still struggling to comprehend it after months of living here.  I’m sure that this is not something that I would get used to even after years of living here. 

It’s often really hard for me to digest the raging inequality and injustices present in this place.  I have trouble walking through these neighborhoods one day, and then comparing them when I am in the townships the next day.  It makes me so frustrated, upset, and angry, but then I remember that the people in the townships are often happy with what they have.  They don’t need multi-million dollar beachfront houses, four plasma screen televisions and a laptop for each member of their family to be happy.  They are happy with their tin roof shacks, extended family ties, and close-knit communities.  They value their relationships with people and God instead of cars and electronics.  There are just so many lessons that I have learned from the people that I have met here.  My housemates, my students, and the various random people I have met have helped me to realize that South Africa has come a long way from its apartheid past, but still has an equally long way to go. 

This story, given to my housemate Laura, by a man at her service site, exemplifies the good natured will of South Africa, and really encompasses the spirit of “ubuntu.”

My South Africa by Jonathan Jansen

My South Africa is the working-class man who called from the airport to return my wallet without a cent missing. It is the white woman who put all three of her domestic worker’s children through the same school that her own child attended. It is the politician in one of our rural provinces, Mpumalanga, who returned his salary to the government as a statement that standing with the poor had to be more than just a few words. It is the teacher who worked after school hours every day during the public sector strike to ensure her children did not miss out on learning.

My South Africa is the first-year university student in Bloemfontein who tool all the gifts she received for her birthday and donated them- with the permission of the givers- to a home for children in an Aids village. It is the people hurt by racist acts who find it in their hearts to a publicly forgive the perpetrators. It is the group of farmers in Paarl who started a top school for the children of farm workers to ensure they got the best education possible while their parents toiled in the vineyards. It is the farmer’s wife in Viljoenskroon who created an education and training centre for the wives of farm labourers so that they could gain the advanced skills required to operate accredited early-learning centres for their own and other children.

My South Africa is that little white boy at a decent school in the Eastern Cape who decided to teach the black boys in the community to play cricket, and to fit them all out with the togs required to play the gentleman’s game. It is the two black street children in Durban, caught on camera, who put their spare change in the condensed milk tin of a white beggar. It is the Johannesburg pastor who opened up his church as a place of shelter for illegal immigrants. It is the Afrikaner woman from Boksburg who nailed the white guy who shot and killed one of South Africa’s greatest freedom fighters outside his home.

My South Africa is the man who went to prison for 27 years and came out embracing his captors, thereby releasing them from their impending misery, it is the activist priest who dived into a crowd of angry people to rescue a woman from a sure necklacing. It is the former police chief who fell to his knees to wash the feet of Mamelodi women whose sons disappeared on his watch; it is the woman who forgave him in his act of contrition.  It is the Cape Town university psychologist who interviewed the “Prime Evil” in Pretoria Centre and came away with emotional attachment, even empathy, for the human being who did such terrible things under apartheid.

My South Africa is the quiet, dignified, determined township mother from Langa who straightened her back during the years of oppression and decided that her struggle was to raise decent children, insist that they learn, and ensure that they not succumb to bitterness or defeat in the face of overwhelming odds. It is the two young girls who walked 20kms to school everyday, even through their matric years, and passed well enough to be accepted into university studies. It is the student who takes on three jobs, during the evenings and weekends, to find ways of paying for his university studies.