After being back in the U.S. for a little over a month, and working ourselves ragged compiling notes, audio, video and photos, what will be the product of our experience? Yes, we’ll have a multi-media website that shares political, economical and social issues facing a relatively new democracy. But, what I hope for is a presentation that personalizes a country over 10,000 miles away. The struggles that South Africa faces aren’t specific or isolated to that country, region or continent. They can, and have, happened everywhere – including the United States.

And for the 12 of us who had the opportunity to go, as journalists, where do we go from here? How has, or will, this experience affect our careers, ambitions, ideas, values, relationships, etc.? There’s no way to know or predict, but I have to believe that in some way, the impact will be evident in the way we live and work. From what we were able to witness and be a part of, I don’t know how it could be any other way.

(photos courtesy of tiffany tcheng)

josh

(Our website will be up soon, so check back often.)

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One of the reasons we went.

One of the reasons we went.

I am truly blessed to have had the opportunity to spend the last couple of weeks in South Africa. When I stepped out of my comfort zone and made the career change from teaching to journalism, I was nervous, but I knew it was what God wanted me to do. I had no idea His path would lead me to Jo-Burg and the special people who live there. The trip re-affirmed what I was set on this planet to do, (to tell peoples’ stories and learn how to do it well).

 

It definitely wasn’t easy, but I think it challenged all of us in a very healthy way. We created unique bonds that won’t be broken. And were given the opportunity to help change lives half-way across the world. My hope, (Emily Graham) 😉 is that our work will do the people of South Africa justice, and move someone here to do something great that will make a difference in someone else’s life.

While in Johannesburg, I did quite a bit of driving.  At first, it was tough.  I had to relearn the rules of the road and essentially unlearn every rule I was taught to obey in American driving school.  Maneuver the wheel on the right side of the car; use the left hand to shift gears, right to signal; don’t forget the wide, sweeping right-hand turns; make sure to land in the far left lane.  Always land in the left lane.  Driving was stressful, yet exciting, on the unfamiliar streets of Joburg.  Even after a short session behind the wheel, I’d feel a bit drained.

After a long day of surveying the refugee camps, interviewing officials and locals, walking through endless blocks of treacherous streets, or all of the above, the last thing I wanted to do was drive.  And most of the time, I didn’t have to.  I was usually among a small team of local Wits University journalists.  Judy Lelliot, a 14-year veteran of Jozi, was fully capable of hauling me back to my resting place virtually every time we ventured out.  But sometimes she insisted I drive, with good intentions.  You see, she had this crazy theory — one that actually made sense and one I had heard of years back.   She believed that if, while with a headful of information bouncing around from a long day prior, I was able to relax my mind enough to drive home on the “wrong” side of the road, while in the “wrong” seat, using my “wrong” hand to shift, that I would actually stimulate creative thought.  I’d be reprogramming my mind to learn a completely new, completely absurd trick.  So absurd, in fact, that chemical changes were in play.  Maybe neurons were firing in different directions, maybe I was using a different hemisphere of my brain, maybe I’d had an epiphany, maybe it was indigestion.  I don’t know.  I’m not a scientist, nor a doctor.  

But whatever it was, I had tricked myself into believing that Judy’s theory made sense.  And when I really thought about it, I could apply it to everything I was learning and experiencing in the completely absurd land I was in.  With its streets that echoed 11 different official languages, its exotic wildlife that left me with a perpetual cold, its strange animal life that found a new way to call me out of bed each morning, its unfathomable hatreds that ran so deep it caused people to be ostracized into communities within communities, its levels of despair that seeped through dull eyes, leaving piercing imprints on the mind, and its horizons of hope that could be found in the youthful, engaging smiles of the country’s young people, South Africa left my mind forever reprogrammed.   

When I got back to the States from my journey the other day, I had a lot of catching up to do — bills to pay, places to go and people to see.  However, I was a little fearful that my own reintegration process into the societal norms that I had been traditionally programmed to live under would spoil the memories and teachings that I wanted to forever cling to.  

I don’t want to forget.   Just yesterday, I caught myself turning into the left lane of the road.  I abruptly turned back into the right when I noticed my mistake.  I couldn’t help but laugh.  Thanks to my colleague and her wacky theory of creative control, I’d stamped a few memories in my mind.  

I won’t forget.

Five am in Arizona and I am wide awake. Ever since landing I find myself adding nine hours, wondering what time zone I’ve fallen into, wondering what our friends in South Africa aredoing, and perhaps what we would be doing were we still there.

Two weeks in a foreign place is a long time. Most of us agreed it felt like months. But now that I’m home, I want nothing more than to go back. Regret is not a word I like to use, so instead I’ll say that I have a longing for more. More time to see places, meet people, understand the chaos and division that ensnares South Africa.

On the other hand, I couldn’t be happier to be home – to get home. I’ll probably get crap for saying this, but I felt very anxious to get out of South Africa. It’s a depressing place; at least, the parts of it that we walked through day after day. We walked through houses smaller than our bedroom closets, zig-zagged through streets where skeleton dogs and roosters and chickens pecked through the mounds of garbage and mud. We talked to people who had lost family, haven’t seen family in months or years, who didn’t know where they would sleep that night, didn’t know what would happen to them in a week…and then, somehow, could still smile at us.

Aside from the normal challenges of finding stories, making contacts, asking the right questions, getting the right shots, we all faced exterior challenges I’m not sure we even thought to prepare ourselves for. In a foreign place, sleeping in a strange surrounding, keeping odd hours, eating odd food at odd times and someones eating nothing…the stresses add up. It wears on you. After two weeks I saw in almost everyone the sleep circles and the excitement to get away from the gray cloud.

We’re out of it now. Out of the dark, the quiet despair, the daily beating of the harrowing stories. We got out. Simply packed up our bags, showed up at the airport with our easily obtained passports and plane tickets, and left.

We got out.

But they can’t.

If we let it, the guilt could set in. We’d never be able to enjoy a hot meal, a warm bed, or a refreshing shower again. But as empathetic as we are to their struggles, I’m sure each and everyone of us came home to enjoy all of those things and more. We’re laughing now as easily as if it had all been but a dream.

We might have helped a few people along the way. Fighting the battle between journalist and humanitarian, our little monetary “thanks for your help” and certain “scholarship funds” may have helped.

But that, I suppose, is why the project isn’t over. We’re still trying to help, to let them know in our absence that we care, and to remain a part of their struggle.

As happy as I am to be home, I’d go back tomorrow if you asked.

Robert Mugabe won Zimbabwe’s June 27th presidential run-off by a “landslide”, tallying 85% of the popular vote, yet nearly three months earlier he accumulated less than 43%.  Either Mugabe figured out the most amazing campaign strategy, or he endorsed the arrest, beating, torture and killing of MDC supporters.  What’s frightening is that in the minds of Mugabe and the Zimbabwean politburo, it appears the two possibilities are one in the same.  This article from the Washington Post details the tactics Mugabe and other high-level officials used during the three months between the original March election and the June run-off.

 For more in-depth reading into the catalyst and inertia of the crisis in Zimbabwe, I highly recommend Martin Meredith’s biography of Robert Mugabe called Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe.

What you’ll read is difficult to digest and makes clear why Zimbabwe has plummeted into a political, economic, educational, medical and social abyss that has millions of people fleeing the country.

josh

I started packing my condo up on Wednesday. Thursday and Friday were spent cleaning and moving things into a U-HAUL. This morning, I’m loading my bed up and driving to Flagstaff. There are so many things scattered about the floor that I don’t really know what color my carpet is.

Since our return to Arizona, I’ve been using the spare time to breathe and readjust to my life here. It didn’t take much time. But while sorting through my belongings and placing them into the appropriate boxes, I’ve also reflected upon the past two weeks our team spent in South Africa.

The people at the displacement camps were chased out of their homes. Some were separated from their families. Others were killed.

When, and if, those people returned to their homes, they knew what the color of their floor looked like because there was nothing left.

I’ve spoken to these people. I’ve photographed their faces. I’ve recorded their words. And through their stories of sadness and struggle, you see a twinkle of hope in their eyes. The women and children smile. And they don’t stop smiling.

I hope, in the next month or two, our friend Kingston is doing (something similar) to what I am doing today: moving back home.

And now outside, the stir and movement of people, but behind them, through them, one could hear the roar of a great city. Johannesburg. Johannesburg.

Who could believe it?

– Alan Paton, “Cry, the Beloved Country”

I know there are few things more trite than to start writing with an epigraph, but as I was thinking about how to sum up our Johannesburg trip, I found so many relevant quotes, and so many similarities to our trip, in Paton’s 1948 odyssey. Written by a white teacher and activist who had not yet seen institutionalized apartheid, who never saw Nelson Mandela freed from prison, or elected president, who never saw the outbreak of xenophobic attacks, “Cry, the Beloved Country” chronicles the journey of Stephen Kumalo, a pastor, as he heads into the strange, wild city of Johannesburg looking for his son. I won’t spoil anything in case anyone reads it later, but put simply, Kumalo comes to the city, finds some success and some failure in his journey, and he returns home, changed.

Along the way, though, he encounters the divergent worlds and segments of society that make up the city. In townships, churches and offices, he meets good people and bad people of all races and genders. He meets great justice and great injustice and, as Paton writes, “justice, even if it is not just.” In some ways he finds what he’s searching for, in other ways he doesn’t, but mostly he finds people and lessons he didn’t know he was looking for.

And in so many ways, in Kumalo’s story, I see all of ours. Though we were looking for stories and not our children, we too were thrown into a city we didn’t really understand — a city I don’t think we really understand, still — and navigated back streets and hidden cities and taciturn officials to encounter pain and joy and confusion and resiliency. We found a million things we were trying to find and a million things that found us, maybe because of, or maybe despite, our best efforts. And we also left, changed.

How exactly we changed, as my fellow bloggers have already eloquently stated, is unclear. But I think what will stick with me the longest about this experience are these barriers and contradictions I found. I’ll cherish the people I met and the friends I made and even the difficulties I went through, but through it all, what fascinates me, are these divisions in society: the separations of nationalities, of races, of languages, of incomes, of ages, of tribes, of totems, of genders, of sexualities, of political parties.

As I’ve continually harped on to the other students I traveled with (much to their chagrin, I’m sure) is how, when given the task of going to South Africa to report on border issues, I started out only thinking about literal borders, with Zimbabwe, and Mozambique, and Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho and Swaziland. But having gone there, I see that South Africa’s border issues are much deeper, more numerous and nuanced, and more compelling than that. So much of the country’s history, much like our country’s history and probably all countries’ histories, has been dictated by these barriers. And in these bending and merging borders — where man meets woman and heterosexual meets homosexual and Shona meets Ndebele and white meets black and ZANU-PF meets MDC and Malawian meets South African — lie the greatest struggles and the most potential for pain and bloodshed, but ultimately the most interesting and important stories to tell.

My nine amazing fellow Arizona journalists and I, as well as our companions from Wits and Nebraska, we heard the stir and the movement of Johannesburg’s people (plus a pterodactyl or two), we saw these lives and these stories between the lines. And though we may not have found all we were looking for in our briefest of trips to Johannesburg, behind it all, through it all, I think we found something greater.