Hola Eta

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“Hola Eta; Keep you head up.” As he walks into the center of our drum circle and begins to introduce himself, hr seems to glow with youthful intelligence. He is from Soweto, the south-west township of Johannesburg, South Africa, and he has decided to join 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’s my father, every brother’s 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 specifically to keep my head up and keep going.

I chose to go to Southern Africa (South Africa, Swaziland, and Lesotho) with a student travel group, the same group I’d traveled to Russia with the previous summer, after a particularly hard year. I had been on medical leave for four months in the fall due to health concerns, and then started at a boarding school in the spring. I decided that after having everyone focus their attention on me and take care of me for a year, that I should do something to make someone else feel the love and support I had felt. I have always loved working with children and been interested in travel, so I decided to combine those two interests. Our program focused on cultural exchange and working with children of all ages.

Our time in South Africa began with a visit to the Apartheid Museum. I had no idea of all the horror that had gone on in Southern Africa not even that long ago. We then experienced a hospice, a clinic, and a day care. Some of the kids at the day care had families, while others were orphans. It is easy to make a distinction between the two groups because of the way some of them attach immediately, fully trusting, to you. The boy I was playing with would not let me put him down unless I sat down too and let him sit on his lap. When it was time to leave I tried to explain to him that we were leaving, but he just began sobbing and tried to bite me when I went to get my backpack, he was so angry and hurt that we had to leave. I have never been one to trust easily, so it was surprising for me to see these kids latching on to us without any questions. We also took time to volunteer in an art school and befriend a group of Soweto’s up-and-coming Rastafarian artists. The people we met were not afraid to be themselves and speak their minds, skills that are very important to learn.

After our first stay in South Africa we drove to Swaziland where we would be working at two SOS Villages. SOS Villages are like orphanages, but the children live with adults and other children as “families” in the compound. In the mornings we were working at the primary school, I was teaching a third grade class, and in the afternoon we were planning after school activities for the children. I was in the third grade classroom with one other volunteer, and forty-six rowdy kids between the ages of seven and twelve, many of whom had stayed back. The teacher decided to not show up for three days and not leave lesson plans, so we had to plan activities and classes by just looking at their books and doing crowd management. We tried everything we could think of to get them to listen to us, but it wasn’t working, then one girl came up to us and said “Teacher, no one is going to listen unless you use the beating stick, here, use it” as she but a small rough stick into my hand. I tried to explain to her that we didn’t believe in using violence to make children behave, but she couldn’t comprehend, she’d never known anything else. By the end of the week, with only minimal bribes, we could get them to behave.

Lesotho was the next stop on our journey. In Lesotho we were living and working in a tribal community. We were helping the children and mothers paint the local primary school as well as taking part in many cultural exchanges. One part of our time in Lesotho that was particularly memorable to me was when I, along with one of the boys in our group, got the opportunity to go into the village to cook while the others were at the school. When we got to the hut we were cooking at, we realized that it would be a challenge to communicate seeing as we had no common language. At one point I was outside alone with some of the locals cooking rice while the other boy was inside, and I remember just 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’ve ever met. I call of “fat cake”, a dessert that the locals eat as well as my nickname from them, brought me back from my daze. I looked up to see one of my new local friends heading to the work site, and the moment was perfect. Being in a foreign country where you feel like an outsider, but then being recognized and acknowledged as a member of the community is a fantastic feeling.

My time in Africa showed me the amount of 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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