What it Really Means to be Rich
I did not go to Africa on a service trip. In fact, I spent my fourteen-day visit to South Africa very differently. Traveling with my high school dance company and a group of accompanying musicians, 29 other students and I made the nearly 8,000-mile journey to perform at various locations throughout South Africa. When we weren’t rehearsing our show, we spent our days traveling to popular tourist sites, witnessing the incredible beauty of Table Mountain and the Cape of Good Hope. We visited museums dedicated to Nelson Mandela and the apartheid, learning about the history of the nation. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip, complete with hundreds of tourist-y photos, luxurious hotels and souvenir shopping.
And yet, none of these experiences were as important to my classmates and I as the day we abandoned our cushy tourist bus and spent a day in Kliptown.
Kliptown is a suburb of the Soweto township in Gauteng, South Africa. It is an area rich in cultural history—in 1955, the Freedom Charter was adopted there, a revolutionary document that demanded equal rights for all South Africans. Despite its historical significance, however, Kliptown is one of the poorest areas around the city of Johannesburg. It was formed in the early 1900s due to a lack of housing for black citizens, who were not allowed to own land under the apartheid government. Since then, it has remained an ‘unofficial’ residence stricken by extreme poverty. Houses are single rooms made of corrugated metal and plywood; one pump supplies water for the entire community. Unemployment lingers near 80%, and there are no schools or health clinics in the area.
It was difficult to witness this standard of living. I was initially overcome with pity, and felt almost guilty walking through the area—I could not imagine living in an area so poor.
It didn’t take long for me to realize how rich the community really was.
The spirit of positivity within the township was palpable; as we walked, nearly everyone we passed welcomed us into their community. Two young boys approached us immediately, eager to hold our hands and talk to us. We were surrounded by strangers and yet I somehow felt at home. Even more inspiring was the Kliptown Youth Program, an after-school program for the children of the community. KYP incorporates education, technology and performing arts; its goal is to motivate and empower Kliptown’s youth in hopes of helping them escape poverty. It was clear after spending an afternoon there that just because a community doesn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing does not mean the people have nothing—everyone we met at KYP had a remarkable spirit that was evident in the way they danced, laughed and sang with us. For a few hours I was surrounded by the worst poverty I had ever witnessed, but I was the happiest I’d been since landing in South Africa.
Our guide, Thulani, had asked us when we arrived not to feel pity for his community. “We have problems, but every community has problems,” he said, “Just open your mind and you might be surprised what we can all learn from each other.”
He was right. That day, I learned lack of material things does not mean a community is poor. People can be rich in other things—positivity, happiness, and hope.
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