The past 6 weeks of South Africa have not necessarily been what I was hoping for from my “African” experience and I struggled a bit with feeling disconnected from a community. I had glimpses of township life through the couple of days I walked around Witidrift with a caregiver but mostly through the stories of my students.
Over the course of our time in South Africa, we held group processing sessions to give students an opportunity to speak about what they were experiencing with their work project as seeing such sick people every day can be extremely difficult for some. It became evident just how moved students were by their time working in townships and a reminder to me that some of the most meaningful and impactful learning comes from the relationships we create.
During one such session, Tom recounted to the group how the 60lb woman with AIDS he had helped carry onto a bus just two weeks earlier, had just passed away. Was he supposed to feel sad, because he didn’t, he said to the group. He struggled with this lack of feeling and he wanted to know if this was good or bad. We judge others and ourselves for so much of our lives, we so easily fail to see such moments for what they are, with no judgment placed on it. It is far easier to put things into neatly contained boxes of “yes” and “no” or “right” and “wrong”, seal the lid and walk away – but that devalues our experiences, and that of others, failing to address the complexities surrounding it, failing to just be here in the moment with whatever it is we are feeling or not feeling, observing and sensing.
On the other hand, Claire shared how uncomfortable she felt observing patients, some living with so little and in such destitution (ex. small 8 by 8 structures with cardboard walls) as if they are specimens for her to use. She was feeling overwhelmed with guilt of her privilege and all that she has in her life compared with so little people seemingly have here. I’m reminded of my experience in the Peace Corps and the guilt that clung to me for my entire stay there. I think how fortunate she is to be having this experience now. How this will fundamentally change her, possibly the course of her life, what she wants to do, how she wants to live, if her eyes are open for that matter. And for now, they seem to be, wide open and full of tears.
Mijal, after passing the first time around, bursts into uncontrollable tears. I see myself in Mijal sometimes, in the way she responds to things with feeling and emotions and clings to those so passionately as being truth. It really wasn’t up until a couple of years ago that I truly started to understand that just because I felt something to be true, didn’t quite actually make it so. I think of these things as she begins to speak in between tears. She admitted to the group that walking through the townships made her think the people here are lazy and not trying to better themselves or their situations. She felt guilty for having such thoughts and asked questions such as why do some people just have all this luck being born in some place while others are born into unjust, unfair situations that make their lives infinitely harder? And my question is, why do we distance ourselves from those who have harder lives? Where is the disconnect?
I’m glad my students are struggling with these questions. That tells me they are learning, they are just where they need to be. They could be at college partying, spending countless hours on the internet and in front of the TV, eating frozen yogurt twice a day (yes I have a student who is infatuated with “fro yo” as she likes to call it). Instead, they had to confront their privilege every day when they stepped into a house in a township and look a patient in the eyes. They had to try to understand how that patient had come to where they were with poor health and in need of a caregiver or how they had taken steps to recover. It takes courage to start to peel away the layers of privilege we have hidden behind, because we are comfortable with our own lives, because we don’t even know we are masked and adorned with accessories we don’t really need.
There are so many ways to live and be in this world.
On the days when I am homesick the most and tired of wearing the same clothes over and over again and having no social life, I try to remind myself of these moments. I feel honored to bear witness to these revealing, when students open up in such vulnerable ways about such difficult topics, and for many, this is the first time they have ever spoken openly about their emotions. I am for the most part left speechless. There is not much I can say to aid in someone’s growth here. Part of the journey are these painful feelings. So all I’m left to give is space to listen and simples statements such as, “I know. Keep feeling. Keep looking. Keep listening. Keep talking. Keep asking.”
Today students presented their media projects to the community. I’ll try to post some of them on this blog so you can see what the students are learning first hand. I’m off to Addo tomorrow which is a game reserve about 3 hours from here. We’ll be there for about a week going on various safaris and relaxing. I’ll try posting pictures of some animals before leaving for India next Thursday.
Thanks to everyone who sent packages and letters…it’s the next best thing to an actual hug or skype call! It’s as if I am sitting with you for a few minutes every time I read a letter and that is such a gift. Wishing you all a great holiday season! And mom, congrats on your retirement!
peace and love…xoxo