A Year Later — A Much Needed Wrap Up

There’s nothing as frustrating to me as something left undone, and while I’ve written various other things about Kayamandi for class or the honors college, this blog has haunted the back of my mind. Reading back over the posts on here, I recognize a tendency I have that also spills into my journaling: I record the rough or big stuff and enjoy the good, letting it pass without note. Also, finding internet was a headache of a mission, while I was there, so while my record here is sparse, I have a journal full of what happened on the daily.

Maybe it was me selfishly holding onto the good things, or maybe it was that strange guilt that still hangs over me that I didn’t spend 100% of every second working to help make things better. Now, I realize that’s an absurd thing to ask of myself, but I’ve always had a penchant for the absurd so… Anyway. Before I could let this go, I needed to revisit in order to correct a few things and finish off this picture in the way it deserves… My way, without a grade or even that much of an intended audience.

This post may be just as erratic as riding this ostrich was, hyuck hyuck. Just kidding. I have a bigger brain; it’ll be way more organized I’m sure.

So let’s do some bold headings like true new age journalists, shall we?

I’m terrible at spelling names in Xhosa

This is not Lasetha. (I can fully explain why I thought this, but that would take way too long.) This is my dear, lovely friend Nosihle Makwekwe.

She called me fat once and I couldn’t have been more complimented.

Nosihle is the teacher I’ve talked about in past posts. She was our shining light at the creche. She taught us Xhosa songs that I’ll never forget, corrected me on all my click sounds, kept up the best chatter over dishes and cooking, made me laugh every day, and had the sweetest way with the kids. We talked about anything and everything.

We still talk, and one day, she’s going to make a wonderful elementary teacher. She’s on her way to getting her teacher’s certification, and I plan on cheering her on at graduation.

Songo Fipaza is an angel on Earth

To refresh your memory, Songo was more or less our everything in Kayamandi. Not only did he help arrange where we would stay and possibilities for what we could do for projects, he was also the best guide and family we could’ve had there. Since he had grown up in Kayamandi, he knew everyone, and thanks to his rapport in the community, we made more connections and really felt like we got to know Kayamandi properly.

Songo brought us into his family, let us use his home wifi and eat his snacks, and we got to talk about all those small, funny, weird, and interesting social differences that we’d noticed. He loved to talk about his home, and I loved listening. He had a bigger heart than I could ever articulate and enabling him to keep doing his work was an honor.

Also he spent a week driving us down the Garden Route (along the coast), and was a wizard of a tour guide. Flat tire on a narrow rode in the middle of the night? No problem. We needed to get across the country in a night? Done.

My phone wasn’t receiving texts and we were essentially lost puppies who had barely made it onto a Greyhound that was already hours late. We were just hoping he’d be in East London when we got there.Well somehow he found us at a random gas station stop, two hours from the city. Plus… he managed all of our madness with grace and love. Wizard.

I learned… a lot

In most of the writing I’ve done since I’ve gotten back, I’ve been wrestling with the bigger picture of service learning. It was a disturbing sort of thing, feeling so prepared then getting there and realizing that there really was no way to prepare. As with projects back home, things go wrong or they shift or they evolve, and that’s a challenge to do anywhere.

When things did go wrong, I remember just being torn apart, thinking I’d failed. That feeling persisted for a long time, but then I realized I didn’t fail. In the end, my main project with the gallery didn’t work out, but we turned our resources toward Kayamandi High School and their small library. I figured out how to catalogue, cover, and label books, and I know that those kids have more resources now because of it. It wasn’t a project any of us had designed or set out to do, but it was one that was completely manageable and beneficial in so many clear ways.

In that way, it was better than any project I had come up with. Sometimes doing the most simple–and time consuming–things are exactly what needs to be done when you’re trying to help out.

I literally couldn’t stop learning

I’m not sure about you guys, but museums and history are my ish. I didn’t know too much about South African history before I went, but by the time we left, I feel like I could tell you the entirety of the life and times of Nelson Mandela backwards. I can also lay down an itemized list of my thoughts and opinions on the history of the Afrikaans language.

I can’t deny it. We fully embraced being tourists so we could see the country. We took the full-day bus tour to Simon’s Town to see the jackass penguins and the Cape of Good Hope. In fact, I’m still salty that I didn’t get to fulfill my dream of getting to the southernmost point. That was some serious “lies my teacher told me” crap, jussayin’.

We got seasick on the ferry to Robben Island, visited the Aquarium and every market we could find, spent nearly three hours getting through only half of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, and went on walking tours through Bo-Kaap and District 6 in Cape Town. Also, the safari in JoBurg taught me what buffalo smell like and to always check the forecast, and in Stellenbosch we learned the intricacies of wine tastings. For the cultural education of course.

Agh. I could go on, but instead of overwhelming you, here’s another group photo:

The built-in frame is pretty self-explanatory here.

I jumped off a bridge, rode an ostrich, and climbed a friggin’ MOUNTAIN

Can I mention that that mountain is one of the New7Wonders of Nature? On our last day in Cape Town, we went to ride to the top of Table Mountain, only to find that the cable car was under maintenance. Ellie and Sam really led the charge on that one, refusing to leave without seeing the top, so we trekked up there wholly unprepared. Two hours up, two hours down. My legs were jelly the next day.

We almost don’t even look like we just climbed 2000 feet… also, we took a lot of group photos.

The adventures we had are still mind-blowing to me…

On that tour Songo led us on for a week, he took us to his home, a farming town in the Eastern Cape called Kotana. It may have been winter but there were babies everywhere. Baby goats, puppies, calves… Ugh. Aggressively cute. We also made a visit to the schools in the area, which was eye-opening in a crazy way.

Along the way there, Songo made stops for us. We’d crawled on our bellies through the Cango Caves, ridden an ostrich at Highgate Ostrich Show Farm, jumped off the tallest commercial bungy jump in the world , and zip-lined through Tsitsikamma National Park. We’d even done a three-hour hike to see Hole in the Wall in Coffee Bay and learned how to surf. Somehow, after all that I thought I was prepared to trek up a stupidly steep mountain. Getting up there was a workout. It was getting down that really felt like death, which strangely parallels that…

I realized that coming home was the hardest part

When I got back and things weren’t immediately just cloud-level comfy again, I was starting to get a bit distraught. Then I ran into my friend Noel on campus. She’d done mission trips before, and I told her about how things had been. She could relate, she said, and what had helped her was that she’d had people who helped ease her back in to home life. They warned her that coming back home could be worse than the culture shock of being somewhere else. You change when you go some place drastically different, so when you come back, expecting to act and be the same as before is simply absurd (but we all know how much I love asking myself to do absurd things).

For me, coming back and processing has been a long and complex process, especially because never stopped. Family health, my own health, going to school, and writing a thesis added a slew of emotions and stresses on top of things. My heart got worn out a bit, but pulling all my chaotic emotions into the light and doing the required emotional labor on them is a workout that was difficult but still so so necessary. I’m still unpacking and I probably always will be.

The worst part, though, was the anger. I figured that seeing cases of extreme poverty would be difficult, but then they were right in front of me and I couldn’t do anything. That helplessness led to sadness which in turn just led to anger. Anger at the injustices committed by singular people; anger at institutions for creating such painful social disparities; and anger at myself for being so helpless.

That’s passed for the most part. Anger is a tough one to hold on to, especially when it’s aimed so vaguely at the world. Instead, I’ve let it morph into a drive to educate and do what I can. I feel healthier and a bit saner that way.

Goodbye for now

A year later, after going through all the Facebook memories from South Africa, I realized that the picture I had put out was only a shadow of what things were like. For good reason, I think. I really didn’t know what to say at the time, as each day flooded over me with more and more information and work to do. It’s a juggling act to not get overwhelmed and we were most definitely in an intense situation. There are still so many stories I could tell, but those come with appropriate times and places.

Being in South Africa was an utter adventure of epic proportions, and it allowed the backpacking bug to bite me hard. Being in Kayamandi opened my eyes to the utter shit that wonderful, kind people have no choice but to endure in order to survive in some parts of the world, and not only there but here, too. There, as much as I hate to sound so stereotypical, I found my own ability to thrive. Even under the sadness and discomfort, I threw myself completely into the work, and that felt good.

Being with Songo and Nosihle and Bongo at the Ghetto Art Gallery and Mrs. Hani at the high school, people so genuine and hopeful, grew my heart and humbled my head. When I was struggling with my shock and horror with the world, they were there, ready to make things happen. They’d lived it their whole lives. The reality I was discovering had always been theirs, so wallowing in sorrow about it was useless to them and my privilege alone. It was embarrassing to realize that.

So I suppose that’s that. I started off this trip with the firm belief that doing this work wasn’t about me, which probably led to some serious mind mess but oh well. I didn’t want my trip to be solely about my own self-realizations or adventures, which is why I didn’t really delve into too much of this before, but the experience was what it was. I did work that I’m proud of, that I genuinely feel made a difference, and I failed a few times trying to make it happen. I went through some hard, fun, uncomfortable, too comfortable, awkward, embarrassing, lovely, and brilliant things along the way. By far, it’s probably the most important thing that’s happened to me besides getting birthed. That, I say with confidence.

I’m sure I’ll find more reasons to write about Kayamandi, but this certainly feels like I’ve finally got it out. If you’ve kept up with this ridiculous journey of mine, thank you. You’re the real hero here.

If, by chance, you stumbled across this in doing your own research on service learning in South Africa and want more information, feel free to shoot me an email at dhguinn@gmail.com. I’d love to chat.

Until the next adventure, all the love.


Writer, traveler, and volunteer based in Atlanta, GA.