Travel


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.)

Ask any S. African what is best about their country and more often than not, you will get the same answer – it’s the people. 

Ask any S. African what’s wrong with their country and more often than not, you will get the same answer – it’s the people.

Because of all they have endured and overcome, S. Africa’s citizens deeply love their country.  Yet, due to empty governmental promises since the Apartheid, competition over resources, lack of education, an enormous divide between the rich and the poor, inadequate housing, as well as wars and genocide in neighboring countries, S. Africa has shown a propensity for violence, crime, xenophobia and corruption.

S. Africa, in the last 14 years, has emerged from the pit of Apartheid to become a new democracy and dubbed the “Rainbow Nation“.  Few countries have gone through as much social change and revolution since 1994.  Based on that, it is difficult to know where the country “should” be. 

A S. African woman shared an interesting analogy with me on the place ride from Jo’burg to London.  She said if American Indians still made up the majority population in the U.S., what would happen if one day the majority of government control was handed back to them?  How would such a thing be handled among tribal groups, let alone Blacks, Whites, Asians, Hispanics, etc?  Undoubtedly, cultures would clash, values would differ, education and language would change and so on – perhaps for the better, perhaps for the worse, perhaps both.  Where would America be 14 years from that day?  It seems like a remote notion, but it is essentially what happened in S. Africa.

As conditions worsen in Zimbabwe, civil war ravages the DRC and unemployment, inflation and AIDS rise in the region, S. Africa will certainly bear the influx of migration from fellow Africans desperately seeking safety and a better quality of life.   

With increased attention being paid to the country that will play host to the 2010 World Cup, S. Africa faces not only the challenges of migration, xenophobia, a transtitioning government and Zimbabwe, but must also prove to its citizens and the world that it is capable of handling those challenges successfully. 

I’m well aware that the two+ weeks I spent in the country makes me anything but an expert on its intra-workings, culture and nuances.  However, what I take with me from our excursion is that many people of S. Africa share a great hope and love for their country and need a government with the strength, leadership, desire and conviction to demonstrate it feels the same.

josh

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Here are some photos of our trip up to the border:

It may be hard to see, but this is the picture of a little boy on the train who happened to stick his head out from the side of the seats.  There were quite a number of babies and little kids on the train, which made it fun during the night when one would cry, then the other would take cue, and eventually became a chorus of blubbering.  There was no sleep on the train, at least not for me. 

Some of kids would approach us, then run away, approach, run away – it became a fun game for them. 

As it appears, a mother and toddler were just a few rows up from me. I waited for quite a while to take a photo of them.  Every time I was ready to take a shot, she would magically open her eyes and catch me.  I am leary of taking direct photos of people here without asking their permission first, expecially if they have a child.  Or, a vender would come through with loud plastic toys, candy, fruit, potatoes, etc. and wake everyne up.  Eventually, she fell asleep for a while and I got a couple photos of her and the young tike.

 

This is Buhle, a Wits student, who was our translator/guide during the trip.  She’s phenomenal.  Without her, we’d be lost.  I think she speaks 8-9 of the 11 official languages in S. Africa and  has helped us out tremendously. What she is not good at is driving – in fact, she’s horrible – and riding with her is an adventure by itself.  I only feared for my life 407 times during a 15 minute trip, which I guess was an improvement from those that rode with her the day before. 

I’m not sure what the name of this boy’s name is.  He is from Zimbabwe and illegally crossed the border into S. Africa by way of the Limpopo River.  It is an extremely dangerous way to cross into the country because of the crocodiles and hippos that occupy the waters.  He and another young boy beg for money and live on roughly 5 Rand/day (which is about 60 cents/U.S.).  They don’t have a home or clothes, other than what they were wearing.  As you’ll see in the following picture, one of them doesn’t even have shoes.

The two Zimbabwean boys told Buhle the story of how they crossed into S. Africa and what there lives/days have been like since leaving Zimbabwe.  What is amazing is that how they now live, which is literally day to day and very dangerous, is preferable to the way life was in Zim.

They approached me and asked if I’d take there photo.  I got the feeling that they’d been so neglected and were just glad we’d pay attention to them.

 

David is a man from Zimbabwe that we met at the border.  He was a banker by profession but now has to sell handmade boxes/stands to support his five children back in his home country of Zim.  I don’t want to say too much about him because James is going to write a profile on the man.  Plus, I think his eyes say plenty.  He was a very kind and educated man that deserves more from life than what he’s been dealt.  I hope he made it to where he was heading safely.

 

This is a section of the fence that divides S. Africa and Zim.  Border jumpers are constantly cutting holes or digging under it in an attempt to cross over as they flee Zimbabwe.  Border patrol/military are positioned along the fence with high powered rifles to squelch the influx of immigrants. 

We got to the fence around 5 am one morning hoping to see some crossing over, but were unsuccessful.

 

As we walked along the border, we happened upon these clothes that were left behind by a jumper.  They were likely used to cover the barb/razor wire or left in haste as they ran for safety once on the S. African side.

There will be plenty more pictures and stories to follow.

 

josh

The group of us that went up to the S. Africa/Zimbabwe border arrived back in Jo’Burg this evening in one piece and relatively unscathed, which is probably not true of our clothes – and by our clothes, I mean my pants and hooded sweatshirt.  There’s really only one way for me to describe the state of my jeans, and that is to use the word “glossy”.  Because those of us who went up by train had to pack quickly and lightly, the breadth of my outfit selections was severely hampered.  Moving on.

It was an interesting experience riding up by train.  Now I can happily say that I rode a locomotive through S. Africa – and would be just as happy to never do it again.  I had not ridden on a train more than 40 minutes before, so 18+ hours got to be a bit rough and numbing on and around the butt region. 

We interviewed several foreigners (from Zim and Ethiopia), but other than that, it would be impossible for me to share the absolute tedium of the journey.  I liken it to sitting in a cramped hospital waiting room for 18.5 hours.  I’ll be posting a few pictures of the ride in a day or two.  By the time we reached our destination in Musina, a general aura of filth had enveloped us and Keridwen succinctly summed it up by saying, “I couldn’t feel more gross right now!”  I concurred, strongly. 

However, due to the lengthy trek, we were able to birth two new words into the English language: sabatogery and sabatourist.  Indeed, it was a long trip. 

After spending two days at the border, the ride back today involved packing 10 of us, our luggage and equipment into a Volkswagen van more suitable for 8.  So far, as few of us have have logged over 48 hours of travel time, not including layovers and driving around Jo’Burg.  Now we just need to hop on a boat and motorcycle, or scooter, and we’ll have covered all the possible modes of transportation on this adventure. 

I’m sure you’ll hear many stories from us as we go through our notes and photos over the coming days.

josh

     

 

 

 

We landed safely in Jo’burg early Sunday morning; literally time-traveled ahead of you and skipped much of Saturday – Happy birthday to James! Due to the delay departing from Phoenix, the lay-over in London did not provide us enough time to leave the airport to explore London, but we’re hoping we’ll make it on the return.

We’re staying at Witswatersrand (pronounced Vitsvatersrand) in Jo’burg. We’ve met the other ten students from the University of Nebraska earlier this morning and met the students from Jo’burg tonight at dinner. Not much do’ins today. Everyone is a bit jet-lagged, naturally, confused as all get out about what time zone we’re in. It’s almost midnight here and tomorrow we’ll be heading out the door at 9am to begin the day’s adventures at sites the Jo’burg crew has arranged for us to see.

The weather here is very nice. Imagine Flagstaff without the wind. Not humid, but not too dry either. The dorm rooms are small, one person to a room (you couldn’t fit another bed in there if you tried). All the buildings here are old and have a back east, prep school feel to them. I’d post a photo but I’m using a computer in the lab, which brings me to the other news you’re probably wondering.

We do not have internet access in our rooms. There is a computer lab here but only two computers seem to be working and not everyone has gotten their hands on the user name and password to use them, so our internet access is very limited right now. We’re told that tomorrow the journalism lab will be open for us so we can access internet from there and (hopefully) start showing you some of our amazing photos!

Can’t think of any other general news…Just wanted to let you all know that we’re here safe and having a good time!

HAPPY FATHER’S DAY!

Often, when I hear someone describe a phenomenal event in their life, they usually begin by saying “I never thought I’d…” or “I never dreamed I would’ve…”

But in saying so, they’ve already sold themselves short, and essentially belittled their ambitions.

When I was recently approached with the opportunity to take flight on one of the most awesome adventures of my life to South Africa, a dream was made possible and a prayer was answered.  I’ve always dreamt of applying my talents on a global scale and broadening my understanding of the world around me.  I’ve come to realize there is no learning experience more powerful than those that take place outside of the classroom.  As Americans, it has become all too commonplace for us to sit back from the comforts of our own homes and seclude ourselves from the world outside of our bubbles.  It frustrates me to see Anna Nicole Smith make front-page headlines, while atrocities around the world go unnoticed everyday.  But, unfortunately, that’s what sells and what the bulk of our population actually cares about.   

Two summers ago, I was fortunate enough to take a trip to Israel.  The experience opened my eyes wide.  The news I’d been exposed to from the comforts of my couch in America, in front of a TV or behind a newspaper, was only topical on the surface.  But after a couple of weeks in the beautiful country, I saw the stories in three-dimension for what they really were.  And they weren’t limited to 8″ news briefs in the paper or one-minute packages on the tube.   There was life to the numerical figures; a voice to the faces in the crowd.  The real stories that meant the most to me were individualized and compelling

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I want to unlock similar stories that I know exist within the “three million Zimbabwean immigrants,” the “hundreds subjected to xenophobic attacks,” and those that encompass the wealth of statistics I’ve so meticulously reviewed over the past few weeks.  These stories are more than just numbers, stats and figures.  They are just as alive as you and I.  

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