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Erin Rook - Lessons learned from South Africa

Published: January 4, 2003

A woman in South Africa prepares food for a wedding feast.
Photo by Erin Rook

I have been back in the United States for six months now, and like all Americans, I am exposed to messages of fear and confusion, from the pending war with Iraq to the Catholic abuse scandal and the apparent increase in family violence. But because of the lessons I have learned abroad, I am starting to understand the role of tragedy in the course of human progress.

After spending eight months in South Africa, a country once torn by apartheid and now crippled by AIDS, I see hope in the midst of despair; the inevitable cycle of crisis and victory that marks our lives on a personal as well as global scale.

I gained this global view when I went to South Africa for a Baha'i Youth Year of Service. While most of my classmates were preparing for college, I was arranging a solo trip to Africa. My plans included staying with South African Baha'i families and working on community-based, socioeconomic development projects.

When I left for South Africa, less than two months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many people feared for my safety (and possibly my sanity), but I didn't share their travel anxiety. At the time, I thought I was leaving pain and tragedy behind. But I didn't realize what tragedy I would find.

While in South Africa, I spent most of my time in townships and villages. As a result, I was able to see the effects of AIDS on families and communities firsthand. I saw how poverty, lack of education and disease are inextricably tied together. But I also saw how communities are coming together to triumph against the tragedies they face on a daily basis.

Although many South Africans live in conditions and under circumstances that would seem to strip them of their pride, most people refuse to give in to defeat. It is this spirit of steadfast perseverance and commitment to human dignity that allowed the people of South Africa to overturn apartheid and establish democracy. And it is these qualities that offer hope for a future victory against the new battles they face.

During my time in South Africa, I saw these qualities manifested in the daily actions of individuals and communities. The South Africans I met in the townships and villages did not let their lack of resources keep them from doing what was important to them.

One of the first places I stayed was Bleskop, a small Setswana village. In the Setswana culture, unity is very important, and so any event of importance is attended by the entire village.

While staying in Bleskop I had the opportunity to attend a wedding and see how the village worked together to make it a success. Whether it was the older women making the traditional drink or the younger girls setting tables, everyone had a role. Even I was set to work chopping cabbage.

The average community member has few possessions, but each one contributes what resources they do have. One example of this generosity is a young Zulu man named S'bonelo. He lived in the Mpophomeni Township and had recently acquired a government-subsidized house.

I arrived at his new home one afternoon because he had offered to host our Bah?'? study group. From the outside, it looked much like any other township house; it was concrete block with a corrugated tin roof. But when I stepped inside, I was taken aback. The house consisted of two small rooms with a shower and toilet. The floors were dirt because the housing subsidy was not enough to cover concrete for the floor. S'bonelo's only possessions were a bed and a broken radio.

But despite the sparseness of his accommodations, S'bonelo was happy to host us. When we arrived that first day, he had set out chairs for everyone in his small dirt yard. Once the study group was finished, we saw where the chairs had come from. He handed each one over the fence, returning them to his neighbor, who continued to provide us with chairs every week.

Examples of individual strength and perseverance abound. The last family I stayed with had adopted Sabelo, a 17-year-old Zulu boy who had been orphaned by AIDS. Despite losing both of his parents, Sabelo went on to become deputy head boy at his predominately Indian high school - a considerable feat given the country's lingering racial hierarchy. In addition to his academic success, he was committed to abstaining from sex and drugs, in spite of strong social pressure, to protect himself from his parents' fate.

Lucky is another young man who has triumphed over a difficult past. He also lived in Mpophomeni and had lost his mother and some extended family members to AIDS. When he was a teen-ager, he was heavily involved in gang activity, including drugs and violence. But after seeing a performance by Beyond Words, a youth group that presents a message of peace and hope, he decided to change.

Like many South Africans, Lucky was unemployed, but rather than turn to alcohol or crime he spent his time in service to his community. Although he didn't pass his high school graduation exam, he returned to his school to facilitate the Youth Enrichment Programme, a discussion-based program that helps youths make informed decisions about drugs, conflict, racism, etc. He also volunteered as a teacher of virtue-based children's classes every Saturday morning.

It is these stories of success, more than those of sadness, that remind me why I went to South Africa. While the combination of poverty, AIDS and poor education make the future look grim, South Africans are drawing on strengths gained from past struggles to turn crisis into victory.

This cycle of tragedy and triumph is a source of hope to us all in a world that seems increasingly tragic. By coming together as a community and upholding human dignity, our nation and our world can face this new year with faith that we will overcome our obstacles, no matter how large.

Guest writer Erin Rook, a McMinnville High School graduate and former News-Register intern, is back from an area mostly west of Durban, South Africa, where she worked on development projects for a Baha'i Youth Year of Service. Now she is studying communications and women's studies at Simmons College in Boston, where she is an active member of the student newspaper, the Multi-faith Coalition and the Boston Baha'i community.

©Copyright 2003, News-Register (OR, USA)

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