THIS is Africa
Above: Dr. Flanagan and 11th-grader, Puseletso, who wants to be a mining engineer and is interested in attending Howard, at the Mae Jemison Science Reading Room in Soweto.
Below: Me at a cool cafe in Melville, Johannesburg after taking photos at Sun City Prison
It’s my third week in South Africa and I can say that I’ve finally seen Africa. It took me a while to see past the nice restaurants and Pentagon City-sized malls and impressive homes and the Afrikaners. I shared my initial experiences with my grandmother and she was surprised I wasn’t telling her about the wild animals that she expected to be surrounding me, or all of the starving little kids with swollen bellies and flies swarming around them like they show on TV in the States. I didn’t see that side of Africa yet. But what I’ve been experiencing is somewhere in between the posh and poor extremes.
I have had the opportunity to travel to two townships – Mamelodi outside of Pretoria and Soweto outside of Johannesburg. At each township are American Corners, or spaces that the U.S. Mission to South Africa has partnered with the community to provide a learning space for youth and adults alike. In Mamelodi, the Mae Jemison Reading Room offers a safe space for high school kids who live in the township to visit and learn about computer skills, to read, to learn how to use a Kindle, to listen to speakers, and prepare them to enter the world after graduation. When I went, we listened to a Trinidadian-American author, Dr. Brenda Flanagan, speak about why science is cool. My co-workers and I joined the kids in our awe over how fascinating it was to hear her talk about Madam C.J. Walker and George Washington Carver and Ben Carson, among others. She asked the high schoolers what they want to be when they grow up and I did the same after the event. And these kids who have grown up in shacks, or homes that resemble shacks compared to where I live, have aspirations to attend colleges in the United States – including (the real) HU – and to become mining engineers and doctors and lawyers. I wasn’t impressed with their aspirations, because they are bright kids and can do whatever they set their mind to. I was more touched by the fact that they weren’t going to let their present circumstances prevent them from having a better future. It was so inspiring. I plan to return and talk about applying and going to an HBCU. These kids are going places.
I also traveled to Johannesburg for work twice – once to attend a play and another to visit a prison. At Sun City Prison outside of Joburg, we watched two American artists lead a workshop as part of a month-long program with female inmates before their grand performance this Saturday. I went to see the program’s progress and to take pictures to share with everyone back at the office. And I gotta say, these stories were powerful and sad and infuriating and inspiring all at once. In sharing their personal stories, I heard directly from women who represent a large population of African women who get caught doing drastic things to survive in an economy where there aren’t always legal means of making money. One woman brought us all to tears as she explained how she was forced to swallow drugs and transport them from Brazil to South Africa. She was tortured into doing this and held captive for days without food or water before she agreed to go through with it. And at the gate at OR Tambo Airport in Joburg were officers who brought her to the place where I met her that day. She has at least 10 years left in jail, but has such high hopes for her future when she gets out that I couldn’t help but to feel inspired by her story of survival.
In addition to meeting South Africans who look like me – and who I look more like with my new braids, which cost less than half of what I pay in the States (smh) – I went to a church and night club and salsa night at a lounge and felt more at home than I have ever felt since arriving 20 days ago. There were young black Nigerians, Congolese, Cameroonians, Zimbabweans, and South Africans at every turn having fun and enjoying life just the way I do in D.C. Granted we would dance to different music – the thing here is this soul-house music that’s quickly growing on me – and talk about life and share our feelings about post-apartheid politics in this society where domestic workers arrive in town at 6am from their homes with no running water to mansions with 10-feet walls and 8-line electric fencing on top. It wasn’t even until I was at a bookstore in this 4-story mall that I learned that South Africans affectionately call Nelson Mandela “Madiba”. It’s a fascinating place with interesting people who come from different backgrounds but who are just like me. Finally, I’m seeing Africa.