Molo! That’s Xhosa for “Hello!” Today was unlike any other day that we’ve had so far in South Africa. We were able to experience a little glimpse of what apartheid was like for South Africans by walking in their shoes. We went out with my new favorite tour guides, Arlene. She is the most positive and optimistic person that I have met regarding her attitudes towards being a South African woman of color. She has so much pride and insight about South Africa and what surviving apartheid and gaining freedom means to her.
Our first stop of the day was University of Cape Town to show/talk to us about Cecil John Rhodes and his impact on South Africa. Rhodes is where we get the Rhodes scholar award and where the country known as Rhodesia (currently Zimbabwe) gets its name. Arlene tried to explain to us the magnitude and the power that CJ Rhodes had on South Africa, especially Cape Town. Back during colonization, Arlene explained that Rhodes’ vision was to build a railroad from Cape Town to Cairo. The man was incredibly rich, powerful, brilliant, and cruel. I can’t remember all that Arlene shared with us, but Rhodes is one of the people that heavily influenced South Africa. In fact, there is a street named “Mandela Rhodes” which pays homage to the two of the most great and different men of South Africa.
We then drove to the village of Langa within Cape Town for a lesson in speaking Xhosa. Arlene took us to Thembani Primary School to meet with one of the teachers, Gladys about learning a few Xhosa phrases. As we were driving through the streets of Langa, it was the first time where we were really saw an impoverished South African community. As we pulled up to Thembani Primary, we drove through the gates of the school that were lined with barbed wire on the top. The children were all outside, probably for recess, in their matching navy uniforms running and playing on the blacktop – there were no traditional playgrounds that we see in the US. The kids were so captivated by this bus that approached their school and literally they all came towards the van to greet us. When we got out of the van, we waved and smiled at all the kids that were watching us. This was the first time that I felt like a celebrity being stared at in awe. The kids waved and smiled and we said “Molo!” and their faces lit up at the fact that we took the time to learn their language when English is heavily forced upon them. We met Gladys who took us to a seventh grade classroom to learn some Xhosa. The children rose when we walked in (to show respect) and then sat back down. The manners that I witnessed in that one classroom were more polite and courteous than I have seen in any classroom in the US! The ten of us stood at the front of the classroom as the children watched in amazement. Gladys asked the classroom in English “where do you think they are from?” and hands immediately flew in the air! The boy that was called on stood up (they always rose when they were the ones speaking) and said “New York?” It was so interesting to hear their responses because New York is probably the one city in America that they are semi familiar with. It would be like me asking a British guy if he was from London because that’s the biggest and most known city in England. When we said “Chicago” they all went “ohhhh yeahhh” because Chicago is probably another city that they have heard of. Gladys took turns calling on children to show us how to say common Xhosa phrases such as “how are you, mom, dad, thank you, good morning” etc. Then they sang to us… I almost started to cry! Just being in a school that has bars on windows for safety in a small classroom with nearly 30 students standing in the presence of joyful, singing, and happy children despite their incredibly limited circumstances truly warms your heart. After our lesson we walked around for a bit and then it was time for us to go just as the children were leaving school for home. We asked if it would be okay to take some photos of the kids and before we could reach for our cameras, the kids just ran towards us because they saw cameras and wanted their picture taken. The literally swarmed us!! I took pictures of kids; kids were feeling girls’ ponytails, asking if we could tie shoelaces… they just really almost idolized us because we were Americans coming to visit them. It really made me feel how fortunate I am to have all that I do. We all wanted to just take the kids home with us. They were so cute!!!!!
We then went to the Langa Civic center for an African drum lesson. It. Was. Awesome. Some of us learned a simple African beat while three of us (me included!) played on the marimba while our teachers coached us in South African beats. It was so fun!! Then we got to see a mini play, kind of like a One Acts performance about two men, one old, and one young who were showing us what it was like to cast their first vote as free men after the end of apartheid in 1994. It was incredibly moving.
Today made me realize that in many parts of the world, that if you can’t speak English you are uneducated and stupid. English is the dominant culture, and everything else, is unimportant. Even though apartheid has ended almost twenty years ago, the mentality that Americans have that “we speak English, we’re privileged, everyone else should learn English, and we’re not bothering to learn your language” still dictates our society and our world. Arlene explained that to be an American in South Africa, it means so much to those from South Africa if we take the time to learn their language and their culture. Learning Xhosa today was more than just a language lesson. It was a way to show the people of South Africa that we don’t think too highly of ourselves as Americans and that we are open to learning about their culture as they learn about ours. I learned that English is becoming the predominant language spoken in South Africa. Many South Africans want to speak English rather than Xhosa, Afrikaans, Zulu, etc. because to speak English means that you have importance and worth. God has so many plans for me in this South African journey and I know it will be a long walk to experience all of His plans. Today was just a sample of how my life is just beginning to change while in South Africa! I learned how to say “goodbye” today in Xhosa, but sadly, I forgot so it’s going to take me some time to get the hang of it. Until next time, sala kakhuele! (stay well)