I’ll get you caught up on the past couple of days in more detail when I return stateside but tonight I want to talk about today. What a powerful last day in Africa to top off a powerful journey to this continent.
As we collected for breakfast at our guest house in Soweto, we found ourselves in company with members of the ANC, the political party trying to elect a new President. This was the party affiliated with Nelson Mandela. These Africans were vibrant, passionate, happy, and laughing as we talked politics and Christmas traditions. Christianity is the prevailing religion here and Christmas is a time revered for family. Nearly everyone we’ve talked to over the past few days had plans to “go home” to be with extended family, often for several weeks. Despite the cheerful spirit, the morning was bittersweet as we began our final goodbyes and embarked on our final outing with our beloved crew.
A Zulu guide named Linda (translates to “patience” in Zulu) led us through a soul-stirring cycling tour around Soweto this morning, the largest and most famous township in the world, home to roughly two million people.
There are many stories and much history for this area and, if you aren’t already familiar with it, I invite you to dig in. Besides being home to Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, whose homes we saw, it is the site of a tragic history of Africans especially through apartheid. The current environment ranges from upper class homes to the worst slums I’ve ever witnessed and we cycled through them all. I’ll leave you to learn the details of the area on your own so I can share the following stories…
During our cycling tour, I saw good people living in horrible conditions. I’ve seen animals living in less squalor. Some folks feel oppressed and hopeless, but the majority were not letting their circumstances harden their hearts. Life is HARD here in the most depressed areas. We paused our bikes in this neighborhood and young kids flocked to our group of tourists, arms around our legs, holding our hands, gazing up admirably to the privileged folk with creamy white skin and nice clothes. At one point, a young girl, perhaps 10, arrived and asked if she could speak to our group. She had beautifully crocheted three girls’ tops which were passed around. The tour guide asked if she was selling them and she said yes but no one was buying. I watched as she dolefully packed them back into her bag, her pride fighting tears. I couldn’t stand it, watching this enterprising girl doing her best to use her own agency and creativity to change her circumstances, or perhaps at least survive. I bought one, with words of praise and encouragement, and her whole face exploded in gratitude. Did I feel better? Of course but here’s the struggle: was it an altruistic act to encourage her and help her survive? I hope so. Do I want to share the wealth of my privilege as a basic tenant of being human- a rising tide lifts all ships? Definitely. Do I selfishly want to feel like a hero? I hope not. All of the above? Who knows? These years as I examine my own biases, the conscious and the hidden, it’s still hard to see my blind spots, to separate my heart from my American socialization rooted in racism and power. But I’m doing my damnedest to shine light on them. I know it’s lifelong work and trust if I keep doing what feels like the next right thing, at worst it’ll be better than no action at all and at best it’ll have a positive impact.
After a traditional Zulu lunch of beef and chicken stews, sautéed spinach, yellow rice, and pap (polenta) at the bike shop, my Swiss traveling companion, Sandra, and I said our final goodbyes to Fearless Leader Richard, our driver Shadrack, and Helen, our final traveling companion to leave, then parted ways at the airport laughing that we’ll reunite with the group in Bali in five years (or less).
Somewhere in the midst of my six-hour layover and a double rainbow over the tarmac, I connected with several people but the standout was a delightful young woman named Sammi. She had the kind of warm smile and magnetic energy that lights the room and you can’t help but love instantly. I told her she reminded me of my best friend and we bonded from there. She’s doing amazing work in the world for her master’s degree in London and was headed home to Phoenix to be with family for the holidays. We hugged as she boarded and agreed to stay in touch. I have no doubt we will. This meeting was no accident.
I had planned to write this blog during my layover but these connections with fellow humans felt so much more important. The Zulus have a word I love: Ubuntu, meaning I am because you are.
Have you been to Soweto? If not, would you go now? What “small world” or chance encounters have you had?
Leave a Reply