If you asked me before we arrived in South Africa to describe Soweto, one of Johannesburg’s infamous townships, I would have mentioned the usual stereotypes: corrugated tin roof shacks, lack of running water, grubby kids playing soccer in a dirt street. Some of this is here. Driving down the freeway, we passed houses that so closely resembled garbage dumpsters in size and shape that at first I was convinced that’s what they were. But Soweto is vast and varied. It is pink tile roofs and tract housing rolling along blond-colored hills. It’s roadside entrepreneurs with hand painted signs that say “We cut car side mirrors” and “We spraypaint all household appliances.” It is a disturbing amount of signs advertising funeral services, which makes you wonder what the mortality rate is from AIDS and other diseases. It is civic pride, as families and schoolchildren gathered round the Hector Pieterson memorial on Youth Day. It’s also kids who beg by asking if they can sing for you. And it’s the restaurant we ate at, Nambitha, which would fit right in on a street in Greenwich Village.

We went to the Apartheid Museum, but honestly I spent more time talking to the students from Wits (University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg). They talked about the same problems we have in the states: economic inequality, inadequate education for poorer people, a history of segregation… From a distance, the problems of another country seem abstract, and it’s easy to think to a certain extent, Why can’t they solve these issues? But to meet these people and see just how passionate they are about their country and what needs to change, you realize that you’re just as passionate about your own country and just as unable to solve its problems.

We got our story assignments for the first week. In our group, eight students and two supervisors will be going up to the border with Zimbabwe to photograph, film and write about border issues. We hope to ride up on a bus or train deporting immigrants and to talk to Zimbabwean refugees crossing the border. 

Yesterday some of us were driven around Jo’burg by a South African student who couldn’t actually drive. The rental car was a stick shift, but all day she shifted approximately 2 times and stalled approximately 478 times. She had a great attitude about it, though, and we couldn’t stop laughing. Today, I took my first malaria prophylactic and am feeling very exotic. Looking forward to the next adventure.