Since my return to the United States, I have repeatedly been asked, “How was South Africa?” or simply, “How was Africa?”  Here is my first point of contention.  South Africa and Africa are entirely distinct.  My pre-established thoughts of AFRICA with native tribes and little boys in loin cloths did not apply to SOUTH Africa.  Although some do call Johannesburg a jungle, it is not for its wild animals and vegetation.  It is for the busy traffic and the competitive style of life–mostly refugees struggling to survive in overpopulated areas, basic necessities hard to come by.  So here is how South Africa was for me.  It was sad.  I received a very jilted sight of South Africa–something unlike any tourist will probably ever see.  For this I am grateful; I have no regrets.  Will I return?  I’m not sure.  I don’t feel particularly insightful at the moment.

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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

It is difficult to come back and have to write an article about the habits of Southwestern badgers. The Congolese refugees are still shivering and hungry in cramped tents, still without a country, still totally unsure of their futures. Kingston, the Malawian man we met in Diepsloot, is still missing the family he hasn’t seen in two years. Victor, our guide, is still treading the line between optimism and frustration with his sometimes violent community. Xenophobia is still festering; thugs still lurk around displacement camps, ready to attack foreigners who dare step outside to buy groceries or check email. It’s Wednesday night (if you don’t consider the time difference), when residents of Diepsloot sing and pray in the tent that serves as their church, and Pastor Eddie delivers impassioned sermons.

 

I’m not going to say I will never take anything for granted again, because I know from experience that’s not how the human mind works. It can’t sustain that kind of perspective. It adjusts, it gets complacent, even when you don’t want it to. I know I will never forget Moses and the Congolese families, Victor, Kingston, and all the amazing people we met. I know we will do everything we can to do them justice. It’s frustrating that we can only make people aware of their situation and can’t really do anything directly to help them. It’s like standing on a shore watching someone drown.

 

Now when I hear news from Africa, it will feel more personal, because it will be happening to people like the people we’ve met. But then I consider what that means: that there are people with equally amazing stories, enduring suffering with the same grace and hope, all over the world—in Burma and Rwanda and Afghanistan and, yes, even Arizona. And I feel both privileged to be a journalist and deeply overwhelmed.    

So today is my first full day back in the states and I just don’t feel the same here as I used to.  Yes, at first it was really nice and comforting to go through the US Citizens line and be back in Phoenix (even with the 110 degree weather that we arrived to) but now the odd feeling has set in.  I look at things that I used to pass by daily and they look a ton different.  The poor people on Mill seem like they have it better than they used to, the grocery store that I go to and can stock up on whatever I want seems to be FILLED with way too much food and even my instant Internet access now seems a little compulsive.

This trip really opened my eyes to how the “other” part of the world lives and how much I used to take things for granted.  The people in SA taught me also another life lesson, happiness is what you make of it.  Living in a camp with almost no food, using a metal port-a-john as your toilet, living in tents and showering in garbage bags; still somehow has made these people happy.  THey do not like their situations but they have found a way to make the best of it.

There are a million and a half lessons that I will take with me from this trip but the largest is to be grateful for everything that I have because like these people, it could be gone in just one night. 

Morgan Tsvangirai rejects forming a unity government with Robert Mugabe.

From what I’ve seen during the last two and a half weeks in South Africa, I don’t blame him.

A seventeen year old Zimbabwe girl walks the streets of a border town on the South African side. She says she forced to sell her body to support her family. A family whose Zimbabwe money used to mean something.

One of her brother’s waits in line at a Musina health clinic everyday for his tuberculosis medication.

The other brother begs for a ride to Pretoria’s Refugee Reception Center to gain asylum-seeker status by the South African Government.  This piece of paper will promise he will not be sent back to Zimbabwe where he is targeted for being a member of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

This is just one family of thousands struggling to survive because of a crisis in their country just a few miles from their one bedroom apartment.

Hopefully after weeks of footage, notebooks and pictures we can be the voice for some of these people.

For me, if I can inform one person about this situation that touched my core both fairly and accurately then I’ve done my job.

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: