I have a good story. I share for many reasons. One being for me to remember. To remember and learn.
I’ve been blessed by many of these stories, but this one was probably the first to rock my foundation, my core. It let me see something bigger than myself. It let me understand the “butterfly effect.” It let me understand quantum physics. But only to forget them.
I don’t know why these memories are fleeting. I don’t know why the lesson learned from them has to be repeated over and over. Why I don’t remember them. Why I don’t master them.
So I will write this one down now for me and for you.
“If you have knowledge let others light their candle by it.”
Those fortune cookies are wise!
The setting: South Africa 2001, cape town to be specific. South Africa remains my favorite of all the countries I’ve been to. I’ve been to 50 and plan to go to 50 more. The minute I got there, I felt this connection. I tried to move there twice but never followed through. Never followed through, but it was and is, I would imagine, special.
It was 2001 and I was traveling on Semester at Sea and a group of us went to a township. For those unfamiliar with what a township is or the history of South Africa in general, I encourage you to learn more, but I will just briefly sum up the basics below.
South Africa has a tumultuous history, like most African countries it shares the commonalities of being conquered and colonized (Dutch, UK) and then left to fend for itself as “itself.” But it didn’t know what itself is. Prior to colonization, there were 100s of different people’s/communities/cultures of people. They drew a border that never existed before. They were arbitrarily grouped together by a colonizer and they shared something in common, they were “lesser.” They all had “less” value. And when the slavery ended they were left to find what “they” stand for, who is in “charge,” which is the “right” culture, even what was the “right” language. Who will be in charge and in the case of South Africa, there was a white upper class that still controlled the majority of money and property.
You most likely have heard of the Apartheid era (1948-1994). An era during our lifetime. An era that ended less that 10 years before the time I visited. During this time Racist legislation dominated. I guess it was like visiting the US right after the Civil Rights movement.
But enough history.
All you really need to know is that there is extreme poverty and many people live in makeshift villages called townships. These townships are all made of Africans. There is no electricity. No running water. Homes are made of corrugated metal from the shipping containers that they salvage from dumps. There are dozens of townships. I tried to find the exact number, but it is unknown as a township may be being created right now. But to give you an idea of these squat like villages the populations can range from the hundreds to millions. In Cape Town they range in the hundred thousands (200,000-300,000)
I went to one of these townships. I wish I could tell you the one, but they all look alike. Just these sprawling piles of metal, with garbage. I walked its streets. This is not the normal thing to do when on “vacation”/ “safari” two of the biggest reasons you go to/through Cape Town. It does not look like the Victoria Waterfront, which is where you will stay and visit if you go.
I walked the “Streets” of the townships and I played with the children who were infatuated with us. We had cameras. This was exciting technology and boy did they want to smile. They loved the idea of pictures. It’s like they wanted to be remembered. And it was in the time of film so you had to think twice, but of course, I took anyone’s picture that asked until I ran out of film.
And soccer was everywhere. All the children were playing soccer. Many without shoes. Many without proper clothes. And they smiled. Gap toothed smiles at us.
One of us brought an inflatable globe. We inflated it and showed it to the children. We brought it as a ball, to play. I believe we bought it as a beach ball when we were in the Seychelle islands prior. The children (and adults) couldn’t get over it. It became clear that they had never seen a globe. We showed them where we came from and where they lived. They asked how we got to them. How that was possible over all of that blue. We told them that we came by ship.
I was only 20 during this trip. I remember the dichotomy of it all. The poles. The darkness and the lightness. The laugher among that extreme poverty. All of these people living in dirt, but yet so proud and so happy to show us it all. I share some photos here. I’m so happy that these survived the fire. I had these in my apartment in NYC.
It is now 2006 and my parents decided we should go on safari. It was a dream of my father and me. My brother and mom were not too excited, but I think looking back on it, they can only have fond memories.
It was fancy. Very different from my last visit to Africa. We were flying first class. We were staying at all the top game reserves and our first stop was Cape Town. We stayed at the Victoria Waterfront. It was gorgeous. It even had a Gucci.
Prior to leaving for this trip, I requested we visit a “township.” My father called the travel agent to request this. She said she didn’t recommend it and that she had never planned one before, but she would look into it. And she got us a “tour.”
When we got to South Africa we took our chauffeur from the tour company and went to a township. We were greeted by the “mayor.” He was cheerful and walked us around his township with pride. I wish I could say it looked vastly different than 5 years ago. That there was progress, but I saw very little. I did see a sense of community building. The mental pieces of these makeshift homes had numbers on them, they now had “addresses.” These people could receive mail, but beyond that, it looked the same.
And just like last time, the children came running and they held our hands. Sadly most of these pictures burned so I can’t share.
I told our guide that I had been to a township before. He asked which one. I was embarrassed that I didn’t know. I don’t think any of us knew the name. It was just a “nameless” place of people living in filth. Cities have names. Organized city planning has names. Names of streets, names of Avenues. And how do you say, “it looked just like this one?” That would be like meeting someone from China and saying, “Hey I know someone from China. His name is Henry Chu. Do you know him?”
At the end of the tour, he took us to HIS home. It was the only home with running water in the village. The goal was to show us that it was possible and we could help (donations). But I just sat with my mouth wide open. I walked out. Then I walked back in. Then I walked out, in, out, in. I guess this was my way of “pinching myself.” Real?! Am I here right now?
There in the mayor’s “house” (2 rooms made of corrugated metal) hanging where a chandelier would be, where even just a light bulb should be, a place of honor, was an inflatable globe.
I asked him where he got it. None of my family knows this story. I bet they may think its an odd question. Why am I asking him about an inflatable globe when he is speaking about life, the need of water.
He tells me he has had it for a few years now. His son traded it with his cousin who got it from “shipmates.” People who came on a boat and showed them the world.
This happened. This happened.
I BEAR WITNESS
Now let’s do math.
What are the odds that I would end up at the same township 5 years later? There are dozens in Cape Town.
What are the odds within this township I would run into the one person out of 200.000+ people that has ownership of this globe?
The unlpottable, the data that does not match the set. The things we often brush off as “coincidences.”
Lately many of you have been sending me quotes. Sending me truths that you have learned. Truths that you think I would like. And I DO. I like.
“Coincidences are God’s way of remaining invincible” – Albert Einstein