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

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,” one of the NMMU students told us.  “It became the basis of the political platform and language.”

Deteriorating houses in Soweto On Sea
Deteriorating houses in Soweto On Sea

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 small 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.  Here’s a glimpse of what she had to face:

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?”

 

MIT Terrascope is setting up a Principal’s Discretionary Fund.  We would like to raise at least $1000 or about 10,000 Rand for Nombulele to continue the amazing work she has done for the children.  Please contact me if you would like to donate!

Humans of Soweto On Sea and the Larger Struggle: South Africa (Day 2, Part 1)

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, a township outside of the Missionvale campus.  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.

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.

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.

 

Pachyderms and the Eastern Cape: South Africa (Day 1)

A baby elephant scratching its eyes with its trunk.

“Oh my god, it’s just like India!”

As much as I wanted to resist the usual comparisons, it was hard not to chime in.  The simplistic airport in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, the slightly humid, warm, salty night air, and the dusty roads certainly felt similar for those of us who have been to India.  Then again, there were people exclaiming that it reminded them of Mexico, Bangladesh or other less-developed-than-the-U.S.-fill-in-the-blank countries, so I suppose there’s not much going for the specifics of those comparisons.

This year, the Terrascope Mission 2017 group has arrived in South Africa for our spring break travels.  As I’ve mentioned before, Terrascope is a freshman learning community at MIT, which focuses on self-directed learning and complex, global, interdisciplinary issues.  When I was a freshman, Mission 2015 took a look at solving the world’s biodiversity crisis and traveled to Costa Rica.  As a UTF (Undergraduate Teaching Fellow) last year with Mission 2016, the trip to the American Southwest tried to understand the physical context of mineral resource management and extraction.  This year, again as a UTF, I’m accompanying the 2017’s to the Eastern Cape of South Africa to study water management and security, and even think about solutions to South Africa’s water and development problems.

In conjunction with Prof. Maarten de Wit from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), we have 7 days of jam-packed tours, sessions, discussions, with some time to explore.  Our first stop in Port Elizabeth has taken us to a beautiful lodge that sits, quite literally, by the ocean and on the first day we began our introduction to the area’s water context through the landscape, people, and most memorably, animals.

We all knew before even coming on the trip that we would be seeing elephants at the Addo Elephant National Park.  Zoologist Prof. Graham Kerley showed us around through the park and told us that the park began in 1931 with only 11 elephants and no adult bulls.  All of the elephants in that area had either been poached for ivory or shot for “misbehaving.”  It was, as he said, a recipe for inbreeding and genetic drift.

The elephants’ problems were far from over once the park was established, though.  There were no fences when the park began so elephants couldn’t be contained, and skirmishes with the neighboring farmers resulted in more deaths.  Elephant populations also need massive quantities of water–100 liters per elephant per day– and vast areas of vegetation which require their own source of water.  From above the water hole where the elephants congregated, we could see a gradient of elephant impact to the vegetation, with only weak brushes Over time, the various measures implemented have created a population now of about 450 elephants in the park.

We saw elephants twice on our drive through the park, both times within 10-35 feet of the bus– there were the babies scampering after the warthogs, the waddling young adults rolling in mud, and the adults herding the group majestically forward.  It was hard to believe that these creatures who look like they are always smiling could be vicious, but they were wild animals, and we were not allowed to get off the bus.  Tortoises, warthogs, vervet monkeys and kudu (animals that look a bit like gazelles but with curled horns) were also animals I got to check off on the list from our park map, though unfortunately, no lions or rhinos.

The waterhole ecosystem– elephants, birds, and of course, warthogs!
Vervet monkeys
Vervet monkeys

We followed the road through the park past the Golden Dunes, tracking the mouth of the river until it reached the sea.  Claps of thunder and lightning suddenly filled the sky, and we were caught in a beautiful rainstorm.  As you can probably imagine, the bus ride home, full of dripping, sandy people, smelled anything but great.

Red-green grasses and the Golden Dunes in the distance.
Red-green grasses and the Golden Dunes in the distance.

The context of what we had received so far was what any tourist could probably do if they were to come to South Africa.  What we then got was an inspiring talk by a man who has grown up in the Eastern Cape and who is “colored,” a term used here to mean a person of a mixed race who can speak Afrikaans.  The talk truly framed most of the historical, complicated and contradictory questions that governed this area’s history—the pre- and post- apartheid eras, the disappearance of the indigenous population, and the broad lens with which we need to consider our approach to complex problems like the ones we were looking at this week.

The day ended with a traditional barbecue called braai (or lasagna for the vegetarians like me) with buttery potatoes to die for.  And a dessert that elicits universal excitement: ice cream!

Ice Cream at the Braai