I will remember my time in South Africa as a paradox. On one hand, when I saw the abject poverty of the South African townships, I pitied the people and their situations. But as I got to know the people living there, I got the sense that they felt no pity for themselves; in fact, they were proud and they were hopeful.
The first story my partner Nate Hopper and I worked on was about a bead-maker named Nothemba. Growing up under apartheid, she had no viable way to a higher education or to leave the Grahamstown township. Instead, she sold her beads by the street just outside Rhodes University, selling to the students who passed by her every day. After a few years, her daughter became one of those students, attending Rhodes on scholarship. The two of them are a living example of the disparity that remains in post-apartheid South Africa. Their story taught me two things: First, the link between education and quality of life should not be underestimated. Second, I have been taking my own education and opportunity for granted. The truth is, there are some places where education is not considered a right or a guarantee.
To an extent, I had prepared myself to experience the poverty of the townships. But one thing that surprised me was how well these miles of shanty houses functioned as a real neighborhood. One example was the postal system. These houses were more scattered than any readable city layout, but it worked. In order to receive their mail, people spray-painted house numbers on their tin walls. While I thought this was certainly resourceful, I couldn’t help but see this as a sign that they found these living conditions to be acceptable, even normal.
We were able to navigate through these townships with the help of our irreplaceable translators, who became our dear friends. They were all around the same age — 18 to 24 years old — from the Grahamstown township. They were respected and trusted members of the community. I could have never predicted the immediate connection that I felt with my translator, 17-year-old Sanele Ntshingana, who is undoubtedly one of the most intelligent, generous, and inspirational people I have ever met. Sanele and the other translators embody the spirit of the country: vibrant, communal, full of potential, and determined to make South Africa’s future better than its past.