Michael with Neo (left), Fulisha (middle), and Lesedi (right) at St. Martin de Porres School
My Lil Sis Neo
While I have never been active on online dating sites or a frequent poster on social media, I met my “sister” through Facebook. Over the past two years, I have had the honor of traveling to Soweto, South Africa through my former high school, Bellarmine College Preparatory–an all-male Jesuit, Catholic high school. During my first trip in 2014, I spent a week living at St. Martin de Porres Parish and School. Whether it was organized events between Bellarmine and St. Martin students or street soccer games, I had only been able to develop close relationships with the young men of the community. After arriving back home after my trip, I felt the desire to continue my relationships with my friends in Soweto, and so as soon as I had access to internet, I logged onto Facebook and messaged my South African friends.
After several months of continued conversation and deeper dialogue, I felt that something was missing. None of my South African Facebook friends were women. As the product of single-sex education, I found this to be disturbing, especially as I began to question the perspective of my own masculinity. As a result, my friend Dumisani introduced to his good friend and classmate at St. Martin, Neo. We soon started chatting online and questions about the struggles of high school exams led to insights on being a woman growing up in Soweto. Together, our discussions wrote several new verses in our own philosophical creeds of life. In a family of only one older brother, Neo became my “lil sis.” In a household of only one younger sister, I became Neo’s “big bro.”
A few months after first meeting Neo, I found out that I would be returning to South Africa in June of 2015 to lead the next group of Bellarmine students. Not only did this mean that I would get to dive deeper into the Soweto narrative, but it also meant that I would finally get to meet Neo in person.
As I took my first steps back onto Soweto’s tangy soil, Neo greeted me with a hug of recognition. Hours of conversations online made our first meeting seem like a homecoming between brother and sister. Throughout the week, we continued our discussions of life in person, and our presence in the physical setting of Soweto allowed me to more fully grasp some of Neo’s struggles and challenges. While physical presence allowed me to witness some of the gritty reality that constitutes Neo’s daily life, one week in Soweto was not enough. Questions of life soon transitioned into questions of when we will see each other again. This past week that question was answered as I reunited with Neo again in Soweto.
Traveling to Soweto for six weeks as a part of The Simunye Project has given me the freedom of time to invest psychic energy into those who give me life. Rather than squeezing in time during the tight itinerary of a high school immersion trip, I now had the time and energy to be present to those around me. So, I spent an entire afternoon catching up with Neo and picking up where our conversations had left off. I recorded part of the conversation so that I could share the story of my South African sister.
On Being A Woman in Soweto
Throughout my last visit to Soweto and ongoing conversations with Neo, issues of gender had often been a recurring theme. After asking Neo about her experience of being a woman in Soweto, she said, “When you come from an underprivileged background, especially when you are a girl, elderly men tend to take advantage of you. There is this thing called blessers, and if you’re a woman, you are a blessee. So they kind of bless you…they buy you expensive things like clothes, jewelry, and as a result, you have to have sex with them for their money because they are taking advantage of who you are and where you come from. I think it’s really difficult to be a young woman in South Africa as a whole. You have to stand your ground to move on and have a future for yourself.” Upon diving deeper into the role of a blesser, Neo noted that “the blesser is probably 40, 50–something like that–and you find the girl is probably 16, 20. The age difference is huge. At first, they were called sugar daddies, and now they are called blessers. They think a ‘blesser’ is more attractive.”
Hearing Neo’s explanation of a blesser frightened me. Had I met a blesser or blessee? How do I stand by my friend in a society filled with abuse and corruption? I was afraid to ask these questions, but Neo continued… “I think I’ve been through a lot. I’ve gone through stuff that someone my age could not manage to go through and end up where I am. Through what I have been through and what has happened in my life, I think by now, I should have been pregnant or had like 3, 4, 5 babies by now if it wasn’t for my mom or the people around me–the support. I wouldn’t be who I am now. I wouldn’t know what I want in the future. Just looking at life in a different way…” After saying this, Neo looked at the smoggy Soweto sky, closed her eyes, and said, “For the fact that I’ve been through a lot and I’ve learned through this process, I think people can relate to my story because many have similar situations at home.”
Hearing these parts of Neo’s story made me feel less like a big brother and more like a small child. Here I was, devastated and in need of an explanation of the evils that had tortured someone so close to me. I felt trapped. I was at a loss and an emotionally unstable state, yet Neo was there to comfort me. Questions of why did this happen and how can I help turned into Neo offering insights of how she can help me grow as a man. She said, “You don’t have to be a father just to your biological children, you just have to be a father to everybody–just be a responsible man, respect other people. A lot of men abuse their power…all the time.” With this in mind, she went on to explain her own vision of women. “There are a bunch of women who have made a difference in their lives without men ruling them. I think that should be used to change how they think. There are some women out there who are doing it, who are making it, who are successful.” In bringing light to the effects of hypermasculinity on women, Neo emphasized that women “are humans too. They have feelings too. They have their own dreams and future. You just can’t take advantage of that. I have my own mind, I have my own ideas, I can do whatever I want.”
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On Being A Role Model
While Neo often calls me big bro, she is an older sister herself. As I struggled to comprehend how Neo’s experiences growing up in Soweto affected my relationship with her, she told me that she had similar feelings with regard to her younger sister. On the topic of being an older sister, Neo explained, “It’s cool and not cool at the same time…because I mean you can’t go everywhere with your little sister or little brother. They see all sorts of things out there and the only way you can help them to not fall for these things is to talk to them about them, teach them, and avoid them yourself so you can be a good example for them. It’s cool and not cool.”
While noting the importance of being a strong role model, Neo also noted how the pressures of daily life can often lead to a misunderstanding of her own life story. Neo told me, “I was doing grade 10 and because I failed grade 10, I had to repeat it again. So when I failed, my cousin–we were both in grade 10–proceeded to the next grade and was like ‘Yeah you failed because you were playing and you didn’t listen and this, this, and that.’ I was like ‘How do you know I was playing? Maybe I was stressed or you’re not helping me or I’m not getting enough support from you?’ She did not consider such things. It’s such things that feel like pressure.” With this in mind, Neo emphasized that in a relationship, she looks for “trust and honesty–someone who is always there when you need. Someone you can talk to openly without fear of being judged. Someone who is just a pillar of your strength. A relationship is more like a connection or bond two people have.”
As she shivered and wrapped herself in a large, encompassing blanket to protect her from the cold Soweto breeze, Neo emanated strength that captured me in a state of awe. Upon asking her about her strength, Neo said, “I think I get the strength from my past experiences. I don’t want what happened to happen again, so by all means, I try to avoid things and I try to not react negatively. I try to be happy and remain positive to avoid conflict. It can be easy to forgive, but it is very hard to forget. The minute you think about whatever it is that happened, the emotions come back again, and the best way for me is to pray about it and to be around people where I can share my story. For me, it’s about having a strong support system to move on from the past.”
The Johannesburg Misunderstanding
Neo’s insights on strength in the midst of misunderstanding reminded me of my own experiences in Johannesburg earlier that week. While walking in the streets of downtown Johannesburg with Drew and our friend Dumisani, I had been called “China” three times within our first three blocks of walking. One person even suggested that I “go back to China” as I crossed a jammed intersection. As a half-Filipino, I was angered that these people would categorize me under one group without understanding my own story. As exotic stares jabbed from all around, I thought of my mother–a petite Filipina woman–and how frightened I would feel walking this same street with her.
One person in particular stood out to me. While curbed on the sidewalk, a young boy in a taxi stuck his head out of the car’s window and yelled “China!” at me. He then pulled the sides of his eyelids with his slim fingers to mock my Asian genes. After I heard this, I unconsciously stood taller, broadened my shoulders, enlarged my chest, and stared at him with clenched fists. The boy’s eyelids widened as he looked in fear. He quickly hid back inside the taxi as it pulled away from the curb, escaping my anger. After looking back at Drew and Dumisani and seeing the concern on their face, I realized that while this young boy had overlooked my story, I had also overlooked his and portrayed violence as a reaction to this misunderstanding. Seeing the terror that I induced in his eyes made me realize the power that I carry in my identity and privilege.
Just as Neo’s cousin failed to understand the struggles of her story in the midst of a stressful grade 10, the young boy and I had failed to understand the stories that characterize our identity. In the process, we merely dehumanized each other into a contest of inducing the greatest reaction.
In recognizing the strength and composure of Neo’s character, as contrasted with my own reactions in Johannesburg, I asked Neo about her sources of inspiration. She went on to explain that she draws inspiration from her mother because “she’s a single mom and she doesn’t work but I’ve managed to go from primary through high school with paying fees…I look up to her. I guess that’s where I get the strength and everything. It’s made me who I am today.”
While growing up without a father has led to several personal challenges, Neo said that this experience made her value the role of mothers in her spheres of inspiration. “A lot of single mothers are inspirations to me. It’s been challenging growing up with a single mother because the first few years after I was born, my dad was always there until the age of 7, when he disappeared out of nowhere. So I’m thinking to myself, ‘What have I done wrong?’ Because I do not deserve to not have a relationship with you if things are going wrong between him and my mom. I think I deserve you to be there for me emotionally, in every way possible. Why are you depriving me from having a relationship with you? It’s been very difficult…until now. You know when it’s your birthday, you wish for your dad to be there, buy you something. Okay, call you at least, even if he doesn’t buy you anything. Being there means a lot. If you just living your own life out there, living as if you do not have a child…I don’t even know if he thinks about me. I have all these questions…What did I do? What’s going on with him? It’s like now, I’m the one worrying about him, not knowing if he is worrying about me. It’s been very difficult…I wish some day–one day–he will come back.”
As a sister, Neo has taught me what it means to be a brother and a father beyond just my biological kin. While hearing the scars of Neo’s narrative left wounds in my own story, Neo reminded me of the role of identity in understanding one’s story. She noted, “As a young woman in Soweto, in South Africa, as difficult as it is to grow up here with everything that’s going on–violence, corruption, people criticizing, people not wanting to see a fellow black man or black woman being successful–if you know who you are, where you come from–if you know your identity–then you do not need anyone else to validate that. If you know who you are, it’s very easy for you to go wherever you are in life to succeed by being who you are, making a difference in other people’s lives. Identity is very important in one’s life.”
For Neo, being a woman in Soweto is a significant part of her identity. “The fact that I am a woman, it’s for a reason. I’m able to do things that a man can’t do. I give birth, I nurture, I love–not that men can’t–but it’s something that is a part of who I am. Being a woman is a big part of my identity. I’m here to bring warmth, love, and protection to anyone who needs it.”
As brother and sister, South African and American, the mutuality of our relationship stems from our efforts to discover each other’s story, such that the intersection of Neo and Michael is written as our story. As Neo says it, “At the end of the day, we are all one. It’s a matter of celebrating who you are and being proud of who you are and where you come from. But at the end of the day, knowing that you live with people around you from different cultures of which you can learn from them and be one as well.”
The Kota Cooks
After a hot afternoon of soccer, Drew, some local friends, and I decided to walk to a nearby street shop to purchase some kota, a local South African sandwich made of seasoned fries, meat, and melted cheese stuffed into a hollowed out loaf of bread–a truly rainbow sandwich. As two women prepared the kota, Drew and I began smiling and jumping out of excitement for our first taste of kasi food. As we waited in anticipation, we kept peeking through the kitchen window to witness the craft of kota cooking, and we eventually made eye-contact with the two women assembling our kota and smiled. Seeing our excitement, they smiled back at us and gave us a thumbs-up as they put the final touches on our afternoon delight.
Even though we didn’t get to listen to the cooks’ stories, Drew and I shared a single experience that celebrated identity rather than emphasizing differences. In doing so, maker of food became creator of joy, and purchaser of kota became celebrator of friendship. As Neo went on to articulate, “We are all unique. We are all here for a purpose. We all have different ways of viewing life. It’s a purpose that God created us. It’s for a purpose that we are here. It doesn’t matter what race or where you come from, or what language you speak…We are all human. I am here to make a difference and to live my life to the fullest.”
On The Future
During our last conversation in Soweto in June 2014, Neo told me to dream. She told me to dream that we would one day be back in Soweto together. As the shadows of night blanketed us in serenity, Neo told me about her latest dreams. She said, “I want to pursue a career in education because there is a shortage of teachers in South Africa. My dream is to become a teacher and once I become a teacher, I will be able to help young children–because I have a sister–so it will allow me to make a difference in South Africa and Africa as a whole. And then from that, my family will also benefit. I think they are kind of looking up to me to make a difference.”
When I asked her what gave her hope to achieve that dream, she said, “Children. I love kids. They bring a lot of hope because one day I’m going to be able to make a difference in their lives. You know, I’m going to be able to give them something or an experience where they can learn from me. Something–I don’t know what–but something that is going to make them happy as much as they will make me happy. Children give me happy because they are the future of our world.”
The Complexity Of Our Stories
While I have developed a relationship with Neo so and call her my lil sis, I will still never fully understand her story. As she taught me though, acknowledging the complexity of her story as a whole is an expression of love, for the attempt to see her as a whole has led to a pursuit of understanding fostered through listening.
I have come to realize that shortening someone’s identity can prevent them from living the life they are invited to live. As Neo taught me, this act can lead to violence, oppression, depression, and other detrimental effects. I hope that in actively seeking the stories of those we love, we can begin to share our own identity more definitively, such that we might begin to see our world the way God sees us. So, now I’m excited to discover who someone is by asking: What is your story? Who are you?
The Simunye Team is composed of Michael Bakan and Drew Descourouez.
Michael Bakan is a first-year student at Georgetown University, where he plans to study International Business and Marketing. Over the past two summers, he has traveled to Soweto, South Africa on an immersion trip through his former high school, Bellarmine College Preparatory. During these trips, Michael developed a passion for using graphic design and other forms of artwork to share the stories of his friends in Soweto, as they strive to create a better South Africa in a post-apartheid, post-Mandela world. He is excited to return to Soweto to strengthen the bonds of kinship with his South African friends and to share the voices of those who are not often heard but will play an integral role in our future.
Drew Descourouez is a first-year student at Santa Clara University. Drew traveled to Soweto, South Africa in 2014, on Bellarmine College Preparatory Immersion trip. He has since traveled to nine other countries around the world and developed a deep desire to connect cultures through storytelling and personal relationships. Drew is also passionate about youth empowerment and hopes to learn more from his friends in Soweto about how young people can take responsibility for a shared future in a globalized world.
Learn more about The Simunye Project at ignatiansolidarity.net/the-simunye-project