Monday, March 30, 2009

I Found My Heart in Africa

I wrote the following commentary on the trip for the school newspaper:

I recently had the privilege of traveling to Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa, with 74 other students, administrators, and guests on a Rutgers sponsored trip. There were business students that took tours of local South African corporations, literature students who were able to see and experience things that they had previously read about, law students who had opportunities to learn about the South African constitution and met justices of the court, and the student services group that did community service projects at schools. I was in the community service group.

Besides this being my first time out of the country, the trip was filled with a many other firsts: I ate venison (there are no deer in Cape Town, it was antelope); went to prison (don’t worry Mom –visitors toured the prison on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela had sleepless nights); saw elephants and giraffes eating in their natural habitat ; danced in a club that played the same music I would have heard in a club in Olde City; and heard children dancing and singing music reminiscent of Sarafina, a movie I watched many times as a child (a terrific movie). These are the experiences one may expect to have and were they great events.

This was my first time in a place where Americans were not the majority. A few times, local Africans would speak to me in their native language.

“I only speak English,” I would say after listening to the tonal clicks that would take me a lot of practice to annunciate with accuracy.

“Oh, where are you from?” the curious South African asked. After saying the United States, the next comment was always said with a smile and somehow referenced to Barack Obama. I am glad that my first time out the country, I was able to be a proud ambassador instead of an ashamed tourist, forced to explain the actions of #43.

Issues with Traveling

My firsts were memorable and enjoyable, some of which were caught on camera and will forever live on Facebook. However, the most compelling firsts are poignantly etched into my heart. Living in Camden, a city known for its violence and poverty, the bad experiences can stretch from annoying to dangerous. I will never look at my home the same again.

In South Africa, including Johannesburg, 1 out of 3 women are raped and never report it. As my group listened to a presentation at a foundation that brings attention and generates solutions to the issue, I was more than angry when Addi said that Jacob Zuma, who is running for reelection as President, is an accused rapist.

Addi Lang is the founder of Return to Roots Foundation and a trauma counselor. As Addi spoke, I thought about the women in my family. Traveling on the bus, watching young girls walk home from school with their dusty school uniforms, I could not help but wonder how long it would be before those young ladies had their innocence snatched from them.

Traveling to Cape Point, I saw that within a 5km radius there were beautiful homes not too far from where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. Although completely awing in view, incapable to fully capture with a camera, my mind could not escape the thought of the deplorable conditions that the hundreds of thousands of people that lived in what they call townships, but we would call slums or shacks. There are little homes hugging one another. Families have little privacy. The water source is contaminated. There are very few job opportunities. My ideas about poverty and opportunity quickly changed.

Our group was given a tour of a neighborhood. As we walked around, some of the 75 students took pictures of people’s laundry hanging and people just relaxing in their homes. I felt awkward. We were told that they are comfortable with this, but I was not convinced. I cannot speak Xhosa, so I could not ask. What I did notice was that those residents were entrepreneurs, taking advantage of having nosey Americans poking around their neighborhood. They had beautiful art and figures that were sold at a price that made buyer and seller satisfied. The children were excited to see their pictures on the screens of our digital cameras. Those children and their families had no cameras, cable television, or cars, yet they seemed as happy as any materialistic family I know in America. Their definition of happiness must be different. What I find normal, thousands of others consider luxuries.

I asked a friend that I met in Cape Town about public transportation. Trains? “That’s what you get on if you want to get shot,” he remarked matter-of-factly.


I was told that some people who have gone on this trip cry at some point. I had my moment. After being lost and stuck in traffic with the student services group, the van was escorted by young ladies and men wearing red and black uniforms a few hours after our scheduled time of arrival. We were there to paint the library of the Zakhele Primary School in Mamelodi Township. The learners (or “students” as we would say) had no sign of agitation or annoyance. They greeted us with no hint that we delayed their performance by a few hours. We were brought to a stage where over 200 children perfectly sang and danced what appeared to have taken years of practice. The teacher then prayed. That is when it hit me. She prayed words that touched both atheist and faithful alike. The specific part that brought tears was when she thanked us Americans for traveling such a long way to help them. Her accent was thick, but her message was clear. She prayed for the children that just danced for us, calling them the future leaders of South Africa. The tears flowed; I was aware though that my tears were no competition for the many tears that flowed when the Dutch colonialists destroyed a beautiful country and a people with a strong culture in the 16th century. My tears cannot compensate for the drought that people surrounded by two oceans of water must endure in towns across the land. My tears are no cure for the 20% of South Africans that have AIDS. After that, the students and our small group from Rutgers painted, sang, and shared our love for Beyonce` and Lil’ Wayne.


Even after Apartheid ended, the nation still has serious issues with poverty. Apartheid was the segregation of whites, Indians, coloreds, and Blacks in a divisive system that kept Blacks from access to simple human rights, such as an adequate public education. After it ended, the healing began. We learned this and saw what real forgiveness and reconciliation is.

The Student Services group heard a presentation at the foundation that funds programs at a school we would later work at. After learning that the Amy Biehl Foundation was started by Amy Biehl’s parents after she was violently murdered by a mob of Blacks, we discovered that the presenter was also an attacker that was one of four convicted of Biehl’s murder. Her mom, a white American, not only came to South Africa to bury her daughter and start this foundation, but also worked to get the sentence of the attackers commuted. Because of the relationship, now Ntobeko Ambrose Peni works diligently in the office as a guide, peer educator, and job trainer, and one of the other attackers also works for the organization. South Africa recognized that in order to have order, everyone must be willing to move forward.

Being Back

We came back on two eight hour flights that ended in JFK in New York. From there a bus brought us back to the Camden campus. Being back was strange. I still had to go to class. I still had to get home to unpack. There were no more porters that I could tip to carry my bag. My agenda for the day would not allow me to catch up on sleep or get adjusted to the time difference. People wanted to hear stories, collect their gifts, and see pictures. I wanted to go to sleep, go back, or go watch another sunset.

Nonetheless, I had (and as I write this, still have) a new energy of hope and motivation that I feel from the hairs on my skin down to my weary soul. I hope that everyone that went on the trip is now motivated to do something impactful. I now feel a greater obligation to study more, read more, watch less television, and be more aware of the issues and news around the world. I want to be more patient and forgiving. I want to take advantage of the blessings and privileges of being an American. I want to use my education to get a job where I can learn from the world’s mistakes and be an active part of a movement to bring social, economic, and environmental justice around to world. I want to do whatever I can to assure that no more girls are raped, no more activists are jailed, and no more oppression expands. This is what I owe the world for allowing me to inhabit it and I hope that my fellow students will join me.


Lateefah said...

That was a beautiful well-written blog. I teared up just a little reading it and wished I was able to have that opporuntity to see and experience what you did in your 12 days in Africa.

Lateefah said...

Opportunity. Excuse the misspelling :)

Bro Zawdie said...

Nephew: As I told you before you left; "Once you go to the MOTHERLAND, you will never be the same." Africa has a way of changing those who venture forth to check out where humans first existed. The panoramic beauty of the place is forever etched in your memory. Your relationship to the planet will be changed for the rest of your life. Your yearning to return to the soil that birthed your ancestors will one day make you return. If not to the South of Africa, then to some other part, for it is so vast. 53 Countries beckon you, which will it be next, Egypt, Nigeria, Ghana, the Sudan, Morrocco, Benin, Zimbabwe, Congo, Botswana? It'll be your choice, or Africa's choice. Africa has a way of pulling you to it's breasts and nurturing you to a new life of service to your fellow man.
Keep up the good work, I am very proud of you, and I know that your Mother is too! Let me know when graduation day comes around, I want to be in attendance.

Do you see me? said...

Absolutely beautiful. So glad you had a transformative experience and have found the words to express that impact. I look forward to seeing what's next for you!

Anonymous said...

Fantastic, Shawn.

God Bless,


Karen said...

Thanks for sharing your moving experience. This world is a better place for you being in it.

I run South Africa Travel Online, and every week we choose a blog posting of the week - you're the easy winner for this week - we've linked to this post from the bottom of our travel newsletter, and I hope it inspires more people to do what you're doing.


Anonymous said...

...what the Dutch did... what the settlers did to the indigenous people of America??? killed and destroyed! Lets not point fingers at the past. Africa is not for sissies! You have to live here to really understand it.