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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Humans of Soweto On Sea and the Larger Struggle: South Africa, Day 2

[re-posted from my blog in 2 parts]


Monday morning.

But unlike most Mondays at MIT, my alarm rang not for a 9 a.m. class but an 8 a.m. briefing with NMMU faculty on their Missionvale campus, Development Studies students and Port Elizabeth community workers.  We were preparing for a transect walk through several communities near Missionvale.  The idea we were all operating on was that without understanding the social environment and historical context of the communities facing water crises on the ground, there was no way a sustainable solution could be implemented.  Together with the community workers who had been through the area and the NMMU students, we began our walk through Soweto On Sea, the largest township in South Africa.  We were told that whenever we wanted to approach someone we could ask them for help with translation, though most of the people there were comfortable with at least understanding English.  We were also told that this was a relatively poor district and unemployment was extremely high, so though the people of the community were known for being extremely welcoming, we should still be careful of our material possessions.
As we walked through the community and asked various people if we could take pictures for our project, I was struck by their observations and their warmth, which often starkly contrasted with their destitute surroundings.  Here are some of the Humans of Soweto On Sea, Brandon-Stanton-style:
 ***
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The little girl had been standing by the door for quite some time with an ecstatic smile on her face, much like the one in this picture.  When we approached, she ran off giggling to get her mother.  Even as her mother told us about the traditional community gatherings, full of songs, dance, “plenty of meat, and African beer,”  the little girl continued to smile, mesmerized by the microphone. 
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“I collect the plastic bottles thrown here and bring them to a woman.  Sometimes she weighs them and tells me they are not enough, so she only gives me 20 Rand.  Other days she may give me 30 Rand.  I have to live that day with whatever she gives me.” [translated]
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When we asked her for a picture, this woman ran into her house, and suddenly emerged with a broom to began to dance around the front of the house and mock-sweeping the ground. 
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“Hi, what’s your name?”
“My Xhosa name is ‘Noh-mah-soh-mee.’  But my English name is Princess.”
“Princess?  That’s a pretty name.”
She laughs.  “A pretty name? Well, thank you, my baby.”
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“What are you here for?  I want a new roof like that one!  Please!” (jumping up and down)
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“Do you see those horns on that stick?  This is the traditional, sacred place in the house.  If someone in the family is having problems, with their job, with their marriage, they will get up early and come and hope for a solution.  When there’s a new baby, they might slaughter a goat, or for a big function they might slaughter a cow.  I guess it’s pretty difficult to be vegetarian here.”
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“Can I count for you?”
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“You take picture of my car wash?  Please? Come here, I show you.  My car wash.  You have to tell everyone about my car wash please!  We get 45 Rand washing 2 cars per day for both of us.  Please tell everyone about the car wash.”
***
These were a few of the many people who stopped to ask us what we were doing, who excitedly flocked to take pictures with us, or who were willing to tell us about their lives in Soweto On Sea. A couple of the community workers later told us that everyone wanted to know what we were going to help change.  They called us a “beacon of hope.”  It would have been really easy for them to face us with hostility for being “privileged,” for questioning what our presence there could do given that things hadn’t changed for years.  But they didn’t.  And they believed our presence could create that change.
The streets of Soweto.
The streets of Soweto.
MIT/NMMU students and community workers walking down a hill of trash into the Soweto community.
MIT/NMMU students and community workers walking down a hill of trash into the Soweto community.
The group of us students from MIT and NMMU with community workers in Soweto Square, the site of many anti-apartheid protests and struggle.
The group of us students from MIT and NMMU with community workers in Soweto Square, the site of many anti-apartheid protests and struggle.
The smiles in the picture above at the end of our transect walk through the Soweto On Sea community weren't all happiness.  We were certainly humbled by the warm reception, incited by the desire to do something, but also disturbed by the mounds of trash, the broken abandoned houses where rapes and murders frequently occurred
The community's struggles reach back to times of apartheid in South Africa.  Because Soweto On Sea had been a difficult area for the police to penetrate, the square we were standing in had been the center of the anti-apartheid movement, filled with activists who were hiding from the police, rallying the locals and planning their next moves.  "Each week there would be a funeral for those who had died that week and a burial for those who had their funeral the previous week," he told us.  "It became the basis of the political platform and language."
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Deteriorating houses in Soweto.
 The irony of it all, he told us, was that most of these people who fought were now the same ones who were unemployed in the township: "Victory has not served those who were on the frontlines."  When asked why, he struggled a little to answer, ultimately settling on his belief that the current parliamentary was no longer connected to the township.  "The people who fought at the time were not being educated," he pointed out.  "They were busy planning attacks, sitting in prison, running from the police.  They can't take part in the system now because they don't have the education to be on the same playing field.  Now their only value to the parliamentarians is a voting majority, nothing else." 
 The man from the car wash came up to our group and emphatically pointed to the square behind him, "This place is the reason we have a black president now." 
 The point of the day suddenly became clear: all of the issues that South Africa faced, just like any other country, were the result of their history.  As we returned to NMMU, the community workers and NMMU students filled in more of the gaps about this connection.  Later that evening we even heard from two activists who were prominent during the anti-apartheid struggles, Bongani Gxilishe and Winky Mgqibisa, both of whom had been involved in the famous student uprising of 1976, in which black students protested against the requirement to be educated in the Afrikaans Bantu education system that had been enforced by the Afrikaaners.
"During apartheid, education was different for different people.  It was meant to keep the blacks in different economic roles than the whites.  That difference in quality has remained stagnant."
"My father was originally in the military before apartheid.  Then he stole their money and left to the North to be trained so he could come back and fight.  Come to think of it, I'm more fortunate now because my father's father was a doctor and my mother's father was a teacher.  So when my parents were growing up in the struggle, my grandparents ensured they were getting their education first."
"I lost both of my parents when I was five.  In the culture of black people, my child is your child and I was taken in by my neighbors.  And it is because of them that I became what I am today, a firm believer in the Black Consciousness Movement.  It's unfortunate that this history of the BC movement is now being distorted and students now don't care.  Back then we were politicized at such a young age by what was happening around us.  You know that building across the road?  It is where most of the activists were tortured and killed." 
The development crises that townships like Soweto On Sea faced today could then truly only be solved sustainably in the long run through education, a theme that came up again and again with many of the community workers and MIT students.  We were shocked to find kids in uniform walking around the neighborhood, not in school.  The community workers told stories of schools with 42 children in a ten-square-meter area, with the teacher not even being paid for the first five years of teaching.  "My child goes to this school," she said.  "How is a teacher supposed to teach if she is hungry and frustrated without electricity?"  Another student stood up and cried, "Is there no over-sight to who is teaching in our schools?  People who are educated just leave the township and there is no inspiration for children who are hungry to go to school because they see no value.  There is not a culture of learning here.  You know this whole host of problems?  Everyone talks about them and how we need solutions.  But no one ever really works out those solutions."
 Indignation started to fill the room, and continued to follow us as we loaded onto the bus.  MIT and NMMU students were talking together, expressing their frustration by the problem, without a viable solution.  So when we arrived at Charles Duna Primary School, the atmosphere of desperation was looking for some answer, for a glimmer of hope.  And Nombulelo Sume, the principal of the school, gave us just that.  She told us the story of how she fought to balance the school's lack of access to water with her fervent belief in placing the education of the children, "the poorest of the poor" first above all else. 
You could hear a quiet awe and empowerment that everyone felt as she told us of the challenges she faced and her ability to rally the community behind her.  Most of us could not imagine parents volunteering their time to carry buckets of water and manually flush the toilets in the school, just to ensure that their child could have an education after the government could not support that change.  Having just seen communities where education was completely disregarded, it was refreshing, inspiring to see how the indifference toward education could be overcome.  Because of Ms. Sume's persistence, a representative from Coca-Cola's rainwater harvesting program heard about the school.  Despite the fact that they had already filled their quota of 100 schools, the representative pushed ahead and listed Charles Duna Primary School as the 101st school.  As of July of last year, thanks to the program, the school finally had water flowing from their taps.
 And her efforts didn't stop there.  "One of our other community projects is a vegetable garden," she said.  "When I started this school, I was burying a child each year.  When I asked their parents what they would eat, it was full of carbohydrates.  No fruits, no vegetables.  So we are using the school as a center of progress for the community.  We haven't had a single HIV-related death now in 8 years."  Nombulelo also talked about giving everything else she could to make the students competitive, like arts, drama, and sports programs ("We have a student who is now playing on the national soccer team!").  
 Nombulele showed us that it is possible to make progress despite the overwhelming sense of complexity in the status quo:  "I ask for the richer schools' old, used uniforms.  I find scraps of boxes and metal for the kids' projects.  I am trying to build a library.  You know, you have to dispel the myth of 'poor me, I can't do anything because I don't have anything.'"
Nombulele Sumo, the principal of Charles Duna Primary School, led the school through the lack of water and other resources while reshaping the community as a whole.
Nombulele Sumo, the principal of Charles Duna Primary School, led the school through the lack of water and other resources while reshaping the community as a whole.

When we passed by a room under reconstruction, she said, "It's going to be my future science lab.  You have to dream, right?"

3 comments:

  1. This was a wonderful read for us parents Anisha! Loved the human aspects to the story and the glimpses you provide into all your experiences and the warm and welcoming people you encounter.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you! It was an amazing experience for us as well and one that I think left a pretty big impact on all of us.

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