Bleary-eyed but full of excitement, we piled onto the bus. Eager chatter filled the air as the engine started and we embarked on the first day of our journey, but it was not long before the beauty of Capetown took our breath away. As we drove, we watched the sun rise over Table Mountain. The silhouettes of the rocky edges, stark against the lightening sky, were an astonishing backdrop to the beautiful city below. “Wow”—a single thought held every one of us captivated. ”We’re really here.”
One life-changing Values and World Thought program, two incredible teachers, three chaperones with varied unique talents and 17 students who made up the junior class of Mount Madonna School. After over a year of intense intellectual, physical and psychological preparation, we had made it. For 19 days we would eat, sleep and live as one. We were there on a service and learning journey. We were in South Africa.
I took a breath. My new friend, Sarah, squeezed my hand. “Ready?” she asked, and smiled. The stage was full—a mix of our class and the incredibly talented performers of the Tswelopele Performing Arts Group of the township of Tembisa. I knew that with them amongst us there was only so much that could go wrong, but I could also see flickers of doubt on the faces of some audience members. We were just a bunch of American teenagers who had only had three days to prepare, singing and dancing on the stage of the Tembisa Cultural Center with people who dedicated an enormous part of their lives to practicing and perfecting their art. Who were we in comparison?
I looked around. The stage was bright. Each person up there was dressed in the clothing of his or her own culture. From Zulu warrior skins and furs and traditional Mozambican attire to our American “quality casual,” the blending of existence, both past and present, was truly a sight to wonder at. As all of this ran through my mind, I lost track of everything but the whole. The music had started. I was moving my feet to the rhythm, a part of the stage coming to life. I remembered another girl leaning towards me the day before and whispering, “Become the music. Let it move you. Feel the ground and the rest will come.” She was right.
One of the songs we sang was “Shosholoza”, a piece that the previous Mount Madonna School group had learned at that very place two years ago. It was familiar to every person in the audience. Any hint of doubt or fear melted away as we sang, and what remained was a feeling that I will always remember. I had a sense of pride, mild surprise and overwhelming happiness to be there and present in that moment. The audience was wild with energy, a small sea of sound and movement. The faces that looked up at us were smiling. We were just a bunch of teenagers on stage, but we were having fun and our energy made us a part of something bigger.
Through the music, we recognized one another’s cultures. We sang life into the history of each of our countries, honoring the struggles and successes that got us where we are today. We honored Madiba, a term of endearment used to refer to Nelson Mandela in his final stage of life, and sang to the continual protection of human rights and unity that he lived for. This experience came back to us again and again throughout our journey. As part of that, I developed a new and deeper respect for music and what it can do for humanity.
Many times on this trip we had nothing but a room, ourselves and another group of young people to spend time with. We would get to know another, through talking, laughing, singing, crying and sharing the stories that formed us. At times it became strikingly and uncomfortably apparent how different our lives were. Nevertheless, we would move through it and open up, because there was really nothing to hide behind. At home often we have labels—names for the types of people we are seen as in society. It’s easier that way. Doctors are seen as doctors, football players as football players. Labels give us an identity. If we have them, we don’t actually have to reveal who we are. In South Africa, it was not like that.
Many of the kids we met will likely never leave the townships they live in. Not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t have the resources or the ability. This doesn’t stop them from dreaming and believing in themselves. As we talked one day with the Yenza Project group, situated in the township of Mfuleni, this struck me. We were discussing our dreams and aspirations and the struggles we would face to achieve them, when a boy named Zimvo told me that one day he would be a musician. He was going to come to the United States, make a living and be free. There was no doubt in his voice, but his eyes were knowing and a little sad. He knew that the probability of this actually happening was very small, but he was rehearsing and working everyday anyhow. He would do everything he could to get there.
I shared my dreams with him too. I told him of my goals and far-fetched passions and admitted my doubts about how I would make them happen. He listened closely but said little. I felt stupid for sharing my concerns with him. His house was a tin shack and he had lost both of his parents. He had no one but himself to rely on. I shouldn’t have even tried to compare my worries, I thought, angry with myself for being so insensitive. But as we sang and danced after that, he led us, and I saw profound strength and courage in him. He didn’t need my pity.
With a bittersweet tug at the back of my throat, I prepared myself for the dash back to our bus through the rain. It was the end of the day, and we had said our last goodbyes. Just as I stepped out onto the muddy road, someone stopped me. “Wait,” Zimvo said and took my hand, his dark eyes holding mine, “Look. We both know you have a good life. You have resources, support and the opportunity to follow your dreams. Don’t feel guilty about that. Use it for the good of all of us.” I hugged him and promised that I would.
See Talia’s story come to life in this awesome video!
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