June 16 – Youth Day

10441327_10154285774145074_2456973897392330603_nLast week was Youth Day in South Africa. YAGM Alum Emily D. writes about her memories of being in Soweto, South Africa, on Youth Day in 2014.

June 16, 2015

One year ago, I was living in Soweto, South Africa. The organization I worked for, Diakonia AIDS Ministry, was holding an event that we had been working hard to plan for weeks. I was wearing a Morris Isaacson school uniform and marching through the streets of Central Western Jabavu. I was watching the youth I worked with sing songs, perform dances, and have a live debate. I was cooking kota and working in the kitchen. I was exploring a newly-opened museum in my neighborhood. I was taking pictures with friends and having the time of my life.

39 years ago today, however, was a different story. School children in Soweto were having laws forced upon them that made learning difficult, if not impossible. These same students were planning and executing a peaceful protest of these laws. Police were reacting to the protest in hurtful, intimidating, and deadly ways. People were upset, angry, and scared, but not defeated. The world was slowly starting to realize what was happening in South Africa as a result of Apartheid.

Now that I have been back in the United States for almost a year, I realize that my memory of June 16 in Soweto is seen through rose-colored glasses. For me, June 16 was a day to learn more about the history of my community and spend time with my friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Overall, I would call it a wonderful memory.

For many people, however, June 16 is a day to remember the heartache, pain, and suffering of that day in 1976. For many others, it may bring up memories of the apartheid era in general. Still, for others, this day may bring up feelings of pride and honor. June 16 means different things for different people.

Having grown up in a small town in Minnesota and not being born until about 15 years after the events of 1976, I cannot even fathom what the youth of that time were going through. I also cannot understand what June 16 means to a native Sowetan. Despite having lived in Soweto for a year, I know that I will never truly understand what June 16 is and what it stands for.

These feelings of not completely understanding June 16 are frustrating. I want to comprehend people’s feelings of hurt, pride, pain, and joy. I want to be able to articulate what Youth Day means for Soweto and South Africa — but I know I never will.

What I do understand is that June 16, 1976 is not only a day to be remembered and commemorated with a national holiday. It is a day to be mindful of and to learn from. It is a day to listen to stories and learn more from others around you.

For me, June 16 was, and still is, a day to celebrate the power of youth. It is also a day to remember the wonderful people I met in a South Africa. It is a day to think about my second home in Soweto and the history and culture that makes that community unique and vibrant. It is a day to appreciate people of all ages and their individual and collective capabilities. Finally, June 16 is a day to be thankful for those brave enough to stand up for what they believe in, regardless of the cost.

Thank you, Soweto youth of 1976.

The Day that Changed Everything

Emily served in YAGM-Southern Africa during the 2013-2014 program year. Here is her reflection about the day that changed everything.

Leading up to December 5, 2013, I had spent the previous 3 months living in Soweto as a YAGM.

During those three months, I got acquainted with my new home. I figured out the taxi and bus system. I learned a little bit of Sesotho and isiZulu. I met amazing neighbors, coworkers, kids, and random people around the community.

However, I must be honest – the first few months as a YAGM can be really hard. Despite all of the great things that happened, those few months were also very difficult for me. At times, I felt like I may have been placed in the wrong community. I kept seeing Facebook and blog posts from other YAGMs about how great they were doing and I felt like I wasn’t doing enough to become a true member of my community. I doubted myself and God for putting me there.

It seems strange to say, but December 5th, the day that Nelson Mandela passed away, stands out in my mind as the turning point in my YAGM year.

Despite the agonizing circumstances, the events surrounding Madiba’s death gave me a new outlook on Soweto, YAGM, and God’s plan for me.

By learning more about Mandela and Soweto, I was able to recognize and appreciate the culture and history that is ever-present in that area. I felt proud to be living in a community that fought so hard for freedom during Mandela’s life, and continues to strive for a better future to this day.

While traveling to Mandela’s memorial service, I met people who found time to offer help and guidance to a lost, foreign, stranger. While at the service, I was welcomed into a period of mourning, despite the fact that I had no level of understanding of what Madiba meant to my South African neighbors and friends.

I finally began to trust in the fact that God sent me to Soweto, South Africa, a place just far enough outside of my comfort zone, in order to learn and be shaped in astounding ways. God knew that I would be challenged, but made sure to surround me with history, culture, and, most importantly, people who would be there to show me the way and continually provide encouragement.

And finally, I witnessed Nelson Mandela’s values of love and respect being lived out by the most ordinary, yet absolutely outstanding, people.

Thank you, Nelson Mandela, for your life, your passion, and your lasting legacy.

Hamba kahle, Madiba.

video board display at Mandela's memorial

video board display at Mandela’s memorial

a building in Johannesburg, lit with a message for Madiba

a building in Johannesburg, lit with a message for Madiba

Youth Day

EmilySoweto

Current YAGM, Emily D., writes about her experience in historic Soweto on Youth Day 2014:

About a year ago, I found out that I would be living in Soweto.

Naturally, as soon as I heard, I did as much research as possible on the area in preparation for my YAGM year. Nearly everywhere I looked, I saw mention of the Soweto Uprising. I saw it described as the beginning of the end of Apartheid, a critical piece in the struggle, the first time the next generation became involved, and more. It became clear that the events of June 16, 1976 will forever be etched into the history of South Africa.

For the past 38 years, South Africans and others around the world have celebrated, cherished, and remembered this day. Today, June 16th, is a public holiday known as Youth Day.

I have always had a love of children. I grew up with a preschool teacher as a mom, two younger brothers, and countless babysitting jobs. In college, I spent a semester as an Elementary Education major and coached elementary students in gymnastics. While here in South Africa, I spend a majority of each day with kids ranging in age from 7 months old to 20 years old. Basically, I love kids and youth.

Now, after hearing more about June 16 and spending all day with some of my favorite high school students in the world, I not only love kids but have a deep and profound respect for them.

First of all, my respect and admiration for the students involved in the Soweto Uprising is through the roof. At the age of 13, I was much more worried about my hair and what boys were saying about me than the political climate of my country. I realize that the political situation in Soweto in 1976 was a little more intense than Minnesota in 2004, but I still don’t think I would have had the courage or ambition to do what those amazing students did.

Apart from my respect for the 1976 participants, I am beyond proud of and grateful for the OVC After-School Programme students who played a huge role in the success of the events today. The Oldest Group sang three songs, including one that they chose and practiced on their own. The Middle Group sang three songs and performed a dance, despite the fact that the sound system stopped working. The Youngest Group sang a song completely in English. All of the children respectfully listened to guest speakers and marched proudly through the streets of Soweto.

The courage, ambition, creativity, and energy of these kids is astounding. I am constantly blown away by their desire to learn, their ability to face challenges, and their overall joy and excitement for life.

In my opinion, the Soweto students of 1976 left a legacy that is being carried on and continued by the Soweto students of 2014.

Life Is Precious…Serve the World

Now at the half-way mark, Kyle articulates the impact this experience is having upon his life:

DSC00966Here’s an email I wrote in response to a question from youth in Delaware and Maryland. Their pastor reached out to the YAGMs for reflections on our service. 

What experiences have you had in South Africa while serving, and how do you plan to bring back what you have learned?

The experiences that have impacted me most in South Africa have been my encounters with life and death. Within a couple months of coming here, I was settling in to my role as a Home Based Caregiver visiting all elderly folks with different afflictions. It was hard seeing the suffering and depression of some, uplifting to see others recover, and heart warming to be universally welcomed with open arms into people’s homes. Then one day we got a new patient, and I was surprised to greet a young man one month older than myself crippled in bed with tuberculosis. Every breath was a struggle, every movement agony, and his feet were inexplicably swollen to three times their normal size. After a couple weeks, his condition deteriorated and he was brought by his family to the biggest hospital in Africa: Chris Hani Baragwanath. I find its size and location indicative of the myriad health problems here as it’s on the outskirts of Soweto, a 20 minute taxi ride from my house. My partner and I visited him in the hospital and did our best to offer encouragement, but he was visibly fading. We hoped that the doctors could help him, but his liver failed a few days later and he passed on. His name was Bongani.

The only person close to me I’ve lost is my grandmother, and while Bongani and I weren’t more than acquaintances, I was shaken. From his age and the hip-hop posters on his walls, I could see myself in his bed. Watching life carry on in his absence was disorienting. The hardest part was seeing other TB and HIV patients in his ward, all frail and trapped in their disease addled bodies while family members tried to feed them, or brush their teeth, or change their clothes. Unfortunately, life sometimes feels cheap here. The people are strong, but the pulse of hope is weak. Every weekend I hear of a funeral, and I’m told it was worse at the height of the AIDS epidemic. In Soweto, seventy percent of people are unemployed, over a quarter are HIV positive, and the education system is failing the children trying to escape from the cycle of poverty. These are harsh realities that I’ve learned not to talk around because Sowetans don’t beat around the bush.

In light of all this, it’s even more painful to hear stories from mothers and wives of their children and husbands shot over some cash in a wallet. It’s even more painful to read in the newspapers that over 1,500 South Africans died in automobile accidents during the month of December (many because of alcohol). It’s even more painful to watch people my age self-medicate with drugs and alcohol because their talents are squandered by poverty and lack of opportunity. The violence people inflict on themselves and others in my community is heartbreaking.

So the first part of my message is this: life is precious. There’s already so much disease, poverty, and suffering in the world, that the evils we enact on our friends and family are inexcusable. Every person encountered on a daily basis is a person worthy of love, and dignity, and respect. Those closest to us deserve the deepest of love and care. We are all neighbors, and the greatest commandment is to love our neighbor. From love for our neighbors, we must name our failures, and then act. The poverty created by our global economic structure leads to armed robbery, drunk driving leads to fatal accidents, experimenting with addictive substances will not lead to true peace and happiness. I feel called to speak as widely as possible to this effect upon my return to the US because in spite of my bleak presentation, Soweto has a beautiful spirit, a character that gives me hope. I see it when I tutor children who have memorized multiplication tables on their own initiative. I see it when HIV infected and affected people work at DAM to make a difference in the community. I see it in the dancing and singing of people in the streets. This year has allowed my empathetic side to flourish, which means that as much as I feel the pain of my community, I get to share equally in their joys. My course of action will be to speak about YAGM, but not to sugar coat it. International service is a wonderful thing which can change the world in the following manner:

Travel changes the lens through which we experience the world in a way that makes the seemingly trivial events of life more magical. This sense of magic and wonder creates gratitude in the heart for things such as coffee, sunsets, and understanding greetings in foreign languages. These are quotidian situations in which there is beauty and connection to our shared humanity. But the beauty can so often be swept under the rug when in a familiar setting. Through the simple gratitude travel fosters, respect for life, specifically empathy, is cultivated. Empathy is one of the most important qualities in people. It allows us to release attachment to the greed which creates the current global situation of growing inequality and mass impoverishment. It does this because we can begin to truly see each new person we meet as our brother, sister, mother, or neighbor and identify with their suffering. It breeds global communion. How could the US endlessly bomb and destroy nations such as Iraq if our citizens had traveled there and met the “insurgents”? If they saw the children who are collateral damage? How could the death penalty be legal if we truly cherished the lives of our brothers and sisters? I think it’s telling that peace makers such as Jesus, Gandhi, and Thich Nhat Hanh have been increasingly global travelers with the progression of technology. Thus programs such as YAGM are the start of a chain reaction which I believe is crucial for all people, but especially for people in a position of privilege to experience. It is a cure for one of the most important things I’ve learned in YAGM: “The benefactors of structural inequality have the hardest time recognizing it”. US policies reach so far that we must become increasingly conscious of acting with empathy.

The second part of my message is this: get out and serve the world. I want to encourage travel and service to people of all nations so that we know our global neighbors and can act from empathy instead of ignorance. Life must be viewed universally so that we don’t forget the downtrodden and voiceless. I also plan to join efforts to pass an amendment against the death penalty, because a government enacting or even allowing violence against its own citizens in a legal framework is deplorable. I also believe that it has a negative impact on the psyche of the public to live under such governance, and portrays us negatively to the world. One of the first three comments I get from people when I tell them I’m from Texas is…”you put people to death there don’t you?” Talk about holding up a painful mirror of how we are viewed internationally. Laws are a human invention, but the sanctity of life is fundamental. Violence does not solve or deter violence. I plan to bring this back with my words, and with my actions. As much suffering as I’ve witnessed here, I’ve also shared daily in the joy of waking up and living life. I choose to hold on to the joy while I work to alleviate the suffering.

The Great Thanksgiving

Kyle shares about his journey and Thanksgiving away from home:
Communities do many things: support, nurture, annoy, complicate, love. I’ve seen examples of all of these during my time here. On my little YAGM island in Soweto, the complications can loom larger than other positive aspects and make it hard to see the beauty all around me. Thankfully, our program had a retreat over Thanksgiving that motivates the title of this blog and brought ‘Gratitude’ to the front of my mind (as Rachel has beautifully tattooed on her arm). We had a wonderful time in Pietermaritzburg and Lesotho, but even before the retreat, Alex and Jen visited me in Soweto. Our three placements are wildly different, and I was blessed to have them around for a couple days to show them the sites and sounds of South Africa’s largest township. They reminded me of so many blessings I’ve had handed to me and friendships I’ve built around here, and I couldn’t help but smile at the wonder on their faces around every turn.
Kyle carves one of the Thanksgiving turkeys

Kyle carves one of the Thanksgiving turkeys

Another thing that community impacts is control. When we were cooking our Thanksgiving meal, I worked really hard not to hover over everything that was happening in the kitchen. You can ask anyone at Tessa’s house though, I was definitely stressed. This was for two reasons. One, I really wanted everything to turn out delicious for our group and I found myself making stuffing and carving the turkey (two rather important things I’ve never done before). Secondly, and more surreptitiously, I realized how attached I am to the way things happen in my family for Thanksgiving. It’s my favorite part of the holidays. I love the way my family does Thanksgiving, and as I watched dishes being whipped up differently than I would have done them (while sweating over my potential failure), I was hurting that I couldn’t hold on to the comfort of normalcy. Then something amazing happened…everything turned out absolutely delicious. Nothing went wrong despite all my worrying. In fact, I played a much smaller role than my ego would like me to think. And even better, I got to taste life from other traditions, and everyone had something special to contribute. It’s impossible to compare to any other Thanksgiving I’ve had, but it really was a Great Thanksgiving. Not just from the awesome food, but the people, the conversation, the many gifts around, everything about it was incredibly special. And so I left with a new understanding of this year of service, new goals in mind, and deeper friendships than I had mere days ago.