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.

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.

It’s taken me a few days to coordinate having the right tools at the right time to be able to upload photos since our Internet access is very limited. We all fight for one of four computers in the computer lab in our dorm that has working Internet access, or for access to the journalism lab (on the other side of campus)–and even then, it’s only if we can get hold of a working student login.

You’ve already read that we went to the Apartheid Museum on Monday, and spent some time with a group of school children out in the parking lot.

Children dancing

They all were dancing and singing together and it was really a blast to photograph. The kids all asked to take our pictures, and as Jill said, hesitantly, we let them. One boy took my camera and ran, while another kid came and grabbed my hand and led me to the sidewalk so he could play with my hair. I joined Amber at the salon that day.

The one thing that I remembered most after leaving the parking lot is that when these kids hug you, they really hug you. It’s not a light grasp, or a hesitant/awkward hug, they latch on and seem genuinely happy.

Dan and kids

In 15 minutes, Jill and I are heading to two camps: one in Midrand and one in Diepsloot. I’m both nervous and excited for what we’re going to see.

Emily, Josh and Keridwen left last night on a train to the Zimbabwe border. My goodness, it’s a 17 hour ride. James and Carolyn are heading out on a bus today at 2 p.m. and it’s a 6 hour ride. I hope they have fun, are safe and get some great stories.

We just got word that we have a security guard, but no driver. And we can’t take a taxi because it’s too expensive (R100), and we have nine minutes to meet our source at the robot. I’m so frustrated.

Today, we’ve hit the ground running.  Each one of us has been placed in groups ranging from three to eight people based on preference and topic availability.  And after a few brainstorming sessions, groups have dispersed and the majority of the day has been used quite chaotically in order to plan strategies for coverage.  The largest group of eight are now waiting for a ride outside of our dorm to take them to the train and bus station so that they may make the trek to the Zimbabwe border.  Most will be riding the train and have specifically requested the cheapest, most dingy transport possible so that they might find Zimbabweans in the midst of their plight back home.  The remainder are bording a bus which is believed to be even less accomidating.  We’ve joked that they will be fighting for “seats” on the floor among chickens and farm animals.

I’ve been assigned to cover humanitarian efforts.  I’m in a group of three — myself and Massi as photo/print journalists and Amber as a broadcaster.  After exhausting a few efforts to visit refugee camps, we’ve gone straight for the source — the Joburg Central Methodist Church.  Many of you may be familiar with the church, as it has made headline news after spearheading efforts to house scores of displaced foreigners and becoming a safehouse for those affected by xenophobic attacks.  On our first trip to the church, we didn’t know what to expect.  Massi and I decided to go in first.  Upon entering the rundown facility, the stench of human waste and body odor was overwhelming.  Displaced refugees lined the stairs and hallways, using insulation and cardboard as make-shift resting places.  After being directed to the bishop’s office on the fourth floor, Massi and I spoke to a man named Mafika.  I believe he was a director of sorts.  He told us that we would first need to speak to Bishop Paul in order to gain access to “the community” of refugees.  Soon after speaking with us, he was alerted that a robbery had taken place in the basement.  A security guard, one of only 18 in charge of watching over the estimated 2,000 refugees, hurried him down the stairs to the basement.  He invited Massi and I to come along as long as we agreed to leave our recorders and cameras in our bags.  We were shuffled through a mass of people and personal belongings that consumed up the tight, dark hallways and stairs to the basement.  When we finally made it all the way down to the basement, I was confronted with the depths of a  poverty that I never knew existed.  Cement walls enclosed a small room that I would estimate 50 people called home.  Thin mats were strewn side-by-side, backed by piles of clothing, suitcases, pots and amenities.  I almost tripped on an unattended baby when I walked into the room.  We were directed into a utilities room in the back where Mafika pointed to a small water pump that was confiscated from a would-be thief.  He estimated its worth at about 6,000R (about $800US).  When asked what would happen to the criminal, he told me he’d direct him to the bishop who would probably ask him to repent for his sins and send him on his way.  The police are not their friends, we’ve learned. 

We left the church and spent about three hours attempting to contact Bishop John without success.  We decided the best thing to do would be to go back and try our luck at finding another leader at the church.  After speaking with Rev. Tenjiwe Mclacka-Clacka’s (sp?) assistant, we were informed there would be a service tonight at 7 p.m.  That is where we’re going now.  I’ve got to cut this short because my taxi is waiting outside, but I’m excited to see what the service has to offer.