Stories of the World

Townships and Touchstones: Digital Storytelling in shantytowns of South Africa

I’m here in South Africa, having recently completed the inaugural Bridges workshop outside of Cape Town. Our twelve-member Bridges team from Washington, Florida, New York, and Georgia ranged in age from 12 to 75 with a wide array of talents and technical skills.

The workshop experience was full of learning and impact. We mentored nine high school students from Hector Peterson School in the Wallacedene Township and had the tremendous blessing of being welcomed into their Xhosa community, homes, and hearts.

The very real challenges of poverty, violence, prejudice, and illness are daily struggles here, and the students talked about their circumstances with tremendous candor and sincerity. They chose the topics for the two movies we made: teenage pregnancy and single mothers. Both subjects are fraught with pain and wrenching personal stories, and we worked hard to convey root causes and possible shifts in thinking relevant to their community without arriving at any easy answers.

We worked each day in the computer lab of Hector Peterson School and had opportunities to attend a few classes and meet some of the dedicated staff. We also walked through the Township itself, photographing the community and the many people who welcomed us. Back at school, we shared images and talked about elements of photography and tools to make them even stronger. We worked on our movies, writing scripts and incorporating narration and music. Each day there was a little more progress, and the final films were unveiled at the celebrational Women’s Day assembly.

There were poignant moments during our time together. The school’s cooking classes, led by a visionary teacher named Johanna who wants her graduates to have chances that parallel those awarded to whites, served some delicious lunches to us and the workshop students. One 18-year old struggled with his knife and fork since he had never before used silverware. Many of the group were unfamiliar with such beautifully presented food and looked at the bowls of Greek salad and meat wraps as if they were from outer space. The meals they ate with us could easily have been the most they had all day.

As a special treat, we took a day-long excursion down to the Cape of Good Hope. It was wonderful for all of us, and the first time many of the kids had been outside of the township or to a restaurant. They were dazzled by the ride through Cape Town, the views of Table Mountain, the ocean, the penguins, and the hike up to the Cape lighthouse with sweeping views in every direction. They never complained when our driver had trouble with a broken accelerator cable and we were sidelined for awhile. Or when the rain poured down and left everyone in wet clothes. Instead, they huddled together and laughed and told stories. And they sang.

We shared a final dinner together at Moya, a splendid complex with lanterns and tree houses and drummers and dancers and a magnificent buffet. One of the girls made me fill her plate for her since she “couldn’t choose!” All of us had our faces painted, and some of the girls- even the shy ones- joined the musicians and dancers on the stage. The township shacks and muddy streets felt very far away.

At the end of the evening when asked if he had enjoyed himself, one of the young men tipped his head back to keep the tears from overflowing. “I never knew... I never imagined that there was a place like this, or that I could ever be here...”

Many of the students spoke about the love they felt from our team and all of them seemed excited by the prospect of ongoing relationships with Bridges and the wonder of using technology and photography to further document their own stories. They are comfortable now with cameras, and they are seeing their surroundings with new perspectives.

I’m left with a deep appreciation of the vision and ongoing work of Bridges in all of their schools and sites, and I continue to be inspired and hopeful about the power of images and stories to change minds and hearts. There are many stories of my own waiting to be shared from my unfolding journey in the world, and I’m grateful for the framework of Adobe Photoshop and Premier as platforms for those to be birthed and shared.

To all of the staff and volunteers at Bridges, a warm thank you. To anyone considering joining a workshop, do so with the trust that you have the power to build relationships and use your gifts however they are most needed, and that you will undoubtedly walk away from the experience feeling humbled and blessed.

The desire to give of ourselves is real. And like a field of wildflowers blurred by color and depth in the late afternoon sunlight, there are millions of stories waiting to be shared, just like this one.

To donate, or to learn more about Bridges to Understanding, click HERE.