A few reflections from the students after returning from their Learning Journey to South Africa.
If I had to reach inside my mind and fish out one of the millions of thoughts swimming back and forth across the oceans that separate me from what my life was just three weeks ago, I would probably end up holding an idea that I’ve always had in some way, but only recently came to see clearly: Time moves way too quickly. And I don’t mean it in a getting old, “Where did my youth go?” kind of way. I don’t want the ability to make time slow down, I want the ability to make it stop. I want to go back to the choir at Leap School, and stop at the exact moment I truly realized what I was hearing. I want to go back to Philani, running as fast as I could with laughing little kids on my shoulders. I want to stop at our final bow at Tembisa, the crowd cheering, surrounding us with a wall of sound. Almost a week after returning, I can remember vividly what I felt in each of those moments, but the feeling itself is gone.
While it’s too bad that I can’t stop at every mind-altering second in my life and take some time to enjoy and reflect on it, I discovered a different way to live in the moment on this trip. I’ve always been someone who thinks about the future constantly. I practically have my whole life planned out, and any time something happens that doesn’t fit in with that plan, it throws everything out of system. I never live up to the expectations I set for myself, and it makes me constantly unsatisfied. South Africa taught me how to stop planning. I found myself in a place I had never been, surrounded by things I had never seen, and instead of trying to figure out how it was all going to affect me, I let go. For the entire first week in Cape Town, I didn’t look at the schedule once. I never knew what was coming the next day, which made it impossible to expect anything. I found myself feeling freer than I had ever felt, no longer weighed down by my worries of who I’m going to be and whether I’ll succeed or fail. And maybe the other emotions are gone, but that feeling is still with me.
Sitting in my room, my mind is still in South Africa, but I’m very aware that my body isn’t. I’m not moving my gaze up the long neck of a giraffe in awe, I’m not watching excited kids pick out their new outfits at Botshabelo, and I’m not being immediately filled with joy at the contagious laughter of Archbishop Tutu, but I know that I once was, and really, that’s enough. Emotions don’t last forever. They’re always changing, but what will never change is the fact that I have experienced something that I will hold close to my heart forever, as time pushes me along way too fast. I did have one expectation going into this trip: that it would be life changing. I can say with absolute certainty that I was not let down.
The first meaningful moment that comes to mind when I think about the trip is my experience at Botshabelo. Marion Cloete was a truly inspiring person who has given me great confidence in who I am. She gave a speech about who she was and what she has done and what is still left to do to make the world an acceptable place. One thing she mentioned that stuck out to me was be and extraordinary ordinary person. She explained that anyone can change or help the world with love and compassion. This statement gave me comfort in the fact that no person is better or more important than another it just depends on the decisions and choices you make in your life. And to me the decisions that Marion has made and continued to make are truly inspiring and she is a hero to me. The most meaningful part of getting to meet Marion was coming to the realization that everything she did everyday was with someone else in mind. She was using her life to help others and not expecting a single thing in return. She was so humble when she spoke and wasn’t afraid to tell a group of 30 kids about all the times she was thrown in jail or arrested for being a term she called a “boat rocker.” She wasn’t scared to tell us who she was and how she feels. Throughout the trip there were many people who weren’t afraid to love themselves and that is something I am going to try my hardest to bring back with me.
Another moment that stuck out to me was when we were walking through the Langa township near the LEAP school and we walked into one of the rooms where three families were living. This room was about the size of my shower. In the room there were two twin beds with about 1 and a half feet in between. We learned that the older woman sitting on the bed had lived there for 40 years. My heart sank to find this out. I had read and heard about the townships, but until I was standing in one, it never truly sank in. The problem of poverty in South Africa is heartbreaking. To hear that 30 people were living in such a small space with so little made me feel so useless and unsure of a way to help. This moment stuck with me the whole trip: of looking into this woman’s eyes. A statement that Shannon made about the trip was that our class as well as many people living in California had won the lottery of life and I didn’t quite get that until I saw people that barely had the basic needs to survive. I took a step back and really thought about not only material things but the importance of my close friends and family and teachers that love me and give me opportunities. From the experience of seeing the townships, I want to continue to be appreciative and take opportunities when they come my way.
Learning about South Africa during the last school year never quite prepared me for the real thing. We read about the economic division that still affects the country, but seeing the reality of townships constructed from wood boards and corrugated metal sitting directly across the street from huge houses fenced in with electric wire, was a whole new concept to me. Despite these circumstances, what struck me about the people we interviewed and spoke to was their hope for the future; that things would get better. The memories I take back from South Africa are ones I will try desperately to keep for the rest of my life, but memories fade. What I do hope to retain the most are the feelings and lessons I learned from all the amazing people we met.
Each day brought a new, once in a lifetime experience. Marion taught us that instead of being ashamed of the privileges we have, we can use them to help people and make a change in our community. The people we spoke to all had an unanimous sense of community – or Ubunye. They knew and helped their neighbors when they needed it. I hope the message of helping a community can inspire me as I move towards my future, and I hope that future allows me to return to South Africa someday.
Our recent trip to South Africa will be one that I will always remember. Every single day was a new and different experience which allowed me to learn a lot and make meaningful new connections. I will never forget when we went to Philani and got to spend time with all the adorable happy children, or when we got to sing with all the talented kids at Tembisa and create an amazing show. Still more memories, like when we got to be in the presence of the incredible Desmond Tutu and hear his joyful laughter and meaningful words, and when we were awestruck by the fantastic singers at LEAP school. Moreover, when I got to make a special new friendship with a little boy at Botshabelo, or when we saw so many animals on safari at the Black Rhino Lodge.
At Tembisa, LEAP school, and Norman Henshilwood High School, we met a lot of very talented people. It seemed as though everyone was effortlessly talented at dancing or singing. They all had a great sense of rhythm and were able to dance and sing without any shyness involved. The confidence they had was inspiring and I hope I can learn from them to not be shy and just go for it instead.
Everyone we met in South Africa was very friendly and welcoming, especially at the high schools, Botshabelo, and Philani. The kids were not shy at all which got rid of the awkward moments and gave us the ability to become close very quickly. It struck me that it was so easy to connect and become friends with them even though we had such different backgrounds. I met so many amazing people and formed so many new friendships in the two weeks we were there. I hope to keep in touch with as many of these people as possible.
Another great part of the trip was getting to spend so much time with all of my classmates. Doing this in such a different environment made me closer with a lot of people who I hadn’t talked to as much before. Even though we spent two and a half weeks together without any breaks, I didn’t get tired of them and I already miss hanging out with them.
I have learned a lot from going to South Africa. Seeing people happy, no matter what situations they came from, showed me that I don’t need material things to be happy. Happiness comes from my family, my friendships, and myself. As long as I have these things, I can’t complain.
Personally, one of the most striking things I noticed during our trip to South Africa was that the nation continues to struggle with recovery from Apartheid. This was a fact that was made clear by almost everything we did there: from our trips to Robben Island and the Apartheid Museum, to our meetings and interviews with people who were around at the time, and even our visits to the townships. One thing that I found particularly interesting was that there are seemingly two contradictory sides of post-apartheid South Africa. There is the effort to move forward through acknowledgement (demonstrated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the apartheid museum and the conversion of Robben island into a national heritage site), and, simultaneously, the kind of de facto apartheid that persists despite the abolition of apartheid’s government and legislation. The latter became gradually more apparent the longer we stayed, and as we began to see more and more of the contrast between the almost exclusively non-white townships and the wealthy suburbs. Thus, before long it seemed clear that in some way, despite the efforts of the new government, apartheid persists in South Africa. It is not present to the same extent as it was when apartheid was legally enforced, but it is still undeniably present. There is clear inequality in wealth and opportunity among the people of South Africa, and race appears to be a factor in this inequality. This is not to undermine the progress the nation has made since the apartheid era, clearly it has come far. But it still has a way to go before it truly recovers from its dark past.
“What do you hope to gain from this journey?” was something we were asked frequently in preparation for our trip to South Africa. I wished to build meaningful connections with others, but I didn’t realize how much of an open mind I needed to achieve that, because I thought that I was already open minded. I came out of this trip feeling like the past few weeks were meaningful thanks to how often I was pushed out of my comfort zone. Would I have come into the trip excited knowing that, in addition to dancing and singing in front of strangers, I would also barter, ask a lawyer to autograph a frog, and shower in a room where three out of four walls are glass? Probably, but I would have been incredibly apprehensive.
Many of the most memorable and survivable moments I had on this trip were nothing I would have expected to enjoy or even willingly agree to when I was in California. Leaving home for another month, I hope to remember how much more i can get from life by putting simply putting myself out there.
I want to be more outgoing around new people from here on out. Meeting those kids and not talking to too many and then hearing all their stories from my friends made me realize all I’m missing out on when I stay within myself. I’m already cracking out of my shell more. I went surfing today, something I have wanted to get good at but was afraid to be bad. I’m feeling motivated to start new hobbies (skateboarding and music) I thought I couldn’t do and/or didn’t want to commit to practicing.
I have a wider perspective on life now and I am more aware of little things in my life here that connect to my things happening in South Africa. I highly recommend reading “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah. It’s been a wonderful closing of my trip and an opening to my desire to learn deeply about other countries. I don’t mean solely the history or statistics, I want to experience the emotions and traditions. Our trip made me want to travel.