A South African Song This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

January 26, 2009
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An array of color cast by the flurry of 24 skirts strolled down the street in the chilly morning. My footsteps were deliberate and purposeful. In anticipation of our visit, we had prepared a short clap dance routine and clumsily rehearsed our singing over dinners at our hostel. I was not nervous about visiting the township high school. Armed with the mentality that we were here to make a difference, I figured we would enter the school grounds and ­bestow upon the poverty-stricken students a little bit of hope, just as their principal had requested of us.

Waterval Boven lies within the province of Mpumalanga in eastern South Africa. Representing The Traveling School, my 18 classmates and our six teachers were staying in a hostel a few blocks from Main Street. The effects of apartheid are evident here. A resident from the surrounding suburbs with a pocketful of rand can hit uptown for basic necessities ­(grocery stores, gas stations, post-offices, and banks). In the opposite direction is the township, which encompasses dirt paths and meager homes constructed from any materials inhabitants can scrounge up. We witnessed this poverty from the point of view of ­sheltered outsiders. We watched mothers clutching the dirty hands of their children by the dancing flames of their cook fires. Clotheslines swayed beneath the weight of drying garments. Countless dogs with unruly coats and eyes glowing with hunger scavenged for food among squealing pigs that scampered through the dirt. Seeing a colorful township garden or a tin roof weighed down by rocks, some might say, “How cute.” But our principal emphasized that township life “is not something to be romanticized.” She was right, of course. Why else would the principal of Imemeza High School wish for us to bring hope into the classrooms of students who know no other life?

Journeying through the mist on that early South African morning toward the township of Waterval Boven, we held that purpose in mind. We walked with a subtle bounce in our steps, eager to transplant something positive into the school atmosphere, to leave something intangible and significant behind in remembrance of our visit. The cheerful exclamations of the younger children as we passed the primary school buoyed our ­confidence. They called out to us through toothy grins and burst through upper story windows to blow kisses in our direction. Our anticipation increased; we could not wait to arrive at the high school and spread our American hope.

When we entered the looming iron gate of Imemeza High School, my confidence was shattered. I felt as though the students regarded us with disdain. They ­certainly were not blowing kisses. I wanted to back out of the gate and scuttle back to the primary school. My classmate Mallory motioned toward a group of boys; one had decorated his backpack with the words, “Don’t label me a criminal.” Needless to say, I was intimidated by the unfamiliarity. I don’t belong here, I thought ­desperately, with my fancy camera and colorful skirt. Surely I was far too naive, far too American to enter these grounds on the grand pretense that I was here to make a difference in anyone’s life.

I no longer knew what our mission was when we ­finally found ourselves at the front of a classroom, subject to all those expectant eyes. Hesitantly we ­facilitated a game of Pictionary on the chalkboard, ­secretly cowering within. To our grateful surprise, the room sprang to life. Team members approached the board to demonstrate their artistic skills (or lack thereof), and the room erupted in a cacophony of laughter, cheering, and encouragement. Absorbing the students’ energy, we performed our clap dance. Suddenly, everyone in the room was united in a clapping rhythm. It was a profound moment of connection, a cultural merging that words cannot do justice.

Afterward, the students burst into a breathless symphony of buttery voices. When they performed their national anthem, I felt that I could touch the spirit of this country’s past seeping through the melody if I reached my hand into the air before me. One boy stood on a table and sang with his eyes closed, his fist clenched passionately in the air. “I am South African,” said one girl, as though that said it all.

In the end, I had not the slightest idea whether our mission was a success. We might pretend we stimu­lated something within them, but I think the energy was already there, a gift passed down from mother to daughter and father to son. Through their music and heavily accented English, the students communicated their soaring strength and pride despite the poverty that surrounds them. They are teenagers like us with dreams of becoming psychologists, financial analysts, and entrepreneurs. Although we came to make a difference in their lives, we were the ones who walked away changed, emerging from the school gate with an increased cultural awareness and strands of their music interwoven into our hearts.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.






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