Keep Your Head Up MAG

By Caroline Ruhl, Bethlehem, NH

“Hola eta – keep your head up.” As he walks into the center of our drum circle to introduce himself, he seems to glow with youthful intelligence. He is from Soweto, the southwestern township of Johannesburg, South Africa, and has joined us today to give us some insight into what it’s like to grow up in a township.

“All the way from this town to the other town, every father is my father, every brother is my brother, and every grandmother’s my grandmother. Every day I wake up and have to look for enough money to take the bus to school, but you gotta keep your head up, you know? Hola eta – keep your head up.” At that moment he makes eye contact and it’s like he is telling me to keep my head up too, to keep going.

I chose to go to Southern Africa (South Africa, Swaziland, and Lesotho) with a student travel group, the same one I’d traveled with to Russia the summer before, after a particularly hard year. I had been on medical leave from school for four months and had started at a boarding school in the spring. I decided that after having everyone focusing on me and taking care of me for a year, I should do something to make someone else feel the love and support I had experienced. I have always loved travel and working with children, so I decided to combine the two.

Our time in Johannesburg began with a visit to the Apartheid Museum. I had no idea of the horror that had happened in South Africa not that long ago. We then visited a hospice, a clinic, and a daycare center where some of the kids had families, while others were orphans. It was easy to distinguish between the two because of how some attached to you immediately. The boy I was playing with would not let me put him down. When it was time to leave, I tried to explain, but he just began sobbing and even tried to bite me. He was so angry and hurt we had to leave.

I have never been one to trust easily, so it surprised me to see these kids latching on to us without any questions. We also volunteered at an art school and befriended a group of Soweto’s up-and-coming Rastafarian artists. The people we met were not afraid to be themselves and speak their minds, traits that are so important.

After our stay in South Africa we drove to Swaziland. There we would be working at two SOS Villages, which are like orphanages, but the children live with adults and other children as “families.” In the morning we worked at the primary school where I taught a third-grade class, and in the afternoon we planned after-school activities. I was in the classroom with one other volunteer and 46 rowdy kids between the ages of seven and twelve, many of whom had stayed back.

Their teacher didn’t show up for three days and had left no lesson plans, so we had to improvise activities and classes by looking at their books and maintaining crowd management. We tried everything to get them to listen to us, but nothing was working, until one girl said, “Teacher, no one is going to listen unless you use the beating stick. Here.” She put a small rough stick in my hand. I tried to explain that we didn’t believe in using violence to make children behave, but she couldn’t understand since she’d never known anything else. By the end of the week, with only minimal bribes, we were able to get them to behave.

Lesotho was the next stop on our journey. There we lived and worked in a tribal community. We helped the children and mothers paint the primary school and took part in their cultural events.

One particularly memorable moment for me was when I, with one of the boys in our group, went into the village to cook. When we got there, we realized it would be a challenge to communicate since we had no common language. At one point, I was outside cooking rice and I remember looking around and taking everything in, wishing that moment could last forever. I was in a completely beautiful place with some of the kindest people I’d ever met. At that moment I heard someone call out “fat cake” – which is a dessert here as well as the nickname the locals gave me – which brought me back from my daze. I looked up to see one of my new friends heading to the work site, and the moment was perfect. Being in a foreign country where you feel like an outsider but then are recognized and acknowledged as a member of the community is a fantastic feeling.

My time in Africa showed me the kindness people are capable of. Even with a turbulent history, the people are extremely welcoming and very curious. The children helped teach me that it is okay to trust, not everyone is bad; that no matter how hard things get, to keep my head up, or in the local Soweto slang, “hola eta.”

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