During July 2017, I was lucky to spend ten days in KwaZulu-Natal Province in South Africa, traveling with a group of 14 students from my school and two other chaperones. Although the trip is classified as ‘service,’ it’s much more immersion and exposure to a community on the other side of the world, where the people served us by sharing their homes, stories, and culture.
After teaching at an all-boys school for ten years, I hardly notice how often I am the only woman in the room. It happens every day while I teach. It happens during open studios, and during weekend work sessions with student editors. It happens in the basement of a Philadelphia church, surrounded by men willing to share their stories of homelessness with my students. A situation that might feel unusual in conventional workplace or social settings is part of my everyday life.
When I do notice it, though, is as we are anxiously waiting in the Johannesburg airport customs line, with the sinking feeling hovering over our group that we just might not make our connecting flight. Surrounded by people from countries all over the world, feeling stares at our group with the matching t-shirts, I’m aware that I’m different. I know the questions I would ask, if I saw a sole woman accompanying sixteen men. I choose not to dwell on those questions—after all, the more urgent matter is how we are possibly going to make our flight—but here it is nearly twelve hours later, connections made, and I’m still thinking about it.
On the plane, the flight attendant lightly taps my shoulder and asks me if I was the woman in charge. I nod, and she wants to know if the boys in the matching shirts can have alcohol. My seatmate—age 17—chokes back a laugh. I shake my head and say no, firmly. She nods and walks on. Openly laughing now, the student beside me says, “Did someone ask?” I say, “I hope not, but I’m glad she did.” We settle back into pretending the flight is comfortable, and trying to sleep.
Now, of course, I’m not the only woman at Jacob’s Well. After almost a full day and a complete backflip in sleep schedules, we have settled into this beautiful convent, a place where the view over the Valley of a Thousand Hills lasts for days. Sister Margaret and Sister Frances welcome us with hugs, warm smiles, and comfortable rooms. I’m still the only woman on a hallway of teenage boys and male chaperones, so I get to claim a single bathroom that otherwise would be shared. Sister Margaret quietly asks me if this arrangement is acceptable; “of course,” I tell her, and it is. My room has a balcony where I can look over the breathtaking valley, and watch our students toss a lacrosse ball in the convent’s small yard. Sister Margaret wonders aloud if the boys have ever seen sisters dressed in habits back home. We tell her, not often, and she thinks this explains how respectful and deferential this group acted as they greeted the sisters and got settled in the convent.
Sister Margaret is nearly shaking with excitement as she asks the chaperones if we would like to meet the Cardinal. He is visiting with the sisters, she says, and would love to meet us. In a parlor, the Cardinal is nobly holding court– or tea– with five aging sisters. They all greet us with nods and hugs. The Cardinal is surprised to meet a woman chaperone, but he smiles warmly at me. “You must have your hands full,” he says. I smile and politely say thank you.
With a target of keeping the group awake until they will be able to cycle their sleep into the rhythm of South Africa, we ask our driver to take us to the beach. Driving through the streets of the city of Durban, there are people everywhere, crammed into markets and narrowly darting through traffic. I look up at the apartment buildings and wonder about the lives and stories behind each window open to the winter air. Winter in Durban is still warm enough for the other chaperones and I to wade into the Indian Ocean up to our knees, and take guesses at the height of the waves. I ask my friend the science teacher why there are waves, scientifically, and he describes a balance of the moon’s constant pull and the crust’s constant tremors. Pulling and cracking. Although the moon’s gravity is consistent and measurable, we never really know how much or when the crust will shake– in fact, mostly we don’t notice it. I wonder if this is why each wave is a little different, like snowflakes– same pattern, different quirks.
The boys play soccer with some local children on the beach. When they are tired, they swim out into the ocean with their new friends, jumping into the waves. Later, reflecting in the convent’s library, they tell us that a lifeguard kept blowing a whistle to stop the black children, but said he assumed the “white boys” could swim. They described feeling at first uncomfortable with not sharing a language, but later grateful for the common language of kicking a soccer ball. Another boy said that today at the beach was the first time he ever felt like he was in the minority.
We share our memories from the day, then the chaperones drink tea in a small parlor, waiting for the dorm to get quiet with early sleep.
South Africa feels like a comfortable place to stretch out of our comfort zones.
When we marvel over the beauty of the valley to Sister Margaret, she says she thinks the roads winding through the hills are like a script that God has not yet written.
At Hillcrest AIDS Centre Trust (HACT), we sit in a circle and listen as John, a volunteer and trustee, speaks of the centre’s history and mission. John worked as a banker for his career, but once he started volunteering with HACT, he realized he “should have been doing this from the beginning.” He tells us, “We don’t want people to rely on us. We want to empower people,” and this vision frames everything we see as we tour the centre. Those who recover are often employed by the center, working in the nursery, resale shop, or craft workshops. There is a building where a woman offers sewing lessons, and a trailer where artisans create upcycled art out of discarded plastics and computer parts. They stopped their feeding scheme for forty families several years ago, in a strategic decision to focus on empowerment rather than handouts.
I meet a potter who creates pinch pots so even and delicate that our students who have taken ceramics gasp. His name is Frank, and I stay behind the group for a few minutes to talk with him. He shows me a larger coil pot, smooth and white like ivory. Frank uses stones to burnish his work, and bisque fires his pots in a small electric kiln hidden in the back of the workshop. Pit firing is next, with pieces wrapped in strips of corrugated cardboard to create patterns in the smoke. Frank and I exchange email addresses. He asks me to send pictures of my students’ work and my own, and wonders if I know anywhere in the U.S. that might be interested in showing the work of a South African potter. Later I buy one of his pinch pots in the craft store for less than I would pay for pizza the next day.
Still, all of this creative empowerment only goes so far. John waits through the silences as our students fumble through asking questions about how HIV is contracted and what precautions they should take in South Africa. He estimates that nearly 60% of residents in the valley are living with HIV. There is a 24-bed respite for those who are sick with AIDS, and 30% of those people die in the care of the centre.
Last time I was in South Africa, I didn’t take notes, but I remember these statistics were worse. Or maybe it just felt worse, because I lifted a very sick woman back into her newly-painted bed after a student helped me carry that bed back into the respite. We had spent a few days getting sunburned in the yard outside the unit, painting the beds in bright shades of red and orange while patients watched from the porch. On the last day, we helped to reassemble the ward and assist patients back to their beds. I imagine can still hear the cracks and pops in her joints as I follow John cautiously into the respite for our tour. It’s been five years, but that part of my last trip might have happened yesterday.
This time, we do not enter the ward where the patients– John calls them clients– are resting. We stand in the lobby and hallway as John describes how volunteers and nurses provide a space for clients to die or recover with peace and dignity. Music plays softly in the background, and a dryer hums just beyond an open door. One of the health care workers takes a break from her work to describe how HACT reaches out to grannies in the villages, training them to provide medical care, relying on them for communication, and forming a support network. She is in her mid-seventies but wears sneakers and scrubs, and when she finishes answering our questions she heads back to the consuming work of life and death with dignity.
John points out the two-bed morgue and describes how the whole staff grieves whenever they lose a client. There is a brick wall in a sunny garden outside the respite, where a hand-carved tile names each person who has died there since the facility opened. The students run their fingers over the tiles, and something seems to shift in the group. If there were any misconceptions left that we are here for vacation, these drift away, softly rattling the barbed wire surrounding HACT with the winter breeze.
On this trip, we will spend our time in the villages, running activities for children who come to their schools to play with our students. We will feed them lunch, play soccer, blow bubbles, and laugh all day. John tells us that the requirement for these students to participate in the day camp is that their lives have been affected by HIV. “So all these kids have HIV?” a student asks as we ride the bus back to the convent. Three chaperones make eye contact. “Not all,” we say. “And you won’t be able to tell.”
It’s better this way, not entering the ward or holding the clients’ hands as they rest in hospital beds. It’s too big a stretch for our students—or for me—to jump suddenly from Netflix and summers at the shore to staring AIDS in the face, no matter how hopeful that face may be. Instead we will meet children who like to play, tease, and create just like other children we know. It will be up to us to write the rest of the script, drawing the connections from that respite unit to the playgrounds in the valley.
The discussions that the other chaperones and I are having each night as we sit in the parlor and wait for lights out are far too serious and occasionally maddening. We all work at the school where these students attend. The students have remained blessedly sheltered from a chaotic year– at least, we think they have. None of us have the answers, but the challenges facing the school feel definitively more solvable than the expanses of problems facing the children we meet each day in the valley.
In a dusty schoolyard, surrounded by locked classrooms you can peer into to see cluttered stacks of workbooks, scattered desks, and bare concrete floors, 15-year-old Mandisa tells me she is a poet. I ask her if she can share some poetry with me, and she launches into a poem about what you see in the mirror. In her musical Zulu accent, she does not have to stop and reach for words, and she smiles broadly when she finishes. I clap. When our conversation slows, she tells me she has to leave early today, to go to a friend’s house and study. Her matriculation tests are coming soon, and she is worried about her chemistry test.
Another student wants to be a lawyer. Another a doctor. And a businesswoman. The older students all talk about university, and what they will study. But when you ask them where they will attend, the conversation halts. “It is very, very expensive,” Mandisa says. “No one can afford it, and they do not accept most.” Graduate from high school without university ahead and there may be some jobs that await, but I do not want to ask these beautiful, hopeful young adults to consider life without college. Another young girl asks me if I have children, and scoffs when I tell her I do not. “Children are a blessing,” she says firmly. “Everyone here has children, and everyone here celebrates them.” I tell her it is different in the United States, and she scoffs again. “Blessing,” she repeats.
Noto, the Hillcrest staffer who has organized the day at Wednesday’s site, taps my shoulder and asks in broken English if I have a first aid kit. I nod, and she asks me to follow her. We walk down the dusty sidewalk and into the open door of a classroom, unoccupied except for a few other staff who are organizing supplies and a young girl sitting by herself with her head in her hands. “She hurt her arm,” Noto says. “Do you have anything?” She rubs her arm rapidly. The girl makes eye contact with me for the first time. Her eyes are sad and watery, but there is no scratch or visible injury to her arm. I fumble through the ziploc bag where there is nothing that would help with a sprain or strain besides a wrap. “You have nothing to help with pain?” Noto asks, grabbing some packets of sunscreen lotion to examine the labels. I feel helpless. “No, but let me try,” I say.
In a soft voice, the girl tells me her name is Zanele. She is fourteen, with short hair and huge dark eyes. Although it can’t be warmer than sixty degrees, she’s wearing a thin tank top. She lets me wipe saline on the arm– which I know will do nothing to help– then wrap it first in gauze, then in the stretch wrap. I ask her if it still hurts. She nods. I tell her that she is not allowed to do any work at all for as long as she keeps the wrap on her arm. No lifting, no chores, no schoolwork. She laughs and shakes her head. When Noto comes over to check on us, I tell her, “No work,” pointing to Zanele. We all laugh.
At first, I ask Zanele if she is okay, then I leave to wander up to the dusty lot that is today’s soccer field. But a few minutes later, I’m still wondering how she is, and I walk back down to the classrooms. She is still sitting, resting, with an orange plastic cup of water. I smile and ask if she wants to go for a walk with me. She smiles back.
Zanele is in ninth grade. She’s here today because her sister is in matriculation year, and although the schools are on break, the “matrics” still have classes at the high school where we are hosting today’s camp. I ask her if she likes school. She nods, and tells me she loves “maths” and also loves to draw. Later we will spend an hour drawing pictures together, and taking turns drawing animals on-demand for the younger kids. While we are drawing, a tiny girl, Sahelisa, 5, sits down beside Zanele and leans into her. She stays there for lunch. Zanele helps her with lunch, and the two speak in animated Zulu. I ask Zanele if she knows Sahelisa; she says no and smiles. “We all take care of each other here,” she says. A few minutes later Zanele sings a song from “High School Musical” in a soft, sweet voice to both of us. She asks me if I know the song; I don’t, but she knows every word of at least three verses.
While Zanele and I are walking around the school, I’m keeping an eye out for Kalele, who is wearing my DSL camera on a strap around his neck. He asked to see it, then to try it while we were sitting indoors drawing pictures. His English is not great, but we are able to communicate with gestures and demonstrations of how to use the camera. He takes more than 150 photos in the small classroom, standing on tables to frame his shot, asking his friends to pose, framing curious angles on the students from America. It’s immediately clear that he is a natural photographer, with a sharp and fearless eye and a persistent approach to learning focus and framing. Every ten minutes or so, he comes back to my table to check in and show me his photos. It feels like a risk, but I invite him to follow us outside, and he immediately gets to work shooting the soccer game and other outdoor activities. He is never out of my sight, and he shoots me frequent thumbs-ups from across the field.
Zanele tells me she does not like the principal of the high school. Earlier this morning, I sat in his office beside two trembling teenage boys. The principal sat back in his chair, smiling, and waited for the boys to speak. The staff from Hillcrest had to translate their explanation: they fell into the back of his car while they were running, shattered his taillight, they were so sorry. “Who will pay for it?” he asked. We will — of course we will — all smiles — but I felt uncomfortable through the interaction, and I don’t know whether this was because of the act of sitting in the principal’s office, the language barrier, something about his presence, or all of the above. Zanele tells me that he often beats students for no reason, and never gives “enough time” for things. She is noticeably uncomfortable, and I change the subject.
Zanele takes her bracelet off of her arm and puts it on mine with a soft smile. I hold out my arm and thank her. When she is still shivering after lunch, I give her my coat.
Zahele lives with two older sisters and a father who she doesn’t like much. “I don’t have a mom,” she tells me. She loves Justin Bieber, chocolate, soccer, and the color blue. She asks me if she can ask questions now, and I smile and nod. She asks what I do, and she is genuinely shocked that I am a teacher. “But teaching is so hard,” she says. She asks my favorite place to visit, what I like to do for fun, who is in my family, what school is like in America. She asks if I have any brothers or uncles, which seems like an unusual question. She says doesn’t have many friends, because she doesn’t trust people.
At the end of the day, Kalele trots over to return the camera. He takes off the strap, and offers me a handshake and a high five. It stabs my chest to take the camera away from him. I want to leave it, but there is no way he could actually use it– no computer access, no print shops, no support. I think about the cameras carelessly broken and left in the cafeteria back at our school. I tell him that I’ll pray he finds another camera some day. He grins and high fives me again.
Zanele runs to me, shrugging off the jacket and holding her arms open for a hug. I put the jacket back on her shoulders, thank her, and embrace her. I’m cold for the rest of the evening. I hope she is not.
Later, we all sit around the table and share stories and photos of the people we met today. When I share this profile, I break down in tears. I can’t remember the last time I cried over a situation outside myself, but this is because South Africa is no longer outside—it is within.
On our final day in South Africa, after spending five days playing with children in in the winter sunshine and trying to understand their stories as best as we could, we convene in the convent’s conference room for an afternoon meeting. A college lecturer and self-professed entrepreneur from the United States has come to speak with us. He was recommended to our group by leaders back at our school. The timing of our trip intersects with his visit to graduate students who are conducting research on “informal economies” in the city of Durban.
When he delivered his pitch to the chaperones on our first evening at the convent, we all felt uneasy about making any sort of agreement or commitment to his idea. But we stumbled through our conversation afterwards, struggling to put words to the reasons why. One point we agreed on was that we wanted him to share his idea with our students directly, hopefully relying on them to help articulate some of our own questions. So we scheduled that visit for our last day, when we could try to fit the people we’d met and the stories we’d heard into the concepts he wanted to share.
His proposal is fairly simple: he wants us to run a math camp. He has been working with a Catholic primary school in the valley for several years, trying to help in any way he can. He funds a scholarship for two graduating eighth grade students, first to a top high school outside of the valley, where students will have a better chance to reach university than from the run-down high schools where a few of our camps operated. Then, when those students graduate from high school, he funds them the whole way through university if they are admitted and able to attend. He has found some tutors to help the students, and supportive donors to help with other expenses they face. But these students are still falling behind in high school math, which limits their chances to attend a quality university.
His hope in the scholarship program is that university graduates will return to their villages with a college education and ideas that will help to break the cycle of poverty.
One student asks him if it is working. He hedges a little as he says yes, and doesn’t share any success stories. Another asks how he chooses the two students who get the scholarship each year. He waits a beat. “It sucks,” he says.
He tells a story about a young man who helped him to lay bricks at the school. The principal told him that the smart, helpful boy had lost both parents—one to suicide—and would really like to attend college or technical school, but has no money or support. In his heart, our entrepreneur wanted to help that young man. But he recognized that if he followed his heart in offering help to everyone who needed it in South Africa, his path would be both unsustainable and unfair. Rather than sending this boy to college, he asked the school and its teachers to figure out a way to support students who would have the best chances of success towards the goal of actually graduating from university.
He tells us about a rising senior with “tremendous leadership ability,” whose father was out of the picture and whose mother would disappear for days at a time. The boy brought a tablet home from school and was stabbed by others in his village out of jealousy. He recovered, but now seemed more worried about protecting his younger siblings than he was about school. There was concern he would not graduate.
Somehow, the proposed math camp is supposed to help. Maybe it would. Maybe it will.
Our students ask a few more thoughtful questions, then they go back upstairs to listen to music until dinnertime. The chaperones talk for a few minutes, without reaching any conclusions. I feel weak and tired.
The entrepreneur’s story is perhaps more connected to our students’ experience than anyone else we’ve met in South Africa. He is clearly wealthy—on several boards, working in real estate and development—and he openly admits that his social investment in South Africa comes out of self-interest, out of the rewarding feelings of doing good. That’s what we have been doing here, after all. Nothing about the experience of a fun youth camp rotating to different sites in the Valley of a Thousand Hills has changed the children’s lives for the better, except maybe for a few hours of a day. Yet we hope—yet I need—for this experience to impact our students enough that they feel the pull to do more good.
I need to feel that same pull, to find it again. South Africa reminds me of how tired and sometimes helpless I’ve felt in this last year.
I don’t know how to feel about the entrepreneur’s proposal. I don’t know how to feel about much of the experience in South Africa. No matter how dusty and tired we were at the end of each day, no matter how affected we were by the stories we heard and the faces we met, we were still tourists in a culture and country we barely understood.
Sometimes living a good life feels complicated. Sometimes we second guess every word and every action. Sometimes the choices involved in ‘good’ are far more challenging than sharing sandwiches with peanut butter carried from the United States. To presume that any of us might concoct answers that could truly make the lives of children and families we met any better feels like a leap of ignorance. I don’t know if I can even define what ‘better’ means. “We all take care of each other here,” Zanele said with a small child she’d just met nestled into her side, and that is ‘better’ than many aspects of the lifestyle I know in my own country.
The part of the entrepreneur’s story to which I can relate is the restlessness. Once he’d seen South Africa and met the people there, it was not enough for him to go back to life as usual. Even when he knew that his decisions could not result in perfect outcomes, the country left him with a charge to decide what good he might do, with the resources he had.
Restlessness and restless hearts. If that was the outcome of ten days on the other side of the world, for me and maybe for our students, it’s the best result I could hope for.
Also published on Medium.