Will Dodd
Will Dodd
South Africa 2015
VIEW FINAL REPORT
I am a 23 year old college grad hoping to make a positive difference in the world. I am traveling Cape Town, South Africa as a part of my journey to create positive change. I will be working with the Human Rights Office- a voice for those often unheard. Read More About William →

To Those Who Live Well- I Will Never Forget You

I think as you reach the end of something, you begin to look back. Throughout my whole time in South Africa, I’ve kept my gaze forward— focusing on the future, what work there is to be done. Throughout these final weeks, however, I’ve turned my gaze and begun to look back. As my time winds down to these last few days, the separation between my house back in Tennessee and my home here in Cape Town doesn’t seem so far away. I have such mixed feelings about leaving this place, and going back to everything familiar. I have a new familiar now, and a reformed idea of normal— I can’t un-remember these things. But, I cannot help but let my mind return to thoughts of the beginning, and how those thoughts have changed in undulating motions since I’ve been here— washing away preconceptions, bringing new perspective each time.

When I first got here, Projects Abroad briefed me on everything to be aware of in the attempt to be safe in Cape Town: never go anywhere alone, never walk around at night, never take any valuables with you anywhere, never take the train before 7:00 am or past 6:00 pm, make sure you’re in your house by 6:00, and most importantly NEVER go into the townships at night. When you get here and learn the rules, your first reaction is to abide by them completely; even creating some of your own— adding on extra layers of padding to help ensure your own safety. But you realize after awhile, that all rules have limitations and circumstances change things. Sometimes you are alone and you have to get home, so you walk. Sometimes it’s dark, and you have to walk alone— the way isn’t far. There are times when you’ve stayed in the township helping with something, and then you finally realize the sun’s gone down over an hour ago— you hear gunshots in the distance as you leave, reminding you that the rules are there for a reason. Most of the time, you need to be somewhere before 7, and you take the train. All of these rules change with circumstances; and, slowly but surely, without even realizing it you find your own way.

So many things you can only learn through acquisition and experience. When you work in the foreign world of social justice, and help to treat the symptoms of poverty, you are more often than not involved in areas of high crime and desperation. There are warning signs on everything. Any area of poverty here has invisible caution tape wrapped around it, acting as a “BEWARE” sign to any outsider.

Helping the poor and needy, and being involved in the world of social justice, is a commitment that looks nice and shiny on the outside for many people. It’s got a sweet, soft and gooey center that seems wonderful and fulfilling (marketing for the gooey center of “help” and “poverty” is easy). Everyone loves the gooey center; but, in order to get to this fulfilling sweet center that comes from making someone else’s life better, sometimes you must endanger your own. This is when it becomes real— for working in the world of crime and poverty indeed has its fulfilling center, but it also comes with some very rough edges.

I think that’s a huge thing that I’ve realized here. If you’re really going to help the poor and needy, I mean REALLY help (not just take pictures of little African kids on your shoulders to help decorate your Facebook profile), then you’re going to feel some fear, and you’re going to experience some danger. You’re more than likely going to see bad things, and more than likely some bad things will happen to you. But there’s something else, something even more important than knowing the cost of truly helping, and it’s this— Once you get past all the fear, all the anger, all “could be’s” and the “what if’s” that come with high crime and poverty and danger, you begin to see hope. And I don’t mean some hope like “hope to get a job,” or “hope to graduate college” (although those kinds of hope are indeed important); I mean a hope in humanity. It’s so real, and so special. I’m talking about a hope that is Bold and Bright and POWERFUL— the beautiful remnant that rises from their circumstance and chooses to believe and live well regardless of what the world tells them. The people that get up each and every day and live a life of quiet nobility. Sure, maybe you wont read about them in the newspaper, you won’t hear them giving speeches on some television channel, and you probably wont see them screaming or preaching in the street— but they’re Everywhere, in Every place, all around the world.  You must simply open your eyes to see.  Open your eyes and wait.

Every weekday I wake up at 5:30, eat a small breakfast, and get on the 6:15 train to a suburb near the place where I work. You’ve obviously just read in my list of “rules” that I shouldn’t ride the train before 7 am; but this is something I’m so thankful that I eventually disregarded. All the trains before 7 am are packed with people from the working class of Cape Town— blue-collar people who work hard for their pay, and earn everything they get. It’s the early mornings that I’ll miss the most after I leave this place. Getting to the train station that, from the outside, appears sleepy with the humdrum slow awakening of people beginning to assemble their food and knick-knack stands; but, the inside is alive with the quiet hustle and bustle of people in uniforms going to work (I say “uniforms,” because seeing a person on these early trains in a suit would be very uncommon). Uniforms of all kinds: grocery store logos, tire-repair shops, gas and service stations, local eateries, fitness clubs, etc— all people waking and working early to prepare the city of Cape Town for everyone else.

Being able to watch the city in motion, and being in motion with them at the same time is perhaps the most wonderful thing about my experience here. I know it sounds corny, but just watching the people go about their day, noticing their habits, the similarities and differences between the people here and in the U.S.— all of it reminds me of how beautifully unique we all are, yet how wonderfully human. Perhaps all would look normal, and I wouldn’t notice the commotion of it all if it weren’t so new to me; but there’s something so amazing about the quotidian repetition of the working class— just like a heartbeat pumping life into every corner of Cape Town. The working class is the backbone of this society— that voice of quiet nobility that simply does right. These are the people who love fiercely and fight for justice simply by getting up every day, and living well— providing for their families no matter what it takes, even if it means taking out the trash, cleaning the floors, or selling snacks and cigarettes at a roadside stand. These are the people that greet you when you make eye contact, rather than challenge you to a staring contest until you look away. The soft and rhythmic heartbeat of the working class is what I will miss the most, and the all the mornings I spent with them never sharing more than a few words. Although they will not remember me, I will never forget them.

Cheers to all of those people who dare to participate in daily goodness, and walk in the way of quiet nobility each day, asking nothing in return. Cheers to all of those people who make the daily choice of love over hate and fear— without even realizing it. Cheers to all of those people who work hard, and provide for their families, hoping to make the lives of those who come after them just a bit better than life was for themselves. Cheers to all those people who inspire hope— all those whose slow and methodical lives of nobility make the gears turn in making this world a better place. You are the people who will change this nation. I believe in you. I will never forget you.

Remembering “The One”

There comes a time in all of our lives when we grow weary— reach the point where we simply throw our hands up and say “I can’t do it anymore.” The moments that our knees get weak and force us to take refuge in some place, some thought, some belief, or someone. Reaching the point of desperation isn’t a place of giving up, or admitting defeat— perhaps it is just the humble admission that we can no longer do it all on our own.   In all of our journeys of life, there are people, moments, and experiences that help us along the way— hands of all forms that reach down and help us to our feet again and again after we’ve fallen. Sometimes this can be an encouraging word, and sometimes it’s a literal hand pulling you up from the ground— for me, this rescuing hand came in the form of a story. The story of one man’s journey from the war torn city of Darfur, Sudan to the streets of Cape Town. The story where one man risked his life in the pursuit of living free and fully, rather than succumbing to the oppressive and violent environment he’d only ever known.

All throughout my life, my dad has always spoken of “The One.” The idea of “The One” brings all of the attention we have, and all of our disappointment and moments of let down, to one person— when we ask ourselves the question, “if all of this was enough to change the life of One person, would it be enough?” No matter what you do in life, if helping others is part of your passion, there will come many times when you feel that your attempts, work, heart and mind that you pour into something is all for naught. When you experience defeat and apathy and stagnation over and over again, regardless of what or how much you invest. When you look out into a sea of faces and know they’re staring right through you, and everything seems meaningless— that is when you search for “The One.” “The One” is what makes all that we do worth it. In the sea of blank stares, metaphorically or realistically, we must never forget The One— One who cares, one who needs, one who’s listening. One whose heart is open. No matter how great we are, or how passionate we may be, there is never a moment when everyone cares, or an instant when all ears are listening and all hearts know their neediness. Perhaps the greatest fight of the impassioned is the fight against apathy, this war of Love, because the ones who refuse apathy, who openly need others— those are the ones who make all of our efforts worth it. “The One” for me, in my time here, came in the form of a refugee named Matthew Benjamin. His story, and the glitter in his eyes and width of his smile when he told it, was just like a great big, callused hand reaching down to pull me back onto my feet again. His story dusted me off, and breathed new life into me again— pointed me back in the right direction.

You see, not everyone wants help. Not everyone needs openly. This is perhaps my greatest disappointment I’ve faced in my work here. There are many who just take, and know of nothing else— these people make my heart reluctant to give; but the ones in need, and who do so openly— those are the ones I wish to give everything to. I’ve worked with many refugees in my time here. So many of them come into our office seeking letters of asylum, and documentation to prove to everyone that they will not be forced to return to their home country for some time— a statement proving that they belong. People from all parts of Africa come in seeking this documentation. I’ve worked with people from Malawi, Rwanda, DR Congo, Sudan, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Burundi, Cameroon, and various other nations. The small bits that I’ve heard from some of these people, and what some of them endured back home, and the atrocities that drove them to forsake everything familiar and journey to a place far away with nothing— only but for the hope of some semblance of safety. Just a feeble glimpse at their world is enough to change you forever. There is no way to know, and no way to experience the world of someone else without climbing into their boots and taking a walkabout; yet, sometimes only a portion of someone’s story is all the walking you can handle. Some of these people have lost entire families to wars and regimes that seem to want nothing more than to simply destroy. This evil is real. Although we’re unknowingly shielded from it in America, that does nothing to change the horrific reality for so many in other places of the world. If you are reading this from a free nation, thank God for your country— so many are so much less fortunate.

On a normal Tuesday morning, I saw an unusually cheerful man knocked on the door of our office. As no one was at the front desk to let him in, I walked up to the door and opened it for him. He wore green canvas pants, a green Absa Springbok jersey, and a black hat with the KFC logo on it in red. This man was beaming. “Ah, Hi Hi,” he said as he bowed his head and stuck out his hand to greet me. “I am Matthew Benjamin, as I have changed my name from Alrasheed Mustafa.” I couldn’t help but smile at the joy that radiated from this man. “I’m William. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Mustafa.” He began to laugh and said “Oh, no problem” in a thick Sudanese dialect. I lost words for a moment. For just this brief moment in time, I just smiled and stared at this man. How earnest was everything about his presence— his demeanor, his smile. I remembered what I was doing after a moment. “What can we help you with today?” I asked him. His smile never broke, “Yes, please. Thank you, Mr. William. I am hoping for a letter of recommendation to reapply to be refugee.” He drew me in with the way he looked at me— I knew I’d do everything I could to help him. His presence seemed such a silent power.

I led him into our head attorney’s office, and the three of us sat down and discussed his refugee status. Mr. Benjamin explained his situation briefly, and after just a taste of his story, I knew this man came from near hell. His joy was almost piercing— in a way almost frightening. How could someone from such a place, with such pain also be so happy? The joy of his presence was one I couldn’t run from, I couldn’t dismiss. It was a joy that forced me to look inside myself and confront my own apathy. I felt a strong urge welling up inside of me— emotions needing some form of release, but I didn’t know where or how. The joy of this man was almost enough to drive me from the room because of its strength— I almost feared his composure. His story, I think, would have ruined me had it been my own; but he was here, he was strong, and he was moving forward. He’d survived and fought for freedom when so many of us would’ve simply lain down, me included. Perhaps that’s what was so powerful to me— the fact that he’d made it, that the horrors of his past had never beaten him. He’d never given up. He’d won.

There’s a country music song called “Love is War,” with the lines, “Lovers in a picture frame, ever notice how there ain’t no rain? Nobody hangs hard times on the wall.” The words remind me of a photograph my parents hung in the hallway leading to their bedroom. In the picture, a family is in black and white. No one smiles— a mother and father, and three sons. The mother sits in an armchair and the father and their three boys stand behind her. Each son is dressed in a three-piece suit, and wears a hard, worn expression. My grandfather is the youngest boy in the photo— he was 14 at the time the picture was taken. He once told my father it’s the saddest photo he’s ever seen. Just looking back into the history of his life, his family, his childhood, brings heavy sadness to his heart. My parents hung the photo up to remember family, but the thought of family isn’t a fond memory for those in the black and white photograph. Like the song says, “Nobody hangs hard times on the wall,” because no one wants to dwell on hard times, hard moments, or painful journeys. I always loved looking at the photo growing up, I was so taken by it, because three of the people in the photo died before I ever got a chance to meet them. Those who came after the ones in the photo are intrigued by it, because it arouses curiosity. I want to know about the family— about the family my grandfather grew up in. The story is powerful to me. The story in the photo that interests me does not dismiss the pain in the photograph, but allows me to know about my grandfather, and about my family. The more we are able to know of someone’s story, the deeper and better our love for them can be, for we know where they came from.

An old photo may seem insignificant in this context, but there is a point to my words. My point is that the story behind someone’s journey, no matter how painful or heartbreaking it may be, is one that invites us in. We all wish to take part in this human experience, and the stories of those who have experienced other worlds and other times than we have tell us of places we will never see. While so many run from the pain of their past, it seemed that Matthew Benjamin confronted it— he never forgot because he never tried to. He always wanted to remember. He had the courage to tell his story to others, time and time again. If there was such a photo to encompass all of Mr. Benjamin’s history, every painful, horrifying, joyful, and memorable experience he’s ever had, if there was one image big and strong enough to hold the weight of all of his life, no matter the pain, I believe Mr. Benjamin would hang it boldly on the wall. Not really to remember the pain, but to remember the past. To remember where he came from, and rest peacefully knowing where he is now.   South Africa is certainly not a perfect place, but place has so much to do with past, experience, and history. The world’s we know from our past determine so much of how we view the ones of our future.

I am not going to share the story of Mr. Benjamin, for that would require more words than this blog should take; however, I am just going to post this picture so that you can celebrate Mr. Benjamin with me— the hand that reached down and lifted me back onto my feet. We have since helped Mr. Benjamin achieve permanent settlement, and we were there to celebrate with him his recent graduation.

Sometimes someone’s story is all we need to remember our own, and where we want to go with all of this. No matter where you are, what you are doing, no matter how meaningless some moments may seem, never forget “The One.” Thank you Matthew Benjamin for reminding me how to live— I aspire to be more like you.

Matthew Benjamin recently graduated from Cape University of Technology with a Masters in IT

Matthew Benjamin recently graduated from Cape Peninsula University of Technology with a Masters in IT

Rocking The Daisies 2015

This past weekend was one I’ll always remember. A few weeks ago, a couple friends and I bought tickets for some random music festival called “Rocking The Daisies” we’d heard about in a nearby town— thinking it would be cool to get out of the city for some time. We just figured “hey it’s music, couldn’t be too different from back home.” So we went. It’s funny how comforting and safe, and even wildly entertaining some of the smallest things that remind us of home can be after being so far away for so long. A good example would be a terrible 90’s comedy we’d find in some drawer at the house. There’d be no shot anyone would pop a bad 90’s comedy in to watch back home— at least not for fun— but here, sometimes a bad movie from the 90’s is the best way to make for an afternoon at the house. Now, this is just to say that sometimes the small things that remind of home can become big cures in a far away place— this is not to compare “Rocking The Daisies” to a bad 90’s film, for to do so would just be wrong. Daisies was an entirely different element.

BYOT (Bring Your Own Tent) and claim your own ground if you want to sleep at the Daisies.

BYOT (Bring Your Own Tent) and claim your own ground if you want to sleep at the Daisies.

As the days got closer, we learned it was more than just some music festival close by— Rocking The Daisies is like the Bonnaroo of South Africa, only incredible more tame. Thousands of people travel from all around, even some from different countries, just to attend this four-day, nonstop event. Beginning in 1995, Daisies went all out for their 10-year anniversary. They celebrated it with a bang— 4 days and nights of one massive, non-stop party. People of all shapes, sizes, and colors turned up to celebrate their common love of music and fellowship alongside others in this Rainbow Nation. The atmosphere was a unique and appetizing blend of Southern California style, combined with counterculture hippie vibes from the 1960’s, and a massive university block party— all tied together with the deep and colorful roots of the South African homeland. Set at the Cloof Wine Estate in Darling, thousands gathered to party, listen, laugh, and of course rejoice in the joy of the jive. With everyone there pitching in and playing an equal part in this celebration, it was next to impossible not to have the time of your life.

Food trucks strewn about offered the best organic eats in the area

Food trucks strewn about offered the best organic eats in the area

Perhaps the ones who offered the heaviest load of cheer were the ones sporting ridiculous, multicolored onesies— I’m talking grown men wearing footy-pajamas. At first you’re like, “What the…?” and then you eventually come to realize, “That’s just Daisies.” Some had rabbit ears or antennas, others had tails, but all came with a full dose of goober. Between those wearing the adult-sized onesies, and the classic millennial hippies, there was also no shortage of gym-regulars. In moments when the onesie-wearers and hippies thinned out, and the shirtless dudes grew more common, it was hard not to forget I was at a music festival, and not a thousand man tryout for the national rugby team— ripped and chiseled physiques strutted around in every area. The combination of everyone’s differences, all thrown together in celebration of the same thing, made for an almost surreal environment.

Classic dude in a onesie. One of the more tame ones, actually.

Classic dude in a onesie. One of the more tame ones, actually.

Typical lounging garb- Flintstone's costumes

Typical lounging garb- Flintstone’s costumes

This festival featured some big names and some of the best bands and artists around. With endless live music going on in nearly 5 different places at once, it was impossible to go to the wrong show— the only thing that mattered was what you were feeling at the time. If it was high energy you wanted, the Electronic Dome brought it; if you needed a good laugh, the Lemon Tree Theater imported fantastic stand up comedians to do just the trick; and, if you simply wanted to unwind, kick back, relax, and listen to some soothing folk music, or have structured conversation about important issues, or maybe even just play a board game, then the Hemp Stage could give you just that. No matter what state of mind, or what type of mood came upon someone, it seemed that RTD provided a solution.

Maybe the only thing RTD couldn’t give a solution for was the shower line in the morning. People lined up for hours waiting for their moment of sudsy bliss in a hot water shower. Somehow though, perhaps by some act of a higher power, all seemed happy to wait their turn. The real winners in this battle were the ones who just forewent shower time and carried on— however, I’m sure their tent-mates would beg to differ.

Queuing up for the Bathroom and Food lines in the morning

Queuing up for the Bathroom and Food lines in the morning

Knowing bands like Milky Chance and The Kooks were shoo-ins for the weekend highlight reel, perhaps the greatest surprise of the weekend was the breathtaking performance delivered from Australia’s Cat Empire. This band presented the gift of music in an uncommon package for a weekend music festival, but it certainly hit the spot. With almost as many instruments on the stage as the London Symphony Orchestra, this crew offered a sound totally different and unique from all the others. Cat Empire combined an uncommon mix of brass instruments, an upright base, and electric vibes for their performance.   Overall, it seemed everyone agreed that they were simply masterful.

Thousands gathered to wave their countries colors and hear Milky Chance

Thousands gathered to wave their countries colors and hear Milky Chance

Out of all the other fantastic groups that didn’t get a chance to perform on the Main Stage, the local band Manouche took the crown for the weekend’s “Hidden Gem” award. They call their style “Gypsy Jazz,” and they taught us a little something about their way. With killer vocals and infectious energy from the band’s lead singer, Anneli Kamfer, combined with outstanding background musicians and vocals, this group was a must see. Who wouldn’t want to get behind a fantastic local band like this anyway?

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When the weekend finally came to a close— sadly, but surely— people packed up their tents, picked up their trash, and made their way back to wherever they came from. With recycling and trash dispensers around nearly every corner, this eco-friendly event worked hard to make cleaning up after yourself seem easy. One of the few mottos for Daisies is “Play Hard, Tread Lightly,” and they gave us the inspiration and the means by which to have great memories, yet leave a small footprint after our departure. Cheers to Rocking The Daisies for paving the way— an incredible festival that doesn’t lose sight of the rest of the world.

Wrapping up the long weekend. This is us waiting for our ride in the field after the majority had already left.

Wrapping up the long weekend. This is us waiting for our ride in the field after the majority had already left.

Braii and Earthwave Festival

Before last week came to a close, a group of us went over to the township of Khayelitcha to finish a vegetable shed we began several weeks ago. We put on the finishing touches, leveled out the shelves, added a sliding door with a lock, and shook hands upon its completion. Several kind women of the township prepared a hot lunch of beans and cabbage while we worked, which we ate on the dirt floor of the schoolhouse after we finished. Before heading back to the office, we joined in a quick soccer game with some of the kids at the school. I didn’t have much to say for myself, as every kid there was better than me, but it was good to be “less than” in this situation, so I was oddly thankful for my inability.

Putting on the final touches of the vegetable shed

Putting on the final touches of the vegetable shed

Soccer in the schoolyard

Soccer in the schoolyard

Hot Lunch from the kind people of Khayelitcha

Hot Lunch from the kind people of Khayelitcha

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The inside of the vegetable shed

 

On Friday we came together to celebrate the holiday weekend with a classic South African Braii. A Braii is just the local code for “having a barbeque.” We all left work at noon, and caught the train to the township of Capricorn. Shuan, our Social Justice Coordinator, has called this place home for 26 years, and first gave us the grand tour. A large crowd of kids followed us everywhere we went. As we walked the streets, I didn’t have much to say. I just sort of took it all in. The majority of the kids in this particular township never spend a single day in a school classroom, and spend there days roaming and playing. Their lives are magnificently uncomplicated until they reach the age of about 10, and that’s when the time comes when many of them choose inclusion over freedom. So many of these still young children fall victim to gang activity, and usher in the end of their childhood years before they ever even hit puberty. As we walked the street, even though I know the likely bleak future for so many of them, it was beautiful to see the children run around and laugh— happily unaware of the rest of the world.

The Trampoline in Capricorn

The Trampoline in Capricorn

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On Sunday, we took the train to the Earthwave Beach Festival in Muizenberg— one of Cape Town’s most popular surfing spots. The Earthwave gathering was put together in hopes of breaking two world records: the most people surfing the same wave at once, and the world’s largest bikini parade. Neither record ended up being broken, as Cape Town’s unpredictable weather decided to put up a fight, but either way the Earthwave Festival was still the place to be. We barbequed on the back porch of the Projects-Abroad Surf House, and eventually beat the rain. The sun finally came out, and shined a light on a great Sunday afternoon.

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Beachside at the Earthwave Festival

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Friendship anklets for all the roomies!

Celebrating Heritage Day

This past Thursday we celebrated “Heritage Day” in South Africa by hiking Cape Town’s famous Table Mountain. Heritage Day is a holiday meant to bring people together, across all spectrums, to celebrate our differences, and at the same time faithfully recognize we’re all in this together. The idea behind all of this is to remember where you come from, what makes you unique to your walk of life, and celebrate what got you to where you are now— South Africa.

The pathway up Table Mountain

The pathway up Table Mountain

We chose to hike the 4-hour trail up the backside of Table Mountain. Standing at the bottom, this world wonder doesn’t seem to tower above the clouds, but from the top the view certainly changes. Climbing this mountain got me thinking about our journey to the destination on top. Usually when you hike, its common to spend much more time getting to where you’re going than you ever actually spend once you finally arrive. Doesn’t that then make the journey more important than the arrival? Does the sheer amount of time spent on the journey make it more meaningful, more altering, and more powerful than the destination itself? I thought about this as we were climbing the mountain. Knowing we clearly wouldn’t spend 4 hours on the top, I got to thinking about the journey— all these little journey’s in life we take to get to the destinations we hope for. There are the journeys of the day to day, the journeys of years, schools, professions, dreams, and the overall journey we take in life.

Photographing the Journey

Photographing the Journey

Heritage Day is a celebration of the journey we all take to get where we are— celebrating not the destination, but the journeys of histories, heritages, and pasts that have paved the way to where we are now. How beautiful to this human experience to take one day out of the year to focus not on the present, nor where we are going, but where we come from, and what brought us to where we are.

South Africa is a complicated nation, imbibed with the fibers of a rich, colorful culture, and a devastating and separated past. With just barely more than 20 years separating South Africa from the Apartheid era, there is still much progress to be made. Many people here are still very angry, and there is still a palpable separation between races, classes, and suburbs. The memories of segregation and separation are still fresh on the minds and hearts of the South African people. If everything about my birth was the same— day, month, year— but only I was born in South Africa, I would’ve been born separate from people of other races. This is not an issue of past generations for someone in their early twenties here, this separation was part of their life, and would’ve been a part of mine had I been born here as well. There’s no way for a middle class white guy from America to relate to this— all I can really do is observe and take in as much as I can. Is it overwhelming at times— the anger I see in some of the people? Absolutely. But is it understandable, given the poverty in some of the areas, and recent history of this place? Absolutely.

It’s hard to imagine a world different than your own, unless you get the chance to climb into the boots of someone else and take a stroll in theirs. Once you experience the world from another perspective, the world you knew begins to seem much smaller. A big part of the growth I’ve experienced during this internship is realizing how important the journey is. After all, we don’t all know where we’re going, but we all know where we are, and where we’ve been.

The view from the top

The view from the top

View from the top

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The world above the clouds

 

Eyes From the Outside

It’s taken me a little while to write again. There’s a tragic reality I have encountered in my work here as a legal intern that’s taken me away from words— knowing that nothing I could say, no set of words, no special phrasing, and no blog post could hope to explain the world of crime that I’ve experienced here working in the legal system.

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The living conditions for a family of seven.

The hero myth that I’d romanticized about before coming here I’ve found to be devastatingly untrue. The idea that I’d march in and change the world— righting wrongs and helping people find freedom from the chaos. There are limitations to thoughts and hopes that sometimes can only be truly realized through experiencing a place, and working as a part of their system. The world of law is a world of gray. There is very little black and white, very little entirely right or entirely wrong, perhaps this is what I’ve come to know all too well.

We may represent a teenage client guilty of a brutal gang murder, and it’s legally our job to fight for his rights. It seems black and white, right and wrong, at first; but the background of some people, the motive, the age, and the parties involved can change everything. Very soon, something entirely wrong can become entirely grey. The world of grey, where reality overtakes the dreams of hopeful simplicity, can be discouraging as well as eye opening.

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A street-side restaurant in the township of Mitchell’s Plain

Once you’ve been somewhere and lived as the locals do for more than a month, you begin to see the guts of a place. Working in the world of crime and violence, I’ve seen and experienced nothing that you will see on Google, nothing that you can find in photos, and nothing that you will hear from someone who spent time here on vacation or some type of school trip.

In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass— An American Slave, he speaks of learning how to read. His describes the destruction within him that reading caused— the cursed knowledge to never see his world through innocent and illiterate eyes again. He writes:

“I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity… I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Any thing, no matter what, to get rid of thinking! It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me. There was no getting rid of it… It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.”

Once he knows the difference, once he learns of an entirely different world separate from the one he’s known, he is unable to be free from the pain that knowing has brought to him— he cannot go back to the world of what it is to not know. Frederick Douglas describes this as the darkest night of his soul. A moment where his world has completely changed from knowing the difference between innocence and knowledge— knowledge that he cannot give back.

People say that ignorance is bliss; I agree. The things that I’ve seen here, and the world that I’ve experienced, will leave imprints of anguish and sorrow that are too strong for me to ever let fade from my mind. Imprints of my own sorrow and anguish, yes, but the stronger imprint is the sorrow that faces so many of these people every day. My time here will come to an end soon, and I will carry the experiences that I’ve been a part of here in my mind and heart forever; but, for so many of the people I’ve worked with, there is no place to carry these stories and experiences back to— these “stories” are their lives, and these “experiences” are the source of their sorrow and anguish.

So many moments in our lives reform the world we see, and take away ignorance and innocence that we never knew we had. That is simply to say that that this place has changed me, and I can no longer see from eyes of ignorance. The world that I have been so privileged to live in before is one that I feel now can only look at from the outside— after experiencing an entirely different world and realizing some of the differences that I, ignorant and innocent, previously knew nothing of.

I knew this experience would grow me— whether good or bad, hard or simple, free or binding. More than anything that’s grown in me during my time here is my perspective on injustice, and what it is to know and experience unbelievable injustice first hand— to hate it and yearn to make it right, and at the same time realize that there is only so little in our human power that we can do.

A side-street barbershop in Khayelitcha

A side-street barbershop in Khayelitcha

It seems to me, that so much of our power to fight injustice isn’t held in legal documents, police reports, or politics— perhaps our best stand against injustice is simply to love. To dare to believe that we, as human beings, are bigger than our past, our mistakes, where we grew up, and where our failures lie. We all make our choices in the end, regardless of what others say or our circumstances or any influence in our lives. In the end, human beings get to choose how we act, justly or unjustly, and maybe that most powerful choice that we can make is simply to choose love. Regardless of what we’ve lost, or how bad the world seems sometimes, maybe the most powerful and poetic thing we can do is to choose love.

Life in the Valley

This past week was when everything really settled in for me. I shook of the rest of the dust from back home and dove into my role here in South Africa. The massive case files they handed me to sort out the first week began to get thinner, and new files didn’t seem so cumbersome. I was able to realize that although I miss those back home, my focus is now on the people here— those I work with and interact with daily. I was able to plunge deeper into the job I signed up for, and not only take part in the good times, but climb down into the crags and clay and make myself comfortable– because the dirty work is what I signed up for.

I accepted the fact that although I don’t know all of South African law, it’s my responsibility to figure out how to give mothers their children back, take children away from abusive parents, release someone of a fraudulent debt that’s too heavy to survive under the weight of, and decide if the 15 year old boy that was seen in the same place at the same time where the dead body turned up is rightfully accused of murder. Those are a few of the cases I’m responsible for. It’s my job to make all of these cases right, follow up and determine the next step to take, and make my work so sound that it will uphold in court if the case gets litigated.

It all sounds too serious right? Like I couldn’t just be handed responsibility like that. Like I’m not qualified to hold the power of deciding what the next steps need to be for a 15 year old boy accused of murder— being the only one standing in between someone’s accusation and a teenager spending his entire life in one of the most gruesome prisons in this part of the world. The overwhelming truth is that I’m obviously not qualified for this, and I wasn’t ready to carry the weight and the responsibility of people’s lives until the time came when I was just expected to. Then again, you’re never ready for something like this until you’re handed the job, and it’s you who has to make the choice of throwing yourself in the chaos or backing the heck out. Backing out means you abandon someone in need, and throwing yourself in the chaos means you may mess something up in the case and alter someone’s life drastically. In the end, the truth is that without people like us at the Human Rights Office, these matters wouldn’t be resolved, and there would be nowhere to turn for people who can’t afford legal services.

Messing up is part of learning, and I’d always rather try and fail than fail to try; but sometimes failing in this job isn’t just embarrassing or hard or frustrating— failing could mean someone loses their right to be free, or being forced to return to a war torn country. It all seems too much sometimes, but the simple willingness to climb down into the dark valley is most of the battle, and in the end we’re not alone. The human rights office has two attorneys that help guide the process and assist in what may need to come next; however, for the most part it’s up to us, the interns, to walk the case to its end.

It still seems crazy to me, but I came ready for anything. One of the social work missions that we take on at PAHRO is working with the boys at Bonnytoun detention center. The boys held at Bonnytoun have committed crimes all the way from petty theft to rape and murder. It’s horrifying to imagine a 7 year old who stole candy sleeping in the same bunk as the 17 year old convicted of rape or murder, but everyone at Bonnytoun is lumped in together. Regardless of how old you are, or what crime you’re accused of, criminal minors are viewed the same way. Every week we visit Bonnytoun and offer educational presentations, play games, throw out candy for prizes, have dance competitions, and basically hang out with the boys there— letting them know that they’re neither alone not forgotten.

The first time I went I was told it was my job to give a presentation on premarital sex, so I said “okay.” I didn’t know this until about an hour before we left, but it ended up being great. Shuan, our social justice coordinator, gave me a PowerPoint to present with and told me I had free reign to add in whatever I wanted. Any speech with some freedom isn’t so bad— and knowing that these boys are entertained just to see the projector screen on the wall was enough for me to settle in quickly.

We worked with the “blue” and “red” quadrants of boys, which are those awaiting trial and not yet sentenced. Once they unlocked the door to the common room, there were about 40 boys that filed in and looked around with suspicion. The first thing we did was introduce ourselves: name, where you’re from, how old you are, how long you’re going to be in South Africa. After this, the boys had free reign to ask whatever they wanted. I got asked all kinds of stuff, from “do you have a girlfriend” and “what’s her name,” to “are you a bodybuilder” and “who is your favorite rugby team.” We played a few icebreaker games and eventually meshed in with each other. Once everyone was laughing at themselves in a game of “Yes, my lord” we were all able to settle in and gain a little trust with one another.

After talking and laughing with these kids and giving the presentation, we hooked up the speakers and had a dance competition. Stiff at first, everyone soon loosened up their legs and the boys showed off some backflips and breakdance moves, along with the usual shuffle with hands in the air.

Everyone was laughing and pushing each other to dance and embrace the moment. By the end, me and three of the Bonnytoun boys were bent over laughing and slapping each other’s backs about one little guy who wouldn’t give up trying to slow dance with one of our female interns. Watching a guy get shut down is universally hilarious— I found that out at Bonnytoun. A couple of high fives and fist-pounds later, we got in the van and headed back to the office.

When the hour long drive back settled down into just the radio and wind through the open windows, I had time to think about what I’d just done, who I’d been with, what it was like, and what will more than likely happen to the boys I spent time with. The majority of those awaiting trial will be sentenced, by which they will then serve more time at Bonnytoun. Several of the older boys will likely turn 18 before their sentence is up, and then be transferred to Pollsmore maximum security prison to carry out their sentences. Most of the boys will have their freedom further revoked, and still some will never taste freedom again. I saw the tattoos covering their bodies, I read what they said, I had an idea where most of the boys came from, and more than likely I shook hands with boys who had raped and murdered; but, we had a chance to speak the universal languages with one another: we spoke laughter, acceptance, and love.

These accused “rapists” and “murderers” held in Bonnytoun are just boys— most of them just in the wrong place at the wrong time, some who couldn’t say no to acceptance from the wrong people, and some more than likely there just for following the code of the gang and taking the blame for another one of the older members. It breaks my heart to know that so many of these boys will lose their lives and freedoms before they’re even old enough to taste what real life is like. Some of these boys will lose their lives before they ever kiss a girl, fall in love, before they ever meet their father or drive a car. It’s crazy to think how short and sudden life can be. If you’re reading this, say a prayer for the boys in Bonnytoun. Sometimes faith is all you’ve got.

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Incredible weekend on the Garden Route!

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 Petting a grown Cheetah- unbelievable experience

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Highest Bungee jump in the world at Bloukrans!

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Me and the jump instructor

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Most insane rush of my life

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The brave crew to take the plunge :)

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 Petting the elephants- Incredible!

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 Feeding him from my fruit bucket :)

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Beautiful lion on the safari

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Reaching out to grab some food!

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Insane night sky shot I took just before the sun set for the night- Using a long exposure to get every bit of light left in the sky

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Gorgeous sunset at the beach by Pili Pili :)

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Photos from the Weekend

 

I felt like I was on top of the world at the peak of Hout Bay

I felt like I was on top of the world at the peak of Hout Bay

Tom and Abbi- Two of the best roommates anyone could ask for

My two British Roomies: Tom and Abbi.  I couldn’t have asked for a better pair!

Always awesome to take the night with Tom and Mischak

Always a great night out with the boys- Tom and Mischak

Penguins at Boulder Beach!

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Penguins at Boulder Beach!

Couldn't get enough of these little guys! :)

Couldn’t get enough of these little guys! :)

Market in Hout Bay

Amazing market in Hout Bay

More from the market in Hout Bay

More from the market in Hout Bay

Incredible to be a part of this living experience

Incredible to be a part of this living experience!!

Magnificent Beauty and Abject Poverty

It’s not enough to take in the beauty of the land while you’re here; for, although I’m continually surrounded by incredible beauty, I also work in places of overwhelming poverty. Cape Town is a land defined by bold and strict boundaries. Train tracks and street signs separate the decent areas from the areas of high crime.

During the apartheid era, whites, blacks, and colored people were all separated by living quarters— forbidden to cross over into places reserved for other races. Each community had specific rights, which heavily favored the white population and offered nearly nothing to the native Africans. Poverty in the black and colored areas ensued as more and more opportunities were withheld from them. Although the apartheid era is over, the effects of this devastating institution still weigh heavily on the South African culture— separating its people even still. The townships, places of abject poverty, still paint the land of the South African people. Massive plots of dirt, lined and crossed with tin shacks hold millions of opportunity-deprived people.

In the beginning, gangs formed to create a sense of safety within communities; however, now the gangs exist to keep power and enforce boundaries for drug trade. The townships are areas of high crime and, at times, magnificent violence. Although these areas are considered the most dangerous, they are also places that hold some of the most eminent needs in this part of the world. No matter where I’ve been in the world, no matter the danger or the poverty I’ve seen, this statement is always constant: in the areas of greatest poverty, there is also the greatest need. Poverty perpetuates crime, crime creates danger and violence, which creates a need for help— help to restore opportunity and order, and help to establish hope in the hearts of people who live in a near-hopeless situation. In my experience, no matter where you are, there is always good to be found. The good always finds a way to outweigh the bad, love has been bigger than danger, and the hearts of justice overrule the plight of the wicked.

The work we’ve done in the townships by day has defined the purpose of this trip thus far. The level of destitution in these places highlights my reason for coming. It makes the work real— allowing me to attach files in the office with real faces, voices, and names. Along with the casework we do in the office, we also get the opportunity to work alongside the communities in the townships.

 

My desk after the first day of casework files… They certainly don't want you to get bored!

My desk after the first day of casework files… They certainly don’t waste time on the introduction!

The people we work with are some of the most loving, and innocent people I’ve ever had the opportunity to see and know. Last week, along with others from the project, I worked to build a vegetable shed for the people of Khayelitcha— one of the largest townships in South Africa, holding over 1.2 million people. Other volunteers participated in home-visits, working as a voice of intervention in places of strife and attrition. The women cooked food for the volunteers working, and we ate together after the work was done. Everyone worked together, and threw in what they had for the sake of everyone else. It was such an amazing thing to actually see the product of giving present itself right before my eyes through the people I was working to help. Receiving the thanks of the people in Khayelitcha was so rewarding, and inspired me to continue on this journey of love.

The township of Khayelitcha

The township of Khayelitcha