Pictured above: Zwelibanzi High School students with WSU Motion Pictures
major Megan Hague, 2010 recipient of a CoLA Study Abroad Scholarship.
On the way to Zwelibanzi High School, I sat in my usual seat in the back of the taxi, gazing out of the window and studying the unfamiliar world surrounding me. Blurs of brilliant color rushed by and blended into the next like a never ending rainbow streaming throughout the whole city of Durban. Young children in uniforms walked to school carrying their books in their little hands. A man using a burlap sack as a blanket lay on the ground, sound asleep, while the busy streets overflowed with honking cars and busses. On the corner of the sidewalk, a young woman with a tired face sold bright yellow bananas. She sat with her legs crossed and her head resting on her hands as she blankly stared at the passing traffic. At times, I held my video camera up to the window in an attempt to capture the visuals of this new and fascinating place. Yet the gaze of strangers intimidated me and, worrying that I might offend someone, I instinctively shoved my camera down into my lap.
This little rectangular window in the back of the taxi became my temporary set of eyes, my new way of seeing things, my new “lens” through which I learned to observe the world. I became accustomed to obsessively staring out of this window as if it were some kind of screen projecting a strange film I had never seen before. I watched it with the eyes of a child, the eyes that see everything for the first time, the eyes that ask thirty-three questions a minute, the eyes so overwhelmed with curiosity that they cannot even take a moment to blink in the midst of so much of the unknown.
On this particular day, however, the day we were to meet the South African students for the first time, I was distracted from my usual observations. My mind began to float off into another place, a place where broken camera chargers, cold showers, sore throats, and caffeine withdrawals consumed my thoughts with stress and anxiety. Unable to contact my friends and family due to an unreliable internet connection, I developed a severe homesickness that I had never felt before and unfortunately, in that moment, it seemed that nothing in this brand new world was capable of comforting me.
Once we arrived at Zwelibanzi, I quietly stepped off of the bus onto the dusty ground beneath me and followed my crew, walking past the aged brick walls and broken window panes. I squinted in the presence of the early morning sunlight, making note of its strength and expansiveness. Everything is different here, I thought. Even the sun is different.
We made our way into the courtyard at the heart of the school where hundreds of Zwelibanzi students lined the walls, all of them wearing navy blue sweaters and short cropped hair. They stood very still with serious faces as their principal welcomed us to South Africa. Looking around the courtyard, I noticed large stones spelling out the letters “USA” and “WSU” and “WE LOVE YOU.” They love me? I thought. But I feel as though I have done nothing.
Then suddenly, at the principal’s command, every student lining the walls of the courtyard began to sing. They didn’t just sing, but they sang loudly, proudly, and beautifully, their voices in perfect harmony and their claps in perfect rhythm. Swaying side to side, the students sang this song for us, a welcoming song, and although I could not understand the words, for it was sung in Zulu, I could not help but feel completely blessed to be where I was. It was as if their song released every negative thought from deep within the crevices of my mind. I had never seen or heard anything like it, and as I stood in awe of this magnificent gift, tears swelled in my eyes and my heart was filled with infinite joy.
The Zwelibanzi students were unlike any I had ever met, so happy to share their songs, dances and poetry with us, so excited and honored for us to visit their school. The first student to approach me was a young girl. She placed her hand upon my shoulder.
“Excuse me, Miss. Tell me… what is the weather like where you are from?” Her eyes filled with curiosity and wonder.
I proceeded to tell her that the summers are hot and the winters, unlike those in South Africa, are freezing in the States, and cold, white snow covers the ground. The young girl’s eyes opened wide as she gasped in astonishment.
When I needed to go to the bathroom, a female student named Tkozo volunteered to take me, holding my hand as we walked through the courtyard. I noticed the public bathroom just ahead of us, but for some reason Tkozo continued to walk passed it. She told me to wait for a moment, and I watched as she approached a teacher and asked her a question in Zulu. The teacher answered and pointed at a building ahead of us. Tkozo returned and continued to walk with me, leading me up a flight of stairs and into the principal’s office. I followed her down a hallway until we reached a one person bathroom.
“Here,” she said. “You may use the principal’s toilet.”
Later, unable to fight my own curiosity, I made my way into the girls’ public bathroom where the cement floor was wet with puddles. Inside each stall, there were toilets with no seats on them and no locks on the door. There was no toilet paper and no trash cans and no soap. And suddenly, I felt bad inside. Why am I so important, I asked myself, that I have permission to use the principal’s bathroom?
As the days went on, I built relationships with the students, mostly the girls since they seemed more interested and willing to share their lives with me. They wanted to talk about clothes, boys, parents, and music, the usual components of a conversation with teenage girls. While they explained the significance of the twenty-first birthday and how it marks the beginning of independence and adulthood in their culture, the girls asked me if I was allowed to go on dates, being only twenty years old.
“Sure,” I said. The girls smiled and perked up with excitement.
“And the boys ask you out on dates often?” one girl asked. “No, not often. Sometimes I’ll ask them,” I casually replied. Little did I know, however, that the social rules regarding gender roles in South Africa do not permit women to make the first move in the dating game. The girls gasped in disbelief at my response, but instead of debating, they proceeded to tell me how lucky I was that I had a driver’s license and a car of my own.
Over time, I began to notice that almost every day one of the girls would sit in the corner by herself, tears often streaming down her face. When I would ask the other girls what was wrong they explained that she was just “sick.” Why then, I thought, are the boys never sick. The word “sick” I came to realize, meant that the girls were suffering from menstrual cramps. And those who did not have any medicine to soothe the pain were unable to participate until the cramps went away. Luckily, the high school girls I worked with differed slightly from the girls I remember from my own high school in that they consider each other sisters and family, offering comfort to one another when it is needed.
One of the greatest distinctions that I observed between the young women I worked with in South Africa and the young women back in the States was the difference in self-esteem and confidence. Becoming accustomed to the constant anxiety of American women who feel that they are getting too fat, it was quite a treat to hear young South African women say things like, “I like my body just the way it is.” Perhaps this sense of self-acceptance comes from the fact that beauty standards differ in South Africa in that full-bodied, curvy women are considered more desirable. But their confidence did not only go skin deep, for the girls would consistently remind me of their talents and abilities. When they introduced themselves, they would say things like, “My name is Nontundo, but you may call me M.C. I’m gonna be a rapper when I grow up,” or “I am a poet. Would you like to hear my poems?”
Many students spoke of their dreams of coming to America where their talents would make them rich and famous. When I asked an aspiring actress, Noma, why she felt that she had to go to the States in order to become an actress, she explained: “There are just many more opportunities over there.” The association between America and ideas of wealth and glamour were evident throughout the city of Durban. One day as I searched for some spicy Indian food in one of the large and lavish malls, I travelled up and down the escalators, inspecting the passing displays in the fashion store windows. One particular display perplexed me in its showcasing of skeletally thin black mannequins wearing white dresses and sporting bleach blonde bobs. Elsewhere, billboards and advertisements were plastered with images of scantily clothed white women, though in reality, I encountered very few white people during the course of my trip.
One day, we spent the evening walking up and down the shoreline of Addington Beach, the place where I suddenly realized how very far away I truly was from home. Peering out across the Indian Ocean, I witnessed children dressed in tank tops and underwear wrestling with the waves and splashing one another. Beyond them I noticed sailboats resembling floating white triangles inching across the sea. I took off my tennis shoes and pushed my toes deep into the sand. It was cold and smooth, unlike any sand I had ever touched on the beaches of South Carolina or Florida back in the States. I stood there and tried to see past the horizon, hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever land existed on the other side. This is when I understood the extreme distance between myself and my home, for it was not South America that rested on the other side of the ocean, but Antarctica, a land which had always seemed virtually unreachable to me.
The beach was appropriately lined with five-star hotels, shopping malls, buffets, and casinos, all meant to attract foreigners in an attempt to transform Durban into a flourishing tourist destination. As the evening approached and the sky turned black, Addington Beach was illuminated with street lights and neon signs as the parking lots flooded with cars and well-dressed people making their way to fancy restaurants. Below the boardwalk there were magnificent sand sculptures of castles and animals the size of busses, each one shaped with great detail. Next to these sculptures were the artists, young black men, who stood and watched as tourists of all kinds walked up and down the boardwalk, throwing coins and admiring the work that these men had done.
I recall one man in particular who had laid a flag across the sand where tourists could throw their rand (South African currency) if they chose to do so. Small pictures of royal crowns and diamonds decorated the flag along with one picture of a tiny golden castle. The man directed the coin throwers to aim for the tiny castle as if it were a target.
“If it lands on the castle, you see, then you win all the money!” the artist shouted to a young woman as she pulled some money from her pocket. She threw her coin and missed.
“Oh, that’s okay,” he said. “Don’t you worry. You get three more tries!” A wide smile stretched across his face, and the audience above him laughed with excitement as the woman threw more coins.
Not far from Addington Beach was the new Moses Mabhida Stadium where thousands of soccer loving tourists from all over the world had gathered for the 2010 World Cup just one week before my arrival. No one could miss its modern architecture and its mammoth stature for it stretched far above the rest of the city, arching like a manmade mountain. We rode the cable car up to the top and looked down upon Durban from a bird’s-eye view. From up so high, everything resembled a painting. The sailboats far off in the distance appeared immobile. The ocean waves seemed almost frozen in time. The cars and people moved so slowly, to the point where they became static figures. Way up high on the top of this manmade mountain, time stopped moving and the realness of day to day life ceased to exist.
Seeing this romantic perspective of Durban, however, was like reading only half of a book, like exploring only one side of an uncharted island. This vantage point, I learned, only revealed a small portion of the city, but just a twenty minute bus ride would take us to see a very different side of Durban. Just a short walk from Zwelibanzi High School, there was J-Section, the informal settlement where several of the high school students lived.
In J-Section, hundreds of handmade shacks were stacked on the mountain side, one on top of another, all made of old metal, wood, and mud. I had to be careful not to slip when walking down the steep pathways made of dirt, but occasionally there were layers of tires buried into the ground forming makeshift staircases. The smell of feces and waste lingered in the air where walls of garbage consumed the earth. It became apparent to me that no garbage collectors came to this place.
A kind man named Muzi held my hand as he led me through J Section, pointing to homes with no walls and no beds where mothers and their children lived.
“These people,” he explained, “built these shacks all by themselves with no money and no help.”
Stretching from shack to shack were clothing lines draped with brightly colored sheets and fabrics. Many of the outside walls of the homes, though cracked and deteriorating, were painted in vivid shades of yellow and green. Perfectly ripened banana bunches hung from window frames and cats leaped from rooftop to rooftop in search of a bite to eat.
Some who noticed my video camera became excited and asked me to take their picture. When I pressed the record button, they stood and posed outside of their homes with serious faces. It was as if they were revealing a part of themselves to the camera, as if they were speaking with no words. As if to say: This is our home. We built it with our hands.
A family of seven, including four women and three young children, spoke to me in Zulu. My friend Muzi translated, explaining that they would like for me to come into their home. Not knowing what to expect, I cautiously followed the family into a house made of stone. The ceiling was very low so that we had to duck down while entering, and sunbeams gleamed through the uncovered, square windows. The family led me into their only bedroom where they sat and posed on a mattress that lay on the floor. They looked up at me with earnest expressions.
“The breadwinner of the family has just been killed,” Muzi told me.
Looking back at the family, I saw their faces. I recognized the loss in their eyes. And suddenly I understood why they brought me into their home. Later I was told that the breadwinner was murdered because he owed someone fifty rand, the equivalent of about seven U.S. dollars.
As I continued my journey through J Section, I saw children laughing and waving while singing “Sonni Bonnani!” Goats and chickens wondered freely among small toddlers who played with miscellaneous objects which they found on the ground. One woman washed clothing by hand in a small bucket full of water, and another woman held her baby close to her chest and asked me not to photograph her. A man wearing women’s tennis shoes shook my hand and smiled. A teenage girl, the youngest of six, invited me and the other students into her home about the size of a small bedroom where she offered us glasses of water.
This, I came to know, was the warmth and hospitality many South Africans have been taught to express in their daily lives. It is the type of welcoming that prevents any stranger from feeling like an outsider. It is the open arms that seem to instantly accept and love with no predetermined judgments. It is the acknowledgment that we are all indeed different and that our differences should be celebrated. But most importantly, it is the recognition of the fact that we are all human beings and we should treat each other as such. It is a South African tradition, a philosophy, a way of life. It is ubuntu.
Most of the dwellers of J-Section, in spite of the poverty, hunger, and homelessness that have plagued their informal settlement and others like it, were not skeptical of strange outsiders. Assuming that my white skin and video camera would give me away as a wealthy, ill-mannered tourist with little understanding of South Africa and its complex history of struggle and oppression, I found myself trying to blend in as much as possible. The people obviously noticed me nonetheless, yet I was not treated as a stranger but as a guest, and to my surprise, my American clothing and my sincere attempts at speaking Zulu were met with friendly smiles and laughter.
Looking back, my role in South Africa seemed to be primarily one of observation. Before I left, I had been told by many that studying abroad inevitably expands one’s way of thinking, unavoidably opens one’s eyes to a new way of seeing. What they did not tell me was that this new way of seeing would be permanent, for it replaces one’s old eyes with a new pair. My experience in South Africa was rich and complex, full of surprises and new awakenings, bursting with diversity and unexpected love. They taught me to ride the always rocking waves of life. They taught me to sing and dance devoid of inhibition. They taught me ubuntu. I witnessed tears of joy and tears of sorrow. I felt lost and vulnerable, but secure when surrounded by the benevolence of others. I saw the suffering and heartache of hundreds of blameless people. But just as the world changes with time, so may the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten.