Author: Alyssa (Aly) Brewer
Location: Johannesburg and Soweto
Growth. Everyone and everything grows in its lifetime- physically, mentally, emotionally. I knew growing is a part of the process, but I underestimated how quickly and how powerfully it happens while studying abroad. So, I’m here! I am unapologetically growing, and I invite you to join me on this journey.
Week one was overwhelming to say the least. After 36 nonstop hours, 3 plane rides, and one dash through the airport, I finally made it to South Africa! It didn’t really hit me until we landed. The new sights, colors, smells shook me and all I could do was take it in. The culture shock came fast and hard but as soon as it arrived, it left. As a white person in the States, I am in the majority; I have never really felt eyes on me because of my skin until now. This new sensation
gave me a glimpse into what it feels like to be judged for one’s race- something hundreds of thousands of Americans face every day. Often locals would stare at me and some children even asked to touch my hair. I felt embarrassed for qualities I cannot control but this feeling eventually turned into understanding. I may look different, but we are the same underneath. Go on, stare- I’m not your average American tourist. This program is named Decolonizing the Mind for a reason after all. We really go all in- often with no Wi-Fi or electricity- we are just present. Even though Johannesburg’s senses felt sharp at first, the strong leafy smells and bright radiating colors eventually became soft and sweet. It is starting to feel like home. Despite the stark differences, I am falling in love with the environment and the culture a little more each day.
First morning at our guest house in Johannesburg, preparing for the day.
So after meeting everyone and settling into our temporary guest house, the next day we started our journey. The following days we visited the Hector Peter Museum, the Cradle of Humankind exhibit, the Apartheid Museum, the June 16th memorial, drove through the Soweto township, toured a cave, watched a play, and shopped around local malls.
Memorial for students who marched against
the law that forced the colonist language
Afrikaans into schools as the medium of
instruction. Many innocent children lost their lives.
Cave where “Little Foot” was found. The bones discovered in this
cave gave rise to research into human evolution.
Exploring the Soweto township near the location
where the student march took place.
Each new location provided a wider understanding of the culture. The scenery was vast and colorful- we were in awe of the beauty here.
So instead of being stuck in a classroom listening to a professor lecture about the history for hours, we visited the places where it all began to see it for ourselves. There is something raw about exposing oneself not only to another culture- but to its history as well. We met people who lived through the apartheid regime and were personally affected by it.
Antoinette (bottom row, 2nd left) was just a high schooler participating in the march when she found out her younger brother had been killed by police bullets. The photo behind of her brother being carried away was an icon for rallying against the apartheid regime.
Thousands of innocent lives were taken while trying to combat this oppressive regime. Students were shot while peacefully protesting, leaders of underground movements were exiled and/or extinguished, and dozens of innocent children lay in streets after drive-by police shootings. Each museum and each tour we experienced created a deeper understanding of the reality that thousands of South Africans have faced for generations. The most raw part of it all is that the regime ended almost 25 years ago. The liberation is still so fresh and new and people are still affected by this history. Inequality is stifling. Just the other day we visited a gorgeous mall; our touristy selves came alive and we skipped around the stores and restaurants. But on the way there, we passed the poorest township in the region where clutter scattered the streets, people lived in car-sized tin houses provided by the government, and the smell of sewage radiated everywhere.
How can such poverty and such wealth live side by side? It struck me hard. I am only a visitor and soon I will leave. These people will not.
However, they are still full of life and love. I got to witness this beautiful side when I stayed with a host family here. Mamatzi welcomed me and another student, Netta, into her home with open arms like we were lost daughters who finally returned. It was so easy to adjust to the new lifestyle. We cooked, watched TV, visited local hole in the wall shops, toured the town, and even ate McDonalds (which by the way, is way better here). Mamatzi talked about how she cared for 70 children who were discarded. She raised them like they were her own- providing clothes, food, shelter, education, etc. for generations! She is really a saint among women, and I felt blessed to be in her presence. Her daughter worked as a tour guide and was able to take us around and tell us all about the history here. Museums are wonderful, but there is something real about personally experiencing it all. One of my favorite parts was visiting a hole in the wall nail salon which seemed more like a girls club. The women laughed, danced, and joked around with each other. They welcomed us in like forgotten friends. I felt alive. Leaving the homestay was difficult, but I am blessed to have stayed for the time. Mamatsi and her family will always have a place in my heart.
While the locals in Soweto look bogged down by poverty to passersby, they are still very much awake. Entrepreneurship is gospel here- you can see homemade shops all around. It felt good to spend my money supporting these shops rather than the sparkling malls.
What I learned most from this first week is that despite the atrocities that unfolded here, people are resilient. 25 years may be a drop in the ocean of history but drops make ripples. South Africans will never stay silent and will keep fighting for equality. Growth is abundant here.
Netta (left), Me (center), Noxi one of children Mamatzi cares for (right) The homestay was definitely my favorite part of Johannesburg!
If you want to hear about mountain life, making homemade bread from scratch, shark diving, or other wild adventures, then stay tuned for my next blog: Part 2 in South Africa!
As always, keep on keepin’ on!