The Umbono Project students have returned from a successful learning journey to South Africa! Please continue to periodically check back for additional posts including a couple new videos and final reflections.
During the last part of our trip, we got to visit the long-awaited and much anticipated safari zone at the Black Rhino Lodge. I have been looking forward to this part of the trip ever since I heard about the South Africa Learning Journey. I was excited at the amazing opportunity to see the stunning animals up close, in person.
Today, we went on two safaris, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. We saw a variety of animals including elephants, zebras, impalas, baboons, lots of rhinos, and a buffalo and hippo. It truly is a unique experience to see these animals face to face when we are so used to seeing them only in pictures; it is almost indescribable. I feel as though this is the perfect way to end our trip here in South Africa. It allows us to reflect on our experiences here, during our much-needed relaxation, as well as seeing South Africa’s many wonders, the wildlife, in person.
If you have been in the ocean when a whale breaches you’ll know the feeling of being completely humbled. That feeling of connection with the earth and the animal in front of you, it makes you feel so incredibly small, but in the best possible way. Seeing an elephant is just the same, but on a scale about fifteen times as big. Elephants are strong, and can crush without effort, but they don’t. They walk the earth taking what they need and leaving the rest alone, peacefully living in harmony with the environment they are surrounded by. It’s a majestically humbling experience. As the four gentle giants crossed the road in front of our jeeps, on our first safari, the world just kind of stopped. Every expectation, want, and need just slipped away in the presence of these animals. For me, the sight was overwhelming, and it brought me to tears. It saddens me to think that these animals can be subject to such torture by humans, when they are so incredibly peaceful.
Lions are just as incredible, not in a humbling way, but in an empowering way. When Russy, our guide, got the call that a lioness was spotted, our Jeep took off. Speeding down the winding roads, dust billowing up behind us, excitement in the air. However, that rush is transformed when the lioness is spotted. Everyone is quiet, as the strong cat, undisturbed walks down the path. The lioness has so much physical strength, she could kill in one single bite; but she doesn’t. She simply continues on her way, ignoring the jeeps and cameras. The lioness knows her strength, and knows when to use it.
You can learn so much from observing animals. The elephants are humbling. Lions are empowering. Impalas are mighty. Zebras are observant. Rhinos make you appreciative of people who want to save the earth. We can all remind ourselves how important these qualities are while watching the animals.
After seeing the power of oppression and destruction that human kind has wielded, in the the form of apartheid, it is hopeful to be immersed in a place untouched, for a few short days. Seeing the vast valleys and peaks, unharmed by humans, filled with thriving ecosystems and gentle giants, gives me hope. Hope that humans have humanity, and that there are people dedicated to preserving nature.
On our last early morning safari ride, the sun rose over Pilanesberg Park and I finally realized the power of gaining a new perspective. A new perspective can change the way you see anything from money, to humanity, to even simply the sun.
Today we met with Professor Piet Meiring. He is a professor of Theology and also served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa. He’s someone who was a part of the attempt to heal what could be healed post-apartheid. His work, and the work of the TRC, resulted in 27,000 people having their stories heard, and for some, finally finding peace. Professor Meiring is a rather humble person; he preferred not to start the interview by telling about himself but rather asking us what we had done and seen on our trip. Once his stories and the treasure of memories of his time on the TRC started, there was no mistaking that he was of the highest caliber of person.
Professor Meiring told us the story of a person who was seeking amnesty for his actions during apartheid. This individual wanted to meet with one of the people he had wronged. The woman in question was the mother of someone who he had personally killed and whose body he had burned at the stake, while he and his comrades had a barbeque. They then dumped the ashes of the person in the river. As a result, the family had nothing to bury. He had done all of this, and now he wanted to meet with that family to apologize. He now believed that Jesus had died for his sins, and he had made his peace with God, but he needed to make his peace with the people he had wronged. The mother said she wanted nothing to do with him but that she would tell her family and let them decide because she was not the only one hurt by his actions. She went home and the brothers said that they wanted to meet this man and soon enough the whole community wanted to see him. So, they met. They filed into a church filled with anger and spite, wanting to tear down and destroy this man. He got up on the podium and repeated his reason for needing to meet them; he felt ashamed by his actions. The whole church was silent until one man in the back stood and walked down the aisle. He came right up and said, I will forgive you. Just like that the whole community stood and a queue formed and each one came and forgave him. The brother of the man he killed came and said that even though he had killed his brother, he would be his brother now.
I think that story encapsulates the power the TRC had to reconcile and foster forgiveness and peace. I also think that interviewing Professor Meiring was a fitting end to our journey. We started by interviewing Thulani Mabaso and hearing his struggle against apartheid. We then interviewed Mamphela Ramphele who gave us insight into how the movement succeeded. We went to Botshabelo and into Langa and Soweto and saw the scars that apartheid left behind, and then we interviewed Piet Meiring who gave us information about how South Africa is trying to rectify and heal. He showed us the beautiful future being built by the rainbow people of South Africa.
Today we saw a rhino but that isn’t the headline. Before coming to the Black Rhino Safari Lodge, we had the chance to sit down with Piet Meiring, one of the members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In this interview, we were able to find out about what it was like trying to repair a country left broken by apartheid. We also learned how it felt to be in the field trying to find solutions and reparations for the atrocities committed. One thing that stood out to me immediately was when he stated that listening to people’s accounts of how they were wronged under this unjust system was so psychologically draining that the members of the commission and translators were offered therapy.
The interview touched our hearts. I learned so much hearing about the power of forgiveness and the healing that comes from having your story told. I’ll leave you with the words of one man who got to tell his story to the TRC. He said that when he was locked up the officer torturing him said sneeringly, “You can scream as loud as you want, no one will hear you.” When he told his story to the TRC, he smiled knowing that the whole world could hear him. His voice was no longer silenced.
I don’t think I will ever enjoy singing as much as I did today. So far, our time at Tembisa has been full of talent, music, and warm-hearted kids who are thrilled to engage with us. As soon as my feet hit the dusty pavement, on our first day, I was swept away into a crowd of embraces and greetings. The kids at the Moses Molelekwa Performing Arts Center were buzzing with curiosity and the willingness to make connections with us.
Out of the sea of friends I made, one stands out. I met this kid named Thabang, and let me tell you he could make absolutely anyone and everyone laugh. A tall and rather lanky kid, he was hard to miss in a crowd. Honestly, my classmates and I were in conversation with him every chance we got. I will miss him and his overuse of, “guys!” very much.
It was during our last performance that I felt the most connected with our newfound companions. As our voices blended together as one, into a harmonious smoothie of sound and rhythm, I scanned the half circle that we had formed and felt a bolt of inspiration and empowerment. There was a silent energy that continued to build, all the way up to the very last song of our performance. Thulani, the choir director, informed us that it was a song that he himself composed. It was a tribute to the thousands of youth that marched through the streets of Soweto in June of 1976, as a means of protesting an apartheid law which enforced the use of the Afrikaans language in schools across South Africa. Towards the end of the song, we began to chant fiercely and march out into the crowd, pulling them into our performance. The power of our voices, and the energy that was vibrating all around us, was enough to make the room quake. In that moment, I think I understood why music is so important to me. It conveys emotions that words simply cannot generate. It brings people together. It helps build connections and paints beautiful memories that can be awakened with the simplest melody.
I talked to Thulani after the show, and he told me how he always closes his eyes when he listens to people perform. He explained to me that it showed him each layer to the full mural that was the song. I responded by saying that I understood him, and that his explanation was something that I had understood my whole life but never been able to explain. Along with the souvenirs I’ve bought and memories that I’ve collected, I hope to bring Thulani’s spirit and passion home with me.
We spent our last day in Tembisa performing with our new friends. We also watched them perform scenes, songs, and dances. I had a chance to meet up with my new friends Zanele, Ellen, Zinhle, Junior, Princess, and many others. I really enjoyed it when they tried to teach me how to speak Zulu; it was incredible. It was amazing how inviting everyone was to a group of students they didn’t know. I met so many people that came up to me with open arms and open hearts. We took pictures together to save the memories.
For the final performance, we walked in one by one. As we started singing, the crowd seemed moved by our expressions and power as a group. We owe Thulani a big thanks for being an amazing teacher. He rearranged several of our songs and taught us new songs in only three days. Our final performance moved our hearts and our bodies by the intensity and meaning of the songs. Most of our songs were chants or calls used in the fight against apartheid. When we got to our finale song, it felt like the whole room just came alive. People began dancing and smiling. We were full of joy, smiling and tearing up, knowing it was our final song together.
Our goodbyes were hard. I think it is amazing that in only three days we built such strong friendships that will last a lifetime. I hope to see them all again someday. I still can’t believe how inviting the kids we met were. In the United States, we are used to being reserved, or observing each other, until we feel safe around new people. Here they want to learn about your culture and teach you about their culture. It’s something you don’t see all the time and we take it for granted. They seem proud of their history. Sometimes I feel ashamed of our past.
One of my new friends that I made at Tembisa said, “I will miss you.” This warmed my heart. I am proud that we had made so many connections across the world and learned that in many ways they are just like us.
During my time at Tembisa, I learned that I can love a person within ten minutes of meeting them. This turned out to be the case for all the Tembisa students that we sang with. The third day we spent at Tembisa was the day of the performance; the day that would end with excruciating and bittersweet goodbyes. I think I’ve been saying the phrase, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my life,” quite a lot on this trip, but our performance was more than fun, was more than exciting, to a point that I can’t even explain.
The day started out with our huge bus pulling up to the now familiar group of dusty buildings and benches, greeted by our new friends in the courtyard. One boy, Sabelo said good morning by blowing everyone away with his insane beatboxing. As we slowly filed in around him, some people were just staring at him in awe, some were bouncing their heads to the beat, and some were strangely dancing. They did not even care what everyone else thought because we all felt so close and felt so much love that there was no judgment. While I have a special place in my heart for the Tembisa kids, I formed a friendship with one girl in particular. Her name meant happiness. Whenever I saw her, or made eye contact across the singing circle with her, she would break into a HUGE smile, making me smile, and we would both start dancing and laughing. I admit this caused Thulani to yell, “No dancing!” once or twice but I must say, Happiness created happiness.
After one of the best shows I’ve ever performed in, all the singers gathered around a man who was giving a speech and during that entire time, me and Happiness just hugged each other. Even though it was just a hug, I knew I had made a friend for life. She was the person who made me realize that I can love a person less than ten minutes after meeting them.
While I should probably be talking about how the performance went, instead I’m going to talk about the magic maker that created the show, Thulani. Thulani is literally one of the most amazing artists I’ve ever met. For some reason, Thulani is the kind of person who has a ridiculous amount of technique for putting things together and making everything that he creates sound stunning. I remember the first day that we walked into his studio and we were greeted by him and all the kids. Thulani asked us to sing for him so he could hear what we had prepared. I thought we did a pretty good job up until Thulani made us listen to the kids sing the song he had prepared, and my mouth fell open. To be honest, I was flushed with a little bit of embarrassment because I could tell he had worked his magic on those students but it also made me 1000 times more excited to learn as much as I could from him. Thulani isn’t the kind of person who gets respect by yelling at kids until they’re scared of him; he gets it from showing them what they can do if they work with him. He makes everything sound so good that even if you absolutely hate singing, you want to get up, clap your hands, sway your hips, and sing at the top of your lungs. With Thulani’s gift, the day of the performance I wasn’t scared or embarrassed whatsoever because I knew that our work with this short, excited, incredible man had prepared us to present our best.
Going to the Apartheid Museum was something to remember. As a class, we studied and researched this topic prior to the trip and it’s been referenced in our time here in South Africa. Walking in and seeing a tank truck with bullet holes was chilling; it made it felt real; it was real. Everything I saw impacted me and made my time here more meaningful.
The Apartheid Museum was not a boring museum. I was invested in everything I read and saw. I could block out the noises around me and just focus. I saw videos that showed the real struggle that many people faced fighting against the apartheid. Seeing what I did today taught me more than I could have learned from a book. It gave me a new perspective about what happened, and the impact of people who struggled.
After the walk through the museum, we met up with Thulani, the very talented musician and our choir director at Tembisa. He is a gift, and his energy is fun, loving, and joyful. His energy set the mood for the rest of the day. I am thankful to have met him. He has taught me how to be patient, and live in the moment. He is everybody’s best friend, so having him be our tour guide for the day brought joy to everyone’s hearts.
In all honesty, when our bus pulled up to the gates of the Johannesburg Apartheid Museum, I’d rather have gone to the theme park next door. The building is the embodiment of “don’t judge a book by its cover,” with its bare front facing exterior and its empty parking lot, but the contents of its interior far exceeded my expectations. The museum was a work of art, carefully thought out, with each twist and turn showing you a new aspect of life during apartheid.
Your first experience of the museum is being split apart from your friends and group, as everyone’s ticket indicated whether you would be white or non-white. You were thrown into either category without regard to your actual race, and then the two categories were split off into two different entrances. Each group experienced the full museum, but not in the way that the other had. This really set the mood for all the feelings of disconnection, separation, and the “us vs. them” mentality that apartheid brought.
There is no real way to explain the museum that would truly do it justice, but there were a few exhibits that stood out to me. There was a replica jail cell, the size of a twin sized bed, in which many would’ve been held in solitary for years at a time without trial. There was a ceiling from which hung over a hundred nooses, one for each political enemy that the South African government had assassinated. There was raw footage of marches and protests, and the Casspir military vehicle which had been used to patrol townships and played an integral part in the youth massacre of June 16th, 1976.
On June 16th, 15,000 students of Soweto marched in protest of the mandatory teaching of Afrikaans and their poor education system. On this day, we landed in Cape town and on this day 43 years ago 600 students were killed, the youngest among them being 12-year-old Hector Pieterson. He was in the area by accident, was fatally shot, and then carried down the road by Mbuyisa Makhubu, to the place where he would breathe his last breath. On this spot now stands a memorial that former President Mandela helped bring to life.
After our museum trip, we were once again met by our fun-loving choir director, Thulani, who acted as an impromptu tour guide through the township of Soweto. Soweto is a large township with a long history of struggle. This struggle is most easily defined by the two, now out of commission, nuclear power plant towers that mark the center of the township. We experienced many aspects of this township including the earlier mentioned Hector Pieterson Memorial, Mandela’s previous house now turned museum, the street markets, and we got a first-hand history lesson from locals.
From walking the halls of the museum, to walking the streets mentioned in exhibits, our day truly followed along the path of the struggles of apartheid. To be honest, we have done so much today that my brain has yet to process it all, but I know that the lessons I learned today will be ones I will not forget.
Today was our first day at Tembisa, and the experience was nothing short of amazing. I had heard about Tembisa before, of course. I had watched the videos and heard stories from the past groups, but bringing those stories and videos to life was surreal.
Immediately after we got off the bus, we heard a loud and cheerful, “Hello!” from a man who I very soon realized was our choir director, Thulani. I used to sing with the Cabrillo Youth Choir, and I have had almost 11+ years of music with various teachers, but I have never had a teacher with as much passion, skill, and spunk as Thulani. You could tell that he really loved his job with a burning passion from the energy that he brought to the whole day.
As Thulani greeted us, we could see standing behind him a group of kids, between the ages of 15-20. They stood in a line and embraced each and every one of us, instead of giving us the typical American handshake. As soon as they greeted us, all the nervousness that I was feeling about the day washed away and I was left feeling excited and readier than ever to sing.
We got in a large circle and started warming up, doing classic exercises such as rolling our necks and shaking out our feet. When Thulani told us to pretend that we were a piece of bubble gum being chewed, I knew that he was special, and that our time together was going to be fun.
We started out by showing them our first song, Asimbonanga. Although it wasn’t our best time singing it, I thought that we did OK. Then it was their turn to sing their version and I was absolutely blown off my feet. Their rendition of the song was beautiful and I had never heard such talented voices. Every single one of them held such a special gift of rhythm and song, and I had never heard more beautiful harmonies.
The whole day went on in that routine, us singing and them one-upping us with their versions. When we were able to sing together, some of the most beautiful music that I have ever heard was produced. They taught us 3 new songs, and we will be performing them in front of an audience on Wednesday.
There was a moment when all 34 of us were gathered in a garage, packed with two cars and a piano. Since the space was quite small, the sound reverberated well, and we made our voices sound as one. In that moment of harmony, any differences between us were washed away, and we were united. I can’t wait for our next two days at Tembisa.
Walking into Tembisa today, I was flooded with connections. Right as we stepped off the bus, the performer and choir director Thulani greeted us openly and joyfully. All my nervousness that had been building up as we anticipated this day, washed away as I recognized a familiar face in the crowd of kids. Her name is Ze and my older sister, Aimee, who went to South Africa with Mount Madonna School 2 years ago, had told me about her. Aimee told me all about how sweet Ze was and that I should find her and say hello. When I walked into Tembisa, it occurred to me that Aimee must have told Ze about me too because she immediately ran up to me and hugged me saying, “You’re Haley! Aimee’s sister!” Then two other girls came up to me, asking if I had come there before because I looked familiar. I explained to them that no, I had not come there before, however my sister Aimee and I have very similar faces. This exchange not only made me feel close to my sister for the first time in nine days, since I left for South Africa, it also gave me a close feeling of connection with Ze and the other girls.
Throughout the day, I met many more amazing and talented kids. I was impressed with how welcoming they were. These surface connections were deepened when everyone started singing. The kids from Tembisa were overflowing with talent and they seemed excited to share it with us. Thulani, the choir director, also had many incredible talents, including singing, directing, and even writing his own songs.
The songs that my classmates and I had been preparing for a few months were completely overturned, in a good way. Our teacher Ward had been telling us for weeks that once we came to Tembisa, our songs would reach a new level, and he was right. Singing these songs in a completely new way, in a room full of new faces, felt thrilling. Looking around the room, you could see the passionate talent in each kid. They were very understanding and helped us learn the correct pronunciation of the lyrics. They also taught us the new way to sing each song. They also taught us three brand new songs, which we all learned quickly, thanks to Thulani’s skills. Learning these new songs, and new versions of old songs, is what solidified and deepened our connections with these kids.
The talent and power that came out of the mouths of the Tembisa choir, as they sang, was empowering for my classmates and me. Once my classmates and I sang the songs with them, the harmony our voices created together created a complete connection between each one of us. This connection is something that I hope I do not lose touch of, as I continue my journey.
Music is the language of connection. We took our first trip to Tembisa this afternoon and I could not have been more blown away by the music.
We got off our bus and were immediately swarmed by the kids coming to give us hugs, while asking our names and wanting to get to know us. After some brief introductions, we moved into a room that was eerily like the assembly room at Mount Madonna School. We were led by their choir director, Thulani, in a brief warm up and then got right into presenting our songs.
After we presented our songs, Thulani told us that we would be doing a performance on Wednesday as part of a celebration that is going on this week at Tembisa. In this performance, we will perform songs that we prepared and some of the songs that his kids had prepared. He went on to tell us that there was a story behind the songs we will be singing.
Once his kids started there was no stopping them. They began singing and one by one the Mount Madonna kids began to pick up on how the songs went, and joined in. It was a beautiful experience, simply joining in with whatever the kids were singing, and being welcomed, even taught by them. As we went through the layout of the show, Thulani would pop between different groups and work with them on their part, ensuring that everyone was understanding and learning their parts.
Thulani’s acceptance, along with the generosity from all the kids there, felt beautiful. Being able to join our voices and songs with theirs, to create even more fabulous music, was fun to be a part of. I look forward to being able to work with them in the coming days to create something that combines our two different cultures. A performance that brings us all together through singing one language; the language of love and connection.
The month of June is Youth Month in South Africa. June 16th is a national holiday, commemorating the student uprising in Soweto in 1976. Many students died protesting apartheid education.