South Africa: A Raindrop of Hope in Endless Burning

Flashing, rattling, booming. The streets of Soweto flooded with life—a cleansing baptism to a long and dusty month of dryness—as rain blessed us on our final days in South Africa. The sound of rain against zinc roofs contrasting with the low roaring of thunder created a djembe rhythm. Soweto sung along. The heavy downpour gave the skies a cool ocean freshness that hummed an aura on the horizon where brown musk and smoke had once polluted the skyline. There was no more burning. We could finally breathe in semi-fresh air. It was a new day in Soweto.

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On our final day in Soweto, crisp blue skies—newly cleansed by the winter storm—gave a refreshing light to Soweto. Yet, we were still experiencing grayness. We were still still struggling between the notion of “being” and “doing” as we reflected on our past six weeks, and this continues to weigh on our mind. To many people, the question, “What are you doing?” is answered by a dollar figure or “donating to the Africans,” as someone once told us. Rather, after our time in Soweto, we would like “doing” to become more mutual. We hope that doing becomes being when there is a purpose that allows someone to become more fully oneself. This rang true when we visited the Nelson Mandela Foundation for an event on “fallism” several weeks ago. When asking one of our friends at the Foundation for advice on how we can best use our studies and education to make a difference in the world, she responded by saying, “Honey, we’re not really looking for your help.” Later on in the event, we talked to Jay Naidoo, former Minister responsible for the Reconstruction and Development Program and Minister of Post, Telecommunications, and Broadcasting under Mandela’s office. After asking him for advice, he said something along the lines of, “Well, you didn’t say anything at this event. You just listened. This is the first time I’ve been at a conference with Americans where that has happened. Maybe that’s a sign.”

Being in Soweto has been difficult. Carrying stories of depression, death, suicide, gender inequality, and family abuse have weighed heavy on our hearts. In a township of endless burning, these dark stories only added to the grayness of our time in Soweto. Compared to our last two trips to Soweto, we have had quite a different response to our experiences. This time, our reaction hasn’t just been gratitude or hasn’t just been relief over the psychological distance and yearning to “return home,” but rather has led to a greater focus on and realization of the relationships we carry with us. Whether it is economic relationships, social relationships, or spiritual relationships, we have begun to question how the way we are living affects those we are in relationship with, whether we realize it or not. How are my actions affecting others, both directly and indirectly? Am I ignoring these relationships? When does my presence become mutual when fostered in a relationship?

The theme of relationship was present when we talked to Tshegofatso. Throughout our conversation, Tshegofatso kept on looking at our fancy GoPros and “western” clothes, using his eyes to tell the story of a childhood of neglect and family abuse. When we asked him how we should bring the stories of Soweto back with us to the U.S., Tshegofatso said, “Be real to them. Tell them exactly what you have experienced. Tell them the truth. Tell the people to do something. Maybe to help, but not always financially. It’s not really about money. It is often about knowledge and care…or just dignity. When those tourists come to Soweto sometimes I wonder if they really know what life is like here. Listening is a skill. How can we both get better at that skill?”

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Be real to them. Tell them exactly what you have experienced. Tell them the truth. Tell the people to do something. Maybe to help, but not always financially. It’s not really about money. It is often about knowledge and care…or just dignity. When those tourists come to Soweto sometimes I wonder if they really know what life is like here. Listening is a skill. How can we both get better at that skill?

Tshegofatso was referring to the tourists that line the sidewalks of Vilakazi Street, a central street in Soweto known for its pricy restaurants and touristy feel. It is not uncommon to see Bentleys and Porsches and fancy touring buses lining Vilakazi Street, as visitors come to see the house of Desmond Tutu, the former house of Nelson Mandela, and dine in style in South Africa’s largest and one of its most impoverished townships. While Vilakazi street boasts clean sidewalks lined with well-kept tile murals, just two blocks away stand zinc shacks, still recovering from the blows of the last winter storm. Conversations in Vilakazi street usually echo of, “My American friend, I have a special price for you today. Come and get some African souvenirs!” Whereas our conversation when we visited Thabisile’s and Amaza’s home just three blocks down sounded more like, “My son, do you want anything to drink or eat?”

Sitting down and talking with Obakeng (left), Tshegofatso (middle), and Kamogelo (right).

Sitting down and talking with Obakeng (left), Tshegofatso (middle), and Kamogelo (right).

This disparity frustrates Tshegofatso, and it also frustrates us. In the end, Tshegofatso left us with some advice. “Maybe you could even just teach us something…like how to write a book—how to improve my writing. Because we all have stories. Maybe I could use that skill to make a difference. It seems like a lot of famous artists take our style [of music] and then sell it back to us. They become world famous and rich. I would want to see one of those artists do a song with someone who is not world famous and rich…maybe someone from Soweto.…I’d like to see them do a song with someone from Soweto.” Tshegofatso was no longer looking at our camera or at our clothes but rather looking us straight in the eye, “being real to us…telling us the truth.”

Soweto has raised many questions. How do we work against gender inequality that seems to shackle women in Soweto with fixed roles and immobile lives? Why do most children in Soweto grow up without a father? What do we do? We are not sure exactly how to answer a lot of these questions, but maybe that is a sign. Maybe in the absence of a common vision where “money and power” are often merely justifications for physical and psychological distance to the margins of society, listening is the first step of “doing.” While we may not know the direct answers, maybe before even attempting to answer it is necessary to reform the questions of service and solidarity entirely in a way that is mutual to those so often despised and disposed. So, we continue to ask everyone, especially those often ignored: What is your story? What is your source of pain? In the process, we hope that standing in solidarity can also become sitting with an often ignored worker at school and listening to their story or walking the extra three blocks past Vilakazi street to see “what life is like here.”

Traveling to Soweto has also allowed us to transplant away from life in the United States in order to take a new look at our situation back home. As Robert Kennedy opened in a speech to the University of Cape Town, South Africa in 1966:

I came here because of my deep interest and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century, then taken over by the British, and at last independent; a land in which the native inhabitants were at first subdued, but relations with whom remain a problem to this day; a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier; a land which has tamed rich natural resources through the energetic application of modern technology; a land which once imported slaves, and now must struggle to wipe out the last traces of that former bondage. I refer, of course, to the United States of America.

With recent events of racial discrimination, violence, and economic injustice in the U.S., we have come to see the parallels between the South African and American struggles. As Tshegofatso and other friends in Soweto have taught us, rather than seeking direct answers to solve these issues through positions of power, we have come to hope that the response would be to engage in dialogue and continue to ask the same questions back home that Soweto has prompted us to explore. Whom have I been ignoring? What is their story? What are their sources of pain?

We came to South Africa to be surrounded by friends who changed our lives with the hope of sharing that same inspiration with others. We came to discover how the mutuality of friendship and relationship can possibly overcome some of the barriers that plague our world and make it so easy to focus on “what makes me happy,” all while forgetting those we are indirectly in relationship with. We came to pursue a mindset of growth that seeks to do more and dive deeper into a place that continues to challenge us. We came to engage in dialogue with what “service” really looks like and how it relates to our definition of “poverty.” We have been met with further challenges and frustrations, but in a beautiful way.

In the midst of these frustrations, we have also come to recognizes the ironies of the word “simunye” itself. Simunye preaches a great message of “we are one,” whether in our human race or in the world we share, yet we have come to learn the paradox of the world itself as it relates to any form of “oneness” in our own individual stories. In Soweto, we are not one. In South Africa, we are not one. In our world today, we are not one. Maybe the message should not proclaim “we are one” but rather “we are a one”individuals with our own unique stories. Through diving deeper into stories with The Simunye Project, we’d hope that attempting to understand and know one’s story will bring to mind our individual character, but in the process, make any form of “oneness” more clear, much as more defined individual pixels make a more beautiful picture. Perhaps before we claim any form of unit around our “oneness,” it would be best to get to know who we are first as individuals with our own complex yet beautiful stories.

We have focused particularly on stories because, as Robert Coles writes in his book, The Call of Stories, “[W]e all had accumulated stories in our lives, that each of us had a history of stories, no one’s stories are quite like anyone else’s” (11). In a place that we feel is often overlooked, we wanted to see how stories might humanize the issues that face Soweto today.

In a place that we feel is often overlooked, we wanted to see how stories might humanize the issues that face Soweto today.

A few days ago, we were discussing current policy within the United States and South Africa, and a friend of ours asked why we were trying to “pick fights” over the details and discrepancies over certain issues. In the back of our minds, we questioned why he would describe this conversation as “picking a fight.” Why does there have to be a winner and a loser? Why does it have to be a fighter and a defender? Why can’t we elevate each other with growth? We hope this specifically applies to stories, as we hope that it becomes much harder to “pick fights” over the literal stories of people’s lives. Rather, we hope that the intersection of our stories leads to greater understanding of the relationships we carry, whether indirectly or directly. As a mentor once said to Coles, “Their story, yours, mine—it’s what we all carry with us on this trip we take, and we owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them” (30). This theme has been present in our time in Soweto, and we hope to implement it in our own lives, allowing the particulars of Soweto to tell a universal message. Just as Tshegofatso notes, Coles also concludes, “How does someone in a clinic know how you live, if you’re from another world, and they never come near where you live, and they don’t try to find out, not really?” (51)

As we concluded our final night in Soweto, we were once again met with the sensation of burning. Burning coal, garbage, vegetationinhaling smoke, exhaling exhaustion. This is Soweto. The tangy smell once again reminded us of the violence during apartheid that had burned down parts of Soweto and now continues to pollute the skies with coal-powered industrialization. As we walked back to the St. Martin community, angry fires gave us light in the beginning  moments of darkness, defending the view of any form of post-storm rainbow. The smell of burning rubber guided us away from danger. Mounds of trash blocked the streets as roads closed for protests. The rain only cleared up the Soweto skies for a short while. We seized our final breaths of hopeful clean air before more burning, burning, burning.  

References

Coles, Robert. The Call of Stories: Teaching and The Moral Imagination. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1989.

Kennedy, Robert F. “Day of Affirmation.” National Union of South African Students, 6 June 1966, University of Cape Town, South Africa. Keynote Address.

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