Strangely unsettling - that is how I must characterize this trip to Africa ... so many aspects of this continent have been amazing, yet it's the inequities here that have overwhelmed our senses, forever seared into our memories. For all the highs, there were also the lows ... though through sheer resiliency of the people, even in the depth of those lows, there is still hope.
Travel here was surreal and at times, it felt as if we were sitting atop a shiny luxurious skyscraper, separated by steel and glass from the poverty below, functioning as observers rather than participants in Africa, as we were so far removed from many of the realities of African life, sitting comfortably in our little tourist bubble. Often, there was an overwhelming sense of guilt as we lived the high life, drinking fine wine and dining on gourmet cuisine, before retreating to the sanctuary of our safe and sanitized guesthouses ... The feeling was worst in South Africa, as the life we were living was essentially that of the affluent side of Apartheid's binary World of black or white, poor or rich ... obviously, us tourists can't be held responsible for the history of a country we visit nor its ongoing challenges, but for some strange reason, at times even taking part in daily tourist life here makes you feel complicit in the crimes of the past. This sense of guilt really makes no sense, but it's still a real emotion, one that you wish you didn't feel.
Africa isn't for everybody, and a visit here takes a long time to digest, as sifting through all those emotions, both good and bad, is no small task. Witnessing life here provides a new perspective, causing you to re-evaluate what you thought were the realities of the World, and even the truths of your own existence. After observing the World of Black and White here, you realize that life isn't so black and white, after all - race relations no longer look quite the same, nor does the treatment of indigenous cultures. Life suddenly becomes more complicated, though you wish you could still hide in your little bubble of ignorance ... funny how much compassion you can have for the plight of people halfway around the World, yet ignore those in your own backyard.
Meaningful change is a slow process, but one that can often be traced back to a single incident that lit the fire of revolution. Since Apartheid was legislated, there were a number of instances of resistance to the regime, but the most infamous was the Soweto Uprising, which was perhaps the catalyst that eventually led to the demise of Apartheid. It's unfortunate that revolution and bloodshed go hand and hand, but ultimately, this sad reality is a necessary evil, even when it involved the death of hundreds of high school students, who were merely protesting legislation requiring that Afrikaans be taught in schools, which they viewed as being the ultimate insult, forced to learn the language of their oppressors.
One can only imagine the conditions and emotions pulsating in the powder keg that was Soweto during the summer of 1976 ... and though there could never be a single song that could completely crystallize those emotions into rational thoughts, perhaps there is a song that can speak towards the people's anger and their passion for change. <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=51iquRYKPbs" target="_blank">The Catalyst</a> - in the context of South Africa's struggle against Apartheid, it's a fittingly-named song, written in the voice of the oppressed. It's a rallying cry for change, something that takes place all too slowly in this country.
After all that has transpired in South Africa, finger pointing serves no purpose other than bringing the nation back closer to Apartheid, by further separating an already divided people. The challenges currently facing South Africa are enormous, and while it's easy to focus on only one side of Apartheid, it's important to remember that there is only way of moving toward a better future, and that's through collaboration. Perhaps it's over simplifying, but it can no longer be about <i>Us Versus Them</i> in South Africa, it now needs to be about the collective <i>Us</i> - blacks, whites, coloureds, and Asians. So is a return trip in the cards? Is it worthwhile going back to a place filled with such inequality, a place that draws such mixed emotions? Without hesitation and without a doubt, the answer is a resounding yes. You could take the approach of closing your eyes and plugging your ears, pretending that all is right in the World. Or you could acknowledge the World and human nature for all their flaws, see them firsthand, and hope that one day you will return to see not a perfect World, but one that is changing for the better.
Like Nelson Mandela, South Africa still has a long walk to freedom ahead of it, to a future hopefully free of racism and the problems of the past. As with any difficult journey, progress often seems insignificant as the destination remains nothing but a distant speck on the horizon, and motivation wanes. But you feel renewed after pausing to rest, reflecting back upon your progress and realizing exactly how far you have traveled, and that all that pain and effort wasn't all for naught. You continue trudging along, slowly taking one step after another until you get where you need to go ... so here's hoping that this trip is only the first of many steps back to this amazing continent, and that with each one, comes everlasting change.