I think as you reach the end of something, you begin to look back. Throughout my whole time in South Africa, I’ve kept my gaze forward— focusing on the future, what work there is to be done. Throughout these final weeks, however, I’ve turned my gaze and begun to look back. As my time winds down to these last few days, the separation between my house back in Tennessee and my home here in Cape Town doesn’t seem so far away. I have such mixed feelings about leaving this place, and going back to everything familiar. I have a new familiar now, and a reformed idea of normal— I can’t un-remember these things. But, I cannot help but let my mind return to thoughts of the beginning, and how those thoughts have changed in undulating motions since I’ve been here— washing away preconceptions, bringing new perspective each time.
When I first got here, Projects Abroad briefed me on everything to be aware of in the attempt to be safe in Cape Town: never go anywhere alone, never walk around at night, never take any valuables with you anywhere, never take the train before 7:00 am or past 6:00 pm, make sure you’re in your house by 6:00, and most importantly NEVER go into the townships at night. When you get here and learn the rules, your first reaction is to abide by them completely; even creating some of your own— adding on extra layers of padding to help ensure your own safety. But you realize after awhile, that all rules have limitations and circumstances change things. Sometimes you are alone and you have to get home, so you walk. Sometimes it’s dark, and you have to walk alone— the way isn’t far. There are times when you’ve stayed in the township helping with something, and then you finally realize the sun’s gone down over an hour ago— you hear gunshots in the distance as you leave, reminding you that the rules are there for a reason. Most of the time, you need to be somewhere before 7, and you take the train. All of these rules change with circumstances; and, slowly but surely, without even realizing it you find your own way.
So many things you can only learn through acquisition and experience. When you work in the foreign world of social justice, and help to treat the symptoms of poverty, you are more often than not involved in areas of high crime and desperation. There are warning signs on everything. Any area of poverty here has invisible caution tape wrapped around it, acting as a “BEWARE” sign to any outsider.
Helping the poor and needy, and being involved in the world of social justice, is a commitment that looks nice and shiny on the outside for many people. It’s got a sweet, soft and gooey center that seems wonderful and fulfilling (marketing for the gooey center of “help” and “poverty” is easy). Everyone loves the gooey center; but, in order to get to this fulfilling sweet center that comes from making someone else’s life better, sometimes you must endanger your own. This is when it becomes real— for working in the world of crime and poverty indeed has its fulfilling center, but it also comes with some very rough edges.
I think that’s a huge thing that I’ve realized here. If you’re really going to help the poor and needy, I mean REALLY help (not just take pictures of little African kids on your shoulders to help decorate your Facebook profile), then you’re going to feel some fear, and you’re going to experience some danger. You’re more than likely going to see bad things, and more than likely some bad things will happen to you. But there’s something else, something even more important than knowing the cost of truly helping, and it’s this— Once you get past all the fear, all the anger, all “could be’s” and the “what if’s” that come with high crime and poverty and danger, you begin to see hope. And I don’t mean some hope like “hope to get a job,” or “hope to graduate college” (although those kinds of hope are indeed important); I mean a hope in humanity. It’s so real, and so special. I’m talking about a hope that is Bold and Bright and POWERFUL— the beautiful remnant that rises from their circumstance and chooses to believe and live well regardless of what the world tells them. The people that get up each and every day and live a life of quiet nobility. Sure, maybe you wont read about them in the newspaper, you won’t hear them giving speeches on some television channel, and you probably wont see them screaming or preaching in the street— but they’re Everywhere, in Every place, all around the world. You must simply open your eyes to see. Open your eyes and wait.
Every weekday I wake up at 5:30, eat a small breakfast, and get on the 6:15 train to a suburb near the place where I work. You’ve obviously just read in my list of “rules” that I shouldn’t ride the train before 7 am; but this is something I’m so thankful that I eventually disregarded. All the trains before 7 am are packed with people from the working class of Cape Town— blue-collar people who work hard for their pay, and earn everything they get. It’s the early mornings that I’ll miss the most after I leave this place. Getting to the train station that, from the outside, appears sleepy with the humdrum slow awakening of people beginning to assemble their food and knick-knack stands; but, the inside is alive with the quiet hustle and bustle of people in uniforms going to work (I say “uniforms,” because seeing a person on these early trains in a suit would be very uncommon). Uniforms of all kinds: grocery store logos, tire-repair shops, gas and service stations, local eateries, fitness clubs, etc— all people waking and working early to prepare the city of Cape Town for everyone else.
Being able to watch the city in motion, and being in motion with them at the same time is perhaps the most wonderful thing about my experience here. I know it sounds corny, but just watching the people go about their day, noticing their habits, the similarities and differences between the people here and in the U.S.— all of it reminds me of how beautifully unique we all are, yet how wonderfully human. Perhaps all would look normal, and I wouldn’t notice the commotion of it all if it weren’t so new to me; but there’s something so amazing about the quotidian repetition of the working class— just like a heartbeat pumping life into every corner of Cape Town. The working class is the backbone of this society— that voice of quiet nobility that simply does right. These are the people who love fiercely and fight for justice simply by getting up every day, and living well— providing for their families no matter what it takes, even if it means taking out the trash, cleaning the floors, or selling snacks and cigarettes at a roadside stand. These are the people that greet you when you make eye contact, rather than challenge you to a staring contest until you look away. The soft and rhythmic heartbeat of the working class is what I will miss the most, and the all the mornings I spent with them never sharing more than a few words. Although they will not remember me, I will never forget them.
Cheers to all of those people who dare to participate in daily goodness, and walk in the way of quiet nobility each day, asking nothing in return. Cheers to all of those people who make the daily choice of love over hate and fear— without even realizing it. Cheers to all of those people who work hard, and provide for their families, hoping to make the lives of those who come after them just a bit better than life was for themselves. Cheers to all those people who inspire hope— all those whose slow and methodical lives of nobility make the gears turn in making this world a better place. You are the people who will change this nation. I believe in you. I will never forget you.