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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:



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. 


“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]


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. 


“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.”


“What are you here for?  I want a new roof like that one!  Please!” (jumping up and down)


“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.”


“Can I count for you?”


“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.


Empathy: The “Why,” Not the “What”

A week ago, an article was published on CNN that began making its way through my Facebook feed.  The article is titled, “Why lasting compassion matters” and is a commentary written by Jason Marsh.  Always intrigued by any piece of journalism that actually brings up compassion head-on, I clicked the link.

In the article, Marsh talks about the tragedy of the 19 Arizona firefighters, the Granite Mountain Hotshots, who died while trying to fight a wildfire.  While the media fully covered the men, their hard work, and their loved ones’ sorrow, Marsh pointed out that the coverage might disappear within a matter of days.  In fact, it’s already started happening.  In the cafeteria at my office where the TVs usually play CNN, the mammoth coverage of the Zimmerman trial overshadows almost any other news.  The San Francisco plane crash and the Canadian train explosion are two of several other tragedies that have all surfaced in this time, leaving us to wonder where to focus our thoughts, our sympathy.

Marsh argues in his article for the importance of understanding how to keep these tragedies at the forefront of our collective, social psyche because he says that it is the future of this psychological effect which determines our response to it and our desire to prevent such tragedies from occurring again.  He cites an older study in psychology which suggested the extent to which we emotionally respond to a tragedy is correlated with how specific the descriptions are of the people involved in them.  A picture and description of a little girl starving in Africa elicited significantly more donations than a paragraph of statistics that explicitly brought up high rates of starvation throughout the continent.  Ultimately, Marsh concludes that stories should have more specifics, more images, more details so that we can relate to them and feel the compassion that we should.

But should we really respond to things only because they remind us of ourselves, or simply because we can connect them to our own experiences?   That’s understandably our natural inclination, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.  And just because that’s often the way our minds work, should journalism and leaders of society really just cater to that?

When I read this article, I was reminded of a piece in the New Yorker from a couple of months ago titled the “Case Against Empathy,” by Paul Bloom.  I strongly believe that empathy is at the core of our spirit and a measure of our humanity, so of course I approached this piece with more than slight skepticism, but my love for reading things that force me to challenge my own convictions eventually won me over.

At the center of empathy is the idea of placing yourself in another’s shoes.  Much of our motivations to do things for others stems from us imagining ourselves in their situation, allowing us to understand the pain, happiness, sorrow, or anger they feel.  Which is why we have leaders like President Obama, whose words Bloom cites several times in the beginning of the piece, claiming that the world would be a much better place if people had empathy for each other.  Ultimately, empathy is what inspires us to act.  It’s our “why.”

But, as Bloom points out, what determines “what” those actions actually are?  Doesn’t it depend on who you empathize with, or why you’re empathizing with them?  And if we were to act simply out of blind emotion, we could end up doing more harm than good.  Connecting back to Marsh’s arguments, the problem with motivations being born simply through empathy is seen in the very results of those psychological studies he cited.  Indeed, the issue is the very fact that we are naturally more inclined to act for the girl who’s starving, whose picture we see the girl who perhaps reminds us of our little sister or daughter–all this, simply because of our ability to relate much more easily than when we hear the statistic according to Bloom that as many as thirteen times the number of people who died in Hurricane Katrina die each day from malnutrition around the world.

As Bloom himself acknowledges at the end, the point is not that empathy is wrong, or that our world should be empathy-less.  It’s that empathy should not be the only input to morality.  We need empathy to motivate us to act, and we need it for our relationships with those around us, but to truly do good in the future you need more than just the strong emotional response you get when you can complete understand another person’s situation.  You need good judgment, an understanding of fairness and justice, and of course, rationality.

In the piece, Bloom gives the example of the Sandy Hook shootings for which the town of Newton received so many donations of stuffed animals and children’s toys that they didn’t have enough people to give them to.  Meanwhile– and this is perhaps my favorite line of the article–“almost twenty million American children go to bed hungry each night, and the federal food-stamp program is facing budget cuts of almost twenty per cent. Many of the same kindly strangers who paid for Baby Jessica’s [the baby who fell into a well in Texas in 1987] medical needs support cuts to state Medicaid programs—cuts that will affect millions. Perhaps fifty million Americans will be stricken next year by food-borne illness, yet budget reductions mean that the F.D.A. will be conducting two thousand fewer safety inspections. Even more invisibly, next year the average American will release about twenty metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and many in Congress seek to loosen restrictions on greenhouse gases even further.”  

Of course this is not even a glimpse of a suggestion that it’s wrong to feel so strongly for the children at Sandy Hook or the victims of Hurricane Katrina or the genocide victims in Darfur.  What’s concerning is that the outpouring of empathy that people are capable of seems to be restricted to certain people, certain tragedies, and certain times.

"The Alchemist" sculpture in honor of Officer Sean Collier.
“The Alchemist” sculpture decorated in honor of Officer Sean Collier.

I recently realized how guilty I myself am of the narrow-minded effects of empathy.  The third week of April 2013 will forever remain etched in my mind and the memories of those in Boston and at MIT– the week when we first witnessed the two bombs that exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and then, a few days later, the shooting of our police officer, Sean Collier, and the shutdown of our school and city for the police-led manhunt that culminated in the final capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the death of his accomplice and brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev.  I will always vividly remember being interrupted in the middle of a dance practice by a text on that Patriot’s Day, April 15th that bombs had exploded at the marathon.  I will never forget how frantically I began texting, calling, emailing anyone and everyone I knew to make sure they were safe.  College students in the Boston/Cambridge area play a large role in volunteering for the event, and I had friends, including my own roommate, whom I knew would be there at some point during the day.  Four nights later, we went through the same experience when we heard that there had been a shooting on our very own campus.  The rest of the night became a blur of news reports, the police scanner radio, and constant Facebook updates.

I actually had to catch a flight back home to St. Louis for a dance performance the very next day and until four hours before my flight that seemed impossible– no cabs were running in Cambridge or Boston.  When they finally re-opened, I wavered back and forth for a long time, especially because the police still hadn’t caught the younger brother yet, and I didn’t know what kind of trouble I would run into.  Finally, I decided to go home.

Needless to say, although I was in St. Louis for the weekend, my mind was entirely in Boston.  And thus I was shocked by how little of the conversation around me in St. Louis was about the tragedy that had unfolded in my home-away-from-home.  Sure, people would ask about it when they met me, remember what they had seen on CNN and ask about what the current situation was, but that was pretty much it.  For the first time I realized that even though our world has grown smaller and flatter, the distance between people and places remains just as undeniably far— my perception of the situation would never be shared by someone who lived halfway across the country.  Those who were relatively well-versed in current events would turn their thoughts to attempting to fathom the significance of what had happened, and then continue on their lives and the people/places tangential to them.  It was just natural.

Copley Square Memorial- Honoring the four victims who lost their lives in events of marathon week.
Copley Square Memorial- Honoring the four victims who lost their lives in events of marathon week.
Vice President Joe Biden at the memorial service for Officer Collier.
Vice President Joe Biden at the memorial service for Officer Collier.

Meanwhile I would soon go back to MIT, take part in memorial services, and visit the Copley Square Memorial near the finish line several times on sudden impulses.  I would eventually become so inspired by the tireless work of my biochemistry professor, Dr. Michael Yaffe, a trauma surgeon at Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center, in the aftermath of the bombings that I wrote my final paper in another class on the response of Boston’s world-renowned trauma centers to the marathon bombings from the perspective of several trauma surgeons across the city.  Interviewing them was an eye-opening, unforgettable experience, and I knew that nothing I wrote could do justice to their incredible work.

The words of Martin Richard- the 8-year-old boy who died in the bomb blasts.
The words of Martin Richard- the 8-year-old boy who died in the bomb blasts.
Red Sox hats at Copley Square- #BostonStrong
Red Sox hats at Copley Square- #BostonStrong
Here to pay respects at Officer Collier's memorial service.
Here to pay respects at Officer Collier’s memorial service.

That was me in April.  And here I am in July, having barely read two news stories on the San Francisco plane crash and only heard one radio news segment on the Alaska and Canadian tragedies.  I unconsciously fit that same mold of people who frustrated me when I came back to St. Louis just a few months ago.  It’s so easy to slide into routines and become so buried in the immediately surrounding world that it seems that the problems in that space are the problems of the world.

When I was interviewing for my final paper, I talked a trauma surgeon at Mass General Hospital, Dr. Peter Fagenholz, who was one of the first medical professionals to give a press conference after victims had been rushed to the various hospitals in the area.  When I asked him whether they were prepared for a mass casualty event like this one, his words shook me: “I’ll be totally honest.  I don’t really find it to be all that different on a patient-to-patient basis from what I do everyday.  Everyday I see someone in trauma who didn’t expect to be there, who’s having something terrible happen to them.  You have to explain it to them if they’re in a state to talk to you, or to their family if they’re not. We do that every single day.  [The bombings were] dramatic and got a lot of media coverage.  Obviously it’s different since it’s intentional and targeted.  But whether you’re one of however many people who got blown up and lost your leg or whether you fell off your motorcycle and lost your leg, to you it’s probably more similar than different.”

Dr. David Mooney, at the Children’s Hospital, a Level 1 pediatric trauma center, echoed those sentiments: “These kids are really lucky.  They were 1.5 miles from the best children’s hospital in the world.  Three-fourths of the kids who get hurt never get to a children’s hospital.  They’re cared for in adult hospitals where people don’t have training and the resources we have.  I wish that society tried as hard to prevent the everyday kid from getting hurt as much as they pour into tragedies like this one.  It would save a lot of lives if that happened.”

The American flag flying high over the memorial for Officer Collier.
The American flag flying high over the memorial for Officer Collier.

The small stories of tragedies, successes, joys and sorrows that happen everyday in lives around the world are no less significant than those that occasionally shake us awake by their magnitude and bring us together with our humanity.  When we view the world as larger than our lives and the lives of those around us, we won’t need pictures and descriptions to motivate our moral actions.  Our empathy for humankind as a whole and our deeply ingrained understanding of the intricacies of culture and society will naturally lead us to push our world toward the brighter future we all dream of.


For similar discussions, see my thoughts on another tragedy that hit India and women all over the world, earlier this year: “Her Name Was Jyoti Singh Pandey”