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.

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.