“I give thanks for my time upon the planet earth. By all of Your beauty I am so inspired. “ – India Arie
The young people of KG have been the highlight of every day I have been blessed enough to work with them. Each day I am amazed more and more by the luminosity of their minds, their ability to think creatively and critically, and their newly discovered talents as photographers. Working with my mentees has by far been the most fulfilling aspect of my work in South Africa. They remind me so much of myself when I was their age – thirsty for knowledge, incredibly loyal to their friends, hardworking, thoughtful, compassionate, and full of gifts that can be used to create change. I remember growing up as a teenager in a low income community. My focus was so heavily on my family. I remember wanting to work so I didn’t have to be as big of a financial burden on my mother (and so I could buy cool new clothes to wear to school). I remember wanting to help her but feeling powerless – I wasn’t old enough to sustain a real job and I knew money was what we needed. That burdened me. I wanted to make my mother happy, make her proud. Helping out around the house and doing well in school were the primary ways I achieved that. When I was in grade school I used academic achievement as therapy. This was a place where I could succeed. I was no longer powerless. I could make my mother very happy by performing in a certain way. When I began to join clubs in high school I took a similar approach. I poured myself into all of my endeavors, using my experiences as a type of therapy, finding my escape and my healing.
I wonder if our mentees from KG see their involvement in this project in a similar way. I don’t know what all of them are dealing with on a personal level. I don’t know what they go home to every night or what they leave every morning. I don’t know what challenges or successes meet them at school every day. I do know this - when they show up to meet us, they give 110% and based off of some of their work I definitely see this experience as therapeutic for them. I see how they feel encouraged, appreciated, and empowered through this experience. Places like open fields of dirt surrounded by trees become soccer fields that help them escape from life’s difficulties and the dangers in their neighborhood. Churches are places where they can learn to be humble and alleviate their heavy shoulders from the problems they carry on a daily basis. And mentors from UKZN and VCU become inspiring individuals that motivate a young man to “keep going” despite adversity. Lessons that I am still learning – they seem to know well. They inspire me, uplift me, and make me want to be better, try harder, and operate as my best self. Today I spoke with one of my mentees who photographed a political leader that works in his community. It took some skillful probing but after some time he shared with me that this picture could be used to educate people by “letting them know that you don’t have to have a lot of money or things to make change in a community.” I looked him square in the eye and said “Now that’s what I’m talking ‘bout!” He laughed, gave me an awesome high five, and I smiled at him in peace and admiration. He probably thinks I’m a weirdo because I am always smiling but I can’t help it. In a world where scholars are trained to believe you need grant money to facilitate change in communities – this simple truth was a much needed breath of fresh air.
The students make me so happy; make me so full of life and energy. After a long day at school they come and work hard. They never complain and they make the most of their experience and time with us. Young people can teach us so much. They make me so happy that I never want to leave them. Every day we spend with them I am one of the last people on the van to go home – often after I have been told we are leaving about 5 times and threatened to be left. I can’t help it! They’re addictive – as the title of this post boasts, I’m intoxicated with joyful. I love their smiles. I can’t wait for their warm hugs. I love listening to their funny jokes – I promise some of them are comedians. I happily answer their questions about American culture and laugh at their certainty of my Jamaican heritage (not so – but believed to be because of my locs). I appreciate their willingness to teach me the same Zulu words over and over again – these young people pour so much into me that they make me fear the day when I will have to say my good-byes and head back home. Instead of living in that fear, I am determined to enjoy them and all of my experiences in South Africa one second at a time – taking in the beauty of the land and the people. I am inspired by this beauty and thankful for the time that God has given me to witness it and contribute to it. I thank God for allowing me to having this experience…just like His love my time here has been truly priceless.
Ngiyakuthanda Moy' ongcwele