South Africa – Beauty, Struggles and Music

It has been several weeks since I’ve returned from South Africa, yet memories, thoughts, and ideas continue to traverse my mind, especially when I look at some of the pictures and view some of the videos. The impact on my spirit, mind and soul has been profound and of such a nature that I look forward to going back to this country of contrasts. Here a few impressions and thoughts that I have been wanting to write down.

Cape of Good Hope

Arriving at any one of the three major airports (Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town) is a great experience – especially after having travelled through some less than up to date airports in other countries. Everything is well organized, clean, and employees are professional – even down to the person keeping the restrooms clean and more than once did I hear the following line as I entered the restroom: ‘Welcome to my office’! Yes, strange at first, but when you see thepaper towels laid out for you, the clean surfaces, and the sparkling mirror, you know that this person is taking their job seriously. It made it easy to leave a tip too!

On the highway north of Durban

The highway system, especially on the east coast, is well laid out and easy to navigate, and as you look out the window, the landscape is lush, green and beautiful. The humidity from the Indian Ocean and the fertility of the soil make for some wonderful vegetation. I wonder if that is what originally attracted Indian immigrants to the land. Either way, the Evangelical Church of South Africa is the fruit of missionaries who worked among the Indian communities of South Africa, and today, it is a striving church that has started to reach out into several informal settlements in a desire to care for those affected and infected by HIV. It was such a pleasure to visit many of the projects, and the songs of the people worshipping God were heart-moving! The harmonious singing that seems to come so naturally to many in southern Africa has a special place in my heart as it plays a part in how I was first called to Africa, back in 2000. What a wonderful way to worship and marvel at God’s creative weaving of our stories.

Games and singing during a psychosocial workshop for orphans and vulnerable children

Pain is also real in South Africa – it is seen in the informal settlements, the high crime rates, and the unrest in some of the population. With a long and difficult history that continues to impact much of politics and public life, the country is put to the test as the government tries to help alleviate poverty, improve infrastructure, and fight crime and corruption. I’ve seen several areas that were previously informal settlements but that are today neighborhoods with government sponsored housing. And the impact is amazing: a family with their own proper house now has a sense of pride and belonging. Just imagine being able to live in a house made of bricks, wood, tiled roof, solid windows, and individual toilets instead of a hut made of cardboard, tin, and wood. Nice homes and possessions are not the key to happiness, but a decent home goes a long way in restoring human dignity!

Informal settlement near Johannesburg

Houses built by the government near Port Shepstone

Still, there is a sense of despair when one realizes the decimation of a generation by the disease we call AIDS. So many child-headed families, or grandparents taking care of a large number of children, struggle to get by. Many kids also grow up without the historical continuity of family traditions and family values, which are factors impacting levels of crime and a sense of lost-ness.

Grandfather who takes care of 21 children and youth

There is also much richness in this country – not only in its natural resources and culture, but simply in the variety of people who have made South Africa their homeland. Cape Town (photo below) is a splendid example of a great city – surrounded by natural beauty, (Table Mountain, Cape of Good Hope, False Bay, etc) history (some buildings date back to the 19th century and are still standing), and a melting pot of cultures from all over the world.

Cape Town as seen from Signal Hill after sunset

Leaving this country behind, I looked out the window with mixed emotions. On the one hand, it was nice to fly back home to family and to a country where one is not constantly worried about crime. On the other hand, a piece of my heart stayed behind with the people, especially those who are sacrificially giving of themselves to help others – and all of that with a full measure of joy!

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika! National Anthem of South Africa, sung by the Soweto Gospel Choir

Leaving South Africa

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6 thoughts on “South Africa – Beauty, Struggles and Music

  1. Great pics and I appreciate what you have shared! Cannot wait to get “home” now…
    How did you find the SIM projects were doing with reference to the Engineers without Borders experiences in Africa and India?

    • Thanks for your comments, everyone. Lilli, I believe that SIM projects are mixed bag of goods. I say that because, in my limited exposure, I’ve seen a few different scenarios: 1) As in the Engineers without Borders experience, there have been many great projects started without intentional succession planning. I’ve seen projects fall apart as soon as the person who started it, left. Great attention is given to quality technology, good infrastructure, great teaching materials and so on, but little is done as to how things will be managed down the road. I have observed this in several SIM contexts. 2) A more positive example are projects were local people are implicated (either from the beginning, or in the middle of the project) and are given responsibilities, resources, training, and a sense of ownership. A good example are all the HOPE for AIDS Positive Ray projects (http://hope4aidssouthafrica.wordpress.com/positive-ray/). 3) The issue of duplicity in the developing world is the one that seems the hardest to overcome. So many groups and agencies come in with a wad of cash or large numbers of staff/volunteers and a specific agenda – without researching what is already being done – especially at the local level with local resources. This problem I think is tied directly to point number 2), because it dis-enfranchises people from the process and does not allow for grassroots connections. I have seen a little bit of this happening in the SIM world, but to a far lesser degree than in the development aid / NGO world.
      There is certainly much more one could write on this – and in many cases, the problems and issues are very much nuanced and more interconnected than what the Engineers without Borders piece seems to imply. Well, good food for thought indeed!

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