Beautiful Moments

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These last two days have been soul-resounding experiences. We spent the first several days engaging with spaces, information, and stories of the past that are still echoing today. Yesterday and today, however, we spent engaging with people.

Monday, we went to the University of Johannesburg to dialogue with UJ students and NYU students on the topic of kindness. We heard a keynote address from Dr. Adekeye Adebajo on Pan-African thought and the role of South Africa on the African continent. He drew parallels between South Africa and the United States histories and our self-conception of national exceptionalism.

NYU students put on a Stone Soup-inspired skit on the role of kindness in helping us realize and meet the need of others that we may see only as different than us, blind to the similarities. Two UJ students gave very articulate presentations, posing questions about what kindness means. Finally, our Rutgers group facilitated small group discussions on kindness. Each group was assigned to talk about what kindness means and how we can increase kindness in our relationships at specific levels–international, national, community, and interpersonal.

These events took place in the top level of the 6-story UJ library, a room with an incredible view of Johannesburg out one bank of windows and of the campus out the other. On our tour of the library, we learned that several months ago when they had to evacuated the library, 15,000 students were inside. As many as 80% of the 50,000 students commute and many of them use the library as long as it is open (from sometime very early until 10pm). There is one 24-hour study area and a computerized waiting system students must use to get a 45-minute turn to use one of the many computers. Rarely, apparently, are there any open seats at the library. The volume of students that pass through on a daily basis is overwhelming!

Today, we celebrated the Nelson Mandela Day of Service. Observing this annual national holiday involves committing to 67 minutes of service. We did that and more today at our service learning site, Nkosi’s Haven. Nkosi’s Haven is an NGO that serves as a home and community support system for impoverished mothers with HIV/AIDS and their children, as well as many children who orphaned due to that same disease.

The children we worked with today were about 7th grade-early 20s. We began our morning by administering a brief version of the True Colors Personality test and then breaking up into groups by students’ dominant personality color. I facilitated a discussion for the group of about a dozen students who had a tied score–indicating two dominant personality types (that’s me, too!).

First, we talked about what each color type indicated for personality traits. Then I asked them to brainstorm some careers that might be interesting to people of each personality type. The kids all said what they hoped to do for a career, and we talked about skills or education needed to achieve those goals. We followed with a brief discussion on internet safety, use of social media, and how to present yourself in a limited or professional way online. Ask yourself…would you want a perfect stranger to know this about you? What about a potential boss or someone who was going to interview you?

After identifying their unique gifts, talents, and dispositions as individuals, we played some icebreakers that reinforced our commonalities and our connectedness, as well as supporting one another in our goals. A high school aged girl gave us a tour of the little “village” that made up Nkosi’s Haven. Mothers have rooms with their children, while orphans live in group houses by sex and age. Those without parents each belong to a “college” of 12 children of various ages who are cared for by one caretaker. There are classrooms for learning English and Afrikaans, rooms for therapy, art and music rooms, a playground, and a main building with the kitchen, dining, living, and dance rooms (yes, I said dance room!).

Working with fellow graduate students from other institutions and with the children/young adults of Nkosi’s Haven was an incredible way to learn more about South Africa from those who live here. Tomorrow, we fly to Cape Town. Later this week, we will visit the Cape Town campus of Nkosi’s Haven. I look forward to see how they are similar and how they differ.

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Sacred Ground

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Sunday was a day of sacredness.

In the true sense of the word “catholic” (universal), I attended Catholic Mass at the local church. Youth were raising money for the next World Youth Day. The parish was running a capital campaign to build a new sanctuary. The announcements spoke of ministries, activities, and fellowship. The translation of the Mass was nearly–but not exactly–identical to the U.S. English translation of the Mass. It felt very familiar, and yet, the full church sang and responded in slightly different accents. Songs ranged from traditional European, lyrics in Latin, and contemporary praise music to songs in the local African languages. There are 11 official languages in South Africa and several other unofficial languages–the Gloria (Tlotlo e nne go Modimo) was in Sotho.

I love going to Mass in other countries. The sameness and the differences remind me so strikingly that we are all many diverse parts of one body. However, sometimes the most sacred spaces we encounter are outside of a church. They remind us of our inherent connectedness as human beings. The Apartheid Museum is precisely one of those spaces. A space dedicated not only to remembering, but also to teaching and witnessing. Museums, along with schools, play such a critical role in the collective memory of a nation and of social trauma. One hopes that such a memorial will not only honor those who died, but cause pause and reflection as future decisions are made and we work to build a future that is brighter than our past.

The entrance of the museum is a courtyard with a reflection pool and fountain. Similar to the traveling Titanic Exhibit from several years ago or the Holocaust Museum, with your admission ticket comes an identity. But instead of being identified as an individual, you are classified as a White (Blanke) or Black (non-Blanke) and enter the museum through separate entrances.

The museum exhibits cover the first peoples of Africa, Dutch colonization in the 1600s, the 19th century English-Boer South African War (between the British colonists and the Dutch), and the continuing legacy of legally enforced segregation and oppression based on race. Signs, photos, posters, and other artifacts testify to the story of Blacks who were denied citizenship and treated to a police state and its brutality. But artifacts also testify to the students, the children, and the revolutionaries who spoke truth to power–who often died, suffered, or faced imprisonment for defying the system.

One of the final exhibits showed three large video screens. The right screen played footage of a former government official describing the violence he perpetrated as an official in the Apartheid regime. On the left screen was an advocate posing questions. The center screen showed the face of the young girl who was murdered and the grave in which she was cruelly buried. The screens went black. The footage was then replaced by a man in a wheelchair testifying to the brutalities perpetrated against him on one side. Center footage showing a single candle burning in the dark and the far side again showing the advocate/lawyer, asking him for his testimony.

This was the Truth and Reconciliation room, an exhibit playing live footage from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings–a mechanism for bringing out the truth about the violence and abuse of the Apartheid movement that was once heralded by its perpetrators as a system that should be modeled around the world. This commission led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (who I met in high school at the University of Tulsa!) is controversial. Knowledge comes to light that many don’t want to face or deal with. Some of the worst perpetrators refuse to speak.

The point of the commission is to provide truth to the historical record, process the full-scale of the trauma, and move forward united, not to sentence the guilty. But, as is often a problem in the United States, the perpetrators want to know why the nation is still talking about 20 years ago. As if the current living situation of millions of South Africans isn’t a result of Apartheid policies, as if current access to education and to jobs in the economy have no root in past access to education or industry. As if the loss of children, sisters, brothers, and friends in the 1976 student uprising or the violence that reigned from 1990-1994 isn’t still hurting.

A phenomenal temporary exhibit featured the life and work of Nelson Mandela–timely for tomorrow’s Nelson Mandela Day of Service. We will be participating in this national holiday (and you can, too!). Some of the most impressive things to me about Mandela is his insistence on meeting government violence, control, and brutality with non-violent resistance and his ability to unite and lead after serving a 27-year prison sentence, including over a decade where he was often in isolation and nearly a decade of completely monitored house-arrest (at a warden’s cottage of a prison). I thought back to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in Soviet Russia who says some of his best thoughts and his first thoughts on what it means to be good came from his struggle in the Gulag. I can’t help but think that women and men like these must be superhuman.

Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address that these men living and dead who fought for the Union hallowed and consecrated the battlefield far above our power to do so in words after the fact. I think that the brave women, men, and children who risked themselves to end the oppression of Apartheid have done the same. What will we do to ensure our brothers and sisters across the world have access to education, freedom, and security?

I left the sacred space of the Apartheid Museum my head full of thoughts, feeling empty and completely overwhelmed all at the same time.

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Don’t Give Your Time, Give Your Heart

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Our first full day of activities and, boy, was it a powerful one! We spent the majority of the day at Teboho Trust. A Saturday program that provides students (called “learners” here)–many who are orphans being raised by an older sibling–with a meal and extra educational support. Our day was spent joining the learners in preparing for a spur of the moment talent show, where various age groups (preschool through high school) danced, sung, acted, and delivered orations for us. Incredible talent!

Our group watched or participated in their rehearsals. Our “talent” was as educators. During the talent show, we gave an impromptu presentation about careers and education, helped them brainstorm about future careers, and answer questions about education and jobs in the United States. One very little one (elementary school) asked if we had to pay school fees to attend school–which is a required part of public education in South Africa and a struggle for many of these children (even though fees are some times a low as R100/$7.67 at the current exchange rate). Several of them asked about scholarships, paying for education, and if our parents chose our majors/careers for us.

Fellow volunteers from the Community Engagement club at the University of Johannesburg helped facilitate and emcee the talent show and also asked great questions about American universities, how to keep learners engaged in the classroom, and how expensive universities are. We found that young people here and at home face common concerns about paying for education, being able to buy a house, and the economy. It was these college students that said one can give their time, but spend that time distracted–thinking about other things, wasting time on their phone, or otherwise not really present where they are. Better it is to give one’s heart–the gift of your present, your presence, and your being.

The learners and the university students were hard to leave–we barely made it to the Hector Pieterson Museum before it closed. An iconic photo made Hector Pieterson, an innocent boy killed in the 1976 Soweto uprising, the face of the protest. The 1976 photo by today’s standards “went viral” in the international press.

While our visit was brief, I will share one lasting thought from the tour. The mom of the boy carrying Hector and Hector’s family both asserted that their sons were not heroes. Hector’s family reiterated that Hector was not unique–he happened to be the face representing many innocent children who were victims of police violence in the uprising. The problems that led to Hector being killed were endemic for all black South African children in need of accessible education. The mother of the boy carrying Hector said that her son was merely fulfilling his duty to a fellow brother and that just stepping over him to run away would have been wrong.

Landed

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I arrived at the O.R Tambo International Airport at 8am local time, approximately 2am Eastern. The direct flight from JFK Airport in New York was almost 15 hours. I was fortunate to have a window seat (and be awake at 3am) so I could see the Southern Hemisphere stars as we flew over the ocean along the Western African coast. The sunrise was beautiful and the views flying over Namibia and Botswana before reaching South Africa, though cloudy, were worth the lack of sleep.

Never did I think I would be here. As a kid, you read about all these places. In my house, you could find them on a globe or a map, probably find pictures in a recent issue of National Geographic, and (if you were my older brother) have a pen pal from Africa. As you grow older, you read about them/watch them on the news. I was struck with awe as I followed our in-flight map tracking our flight and looking out the window. I was going to Africa. Heck, I was already flying over it. Months of preparation had not prepared me for the wonder, awe, and exhaustion that washed over me when we were in range.

I flew on the same flight as three other classmates, and it was helpful to have a few pairs of eyes as we made our way through an unfamiliar airport through customs, to currency exchange, and over to the public transit terminal. Today has been mostly lying low waiting for the rest of our classmates to arrive, but trying not to fall asleep to get adjusted to the time difference. We’re staying in the richest square mile in all of Africa apparently and had lunch at the second largest mall in the Southern Hemisphere (second to somewhere in Australia). The mall courtyard features the third largest statue of Nelson Mandela in the whole country. The mall had some stores as familiar as Forever 21 and others I’d never seen or heard of. We opted for a food court adventure–which aside from Krispy Kreme and Cinnabon was mostly unfamiliar restaurants. I am grateful for prevalence Indian cuisine (read: known gluten free dishes) in local South Africa fare!! I look forward to trying other local dishes as well.

Tomorrow, we head to an NGO called Teboho Trust. More about that tomorrow!

And Away We Go!

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She’s at it again, they’ll say! Will she ever settle down?

Yes, I am at it again. And no, other than the whole got married part, I doubt my incurable wanderlust will dissipate.

This summer, I will be heading to South Africa, as part of Rutgers University South Africa Initiative.

We will be meeting with universities, schools, community organizations, government officials, and change agents. How do schools and education more broadly lead to social change? In post-Apartheid Africa, I will learn more about how schools educate and communities transform through major social changes.

One of the things I am interested in is how social change, reconciliation, and forgiveness have and continue to shape a community marked by violence and racism. How have students help lead that change? What lessons or observations will I learn/make during my visit that will relate to some of the struggles we face in our own country?

We had our first of a handful of orientations last night where I met the other 8 or so participants–who are PhD students (like me), current teachers, masters students, or education and community leaders.

I hope you will join me in this journey by:

  • Reading the book Knowledge in the Blood: Confronting Race and the Apartheid Past by Jonathan D. Jansen and/or Social justice and transformative learning: Culture and identity in the United States & South Africa by Darren Clarke and Saundra Tomlinson-Clarke with me and sharing your insights
  • Following my blog
  • Suggesting other reading or giving me travel recommendations

Fair warning: True to my previous entries about my travels to India, Nepal, and Thailand, these posts (as demonstrated) will not be short entries. Sorry not sorry.

Why South Africa?

Listen to the Day of Affirmation speech Robert F. Kennedy gave at the University of Capetown during his 1966 trip–even just the first minute and 15 seconds is enlightening.

More to the Story

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Recently, there has been a lot of negativity in the press about India. I get comments like: “I can’t believe you went there.” and “I’m glad you’re not over there now.”

I feel compelled (and was asked) to share my own thoughts and reflections on my experiences in India and how they compare with the image of India that is being portrayed in the news. I am basing this response specifically on the CNN iReport that was widely circulated in the past few weeks, though I caveat this post with the following: I do not mean to trivialize anyone’s individual experiences there, nor do I claim to be an expert after only spending two plus months there. What I would like to do is add my voice and perspective to paint a more holistic view of what it’s like for the many Americans and foreigners who may not get(or choose to take) the opportunity to travel there.

I would first ask that you at least skim this piece and realize that this has become part of a caricature of the current state of affairs in India: http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1023053
(which I argue, while being an important part of the narrative, is not complete and therefore alone it stands as an unjust representation). Warning, the piece is a bit graphic. I will not be offended if you scan it.

Personally, I never experienced sexual harassment in the slightest which is why I feel compelled to respond. Though, I will be honest, two Italian girls were killed in the state I visited the week before I arrived. Many of the what we would call counties were closed to foreign visitors. While I wouldn’t take this lightly, I don’t find it remarkable either, having lived in Dallas, Washington, DC, and now outside of New York and Philadelphia. It’s not that it isn’t newsworthy, it’s just not unheard of (unfortunately).

Despite being in one of the poorest, most “backward” states (as classified by the government), I was working with a fairly “progressive” group of men–all college educated and interested in development, helping the impoverished, dedicating their professional lives to it. I would most closely associate my coworkers with 12 year old boys–even the married ones. I don’t mean that condescendingly, but in the way my brother’s and my relationship was when I was 16 and he was 12–it’s relating to a culture they are not fluent in and the norms for gender interaction are different–like speaking a different language.

So to that extent, some of my colleagues were awkward around me (as I’m sure I was around them), but always very kind. We developed a type brother-sister bond which I very much appreciated and made being far from home less difficult. When I left they called me “sister” (still sort of like a 12 year old brother would relate to his high school sister–sweet, endearing, a bit hard to relate to, though professionally treated me like an equal). I would say where I was it didn’t seem they don’t interact with many women professionally.

I also dressed as appropriate for my village (in a salwar kameez–the long shirts with leggings), followed customs for shoes, and didn’t venture far without a male escort (driver and translator were with me most the time). I don’t know how much of this was required, but it was appreciated. I didn’t go out after dark often. I stayed at my apartment in the evenings after work except to walk with a friend to the store or a nearby restaurant both within a 3 block or so radius of the apartment (and one rogue evening hanging out with some local college-aged women at the Pizza Hut).

I ventured to Catholic Mass most Sundays–about 40ish minutes away in an auto-rickashaw/tuk-tuk by myself–that was a little scary, but more for the arranged marriage proposals I received after Mass. (“Funny, I’ve had a difficult time arranging my son with an American Catholic woman. Can I have your father’s phone number?” Um, no. I’m still working on a more polite way of saying arranged marriage is just not my style in preparation for my next overseas adventure). [Side note: If Hillary Clinton is only worth two camels, I don’t want to know what they’d offer for me. I should clarify, this references a story that was in the paper all summer about a terrorist group putting ransom up for someone willing to kidnap Hillary when she was Secretary of State, NOT my colleagues wanting to marry her.]

I never felt particularly unsafe, except riding in a car in Delhi and that’s not because I am a woman–the sheer amount of traffic and chaos would frighten most American drivers. Did I stand out? Yes, my friend and I were the only white people in our part of the city. Everyone stared as we walked down the street–but out of curiosity. There is no feeling in the world that replaces this experience–being a physical minority and attracting attention just by your appearance–a very valuable life lesson.

If I’m honest, I did flirt with/was flirted with by some lovely gentlemen (mostly bartenders in Goa) in the more touristy/European areas, but nothing was threatening, and everyone was friendly. No major problems. One invited me to a party with his friends–which I SO would have gone to had my friend and I been traveling with a male companion, but we didn’t. We were cautious, even though it was probably fine. This to me is a reality of traveling in a country where you don’t speak the local language or even going out in the States by yourself or with only females.

I did have one colleague who always said things like (at the beach) that my friend and I should bring our boyfriends or husbands back so we could swim next time. He’d say that about most activities. As an independent, adventurous, and-yes-American woman, I thought, “Newsflash, we came halfway across the world by ourselves, we don’t really need our boyfriends hear to walk barefoot in the ocean.” But, of course, the truth is that is a part of his culture and no matter how you conceive of it or what similarities there are, there will always be some differences.

Also, I knew locals and India is a higher context society than ours. We don’t have a caste, so they have to know where to place us. My local contact was very well respected–so I felt that I was, too. Many Indians I encountered wanted to know what my parents did for a living, because their jobs have been traditionally divided by caste/social class.

It’s not that there were not difficult parts about it, but my most difficult parts were (keep in mind I was not in the most cosmopolitan of places, but rather in a more rural and less international area):
1) It’s just a different culture with different values. You have to learn/become “fluent” so to speak in the new culture. Body language, intonation, eye contact norms, etc.
2) The caste system made less and less sense the more they tried to explain it to me. It’s connected to their last same…so someone with a surname like O’Reilly or O’Connor is obviously of Irish decent and that you are Hispanic as a Garcia, Singh means warrior caste–it’s in your blood so to speak, who you are. Some people didn’t understand that I don’t have a caste. The divide between rich, middle class, and poor is incredible.
3) There’s a lot of materialism in the big cities like Delhi or Mumbai. I see materialism as the result of believing that faith causes conflict and that religion (all of it) is backwards.
While I also met a lot of very devout Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Muslims,Buddhists, and Baha’i followers, it doesn’t seem that most people they encounter from developed nations are religious (think about many Ambassadors, government officials, UN officials, aid workers, academics–in the U.S. many of them tend to be not religious–or not publicly religious).

I would keep in mind that I did not spend much time in major cities and that India is one of the most economically, physically, and culturally diverse places I’ve ever visited. More languages and races exist in this one nation than most other places in the world. More important than my individual experience is that there are many vast and varied experiences in India and not all of them are violent or chauvinistic or what we would consider immoral. The more we perpetuate this myth that these negative experiences are “what India is” the more fear we foster among our fellow human beings and the less open we are to working together to tackle common problems and share in friendship.

I know why the caged bird sings

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I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze
an the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

Maya Angelou

I have always loved poetry and these last several weeks I keep coming back to the above poem. I keep visualizing the free bird in contrast to the caged bird. I think between the racially charged news stories this week and the wonderful visual of wanderlust, this poem is just on the brain.

Wanderlust you ask? When I am on the move, experiencing the new and unfamiliar, I feel exhilaration. I can relate to thinking of another breeze and naming the sky my own.

But that leads me to wonder…what cages me in? What is there in my life that makes me or others feel that our wings are clipped, that our feet our tied–that keep us from reaching our potential? What cages do other people face that haven’t even occurred to me? What do we allow to hold us back? What cages others in that we allow by our silence?

Each time I travel, especially to somewhere foreign (not in distance so much as familiarity of culture), I learn something new. I learn to see from someone else’s perspective. And I learn more fully the types of cages that entrap others.

The universality of this poem is that we all have both feared and longed for things unknown. The oppression is very tangible in the poem–the bird wishes for freedom, but the narrow cage and bars of rage physically limit the bird’s potential, its ability to fly, to be free.

I was not an English major and I don’t have much experience analyzing poetry, but I love this poem. There is such a strong desire here, a spirit in the caged bird who wants so much to be free, even if it means facing the unknown. Angelou writes with such a clear voice, I can almost hear her reading this and feeling it, too. She without question knows why the caged bird sings–she has felt the bondage of the birdcage and she is intimately familiar with the bird’s cry. Like listening to a blues singer who has felt the pain of heartbreak, the reader is fully aware of Angelou’s fearful longing and can sympathize with her cry.

Poems, like music, have a way of bypassing your head, only to land on your heart. They have the unique ability to pose serious questions and critique society in a way that prose is often to direct for. (If I had a talent for writing in meter, maybe I would switch from prose to verse!)