One of the projects I’ve worked on during my two years involves a girl’s high school from Johannesburg coming out to Phedišang for a work weekend. The idea manifested itself one night while I was sitting at the dinner table with Leigh and Sue – we were having one of our many discussions about Phedišang’s potential and how it doesn’t take two years of living in a different country to be socially aware. We discussed the two worlds’ that twist and turn around each other to make up the complex but amazing country of South Africa. There are so many South Africans that have never seen the country like I am experiencing it – because of their Apartheid history, many white people would never even contemplate stepping foot inside a community like the one I live in (I know this because I’ve had a few people actually tell me this exact thing). I truly believe that in order to break down the stereotypes, we have to overcome that fear of the unknown and expose ourselves. I think even for Leigh’s family, who have visited this area for years, were surprised that a young woman would choose to spend two years of her life, living in this rural community. Once they saw that I was making it work, not afraid as long as I took the proper precautions, we got to talking seriously about letting Katherine, their 15 year old daughter, come and spend a few days with me in the village. The McLean’s have proven to be my surrogate family and I care for Katherine and Richard as if they were my own siblings, wanting for them the best that this world has to offer but also making sure they get a well-rounded view of it. That’s why I thought it was so important the Katie and Teresa (my real younger sisters) got to come and spend some time with me, not just in South Africa, but in my village, working with me and meeting my friends and family there. There is so much about the experience that just can’t be put into words but I know will stay with them (and me) for years to come – hopefully shaping the way they view life just a little bit differently. What I’m getting at is that it doesn’t take a lot to be socially conscious, just a willingness to open one’s eyes and step outside of comfort zones, if only for a few days.
From that dinner table conversation (and I’m sure the many others that we would have that would lead into the late hours and really define my Joburg experience), an idea was formed and we planned, stressed and pulled off a weekend where nine 10th grade girls from Roedean School (the one that Katherine attends) stepped outside of their comfortable worlds of heated floors, indoor plumbing and cable TV and came to Phedišang Limpopo for a weekend in late July of 2007. They stayed in the secret haven of the London Mission – located relatively close to our centres/office but even more peaceful and with an incredible view of the mountains. They slept on thin mattresses on the floor, braved the pit toilets (sometimes even in the dark) and the outdoor showers (which I cherished) and the lack of electricity in the building they were staying in. Overall the weekend was a success; we learned what worked – the bathrooms weren’t that big an issue, the activities were a hit as well as the home visits to some of the Phedišang girl’s houses. And what didn’t work – forced one on one interaction with the Phedišang girls, too much debriefing and expecting the Roedean girls to talk about their feelings. After discussions with the Phedišang kids and the Roedean girls, we decided we could do it again the next year, tweak a few things and have even more girls so we could go to all 6 of the Phedišang centres.
The first weekend of August 2008, we had another successful weekend with the Roedean girls. This year the energy was completely different. The first group of girls had no idea what to expect and were a lot more timid going into the weekend. This group of girls arrived at the mission with a spirit and energy that surprised and enchanted me. They were a strong group of girls, no doubt prepared by the previous group but also because of their own ambitions. They spent Friday afternoon meeting the kids at their respective centres and then two long days, Saturday and Sunday, working on wall murals, posters and learning some of the crafts that the Phedišang kids do, as well as traditional games and dances.
Monday was the last day, and after a few hours at the centres, where they put the finishing touches on their projects, we brought all the Roedean girls back to the Mission, along with the Phedišang Leaders they had been working closely with throughout the weekend. It was a beautiful night and while some were preparing the braai dinner, a few others were working together with their leaders on whatever they were going to perform for the variety show later than night. I had been running around, doing whatever I could to help and when I ran up to Charlotte (the Roedean woman in charge of the weekend), she looked at me and although I don’t remember her exact words, it was then that I looked around and saw that this was what it was all about. We were cooking porridge in one area, others were beating drums, groups of Roedean girls and Phedišang leaders were practicing together in different spots – and it all just felt natural and right.
The rest of the night was wonderful, with good food and a fun variety show that even had a little dancing and singing from the “adults” of the weekend. The weekend was long but amazing, and surprisingly had only one conflict to speak of. The girls didn’t let it cripple their support of each other and hopefully those involved learned a valuable lesson; that sometimes the right thing to do is not always the comfortable choice. The experience will stay with the Phedišang kids for a long time and hopefully help open the minds of the Roedean girls as they go through life.