Travel Journals

Townships and Touchstones

It’s my third week here in South Africa, but I’m only beginning to catch my breath and have some time to consider the full implications of being in this corner of the world.

The digital storytelling workshop with Bridges to Understanding, a Seattle-based non-profit, was full of learning and impact. We mentored nine high school students from the Wallacedene Township, outside of Capetown, 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 kids talked about their circumstances with tremendous candor and sincerity. They chose the topics for the two movies we made: one on teenage pregnancy and the other on 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.

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 on par with white schools, served some lovely 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 food besides the local staple of maize porridge. They looked at the bowls of Greek salad and meat wraps as if they were from outer space. The lunches 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. They were dazzled by the ride through Capetown, 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 as we walked to see the penguins 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 the 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 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 they had enjoyed themselves, 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.

I had a special bond with 16-year old named Masande whose dream is to be a pilot. His friends call him a “machine” when it comes to math and physics, and I noticed his quick mind and gentle spirit immediately. Masande has never ridden on an airplane, and I couldn’t help but feel a pang when I thought about Dad and his years at Boeing. Perhaps Masande will be among the group of students to visit Seattle in the future (?) He sent several emails of gratitude saying that he had never experienced such kindness before, and the words brought tears to my eyes. The unequal distribution of resources and opportunities on this earth is a constant struggle for me, and I’m continually trying to monitor my own path and obligations in this regard. I’m not sure that I’ll ever feel like I’m doing enough to help others who have just as much a right to happiness as I do.

The last member from our Bridges team flew home a couple of days ago and I am left trying to get caught up on correspondence and photos and some writing. I met some folks at my guesthouse who are here for an archeological project up north and we hiked all over Table Mountain yesterday. Today, it’s down to business and brass tacks for me. There is always work to be done, even on the road.

I have no firm plans yet for next steps, but would appreciate prayers and kind thoughts for safety and good health. I’m feeling a deep need to slow down and incorporate all that has unfolded over the past seven months and what it now means to be alone in Africa without an ongoing ticket.

Much love, as always,