An overview/highlight video of the Sawubona Project in 2011.
An overview/highlight video of the Sawubona Project in 2011.
Whilst hiking through the African Savannah early this morning, I couldn’t help but reflect on the trip as a whole. Even as I write, details slip from my mind but what they leave are the bare emotions this journey has left me with. Love and thankfulness for the people I’ve met and the country I’ve grown so attached to.
Despite, or possibly because of, it’s many heartbreaking issues, South Africa calls to me. I feel connected to the people, the land and the music. It’s a feeling of thankfulness that I had difficulty articulating until this morning’s hike through the terrain of our ancestors. The open love and acceptance that exists within the heart of this country, despite the history of hatred and separation, has shown me how to truly see and be seen. More than this, South Africa calls to me with familiar voices that can only be described as close to those of home.
Pregs Govender and Desmond Tutu both taught us to embrace the whole, whether that is a country, a people, a person or oneself. That’s exactly what the people we’ve met in South Africa have done for us. Wherever we journeyed we were greeted with unquestionable acceptance that we couldn’t help but return.
Tomorrow morning we will depart, ending this journey and leaving South Africa. I have the bittersweet sense that, though I am returning to one of my homes, I’m leaving another one. There’s no way I’m leaving for good. Someday I will return to this place that I have begun to think of as home.
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As the final message of our learning journey, we want to share this special moment with the Tswelopele Performing Artists in Tembisa. With voices and hearts joined in song that connected across culture, across socio-economic circumstance, across national and racial boundaries, we experienced the essence of Sawubona, which is to truly see, feel and appreciate one another. In this our humanity is restored and we heal one another.
Thank you to all our friends in South Africa for this lesson and for your special gift of welcome and acceptance that will remain with us forever.
With much love from the students and travel staff of Mount Madonna School
There were many people who made our Journey what it was; who volunteered their time and energy, who gave us their support and dedication, who joined the Sawubona Project family. We would like to thank them here so that those who have been reading our blog can recognize them for all they have done.
Nicolette van den Berg – IsPartners
Kerrie Brand – Symphonia
Vivian Ford – P.A. for Archbishop Tutu
Yolanda Golaith – P.A. Dawie Crous
Mr. Tsewu – Fezeka High, Guguletu
Dr. Ralph T. Shepard – Novalis Ubuntu Institute
Mzwandile Sangweni – Novalis Ubuntu Institute
Jayne Martin – Wynberg High, Cape Town
Andre Pretorious – Heathfield Primary School, Cape Town
Debra Levin – TravelHouse
Con and Marion Cloete – Botshabelo Childrens Aids Village
Nicole Cloete – Botshabelo Childrens Aids Village
Shanna Cloete – Botshabelo Childrens Aids Village
Tammy Job – Philani Child Nutrition Project
Zelda and Chaeli Mycroft – Chaeli Campaign
It has been wonderful having you and your group around. The unintended consequence of your presence here has been that I have learnt so much more about my own country and its people than I ever knew. For this I thank you very much. I hope that you are successful in seeing all the game that you want to see in the Kruger, and that you will all travel safely back to the USA, and remember all the friends that you have in South Africa.
Kind regards, Trevor Tutu
Today we headed to Kruger National Park. I have been anticipating this part of our trip for a long time. Before we began the 5 hour drive we made one stop, finally getting to meet Dawie Crous. We had heard so much about him from the students that went on the last South African journey. He played an integral part in the planning of their trip.
My impression of Dawie is that he is an honest and caring man. He talked a lot about what we need to do to make the world a better place. I was impressed by his commitment to do his part.
Once our time with Dawie was over, all I could think about was getting to Kruger. Our drive was a good time to talk to each other about our experiences so far because there is not much else to do on a five hour bus ride.
Today was our first day on safari. Our early morning start proved a success because within the first ten minutes we saw four female lions roaming the roads. After our lion sighting we continued our cold morning drive, eager to test our luck. Soon the crisp air was forgotten as we became engaged in looking at giraffes, kudus, white rhinos, zebras and impalas.
After lunch we set out again with our bellies full. As we continued our drive, the sun grew hotter, my patience grew shorter and the animals fewer. After eleven hours the sun and our expectations were falling. Suddenly, something jumped out of the bush and up sprang our guide Chewie thrilled with the sighting of this new animal. He proceeded to tell us that it was a side-striped jackal and that this was his first time seeing one. As excited as we were at seeing a new and rare animal, nothing could match the beaming smile on our guide’s face.
Having a guide as friendly and approachable as Chewie, made the day a fun learning experience. He was knowledgeable about the bush and delivered facts in a way that was fun to listen to. Although we saw giraffes, elephants, crocodiles, baboons, zebras, and lions, seeing the jackal and how excited it made our guide, was one of the highlights of the day.
Today was our second day in Kruger National Park. Yesterday was pretty amazing. We saw four out of the Big Five – lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant. Although we didn’t see a leopard yesterday, we saw many other amazing animals. We even saw lions on a couple different occasions.
Our first lion sighting was right off the bat. As we were leaving camp we saw four 1-year old cubs walking down the middle of the road. Our second sighting was of a huge pride of lions chilling in the middle of a field, stalking giraffes.
Although some people may have thought of the safari as just a bonus, I have learned just as much from our time in the park as I did from the first part of the trip. I think this is because we are back at the place where it all started. You get a feeling of home that nothing can top.
Sitting in our jeep in the freezing cold, wanting to go back to bed, all we could focus on was the many layers of clothes we were wearing. As our eyes glazed over and the sun rose,we felt our jeep gently stop. Up ahead, much to our surprise, were four lions on the edge of the road, playing together. We were not expecting to see one of the Big Five first thing in the morning. At the beginning of our safari we were warned to keep our expectations low. Now, the bar was set high.
As the day progressed, we were continuously surprised by our sightings. We saw countless giraffes snacking on leaves, herds of elephants silently teaching their young how to fend for themselves, and hundreds of impalas lurking by the road. We saw everything up close. We saw the unique pattern on each zebra, the sinewy mouth of the white rhino, and learned how to tell the difference between a male and female giraffe by their horns.
After our first rhino spotting, our guide Chewie talked passionately about the danger they face from poachers. He informed us that rhino horns sell for around $20,000 per kilo. Their average weight is 4-5 kilos. Every twenty-one hours a rhino is shot and killed, it’s horn cut off and sold in the Black Market. Often the horn is bought and used to make traditional Chinese herbal remedies.
Our group was intrigued by the facts Chewie told us. His method of teaching did not seem like an ordinary classroom lecture. He captured our attention and we felt more knowledgeable with every bit of information he gave us.
Our time here at Kruger National Park has been staggering. I have seen so many pictures of the vast African savannah, but none of them captured the true feeling of actually being here. Seeing the majestic elephant lumber across the road, a journey of giraffes nuzzle while munching leavesand a crocodile lazing in the warm sun. While I have seen images of these things in a book, experiencing them first hand was a much more powerful experience. The people in our Jeep were fortunate enough to see the Big Five all in one day. We saw the first four animals within the first half of the day. Each time we saw one,I fell silent in wonder.
Our guide Laura explained to us how rare it is to see leopards and we should not get our hopes up. After lunch, we saw three cars pulled off the side of the road, all of their inhabitants pointing excitedly. Partially hidden by the shade of a tree, a leopard lounged about 40 feet away. I felt lucky to have had this experience.
All the animals here at Kruger hold a special dignity. It is beautiful to see them in their natural habitat, unrestrained by zoo enclosures. The lights of a city on the horizon served as an ever-present reminder of the encroachment of humans on our wildlife and I desperately wished for those lights to disappear. I feel at home here on the open savannah, where the zebras gallop wildly and the lions prowl without fear.
My face burned from the icy wind as we drove through the park. It hurt but was worth the pain. That’s the feeling I got as we drove through the freezing cold. Then I saw an animal and it was all worth it. Not more than a minute out, there was a herd of Cape Buffalo sleeping five meters from our truck. It was astounding to see such dangerous animals behaving in such a calm manner.
I walked behind our guides, Chris and Dwayne, as we followed a hippo path. They knew it was a hippo path because rather than one solid line, there was a line of grass growing down the middle. Rather than crisscrossing steps like most animals, a hippo’s steps fall in straight lines.
We followed the path and it led us to a lake where we saw and heard a choir of hippos. As we walked along our guides shared their extensive knowledge of the foliage, tracks and other indicators that animals had passed through the area, and the meaning of certain animal behavior. One example Dwayne gave was the oxpecker, with its identifiable tweet, which will often land on animals like the rhino, elephant, and hippo. If you see one most likely you will see one of these animals in the area.
On foot we saw hippos, rhinos, impala, and an antelope. Then when we got in our jeep, two impalas came around the corner followed by five baboons. The baboons were startled and started to run. That’s when the real excitement began. Another 40 baboons came running out of the bush. Sights like this are why I love this place.
Gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, the freezing cold and the sweltering heat, and the majestic animals are what keep this land a place of wonder and excitement.
Throughout the past three days at Kruger National Park I have seen a mother lion with her cubs, a leopard lounging under a tree, a baby baboon riding on its mother’s back, elephants crossing the road 20 feet from our Jeep, giraffes chomping on trees, and impalas bounding across the horizon. I have walked along paths made by buffalos, ventured through grass that towered feet above me, climbed enormous boulders, and gazed out over the vast African savannah. Through these experiences I have gained a deeper understanding of my place within the world. I am so small in relation to the rest of the planet. My life is just a tiny piece of the puzzle, and yet I have been completely absorbed by it for the last 17 years. There is entire ecosystem living and thriving that I have been completely oblivious to. My experiences at Kruger Park have brought me to the humbling realization that life stretches far beyond the confines of my own reality.
When reading about South Africa and the end of apartheid I saw the same big names repeated over and over, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Walter Sisu, just to name a few. These names are synonymous with South African heroism and the struggle against apartheid. I was looking forward to getting to meet a lesser known hero of the battle against injustice. I got my wish when we interviewed Peter Harris, the defense attorney for the famed Delmas Four.
Mr. Harris is everything one could hope for in a hero. He is strong yet modest, outspoken yet calm, reluctant for the spotlight yet firmly aware of the side he has chosen and fully devoted to his cause. Before we met him I had expected him to be the kind of person who was reluctant to take sides and was simply thrown into the fight. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. During the dark era of apartheid he showed no reluctance to take a stand and speak out about the evils of an immoral system. He did not seem at all bothered by the notoriety he gained as a white anti-apartheid activist.
It is rare to meet a person with a moral compass like Peter Harris. Many people are either bystanders, who may be concerned but don’t take a stand, or battle happy generals who charge to the forefront of a struggle and make their stances known. Peter Harris wears no general’s uniform. He has no four-star rank pinned to his lapel or a ceremonial sword at his side. Yet Peter Harris is a determined soldier, willing to risk all for the betterment of his country. At the same time, he is content to remain out of the spotlight. While he is not as well known as Nelson Mandela or Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the work he has done and his selfless service to his country, in my opinion, are just as important and heroic.
Peter Harris is a humble man who seems to not enjoy the limelight that surrounds him. During apartheid he represented the Delmas Four and saved these young men from being hanged. At the time Mr. Harris was a defense lawyer for many ANC members. He was committed to fighting against apartheid.
In the beginning of our interview with Mr. Harris he seemed to answer our questions quickly. As the interview progressed and he realized that we had well-researched questions, his answers became more in-depth. As I listened to him, I noticed that he never gave himself credit for what he had accomplished. He simply said that he knew which side he was on.
I was struck when Peter Harris told us that he is still haunted by the trial. He described how, the taking of innocent life by his clients, the torture the Delmas Four endured and the discrimination that occurred before and during the trial will never leave him. In my opinion Mr. Harris is a hero. I admire his humility. He doesn’t see himself as a hero or a savior, just a man doing his job.
I don’t know what I was expecting when we walked into the conference room to interview Peter Harris, but it was nothing like what actually occurred. An author and lawyer, Peter Harris is a kind and humble man who was both articulate and informative.
Though the interview itself was interesting, it was the closure that truly struck me. We have a tradition of ending each interview by telling the interviewee what touched us about the conversation. Up until then I had become accustomed to polite nods and smiles as responses to our reflections, but Peter Harris was different. He truly took in our words and responded with additional information. It turned into more of a relaxed dialogue because of his willingness to respond. I am so thankful for that unexpected ending. In the future, I hope to emulate the quality of seeing and hearing those around me.
HIV positive. One year old and dying. Neglected by her mother. Deprived of food. Two years later this child that has suffered so much is a beautiful 3 year old, full of life and happiness. This little girl was open to all the love that I was so quick to give her. The smile that appeared on her face with every embrace could warm the coldest heart. It is hard to imagine that anyone could treat such a precious baby so terribly. I am thankful that Mariann and Con Clote, who founded Botshabelo twenty years ago, rescued her from a life of deprivation and neglect. Like every child, that toddler was worth saving and I feel fortunate that I was able to hold her and share my love and compassion. Her smile is an image that will forever remain in my memory.
I could feel the excitement bubbling as our bus slowly approached Botshabelo, a South African children’s village and orphanage where all of the children are either infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. I had been waiting for this day for months. Ever since watching Angles in the Dust, a documentary featuring the inspirational story of the village, I desperately hoped to visit. Even through the TV screen, the love and spirit of Botshabelo was profoundly moving. I longed to feel their energy first hand, experience their stirring passion, and learn from them the true essence of community.
When we finally arrived, it truly seemed surreal. The children greeted us with open arms, welcoming us into their home and their hearts. A nine year old girl named Michelle immediately took me under her wing, teaching me many useful “Cats Cradle” tricks with string…the ultimate bonding experience.
Clutching my hand as if she had known me forever, Michelle then lead me to the village cemetery to visit her 3 year old friend. She touched the grave with tenderness and told me of the love that they had shared. She couldn’t understand why I was crying. For these children, while death is a tragic part of their lives, they have gained the remarkable ability to treasure each precious moment.
Later, we returned to the main village to enjoy a dance performance by the teenagers of Botshabelo. Their smiles were heartwarming and their lively energy soon had the whole room moving and grooving. For the last song, we were all given the opportunity to get on our feet and dance together. Michelle immediately grabbed my hand and led me to the dance floor to show me her moves. My heart synchronized with the powerful beat of the music. The purity of her smile warmed my body. I do not remember the last time I have felt that happy.
While I could have stayed there forever, it finally came time for us to leave. The lump in my throat grew with each goodbye hug. It felt like we were saying goodbye to family. Right before getting on to the bus, I squeezed Michelle with all of my might, hoping to freeze time for just a few more moments. Never before I have a felt so connected to a child or to a place. The community at Botshabelo embodies the true meaning of Sawubona. Their love, passion, sincerity, and genuine appreciation for life created a safe environment in which I could find the courage to see and be seen.
Finding the right words to accurately describe our experience today at Botshabelo children’s village is almost impossible. The children there truly touched me in a way that I never expected.
When I think of family, I think of a mom, dad, and their kids. The people we met today have completely redefined that word for me. The loving babies, kids and teens have shown me that you don’t have to be related to be a true family. The care and support they have for each other is so powerful that you can feel it as soon as you pull through the gate.
When you see their genuine, warm smiles, you would never guess how much trauma each one of them has been unfortunate enough to experience. A majority of them are orphans, and all but six tested positive for HIV.
As we walked through the property that was covered with houses, shacks, classrooms and bunk rooms, I was overwhelmed by the number of babies there were to hold. Since I am a baby lover, I was overjoyed by how many cute, smiling children were eager to jump into my arms.
As we walked through a field of tall, thick grass, I got the opportunity to connect with one of the older girls. She told me that she was thirteen years old and had lived there since she was eight. When I asked about her life before she came to Botshabelo she explained that she ran away with her mother and sister to escape her abusive father. I was speechless, but somehow I managed to blurt out a sentence, “How much longer is this walk?” She laughed and responded, “Don’t worry its not much farther, I know Americans hate walking.”
What seemed to be a endless field finally ended and we found ourselves at a graveyard. The woman in charge told us that this was an illegal graveyard where most of the childrens’ parents and many of their siblings were buried. The girl took my hand and walked me to two graves. “This is my mom and sister.” I was shocked, the way she so blatantly said this made it clear that the topic of death had become normal for her. This hit me the hardest of anything we’ve experienced on this trip.
The ability these kids have to love and care for one another is truly amazing. Leaving them at the end of the day was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. These children have experienced so much and still they had the strength to wipe away my tears. I love every single one of them. They have taught me more then they will ever understand.
Ever since we watched Angels in the Dust, our class has been working hard to raise funds and donations to give to the children at Botshabelo. We managed to raise $1,000 and gather enough goods to fill seventeen 50-pound bags with toys, clothes, stationary items, sanitary items, and laptop computers.
Our two-hour bus ride was filled with excited chatter about the babies we were about to meet. The girls in our class had already warned Nicole and me not to hog all the babies but we turned to each other and rolled our eyes, knowing that we would hold them and shower them with all the love we had.
As we got off the bus, children, puppies and kittens swarmed around us. The first image that came to my head was my memory of Sri Ram Ashram. There the kids run up to you yelling, “Didi! Didi!” At Botshabelo the kids embraced us and flashed us huge smiles that were bigger than their faces. As always, my instincts immediately pulled me toward a 6-month old baby that I kept with me for the next four and a half hours.
We began with a tour of the property and a walk to the cemetery. On our walk I cut my finger and was told to go back and clean up the wound and bandage it. A girl named Mikah walked back with me. During that walk I began to truly appreciate the importance of my family. I asked Mikah how long she had been at the orphanage and she told me that her grandmother brought her there and shortly after passed away. Her mother was also dead and her uncle had passed away the previous week. She said that her father was still alive but that he never visited her. I didn’t know what to say besides, “I’m really sorry.” She asked me about my family and at first I felt uncomfortable even talking about my family to someone who had lost everyone. But then I realized she wasn’t alone. She had so many people at Botshabelo who cared for her. I told her about my parents and brother and how love, time and difficulties have made our bonds stronger. Talking about them reminded me of how important they are to me. I think sometimes we take advantage of what we have and don’t see the treasures in front of us because we get used to the love and comfort. She listened to my stories intently and with so much joy. She found happiness in my happiness. This ability to be happy for others is a characteristic that I wish to take back with me and hopefully keep forever.
My heart pounded as we jumped off the bus and onto the property of Botshabelo Children’s Village. I had been waiting months for this day.
As we got off the bus we were greeted by dozens of smiling faces, from newborns to young adults in their twenties. Leigh Cohn, daughter of the founders, told us how grateful they were that we were there. I wanted to tell her that it was us that were grateful.
One of the six year olds, Gabby, promptly sat down on my lap. We soaked up each other’s love and I felt whole just looking into her eyes. I carried her on my back as we walked to the Botshabelo cemetery. One of the older girls showed me all the graves that she was connected to. She said, “This here is my mother. Here is my baby brother. That is my best friend.” I looked at each grave and felt overwhelmed with helplessness. The strength in her eyes turned my helplessness into the urgent need for action and I vowed that I would someday come back to the family of Botshabelo.
Throughout the night Gabby did not leave my side and we formed a special bond. However, I noticed that whenever another child would come up to me, she would shoo them away and hug me protectively. I wanted to tell her that I would not let her go, that nothing would make me love her less. I couldn’t imagine leaving her at the end of the night. When this time came, I could not hug her tightly enough and I couldn’t help but cry.
Visiting Botshabelo was a highlight of the trip for me. I felt a true sense of family there. I was both overwhelmed and ecstatic. I know that some day I will be back and hopefully I can see Gabby and feel her love once again.
Mankind has returned to the cradle where it began, a little worse for the wear. Long long ago, our species climbed out of the trees and learned to sleep in forty-five minute intervals so we could avoid the stalking lions. We evolved a sense of rashness at the age of fifteen so we could ignore the consequences, leave our tribe and find a mate. We journeyed north from the east side of South Africa and its green grassy hills, up the coast, fishing, leaving our mark. We crossed oceans, climbed mountains, survived volcanic eruptions…. Some of us developed white skin so we could absorb the weaker rays of sunshine in our new habitats.
Today we wanderers visited the Tswana, oldest population on earth as we know for sure by analyzing tiny, tiny, bits of everyone on the planet. On the way to see them we passed the site where the oldest Homo sapien bones have been found rotting away beneath the red earth. Yes, we are a little worse for the wear. We have lost our touch with the rhythm of the ground beneath our feet. We’re floating too far above it in two hundred dollar shoes, layer after layer of pipes and vents and insulation, ears full of catchy tunes about fast food restaurants. Our group came from a life lived behind closed doors, in private backyards, where you can live for ten years without knowing someone living on the same block.
Not in black South Africa. Yesterday we walked up and down the streets of Tembisa picking up people’s babies, seeing the flashes of a thousand smiles and heads thrown back in laughter as people with small, cozy houses sang the evening away washing laundry on their front porches. Where do the children play? Everywhere. With all their elders’ watchful eyes on them, meaning the entire neighborhood.
Wealth forces us to closet ourselves behind protective gates, and eventually, our spirits become closeted, self-conscious. We are in a strange world of tricking ourselves into believing we’re happy because we just bought something.
If the rivers in which flow the waters of lifes’ passion and immediacy generally dwell far, far beneath the surface for the privileged people of the world, today, the Africans drilled down inside us and opened up a taproot to our hearts.
Yes, we are back in the cradle, mankind, and the time has come to start over. Some of the Tswana we visited have also returned; some have been there forever. Some of them have faces with scars, some are burned, limbs are not quite right; babies are smaller than they should be. All of them have AIDS. Most are victims of sexual abuse; almost all of the young girls have been raped. Their parents are buried behind them on the hillside. Yet here, when they dance and sing on the earthen floor, something so beautiful and precious opens up in their faces; pure, true joy. Passion for life. Spirit. Everything Americans strive for in a thousand full-to-the-brim weekend retreats and to the tune of a multi-million-dollar self-help industry.
And we cut through the pretension easily, with a dull knife, that we are there to “help” them. As they take our hands and draw us onto the dance floor and we all throw our self-consciousness to the winds, we thank them a thousand times for the love they are giving us.
Today we went to the township of Tembisa to see our friends that we had dinner with on Saturday night. We walked through the neighborhood with the students and soon became the center of attention. Many brave children came out to see what was going on. I played with the boys on the street while many of the girls went and held the babies.
After giving us a tour of the township the students took us back to the community center and danced for us. They performed two traditional dances. They were unbelievably amazing. The intense sound produced by the dancers and musicians, combined with the precision and synchronization created an adrenaline filled experience for everyone watching. After their tremendous dances our class sang “Circle of Life”. We in no way came close to comparing to what they did. In Tembisa I made several friends in just a few hours. Usually it takes me a few days just to make one. The openness and vibrant joy that came from these kids doesn’t compare to anything I have ever experienced.
This afternoon we went to visit students that are part of an after school theatre program in Tembisa. Although we had eaten dinner with some of the students the previous night, none of us had any idea what to expect. As we filed off the bus, we were greeted by the warm and familiar hugs of the Tembisa students. We began to fall into easy conversation and I was relieved that our previous bonds were so easily rekindled. With anticipation, we sat down to watch our new friends perform.
Suddenly they entered in traditional African costume, singing and stomping on the floor. I felt the floor shake with the powerful emotions of centuries; it was unlike anything I have ever seen. Unlike the western dancing that I am familiar with, this dancing was grounded and earthy and powerful. I couldn’t help but stare in wonder throughout the entire performance. I realized that their traditional dances embody the spirit of the people of Africa. Everyone here has such confidence in themselves and they are deeply rooted in their own power. Often people in the United States tend to be very constrained and often timid. Neither way is wrong, but I find South Africa to be refreshing. I feel free to be myself.
After we attempted to live up to their incredible performance by singing the “Circle of Life” we all stood to sing together. We sang a song called Shosholoza that we had prepared beforehand so that we could have the pleasure of singing with the Tembisa students. We had practiced countless times on the bus, attempting to master the foreign lyrics and beautiful tune. However, once we sang with the Tembisa performers, something sparked inside all of us. I felt so inspired by their clear, powerful voices that my quavering voice seemed to gain confidence. I soon found myself singing loudly. My apprehensions melted away because of the friends around me. As we finished the song, all of us could feel that something special had just occurred. Our voices blended together perfectly, just as our new friends blended seamlessly into our South African experience.
As we pass the half-way point of our trip, I try to imagine having to leave this beautiful country full of contradiction. Saying farewell to my newfound friends in Tembisa was heart wrenching enough; I can’t imagine departing from this country that has changed me so much. However, I know that whatever happens, the friends and connections I have made in South Africa will stay with me forever, just as the Tembisa students will inspire me throughout my life.