By: Kiera Wood, 11th Grade
In June, my family and I ventured to South Africa. It’s hard to believe but the planning started fourteen months earlier in April 2009, when the 2010 World Cup ticket lottery took place. We scored tickets to two games in Cape Town for the world’s biggest, most watched sporting event. South Africa had always been on our list of places to see with its long complex history of colonization, the slave trade, natural resource mining and apartheid, plus its national parks and animals. The World Cup was a bonus and an additional inspiration.
It was a coincidence in the spring of 2010 when Sedick Levy, a former prisoner and now guide on Robbin Island was introduced as GFA’s Coyle Scholar. Mr. Levy brought South Africa’s recent history alive telling his story of a black man in a segregated society fighting for equality and later facing a liberated country struggling to change and forgive. I could not have asked for a better introduction to South Africa’s history and people. Cape Town was our first stop. Perched on the Atlantic Ocean, Cape Town is a beautiful modern city and our first impression was that it didn’t feel like “Africa” at all. Upon our arrival on a clear day, we immediately took a cable car to the top of Table Mountain, a huge flat mountaintop, hugging the city to Table Bay and often-clothed in clouds. From the summit, we could see the wide sandy beaches, the new Green Point Stadium, the docks, and even Robbin Island. We had planned to visit Robbin Island the next day but all trips were canceled due to rough seas. Instead we visited the slave lodge and the Castle of Good Hope, learning more about Cape Town’s history, followed by a trip to the Cape of Good Hope and Boulders Beach penguin colony.
When the ferries resumed, we took the brisk 45-minute ride across Table Bay to the isolated prison island. By bus we saw the leper’s church and graveyard, Robert Sobukwe’s house, the lime quarry where the prisoners worked, and finally the prison itself. Another ex-prisoner told us his story as we walked through the cells and yard. With the cold wind off the water, it wasn’t hard to imagine what it would have been like in cells with no windowpanes, no blankets and little food. The last stop was Nelson Mandela’s cell, a space no bigger than a double bed with a thin sleeping mat on the floor. My images of the smiling President Mandela and Mr. Levy did not mesh with the silent stark cells.
After the tour we asked for and eventually left a note for Mr. Levy in hopes of seeing him and amazingly we did. He came out of the administration office, note in hand wondering who had left it, finally meeting us by the dock. He told us he had a great time at GFA and hoped to come back to the U.S. to speak. He also wanted us to tell other GFA families to contact him by email to arrange a tour of Robbin Island.
Connecting a speaker directly to his story and life was a rare opportunity that we will not forget. Even with the tour of the prison, the struggle for equality seemed like a distant historical event that took place in what is now the modern prosperous city of Cape Town. Then we spent a half-day in the township of Kayamandi climbing the dirt roads surrounded by thousands of tin shacks the size of a small garages often housing 8-12 people. In the township the reality of the slowly changing society made clear that apartheid only ended 16 years ago, my short lifetime, and not hundreds of years before.
We went to an afterschool dance program for middle school boys and girls, listened to the life story of a local resident, attended a church service, and visited many families. The people were welcoming, boys on the street played soccer with my brother, small children just wanted to hold our hands. The poverty was overwhelming but the people seemed hopeful. I think all visitors to South Africa should spend time meeting people in one of the many townships. The juxtaposition of extreme poverty touching extreme wealth is a striking image calling for a solution.
In South Africa, where soccer is the most popular sport among township residents, the World Cup tournament created a unique atmosphere. We met people from every continent, fans traveling to games in different parts of the country. The game I attended was filled with enthusiastic fans and the hum of vuvuzelas. Two male super fans from Spain were dressed up as a flamenco dancer and a matador. Thousands of others were dressed in country colors, faces painted, hats adorned with flags, and colorcoordinated vuvuzelas, of course. The atmosphere engulfed us and soon we were wearing a country scarf and gleefully blowing a horn.
At the end of our trip we ventured to a small camp lit by kerosene lamps and flashlights in Kruger National Park. Rhinos, elephants, hippos, wildebeest, giraffe, and monkeys came within feet of our open land rovers on 6 a.m. game drives. At dusk rangers followed footprints to find leopards prowling for impala and lions waking from afternoon naps. At camp dinners we met and talked with tourists from Guatemala, Panama, London, Canada, Russia, and the U.S. Walking to breakfast we could see the footprints of animals that had roamed around our cabin at night while the monkeys played in the trees overhead. It was amazing how close we came to the animals within a few feet of our land rover or breakfast table.
The history, natural beauty, wildlife and mostly the people are my lasting memories of South Africa. Selwyn, our Afrikaner guide, introducing us to Lilly, a single mother supporting her daughter in college from her cement and tin shack, Anita, a high school senior from Guatemala hoping to attend a university in Germany after many World Cup games with her father, and Sedick Levy, a South African who taught me that friendship inspires understanding.