June 2008


S. Africa will soon be below us as we head to London on the first leg of our trip back home.  I am thoroughly impressed and proud of the ASU students who have been a part of this project.  Everyone dedicated a tremendous amount of time and effort to make sure we are successful in offering our audience a peak into the dynamics of migration and xenophobia (and a number of other categories) in S. Africa. 

It’s troublesome to know that we don’t have the answers or means to remedy the struggles of those in need, both foreign and native.  To separate the personal from the journalistic has been complicated and I have had to remind myself that I am not here on a humanitarian mission, but rather to tell stories that try not to push an agenda.  From what everyone has experienced and the personal connections we’ve made, this is going to be a difficult task.  Yet, from what I’ve witnessed of our squad, I trust in each person’s ability to accomplish this goal.

The term “life-changing experience” has been tossed around in relation to this adventure, and while that is a drastically overused expression, I hope there’s some truth to it; for us or those we’ve met along the way.  At the very least, our final product will be an imprint of our experience so that we will never forget what we had the opportunity to be a part of.

josh

Josh, Keridwen, Jen and I went to Rifle Range last Friday and spent a good four hours with the Congolese community within the displacement camp:

…raising your family in a two-room shack smaller than a cargo container?

…furnishing your home with only a bench, a wood table and a few rickety chairs and beds?

…having a metal porta-potty as your bathroom?

…living without electricity?

…washing your clothes by hand in a plastic tub?

…not being able to read or write?

…scraping by on a small pension and the money you receive for each child?

This is the life of thousands of the poor from South Africa and the rest of the continent living in shantytowns and displacement camps around Johannesburg, yet they welcomed the young American students who wanted to tell their stories.

 Newspapers hold the crown of news consumption in South Africa and as you drive through the streets, the headlines of the many papers here are posted on the poles by the side of the road. Recently the headlines have been littered with news of Mugabe. Some of you at home might be wondering if we’ve seen a reaction to the recent election, but in my experience it’s been quite mild. It’s not something a lot of people want to talk about. Zimbabweans are fearfull, others are angry, frustrated, and no matter who you talk to, the resolution of the debate always seems about the same: other countries need to intervene.

One of the papers mentioned the US stepping up with harsher sanctions, but it didn’t explain what that meant.

As we drove to Pillanesburg we caught a news brief on the radio (they have a lot more news on the radio than we do). The anchor said very seriously, “We’ve all been waiting at the edge of our seat to see who is going to win…it’s been a tight race between Robert Mugabe and Robert Mugabe.” But the Zimbabwe election was not a joke. We’ve all been discussing the reasons why  Morgan Tsvangirai pulled out. Perhaps he thought he’d be murdered and that by pulling out so late, he’d draw attention to Zimbabwe and force other countries to step in. At this point everyone is left to  wait and see. Let’s just hope they don’t have to wait too long.

While at the Bed and Breakfast in Pillanesburg, we were able to watch the news for a little bit over breakfast. I watched footage of a crowd cheering at Mugabe as he waved to them in a stone face. It’s hard to believe such a thing could happen. It’s hard to understand how a man like that can destroy a country and still own the key. We’ve met so many Zimbabweans who have fled their native country becuase they were beaten, afraid of being attacked, had no food, no job…there is nothing for them there. There is no hope when a country is ruled by fear. People turned out to the polls to have that ink stain on their finger. They voted for the only candidate, the man who has saved and ruined their lives in a single lifetime, just to have that ink-covered finger that might save them from being attacked. It’s a double-edged sword and there is now way out; except through the border.

I wish we could get in there to see the situation for ourselves. I wish we could talk to people to understand their struggles first-hand, help to reunite families, help to give hope. But it’s too dangerous for anyone. I just hope that the rest of the world truly understands the turmoil in Zimbabwe. I feel like the focus is so steadfast on South Africa with these xenophobic attacks. I hope it turns heads to the source, the cause, the country in peril. I think this recent election will make that happen.

The only problem with trying to save a nation is that you realize how many others also need help. The whole southern part of Africa seems to be in crisis; why else would all these refugees be here?

Enough politics. In about six hours we’ll be bording a plane back to a place of tranquility and peace relative to here. And then the real work begins.

Tonight we’ll leave her, but she’ll never leave us.

You can never really detatch from a soul like Josie’s.

Well the first car just made it back from Pilansburg (sp?).  It was the trip of a lifetime and I’m so glad I went.  Not only did we have an amazingly lucky first ride out yesterday night but we also bonded as a group even more than before.

Back in JoBurg trying to bust out my last few stories then I have to pack and leave tomorrow.

Just checking emails and doing the typical “USA-student” stuff for now.  Not sure how I feel about going home. It’s been INCREDIBLE here and I don’t want to leave yet there are still some things like Internet and consistent power that I miss about home 🙂

See everyone soon.

Peace 

A few months ago, they never thought they’d be diminished to a population forced to live like animals.  But the Congolese community, surviving peacefully, productively and prosperously among their native South African neighbors, felt the tension building in their bones – there was a storm brewing.  And according to many native South Africans, they were due for devastation.  Why should they, as an educated foreign people who have fled from a country where the fear of death from a malicious government hinders a life of prosperity, be taking the jobs of the less-qualified natives?  After all, the South African government has made promises to its people; not the “makwerekwere,” or those who’ve invaded the country, plundering its wealth and marrying its women.

And if the government, with its loose border policies and false prophecies, wasn’t going to do something about the emigration and unemployment problems plaguing angry South Africans, it was up to natives to take their land back.  So, last month, that’s just what they did — by force.  Now, the classrooms, car dealerships, doctors’ offices and law firms the Congolese once occupied in Joburg are but a recent memory.  They’ve been reduced to a life halted by a state of stagnancy and are now more concerned about a cold front than their next exam or meeting with a client. 

The majority of the displaced Congolese population of Johannesburg now lives at Riffle Range Road refugee camp.  RRR is the largest camp out of seven in Joburg, and the Congolese are its biggest nationality of inhabitants.  When I first visited the camp last week, inquisitive stares and weary eyes followed me everywhere I went. And I have to admit, I was quite intimidated — I had my guard up to prove it.  But after a while, I noticed a simple hello meant a lot to these people.  They’d been through a lot of trauma and had every right to be fearful of new faces. 

I’d soon be welcomed into the Congolese community.  With their robust Congo-French accents, they prodded me about my intentions as a journalist.  I’d fire back with my questions, and eventually we opened up to each other.  Our nervous walls went tumbling down.  And after a few visits, I had become more than just another apathetic reporter to them – I was a confidant, a friend.

I’d also become quite close with Buks Burger, the burly Afrikaner camp manager.  We’d speak candidly about the camp and he’d answer my strange questions freely – some more odd than others.  Last night was a shining example of the most queer of queries, even for Buks.  I asked him if I could stay overnight at his camp, in a tent, side-by-side with the ‘fugees.  He was definitely caught of guard, but hesitantly granted my wish.  And at 8 p.m. on Friday night, my Wits University colleague, Judy Lelliot, and I were among the first journalists to bear the camp’s frigid, midnight air. 

As we meandered through the camp to the northeast corner, we were quickly greeted by our new friends.  The doctor was the first to greet us.  He was Pastor Raphaël’s right hand man, and was actually a board-certified physician.  When the doctor led us to the pastor’s tent-bound, 14×8-foot chambers, Raphaël’s wide smile and warm, wavering eyes let us know we were welcomed.  The pastor is a reckoning figure within the Congolese community, so we felt safe.  However, he had his concerns.  We stumbled through our best impression of each other’s language hybrid – coined Franglish – and I soon found out that four Congolese men were assaulted just a couple of hours earlier outside of the camp’s gates.  They were on their way to get some supplies from a nearby gas station when they were met by an angry South African mob intent on committing a hate crime, xenophobia-style.  The men were clubbed, but escaped without serious injury.  Police never responded to their calls of distress. 

But the mood quickly lightened up, as the community realized there was nothing further that could be done.  We congregated around one of the many fire pits that illuminated the dark, dirt alleys of the camp.  We passed my camera around and enjoyed taking turns photographing each other.  We talked about the media and the coverage — or lack-thereof — they were giving the camps.   After about an hour of conversation, Judy and I drifted around the camp, escorted by Jean the Baptist, a family man standing at about 6-foot-4, 225 pounds.  We were in good hands with the friendly giant.  We’d squat in on a couple more fireside chats before Pastor Raphaël let us know he’d set up a place for us to sleep in his tent. 

Ducking into the tight confines, I noticed we were not alone.  We’d be bunking with six others.  I tried not to act surprised or seem ungrateful, as the pastor had gone out of his way to clean up his tent and sacrifice his thin mat for us to lay on.

Judy and I curled up, cocooned in fetal positions underneath the warmth of three blankets and tightly zipped hoodies.  But we’d soon find out that wasn’t enough.  As I shivered myself to sleep to the harmonious sounds and matured smells that only a biodome full of grown men could produce, I couldn’t stop thinking about the children at the camp.  How on Earth could they possibly survive extended periods of exposure to these conditions?  I couldn’t come to a reassuring conclusion.  The notion haunted me in my dreams.

I awoke to a beautiful sound.  I couldn’t quite put a finger on it, but it was much more pleasant than the ones I fell asleep to.  It pulled me out of bed.   My shoes crunched across the frost-laden dirt paths as I followed my ears. They led me to a congregation of Congolese singing Biblical hymns in their native language.  They formed a large circle around their 5-foot-3 pastor.  They traveled between song and prayer as they asked God to  forgive their enemies, while giving them the strength to do the same.  Just as Moses once led the Israelis through persecution in Egypt, they too will find an answer to their oppressive state – they’re sure of it.

 

 

 

 

 

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