I lost my camera the moment we stepped foot in South Africa.
This wasn’t an ideal start to my trip, especially since this was the Culver Academies 2012 Spring Break in Mission where our group of participating girls, myself included, expected either lions or elephants upon arrival. We received neither in the industrial city of Johannesburg, but we did attend the Kliptown Youth Program (KYP) tour of a Soweto shantytown.
â–º Finalist 2012 Teen Travel Writing Scholarship
My trek through Kliptown began with nerves and anticipation. As my classmates snapped pictures and scanned the dirt road for haphazard tree roots, I was unable to tear my gaze away from the inhabitants. Ahead, a muddy little girl sternly looked over an even muddier, littler boy toddling toward his mother. I watched as she picked him up at a flow of sewage water and crossed it rapidly, my heart clenching at this simple display of responsibility in a child mature beyond her years. In the shacks constructed by metal sheets on either side of us, dark eyes peered out from every crevice, wide and wondrous at the young women whose penchant for stumbling over unpaved roads emblazoned us as foreigners.
Their stifled laughter made me smile.
We eventually arrived at our tour guide’s home. I brushed against sweat-slicked clothing on all sides as we struggled to fit inside a room barely large enough to accommodate the five people it housed. Pride was evident in the cramped space, however, in the gleaming porcelain dishes and impeccably made bed that contrasted the hundreds of flies buzzing through the air. Our group listened with rapt attention as our guide explained the importance of KYP in Kliptown, where revenue goes towards food or school uniforms. While education in South Africa is technically free, impoverished children must pay for mandatory uniforms and thus are kept at home, where their services doing chores and babysitting are invaluable; they would give anything to do the homework and tests we complain about so frequently. He humbly thanked us for visiting his home before we, choking on words, informed him we should be thanking him.
Our final destination was a community center of sorts, where a group of adults stood fidgeting with childlike giddiness. Immediately after we sat down, they exploded into a traditional frenzied singing, dust-cloud kicking gumboot dance. I witnessed the most exhilarating performance of my life that day as their hands pounded on boots and boots thumped on ground in a magnificent whirlwind. Others again whipped out their cameras, but as I reveled in the experience without a technological barrier, I belatedly realized that my loss may have been a blessing in disguise.
I later viewed my expected South Africa on an early morning game drive. Lush grasslands stretched beyond sight and a safari sunrise painted the sky with misty pastels equally as breathtaking as the Lion King’s saturated oranges. We encountered black rhinos, so rare that even our tour guide stopped our caravan and began snapping photos while the rest of our group followed suit. I didn’t mind. In a country where the humbleness of poverty but joy for life breathes into its very fiber, I realized my own fortune with startling clarity and newfound appreciation. The dirt-speckled citizens of Kliptown showed me that a camera might be one of the most useless things one can have in South Africa, in which the true beauty lies not in a spectacular sunrise, but the raw human spirit.
I still raided my friends’ pictures as soon as we landed back home.
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