Cultural Immersion

Today was a pleasant catharsis of tragedy and jubilation.  The best way I could describe it was cultural immersion, not just into South African culture, but African culture as a whole.  After today, I really feel like I’m not just a tourist or an American, nor do I feel like a South African.  It would be foolish of me to think I was, but more so I just feel like a human being enjoying the company of others.  African culture stresses communal society, fraternity and openness and after today’s events, I felt all three.

Our first stop today was to the Soweto township. Soweto gets its name from the first two letters of South WEst TOwnship of Johannesburg.  It was one of the many townships created to house the mineworkers as the came during the later 1800s to work on the landmines.  An ominous product of the pre-apartheid era, the African townships were purposefully placed far from the main city, and placed people so that it would keep them apart.  The settlers that came here located them in such a way that the spatial differences would make it more difficult for the workers to coordinate activities against the state. 

Anyway, we got to see the “good, the bad and the ugly” of Soweto, as our great tour guide, Lutendo, told us.  We first started taking a bus tour around the outskirts of the large town.  It looked like a large slum as one might see in most developing countries or cities, yet most of the houses were made of adequate material and actually resembled houses.  This was the good part of Soweto–the business centers as well.  We stopped in Freedom Square, the exact spot where, in 1955, the African National Congress convened to create the Freedom Charter, the blueprint for the ideal African government which wouldn’t be placed into effect until 1994 when the ANC took power.  We stood in the spot where South Africa, as we know it today, was born.  It was a truly remarkable experience, and so far I haven’t met anyone who isn’t the least bit proud to be African or even a South African.  I think a lot of times even in America or elsewhere we take our citizenship for granted and don’t really realize just exactly where we come from, our values and the historical precedents that make us who we are. I know I’m one of them, but I still prefer the European lifestyle.  Maybe the African as well, but I will have to have more time to be able to decide just how much I will fall in love with it.

From there we went to the slums of Soweto.  Maybe that’s the wrong word, but it reminded me of my days in Haiti.  There we just drove by the shantytowns, the shacks and the deplorable living conditions.  Here, we walked through them.  Most people walked past us, some of the children waved and were happy to see us.  It’s funny: in Haiti I felt like I was in Africa. In Africa I feel like I’m in Haiti.  Sometimes I almost anticipate hearing French Creole conversations, but here it’s just the Zulu that I don’t yet understand.  We ended our walk at a local school supported by the community and gracious business donors.  It was here that I began to realize the true beauty of African culture and African tribal culture.

There was a band of students who would perform a long performance for us.  It began as a choir, singing in a most beautiful language, and even the musical aspects were just awe inspiring from the first note.  Then came the beating of the djembes and the songs picked up. You could truly feel the energy and the passion coming from them.  It was infectious.   They all began dancing, clapping and singing and you couldn’t help but follow along.  They even invited us to join, and I think at that point, most of us transcended from being American tourists to being South Africans, if only for a few minutes.  The talent that came from these students, who were about 16-19 years old was just incredible.  I think choosing any other word less than beautiful would be a grave injustice to this art.  After, we stayed to chat with them, play with the children who took pictures with our cameras.  And we bought some things from them, handmade art, to help support their school.  I bought a bracelet that won’t be coming off anytime soon.

After lunch, we went to see Nelson Mandela’s former residence, and that of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  Fun fact: the both live on the same street, and it’s the only street in the world that has two Nobel Peace Prize recipients on the same streets.  We walked in the same footsteps, literally, as these two peace fighters.  Just another day in the life of South Africa, you know.

The last visit was to the Hector Pieterson museum, the museum of the Soweto uprising of June 16, 1976.  It was a student-led uprising after the government said that education in the schools would be in Afrikaans, not the traditional African language as before.  The fact that students, of all people, led a violent resistance to the government, and that the government in turn violently suppressed these insurrections was the most incredible part of trying to wrap your head around the whole event.  In the same places we’d been driving, standing and walking, 30 years ago children and their parents were rioting against injustice.  I kept trying to picture it all around me as if I were there, and part of me couldn’t imagine it, and another part was just completely lost in it all.  Military killing children, of all people.  This was the beginning of the end of the apartheid government.  This was the beginning of the violence that would continue until the late 80s. 

Our last stop was a typical tourist destination.  We stopped inside this large shop where we all bought our souvenirs, our reminders of Africa.  I’m not a big spender, but when I told myself “you’re only in Africa once,” I decided to buy the djembe that I kept eyeing, price be damned.  I’m thankful for an early end to the day where I can type out my thoughts here, watch some cricket on TV, relax before I most likely do some school work.  It never ends, but as long as I’m in Africa, I can manage.

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