Interview with Liz Flynn

What is your name, major, class year?
My name is Liz Flynn and I am a Junior, Creative Writing and Psychology double major.

Liz with President Lemons

Liz with President Lemons

Where did you GO, when, and why?
I went to South Africa on Glen Retief’s travel writing trip. It was a GO Short this past summer, May of 2014. This GO Short was one that I had heard about when I was looking at Susquehanna as a high school student. The trip was actually a huge factor in my choosing Susquehanna. And I’ve also always had a weird fixation on South Africa and its culture, so I just lucked out with this trip.

 

Are you still in contact with the people you met?
I’m in contact with our two tour guides, Cedric and Nettie, somewhat in frequently. I am not so much in contact with the individual villagers we met though.

Would you ever go back to Alex?
I would absolutely go back to Alex.

How has your experience in Alex changed your perception of poverty in America?
I don’t really know if it had changed my perception of poverty in America. I think the poverty in Alex was more noticeable than in the US because it’s more centralized. The poverty in America is hidden better I think, or not as publicized as much, I guess. But I’d like for the impoverished areas in America to be fixed just as much as I’d like it to be fixed in Alex. I think there’s a quote about how you have to go abroad in order to really notice the issues in your own country.

What were other people on your trip affected most by?
I’m not really sure what everyone was most affected by on the trip. I think that we probably all have different answers to that. But I guess the most obvious one would be just adjusting to the new culture. That’s kind of a lame answer, but we didn’t know their language, we tried really hard I think to learn a few words and communicate with them through gestures, but it’s a real challenge trying to communicate just with gestures. But I also think something we were affected by was just the cultural changes within the country itself. Like we started off in the villages and got really close to those individuals, we stayed in their homes. But towards the end of the trip we went into more of the city-life, we went to Pretoria. And I think the transition of those cultures was a lot more jarring, or took us longer to get used to than just the initial culture shock of being in the villages.

 

Interview by Courtney Radel and Julia Raffel

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Interview with Steph Heinz

Where did you go, when did you go, and how long were you there?
I went to South Africa for a little under two weeks, traveling mostly in the North East. The sections in my piece specifically comes from Ncome in KwaNulu-Natal, Matiyani in the Limpopo Province, and the museum in Johannesburg.

What is the funniest or most hilarious thing that happened to you while you were there?
It’s odd how hard this question was for me to answer, there were a lot of really great moments but we were so deeply into everything that was happening, including the many hardships, that it’s difficult sometimes to pinpoint the “funny” things. If I had to pick something though, probably watching one of our professors, Glen Retief, attempt to do some traditional dances while we were visiting an artist commune. The students had been attempting to stomp and shake in time with the African beats the entire trip, it was reassuring to see that Glen, a native South African, struggled just as much as we did.

Looking back at your GO experience, is there anywhere you wish you had gone instead, or did you love your trip enough that you would still choose it?
I honestly don’t think any other trip could have challenged me and helped me grow in the ways that I did in South Africa. Sure I would love to have spent an entire semester somewhere, but the things we got to experience were so singular I could never pass them up for somewhere else. Plus, I don’t think any of us could’ve handled that level of emersion for an entire semester.

If you could travel the world, which method of transportation would you choose to do so?
Crossing oceans plane is still probably the best way to go, but for treks across land I think I’d normally prefer a train. There’s just something comforting about them, and yet still they’ll get you places in a timely manner. Plus you don’t have to worry about wrong turns. If someone tried to force me into a bus for another two weeks I don’t think I’d agree unless Lebo was driving again.

What is one good thing you want to tell people about your experience that nobody ever asks you about?
Once again, I’m not really sure. Usually people just ask me in general what it was like. Even after writing this essay I don’t think I’ve truly processed most of it. I suppose a “good” thing I like to talk about is our very first day, when I was given the chance to interact with some families living in the shanty towns of Alex Township. It’s the poorest area of Johannesburg where people are all living in corrugated metal leaning against each other, but there is so much more to see there than sadness over their living conditions. It’s a struggle to survive there, but people do more than just the basic task of keeping themselves fed and safe. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as connected to a group of people as when I was running up and down those winding paths playing hide-and-go-seek with the children there. They support each other in ways hardly anyone does in America anymore. It really makes me wonder what type of wealth we should all be celebrating.

Talk about one person, place or object from your GO experience that you wish you could bring back to your life here in the U.S.
There are so many wonderful people that I was able to meet. Maybe Light, just to help her realize the very special things about her life in South Africa, things that I long for every day just as much as she dreams of coming here. Probably Lebo. I can refer to him as our driver but he became so much more than that. Even though he is from South Africa a lot of the things we encountered while there were new experiences for him as well. He was one of our few constants and was such a deeply fascinating person. He said he wanted to go to Kansas, because a missionary told him about how beautiful it was there. I think all of the Americans still agree that he’d be more interested in New York, but I’d still really love to take Lebo to Kansas one day.

What was the best food you had abroad?
The worst was, without a doubt, grubs. I don’t even know a better way to describe it than some kind of small, crunchy grub that was covered in a green… sauce? Goo? I don’t know, it was the worst thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. Best… probably these muffins that Dudu made us for breakfast every morning in Ncome. I haven’t ever tasted anything else like it, but the closest American equivalent would probably be a corn muffin. It just tasted like home, and when she gave us a whole bag to take with us when we had to leave we all made sure to ration them out over as many days as we thought they would keep.

 

 

Interview by Katy Griffith

Interview with Andrew Lawler

Where did you go?
South Africa. We landed in Johannesburg, traveled Southeast until we hit the coast, then traveled up through Swaziland and Kruger National Park until we hit the Northeast corner of the country, then drove back to Johannesburg. Lots of stops in-between, mostly villages.

How long were you there?
About 16 days.

When did you go?
The end of May, 2014.

What is one of your favorite moments from your time abroad?
There were a lot. I’m not sure I can really give a definitive answer. A very humble and comforting memory is when we retired to bed and Matt McGugan and I would just talk to Lebo, our driver, for hours. Laughing, telling stories, trading cultural oddities. I remember Lebo thought it was hilarious that it’s a common misconception that ostriches stick their heads in the sand when they’re scared.

If you had the chance to go back, what would you like to do?
I’d like to visit all the villages we went to again and find everyone I met. I promised many of them I’d bring my girlfriend for them to meet.

What was one of your most interesting food experiences?
I ate a giraffe steak. That was pretty interesting. It’s chewy and has a better flavor than beef, in my opinion.

What advice do you have for students going to South Africa in the future?
Be open. Listen well. Live in the moment. Cut off ties with home if you can, even if you have the opportunity to go to an internet café. Try everything. Even the mopane worms. I didn’t try mopane worms and I regret it immensely.

 

 

Interview by Aubrey Johnson

Interview with Abriel Newton

What made you choose this particular GO trip?
I wanted an experience out of my comfort zone, and a chance to meet the people of a place.

How long were you there?
Fifteen days.

What struck you most about the people that you met?
Especially in N’come, it seemed to me, that because of a lack of material possessions distracting them, the people focused more on each other, and relationships, and things that actually matter. Makes me feel like I’m missing something about the human experience, and I don’t know quite what that is.

Would you change anything about your trip If so, what?
I would’ve stayed longer!

What advice do you have for someone traveling abroad?
Don’t be shy, or try not to be. Get right in and get the experience for all it’s worth.

 

 

Interview by Chelsea Ritter

Interview with Katy Griffith

Where did you GO?
I went to the University of Sussex in Brighton, England.

When did you GO and how long were you there?
I went for the Fall semester in 2014.

What was the strangest thing to happen to you while abroad – good or bad?
The strangest good thing was when I went to the Harry Potter studio tour and every single person on the bus was a huge Harry Potter fan. It was kind of weird, but really cool at the same time.

Tell me about your favorite memory from your experience.
One of my favorite memories was getting to see the Colosseum in Rome; something that has always been a dream of mine but I never thought I would actually see it come true

If you could start the whole thing over, would you go to the same place? Why or why not?
If I had to do everything over I probably would still choose the same location. Brighton isn’t a huge city like London, and it was close to a lot of the things I wanted to do.

Why did you choose this location?
I chose that location for all of the reasons above as well as the fact that they speak English in England.

 

Interview by Kelly Grebeck

Interview with Kelly Grebeck

What is your name, major, class year?
I am Kelly Grebeck. I am an English and Publishing & Editing double major in the class of 2016.

Kelly with Carrie Hope Fletcher, actress and singer

Kelly with Carrie Hope Fletcher

Where did you GO, when, and why?
I went to Brighton, England for the fall semester of 2014. I chose Brighton because I have always wanted to go to England, but not necessarily London. Brighton seemed like a wonderful and beautiful city that I knew I could fall in love with. It is just close enough to London and the fact that it’s a beach town really sold me on wanting to go there.

Did you ever end up celebrating your 21st birthday the traditional American way when you got back? If so, what did you do?
I didn’t really get the chance to celebrate my 21st birthday when coming home to America because, at the time, most of my friends at home were under 21. I guess I celebrated a bit by going to the casino with my family where I ended up winning $20. However, for my friend’s 21st birthday in February, we kind of did a double celebration at one of the bars for me. I did not really have an official 21st birthday celebration that was just for me, though.

Do you still stay in touch with the friends you made in England?
Although it is difficult due to time differences and busy lives, I do try to talk to them every once in a while, even if it’s just a random post on the Facebook group page we made. There are some people with whom I kept better in touch than others. Sadly I don’t get to talk to any of them nearly as much as I want. Nothing can compare to seeing them and talking to them every single day.

Did you get homesick for England when you got home?
It didn’t quite feel like I was home at first. I almost felt like I was on just another weekend trip and I would be back in Brighton within a couple days. When it really hit me that I was home for good, I felt horrible. Going back to work at Weis after being abroad was the absolute worst. All I wanted was to go back to Brighton. I still want to go back. While the homesickness has died down after settling into my routine here, I still feel it occasionally. When I see some of my friends post pictures on Facebook of what they are doing that night or when the Ukulele Society that I joined posts about a gig I feel it the most. I made more of a home for myself there than I ever expected and I just was not prepared to leave it behind. I don’t think anything could have prepared me to leave so much behind.

 

Interview by Courtney Radel and Julia Raffel

Motho ke motho ka batho: A person is a person through other people

by Steph Heinz

 

I’ve lost track of how many hours I have been curled into my makeshift bed on the South African Airlines craft that is speeding me away from JFK International, too tired to focus on the collection of in-flight movies or fall asleep properly. Most of my fellow passengers have pulled the plastic blinds of their small oval windows down hours ago in order to comply with the little pocket of African nighttime the flight crew had created by turning off the lights, but I had been too fascinated with the white cotton below to resist the temptation of leaving it open. Just a crack. At last the world outside has caught up with our plane cabin and it is dark enough for me to open the window all the way without worrying about disturbing Andy, one of the other fifteen students who make up our college travel writing cohort, who is seated across the thin aisle from me.

My mind drifts as I watch a lightning storm beginning to brew in the clouds below us, an answering call to the red blips announcing our plane’s location in the darkness. The lighting dances in a wide radius, reminding me of animated videos we used to watch in science class of electrons sparking in atomic clouds. I can’t pull my eyes away as my mind jumps associatively to other images of neurons and flashing and electricity. For a while, I settle on one of the movies I had watched throughout the first half of the flight, Her.

The movie follows a man, Theodore Twombly, in the near present as he forms a romantic relationship with his seemingly sentient operating system, Samantha. I am entranced by the way Theodore was able to receive so much satisfaction from his relationship with something that was technically nothing more that a string of 0’s and 1’s coded in a particular order. I wonder if the director was trying to create a critique of our unhealthy dependences on technology or celebrating the wonders of the way love knows no constraints.

I pull out my phone from the backpack tucked under the chair in front of me and flip it over in my hands, studying its form and its significance to me. Ever since my train pulled out from Harrisburg a few days ago I hadn’t let myself wander more than five feet from it, this lifeline to my boyfriend who lives eight hours away from my Philadelphia suburb, near Portland, Maine. Was Theodore and Samantha’s relationship really all that different from the countless long distance relationships assisted by social media and texting throughout the world?

I am on the verge of a two-week immersion in rural South African cultures, quite possibly in worlds that have no cellphones or Wi-Fi, let alone electricity, and I feel a sudden pang of panic at losing this anchor. I wonder how the people I imagine myself meeting would respond to a film like Her. I continue to stare out at the lightning, the unchained electricity, images swirling of the bounding light, jumping from my plane to the people below to the people I had just left behind to the people I am heading towards, back to my plane, as my eyelids finally droop down.

Hours later, in the rush to get off the plane and feel South African soil under my feet for the first time, I forget to pick up my phone, my anchor and lifeline, from where it fell as I slept.

+

It is our first moment of actual free time in Ncome, and I have begun to wander with Colin and Chris through this village that has become home over the past few days, although we can only navigate based on a few landmarks. Our own huts, the general store, Shebeen – a sparse rural bar that varies only slightly between villages – and the large building that has become our mess hall. We meander back to where Colin and Chris are staying with Sydney’s family, a man who seems to have gotten caught in a taffy puller as a child, he’s so tall and thin. I have only seen him in passing so far, but the moment we enter the family’s yard he comes to me, greets me with a smiled “Sawubona” and a South African handshake I was still feeling out the sharp wrist movements of, as you clasp each other’s hand first at one downward angle and then one climbing up. I immediately feel as if I have been here before, as if I was simply returning to my Uncle’s house after a long time away rather than formally meeting him for the first time. Sydney has an easy smile and his round eyes never leave mine when he speaks to me, a type of intimacy that feels undervalued in my own culture. If this is how Sydney always listens to people, it doesn’t surprise me that he seems to hold an important role in Ncome.

The moment his wife sees me she clasps her hands together, hurries over and pulls me into an embrace, engulfing me in a figure that is all curves and cushion where Sydney is angles. She asks me to call her Mama, and begins to pull me into the main house by my hand. I glance back at Colin and Chris, unsure of what to do, but they are too busy talking to their Baba.

Once inside, my new Mama explains to me in halting phrases that she wishes to dress me like the traditional Zulu and Tsonga dancers we had watched at the competition the day before as we sat under umbrellas, crowded by children and drinking a mix of large bottles of Castle beers and a communal bowl of the Zulu corn beer.

“Please?” she implores. “You will be so beautiful.”

I give her a series of short nods, my excitement too much to commit to a full up or down swing for very long. She clasps my hands tightly again, giving a loving squeeze before bustling into another room.

When she returns her arms are filled with the intricate beaded netting we had seen adorning the dancers yesterday. It wasn’t until right then that I realize the mesmerizing patterns were made out of clunky plastic, the same beads that I would have used to make keychains and bracelets as a young child at summer camp. One by one, she ties the green, white, blue, yellow, and red pieces onto me: headband, thick necklace that reminds me of the collars worn by Egyptian pharaohs, arm bands, belt, and anklets with shells made from dung that rattled with each step I took. When she finishes she looks over her handiwork and embraces me again, telling me that I am her daughter, her American daughter, and that she loves me. Although I had only met her twenty minutes previously, these words do not feel like the things we had been warned of, the words we might hear villagers say simply because they believed that is what we as white visitors wished to hear. I don’t know if I simply want so badly for it to be true or if all she really saw was me as an American symbol of mixing races and cultures, but I hold her just as tightly. Deep down, I know it doesn’t matter. So far from home, I need the comfort of the exchange.

“I love you too.” I whisper before we pull away from each other.

Photo by Colin O'Donnell

Photo by Colin O’Donnell

“Come now, Daughter, come show your family how you are an African woman now.”

We walk back into the yard and I am a new person. The first reaction I hear is Colin’s single sharp “Ha!” of a laugh and I look up to see both of my fellow students smiling at me, the corners of their eyes crinkling with the stretching of their lips. Quickly, there is a call for the boys to pull out their cameras as Sydney’s family, my family, gathers around me and smiles into the lenses of their phones. The other children call me Sister and hold me close, asking for photos to be taken with their phones as well so they can show their friends at school.

I remember two evenings back when we first drove into Ncome with Mandla, the principle of the village’s high school. We went to the chief’s hut first for a formal welcoming where all of the important men and women of the village sat with us in a tight circle, traditional blankets draped over their t-shirts. Throughout the speeches and short dance performance phones kept buzzing and beeping, much to the confusion of the American students. I had assumed that the phones were a sign of the power of the people gathered, but now even young teenagers were pulling out their own mix of Nokia’s, Motorola Razors, and iPhones.

Once the photo shoot calms down and our group begins to mingle in a more casual manner, I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn around to see my new Mama.

“My husband says I may give you gifts. Here is one,” she hands me a new type of bracelet, one which is thick and rounded with much smaller beads, “and you pick one of your costume.”

Back home I am overwhelmed on a daily basis as to what type of cereal I’d like to have for breakfast. This decision is too much, this kindness too great, and I insist that simply allowing me to wear her treasures was gift enough. Mama will not stand down and finally decides that I must keep the necklace. I am at a loss of words and can do nothing but kiss her on the cheek to show my gratitude. With her help the rest of the items are removed, and I walk over to Colin and Chris, still unable to connect words together to form full thoughts. We are standing there, talking to one of Sydney’s sons, Derrek, when Mama comes back and holds the headband from my costume out towards me.

“My husband wishes to give you a gift as well.” Once more, words will not suffice. I kiss Mama’s other cheek, accept my present with a bowed head, and scurry over to Sydney before Colin, Chris, and I continue our walk.

I embrace him without warning, too honored by their hospitality to worry over cultural differences and acceptability, falling back on my natural tendencies. He pauses for a moment, before chuckling softly and returning the hug.

Ngiyabonga, Baba.” I offer him my limited Zulu, the only gift I have to give. Thank you, Father.

Kulungile, Daughter.”

 

Later that night, before I fall asleep back in Dudu, my Ncome host Mama’s, home, I remember what Mandla told me during the dance competition. “When you marry, you must wear beads like those girls dancing. You must show everyone where you come from.” The final images I see before full darkness is of traditional white gowns strung with the colors of South Africa.

+

Growing up I never really felt connected to my classmates the way I thought I was supposed to. I had friends at school, people would invite me to their birthday parties, there were even a handful of people who I’d chat with on AIM after school. Still, I rarely saw my friends beyond the walls of our school. While everyone else planned play dates and sleepovers, I would sit at my computer and socialize online long before the era of Facebook. I met people through role-playing sites, a kind of global writing collaboration. Some of these people I’ve known for over ten years now, we’ve helped each other through personal tragedies and celebrated accomplishments, but I’ve never once met any of them in person. Still, I know about their families and the things they hope to accomplish in their lives. We are connected.

I don’t know anything about Sydney’s wife, my Mama. I spent less than two hours with her and yet she gave me items that take hours to carefully thread and weave, including one she specifically made for me before we left Ncome. A green belt with accents of yellow, brown, orange, blue, red, and white. I don’t even know her name. Still, we are connected.

+

All of the students are anxious after a day cramped within our white van as we travel towards the India Ocean. St. Lucia sounds like a tourist trap after our experiences in Ncome, but none of us can deny our excitement for a real bed, hot showers, and a toilet. The heavy blankets and thin mattresses of the village had felt like heaven at the end of each long day of exploring and we had all been surprised at how thoroughly one can wash themselves with two inches of water, but I am not ready to spend the rest of my life hovering over holes in the ground or squatting in the darkness before bedtime to relieve a stretching bladder. Still, there is one convenience that trumped all others.

“Do you think there will be Wi-Fi at the hotel?”

The question circulates the back of the bus but no one is willing to send it up to Cedric or Nettie, our two Afrikaans guides during our trip who would be able to offer an actual answer. No one is willing to give up that tiny taste of hope just yet.

I double and triple check that my small laptop is still where I had slipped it in my backpack earlier that day, nestled between sweatpants and the jeans I had been wearing for the past three days. I have never been very good at communicating regularly with my parents while at school, always taking the fact that they would be there when I needed them for granted, but before the past week I hadn’t gone a single day without communicating with my boyfriend since September. Nine months.

When we pull into our destination the announcement of no Wi-Fi wraps its cold fingers around the pit of my stomach, squeezing tight. I can already feel my anxiety starting to inch upwards.

Instead of our expectations of an American hotel with individual rooms running up and down a hallway, each populated with two oversized beds and impersonal art, we are told to break into groups and divvy up the two floor apartments that surround the central pool and courtyard, the one filled with signs warning against feeding the wild monkeys. I go with Christine and Jenna, two of the girls who had stayed with me at Dudu’s in Ncome. We’re given a few hours of free time before our scheduled hippo and crocodile ferry that evening. The majority of the students stick together, throwing bags into rooms haphazardly and then trekking down the street in search of a place to buy alcohol. We laugh together, already functioning as a family unit after our shared experiences over the past few days and replace our previous excitement of Wi-Fi with chatter about all spending the evening together, no longer spread out across the reaches of the village. What more reason do we need for a celebration?

After the ferry ride our entire group settles into the open air seating of a restaurant between the river and our apartments. For the first time I truly feel the loss of the phone I forgot on the plane a week ago as the news of Wi-Fi at the restaurant ripples through the students. In an odd way I have enjoyed not having the pressure to photograph my experiences weighing in my pocket, but now as my fellow Americans bury their noses in the blue glow of Facebook messengers and tune out the ambient noise of the other St. Lucia tourists I feel it.

The panic that first began to bubble upon arriving at our apartments begins to swirl in my abdomen once more, my absent friends and family aching like a phantom limb. My distress must be visible in my fumbling fingers and shifting shoulders, for after a few minutes Colin holds his phone out towards me, “You wanna let your folks know you’re okay and send a message to Amos?” Few words have ever sounded as sweet.

Over the course of our meal I set a time to talk with my boyfriend tomorrow and mentally begin to compose an email to my parents, uncaring how it might look to take over one of these tables for a few hours the following day with my laptop. This tease of communication does nothing but heighten my anxiety to reconnect with the people I have left behind, and so when we return to the apartments I offer our living room as a gathering space. I do not think I can last the time remaining between now and my planned return to the restaurant without plenty of distractions. Eight students collect around our coffee table as we set about teaching our young driver, Lebo, how to play Kings. For a while the planned distractions succeed, but as we draw the final cards from the first circle some of the students are already beginning to drift away.

Five of us remain after the game concludes: Christine, Colin, Chris, another girl Liz, and myself. We begin to wonder were the remaining members of our group are, the ones who said they would join us for our card game but never did. I’m not sure who first suggests that they must be sitting in another apartment, talking about the rest of us. We all shift uncomfortably at this idea, this assumed betrayal. We begin to feel hurt, frustrated at how we are not all together as we had originally planned.

“This isn’t doing us any good,” I say, “Instead of grumbling over here why don’t we just go see what they’re up to?” The others nod and we exit the apartment.

I don’t know how it happens, but from the moment our group enters the other apartment tensions are high. In less than ten hours of reentering civilization, the calm sense of unity that our group has created over our first week in rural South Africa shatters. We return to our normal perceptions of “us” and “other” and uncertainty. We read too deeply into each other’s words and actions, triggering a realization that we are alone without our standard forms of contact or comfort. I retreat to my apartment with Christine and Colin, curl into a chair and let the waves of anxiety fill my throat and lungs until it spills out through my eyes. When my muscles become too exhausted to keep their tension I rip a piece of paper into three section and hand them out to the others. “Write.” It is a command. When I finish writing I go back to the other apartment and ask to borrow Chris’s lighter. I light my paper on fire outside and watched until the gray is fragile enough to collapse under my breath.

+

We are in Matiyani Village, an all black Shangaani community in the Limpop Province, South Africa. Christine, Jenna, and I have been living in a small group of three mud huts where a family of young women took us in for three nights. I sit on the floor and watch Teboga, the oldest at the age of twenty-one, throw her arm over her sister Cynthia’s shoulder and pull her in closer as Christine holds out the camera and snaps a selfie. Another Justin Bieber song begins to play on the Nokia flip phone sitting on the stack of mattresses and all of the girls, Americans and South Africans alike, begin to sing along to the repetitive phrases. This is one of the few ways we have discovered to communicate between our handful of Zulu words, similar enough to the local dialect to get a semblance of meaning across, and their uncertainty of their English skills.

Light, a friend and frequent guest of our host family, yanks me up, calling for another photo. The two of us wrap an arm around the other’s back and pucker out our lips in a manner that I would never have done at home unless to mock the duck-billed profile pictures on sites like Facebook and Instagram, but feels appropriate after our snack of raw sugar cane picked from their yard and Rooibos tea. I remember years ago, when I was in my junior year of highs school and was a part of a German exchange program. My partner Sabine, myself, and another exchange duo spent a similar evening of silly photos and dancing to whatever songs someone decided to look up on YouTube. I want to ask our current hosts if this is how they typically spend their evenings once they lock the gate around their rotundas and cloister themselves away from the darkness and whatever might be prowling the dirt roads of the village, but hesitate in fear of complicating our fun with the reminder of our language barrier. Instead, Teboga’s seven year old daughter, Trust, is roused from her half-asleep ball on a pile of pillows and we all try to squeeze ourselves into the frame, no one wanting to get left out.

I lose track of the amount of photos we take or the number of times we all shout along to “Baby, baby, baby oooh, baby, baby, baby nooo” but eventually we feel the fatigue of the past week and a half settle on our limbs and we are all sprawled out across the floor on mattresses and blankets once more. With the early pull of sleep comes a letting go of anxieties and we begin to find it easier to communicate with words rather than actions.

Light, as always, is the most talkative of the South Africans, although all of the girls listen and chatter in response to various comments, first in Shanganni and then summarize in English when pressed.

We ask them simple things, about their school and their friends, whether or not any of them have boyfriends. For the first time when we ask this question we do not receive bashful giggles and denials as we did when talking to the young women and older girls in Ncome. Light and Teboga do, but they both admit to not really liking their boyfriends. They are far away, in Johannesburg or Capetown, wherever work is available. They text and talk on the phone, but neither of the women have seen their boyfriends in a long while and don’t seem bothered by this fact. They tell us that this is the same for all of the women their age in Matiyani. I think back to St. Lucia and worry that one day I will feel the same way about my boyfriend, or maybe with the addition of Skype, Facebook, and reliable phone service we’ll still be able to feel close.

“I would like to go to America.” Light says as she attempts to braid Christine’s short hair with her deft fingers. We have heard this statement so many times since we began our South African experience in Johannesburg a lifetime ago, and yet still we ask her why.

“Because then I can find a white man to marry.” Once again, this comment is common to an uncomfortable degree, I had never been called to personally pay so much attention to race before being thrown into a world where children would be frightened by my appearance because they have never seen a white person before. “Black men cannot love you, not like a white man can.”

My thoughts are halted at the matter-of-fact tone Light uses as she says these words. To Light, they are unquestionably true, and I cannot figure out how to move past this realization. I think back to our first full day in Matiyani, when the three white Americans and the three black Africans were walking in a slowly mixing bubble back from a long trek to the convenience store filled with packaged foods and sugary drinks. It was the middle of the day, the “winter” air warmed by the sun that feels so much closer than at home. We were approaching our gate when a tall, thin village man walked past us. Curious about everything, I glanced up and smiled at this stranger, but my face froze as our eyes made contact. His eyes were mostly flat with wide black pupils, but his eyebrows wriggled at me in a way that makes me flash back to stranger danger lessons in Elementary school or the whistle a local church put in all of our Freshmen Orientation folders as we first moved into college three years ago. As he walked past us, his head swiveled back in a manner that I had previously only thought manageable by owls, his eyes never blinking, never breaking contact with my own until right before he turns the corner when they slip up and down my body, his smile tightening over his teeth as he stares into my eyes once more.

“Not all white guys are great,” Christine begins quicker than I can get my brain to fully process “and I know plenty of amazing black guys too, your ability to love someone isn’t based off of your skin tone. You just haven’t met the right types of guys.”

I don’t know how I expected Light to react to this, certainly she wouldn’t suddenly have a life altering epiphany, although that’s exactly what I feel would have been appropriate at that moment. I certainly did not expect her noncommittal shrug and the casual shift of conversation as if love and race was on par with the weather when it comes to hot button topics.

There are many things I grew to understand during my time in South Africa, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to imagine the type of life that could lead to someone being so mistrusting of their own race. I am thankful for that fact and guilty for my thanks.

+

I am the second to last person in our group to leave the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg our last day in South Africa. Trailing along by myself, I follow my own rhythm of exploration, pausing where I feel pulled towards and simply strolling past other exhibits. I settle the longest in a small hallway with nothing but benches and pillars down the centre aisle. The red brick found in much of the museum continues here, but most of the walls are covered with various sized black and white photographs and scanned pages of text. Both the text and the images are from Ernest Cole’s book House of Bondage, a book that was originally released in 1967 and exposed life in South Africa, his home country, throughout Apartheid.

Although the images were the first things to make me pause my exploration, it is the text that coaxes me into staying longer. “She was crying,” the page before me reads “it turned out, because her baby sister was hungry, and it reminded her she was hungry too.”

These words are still playing in my mind as I climb a small flight of steps to a different section of the museum. I almost trip up the steps before I can wrench my eyes from the dozens of tan rope nooses hanging from the ceiling. There is a wall in the middle of this smaller room and none of the words etched on it make any sense until I read the title. Documented Suicides in Prison Systems During Apartheid. Name, age, why they were arrested, how long they were there, manner of suicide. The columns and rows create a neat little chart to disguise the chaos. 175 days, 32 days, 1 day. Hanging, cut wrist, jumping from third story window. I read all of them.

I enter the next room with a deep breath that gets caught in my throat once I realize what I am now facing. Small rooms with thick grey walls, heavy gates swung open. I don’t even need to read the plaque to know that these are the types of cells prisoners were kept in, sometimes for years in solitary confinement before they were even informed why they had been arrested or given an official sentence. My feet feel heavy as I walk into the cell, walk to the back wall, and turn around. The walls feel even closer than they had looked from the outside. My throat begins to tighten as I feel my pulse quicken, I am familiar with the early signs of a panic attack.

I understand all those names now, all that desperation even after only a handful of days. Motho ke motho ka batho What type of person do you become when you are wholly alone?

 

Read an interview with Steph here.

The Memory of a Township

by Liz Flynn

 

We were brought to Alexandra Township, arguably one of the roughest areas in South Africa, only a few hours after landing in the Johannesburg airport. Our group consisted of 18 students and two advisors from Susquehanna University. We were met at the airport by two guides, Cedric and Nettie, along with our driver for the trip, Lebo. We boarded our bus, a little too tight for 22 people, and began our trek to Alex, the first village we would be visiting on our 15-day stint in South Africa.

The ride didn’t seem all that long, and it was difficult at first to tell where Johannesburg ended and Alex started. We were surrounded by what seemed like regular suburban homes: mud colored slabs, the white caulking visible, it reminded me of houses I’d seen in magazines of Arizona or out west. Some houses had black iron gates, others had high walls. It was nice, calm. Within a matter of two turns, or so it seemed, we were in a drastically different area. The ground was no longer paved but instead a dried mud, orange and dusty. From the bus, it looked like the ground was shining beneath the dirt. I learned after getting off of the bus that the shining was just broken beer bottles, scattered. The township was hundreds of metal shanties crosshatched, housing 30,000 residents, on a three-mile radius.

We were split up for most of the day. Some of our group went to the women’s hostel, the men’s hostel, and a veteran’s house. The township was like a maze. To get to our various locations, we were led by some residents, trustworthy navigators of this labyrinth they lived in. Each guide seemed happy to be showing us their home. Many couldn’t speak English, not that I had expected them to, but a smile could be shared between our languages. After a few hours of being separated, our group reconvened. Hurried voices of the different things we’d seen or heard. Much of the talk I remember was about the different hostels. Everyone saying something different but exactly the same. The water damage, the industrial-looking kitchen with steel countertops so rusted I didn’t even want to touch them, let alone cook food on them, doors that had unidentifiable scratch marks on them. When I was walking through the women’s hostel, I tried to picture myself living there, raising a child there. The people I had met, or even passed by seemed so loving and kind that it was hard to picture them living in such a violent looking place.  Near the women’s hostel were mud-slabbed buildings. Cartoon faces of black men and women painted onto the buildings so perfectly, advertising barbershops, smoke shops, Coca-Cola, their paint was the only thing that looked new, fresh in the neighborhood.

I remember the children weaving us through their makeshift neighborhood until we reached this overhang. It was like a rusted metal cliff overlooking the rest of Alex. I looked over the tops of bald children’s heads, whose names I never got. All of them pointing out their homes, showing us, speaking a language we wished we knew. I remember looking out, seeing the tops of houses for miles, no clouds in a sky so blue it was almost white, and garbage caked into their earth, feeling like I had just stumbled upon the most unfortunately beautiful place in the world.

After the children brought us back through their maze, our whole group met up at the Shebeen, the township’s pub. A few of us walked into this cement block “bar” where we met a man behind an iron cage, the 40 oz. beers behind him. On the sides of the cage were different beer brands with prices I didn’t really understand. I was thinking of the conversion rate, trying to count my money inconspicuously as I moved forward in line and thinking that there was no way a 40 is only two American dollars. When it was my turn to order, I asked for a Hansa, partly because that was the only name I could pronounce and partly because the two people in front of me, also on the trip, asked for that as well.

The man behind the counter asked for the 16 rand, a mouth full of mismatched teeth, cross-hatched like his neighborhood. I had only a 20 and assumed in handing over the money that I would get my change like a normal encounter. I stood there for a minute before I asked the man about my money. My questioning consisted of shrugging my shoulders and contorting my face like I had just eaten a lemon, as if that would translate into his language. The man looked at me and in rushed English said, I’ll get it to you later. And I said, Okay, and left the inside bar, taking the milk crate from the stack to the left of the beer counter to join the rest of the group outside. It wasn’t until I was sitting outside, drinking my enormous drink, that I realized, Fuck, I’m not getting that change back. Had it not been for the setting sun and the locals joining our milk crate gathering, I might have cared, but instead I just drank my beer, getting comfortably buzzed, and watched everyone.

The local women kept coming up to our group asking for photos, which I later learned is something you have to get used to traveling to a place where people have rarely interacted with or seen white people. There were three women that stuck out the most to me. They each had on some form of material with Nelson Mandela on it, either a skirt, head wrap, or shirt. All of their clothes were bright yellow, and Mandela’s face was in a black and green bordering. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t stop looking at their outfits. I never talked to the women, though. I smiled at them occasionally, when our eyes would meet, between their twists and turns, their rhythmic dancing, a greeting for us all.

Later on in the trip, we went to the Apartheid Museum in Pretoria. At the museum, all I saw were influences of Mandela. I read information I had never known, like how he grew up in a village like many of the ones we saw on our trip. If he hadn’t been pushed to get an education, he wouldn’t have been the man he was. I heard people talk about a man that I really only knew the last name of. And it wasn’t until after the museum that I started to understand why those women in Alex had Mandela draped around them. It wasn’t just Mandela that they wore. It was hope. It was Mandela’s promises to the people of the townships. It was their history.

We stayed in our milk crate circle until it was nearly pitch black. I took in the chill of the night that crept up on my arms as laughter escaped my mouth. Drinking our drinks, talking with one another, pretending to understand the locals. Waving our hands in a big X when the locals would ask us to join them in dance, only to surrender with a shrug. It wasn’t until someone signaled, I guess, that we made the great migration from our crate corral to our host’s house for dinner.

+

We were given inflatable pillows and thin foam mats to put our sleeping bags on. Girls in one room, boys in another. Our mats were only a few inches away from each other set up in our host family’s dining room. They set up an antique-looking lamp as a nightlight, to help us feel more at home, maybe, but it didn’t take long before we were all passed out on the floor. I remember lying on my sleeping bag, just before I let sleep take over, looking at the ceiling. I noticed the crown molding, how detailed these loops were, carved with a purpose. But only one spigot in the kitchen for water.

When we woke up around 5the next morning, we found out that we had actually fallen asleep closer to 9pm rather than our perceived time of 11pm or midnight. I woke up to the sound of our host mom’s swift feet shuffling against the tiled floor, her hair in some type of a wrap and an apron on over her clothes. From my mat, I could see her boiling large pots of water. I hadn’t thought much about what she was doing. I thought that she might be preparing dinner for that night. As I got my bearings straight, got the sleep totally out of my eyes, I overheard someone say something about a bath. Then I realized what the pots of water were for.

The baths were held in the room across from the bathroom—a cement room with a toilet, no seat, a sink with dripping water, lit by a candle on the floor. The room across from the bathroom had also functioned as the four boys’ bedroom the night before. The room had swollen, tired wood as the floor, grooves that held the dirt from over the years. The walls were white, dirtied from hands and wear.

There were three or four buckets to use, each person getting their own. A toddler could fit comfortably in one of the buckets, but unfortunately we were all adult sized. For a while I just kind of stared at the bucket, not really sure how to go about it.

I had gone to sleep away camp for many years, shared cabins with ten girls each summer. Undressing in front of people wasn’t really an issue for me, or so I thought. But as I stood there, above the basin, I felt out of place, unsure of what to do with myself. I thought that maybe I just felt this way because I didn’t know the girls I was sharing this small room and large experience with. I remember not wanting to make eye contact with either one of them. I thought how odd it was that this basin, this situation, could make me feel so insecure. I stared at the molding on the ceiling for a while. I thought that it was kind of funny that this house had such elegantly carved swirls, painted white, surrounding the room, yet we were washing ourselves in basins.

I figured I’d start by washing my hair; it seemed like it’d be the easiest. I was wrong. It’s really hard to wash long hair in a bucket, hair flipped over, my face less than an inch above the bucket of lukewarm water, soap sliding down my upside down head and into my eyes. As I knelt before the bucket, I laughed, soap getting into my mouth, thinking about the other Susquehanna students getting their cultural immersion by going to a museum. Our university believes that it is important for every student to get a cross-cultural immersion at least once during our four years, and I couldn’t help but think that I, along with my fellow SU students on this trip, were getting more than our fair share.

After we got our bucket wash, we ate a breakfast of bread and tea, elegantly splayed before us, at a large table with a white tablecloth embroidered with delicate swirls and loop where our mats had been the night before. We headed out to the next part of our journey. Before we left Alex, we gathered in front of the house and took a photo as a group, including our hosts and some of the locals we had met the night before. Some of us stood on the ground, others stood on the mud stairs that led to an outdoor patio. We had our arms around one another, “got close for the picture.” I wish I remembered the names.

We had only been in this village for less than 24 hours, but I felt a real connection to the people of Alex. As we hauled our bags into the trailer some of the locals thanked us for visiting them, our hosts asked us to come back, said that they enjoyed our company. Our group stood in front of the bus, finishing the last of our conversations, told our hosts and the few villagers that remained that we would come back if we could.

I look at that photo now from Alex, see how happy we all were, how wide our smiles were. I wonder if we looked happy in the picture because we felt that happy or if it was because we weren’t yet worn out from the trip. I wonder even more if our hosts truly meant it when they said they wanted us to come back, or if they said it out of obligation, just as we had said that we would return if we could.

+

When I came home from my trip, my parents couldn’t stop asking me questions about everything that I did. Their mouths were moving from the second they picked me up at the airport until we got home. I remember feeling like such an idiot in the car. How can you go to Africa and only have a few sentences to say about the whole trip?

“You must have seen rhinos and elephants, right? That had to have been cool!” my mom asked from the front seat of the car.

I paused my iPod, and shuffled around in my seat a little. “Yeah, actually, I fell asleep during the bus ride while we were travelling through Krueger National Park.”

My dad laughed in disbelief. Mom sighed, “You went all the way to Africa to fall asleep on a bus?”

I forced a laugh, defensive, “Well, we were in the bus for so long, and once you see five elephants and some zebra, it gets a little old. I don’t know.”

It was true. I had fallen asleep shortly after we entered the gates of Krueger, but I didn’t feel bad about it. I justified it to myself and my family that asked by saying that I didn’t really like animals that much anyway. But looking back on it now, I can’t say that I cared about Krueger at all. The only thing that I know I truly cared about on this trip was Alex.

I wish I knew the answer as to why I cared so much about Alex. I wish I could say that I came from an affluent neighborhood, came from a wealthy family, have never experienced poverty before, but none of that would be true.

During my first year of college I went into New York City and pretended to be homeless for a day as part of an assignment for a writing class. I dressed as if I truly were homeless, didn’t even shower for the few days prior to fully take on the role. The result of the project was that I got a small glimpse as to what it’s like being homeless for a day. It’s not glamorous.

For as long as I can remember I have always felt such a strong and deep connection to people and places that are suffering. I remember walking through the Apartheid Museum and looking at all of the pictures on the walls, the bits and pieces of information, the small video clips, and feeling my throat dry up, ready to choke out tears. Tears that I knew I couldn’t utter. I wasn’t a part of this culture; I wasn’t even alive for most of apartheid. I couldn’t cry for something that hadn’t directly affected me, but yet I wanted to so badly.

I walked through the Apartheid Museum and thought of the women in Alex wearing their Nelson Mandela garbs. I thought about how they must have felt, or how I thought they must have felt about apartheid and their current economic and social situation.

I thought of them accepting Americans that they didn’t even know into their township, their culture, their society, for 24 hours, and making each of us feel at home. I thought about how grateful I was to these people for reasons I wasn’t evens sure of.

The thing about Alex was that it wasn’t just a village for me. It was a feeling. It was looking out over the overhang the children showed me and feeling on top of the world at the bottom of the world. It was seeing joy in children and adults alike, a joy that I find in most adult Americans to be hidden. It was the feeling of community that I didn’t have in my suburb back home. It was a feeling of connection to people that I couldn’t actually talk to but still somehow both got what their meaning across.

Alex was something indescribable and something that still is indescribable five months later.

Maybe it was the obvious poverty that drew me to Alex in the first place and is the reason it is so vivid in my mind all these months later. I’m not entirely certain what keeps drawing me back to Alex, but what I do know is that Alex was the only village I didn’t take notes on during my trip. Alex is the only village where I can close my eyes and see everything as if I was seeing it that first day.

 

 

Read an interview with Liz here.

While We are Here

by Abriel Newton

 

We are leaving tomorrow, and the sky is so open I lose my breath when I see it at night, coming backwards out of our hut. Oh. This is the sky, here. And I don’t want to leave it. We are in Ncome South Africa. The Zulu village is outside of Johannesburg, the ground here hard-packed and dusty, the smoke sweet and sharp.

Jenna, Steph, Christine and I are in Dudu’s empty hut, which we assume is the guest hut. It has linoleum mats, a tapestry hanging on the back wall that says “Jesus is the Way,” and a door we keep shut with a stray nail. There’s a wardrobe with blankets inside and a bench near the window. I think the hut is made of concrete, and the ceiling is so intricately connected, the beams crisscrossed and almost basket weaved. Christine leans in to Dudu, “You floor is very pretty,” she says, pushing her hair behind her ear. Dudu smiles at us, “Yes, very beautiful.”

She lines up mattresses on the floor, and the first night, she makes us sit and watch her and her mother prepare our beds, and in the morning she brings us bath water and corn biscuits. The second night, we help set them, and she tells us not to be scared, that the cows are crying. The third night, I make Dudu’s bed by the wall, as one of my only ways to show gratitude, but I make it wrong, and she redoes it.

The last night we are writing, and Dudu pushes the single candle closer to our mattress, and we circle it, writing close on the floor. We are silent. Dudu shifts around on her bed and after a while asks, “Switch off?” snuffing out the candle with her fingers when we say okay. We are covered in thick blankets, and the flowers on these are the ones that I will continue to see. They are the same blankets from village to village, as we travel, a group of fifteen students from Susquehanna University. We are here to get to know the people we meet, herded by leaders that grew up here. Minutes pass and I wonder why Dudu is sent out here to sleep with us in this empty hut when the rest of her family is in the surrounding huts in the compound.

Dudu gasps, and my eyes fly open in the blackness. “Christine. Will you pray for us?” she asks, leaning over her mattress.

Christine comes up onto her elbow. “Out loud?”

“Yes.”

Christine opens her mouth, but then Dudu is lighting the candle and curling up on her knees on the mattress, and laying her head in her folded hands. We all copy her, and she prays for us in rapid-fire Zulu. And it is so fast that I know she prays every day, she has the words for her questions and wishes memorized. “I asked God to protect you tomorrow,” she says, “I have a pain in my heart because you are leaving.”

She smiles, and we cannot say anything. None of us were expecting that. She is a stranger and we are in her house and she is praying in a language we do not understand. I lay still and blink at the back of Jenna’s head. I’ve never heard anyone pray like that before, so fast and quiet and vicious. Where does this seemingly honest and genuine care come from? Would she pray like this for the people in this village, or would she pray harder? Embarrassed that I’ve never seen this before, I am silently crying.

+

I am thirteen. I am in confirmation class in the attic of the church, tapping my fingers. I have to get home in time to watch America’s Next Top Model. John is the pastor of St. John’s UCC in Shamokin, Pennsylvania. He’s round and bald and always has white dried spit in the corner of his lips. His teeth are twisted, stalactites of saliva exposed whenever he speaks. He narrows his eyes.

We’re going over answers in the book, and I’m regurgitating what I find in the Bible, what I hear him say. Yes, I agree with that. Yeah good point. He reads off of his papers. He offers nothing. Last Sunday, he preached that we should all give more money to the church, because then we’d have a better chance of getting into heaven. We cannot be selfish, and keep our money to help us stay living and comfortable. Give to God, give to the church and to the pastor, and then weep when you see Jesus. I prop my feet on the chair in front of me, reclining, watching the boy with blonde hair across from me. The hour drags, and finally, he dismisses everyone, patting my feet dismissively. I wince.

“Is something wrong?” He smiles tightly, gathering his books.

“I just twisted my ankle at ballet.” I say watching the ground, making to get out of my seat.

“Do you want us to pray for you? Is that what you’re asking?” He seems too eager. He looks around at the rest of the students.

The uncertainty comes down hard, bodies shift in seats. “I have to go,” someone says, slipping out. I look to my friend Jess, who shrugs and frowns. Everyone else wears nearly the same expression. “Sure.” I smile weakly. The students and Pastor John gather around me, his hand hot on my ankle, their fingers brushing my head and shoulders.

“Okay everyone,” he begins and as he says whatever it is he does, I watch my ankle. The heat could help it, a hot stone, a flax-seed bag, things from the earth. Asking some spirit in the sky will do nothing, and his hollow voice reflects this, confirms it. I might believe it if his energy was real, if I could feel sincerity or intent.

I leave as quickly as I can, hobbling down the stairs and out into the grass.

+

We are in Lucky’s village, and Dallas, Christine and I are playing a game with the children in the yard, Fire in the Mountain. I don’t know who these children belong to, but they are a force of around six. We sing with them, “there’s a fire in the mountain, fire, fire, there’s a fire in the mountain fire fire. Group of…” And we rush to cluster in groups, the children clinging to our knees and fingers.

Sometime, we are told to go join the rest of our group. We walk along the road with the kids holding our hands until we get to the other girls’ compound. A few women are in a line on the ground near the fence, drumming furiously. We sit and we watch with children on our laps, and I’m wondering if this isn’t for show. There is snarl, a snap of a growl and howling, and I look behind the group to look for an animal, a woman throws back her head and I realize that it is her, heaving. She runs into her hut to pray, and I am told by Lucky that they are drumming for her, to carry her to her trance, so the ancestors can bless our visit. The children are silent and watching, and the women in the line watch for her to come back out. No one is shy about the situation, no one wary or self-conscious, and I feel a scrape of envy.

The woman stumbles out, stomping her ankles with shells, singing, hooting and fidgeting in a circle. She does this until she falls down on her hands and knees and starts to talk faster than before. And this is when the ancestor of the mountain is in her and he speaks through her and I am fascinated. I want to go over and hold her face so I can watch her eyes and see if she is genuine, like how badly I want her to be. I want to stay here, where this sense of being lost inside a dance or a trance is natural and normal and feels right. And I wonder if she put her hands on my feet and I felt the heat from them if my muscles would heal.

I keep watching the streetlight and how it casts her body harsh and how unnatural it is in this world, this practice that comes before Christianity that comes before industrialization. Her trance is validated for me by the idea that she is not doing this for God, but for the spirit in the mountains, for something older, and so I believe it. At home, on every corner dirtied with coal soot, is a streetlight, a bar and a church.

+

I am in elementary school, maybe sixth grade. I rush up the basement steps to the cramped living room. My father’s friend, Al, watches his wife as she pontificates about her “amazing experiences” to my parents, lumped together on the couch in the half-double.

“Lisa you should come to the church, bring Mike and the kids,” she nearly shouts, leaning in close to my mother, who imperceptibly shifts backwards.

Stacey. She says she speaks in tongues every week; that the spirit is so strong, the people are amazing and the pastor is wonderful. I don’t remember my parent’s reactions, so I don’t know what this means. We leave, and my parents talk in low tone and upturned lips.

I have heard of the Pentecostal snake-handling churches, the Holy Ghost people lapsing into glossolalia, men and women, overtaken, holding poisonous snakes, snapping and shaking. Mark 16: 17-18 tells them God has given them this power: “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” I do not believe this because, coincidentally, I do not believe in a God, but something earlier, and so this feels less real.

+

We are in Matiyani. Our host family is taking us to church with them, a three hour service. I can’t imagine three hours of silence, monotone singing and a sermon that puts people to sleep. Dallas and I take turns carrying D, Winnie’s daughter. Gift is Winnie’s sister, and they are both Mama’s daughters. There are so many girls in this house that we can’t keep them straight. Gift is the favorite, and she sings in church, so we are going with her. The rest of the family stays.

The church is not as extravagant as my mother’s church with the beamed cathedral ceilings and tiered altar. This church is filled with plastic chairs, open doors, and lilac cloth that doesn’t reach the entire way around the bright airy room. There are no cushion-covered pews or organ pipes that stretch to the ceiling. This is not a church built to be impressive so much as functional, and for this, it feels more real.

They sing so many songs, and Gift is at the front, screaming into the overbearing microphones, most people sing along. Sometime in the service there is an upbeat song, and people start gathering in a loose circle at the front. They start dancing. We join in, and my face is red from laughing and I’m holding hands with people I don’t know, spinning faster, and I don’t feel this comfortable at home. At the same time I am wary of this. I feel like I am missing something crucial when I go home to church with my mother. Maybe I’m missing what came before a concept of God that I was so raised to believe in.

+

St. John’s has a Valentine’s Day Dinner Dance every year, transforming Fellowship Hall in the basement into a soft glowing dance floor where the After Hours Big Band comes to play. I am sixteen. The kids from school don’t dance. They hug the walls when someone tries to drag them out. “It’s swing music,” I say, “It’s fun.”

A few elderly couples get up to sway when they play “My Funny Valentine” but otherwise they sit with rigid backs and straight teeth, tapping their feet in time. I want to run around and slide all over the floor, but no one else is and so I feel constricted. I grab my brother and drag him out onto the floor and move his arms around, forcing him to dance. He grimaces and runs away, and I’m left awkwardly in the middle of the floor. People are watching and I can feel the outer edges of my body and know that I am very here and very present and I cannot get lost in this “Moondance” because everyone is also so very much here and aware.

+

At the church in Matiyani the praying throws me. People stand, and the keyboard goes, and I think this will be a silent couple minutes and they will talk to God inside. But people start speaking, pacing back and forth, their faces all screwed up and lined. Gift hasn’t left the front, and she is swaying. And her mouth is open with her white teeth and her lips are going fast. The man from the circle with the yellow pants is pacing at the front, gesturing at the ground over and over. There are people on stage, facing the walls, shaking their heads. Everyone is crying and conversing with God, absorbed. The younger ones pace, the elders sit, but their faces are just as concentrated, just as lost in their prayers. They are not here anymore, and I’m annoyed that my mind is so present, and I am embarrassed by my American sense of self that I cannot let go.

I am jealous because I don’t have this confidence, this unabashed passion. I don’t have the opportunities to lose myself like this. And this sounds backwards, me coming from the West, thinking I am lacking in any form of opportunity. Still, I am jealous of the way these people interact with each other, how they understand something I don’t seem to get. I don’t know what it is that I’m not comprehending. How can I be jealous when every person we meet says they want to come to America? It is the great dream. I accept this passion towards, this near possession of, the spirit in this church as more genuine than the one at home. I don’t believe in a God anymore here than I do in America, but the sense that there is a realness about belief here cannot be denied. No one is pretending to sing.

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At home, in my mother’s church, the UCC, I don’t sing, but I stand with my hymnal open and move my mouth. Sometimes I say “watermelon” or “peas and carrots” like they taught us to do in elementary school if we forgot the words. I wonder how many other people are whisper singing and going through the motions. At home, Pastor Bob speaks of swallowing a bottle of Vicodin and how the cleaning lady of the motel found him. The elders in the church whisper, how inappropriate. How real. They shun him, talk about him after the service and at meetings. He shouldn’t bring up something like that when addressing the congregation about getting closer to God. Bob is more honest and open than John, and for this baring of himself, the people of the church do not like him. What would they say if I got up to speak, looking at me like they do, like my mother does when she tells me I can’t wear those clothes to church, these people that won’t dance when there is music.

There is too much small talk. Oh how is school / I haven’t seen you in so long / You’ve gotten so grown-up / How are you? Fine of course, of course.

+

One of Gift’s sisters looks at me in Matiyani outside the church. “What do you want?” She is direct and serious.

I balk, startled. “I don’t want anything.” I say, gesturing around like that’s supposed to mean something.

“What do you want?” She steps closer, watching me.

“Um, to get to know you.” I squint in the sun.
She pauses, considering, then her face changes, opens. “Oh. Okay. Thank-you.” She turns and walks purposefully into the church, like she actually wants to be there, and I am left to follow her.

 

 

Read an interview with Abriel here.

The Mountains

by Christine Guaragno

 

Lucky tells us all anthills lean north. “If you are ever lost in Kruger National Park, follow the open mouth of the anthill towards the land of Baobab trees.” The trees are thick-trunked, like a child drew them with her hand curled fast around the crayon. We are driving through Kruger National Park in South Africa, and Lucky, a twenty-something man from a local village, bobs his head, giving us a tour from the safety of our van. “Animals are better than us,” he explains.  “They can smell fear.” His nostrils widen as if showing that he too could smell it. Lucky smiles, turns toward the open window, directs our gaze toward the mountains.

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We came to Africa with the intention of learning a new culture, two weeks of total immersion. Since the plane lifted off several days ago, we, a ragtag group of college students, a professor and his husband, have traveled together like kindergarteners on our first field trip. Our hands holding onto a proverbial rope, afraid it would fray and we’d be lost forever in the African wilderness.

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The mountains are women. Their arms wrap around villages and shelter children from the open sun. They sing through the mornings, their tabletop head flattened and wrapped in cloth or cloud. Even when men fall, mountains preserve.

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Chauke Riuoningo Light sits cross-legged against the curved wall of the rondavel hut. We talk as she rakes her fingers through my hair, grasping at the fine wisps, trying to braid them to look like hers. We giggle, listening to the tinny sound of Justin Bieber coming from a dusty cell phone. The phone belongs to Tebogo, the young woman who owns the hut, and she dances around under the faint glow of the overhead bulb. Like with friends from home, the conversation drifts towards boys, and Light begs to see a picture of my boyfriend. I power up my phone and flip to a picture—unimpressed, Light leans back.

“Is it true that when girls start to menstruate they must have sex with their fathers?” she asks. “We have been told that in America this happens.”

“No!” I say. “That’s untrue.” I cringe. Light looks undisturbed by the shift in tone. She grins, “I have a boyfriend, but we don’t have sex. Although I can do abortions if you need one. There is a clinic, but it cost too much.”

She shrugs again and leans forward, placing her hand on my arm. “I think that white men are better than black. Black men drink and are lazy, but white men are…” She smacks her lips and raises her arms toward the roof of thatch and gestures, “…wonderful.”

I want to grab her shoulders and shake. I am afraid of what could happen to Light. I imagine her curled and shaking. Washing herself over and over in the small Rubbermaid tub, the inch of water doing little to get the smell of man off her. I try to explain that not all white men are wonderful, that there are good black men out there, but Light is too starry-eyed with possibility. The following day she offers her cell phone number to the male students on the trip.

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According to the guidebook, South Africa is the country with the statistically highest number of rapes. Before I left home, my boyfriend expressed his fear. He hugged me, his eyes sopped with worry and anxiety for my trip. I did not falter, but at night, I practiced kicking and punching and pushing the fear from my head.

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The children in Lucky’s village are named after English nouns. This is untrue, but they translate their names for us because we are tourists. I share an orange with little girls named Beauty, Faith, Intelligence. I asked them to use the toilet, and they brought me to the mud and dung house with no door and giggled watching me hike up my skirt to pee.

The women stand around the cooking fire and gossip. They tsk at the children for grabbing at my skirt, but I don’t mind. They teach me a game called Fire in the Mountain, where the main objective is to find a partner to “save you,” and anyone without a partner dies in the mountain fire. But the girls are fair, so no one is left without a partner.

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The spirit of this place howls through the openness. It settles in the mountains and blesses everything so matter-of-factly. Even the children have old souls.

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From the bus window we watch a man beating his wife with a belt. Like water under a well-skipped rock, the shock ripples around us. The road is paved with our silence.

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N’Come is the first village we visit. We are kilometers from the closest town with electricity, and at night the Milky Way swirls above us as we take our first late-night trek to the outhouse. We have split into small groups, three to four students per family. DuDu, our house mama, lives on a plot of land with her mother, grandmother, daughter and a few other relatives. She is heavyset but light on her feet, and in the candlelight of the guest-hut she ruffles her skirt while clapping along to our earnest cover of “The Cotton-Eyed Joe.”

Later an elder of the community explains, “These people are different [referring to the Zulu villagers]. They sing when they go to war, they sing when they celebrate.” The Zulu people dance, lifting one leg high in the air then sending the foot down, raising dust. The children are so flexible that their ankles rap against their collarbones.

That week we travel by bus toward the Indian Ocean. The forest of trees on the highway to St. Lucia is planted in dizzying straight rows. Each tree stands tall, with smooth bark and trimmed lower branches. There is nothing natural about this. From the bus window, I peer through the rows looking for a wayward tree, crooked, gnarled, but I find nothing. In town, we watch two boys dance, their feet clapping against the ground. The hands of other tourists reply.

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Tebogo’s English pronouns need work. At first when she talks to us, she refers to her daughter as he or him. Tebogo, Cynthia, her sister, and Trust, her daughter, live alone on a plot of land with three huts. They no longer have a father, and the girls earn income through a government welfare project and taking in travelers. Tebogo can’t be older than twenty-five, but she runs the household, cooking, sweeping the cow dung floor, laundry, cooking. When I ask where the outhouse is, she walks me past the chickens, the garden, and the clothesline to a well-constructed brick outhouse with a real toilet seat and door. This is a luxury I have seen few villagers own. Tebogo smacks a stick against the outhouse door before I step inside and grins, “Beware of the snake!”

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“The Zulu word for cow is ingomos,” DuDu explains, pulling a picture from a worn notebook and placing them close to the candlelight. The photograph shows DuDu in an expensive traditional-style yellow dress. Beside her is the man she will soon be married to.

“For a man to marry you, he must give your family cows.” She clicks her tongue and smiles. She shows her teeth, tilting her chin forward. This is the smile of a woman in love. After DuDu turns over to sleep, the students whisper about lovers, and I long for the moment when I will smile like her.

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Outside of Johannesburg, the one square mile Alexandria Township contains two hostels, large brick buildings that form a square with a campus of grass and dirt in the middle. The men’s hostel, originally a miner’s hostel, is full of broken things. Our professor Glen Retief, a native South African, looks up in disbelief as we enter into the men’s hostel. He gazes up, his eyes scaling the building, the broken windows, bent metal bars, the graffiti. I trip over a flattened rat and breathe in a lungful of dust. This is not the South Africa of the brochure.

“Oh, gosh…” Glen says, “I can’t believe I am coming in here.” Uninformed, someone prompts Glen to explain his reaction. He explains that supporters of the ANC party were attacked with machetes in this hostel, and as an ANC supporter, he could have been killed here during Apartheid.

We look around the campus. There are bashed up cars, a herd of billy goats, men smoking and eating, it is not hard to detect an uneasiness in our faces.

The women’s hostel smells of antiseptic and urine, and we first arrive during a brownout, so the windowless hallways are unlit. A woman explains that brownouts are common in Alex because “people tap into the lines to steal electricity which causes fires too.” Fires are common in the shantytown. The women’s hostel is a better living situation, although not by much. There are droves of children running in the grassy center of campus, and the old women gather around in groups of two or three hanging laundry on railings.

The kitchen of the hostel is a large open room with a few tables, several metal utility sinks, and rows of gas burners that stay constantly lit. Two women sit side-by-side unraveling sweaters into balls of yarn, their hands thick from arthritis. Only one pair of needles sits between the two of them.

There is not much work and little resources in Alexandria Township, so the women sit and bide time until a cleaning job comes by. Several women came in the ‘70s looking for work and, never finding any, had to stay because there was no money to go home and no home to go back too. This hostel is full of women displaced in their own country.

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But the women are like woven roof thatch. Community makes them strong.

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Lucky tells us about a South African brood parasite, a category of bird that lays eggs in another bird’s nest. He says the original bird’s eggs are often pushed out of the nest to make room for the new brood. I wonder if the fallen eggs ever survive, if they grow stronger wrapped in the grassy undergrowth. I think of the hostel women, pushed out of their villages to find work, pushed into unemployment by the city. Women who have lost their children and homes but still have the faith to move forward. I think of Light, the little girls of Lucky’s village, Tebogo and Trust. How they thrive in the dusty African sun, dancers whose arms rise toward the sky. Beads and cotton wrapping their bosoms, the cloud of dust they pull up from splayed feet. Their voices gather strength and billow tall.

 

Previously published in Essay Magazine