Tag Archives: Johannesburg

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.

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.