The journey began months before the group set foot on the first plane. The time previous to the departure was full of preparations. There were presentations and projects to get together. I was going to Africa. Looking back on it now, it is like an unbelievable dream that seems an insurmountable reality, and yet, it is real, I lived it.
When I met with Jeannine Smith, founder of the Small Village Foundation of Boise, Idaho, months before May 30, I thought, “I’m going to Africa.” Like the thought of college to a fresh senior in high school, (I am going to college; I am going to be living on my own), it was an event that was always in the future; one that became legitimate in the instant it happened, even with all of the preparation beforehand.
Although the members of the foundation board handled the bulk of the preparatory elements, I had my part to do. I gave two presentations; one for the Rotary Club here in Star Valley, and one for a big fund raiser dinner in Boise.
It was my responsibility to find a group to support me on an individual project that was to be implemented in Africa.
Being a musical person, I turned to my high school band class. I asked if each member would be willing to contribute five dollars with which we could buy recorders and method books that we could donate to children in Africa.
About a week before I was due to leave, the recorders came and departure day was fast approaching.
The morning of May 30, 2007 dawned anticipation. It had finally arrived. We managed to get the few remaining strings tied and we were on our way – all 16 of us: eight teens, seven adult women and one adult man. I set food on an airplane for the first time since I can remember. (Twenty-three hours an a few layovers later, I discovered flying is not my favorite experience.)
The morning of my seventeenth birthday, June 1, 2007, the third biannual Small Village Foundation “Journey to Africa” group landed in Durban, South Africa.
The humidity is almost overbearing to someone so well acquainted with the dry climate of Wyoming’s mountains.
Durban is a very large, industrialized city on the eastern coast of South Africa. It has its glass-walled, multi-story buildings and millions of residents. There are people everywhere; people walking along the streets, in the streets, riding along the backs of bakkis (pick-up trucks) and crammed in taxi vans. Every window is heavily lined with metal bars. Walls, topped with electric fencing, surround schools and upper-class residential areas.
The second day there, I came face-to-face with poverty. Our group went up to an area called Rainbow Ridge, where mud and tin shacks clump together on the hillside.
We brought with us cans of blue and yellow paint, rollers and brushes. Our project that day was to paint a couple of room sin their creche (preschool).
Upon our arrival, children emerged from the maze-work of shanties to watch us, their bright, mismatched array of clothes standing out against the green and umber backdrop of trees and mud. Their radiant faces glowed with warm curiosity and eagerness to be in range of the camera lenses. This is Africa.
The next few days took us out to the more rural side of South Africa. We traveled past rolling fields of lush, green sugarcane. Children playing outside waved, calling excitedly, shouting their blessings upon us. Sheep, goats and cattle roamed alongside the roads, not caring less for the arrival of Americans.
Sometimes the sights were so familiar, it was hard to imagine I was in Africa. We would pass fields dotted with grassy, square-shaped bales, then all of a sudden there would be a herd of zebras or impalas – even a band of monkeys – and I was pulled back into Africa.
Our travels brought us to the Centecow village, where we volunteered at the local creche (preschool) among other things. At first, the small children were wary of us, but soon they warmed up and were babbling away in their native tongue.
We built them a playground of recycled tires and paint. I taught the teachers the basics of the recorder, leaving them with five of the instruments. (The original plan was for me to teach at a public elementary school, but due to a large strike going on, I had to change course). Upon our departure a few days later, the children were gathered to sing for us.
From there, we went to a school for disabled children, most of them with cerebral palsy, abandoned by their mothers. Here, we learned the power of loving touch as we played with and held them.
Our last full day in the area, we had the opportunity to be guests at a genuine coming-of-age celebration in the village.
There were people – so many people – weaving in and out and around the rondovals (round, plastered huts with thatched roofs). The young people – the women clad in brightly colored beaded outfits and young men with their traditional shields and staffs – danced in a mob, chanting their songs. There were the adult women, with various items professionally balanced atop their heads, walking in a long line to present gifts to the two now-of-age sisters.
The men stood around. Proposals for marriage went out to all the American females, to which we kindly, and at times forcefully, declined.
A couple hours ticked by, but the excitement hardly slowed. Just before we took off, we were lead to the main rondoval, where meat hung from the ceiling. We were offered plates brimming with white and yellow rice, squash, chicken and spinach. It was an honor for them to feed us.
As we sat with our plates, more and more villagers entered to fill every inch of the small rondoval. The scent of dozens of bodies mixed with smoke, drying beef and liquor was overpowering, but I managed to dig in and gut a few bites.
All around us, they sang, their voices reverberating against our rib cages. This is Africa.
The last few days in Africa were spent around Johannesburg, another huge city in South Africa. We had the chance to stay at a boarding school. The students there welcomed us with open arms and beautiful voices of song. They were from all around the surrounding countries of Botswana, Mozambique, Angola, Swaziland and others, including South Africa.
They hooked elbows with us and the questions immediately came pouring from their smiling faces. So many of them have the desire to come to America, to see all of the places that they hear about on TV and in movies.
To them, we all live lives of celebrities. There were countless times I had to explain that I have never met Will Smith, Beyonce or Usher.
They were very willing to educate us in their culture and country. “That’s Nelson Mandela’s house,” they would say, or “that’s Alex. It’s a big, sad squatter camp,” and “we don’t go to college, we got to university. College is an all-boys school.”
They had no difficulty opening up and tried very hard to get us to do the same. They would pull us into their dancing circles; they would beg us to sing – two things most Americans have difficulty sharing with people they hardly know.
Here, I finally got to do the bulk of my project. I gave each of them their own recorder and a crash course on the basics of the instrument. They came up to me afterward, thanking me again and again. Once girl came up with tears in her eyes – she could not believe it was hers to keep, that someone in America would care enough to just give it to her.
I also left them with a notebook of encouraging letters accompanied by photographs from the girls in my young women’s group.
The morning we left was one full of farewell tears and the exchanging of gifts and addresses When departure time arrived, it was accompanied by more amazing singing – their voices drifted to our ears as we pulled away. This is what Africa does to you: leaves your heart singing and soul dancing, your veins pumping with the beat of the drums. This is Africa.