Sunday, March 20, 2011

Finally...I'm Connected (Blog Written 3/17 but only able to post now)

Touch Down! After 2 full days of travel I have arrived safe, sound and a little woozy from the long 16 hour journey. The direct flight from Atlanta – 14.5 hours — was pretty brutal. The only saving grace — movies, and lots of them. In 14 hours, I caught up on all the hottest flicks I’d missed over the last 6 months — Black Swan, The Social Network, Animal Kingdom and I even dozed off to Joan Rivers’ raspy-voiced schtick from her autobiographical documentary (boy she’s got issues). At about 5:30 pm Johannesburg time, we arrive at OR Tambo Airport. Customs is a breeze. Baggage claim, no problem. As I roll my cart out to the waiting area, I start scanning the crowd for signs, unsure of my pick up plans. Almost immediately I hear my name being called. And there in a bright orange head wrap, I see my dear friend Nomvuyo and Naomi Tutu, waving me down. Yes...all anxiety dissipates.

After a quick attempt to get my iphone transferred over to a South African wireless carrier, we abandoned the mission in favor of a cheaper solution outside of the airport. In my groggy, post flight haze, I realize that while English is definitely being spoken, there’s a whole lot of language that is completely foreign to me floating around. As we left the store, I asked, “what language were you speaking?” They responded that they are both multilingual and most people in South Africa speak many different languages – Xhosa, Zulu, among others. Since both Nomvuyo and Naomi speak most of them, they simply respond to whatever is being spoken. We are definitely in a whole new land where language is punctuated by clicks, rolling "r"s and sucking teeth. This is full-mouth movement, not simply tongue and teeth. Later at dinner, my friend said that language is critical to culture -- especially in South Africa. That is why different racial and ethnic groups here speak different languages, which can say a lot about their politics and identity. For instance, most Black South Africans do not speak Afrikaans, the language of their oppressors. However, most Coloureds do speak it. More on that later... 

Off to Soweto where I am staying at the Rose Bed and Breakfast, a modest B and B in the heart of this historic Black community. The sun is setting so I get to see the silouhette and lights of Johannesburg as we race by. There are industrial buildings flanking the highway as we speed towards our destination. Soweto, which stands for Southwest Township, is  home to 4 million people (that’s the official count, it’s likely much more). It’s a 35 square mile area located outside of Johannesburg. This is the area where Black South Africans who worked in Johannesburg were forced to live in during apartheid. While Soweto is the largest, it is not unique. Every white city, had townships where the Black workers were confined to live. 

Until 1994 (that’s right only 17 years ago), all Blacks had to carry a passbook with them everywhere they went. It specified where you could go, when you could be there and who you were supposed to be working for. You could be stopped and questioned at any time and if there was anything out of order, you could be arrested. Our guide, Booysies Khanyile, just celebrated his 58th birthday yesterday. He didn’t burn his passbook when apartheid ended like so many others did in a symbol of liberation. Instead, he saved his as a visual reminder of his life before apartheid ended. He went out to the car and brought his in as a visual testament to the brutality and injustice that was a regular part of his first 41 years on this earth.

After years of systematic economic and political deprivation, today Soweto is a community striving to grow and build. While violence, poverty and substandard schools continue to plague this city (much like areas of Philly), there is a strong sense of community. Naomi even said she feels safer in Soweto than Johannesburg. Why? There are more people who have your back in Soweto, she says. Small businesses are popping up. Light industry is starting to take hold - car repair shops, furniture building, shopping malls and cinemas. And there's a budding tourism industry with a section of Soweto dedicated to Black-owned Bed and Breakfasts. 

And so this journey begins...Tomorrow we head to Pretoria, South Africa's capital. Stay tuned.

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