Back in college, on Thursday nights, our choir rehearsed songs for Sunday’s performance.
The musical director would play chords over and over again until every section (sopranos, altos, tenors, et al) hit the exact right notes and the timing was spot on.
It’s all very technical and a bit removed from purpose even though we were standing in a spiritual structure directly behind the pulpit.
However, come Sunday, a spirit unseen and unspoken would enter that structure and the chorus would take care of itself. You can’t describe it, but you feel it.
We decided to visit Soweto on a Sunday. A friend in Johannesburg arranged for a member of the Zulu to take us to Soweto because as much as we were looking forward to our safari the next day, we also wanted to hear and see life in South Africa beyond the gloss of a tourist brochure.
Fortified by an American breakfast, I hopped into the mini-van, with my camera around my neck prepared to capture Soweto, a bit removed from purpose.
Our host started weaving a tale of life pre- and post-Apartheid as we drove past the heavily secured middle class neighborhoods, shopping malls, and businesses of Johannesburg.
From the interstate you could imagine Philadephia or Pittsburgh, but in one exit ramp that all changed. Don’t get me wrong, we saw “middle class” neighborhoods in Soweto, but a large portion was poverty like I had never witnessed ever in my life.
There were signs of commerce all around–power plants, over-crowded shopping centers, soccer stadiums being built for the World Cup, but it’s the slums that take your breath away.
I started snapping pictures of children playing soccer, teenage boys trimming each other’s hair at street-side barbershops, live chickens waiting to be purchased for Sunday dinner, and even a group of twenty-something men, one with machete in hand, carefully dissecting the meat from a cow’s head, so that one of their wives could prepare it for the men to eat. It’s considered a delicacy. Nothing goes to waste.
We happened upon one of many slums where young men were selling tours. On one hand, I applaud their entrepreneurship, but on the other hand, I was appalled and refused to pay one Rand. These were people’s homes and I wanted to respect that.
What I saw as we walked through challenged me. Among the tin structures and hard clay dirt, I saw a young boy playing with sticks, a woman tending to her garden full of rocks and weeds, a young girl washing clothes in a rusty galvanized bucket and yet another woman sweeping her dirt floor. Pride.
I was reminded of something my great-grandmother use to say, “If you’ve only got one outfit, keep it cleaned and pressed and if you lost everything and had to live in a cardboard box, make it feel like home.”
I started to well-up, the way you do when a good gospel song moves you. You can’t explain it, but you feel it. How could this be? How can I help? What is being done to help these people? Who’s in charge? I demand answers now! I’m sad. I’m angry. I’m scaring my husband.
Then something said look up and I saw a group of pre-teen girls dressed in white for church…singing, laughing and….skipping.
Even in despair, there is always hope.
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