Today was education day. Curtis wasn’t so excited about touring a gold mine and then Soweto, but I know he will never forget the things we saw today. We started off the morning by finally getting online and posting all the entries wrote every night but couldn’t upload. I had them already to go so it went fast. Then we rushed through email and hit the road for Gold Reef City.
I can only imagine the letdown it must be for a kid to go to an amusement park and only get to ride one ride…and not a very exciting one at that. But we went to tour the mine and learn more about the history of South Africa than ride the rides…and time didn’t allow us both. Curtis was disspointed, but a great sport about it. In the end, I think he really liked it and I don’t think would do it differently. We saw a video of how gold mining shaped South Africa which had footage from throughout the last century. Johannesburg was built on gold. The gold rush boomed the population and industry…at one point 33% of all the gold in the world came from South Africa. We also toured an old inactive mine. They loaded us up in the cage and dropped us down into the earth. Some of the mines go six kilometers deep (we weren’t nearly that far down) and get very hot and uncomfortable. We walked through the tunnels and saw the tools that were used to break apart the earth and collect the rocks into the carts. I’d been down this same mine before and also an operational mine in Welkom where we were dropped a mile into the earth, but I wanted Curti to see it.
After the tour of the mine, we watched a gold pour. We were sitting right in front of the oven and the even though there was a translucent shield between us and the heat, it blasted us when they opened the doors to reveal the bright glow inside. The large crucibles were bright red and when they poured the gold into the mold, flames danced on the top. After, we were able to touch and pick up a gold brick that is worth over $200,000. Too bad I couldn’t bring that home!
We then went to the apartheid museum and saw a history of the violent and disturbing history of South Africa. The sign going in said something like, see apartheid where it belongs…in a museum. We saw pictures of the men who stood up against the strong hand of the white man and saw video of the violence and TV reports that aired around the world. It was certainly a dark time in the history of the country and was quite disturbing. It reminded me of the museum I visited when I was in Oklahoma City. It’s hard to imagine how people justified the way black people were treated here…yet when we are raised thinking and believing a certain way, it can be very difficult to change our reality. Still, it is mind boggling to think about how horrible these people were treated, how many were murdered, and how horrible they lived when compared to the white man.
At 1:00, Mandy picked us up for our tour of Soweto (Gordon, the owner of the B&B where we are staying arranged it for us). It was just Curti and I and she drove us around in her own car, told us her stories of growing up in Soweto, and took us to several places in the city.
I didn’t really know whether to take pictures or how safe to feel given that the Soweto I learned about was horribly violent. We drove through the streets and saw the small red brick standard issue homes. She took us into the center of town to the market and stopped the car, opened her door, and stepped out, I was surprised, we are getting out of the car? The streets were packed with cars and people and it was a bit unnerving to step into it. Don’t these people hate white people? Curtis said, “are we getting out here,” and I said, I guess so…and opened the door. We walked through the market and looked at the people selling food, herbs, cell phones, and other products. We bought a bag full of oranges for a mere 10 rand (barely over a dollar) to take to the poor area.
It’s difficult to write what I saw in the next area, the ghetto of Soweto. It smelled like sewage and garbage. Murky greenish/brown liquid trickled down the sides of the dirt roads. Shacks made from scraps of lumber and sheets of metal lined the streets. Kids played barefoot and some naked in the dusty narrow streets and everyone stared at us as we drove in and stopped. We got out of the car and Mandy spoke to one of the ladies and told us she would show us around.
She showed us her home, a tiny make-shift shack not much larger than a modern bathroom in America. But somehow they had petitioned a kitchen, front room, and one bedroom for the twelve people who lived there. There were two beds for them all (one might have been two twins put together), all made up nice and with a few stuffed animals carefully arranged at the top. They had a platform for a dresser, with a piece of a broken mirror. No power, no sewer…they use candles and cook on paraffin wax. I asked what it cost to keep them all alive and she added it up (candles, wax, food) and said about R300 ($35) per week but said they usually don’t have that much. She tries to work odd jobs when she can find them to support them all. I met her daughter, a cute little girl…maybe 18 months old with a dirty face and runny nose. I smiled and said hi to her and she stood brave for a second but then started crying and ran to her mother.
She walked us on further, I pulled out my camcorder and flipped the screen around so the kids could see their faces and they got really excited, crowding around to look at themselves. They smiled and talked to us…and when we went to their little school, Curti and I were surrounded by kids. Curtis was surrounded by excited little 3-6 year olds as he took their pictures and then showing them on the camera display. They were so excited they couldn’t stop touching him and jumping up to try and get the more shots.
She (our Guide in this area…and I say she, because there was no way I could pronounce her name…let alone spell it) said they had really tried to make the school nice for the kids and I have to admit, compared to everything else it was nice. The walls had pictures on them, the building had a real floor, and there were even some toys in there. They had certainly made it a priority to make a place to educate these kids despite the surroundings that I can only compare to the garbage landfill in St. George, Utah.
She showed us their store, where they bought wax and candles…a tiny building with a few things on the shelf. A lady was selling food on the side of the street (although they weren’t streets, just narrow alleys for walking only). She was boiling something on an open fire in a pot filled with strange looking clumps of meatish looking things. I asked, and they told me they were cow entrails.
Most of the people were really friendly, wanted their picture taken, and several thanked us for coming. One man hugged Curtis and told him he loved him. Curtis was uncomfortable being squeezed by this strange person, but didn’t push away from it.
We worked our way back to the car and started passing out the oranges and were immediately surrounded by excited children. But they went too fast. We needed 3-4 bags. I can’t tell you how horrible I felt when we ran out of oranges. The two little kids holding hands in the picture didn’t get an orange. Then I wanted to give them all money but Mandy said that wasn’t a good idea because it leads them to begging. She said it would only hurt them in the long run. So I could do nothing. Throughout the whole experience I kept having to get control of myself so I wouldn’t tear up. I had to put a smile on my face and look them in the eyes and talk to them, ask them questions. It wasn’t easy to do. The images of these people, their streets, houses, and the little kids are surreal. They have so little and in addition, aids and disease are part of their everyday life.
I was drained after that and ready to end the tour right there. I wanted to sit and ponder what I had seen. When I went in to the slums I was holding my camera and camcorder afraid it might get stolen. In the end, I didn’t care if it got stolen or not. I really didn’t care about anything I was carrying in my hands or what was in my wallet. I didn’t care about finishing the Soweto tour. I still have a lot of processing to do because I want to keep this experience with me forever. I want to become a better person…I need to burn it permanently into my psyche.
We drove past Mandela’s house, Bishop Tutu’s house. We saw the church where the children were massacred in 1976. It all added to the heavy feeling I was carrying around. Then we stopped for dinner at a place I never would have dared go to on my own. It reminded me more of an evening church social pot luck dinner, in a poor church in a rural community where I was a little bit afraid of the people. It was nice though, many different bowls with different foods, friendly faces, and I quickly felt comfortable. We sat with two men and talked for maybe an hour or two, it was very cool. They asked about the US and talked about how excited they are at the prospect of Obama becoming president. They said it was a huge win for them for them if the mightiest nation in the world to elect a black man (their words). They expect that it will help bring great changes to South Africa.
I recorded some of our conversation, but right when I asked, “Can you tell me, how do the whites treat you…and how has it changed in the last 20 years,” my battery died. The conversation that followed was very positive. They both said that there are times when they come across a white man with an old mentality, but that for the most part they feel really good about how they are treated. These were both successful men in the real estate business.
One of them had visited America, as had Mandy. They both were disappointed with what they say. They expected a land of gold and honey, the ultimate place were people were equal, everyone was successful, and life was glorious. They saw poor people, they felt the bitterness of racism, and in the end they were glad to return to South Africa.
It was a real pleasure talking to them and eating dinner together. I asked so many questions, many of them ones I had been very uncomfortable to ask because they related to race. But they were very open in talking to me and explaining how they felt about their life and situations. Both of them were young students during the horrible uprisings of the 1970’s and said back then they hadn’t really realized what they were fighting for. It was only years later it became clear to them what was going on in the world around them.
Mandy also told me how her mother could never really let go of the old South Africa. She was always afraid to be without her papers…afraid for her life. Mandy tried to tell her it was okay but her mother refused, saying “they will kill me if I don’t have my papers…” The fear was so engrained, she could never let it go. She also told me about walking along the sidewalk recently and coming face to face with a big white man. The man told her to move off the sidewalk (they weren’t allowed on the sidewalk in the olden days). She refused and he said he would call the police and have her put in jail for the rest of her life. She laughed and said, “what police? What world do you live in?” Good for her!
I wish I could remember more…more of my conversations, more of my feelings, more of what I saw. It was a wonderful experience for both of us. I could tell by looking into Curti’s eyes that he was also heavily impacted by it. It’s exactly what I wanted to do since we arrived here and I am so thankful we were able to experience it like this.