I begin this journal of my seven weeks in South Africa with two confessions. The first is that not all these photos are mine--many were taken by Sarah Durfey and Rebecca Cherry, fellow travelers who captured images of the trip quite beautifully, and far more poignantly than I could have. The second confession is that I'm a bit hesitant to do this, to put words to this experience. Because words carry deep meaning. It's an obvious statement, but never have I been more aware that my words are describing the indescribable; none of these words can actually capture the ways in which South Africa moved and shaped me. And yet, despite the deficiency and insufficiency of these words, I am thankful for them and for these pictures that may help tell a bit of the story where my words fail.
This picture is from our last week in South Africa; we were headed to a bed and breakfast in Hout Bay and stopped on the way at a tiny beach with big rocks and more sea glass than I've ever seen. I'm not sure why I was, apparently, freezing, and Christy was, apparently, really hot, but there we are.
I flew to South Africa less than 48 hours after graduating from Gordon, after the most intense (and wonderful) academic semester of my career there. That weekend of graduation and the moment we stepped onto the plane carried particular meaning for me because I had planned on going to South Africa last year with the first pilot group. Then my mom was diagnosed with cancer and all plans changed and dimmed in significance. And we went to radiation treatments together instead of talking on the phone from different continents. It was worth it. But I think I started to learn then what South Africa gave me most profoundly. Life is fragile. We are insignificant specks of dust. It is a tenuous, difficult, painful thing to live. And yet, it is beautiful, we do matter, and, perhaps most importantly, it is within that paradox of meaninglessness yet meaning that we discover grace.
Our first five days were spent in Johannesburg and Pretoria. This picture is from the inside of the constitutional court building, where the new constitution was written and signed. It is also the former site of one of the major prisons where such famous political prisoners as Mandela and Sisulu were held while awaiting trial. One of the walls of this new building contains part of the old prison, which you can see in the picture. I loved this building with those old and new walls for the way it captured the tension being lived in South Africa today: how to recognize and acknowledge the past, and integrate it all into the present in order to hope for what the future may hold?
We also walked down a hallway that had self-portraits painted by women living with HIV/AIDS. Next to each painting was a note from the woman who had created it, telling a small bit of her story. Another poignant juxtaposition: here, in this building dedicated to promoting fairness, justice, and new hope, were these lives, these portrayals of life with AIDS from an insider's perspective. So what does true justice look like? What would it look like for these women? And further down the hall, there were photographs of the people who had come together to write the new constitution: men and women, black, white, Indian, and colored, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and agnostic, gay and straight. It was beautiful, scandalous, and necessary--diversity at its best. We need each other.
This is one of my favorite pictures. We're standing outside a museum talking about something, perhaps meaningful, probably rather insignificant. It was a wonderful moment: Claire telling a story, Kripa flitting around, trying to get my attention, me deciding how to respond, Dr. George making sure we were picking up on what we should have, Hannah just laughing. That was us.
Our day in Pretoria was one of the most significant for me. It brought things sharply into perspective in a way that gave me a more holistic understanding of the complexity of history and the present--in South Africa and everywhere. This monument, the Voortrekker Monument, was constructed to tell the history of the Afrikaaners, descendents of the Dutch colonizers in South Africa, who implemented apartheid when they eventually came to power in 1948, after years of conflict with the British that had resulted in their own powerlessness for many previous years. Here, I came to fuller recognition of the fact that they, victims turned oppressors, were people, too. And, that history has so much to teach us and explains so much. It doesn't justify a single thing; but it does help explain.
From this monument, we drove through the city to get to a memorial that is still under construction, called Freedom Park. This was the day of blatant juxtapositions: on one hand, the imposing monument that told the story of the oppressors; on the other, a memorial dedicated to remembering all those who died in the wars for freedom with a wall of names of the dead that seemed endless, a circle of rocks which symbolically held the souls of the unnamed dead, and a tour guide who showed us around rather shyly, then took us to a conference room and talked with us for forty-five minutes, dropped all pretenses, became human and broken, and told us to remember, "motho ke motho ka batho:" a person is a person because of others. And in between, as we were driving from the symbol of power, the old South Africa, to the construction zone, the new South Africa, via a neighborhood with tiny houses and overgrown dry grass, a little boy stood on the sidewalk outside a house for AIDS orphans, wearing a blue shirt, hands at his side, no more than five, just watching us. To me, he embodies South Africa. And he is me. Caught between these worlds that have to collide, the past, the present, the future--but, whose future? We're inextricably bound to each other, to our collective past and, so importantly, our collective future.
This is Union Building in Pretoria, where the executive branch of government is officially held, where the president signs bills and has official residence, and does all those presidential things that make him presidential. I liked this building for its beautiful gardens below, its rather imposing simplicity in shape and form, but particularly because it was where a huge group of women marched in the 1960s, protesting and burning their pass books in front of it. One of the reasons I went to South Africa was to study gender, and seeing the place where women had come together and protested was gratifying. It's beautiful at sunset.
From Johannesburg, we went to Kruger National Park for a safari. We were up at 5 a.m. both mornings and saw spectacular sunrises and sunsets. We drove through a village in order to get there. The kids were getting out of school and walking miles to get home, some kicking dust by the side of the road, some laughing, some looking at us but many ignoring. They're used to it, groups of white people coming in to spend money looking at animals. A bit sobering to think of us cashing in on our white privilege in this way, while the people outside the national park had little chance of ever entering it.
After seeing some hippos fight each other at a watering hole, we were driving back to camp for breakfast when we came upon a cheetah kill, four of them feasting on an impala that they'd killed about 15 minutes before we got there. Bones crunching, blood dripping, them pausing and raising majestic heads to look around them, sometimes at us. It was one of the most tragically beautiful things I have ever seen. We were intruders on their territory, and I can't help but think that the time that one of them raised its head and slowly, deliberately, looked right at us, there was a hint of reproach. That's probably just me imagining.
From Kruger we went to Durban, where we stayed for five days with different host families. Each is part of the World Conference for Religion and Peace (WCRP), which is an organization started by Desmond Tutu that brings together people of different faiths in a common cause for justice. This is me with a woman named Gertrude, in front of a building recently completed that will house goods that women in the community have made and are selling, to sustain themselves economically. Gertrude is the one who has made it all happen; when we visited, her son had just died of AIDS the previous week. She let two tears roll down her cheek before greeting the rest of the group and showing us around. These women are so strong. And so broken. Me, too.
Next to this building is a nursery school for about thirty kids, 3-5 years old. They're all living in child-headed households, which means their parents have died of AIDS and their 10 or 11 year old siblings are taking care of them. So the women from the WCRP worked with Gertrude and started the school for these kids so their older siblings can get to school. Or have a break.
We took a few hours one cold, windy, rainy day in Durban and went to the beach, the Indian Ocean. We were the only ones there and looked like the crazy tourists we were that day, running across the sand into the crashing waves. But it was a refreshing, needed, and liberating break from all we were doing. Sometimes you just need to feel the breeze and dip your feet in the ocean, not think too much about all the garbage that's floating up with each wave or the sermon at the mosque earlier that day or the faces of the children who are doomed the moment they're born…and just be. Grace.
From Durban we flew to Cape Town, where we lived for the next four weeks in a guest house that overlooked the city. We interned at various non-governmental organizations throughout Cape Town; mine was with a women's center that was started in 1993 to address the still painfully invisible and silent problem of gender-based violence. I captured data for their annual report and entered about 1000 cases for the month of April. That's 1000 people filing for interim protection orders against an abuser in one month. I'd be up by 6:15 every morning to get to work on time, and if I was lucky and it wasn't cloudy, I'd have enough time to watch the sun rise over the mountains to the northeast. Or sometimes I'd get on a taxi earlier and catch glimpses of the sun rising down side streets as we hurtled through town. People there would laugh when I told them I'd ride taxis to work. And it was one of my favorite parts of the whole thing. Fifteen people crammed into a 10-seater minivan with doors falling off, creaky gears, smell of human sweat and smoke, warm bodies, and often silence. Except for the driver or the guy who collected the fares, who'd shout the destination out the window, until the other passengers got mad because he was letting too much cold air in. I fell once, getting in. It had been raining all day, and my shoe slipped as I was stepping on, and as I landed on my knee with my face a few inches from the floor, I realized somebody had caught my arm to keep my head from making contact with the dirt. I'm not sure why I was surprised, it was the most natural thing in the world. My own racism and distrust exposed. I looked behind me and saw that the driver who was waiting for the van to fill up was there with his arms out to catch me, too.
And on the walks home, I'd sometimes see the moon rise. I'm haunted by memories of that daily walk from the taxi rank in the bustling center of town where most of the people I was weaving my way through were not white, taxi drivers yelling their destination, constantly beeping at pedestrians and fellow drivers, music blaring; past St. George's Cathedral where I'd often stop and sit for a minute, enjoy the cold silence; up streets with shops that became increasingly touristy (and white) as I walked and sometimes strategically crossed streets to avoid confrontation, either with obnoxious tourists who assumed I knew what I was doing, or someone who would ask for money, food, a date, or all three. The worst was when a pregnant woman stopped me, and I had nothing to say and nothing to give. She will haunt me for the rest of my life, thin body, swollen belly, hollow eyes, cupped empty hands. I'm still not sure why I kept going and only gave her two seconds of my day. Safety? Fear? It wasn't worth it.
This was the view from the guest house-city below, mountain behind. This is aptly named "Table Mountain." On the other side of it is the Atlantic Ocean, beautiful green-blue. And if it's not too cloudy, you can see the mountain from Robben Island, which holds the prison where many political prisoners were housed for years. It was too cloudy when we were on the island to see Table Mountain. But the juxtaposition of mountain with city with water was strikingly beautiful, no matter what the weather was doing. I've always been drawn to all three, which I think is one of the reasons I loved Cape Town so much. The spaces and places we occupy have such significance. And this is one of the most beautiful places in the world.
We had three different homestays during the trip, one in Durban and two in Cape Town. I missed out on the first of the Cape Town visits because I was sick, but I made up for it with my second. I wish we could have spent more time with them; it was so great to be in a home, talk about rugby and politics and church--these conversations that were so similar to what any guest in my house back home would participate in. They were real family to me. The first night I was there, Annie told Alyssa to find her globe so I could show her where I live in the States. She looked from her mom to me with big, shy eyes and ran and got it, and our fingers traced the route the plane had taken. She looked at me, and smiled.
On the most beautiful day of the whole trip, three days before we flew back to the States, we went to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. This is one of those things that there just aren't words for. We walked up to the point and saw the lighthouses, caught glimpses of the rock that many ships had wrecked on because it subtly sneaks up out of the water still a ways off from the cliffs, looked back and saw Table Mountain reaching out beyond two other sets of mountains. Then we walked to the Cape of Good Hope, and I got ahead of some of the group members, stopped for a minute to look back and down on that crystal clear turquoise beach and watch some surfers, when all of a sudden, I saw three of my friends run down the stairs to the sand, and race toward the water. Little specks of rushing color. I'll always carry that image with me--freedom, beauty, laughter, liberating joy. It summed up the whole day for me.
And then we left. I think I gained more than I gave, recognize that I have been deeply and profoundly impacted in ways I don't understand, and hope to go back for longer. I am left with more questions than I went with, which I'm beginning to suspect is just the way life works. And now that I am back and trying to reenter the reality of life here, I think it's probably safe to say that I have never so fully appreciated the paradox of being human. Which may sound nice and philosophical and neat, but it shouldn't; it's a complicated mess. How to live in light of what's been seen, how to love, how to be broken and gracious, how to be completely fine and okay, to laugh, and yet be completely disconnected and alone, to cry, at the exact same time. And to understand that somehow it's in the middle of the awful sense of bewildering confusion that peace and grace and love are able to have some sort of meaning.
I'll just close with this: I am thankful, deeply and profoundly thankful. For South Africa and what it allowed me to discover, for friends, for memories, for all the hard stuff that reminds me of the necessity of trust, vulnerability, forgiveness, and hope. Because life is beautiful. Sad. But beautiful. We are different yet the same; we are bound to each other. Somehow, there's enough grace for each of us to make it all work. And it's worth it.