October 2016 - Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa
Children of Soweto
Hopeless. Despair. Forgotten. Just a few words that come to mind when one first enters Soweto. Beyond the sprawling economic center of Gauteng and Johannesburg, this township sits as a reminder of the segregation and struggles that occupied decades past. Soweto began as an area designated for housing black miners in the first part of the 20th century. In the 1950s, black residents were forcibly moved to Soweto in order to clear the predominantly white neighborhoods of Johannesburg, thereby ensuring separating races and creating a drastic economic and social imbalance in the process.
As migrants from across the African continent moved to South Africa in search of prosperity, they settled in what was an acronym for South Western Township. Amid increasing the increasing population and blatant segregation in the later half of last century, Soweto became synonymous with overcrowded neighborhoods, disproportionate unemployment, and severely lacking infrastructure. Even today, one does not need to look past the unpaved streets and unfinished housing tenements to appreciate the dark and troubled past of this township.
Yet it was not always so. Soweto formerly housed luminaries such as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu who lived in the Orlando West area. Numerous musicians, athletes, and prominent medical professionals have once called it home. And even today, this township of stark contrasts exudes a hopeful energy that serves as a beacon of hope for the future.
Riding a bicycle through the heart of Soweto, my initial reaction was one of shock. I was shocked to see such heart-wrenching poverty less than 20 kilometers from the luxurious mansions and sports car dealerships of Johannesburg. I was perplexed by the piles of garbage which littered the streets where children played and mothers washed their family laundry. I was saddened by the harsh living conditions the locals endure every single day as families lived in crammed shacks with shattered windows and leaking rooftops. To many of us from the outside world, such scenes are unimaginably horrific, tugging at the deepest heartstrings of sympathy and human compassion. They elicit feelings of sorrow as we search for answers to explain how human actions could have led to such a divide between people; how so many could have been neglected and forgotten throughout the years while an entire country forged ahead and reaped the fruits of technological advancement and globalization. Yet this phenomenon is not unique to South Africa - it can be witness in countless countries, both developed and developing, around the world.
I continued to pedal down the streets of Soweto, avoiding the frequent pothole and mound of rubbish as I entered a small enclave where multi-family homes were situated in a rectangular fashion along a big field. Children's voices pierced the warm summer air as they came rushing to us, hands outstretched with smiles on their faces. We dismounted from our bikes and that is when I finally felt the most transcendent and moving element of this experience - the children of Soweto.
Despite having so little, in both the physical and metaphorical sense, they give so much. They reflect a sense of happiness, almost as though their lack of exposure to the outside world gives them a sense of hope that so much more can be accomplished. They are not encumbered by the wrongdoings of past generations, but are merely the victims of circumstance. And yet, despite all the hardships, these children are brimming with life; far more life and energy than many of us who struggle with seemingly trivial hardships in the comfort of our own lives.
And so, for me Soweto is a reminder of hope. Despite all the doubt and confusion that seems to hover over this township like a thick blanket of fog, there is clarity and light. Despite the lack of resources, there is a resourcefulness that allows people to accomplish so much with so little. Despite the broken fragments of homes strewn across the streets, the community remains cohesive and intact. And in the face of all this adversity, we must recognize that the human spirit and progress cannot be shackled. The Children of Soweto are the beacon of light that shines ever so brightly during difficult times, reflecting upon a dark past which must not be forgotten, and illuminating a future that will be shaped by the very children whose smiles and laughter reminded me that hope and determination are two forces that will always fuel the progress of mankind.
These words are for the children of Soweto - may their futures be as bright and warm as the energy they shared with us on that late October day.