Christine Mehta

Reporting in South Africa …

The thought of it brought to mind wild, exotic adventures in a foreign land as one of those edgy freelance journalists featured in movies and on the pages of National Geographic — suntanned faces and under bandana-covered hair, shooting life-changing video documentaries with giraffes and hyenas weaving in and out of the background.

That was the first unbidden image that sprang into my excited head when I first heard we would be going to South Africa. But of course, that wasn’t quite the reality.

I did see a giraffe … in a game park. It didn’t stroll into any of my frames while I shot my stories on the streets of Grahamstown.

Instead, I saw real people living real lives — following routines quite similar to what I had seen on the South Side, 8,340 miles away. In Grahamstown’s township, home to the black population, the people share the same problems as South Siders: inaccessibility to quality education, lack of employment, too many drugs and too much crime. Still, I saw a drive to succeed despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles. When I shared this with a South African graduate student studying at Syracuse, he said, “Poverty breeds the same problems, no matter where you live.”

I never knew that to be true until now.

My Grahamstown translator, Asanda Ncwadi, a 19-year-old who grew up in the township, only wanted to know one thing about Syracuse after working with me and my partner, Shayna Meliker, for six days. “Do we, as a community, share the spirit of ‘ubuntu,’ meaning ‘humanity?’ Do we care about our neighbors, and support those within our own community unconditionally?” The township where Asanda grew up is defined by its dedication to “ubuntu,” and despite its problems, Asanda said the township and its people made him who he is today.

Derrick Thomas, a 22-year-old who grew up on the South Side of Syracuse, told me the same thing when we spoke about his drive to succeed despite the poverty that marked his childhood and adolescence.

In the end, we all have the same desires regardless of geography, race or language: security, freedom, education and friendship. I found, to my surprise, that two such very different places as Grahamstown’s township and Syracuse’s South Side have more in common than I could have ever suspected, and that reporting halfway across the world is much like reporting right here at home.