By: Dawn Winsor
Our group attended the play “When Swallows Cry” at The Market Theater in Johannesburg. This play and the messages that came out of it really resonated with me and changed my outlook on many things having to do with South Africa and our group’s affect on it.
What are we doing here? Why did we come and what did we expect to leave behind?
Since I was young, I’ve always had this urge to visit Africa and “give back”. I’m not exactly sure where this longing came from, but it’s a main reason why I applied for this Winter Term program in the first place. I’ve always known I was lucky for the life I was given, for the privilege I benefit from, and the freedom I didn’t sacrifice anything to have. In the same regard, I’ve also always known this wasn’t the case for much of the world. I felt that in a sense it was almost my duty as a fellow human being to give at least a bit of my time, money, and support to those who need it because I simply have ample amounts in comparison.
So here I was, days left until my departure back home, thinking I had done something of value in my short time here. I knew my contributions were small – miniscule in fact – but nonetheless they were contributions and I thought the efforts my classmates and I put in made a difference to at least some.
Then I saw “When Swallows Cry” and that’s when I started to value our contributions here much differently. My subconscious observations made in the last month were finally recognized and articulated out loud, contrasting much of what I believed before coming on this trip.
In the play, three different stories were told. The first was about a wealthy man from Canada who came to Africa in hopes of “helping” its citizens. Instead, he was kidnapped and held hostage by two natives because his life was “worth hundreds of African villager’s lives”. They snarked at the white man’s desire to “help”, giving off the impression that money is all they really want and need to keep their village alive and well. The other two stories were about men from Africa who risked everything to escape the dangers of their homelands and find some sense of safety and longevity (even if it meant being locked up in another country’s prison for the rest of their lives). However it seems their tragic deaths were inevitable because the same world that “wants to give back” wants to solely do so on African turf. These men were immediately suspected as dangerous and harmful intruders whose safety nobody wanted to take on. They all ended up dead without truly entering these new lands because, to them, death seemed a better alternative than the horrible conditions they were being sent back to.
After this play I felt as if my eyes were finally opened to a much more truthful reality – one that was honestly difficult to stomach. I suddenly felt as if our efforts here were worthless in the grand scheme of things. Unappreciated by the masses because frankly, what is a free lunch and a new pair of shoes really going to change?
I now saw Africa, and places alike, as a garden left uncared for. Every now and again there’s someone like me who comes along with her watering pot and pours some amount out over a small patch of this multi-acre terrain. Indeed, that water gets absorbed almost immediately. Thirst-quenching grounds of dried up dirt and seemingly lifeless plants pull in its hydrating molecules. But ultimately, the water poured out isn’t nearly enough to bring the flowers back their strength, and even so there still remain acres of dried patches just like that one, equally desperate for nourishment. Places like these do not lack the potential to grow into beautiful botanical gardens filled with life and color, however. In fact, the roots embedded in these forgotten lands contain some of the most beautiful plants of which can be credited for the growth of most other healthy gardens nearby. But these lands need more than just a sporadic pour from a watering pot. In fact, all the hydration in the world couldn’t properly bring this garden back to life. Overtime, it seems destructive weeds of corruption and ill-distributed power have grown in place of what used to be. Decades and decades of oppression cast a shadow over African land that seeks sunlight for growth and strength. We saw that apparentness in our daily observations and discussed those disparities thoroughly in class and after museum visits. Africa needs more than just watering pots. It needs the deep-rooted problems to be weeded out. It needs equal distribution of sunlight. It needs a change of climate.
Days after the play, we went to the school that Elon’s been working with for the last decade or so. We played with the students and afterward gave them new shoes, jerseys, trousers, ties, etc. to replace the poor condition of many of their current clothes. The principal herself told us that our efforts over the years do indeed make a difference and truly go a long way. Additionally, Dr. Layne informed us that when we initially began volunteering with this particular school, 10% of the kids owned shoes. A decade or so later and only about 10% now do not. Then I thought about Langa, one of the townships we toured during out trip. A school from Germany sent its students over to the township every three months over the span of a few years in efforts to build a giant amphitheater for the townspeople. Today that amphitheater is filled with beautiful art and other creations made by the people of the township. That school from Germany gave Langa the chance to express itself and showcase their people’s work properly. Efforts like these don’t go unfelt, as small as they may seem.
However, as much as I started to revalue our contributions here, I couldn’t mute out the messages that stuck with me from “When Swallows Cry”. Why do these problems continue to exist if our work “goes a long way”? What was the director trying to articulate in the story of the two men that saw our “help” as useless? Kurt, a one-man-show actor who came to visit our classroom during our trip, depicted the struggles of class and race so strongly existent in South Africa’s society. He discussed the scale of whiteness, and how those who are an ounce more “white” than others socially feel more superior and worthy. Even thinking back to the school that we visited… the principal mentioned how overcrowded all of the classrooms are (some without teachers to even fill them). Two different languages are being taught at that one school with a short faculty to really keep these kids on track. Yes, our efforts don’t go unfelt, but when you look at the bigger picture, decent education is more important than a decent uniform, isn’t it?
So I guess going back to this whole garden analogy, maybe the water pots are highly necessary. Maybe they’re buying us time – time to figure out the tools and methods necessary to weed out the corruption and change South Africa’s climate. One free meal does make a difference in a child’s life, especially when they don’t often know where the next one will come from. Providing clothes and supplies to education establishments is essential for the growth and development of its pupils. However, I certainly believe we could all be using this bought time more wisely, with a bit of a sense of urgency.
There have been countless efforts that we’ve learned about (both in the fall and on this trip) where leaders like Nelson Mandela have led movements of equality and social justice. People in South Africa aren’t standing still; these beautiful plants are pushing as hard as they can through the dry, unnourished soil, attempting to break through the oppressive weeds grown among them. I think that our efforts need to be a bit more focused on helping them break through the grounds. We need to continue watering, but also make a significantly better effort towards tackling the root of South Africa’s problems. As Hannah put it once, “we need to be upstandards of society”. Now that we’ve seen the horrible conditions and unbelievable class and racial disparities that exist in South Africa (and often times right here at home), we need to find a way to stand up for our fellow human beings. What are the tools that will bring this incredible garden back to life?
“When Swallows Cry” was one of the many productions we were lucky enough to see on our trip here. It provoked much thought in my previously unchanging opinion on places like Africa and how people like me – groups like us – have an effect on it. These productions, especially the one at The Market Theater gave me the most honest insights into the truths of South Africa. Though I was able to observe with my own eyes and learn from class explorations, everything was finally clear when I sat in the audience of each production. South African theater, after all, is considered to be “…revolutionary in nature, and challenges the established ‘white, heterosexual, culturally exclusive norms and values’ (Davis, 1996). It was certainly revolutionary in my perspectives and insights on both the state of the nation as a whole and what it really meant for our group to be here.
Davis, G. V., & Fuchs, A. (1996). Theatre and change in South Africa. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic .