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Monday, August 25, 2008

Welcome to Africa

I can’t believe I’m in Africa. We’ve only been here a couple days and it’s already been an amazing experience.

On our first full day here, Sunday, we were finally exposed to the townships we have read so much about. As we drove though the streets of Langa I saw hundreds or even thousands of makeshift houses built with tin, cardboard, cinder blocks, plywood and everything else imaginable. After a short drive we arrived at Guga Sthebe a cultural center where we met with an artist who talked about making ceramic goods and the meanings of some of the colors. Following the brief talk with the artist we watched a group of children perform the gumboot dance. In unison the children stomped and slapped their rubber boots as if they had been performing their whole life. It was a moving experience.

We left Guga Sthebe and set off for a walking tour around Langa. We stopped at a church and sat in on part of the church service. Even on our approach I could tell the people inside were more spiritual than anyone I had ever met. As we entered the community center where the service was being held it echoed with song and prayer. At one point everyone was passionately praying aloud. During this time I noticed one woman a few rows in front of me knelt over her folding metal chair. She had tears pouring from her eyes. The expression on her face said it all. Though I could not understand a word she was saying I could see the pain in her eyes and the feeling of hope on her face. Her emotion was so strong I felt tears begin to well in my eyes. It was like nothing I had ever experienced. As we stood quietly in the back women from the church came up to us one by one shook our hands, hugged us and thanked us for being there. Rather than being upset that we had interrupted their church service they were just glad that we were there.

After spending a few minutes at the church service we walked down one of the main streets toward a village of shacks. On our way we passed several churches, one with a huge mural of Nelson Mandela on the side. We also passed several liquor stores with groups of men drinking out front. As we approached a group of children began running towards us pausing every few feet to pose. After reaching the road the reached their hands out to members of our group and we all walked hand in hand with township children into a village of shacks. As tourists do, I took photos of everything, laundry hanging on the clothesline, the rooftop of a house with bicycles and furniture on the top, pay phones and children playing jump rope with a shoelace. Though it was only days ago it seems like a blur now. Seeing the community water situation, the trash in the muddy streets and bars on every window and door made me so thankful for what I have in the United States. I will never forget what I saw and will be eternally thankful for the card in life that I have been dealt.

Following our township tour in Langa we ate lunch by the waterfront then hopped on the ferry for a tour of Robben Island. Guided by a former prisoner we saw the inside of the prison. In one of the communal cells he discussed the efforts of authorities to separate races by the diet they were fed. During the tour he talked about prison life and apartheid. We also had an opportunity to see Mandela’s cell and go on a bus tour of the rest of the island. It was a long day overall but a great start to our stay here in Africa.

Today has been another long day. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to talk about it sometime later on the trip. I’m so excited and nervous for the next few days. I just hope they don’t pass too quickly and that we get everything out of them that we need to.


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