My Trip: South Africa

Nicole Nascimento, center, and Palak Bhatnagar with case workers

While the actual journey taken in late June by 16 high school
students from Mount Madonna School to South Africa lasted only two
weeks, it turned out to be more than enough time to transform their
lives. As McKenzie Caborn wrote,

Overall, this journey has been the most meaningful experience of
my life. With each sacred moment, I have made both inward
reflections and global realizations.
While the actual journey taken in late June by 16 high school students from Mount Madonna School to South Africa lasted only two weeks, it turned out to be more than enough time to transform their lives. As McKenzie Caborn wrote, “Overall, this journey has been the most meaningful experience of my life. With each sacred moment, I have made both inward reflections and global realizations. The insight I have gained will play a crucial role in shaping my future, and the connections I have made will be treasured for the rest of my life.”

There might have been a hint that something was different about this tour as the 16 juniors and five staff from Mount Madonna School arrived for the flight on June 18 to Cape Town, South Africa. The group checked in at San Francisco airport with 29 duffel bags loaded with donated clothing, toys, books, office supplies and toiletries.

The students had been preparing for this moment since September. Most prominent on their agenda was an interview with Nobel Laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. There were other interviews as well with the Deputy Chair of the Human Rights Commission, Pregs Govinder and author Peter Harris, a human rights lawyer who defended the Apartheid activists know as the Delmas Four.

Rather than spend time in the abundant tourist attractions of Cape Town and Johannesburg, the students traveled to various townships. One such visit was to lend a hand at the Philani Child Nutrition Project in Khayelitsha. At Philani the students unloaded 10 bags of baby outfits and warm clothing for young children, to help them through the chill of winter. The students also helped clean out a storeroom, move furniture, and met the women training to be case workers. Returning from a home visit one caseworker, Gilroy native, Nicole Nascimento told us, “I was in a home where nine people were living that was smaller than my bedroom with no electricity or running water.”

Palak Bhatnagar another student spoke of holding a malnourished baby in her arms and lifting a crippled child who crawled over from and adjacent building to see these strangers who had come to visit. Palak told of the conflicting emotions of sorrow and joy at engaging with the playful friendliness of these children who could not be sure from where their next meal might come. At the end of the day the students and case workers sang and danced together in celebration of the moment of shared effort and caring.

In the township of Guguletu the students visited Fezeka High School to meet the students of a choir run by Mr. Tsewu, a visionary teacher who saw talent and possibility where others only saw poverty. When the Fezeka students acted, sang and shared spontaneous poetry, the Mount Madonna students were transfixed by the skill and energy of their “underprivileged” counterparts. In turn the Mount Madonna students sang some songs, and then both groups danced together, forming an instant bond. It was the same feeling at the high school in Wynberg Township where the Mount Madonna students stopped by to receive thanks for helping the dance team pay their way to their first workshop.

One of the last stops on the tour was as the Botshabelo Children Village, home to 150 children affected or infected by AIDS. The Mount Madonna students requested this visit after seeing a powerful film about the project called “Angels in the Dust.” An hour and a half and a world away from Johannesburg, the students went to deliver 18 bags of badly needed clothing, health supplies, toys, computers and a digital library for the school.

After arriving, the students took a tour that started at what looked like a children’s carousel, which had the important purpose of pumping precious water to an overhead tank for the village. Then came a sobering interlude as the students and children of the village walked in procession to a rustic graveyard. Here parents and siblings of many of the children we were meeting at Botshabelo were buried; grim testimony to the reality of AIDS in a culture that often cannot afford the life giving drugs that could have saved many of these lives. We went up to the graveyards as visitors, and came back as an unlikely, but united family. Together the students unpacked the mountain of clothes and other items they had brought from America. Nicole Cloete, daughter of the founders of Botshabelo declared with delight that this was Christmas in June.

It was only two weeks. but McKenzie Caborn wrote in a thank you letter, “It was truly the most meaningful experience of my entire life, and has completely altered the way I see the world. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! ” Or as Kellyn Cardinal wrote, “This trip has meant more to me than anything. When you said what we experienced in South Africa would take time to understand and sort out, I didn’t believe you but since being home I have felt something different and I don’t know how to explain it or what the feeling exactly is. I know that whatever was seen or learned on this trip, I will put to good use and appreciate for the rest of my life.”

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