the Dip

By Matt Dooley

Ancestral spirits dominate Zulu culture, taking something as morbid as death and finding a way to give it new life. The Zulus revere their dead as beings beyond life. In their culture, death is a stepping-stone, a door each living thing must pass through. However, the Zulus have days when one can have a direct conversation with their ancestors. This can occur, according to the religion, during any ceremony, such as a funeral. In this way, the ancestors can talk through others.

Now, there are religions out there that preach, death does not mean goodbye. However, those religions’ often mean that you can see them again once you also pass away. However, to actually communicate with dead loved ones, they push the idea of speaking with them in your prayers. Even if their words are true, it’s often a one-way conversation with a jar or a tombstone. When you’re little, you’re innocent to how life can crumble in an instant from the smallest discrepancy. To a child if someone is sick they will get better. There is medicine for that. Someone’s sick in bed one day and riding their bike down a hill the next. Death doesn’t mean much to a child. When I was little, I thought death was a funny skeleton man that couldn’t kill a hamster much less a person. I watched a lot of television.

Though, in a sense, death is the easiest form of conflict used to move the action in media. To that point, death may even be considered the most over-saturated conflict. Death never meant the end of something for the small chubby kid, watching TV. I had everything.

There was mom, with her office next to a giant window. There was dad, who got to press buttons on an elevator all day long, which had to be the coolest job ever. And there were two grandparents, who could still run faster than me. When a family member did pass away, they either lived in another country or I didn’t know them very well. I knew about death only from television. And in those instances, the character of death was usually played up for laughs. Death never came in person, keeping any sense of closure out of my reach.

When death took my great grandmother, I was around five years old. I wasn’t able to go to the funeral as lived in Puerto Rico and again I was around five. Instead, my grandparents had the wonderful idea to show, young me, her taped funeral, one night when I stayed over. I sat directly in front of their television set on the floor. On screen, her face was quiet amongst the loud speeches spoken in a language I couldn’t understand. I didn’t know what to feel at the time, bundling my emotions up, only crying when my parents came to pick me up. I held onto their legs, as soon as they walked through door, scared death would take them next. To be a witness to death’s aftermath, even from behind a screen, can warp a child’s perception on life. For a time, this made me want the humorous portrayal of death to overtake the reality, despite the despair and dysfunction death could bring.

Cattle herding is a dysfunctional operation in N’come village, especially if you add a couple of American students who have no idea what they are doing to the mix. Well, I didn’t. Nate, a fellow student, seemed to grasp the idea pretty early on. Sage decided to watch instead, participating for only a few minutes before leaving the job to the rest of the people there.

The villagers whistled to get the cattle’s attention, guiding them into a wooden corral. One after another, the cattle ran into the corral and down a makeshift alleyway built to contain the fiercest of bulls. Straddled against each other, the cattle groaned, trying to push out of their narrow confinement.

As an American college student, I would have never thought that I’d bear witness to a group of cattle undergoing simultaneous panic attacks. We had woken up early to help that morning, excited. Baba Mngani, the head of our host family in N’come village, had told us, the night before, we were to take the cattle to “the dip” to give them their medicine, but that was all he told us. Making me wonder what exactly was “the dip.” The more Baba Mngani and others spoke about it, the more I pictured the cattle walking through a grime pit filled with medicine. I was wrong to assume we’d even be able to coerce the cattle into any sort of pit. Getting the cattle into the village’s alleyway was hard enough.

The sun had risen earlier than I, causing me to lag behind the others as we chased the cattle into the corral. We were there to help the others get the cattle into the alley to administer the shots. These weren’t just any shots though. Those shots held the needles of my nightmares. The needle looked to be a hand’s length, reaching from the bottom of my palm to my index finger. Think for a moment about that being plunged into dense cow flesh. I learned later that the dip was neither a pit filled with grime nor the village’s homemade cattle container. Instead, the dip was a dark liquid that rested within the shot. And jabbing the needle into their flesh was the only way to keep the cattle well.

“It’s the worst drought in South African history.” Mandla looked up at the darkening sky. Being the village’s high school principal, Mandla’s words held weight to me. “Many cattle have died,” He told us, as we stood outside the rondavel, a stone hut with a thatched roof, where all of us American students had just finished feasting with villagers. To some, word of the drought and its effects may have been common knowledge. Though, as far as I remember, Mandla had been the first to speak of any drought, more so, the worst drought in South African history. Rain had not touched South African land in months, only caressing its shores, where the tourists and big spenders make their life.

Our group had spent days in N’come, and despite the smiles and “Yebos,” Mandla’s words lingered. You don’t tell someone, “Oh, yeah we’re only having the biggest drought in South African history. Livestock has died” and expect that person to ignore how serious the situation is. Each day in N’come, the people locked their situation away behind their smiles, guiding us up and down mountains, providing us warm water to bathe in. All with smiles. Keeping emotions hidden isn’t good for one’s self. The villagers worked together to fight the drought. They did not smile just for us. They smiled for each other and their children. A way to show everything would work out. The villagers didn’t give up going every Sunday to collect water, brought from the parts of South Africa that were unaffected. They found solace in their dances and in the words of their ancestors. They found a beauty in their familial connections, despite the disastrous situation: a feeling that by the time, I reached home, did not resonate with me as I thought it would when my mom and dad took me aside to tell me my grandpa’s cancer had spread, giving him little time left. Death had finally appeared and I could find no beauty in his ghastly form approaching my grandpa.

Now, when I see my grandpa sitting on his couch, with an aching back, I know death has moved passed the screen in my life. I smile for my grandpa, so he doesn’t notice my growing grief. Though, I don’t want to smile. I want to hold him and cry. I don’t want to smile when I hear the cancer is climbing his spine, spreading across his back.

I want to smile when a doctor says the chemo is working. I want to smile when the doctor says the cancer is mostly gone. Still, when these things don’t happen, I will persist with my smile, like the villagers in N’come. Though, I still cannot see the same beauty those in N’come see during such times. And I cannot embrace the idea that everything will be fine. All I can do is hold onto my grandpa and share whatever moments I have left with him.

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Finding the Wild

By Helen Savidge

I’ve heard that a sphere of human influence covers the earth, our touch a second skin on the land. I got cell phone service in rural South Africa, out on the veldt five hours away from Johannesburg, and felt it like a layer of dust. Our touring group of college students had passed clusters of shopping outlets and crude cinderblock shacks like empty tin cans on open leagues of brown alien hills, aloe plants like teal glass sculptures nestled under the bare ridges. Instead of buffalo, we saw zebras, and amongst the grazing cattle, ostriches.

Our destination was N’come village, a cluster of square huts and cement outhouses out on the high grey plains identical to all the others. The name is pronounced with a click in the throat where the ‘c stands in. Local families would take in our group of twenty for a few days for a cultural experience. Sidney, the smiley preacher, put three of us in his truck and drove us down the long dirt road that made the village. Family compounds lined each side, collections of stone huts and herds of livestock wandering freely between the fences, rows of dead winter corn. Inside each dead wood and barbed wire fence stood red rock enclosures for the animals like the ground itself had eroded away and left them there as piles of stones.

From the door of our homey cinderblock rectangle we could hear bleating goats, cawing roosters, lowing cows, and yelling children. On the wind, the livestock sounded like the cries of lost souls on the plains of asphodel, especially from the pitch black outhouse behind the compound in the dead of night.

I looked out from our host’s compound before the moon rose, and it looked like the empty, black, salt marshes of Savannah, Georgia; my home. The scattered instances of electricity across the valley looked like McMansions lighting up along the edges of marsh-bound islands at night, concrete shelters and million-dollar waterfront property made one in the dark, all part of a sparkly shell that covers much of the earth. In satellite images, it crusts brightly along the edges of continents, thinning into darkness where the richest of us do not like to live.

On the flight from DC to Johannesburg, I read Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, a memoir in which a native Georgian detailed the swift death of Georgian longleaf pine forests after settlers came from Scotland. Just by surviving, they completely destroyed the delicate and beautiful ecosystem within a couple short centuries. It vanished into the turpentine industry, into the farmed fields and local homes, the needs of the human sphere. For the first time since starting college two years before I got homesick for palmettos and marsh, as I was halfway across the Atlantic going in the opposite direction. Out the window, the coast of Africa was nothing but grey dirt and hollow buildings in the dawn, a shell of cement and asphalt wide enough to obscure the ground as far as I could see until clouds and bright sunlight covered it up.

In N’come, dying ecosystems stayed on my mind. During the final day I took a walk down towards the dry riverbed with a couple professors and students. The dry riverbeds ran down the hills right out of broken hollows in the grass, like water flowed down till its weight collapsed the earth into dusty veins through the valleys, eroding the rivers higher into the hills. The veldt depended on healthy grasses to hold the soil together. Like any good scientist’s daughter, I worried that the village’s grazing cattle could allow the hills to break down too fast for the community to sustain. At the subsistence level, it probably isn’t the same devastation that massive farms cause back home, transforming miles of the landscape into a biological desert, but more like those Georgian farms in the longleaf pine forests. Most people here don’t have electricity or running water, and many grassland species are now endangered.

After we left N’come, the view changed from rolling hills that looked like they should be spitting ghost towns and cowboys at one turn, and ruined castles and bagpipers at the next, to ugly, geometric tree farms. Young men drove small herds of longhorn cattle under the eaves beside the highway. Trees do not hold earth like grass does. At home, the islands on the ocean wear away steadily over thousands of years, a half-mile of grass-covered dunes between the waves and the forest, a natural barrier against hurricanes. When the dunes disappear into life-guard huts and the first line of defense is palm trees, oaks, and beach bungalows, a single hurricane can sweep the entire beach away.

But those trees are needed. Someone will buy them to make homes, or paper. There must be tree farms somewhere to meet that demand. To gift that land back to the grasses would deprive someone, somewhere, of shelter, maybe textbooks, so we must keep them there.

I expected Kruger National Park to be a wonderland in comparison, two million hectares, the size of a small country, fenced in and isolated, and it was. At dusk we entered and saw herds of little tan impala blending into the red dirt and bush. Kudu ate the higher bush leaves, deep grey-brown coats the same tone as the dry scrubs, curling horns lofted behind them. A line of four elephants marched in single file against the sunset while more grazed by the roadside. Buffalo roamed across the road. The land felt so stuffed with life I wondered if it had been stocked.

Did all of earth look like this before humans started to manipulate it? Do pieces of the ocean still look like this? Kruger would have been small villages and subsistence farming if the people who loved this land hadn’t been forcibly removed, and now it was contained in gated borders, patrolled by armed poacher-hunters, and carefully left alone to thrive and multiply while humans passed through slowly on mapped out roads to appreciate the fantasy world they’d created. The human presence cleared the land of its own footprint and ruled through the camps and roadways like a quilted bubble over the conservation land – a more direct, more preserving influence over the earth than any undeveloped park or untouchable wilderness. The absence of human presence is so unnatural that it is inherently another extension of control.

In the morning, we got up before sunrise and piled into open safari vans, covered in coats and blankets, and drove for forty minutes through an icy hell of frigid pre-sunrise air. As we disembarked, jumping up and down to get the frostbite out of our limbs, our two guides loaded their rifles, eyes wary on the pair of rhinoceroses grazing a hundred meters away. One stood in the middle of the road, head up and alert.

In the grey sunrise, a whole tribe of baboons ran past, babies clinging to the mother’s stomachs. “It’s unusual to see baboons or monkeys anywhere with big cats nearby,” Elliot, one of the guides, told us quietly. They send one baboon into the tallest tree in the area to look around and check if its safe. We must not have been a threat. A bush hare bounced away. Cat prints dotted the earth. Millipedes made their way across the ground.

We found a prickly pear. “This is invasive,” Elliot said, “If we find these in the bush we must report them so they can be taken out.” Further on, we found calcium rich hyena dung. “Nothing is wasted in the bush,” Elliot said. Hyenas ate the bones of the dead, and tortoises ate the recycled calcium to make their own shells strong. Cyclical and perfect.

In Florida, people release pet snakes into the wild when they get to big. These invasive snakes have no natural predators. They grow huge, some big enough to eat alligators, and multiply in the wetlands. They’ve opened an annual hunting season for the snakes, but it has barely made a dent. In the Appalachian Mountains, species of salamanders and songbird disappear year after year, and until they’re well gone, no one notices. On my own coast we take pride in how well-preserved the wildlife is, how isolated and protected the islands are, but 85% of the oyster reefs have disappeared in the last century, a keystone species, and we have no idea how much it has affected the water. As much as I love the wildlife, I rarely see it, no matter how much time I spend in the woods at the edge of the marsh. And where are the native people that once lived there? As controlled as it is, Kruger is missing one of it’s key species: humans. The landscape thrives. Are we invasive even in South Africa, the birthplace of our species?

Our group went out in our own bus one sunrise to search for big cats, and we found them, four lions lazing around in the bush slightly off the road, windows and a heater between us and the morning air this time. From the front, our professor’s father talked about the constant battle to keep the rhinos alive, a militarized campaign against poachers. It would be nice if just giving them a space and leaving them was enough, but it isn’t. We must go out and protect them in the space we have cleared for their lives.

Sigagule Village, our second homestay village after N’come, had the landscape of Kruger outside its bubble, different from N’come, bigger and less isolated, surrounded on all sides by bush. They had electricity, but no leopards besides the tall-tales people chose to tell about them. A local named Lucky took us on a tour of the wilderness just below the village, carrying an iPad through the brush, a swarm of children clinging to our hands and overpowering his explanation on the uses of various bushes.

I wanted to find someone who knew the flora here as well as I know mine back in Georgia, who could answer all my questions about the plants I had seen, maybe tell me about the native snakes, but he knew no scientific names. We heard nothing about invasive or indigenous, except that people used to plant gardens down in the ravine past the dam, including his own family.

“My grandmother and grandfather lived there,” he said, pointing towards the next line of low hills. “They moved into the town when it got bigger, but the homestead is still there. Grandmother taught me about the plants.” He told us that weeping wattle could be used as toilet paper, and the rain tree was terrible to camp under. The sickle bush could be used to cure wounds. “Come,” he kept saying, “I must show you something terrible.”

A deep rut cut across the end of the long dam over the reservoir, obviously a path for rushing water during the rainy season when the terrible drought threatening their drinking water hadn’t sunken the water level far down the bank. The rut opened into an unnatural canyon, the earth cut away in sharp tears, deep, narrow channels straight down to the granite under the dirt. “This isn’t supposed to be here, is it?” I asked. The land he held dear was damaged, the ecosystem in danger. “Do people care?”

Lucky shook his head. “People do not think like that around here.” He said he was trying to get people to see things as he did, to care that cattle could fall into the ravine and die, or children. Did he care about the effect that the trenches would have on local fish species? Why would he need to, unless it affected fishing? The villagers could not afford to preserve what they needed to use in order to survive. He knew how to fix it too, how to stack up logs so grass can take root quickly and hold the soil without being washed away, but it would be expensive and difficult, and they just don’t have the resources.

“Do you know what’s causing it?” I tested. He didn’t. It is so clearly the dam. The water, supposed to flow easily through rock beds or sink into the earth, rushes heavily past the dam and down over a land incapable of sustaining swift water. Dams are ecological nightmares wherever they occur, and even a small one like this is death to the ecosystem. The Susquehanna River near my college, an enormously old river, older even than the hills around it, formed when the continent of Gondwana slammed into the Euramerican continent. The river has some small dams. Already, rare species of clams and invertebrates that depend on fish migration have all but disappeared.

I didn’t tell Lucky about his dam problem. I’m a young white girl from America who isn’t even a science major. In two days I would leave. That was his home. What would he do, dig it up on his own with his bare hands? How would the community respond? Would they put together the resources and support to hire people to remove the dam and drain their lake when they’re worried about having enough water to last through the drought?

Lucky cared more about the bare earth than the other people in the village because he cared about how his grandmother used these plants in the same way he does now. But I doubt he has been taught much about healthy ecosystems, what I understood as synonymous with ecosystems outside human influence. To care about oysters, leopards, or rare plants is a privilege afforded to people that know their land as property only, not as food, toilet paper, shelter, and community. If I went out into the swamps of Georgia, I would probably die. Lucky would last out in the bush a long time. The bush is his family history. He lives with its dirt under his nails.
Somewhere along the line between poverty and wealth, humans take themselves completely off the real surface of the planet and recede into the sphere of human influence, asphalt and tended grass under their feet, treated air around their heads, the world’s natural flora and fauna scrubbed from their hands. And it is these humans who see nature as what the earth would be without people on it, as if we’re not irreversibly a part of it, slowly ripping it out by the roots. Many people live much closer to the ground. To Lucky, the land is his home, his culture. This too is a need. Taking the land away, giving it to nature, “saving” it, would be cruel. If only there were resources to coexist, funds to break down that dam and still give the community water, an incentive not to throw garbage in the bush, an understanding of exactly where they stand on the ground they inhabit in the same way we understand ours.

We hiked Blyde River Canyon, the third largest canyon in the world, a yawning gulf of red rock and scrubby bush hidden in huge, blocky mountains. Markets curved along the turns on the highways as we drove there, waterfalls and cliffs as the backdrop. The canyon itself sat airy and silent. The most wildlife we saw was a swarm of flies off a high cliff, a shock of emptiness after Kruger and Sigagule.

The human sphere lingered here in the park buildings, thin roads to the highest heights, and sandy paths snaking up and down the ridges, titled with the names of animals that we never saw, leopard trail, quail trail, blazes on the rocks, an emptiness caused by the usual ecological devastation. But this was the emptiness I had wanted to find, a thinning of influence, more so even than Kruger, human-less and utterly wild. After veldt, bush, even the hyper-restored game reserve, that was what I’d been looking for. It felt familiar, like the state park on the island back home, an isolated block of nature that people seldom bother to visit, and even fewer bother to understand. It felt dirty.

Even without the tangible human sphere, from a thousand meters up the slopes, we could see the thick white line at the river’s edge where the water level had dropped. Clearly the protection and isolation hadn’t helped it escape the drought. The thirsty landscape baked in the sun, people back in the village worried for drinking water, and at the top of the canyon, giant sprinklers watered the visitor center’s grass. I heard no birds, saw no lions or lizards. Maybe with more focus on stocking the animals and keeping them healthy, more removal of invasive species, more devastated communities and dislocated families, and more force from the human sphere, it could have been like Kruger.

If you ask me about my trip to south africa

By Helen Savidge

So there we were, a full-sized tour bus driving backwards down a service road across the savanna with a rhino charging us.

Natalie will hate me for telling this one. I woke up on the first night in N’come Village to the sound of loud splashing. For a minute, I had no idea what was going on, and then I heard Natalie whisper, “Hey Terry, I just peed on everything.” She’d missed the chamber pot. In the morning, my coat was soaked, and so were the curtains, sheets, and the bag of food. That was my last sweater. I had thrown up on the other one on the plane ride over.

The hyena on the other side of the bush camp’s electric fence is another good story, or the parade of elephants crossing in front of the safari van’s headlights and away into the moonless bush.

We found a hillside zoo on the edge of a glassy lake between sharp hills, a dislocated Tuscany. They had a common raccoon and a pit full of guinea pigs nearly as big as the pit with bears. Somehow, they make a better story than the black mambas stretching on and on across their tree branch, twice as long as you’d ever expect, and the pacing tigers, the pen of Aldabra tortoises like boulders in the sun along the sail-boat lakeside.

Alexandria Township was miles of red dirt and cramped shacks, a slaughtered goat spread out on the grass between roofless miners’ barracks, a broken pipe in the crowded street gushing like a geyser. Dead trees stood out of the corrugated metal honeycomb, clean-swept doorsteps half broken off, canyons of trash. There were flowers though, concrete pillars curving upwards to colorful mosaic balls. Some had snapped off in the middle, stems broken, wilting into brick rubble and hair extension flyers. People never ask about that.

“How was it? South Africa, I mean.” When I don’t want to talk, I say “It was good!” When I do, I say “Intense.” And then if they want clarification, I tell them about being groped and dragged away from the group by a fat man in a striped shirt, the same one who proposed to Natalie that morning, how he followed us all back through the village. They say “Ack,” sympathetically, and then ask if I saw lions.

Though I don’t like to talk about being sick on the plane over, I tell people about how half the tour group passed a bug around the small bunkers without windows they cooped us up in at a camp in Pretoria. I woke up to the sound of Terry throwing up into her towel, Clara saying “you first,” and ushering her into the bathroom, and the smell slowly seeping through the stale cabin air. We lay shivering in our bunks, because Clara had been fine a few hours ago. Who’s next?

I tell people I got swindled while bartering for souvenirs. I don’t tell people how much.

I don’t usually talk about the three-hour trek down the Blyde River Canyon, a landscape so huge that the sky seemed shallow. The short trees opened up to ancient rock walls, grass slopes too steep for deep roots, a bowl of too much air to breath. Sunlight lit the ridges, but darkness like a summer storm filled the river crack where the trees grew dense and green. We missed the path, took a harder way up, and scaled the rocky walls, hands steadying each other across slimy logs and stepping-stone creeks, straight up the cliffs. I came back with bruised palms and dirty nails, my shirt soaked with sweat, clean lungs, and wide eyes.

One night in N’come, Natalie woke me up to take her to the outhouse since we didn’t want a repeat of the chamber pot disaster. The full moon shone cold and quiet directly overhead, turning the huts, grass, and sky all beautiful shades of glowing gray, so bright that the crushed-diamond shimmer of the Milky Way had all but disappeared into the silvery sky. Inside the hut, the wind sounded like waves breaking right over the dunes. Outside, it carried the sound of livestock and roosters like souls in the underworld. Too much air to breathe. I have only told one person about that. It never sounds like it matters.

Pushing Boundaries

By Kes Baker

I have never had a child want to hold my hand so badly. Our group walked through the countryside outside of Sigacula village, and the children of the village had accompanied us. The countryside was full of plants, ranging from grass that ticked our feet and ankles to tall trees that did nothing to block the bright sunshine. The kids were all around the ages of six to thirteen and most were barefoot. Their clothes were brightly colored and their eyes were curious.

Almost every child wanted to hold the hand of an American. We were new in their village, in their lives. Holding hands was a way to ease their wonder and almost stake a claim on which American student would be their friend. Back home, my cousins hardly want to hold my hand, and that’s just for me to make sure I don’t lose them. Here, the kids were eager to hold our hands, scrambling for our attention. I enjoyed the attention and wanting to hold hands with someone new. I enjoyed this feeling of being wanted.

After a while of constant hand-holding and sweaty palms, I had had enough. I needed my space back. I had reached my limit of human contact and attention for the time being. I wanted my hands back. I also did not appreciate getting an “Indian burn.” The little boy who had been holding my hand for most of our walk was wearing a blue shirt and would look up at me periodically. Sometimes he would smile and glance away, other times he would stare. Before her gave me the “Indian burn,” he smiled. I wasn’t sure where the kid had picked it up. Maybe it was meant to be funny. I remembered watching kids do that to each other when I was younger, and I remember hating the feeling. I still hated the feeling.

When I had the opportunity, I dropped the little boy’s hand and crossed my arms across my chest. My hope was that the children would understand that this meant “I’m done holding hands now.” Apparently they did not. The little boy with the striped blue shirt and sweet smile tried to grab my hand that was crossed over my body. I immediately pulled away. “No, I am not holding hands.” He did not seem upset or angry with me. Instead, he walked ahead to the next American student and tried to hold their hand. The boy was not offended by my harsh words. He did not cry like my young cousins would when I yelled back home. It could have been because he didn’t fully understand what I was saying, but it could also be because he knew there were other free American hands in need of a smaller black one intertwining with their fingers. Whatever the reason, the child moved on from me and I discovered that sweaty palms and constant contact with someone is not something easily handled for long periods of time. Especially when accompanied by hot sunshine and prickly plants poking at my bare legs.

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.