When we landed at the airport in Johannesburg, even the 16 hours on an airplane it had still not sunk in that I was in Africa for the first time in my life – in a place far different than any other region I’ve ever been lucky enough to visit. The airport in Johannesburg was similar to every other airport I’ve ever been in, domestic and foreign. So as we waited to depart the airport, I believe that we were all still wondering what exactly we should expect from South Africa.
We knew that our first stop was the township of Soweto. As our path amongst the highway flanked and subsequently passed by the downtown area of Johannesburg, I could detect a familiar anxiousness in my classmates’ eyes as we were all fully prepared to exit our comfort zones. None of us had been to this part of the world before, and with regard to South Africa’s townships, we had all received many more safety warnings than we had positive endorsements.
The “house of pain,” home of the Orlando Pirates as pictured above, was probably the first of many spectacular sights that surprised us about Soweto. It would not be the last.
What we saw as we biked the streets of Soweto today was a community of people devoid of all of the first world luxuries which we often take for granted – who still appear genuinely happy as can be. Furthermore, they appeared absolutely thrilled to see us. As we walked and biked the streets of Soweto, I felt genuinely immersed in a foreign culture in a way that I never have before. The children would rampantly run into the streets with giant smiles on their faces and try to high-five every single one of us. As we stopped our tour in large gathering areas of the local communities and indulged in their traditional beverages and dances, the locals seemed pleased by our presence. Every South African that has made eye contact with me has made a genuine attempt to harness whatever degree of English fluency they possess to greet me and speak to me. Many who don’t speak English at all simply waved, shook hands or greeted me in some other way. The social atmosphere and sense of community here is something that I only wish I could see in the much wealthier and more privileged country from which I come.
Nicholas Kristof told us that removing yourself from your comfort zone will provide you with the best opportunities imaginable to learn and grow. I felt prepared to embrace that idea as we traveled across the ocean to South Africa, but as we descended into Soweto from the highway, I believe that a certain reservation began to set in for most of us. But the end result is that I find myself eager to revisit South Africa having spent less than 48 hours here, and in Soweto nonetheless. That says something profoundly important about the attitude of the people that I have interacted with here. I would sacrifice many of the first world luxuries that I live with in order to spend more time in this place, and can’t wait to explore the rest of the country.