Friday, March 23, 2007

Post Spring Break

After a really amazing week in SA, I am back in a surprisingly warm, wet New York. Working and living in Ikageng was really special, not least because it gave me an opportunity to watch the development of the attitudes of a group of people, many of whom had thought little, or not at all, about South Africa, before this trip. I did, I will admit, find myself bristling on occasion, as I listened to certain observations and oppinions that were informed either by lack of information, or outright misinformation, and once or twice I let my annoyance get the better of me, but by and large, I think this was a productive and information-rich experience for everyone.
We arrived in Johannesburg on the night of the 10th of March (Saturday), and drove the two and a half hours straight out to Ikageng in a convoy of mini-busses and cars. It was generally uneventful, but I did get quite a kick from pointing out the Johannesburg sky line, silhouetted against a colourful highveld sunset, and framed by the mountains and mine-dumps of the South and East rand. And the warm weather (which persisted throughout our visit) was wonderful, and very welcome after the rather chilly aeroplane cabin. In Ikageng, we were greeted with good old South African singing, and plenty of food, including many South African specialities that were unfamiliar to the majority of the travellers in our group. I love watching people encounter good things like local food and music for the first time.
On Sunday, we attended two church services, and it was lovely comparing the energetic, musically rich, and very long service, to the somewhat more demure New York services. The second service was at an outpost in a very poor, rural area, and it was something of a light-bulb moment for me to see just how important the church ritual, which I consider something of a luxury, is for people in a community in which I would have expected the function of the church to be more instrumentalist. It is very easy to fall into assumptions about what people should need when confronted by circumstances in which many of the things that I consider necessary are not present. While I consider my need to sing and to worship in church as essential parts of my identity, I dismiss those needs among people who don't have some of the things that I take for granted in my daily life. Under different circumstances, I would have felt guilty accepting luch from people who have so much less than what I do, but on this occasion, sharing a meal was an extension of the Eucharistic meal we had previously shared, and it felt absolutely essential to honour that.
After that service, we spend some time at the very smart house of one our hosts, and while the contrast with the place we had just been was rather startling, I think it was important for some of the people I was travelling with to see that the unequal distribution of wealth in South Africa is not purely along race lines. The circumstances in South Africa are more complex than that.
In the evening, we had a wonderful dinner at Potchefstroom hospital, followed by a tour of the hospital, during which I was reminded of the universal appeal of new born babies, before we all headed home to our respective hosts for the night.
The next few days were spend working at the building site that was the focus of our visit (we had come to build a rectory for a church in a poorer township), before the bulk of our group visited Pilanesberg game reserve and a mine in the area, and I spent some time with my parents. It was, as always, really good to see them.
I rejoined the group over the weekend at the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg, and we headed back to Potchefstroom for our last weekend. Our last church service in Ikageng was in the church at the building site where we had been working all week, and that was followed by a lovely braai (barbecue, to my non-South African readers) at a dam in Potchefstroom, and an emotional farewell to our hosts.
New York was surprisingly warm when we landed on Tuesday morning, and I was busy folding my coat as I sat on the shuttle that was to take me to my apartment, when the cotton holding the beaded South African flag I have been wearing on my coat, broke, spilling little black beads into my hand. I stored them carefully in my purse, and considered the significance of the incident in a way only possible after seventeen hours of in-air sleep deprivation. New York city rose up around my as I followed the now familiar route traversed by the airport shuttle, and was plunged back into the mid-semester chaos of grad school.
Was it only a week ago that I was sleeping in my own bed with my clingly little cat cuddled up beside me? It feels like so much longer. I can't be too home sick, though, as I spent the last two days with my dear friend Thembela (who has been visiting me in New York) reminding me just how South African I really am, despite my delight at being able to navigate Manhattan with only very occasional references to my trusty map book. It feels good to live in two places.

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