Some final reflections on our Journey to South Africa written after returning.
I stared pensively into the prickly blackness of night and watched the stars dance brightly between the clouds. The sky in Pilanesberg Park was breathtaking, and we had stopped mid-safari to witness a South African sunset and take a break. I used this time to admire our vast nocturnal landscape and reflect on my personal experiences. The trip still seemed so surreal, and I had only begun to process the weight of every profound experience we had. If I had to choose three words to embody the personal inspirations that the trip incited within me, they would be empathy, urgency, and sonder.
When we walked through many townships such as Soweto, Langa, Khayelitsha and Tembisa, I noticed a cacophony of horn beeps, loud music, and emphatic greetings. Their culture was so different than ours, yet in these ghettos people seemed to be overwhelmingly happy. It appeared that even though these people were facing challenges such as famine, racism, and marginalization, the people were content and firmly communal. These are two things that a lot of people in the U.S. don’t seem to overwhelmingly possess because of things like depression and our general lack of community. If I were to take a stroll around town, I’m quite sure I wouldn’t be able to exchange loud greetings with any of the people I saw because it isn’t our way. It’s interesting to think about what things would be like if we were all more integrated with our community. Maybe that’s what we’re missing a little bit of Uxhumano.
During our visit with various high schools in the course of our time there, it was so intriguing to notice how many similarities we share and how easy it is to make powerful connections in just a few hours with people that live on the other side of the world. I learned so much from them during our talks. All of the songs and dances we shared broke down the cultural barrier and united us, and it was cool to see how much music meant to their culture because of their history with Apartheid. It was also interesting to hear many different perspectives on Apartheid from the interviews and from the younger generation that we spent time with. The wisdom that all of the people we interviewed shared with us was very potent and meaningful.
The intensity of our stares would have caused an awkward person to melt down. The way we were looking at the seemingly endless shrubbery would be comparable to a mother’s stare of “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” with the miniscule number of animals. The second day of safari was withering under comparison to the day before, except for the sunrise, which had been nice and gorgeous but today was something else entirely. The cloud cover was thicker but the sun, as always, found a way through. That resulted in brilliant moments of golden orange rays fighting for our warmth, which even brought pause to our guides.
On the first day we had seen most everything in the big five and beyond, but the second day was less eventful. It may have been that we were walking but even still the previous groups had been entertained. We began with the enticing find of two large male lion tracks just a few feet away from where we started. The luring continued with large male hyena tracks on the same path. In spite of the obvious fear of two major predators ahead we were excited to see something close and on foot. As we continued onward and upward we learned of the warthog dens that are almost naturally occurring land mines: if you walked in front of them they may run out and break your leg out of fear for their families. We trekked further up and into the valley, and we still did not see any of the imagined predators we were initially tracking. Throughout our tough group of ten, including our trusty armed guides, continued to scour the bush.
Our nearly biblical amount of effort finally showed itself when we were almost back to the truck. We were moving quietly along an old elephant path when the guide in front pointed out two white rhinos about fifty feet away. The pair was a mother and child, unlike the two brothers from the day before. The pair was happily munching on the shrubs and had not noticed us just yet. We sat in silence for a few minutes watching and snapping a few pictures until the guides had us move along. When we began moving again the mother picked up on our brave few and then faced that direction for the sake of protecting her child. She remained facing that direction with the ever-terrifying mother look even as we moved around toward their flank.
As we began to lose sight of them, they decided that they had had enough and ran away from us in an amazingly large and graceful springy gallop. We went back to the truck and headed to our beloved lodge for R&R. As potentially noted in previous posts, it is winter in South Africa and winter is cold. That simple and undeniable fact made the hours between our adventures filled with obligatory mundane cups of tea, coffee, or my personal favorite, hot chocolate. There were pools around, but they were designed for cooling off, something that would end in a lovely case of hypothermia if attempted now. Before too many cups disappeared it was time for our afternoon and sunset trip. My group set out with the goal of spotting our final of the big five, the leopard (which one group had already seen). The intensity was equal if not greater than the morning’s strength. We were now with our knowledgeable and sure-handed driver Johann, with whom we shared our goal and agreed. We went around the property pausing whenever we had a potential sighting. This resulted in lots of stops for the usual gazelles and antelope that had our group continuing our disappointed stare into the bush. We saw a couple of zebras and a herd of cape buffalo, but still we felt as though we were missing out. We did see a pair of male rhinos, whom I believe are the same from the first day, and they came equally close, but still we scoured and peered to spot the already spotted. As many jokes can be made about spotting spotted animals, our groups morale did not improve until we stopped for sunset and drinks. As we watched the sun go down in a similar manner to how it came up, the poncho dance was invented. It is an embarrassing combination of arm and leg waving while wearing the absolutely necessary safari ponchos because it is cold in the winter. With our spirits raised from a few rousting rounds of the dance we decided that we would absolutely see our final of the five tomorrow morning at the last possible opportunity. With our hearts set, we moved off to bed to dream of leopards and planes.
The safari in Pilanesberg was one of the most intriguing experiences of this trip. Not only was I surprised with the constant variety of animals, but there was so much that I got to learn from my guides throughout it. We started our first day with a pair of white rhinos standing on the side of the road. I was quite shocked that I was sitting in a windowless car, seven feet away from a two thousand pound animal just calmly standing there. After that I encountered an elephant rubbing its trunk on the hood of the truck, a pair of male lions eating a wildebeest, a lone ostrich wandering through a desolate savannah, and a squadron of hippos and crocodiles hanging out by a lake.
The “Big Five” classifies five animals in the African Savannah. The lion, the rhino, the buffalo, the elephant, and the leopard. Our guide told us that the two rarest animals in the park were the black rhino—some subspecies of which are extinct—and the leopard. I didn’t expect to see either. We drove through leopard territory quite a few times and were told to look outside for a female leopard. After a while, Nathan screamed, “There!” and pointed towards a hill covered in shrubs and rocks. It took everyone about twenty seconds before spotting a female leopard lying on the side of the hill. The guide was in awe and started to take pictures himself. Before declaring that we had seen, “The Big Five”, he mentioned that this was one of the rarest occurrences in the park of Pilanesberg. This got me really excited to be having such a rare and lucky experience in the safari. As soon as I returned to the lodge, I bragged to every person who didn’t see a leopard.
The black rhino was the animal I had been studying in biology all year. They were officially confirmed extinct earlier in 2015, but Pilanesberg still has a few left in their park. It saddens me that I didn’t get to see one on this trip before there were none left. However, I’m grateful that the park is still protecting them. I am also glad that there are still quite a few white rhinos left. Thanks to Lisa and my safari guides, I have never cared so much about trying to protect a species of animals as I do for the black rhinos. I think it is great for anyone to have an experience like this. Not only is it fun and engaging, but it can really change the way you think about nature and the rest of the world. I still have one more safari before I return home, and I hope to see as much as I can.
UPDATE: I’m writing this last paragraph roughly twelve hours after the last ones. This morning we were given the option to wake up 6:00 AM to go on one last safari. I decided to go on it knowing that I would probably never get another chance to go on one. A fair amount of people in the class decided not to go. They chose wrong. We started the ride off by seeing some giraffes, some white rhinos, and an elephant, but about 30 minutes into the drive, Clio spotted a galloping rhino on the side of the hill. We all turned our heads expecting a white rhino. Donnie, our guide, calmly said, “That’s a black rhino”. We all were in shock as we drove 40 mph chasing the “extinct” black rhino on the side of the hill. It was surreal to see a creature I was told I would never see. Eventually the black rhino stopped and so did the car. We all watched it stand there until it decided it didn’t like us. I pulled out my binoculars and watched it watch us. It snorted very angrily and proceeded to break a tree in half with its massive feet. The entire car was like a herd of deer in headlights. It sprinted towards us infuriated. Donnie turned the truck on and sped out of there. The rhino made a right turn and disappeared into the wilderness. It was one of the most bone-chilling experiences of my life, but at the same time the most beautiful. I only dreamed about seeing a black rhino, and I was more than happy to be charged by one.
The last leg of the trip is finally upon us, and although for some of it I was awaiting these final days, the safari experience is making me wish it could last a little longer. Our first morning at Black Rhino Lodge has gone swimmingly, to say the least. When I heard we were to be at breakfast call at 6 AM, my hopes spiraled downward, for the thought of the dark and bitter cold was an uninviting idea.
After a night of tossing and turning, despite the comfort of my bed and the cozy cabin, I was met with a surprisingly warm breeze as I stepped out the door. Still shivering, a mix of excitement and cold, eight of our group loaded into a jeep. The guide immediately handed us insulated ponchos, which were a saving grace. My mind kept going back to the Indiana Jones ride in Disneyland as we set off along the rocky path towards the open savannah. Right away, my breath was stolen with the beauty of the sunrise; vivid reds and oranges lit the sky in beautiful bursts of light.
As the sun began to peak over the mountain range, the vehicle slowed to a stop. The others around me began exclaiming in awe, and as my eyes adjusted I could see what the fuss was about; just a few yards away were not one, but two white rhinos grazing gracefully among the grasses. One stood on the side of the road, its skin glowing against the dark landscape as this massive beast chomped up the grasses greedily. I was shocked to be so close to something I had only ever seen in books and films at school, I kept having to remind myself that this was real and there really was a powerful animal just feet away from our open jeep. Further on down the road, we encountered many impalas, wildebeests, some rodents hidden among the rocks, and were even greeted by an elephant mother and her baby. I was utterly in awe as the mother elephant, totally unafraid, walked straight up to our jeep and stuck out her trunk, as if saluting us on our journey. Giraffes lined the road, in groups of two or three, their massive bodies towering compared to our jeep. Each animal we saw gave another wave of excitement throughout the group, each one of us craning to get the best view.
One of the best parts was seeing two female lions stalk a group of impala, hunting for the rest of the pride. Even more enticing were the two male lions we saw later on, feasting on some wildebeest-like-creature. Jackals, little fox-like animals, danced around the feasting lions, waiting to scavenge the leftovers. It’s amazing to me that so much has already happened in a four-hour jeep ride around the park, seeing everything from hippos to crocodiles to brightly colored birds. This trip has been surreal, but this morning’s safari experience truly blew my mind.
Did I leave home fourteen or fifteen days ago? Is it Thursday or Friday? Did I change my socks? I don’t have the slightest clue. As our jeep hurdles through the African landscape everything escapes my mind but the present. Swaths of grass cradle gazelle, camouflage lions, ripple like the gossamer surface of the sea, whisper stories, and dance wildly at the touch of wind. I forget the coldness gnawing at my bones. I embrace the spirit of an open-minded traveler, letting the bumpy road give me a massage with its crooked fingers. The sunrise confounds my worded thoughts. I become a stream of images inseparable from the thing itself.
We slow down abruptly when our driver Johann spots two rhinos near the side of the road. The rhinos have eyes the size of marbles and bloated lips, which give them the appearance of two old men telling inaudible tales to one another. As they turn their telescopic ears towards us, Johann tells us that rhinos face extinction because of the illicit market for their horn. There is a demand for the horn because of the fallacious belief that it will cure all ailments. The buyers will pay so much for the horn that desperate people resort to murder. The immediacy of the injustice causes anger to permeate every muscle of my body. It reminds me of the morally outrageous juxtaposition between the townships and the wealthy South African communities, between penury and my own community. I think back to our first interview with Thulani, an ex-prisoner of Robben Island. He told us of his own torture and the murder of his father. He told us that because of Truth and Reconciliation, the men who committed these crimes are free today. He was overcome with emotion when he said this, as if the injustice was too much for words. Yet I didn’t sense any hatred in his voice. Looking at the rhinos, I realize what I failed to understand in our first interview: I, you, and all of us do not have the room in our hearts for the emptiness of hate.
The soil of South Africa, of the whole world is fecund for change, for the growth of compassion. I feel the potential all around me. It is in the laugh of Desmond Tutu, in the smiling, playing, and dying youth of Botshabelo, and on the savannah, it intoxicates me with a child’s imagination. We need only to sow the seeds.
When we stepped off the bus in Tembisa, a township outside Johannesburg, we were greeted by an outgoing welcome committee. In fact, the term outgoing would put their enthusiasm to shame. “Welcome to Tembisa!” exclaimed three girls in an upbeat unison. We proceeded to exchange names, hugs, and laughter in the open space by the stairs. As we began to make our way towards the music room, a girl with big eyes and an even bigger smile grabbed my hand and introduced herself to me. “My name is Thulisile,” she started, and after recognizing my difficulty in pronouncing her name, she continued, “But you should just call me Thuli.” She was very warm and considerate, always pulling me along in the right direction and making sure to introduce me to her friends so that I would feel comfortable.
We socialized with the students of the Tswepa Performing Arts Program and loud conversation echoed off the white walls of the music room at the Moses Taiwa Molelekwa Performing Arts Center. We were introduced to Thulani, the choir master for the Ts
wepa Performing Arts Center. His hair was tightly dreaded and his face seemed to be eternally lit up with joy. We jumped into things right away—we did not have a lot of time to prepare. As we warmed up, Thulani led us in a variation of a musical scale. When the other students responded, we Mount Madonna students were astonished by the sheer power of their voices. Thulani had us chew an imaginary piece of bubble gum. “Chew with your entire face” he exclaimed enthusiastically. “Now chew with your arms and legs!” he shouted. Soon we were moving our entire bodies in excitement. He had a way of motivating people to be invested and a little bit wild. We separated ourselves into our vocal groups—sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses—to learn their arrangements of the various songs. As we began to feel confident we started to move. I felt the rhythm and copied the dance moves of whoever looked good. I soon became more and more comfortable dancing along to the music that we were creating.
After rehearsing, we visited the Ikusasa Comprehensive school and separated into small discussion groups to get to know each other. Somehow I ended up in a group with about eight outgoing female high school graduates. We went around the circle and told the group what it is that we want to do in our lives. One of the women wanted to work with empowering young girls in the townships, another lady wanted to help improve education among adults and to eliminate the stigma around illiteracy. Other women wanted to be social workers and nurses. It has been a common theme to see that the aspirations of so many South Africans revolve around the idea of helping others. The short time that I spent with these women was inspiring.
We made our way back to the Performing Arts Center as it would soon be time to perform. Thuli and I investigated the differences in our lives and came to the conclusion that what we had in common is much more important. Our willingness to connect with and care for others, our love for performing arts, and our humanity were among the things that we shared. We watched the short dramatic acts, poems, and traditional dances performed by the Moses Taiwa Molelekwa students. Soon we were called onto the stage. Our first song was a version of “Stand By Me.” The band began to play and the basses established the beat. Then Thulani cued in the sopranos. A high-pitched Zulu chant filled the room. The altos and tenors joined in with loud legato “Aahs” that added a sense of power to the chorus. There is nothing in the world that is like connecting with people through music. As we sang our parts and stomped our feet we were simultaneously tuning into each other’s sense of joy.
The song “Stand By Me” means a lot to me on a personal level because we sang it during our fifth grade graduation, which was my last day with Sri Gyan as a teacher. Sri was a very influential mentor for me in my youth and shaped a lot of who I am today. He unfortunately passed away several years ago. I found it so special to pay tribute to Sri in this way. In my heart I knew that he was showering love upon us from above. After concluding our set of songs Thulani told me, “I have a new name for you; it is Thandiwe. It means ‘loved one.’” After spending a single day with these people in this place I felt so much unexpected love and acceptance. After singing, dancing, and engaging with my new friends today, I reaffirmed my belief in the African concept of Ubuntu—I am who I am because you are who you are.
One of the most precious gifts I have received on this trip is the traditional Kalahari dance performed by the students of the Tswepa Performing Arts Program at the Moses Taiwa Molelekwa Performing Arts Center. This was my first taste of traditional African performance. It transforms the dancers. Fifteen minutes before they were trussed up in stuffy school uniforms; now they wore short pieces of hide and were otherwise bare with rippling stomach muscles.
The dance itself is a set of call and responses. One dancer shouted to set a tempo and the others followed suit. At times there was a lone dancer; at others the girls were calling on the boys or vice versa. What follows is a set of stomps, kicks, claps and various shaking limbs that at times hurt just to watch. This is a dance that could never be described by any set of polite French terms.
Peter Harris’ nonfiction books, Birth and In A Different Time explore two different struggles in South Africa: a country that is undergoing corrupted elections and a group of convicts sentenced to death. Luckily, I had the chance to read one of these explorations, In A Different Time, the story of the Delmas Four trial. I spent the last few months reading this book alongside my assigned book circle, which included Elise, Saniya, and Miles. I was enraptured with how he told the story and the structure of the book. Every other chapter switched between the present day with the trial, the life experiences of each of the Delmas Four, and the mysterious section titled “The Bomb.” Ever since I finished reading the book, I immediately wanted to meet the man behind these inspiring words and stories.
I exited the bus, filled with excitement and joy, and walked with my fellow classmates up the under-construction parking garage until we entered the modern and almost-futuristic office building, which was also under-construction. Climbing up the floating stone and glass stairway that winded up along the inside of the building, we finally made it to our destination. In the conference room where the interview would take place, I navigated my way through the maze of chairs, and found my seat, four spots away from Peter Harris’ chair. I sat down in the chair that overlooked the skyline of Johannesburg and prepared myself as the moment arrived. As the anticipation rose, we all stood up and Peter entered the room. The questions began flowing and answers were spat right back out again. This time was different though. Unlike the other interviewee’s responses, which were long and tangential, Peter’s answers were clear and to the point. He said what needed to be said and was 100% genuine. As the questions progressed, the topic of failure was put to the table. He began saying that failure is a part of everything, and it’s just the way you end up dealing with it and how you move on from your mistakes. You just need the conviction that you’ll succeed. It was awesome to hear this from a man who is quite modest and doesn’t like acknowledging his achievements. It was also interesting to hear why he chose to defend the Delmas Four. He simply stated that it was the right thing to do.
The interview came to a close, and low and behold, we ended up singing our hit single, Shosholoza. We exchanged our thank yous and decided to take a group photo with Peter Harris outside the office on the stairs. After the photo was taken, we all shook hands with Peter Harris, which left me with a feeling of disbelief. After he left, I ran over to Elise and we both exclaimed, “We just shook hands with Peter Harris!” We fan-girled all the way back down the stairs. As we boarded the bus, I felt a feeling of dissatisfaction with the final interview, but as the day went on and after I really had time to sit on what I just experienced. I realized that, in my opinion, this was one of the best interviews of the trip. I had the chance to meet someone who inspired me with his writing, and I got a glimpse into his real and genuine side. I have no doubts that this experience will remain with me for the rest of the trip and summer.
Instantly, my heart jumped and my face brightened as I watched Peter Harris walk through the glass doorway. It was as if I was meeting the star from my favorite film. However he is not a movie star; Peter Harris is the author of the novel In a Different Time. Mr. Harris walked behind my chair and sat in his designated seat. I remembered the small rectangular picture of him on the back of his book. It was as if that portrait had come to life and was now sitting right before my eyes. His collared shirt and pullover sweater suited his unruffled personality. While he carried an aura of celebrity, his composure was somewhat serene and modest, as if he himself was entirely unaware of this aura.
His answers to our questions were terse and to the point but each one had a significant value. I was especially struck by his answer to the question, “ Do you have any concerns about today’s young people forgetting the importance and significance of the struggle against Apartheid?” This question has been a common theme in previous interviews, but Mr. Harris gave us a different interpretation. He explained to us that it is important for the young children in South Africa to learn about the battle against Apartheid, but it is also important to move on from the tragic past. For instance, his advice to our generation was to “fulfill our dreams” and “do something of significance” in our community. This inspired me to serve my city, school, and family. Given my privileges I feel obligated to share this with others.
Another question we asked was, “What qualities help people advance in their careers?” Once again he had a concise response. He immediately stated, “moral integrity.” I found this particularly interesting given that he carries similar traits. His moral reliability as a lawyer was continuously demonstrated during his work in the Delmas Four trial. Peter Harris possesses the qualities of an ideal leader and others should attempt to follow them. Personally I hope to obtain these qualities as I progress into adulthood because it’s important to carry this trait into the world, mainly because the world needs more ethical leaders.
Botshabelo Community and Village, Part 2. For more info, Click Here
I don’t know why I’m not crying right now.
We just left Botshabelo for the second time. The donation bags hadn’t arrived in time for our Sunday visit, so we returned today. We unpacked and sorted the clothes and medical supplies of the twenty or so fifty pound bags in a room about fifteen feet square. Each of us took one child at a time to pick out clothes. That meant there were usually about forty people in that one room, all digging through the once neat stacks of shirts and shoes, calling out and climbing over one another. It was chaos. I gained a deeper level of respect for Marion and Con Cloete after experiencing firsthand the difficulty of managing over two hundred kids. Unlike us, leaving exhausted after three hours, they live there.
When it came time to leave, I realized I had barely connected with anyone because I was so stressed about finding the right size of pants for boys who were happy just to get pants. I had no one to say teary goodbyes to, so I hugged kids I’d never met and left dry-eyed. Maybe my lack of tears is because I know I’ll be back someday or maybe because I know they are in a happy, loving home. Maybe I just haven’t realized I’ve left yet and soon I’ll fall apart.
We returned to Botshabelo today. Various shipping errors delayed the bags full of supplies, so they were not available during our first visit. Additionally it gave us a good excuse to see the kids again. Alas, we pulled into the driveway and saw once again the place we so loved. The green and yellow sun-parched grass contrasted with the black, fire-scorched ground. Controlled burns seemed to be the preferred way of clearing fields in Joburg. We parked neatly on a small expanse of grass and the kids who had been eagerly awaiting our return started accumulating. We wasted no time hauling our duffel bags (full of medical supplies such as a defibrillator, various vitamins, and clothes) into a small convenient wooden house where we separated the clothes and prepared them for the kids. After they were all segmented into the appropriate sections by gender and size, we each took a kid in and dressed them in a top, pants, jacket, shoes, and a hat. If they were the right size, we labeled the clothes according to each child’s designated number to ease the process of doing laundry for over two hundred children. After we had each dressed several kids, we moved on to the more independent teens and adults. The leftover baby clothes were given to the village mothers in the township’s houses sprinkled around Botshabelo.
The kid that had taken a liking to me on our first trip to Botshabelo was definitely an interesting little dude. After a little pestering, he disclosed his name to me: “Moo” he said jokingly with a playful twinkle. He insisted fervently that it was his real name, but that might have been short for something or a nickname. He was eight and incredibly wise for his age. He was very observant and would constantly lead me around noticing things before me. He obviously lived very much in the moment and was not one to daydream and wander. He was one of minimal words, and that could have been because his English wasn’t superb, or it could have been because he was careful to choose the most accurate ones. His sense of humor was also pretty dynamic and I enjoyed slaving around relentlessly, bolstering him with constant shoulder rides. One time I gave another kid a ride and immediately learned that I should not be unfaithful to him. Lesson learned. I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with him, and when we said goodbye for the second and final time, he let me hug him, a tremendous and precarious feat that no other person had accomplished. We said goodbye reluctantly and entered the bus mournfully.