Upacking Soweto

This was probably one of the most intense days of our trip. We had a lot to unpack by the end of the day, but we’re all grateful for the experience.

Today we went on a walking tour of Soweto with a tour guide from the area who gave us some historical context for what we were seeing. 

Though I felt safe and welcomed the whole time, my discomfort with the class differences between us and the people we were visiting peaked here. I couldn’t help but feel intrusive as we walked through the streets, attracting attention everywhere we went. After reflecting throughout the day, I realize my discomfort stemmed from my desire to treat everyone I interacted with on this trip with the dignity Western stereotypes about Africa seek to strip from them. I was struggling to find a way to acknowledge the humanity of the people around us in a way that felt genuine while navigating a power dynamic that clearly favored us, the well-off American tourists. In the end, sitting with my feelings and considering appropriate ways to help the communities we saw helped me focus less on helping and more on engaging. I‘ve concluded that I can best help out by showing the aspects of South Africa we overlook when we hold simplistic, outdated views of what a place can be. I can also help by uplifting the voices of people with more expertise who are creating the change I’d like to see, with far more positive results than if I tried to shout over more relevant voices. Although I’m still processing the experience and refining how I navigate the world, I feel like a more culturally-competent, responsible traveler. 

Each of us seemed to deal with our feelings about the trip in a different way, whether we expressed it throughout the day or afterward during our debrief. However, I think we can all agree something within us has changed. When properly recognized and engaged with, discomfort creates growth. We’re lucky to experience this type of discomfort in a safe, supportive environment and have the opportunity to make ourselves better for it.

We visited the Zulu area, Middle Land, and Orlando west in Soweto today on a 3-hour walking tour, during which we also stopped by a Memorial Square for Soweto Uprising and Nelson Mandela’s house.

Memorial Plaza for the Soweto Uprising

Quite unexpectedly, throughout the tour, the view of Soweto as well as the lifestyle of its residents constantly reminded me of the villages that my grandparents come from.  This remote correspondence gave me a weird sense of human oneness: in the end, all humans originated from the African continent, and we are so similar by nature. It seems that throughout history, it is the story that we chose to tell that set ourselves apart. While people might have used storytelling to hurt and exploit, the power story-telling grants us the ability and responsibility to shape the future. 

After T-shirt printing with ASAP (a community partner that we visited two days ago) at lunch, we visited ALA’s community partner, the Villa of Hope. Some background information about the organization:

“The Villa of Hope is an NPO registered with the Department of Social Development as a Child and Youth Care Center. The organization focuses on the provision of superior care to those children who have been orphaned or require alternative care due to abuse, neglect, abandonment and children that are affected or infected by HIV and AIDS or other ill circumstances.” (Source: https://www.villaofhope.co.za/about/)

We were instantly greeted with curious and friendly looks of the kids, and they crowded us with the purest kindness and excitement. Once they knew that Angela and I were Chinese, they implored us to teach them Chinese phrases and expressions, and questioned us about our Kung-Fu abilities with so much passion that we were invited to fight each other in a live Kung-Fu demo. We did not actually fight (thankfully), but the kids’ desire to learn and their abilities to do so efficiently was moving. While other five or six-year-olds I have known loved sharing their stories and hobbies, our friends from the Villa of Hope desperately absorbs any piece of knowledge about the wider world, the world that we are from and have brought to them today. Abby told us that the mere thirty minutes that we spend with the kids would plant a seed in them; they would remember us, and ask about us over again when she goes back to visit. Our visit today is no doubt a powerful rebuttal for nihilism; no matter how futile our efforts might seem like in a cosmological scale, the influence we can make for those around us is very tangible. 

— Amy and Leela

1 thought on “Upacking Soweto

  1. Candace Cunningham

    What an eloquent, thoughtful and inspired unpacking! Thoroughly enjoyed your blog today and your insights.
    Proud to be a Porter’s mom (Julia C.) and grateful for all that you are individually and collectively absorbing through osmosis!


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