The week in Makuleke went by much too quickly and while I was able to take a lot of various notes, I did not have the time to sit down and write my thoughts in a blog entry until now. There is so much to put down and I am not sure where to start.
In many ways, the photos that I post here tell the story. Makuleke is a warm, friendly village that welcomed us with open arms for the second year in a row. The USD students and the Equalizers collaborated on educational projects, organized two village lectures and one community meeting, and we have some ambitious plans for next June (more on this later).
Like I expected, this trip was different than the one last year. The students were great but 6 days in the village - in reality, it was 4.5 after our safari - was just not enough time to immerse ourselves, get to know the Equalizers and work on projects. In theory, a combination of the normal SA study abroad class and this experience should work but it just can’t unless we spend a full two weeks in the village.
One of the major differences between this year and last year is that last year I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how Sharing to Learn actually fit in the village, the dynamics of the Equalizers, and understanding the rhythm of the village. I came in this year with a basic understanding of these issues and I spent more time trying to get to know individuals (particularly, Attorney) and to think through what a more structured project in the village might look like.
Attorney is one of the most incredible people I have met and I can understand why Denise trusts him so much. He has a contagious laugh and when you tell him a story that he is finds truly interesting (or when he tells you something that he thinks is important) his eyes become wide with excitement and he stares right at you. He is so smart about so many different items but he does not show this off. It is only after some time that you realize all of the knowledge that he has tucked away. During our safari, it struck me that he was perhaps the ideal-type Renaissance Man. We were talked about subjects as diverse as botany, Makuleke history, tribal politics, the Equalizers, and the importance of the internet in the space of two hours. And to top it off, I watched him analyze track marks in the dirt to determine whether a lion had walked by in two days or three. He also spotted a herd of Kudo in the tall grass of the Limpopo floodplain as the rest of us were staring into the same space seeing nothing. His instincts are pure and he has a strong moral compass.
Before going to safari, I spent some time with Attorney doing interviews in the village. One of Denise’s best friends, Jyni, had done some interviews the day before I arrived with Attorney. When I found out that it was this easy to do something like this, I decided to ask Attorney if I could go interview people as well. Jyni had been to the village in March and she is completing a master’s degree. She was interested in the stories that people had about the Old Makuleke (which is located in Kruger now). This was something that I was hoping to learn about as well. I had wanted to document some of this oral history and give it back to the community next year. Jyni had the same idea and she has already done a short iMovie about the village from videos she took in March. I am hoping that we can work on this over the next year and have something ready for the village next June. So, Jyni, Attorney, and I set off to interview some people one afternoon. I had forgotten how much I missed doing these types of interviews. At the first one, I was incredibly nervous as I told Attorney which questions to ask. During the first interview, I had asked all of the questions I had and Jyni asked a few and we getting ready to leave and then Attorney said, “maybe you want to ask him about how the huts were made in Old Makuleke, what they ate, and where they got water?” I said, “of course we do, why don’t you ask him that.” Attorney smiled and held back his laugh (which he did not hold back when we were in the street walking to our next interview!). When we walked from house to house (we did four interviews but I think he had 5-7 on a list for us to visit), the pace was slow and we spent time talking about what we just learned. The pace was perfect. It reminded me so much of 1998-99 in KZN - but without the long, long walks and the hills. There is a lot of Peter Zulu (my research assistant in South Africa who passed away in 2003) in Attorney and that makes me both happy and sad. It makes me miss Peter a lot but it is also a sign that he is a special person. Getting to know him better, and earn his trust (I think), was one of the best parts of the time in Makuleke.
When we arrived, there were already others in the village. Jyni and her friend Keev were there - they both know Denise from NY - I think they taught together at some point. Also, Patrice and her family were there. I had met Patrice last year but I was not able to spend a lot of time with her. She is a riot - so much fun - but also so dedicated to the village. Her husband and two boys were amazing. Jeff built a kitchen for Sabina (Nesta’s mother) [Nesta lives across the street from Denise]. He is always smiling, funny, and has a huge heart. Her boys - Mitchell and McGwire (ages 10 and 12, I think) loved village life. They were constantly dirty, playing soccer, and doing everything they could to be the center of attention.
Then there was Judas - the “security guard” at the bed and breakfast. He is in his 70s - I think - and he just never stops laughing. He is full of joy and he loves dancing (especially when someone gives him a drink). He works at the bed and breakfast every night but no one is ever there. Other than the guests that Denise brings - no one stays there. It must be lonely for him and I know that he loves it when there are guests. He was a blast last year and when we saw him the first time this year, he greeted all of us with hugs and laughs. He was there this morning to say goodbye to us. Thinking of his life there in the village makes me sad because I just don’t think it can be that pleasant.
While I was only able to spend one night in the hut that we built, it is a beautiful structure and it is going to help so much for the family. With the $4000.00 we donated, we were also able to build a new toilet for Nesta’s family. I will show you pictures of what they used to use as well as the hut. I know that $4000 is a lot of money for us but I truly believe in my heart that it was the right thing to do. It will be used and it will be appreciated. It will also be there for whenever we visit.
The Equalizers really love for me to give “lectures” and I have to admit that I really enjoy it as well. This time, I gave two talks - one on Mandela’s life (in some detail) but only in English. Two days later, for our bigger community meeting, they asked me to speak about my life and Mandela’s life but with an interpreter. This was awkward. First, I do not really like talking about myself and I was not really sure what they wanted - so I focused on my academic journey. Second, me and Mandela? It was hard to find a theme to connect our lives but in the end I decided to focus on how both me and Mandela needed others to support us to help realize our dreams. They loved it - I thought it was lame. Overall, the culminating community meeting was not as powerful this year as last year and it was not as well attended. But it was interesting to see how much the Equalizers had grown more confident and the improvement in their public speaking. This year, we had met a group of university students (who were from Makuleke) and they asked to be part of the program and we said okay. I think it was really good to have some 20 year olds from Makuleke who could talk about the importance of university and the importance of studying. The night ended with a dance party with just us and the Equalizers and it was amazing.
Like last year, at each dinner, we asked the students to answer a question -“best part of the day”, “what you learned,” etc. I like doing this because it reminds me of being at home but it is also a great way to give everyone a chance to say something. The night of the community meeting - our last night - was the most powerful. We had dinner with the Equalizers and we all took turns. What everyone said was so heartfelt and powerful and it was one of those moments that I knew what we were doing really matters. Think about growing up in an isolated rural area never seeing a white person and then Denise comes, builds libraries, brings friends and all of sudden you are having dinner with a group of university students from California. The same goes for the USD students - what a chance to see something that they would never have seen. I think that we are inspiring lives doing this. I love this type of teaching and it makes me feel whole. I feel so lucky to be a part of something like this and to have connections with so many lives so far away. It is simultaneously overwhelming and electric. It makes me cringe that we may be creating high expectations that cannot be met but it also makes me smile when I think about the possibilities.
Just as a quick aside, we also played our “traditional” futbol match with the Equalizers and they kicked our butts again. But really, we played okay. We just cannot pass or control the ball at all. We did have two mexicans this year that seemed to help. The goalie - Cristina - who is from Mexico called a timeout when it was 2-0 and she gave us this advice, “when the ball comes to you, kick it towards the other goal.” We laughed and told her thanks for the advice. We also started talking in Spanish just to get in their heads (they were speaking Tsonga). Anyway, right after the timeout, Dana scored a goal. We still lost but we all know that it was the pep talk from Cristina that was key.
One other aside, the stars in this village are nothing like I have ever seen. We can see the Milky Way - in fact, you can almost touch it. The stars are so powerful that you just want to sit and look up at the sky.
The feedback from the students was what I expected. They loved it. Many of them want to come back. They are inspired with the work of the Equalizers. They think that 6 days is not enough time. And they think there needs to be more structure. So, we have an idea for next year. We have an “Equalizer/USD Camp” with more structured activities each day. We would have math, reading, or computer tutoring each day along with time for arts or sports and time for me to talk about citizenship and civics. We would require them to be with us from 12:30-4:30 each day for these activities. We would provide lunch each day for them. The best part of this idea is that it is conducive to asking for grant money - both big and small. I think the camp could be two weeks. I also think it would fantastic - if we had the funding - to take 10-12 of the Equalizers to Cape Town for a 3-4 trip at the end. It all depends on funding but I think that this is an idea that might have legs.
In the end, the people in Makuleke - especially the Equalizers - inspired all of us and the partnership that we have with them is one that will last for a long time.