This August I avoided the rush of back to school shopping, sweltering heat, and the start of classes and replaced it instead with…a journey to South Africa? After my incredibly riveting (ish) research on microbicide clinical trial ethics was selected by SACRA for presentation at their third annual conference, the University of the Pacific agreed to send myself and recent film alum Graham Howes to meet with local researchers, present at the conference, and create a documentary about our experience. So, how do two twenty-somethings plan for their life-changing trip overseas? With a backpack, a lot of flexibility, and a motto of “we’ll figure it out.”
First stop was Soweto, known internationally as the largest black township in South Africa, the epicenter of protest against apartheid, and one of the most crime-ridden cities in the world. While Soweto (the South Western Township), a large urban area located just outside of Johannesburg, is known for its soaring HIV rates and ever increasing rates of poverty, what most people don’t encounter is the sense of community that emanates from merely being in the presense of its people. What is not discussed about Soweto is the friendliness of its residents (who greet everyone they encounter as they walk down the street), the local music (check out my man Choppa’s new music video Graham and I will be releasing soon), or the fact that it is the only city in the world with the former homes of two Nobel Peace Prize winners on the same street (Vilakazi).
Take for example, Lebo’s Soweto Backpacker’s, the hostel we stayed at during our journey. Lebo grew up in Soweto, and became one of the first black hostel owners in the country when he converted his grandparents home into a small backpacker so that tourists could see what life was really like for township residents. Lebo and his team transformed the dump across the street into a local park for children, where they hold reading lessons and sponsor local recreational soccer teams for youth. However, they are most well known for their eco-friendly bicycle tours, which often guests and opportunity to see the township and meet locals for anywhere from 2 hours to a full day.
Or, take a look at the work of Mama Prisca, who lost her young son to cerebral palsy at the age of 11. When people in industrialized nations consider the trials and tribulations of women suffering in developing nations, how often do we ask ourselves what the struggle must be like for an impoverished mother of four, when one child is autistic or in a wheelchair? Mama Prisca has created a haven for many young children from the region of Orlando West, providing them with physical therapy, classes, and proper play equipment aimed for autistic children. Despite the hard work and the forty hour plus work weeks her teachers put in on a regular basis, the average monthly salary for a teacher at the school is R500 or $62 USD. Next time we buy a pair of jeans, perhaps we will consider that what we are handing over for that cloth is the equivalent to a family’s entire livelihood.
When individuals from industrialized nations often think about the situations of those in the Global South numerous emotions arise, most often, that of pity. If we are to move forward and make progress on any movement from ending poverty to gaining gender equity, we must realize the beauty, power, and the true development that has existed in other cultures. The men and women of Soweto don’t want pity, they want a society finally willing to listen to their problems and their solutions. Please stay tuned for updates over the next few weeks on journey’s in Durban, Boksburg, and Umlazi, as well as clips from our upcoming documentary.
NOTE: The following clip is a bonus feature for our documentary. Skip the first minute and watch the end with the adorable Soweto kids, talking about their favorite American- MICHAEL JACKSON!