Sunday, May 13, 2012


On this day exactly four months ago I landed in a rainy Cape Town, South Africa. I had just started a journey of a lifetime, something that 99.9% of the world’s population could never even dream of doing. Shortly before leaving, I decided to create this blog as a means to share my experiences with those who wished to follow. Rather than just writing summaries of my days, I put a lot of thought in trying to capture the emotions and context of what I was going through. Many people came along for the journey with me, which I am very grateful for. When talking to people about my experiences, the conversations with those who read this flow much better because rather than having to explain who, for instance, Bongi is, I can just say his name and they know the importance he had on my time in Cape Town.

Being home has been great; reuniting with my friends, family, and girlfriend was as special as I hoped it would be, but it doesn’t mean I don’t miss Cape Town. Probably the hardest part of being home is not being able to support my student like I could when I was abroad. I can’t give him money so he can buy himself food or soap or new clothes like I used to, but I can still call him and talk to him about things that are going on. I have been fortunate enough to do that twice, though it usually takes a few calls until I reach him. Going forward I’ve told him that I’ll contact him each week to check in and see how things are going, conversations I know both of us will really look forward to. My professor, who arguably has the biggest heart in the world, is still in Cape Town and travels back there every spring semester. She has met him and done what she can to help as well, the biggest of which was to connect him to a local community leader who is originally from the Congo. With his help, I can only hope that my student will establish a local network of support for the years to come. If I ever make it back to Cape Town, he and Bongi will be what pull me there. 

One of the many things that I took away from Cape Town is an appreciation that “stuff” is, well, just “stuff.” Our society is so focused on seeking happiness from material items, always needing the latest and greatest, while most of the world struggles just to get by. This came into play right before I left, when my student asked for my authentic, found-it-on-clearance, wear-to-every-basketball-game, FAVORITE UConn basketball sweatshirt. At first I said no, after all, this was the only piece of clothing my girlfriend wasn’t even allowed to borrow, I wasn’t about to just give it away. Then I thought about it; to me this is just a sweatshirt, I have others (not to mention other warm jackets) and if I really wanted to I could buy a new one, but to him it would be the difference between being cold at night or not, his only other warm clothes was a thin track jacket. When I gave it to him he gave me a big hug and I cried. I had such an attachment to the stupid sweatshirt, but in the end “its just stuff” and giving it away brought me more satisfaction than wearing it to a basketball game ever could.  

This is my last post for this blog. Thank you to all of you who have spent the last four months with me. Cape Town will forever influence how I live my life and I can only hope my experiences and what I learned from them will open doors for me wherever I go. This summer I will be applying to Teach For America, with the hope that what I learned at City Mission Educational Services will make me a standout candidate for acceptance to the prestigious program. Beyond that, I hope to find a career working in youth development, whether it be through teaching or some other non-profit work. My time in Cape Town will help me give back to the countless people in this world who need it most, which is all I want to do in life. 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Ubuntu: I am because we are

I’ve been trying to write a blog reflecting on the past three months but I’m having a hard time putting an experience like this into words, let alone a simple blog post. I’ve written one, started over with another, and done that once more. Here is my best attempt.

This trip has been everything I hoped it would be and at the same time nothing like I ever thought it would be. I have learned more about the world and a way thousands if not millions of people live than I ever could have imagined. The relationships I have built over the past three and a half months have literally changed my life. From my internship at City Mission Educational Service, where the group of students was challenging yet the conversations I had with them opened my eyes to a life I could never imagine. They were some of the most real, down to earth kids I have ever met. Working with the Firefighters FC had the same effect on me. I was in a “dangerous” township, yet I still managed to always feel safe and at home. I am proud to say I am a Firefighter. I had the most fun doing the “nontraditional” stuff, the kind of things I never could have done had I done a normal student exchange to an international university. I got to hang out in townships with local people, which is the only way to truly get to know a place. In addition to all this work I also got to be a tourist. I climbed beautiful mountains and went on safaris; I visited vineyards and countless shops; I toured museums and ate at amazing restaurants; I learned how to surf and jumped off a bridge. All of this shouldn’t be taken for granted or taken lightly, without it my experience in Cape Town would be incomplete. Through my classes I learned about the history of South Africa, allowing me to engage in meaningful conversations with locals; I learned the ins and outs of NGOs, connecting the lessons with my work at CMES; and I had my previous teachings and ideas challenged, which isn’t always comfortable.

In addition to all of this, two aspects of Cape Town were the most meaningful: my relationship with Bongi and my student. The effect these two individuals had on me I cannot even begin to articulate. They each inspired me in their own ways and saying goodbye to them was the hardest. I will miss them more than I can imagine and everything they have taught me will affect how I live my life until the day I die.

Ubuntu is an African proverb that is very prevalent here. The rough translation is “I am because we are.” I think it relates my trip perfectly. I couldn’t have had the experience I did without the people I traveled with and the people who I met here. South Africa is a beautiful country, but it doesn’t even compare to how beautiful its people are. As heavy of a heart that I have to leave, I’m also incredibly excited to go home and be reunited with my family, girlfriend, and friends whom I left behind that rainy January morning. I’ll do another, final blog post later in this week after I get myself settled in at home.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

How do you teach a teenager how to read?

Two months to learn how to read.

Where do you start?

First with letter sounds: A, B, C, D…what the hell kind of sound does X make? It took me a few weeks to realize that Z is pronounced “Zetta.” I’m learning as I go.

Next step vowels: A, E, I, O, U. Sometimes Y is definitely too complicated. How do you help someone with a heavy accent get these sounds right? Long and short vowels, which one is which? Thank god for the internet.

Let’s try some combined sounds: Ch, Sh, Th, Ing, Er…but sometimes “er” is written “re” here. If I don’t know it, how do I teach it?

We need games, they make it fun. Matching games, computer games, memory games. But all these games are for little kids, my student is 16. I want to treat him with a sense of dignity. Looks like I’ll have to search a bit harder and create some of my own.

Now it’s time for words. Let’s start with the “100 most common words in the English language.” Thanks Wikipedia. Flashcards. They’re amazing. Let’s go through them once, let’s go through them again, separate the words we struggle with the most and go through them one last time.  

Time for a book. First the most basic book, for toddlers almost. We struggled, words were hard. We have to learn to sound them out. What sound does that “b” make…no, that’s a “d” sound I said a “b!”  Okay, on to the next book, we’ll take turns reading, I’ll help you sound out the words.

How do you teach a teenager how to read?

Step by step I worked with my student after school. Once we started a few weeks after I arrived at City Mission Educational Service he stayed nearly every day. We’d go to an empty classroom, sit at a desk. I’d take out two pieces of fruit, usually bananas, one for me, one for him. “Wow thanks! It’s beautiful!” was the typical response. Then we’d start. How do you teach a teenager how to read? I didn’t know. I made it up as I went along, sometimes right there on the spot. Progress was slow, but eventually I started to see it. All of a sudden we had the letter sounds down and we could move on, then all of a sudden words were coming with greater ease.

My time tutoring my student after school came to an end on Tuesday. The past few sessions we had been really practicing actual reading rather than the basics that we had spent so much time on. He would read a simple book, the same one three days in a row, and I would read a chapter in other, longer book. Our lessons culminated with his biggest book yet, one that had a lot of “big words.” We started off alternating pages. He was doing great and I kept telling him how proud of him I was. Then, all of a sudden, he skipped my turn. He wanted to keep reading. Page after page he read, until almost the very end of the book, when it was finally my turn again. He sounded out words he wasn’t familiar with, and the best part is, he wasn’t just reading words, he was reading a story and he comprehended it. Every once in awhile I’d ask him what was going on in the story and he could articulate it back. It was amazing. All the hours were paying off and were being justified right in front of me. I can’t even begin to describe the feeling.

This kid has stolen my heart. I spent countless hours with him after school, reading, talking, laughing. We spent just as many hours outside of school going to soccer matches, the aquarium, the movies, bowling, and for walks. We have possibly the most opposite lives that anyone could have but somehow somewhere along the way he became like a brother to me. He has inspired me and influenced me in ways that I cannot put words to. All I know is that he will be forever with me, in everything that I do for the rest of my life.

The days are winding down here and goodbyes are becoming more frequent. Today was my last day at my internship, which meant I had a few dozen students whom I spent the past three months getting to know to say goodbye to. Not to mention all the teachers who helped me so much along the way. Later in the evening we had a big Thank You dinner for all our internship supervisors. Two of my fellow students were asked to say thank you on behalf of all of us, and well, sometimes others can just say things better than you can. This is an untitled poem written by Nicole Hellthaler that is a perfect summary of my time in Cape Town.

No one wants to be cliché
But I feel I have no choice
Because before I even realize
These words escape my voice.
We have found ourselves
And lost ourselves
And found ourselves again.
We have broken down
Been beaten down
And learned the value of a friend.
Our eyes have been opened wider
Forming a new lens
Of how the world should be
And what we want to mend.
We have literally climbed mountains,
To realize there are many more.
This time however is different,
We are stronger than before.
We have formed bonds so important
That we will never be the same.
It’s not easy to say goodbye,
And you are all to blame.
A thank you is in order,
Even though you can never be repaid.
Instead of mourning our goodbyes
Let’s enjoy the rest of today.

Goodbyes are never easy, just as she said. Leaving for this semester was difficult, but the goodbyes were only temporary. We could literally count the months, weeks, days, seconds until we would see each other again. These goodbyes on the other hand have much greater sense of permanency to them. I would love to come back to South Africa, but who knows when that will ever happen. So as I get more and more excited to reunite with everyone back home, I will also be struggling to say goodbye to those who have affected me in so many ways here in Cape Town. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Vernon, CT

I grew up in Vernon, so when I learned that the man who would be teaching one of my classes and coordinating my internship while I was in Cape Town was named Vernon I immediately knew I was going to like him. I had heard about him from past participants: he’s amazing, manages to place you in the perfect internship, and literally knows everyone in Cape Town. My expectations were high and I wouldn’t be disappointed. Reverend Vernon Rose has to be one of the most incredible, humble, kind, and personable persons I have ever met. He has an amazing life story and recently sat down to tell our class it. Check it out.

To understand where he is now, you have to go all the way back to Vernon Rose’s childhood. As a youngster, his family was forcibly removed from their home in District 6 to Bridgetown, where I work and he currently lives. In 1960 his third grade teacher, Dulcie September (an anti-apartheid activist who was assassinated), gave him his start on a life of activism. Before he could begin that though, he had to make some noise as an athlete. As a kid he was the Western Province Community Centre’s Table Tennis Champion and represented the Western Province in soccer. To give you a perspective, South Africa only has nine provinces. Then, in the 10th grade his history teacher played Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech and it changed Vernon’s life; he aspired to be like Dr. King. While getting an undergraduate degree in social work from the University of the Western Cape, a local university, Vernon worked as a house parent in a children’s home. By the time he was 25 he was promoted to be the principal.

The next stage of his life occurred in the United States when he traveled to UNC Chapel Hill and Duke. He moved overseas with his soon-to-be wife, Esme, to work at an internship (ironic, huh?) and study theology. In 1979 he worked with the American Communist Party (before you freak out at the word communist, remember that Nelson Mandela also worked with the Communist Party) to get medical supplies to Tanzania. He worked in the prison system where he met with Benjamin Chavis ( who among many things was an assistant to MLK and Director of the NAACP). After getting a Masters in Divinity from Duke he moved up to study at Yale to pursue yet another Masters degree. Being South African, he didn’t realize the prominence of the university. There, his mentor was Cornel West (arguably the leading African American scholar in the States). To top off his list of celebrity appearances, Vernon also worked with Stokely Carmichael (known also as Kwame Ture, who popularized the term “Black Power”) while State side. Somewhere along the way, Vernon was ordained as a Baptist minister.

The interesting phase of his life starts back in South Africa, where on September 2, 1989, his birthday, he was arrested and subsequently spent a night in jail for protesting against the apartheid government. After doing developmental work through the University of Cape Town, he became the Director of the South African Council of Churches, where he worked with Desmond Tutu organizing Peace Talks. As if one Nobel Laureate wasn’t enough, as a Regional Director of the Urban Foundation, Vernon was later invited to attend the World Economic Developmental Forum where Nelson Mandela was speaking and subsequently was able to meet South Africa’s first democratic president. Further, he has worked with the top eight gangsters in Cape Town at the time and helped the National Lottery Board develop policy for their Distribution Agencies. All of this still doesn’t explain how Vernon knows everyone in Cape Town though. In the early 90s Reverend Rose facilitated the process of organizing an NGO forum of 4,000 Capetonian organizations. So, traveling through Cape Town with Vernon feels like you’re traveling with a celebrity, everyone is constantly waving and saying hello.

So what could this man possibly be doing today? Aside from organizing all the internships for my program and the school of nursing that comes in the fall, he is serving as a consultant for the government as well as various local organizations. He is currently mediating a case between two towns, one affluent and the other middle class and colored, that is receiving national attention. Oh, and he’s also writing a musical.

Personally, I think Vernon should file a lawsuit against Dos Equis, because he has to be the most interesting man in the world. He never would though, as he is probably the most humble and modest person I have ever met. He didn’t want to go through his life story with the class because he didn’t want to talk about himself, and when I asked his permission to write this blog he took a moment to think before giving me the okay. I am so fortunate to be able to call Vernon my professor and my role model; this program wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for him. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Life in a Shack

If you’re being politically correct, it’s called an informal settlement. You may also know it as a shanty town, the slums, or a squatters camp. The houses are shacks made out of corrugate metal, plastic, or wood. It is poverty in one of its most extreme forms, and Cape Town is littered with them. On the rainy and dreary day we arrived, an informal settlement was the first thing I saw coming out of the airport. “Welcome to South Africa, this is what life is like here.” The entire time I’ve been here I have wanted to walk through one, so I asked my friend Amanda, who leads the Wednesday night tutoring sessions, to bring me. This morning, along with her sister, we took a walk through a settlement in Khayelitsha, which by the way has the largest informal settlement in South Africa.

The sights and sounds were as I expected, though you can never expect the emotions you’ll experience walking through such a setting. People young and old literally stopped in their tracks to stare at me as I walked by; white people don’t frequent these parts. Some kids smiled and waved, a few wanted to shake my hand, others scurried away and hid. I wore my hiking shoes because I knew I would be walking through dirt, rocks, broken glass, and garbage. Most of the kids ran around playing barefoot. Kids were everywhere, one group kicked around a flat soccer ball, two young boys drove around old milk cartons turned into toy cars, and another group of elementary aged boys and girls played a dodge ball type game with a grocery bag-turned ball. A woman fetched water from a water spigot to do her washing, while other women hung their clothes from lines tied to whatever they could find. Men mostly hung around, smoking, drinking, and conversing. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t even 11am yet. The shacks were on top of each other; as we walked we would have to squeeze through the maybe foot and a half gap left in between them. Electricity wires were all over the place, both running along the ground and from poles up above us. When a line would break, it was simply tied in a knot back together.  You can imagine how dangerous, deadly, and common fires are in these communities.

Despite it all, the people are proud of their homes and live with dignity. Every shack had a mat in front, and many times the dirt beyond the mat had been freshly swept. Many people had stereo systems playing and TVs could be seen through the windows. A couple shacks even had a satellite dish attached to it. You may be thinking, “Why would these people who live in such poverty waste their money on material items like that when their money could be better spent buying food or clothing?” To that, I ask you, have you ever bought something you really couldn’t afford? Maybe it was a nice electronic, an appliance, a car, a house…you get the point. Why did you do it? Because you wanted to feel normal, you wanted to fit in, right? It’s the same with these people, they want to be normal, they want the dignity of feeling like everyone else even though they live in such poverty. They can adjust to a diet of less food. It was something I thought about as I walked around the settlement.

The highlight of my time in the camp was visiting a shebean, an informal and illegal bar amongst all the shacks. Owned by Amanda’s extended family, it had a pool table (to which I said, how the heck did they get this thing in here), tables, a bar, and a huge speaker playing house music (essentially just beats). I timidly entered and before I knew it Amanda was arranging for me to play a game of pool. I don’t play pool, I’ve never been very good, but I couldn’t back out now. The man I played was serious, early on my jacket sleeve brushed up against a ball and he made a big fuss about it. Before long he only had two balls left while I had only gotten one in; the game was looking to go as I expected. All of a sudden I hit a couple lucky shots and had the game tied up again. By that time a crowd had gathered to watch the white boy play. To the cheers of those surrounding us, I ended up coming to within one ball. Had we been playing by the rules I’ve always known I would have won; he scratched on the 8 ball twice. But this was their table, their shebean, and their rules. I didn’t end up winning, but it was still a pretty cool experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if I am the only white person who has step foot inside the shebean.  

Visiting an informal settlement was on the list of things I wanted to do that I made shortly after arriving here. It took me 14 weeks to do it but I’m glad I took my second to last Saturday here to travel to Khayelitsha for the third time in four days and walk through the community. It’s certainly like nothing I could ever experience in the States. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Day I Met a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

There aren’t a lot of things that will get me out of bed before 6am on a Friday where I otherwise have nothing to do. It’s hard to believe that one of those things is to go to church. But this isn’t just any church. It is St. Georges Cathedral, an iconic church in the struggle against apartheid. And this wasn’t just any service. It was being led by Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Desmond Tutu. He typically leads the Eucharist every other Friday, but with the Easter holiday his schedule was interrupted. We forgot to call the office to see if he was scheduled for today, so we took a shot in the dark and decided to get up early just in case. Luck was on our side, and after a brief introduction by a priest to tell us not to take pictures during the service the archbishop emerged. To say I was excited would be an understatement. Here, maybe twenty feet away from me, was one of the forefront figures in the struggle against apartheid and global human rights, a world famous peace activist whose name is mentioned along with the likes of Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. In addition to the Nobel Peace Prize he has been awarded numerous prestigious honors, including the Order of Vasco Nunez de Balboa, one of Panama's highest honors, which he had received just the day before. 

I'll admit it, I snuck a picture during the
service. This is the view from my seat

The service was almost identical to the Episcopal services I grew up going to, which made me feel at home in an environment I'm no longer comfortable in. I wasn't he only one out of place though; out of the five of us only one attended church regularly and another was Jewish! The service proceeded as I remembered from my childhood up until the sermon. I was really curious as to what Archbishop Tutu had to say, hoping to hear some profound wisdom only someone like him could possess. Instead, he went around the small chapel and asked each group where they were from and what they were doing in Cape Town. The four girls I was with asked me to stand and introduce our group. All of a sudden my heart was racing and I was as nervous as could be; I was about to stand up and speak directly to this world-renowned peace keeper. I wanted to say something meaningful, but in the end I simply told him we were from the University of Connecticut and we had spent the past three months working with local organizations. Much to my surprise, he thanked us for our work. 

When it was time for "Peace" my nerves had dwindled and I was determined to shake Father Tutu's hand. It required me walking through a maze of chairs and striking up a half-hearted conversation with a Trinity College professor to get that handshake, but I succeeded. As I sat back down I was in a state of shock. Once again I was in awe of the situation I was in, I kept thinking about everything this man has accomplished and the influence he has had on the lives of thousands, if not millions, of people. 

The service ended and Archbishop Tutu positioned himself at the exit to the chapel and shook each visitor's hand. I said a few words to him when it was my turn and he joked with me about how hold he is and no longer can remember anything. For being 80 he is in incredible health and is full of energy and humor; he was malking us laugh and laughing himself the entire time we were there. We then had the opportunity to take pictures together, where he jokingly scolded us for blinking and having to retake the picture. The rumors I had heard about him were true, Desmond Tutu is tiny. From standing next to him, I would say he is maybe 5'4" on a good day. We ended our time at St. George's in the cafe below the church, next to a photo memorial of a 30,000 strong march against apartheid the archbishop led in the 80s. As we grabbed a bite to eat and talked about the service we watched as the archbishop sat nearby with a group of his colleagues. When it was time for him to leave, the tiny peace keeper gave us a wave goodbye accompanied with a big smile. It was a fitting end to the lighthearted morning on the day I met a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

This Isn't "Based On A True Story"

A month or two ago I was in my sixth and seventh grade class when we started having a discussion about life. One of my seventh graders started talking about when he was younger and lived on the streets at the tender age of 8. It was one of the many harsh realizations I’ve had to face during my time in Cape Town. Unfortunately I had to cut the conversation off because we needed to move on in class, but the student asked me if I would buy a journal for him to write in for me. The next day I presented him with it and he spent his interval break writing me. To say the least I wasn’t prepared for what he had to say. He further divulged into a life I cannot imagine living, talking about a broken home and internal struggles. We went back and forth a couple times in the journal until one day he didn’t show up with it. He left it somewhere and it was gone. Much to my surprise, the first day of school back from a two week holiday he presented me with another journal, which he purchased with the little money he had, already written in. Once again we wrote back and forth, which gave me an idea. In school yesterday I asked him if he would write out the original story he told me of his earlier life so that I could share it with people back in the States. His response: “Sure, then people will understand what life is like.” So these are his words, exactly as he wrote them in our journal. I typed it exactly as it was written, though I’ve taken out some information, like his name and where he lives, and tried to clarify any of the spelling that I could. This isn’t some dramatized movie that is “based on a true story,” this is a true story. This is real life.  

My name is [removed] and I yose [used] to stay in a play [place] colled [removed]and I stay with my mother and sister and a small brother but the problem was that my mother was adicted to drinking beer and sometime my brother’s father used to come to live with my mother. and somethimes he would get so drunk that he and mother would fight and mabey would fight over a beer and would Atack each other so from than I stated staying on the [s]treet and some times would sleep on people’s yarsd and would sleep on toilest, old places and my mother would evrythime when she was drunk she would hit me over old stuff that I did and condore [couldn’t, I think] remember me off [of] old stuff that I did [w]rong and after that my mother got tiyed [tired] of me and in 2008 sanded [sent] me to This place where I met new faces and made new freands and This Place was better then my original house It is colled [removed, but it is a shelter for young boys, many of whom are coming off living on the streets. Many of my younger students live there]. So now I live here for 5 years and from that day I niticed one thing in my life and that was I was growing very fast and Im still 12 but the Thing Thath makes me Happy in my hole life is that my mother is changing from bad to good. So ser Dan that’s my hole story. The End. From [sad/crying face] to [happy/smiling face].

He turns 13 this Thursday. Once again I am forced to think back as to what I was doing at that age. The answer? I was getting on a plane by myself bound for Ohio to spend two weeks at my aunt and uncle’s house, where I would ride horses and four wheelers and swim in their pond without a care in the world. How privileged I was, and I didn’t even know it. Later in his journal he went on to thank me essentially for being a positive influence on his life and not giving up on him (“I must thank you ser. becase there is now [no] one that would waste his time with a brat like me…your are the most coolest ser [teacher] Ive ever had in my hole intie [entire] life Thank you very much for diong this…you…has changed my hole life”). He told me to “remember The crazy boy who allwase [always] wanted your hiar (that’s a whole different story!) and never foget me and I never foget you.” As if I could forget someone like him…