As I stood in front of a group of strangers on an expansive plain in South Africa under a hazy winter’s twilight, I first realized I could become something greater than myself. As a high school volunteer, I had traveled nine thousand miles to a land that was completely foreign to me, and after two weeks of living in Cape Town, I found myself standing in what was undoubtedly one of the most important moments of my life.
A group of international students, including myself, spent the day visiting a group of homeless residents of Khayelitsha, a township of the Mother City, who had been living on a plain despite efforts by the truculent police force to evict them. We first met in the tent maintained by the community for communal gatherings. We then toured the living conditions, which were so deplorable that most families had to resort to sleeping under bushes or holes in the ground that they had dug. Finally we all gathered again outside the main tent to eat the meal that we had prepared for them earlier in the day.
As the African sun descended, and the air filled with the mellow atmosphere of a subequatorial winter, the children were finishing up their cups of soup and bread, and were now playing with the dog that the community owned. Our group leader then pulled me aside. He said to me, “How would you like to say a few words?” I did not know how to respond to this, but by the time I had given it a thought, I realized the optimistic chatter of children around us had died down and most eyes were on me.
At this point I realized I didn’t have a choice. Still I was afraid I would embarrass myself, or worse, the group. What if I said something ridiculous or politically incorrect? An overwhelming nervousness began to kick in, but it dissipated as I began to look at the eyes that were watching me in that moment. The adults, wearing sad smiles, conveyed simple human frustration about being unable to feed their young. The children themselves, overjoyed about finally meeting a white American and with their bellies full from the soup kitchen earlier, seemed eager to hear what I had to say. I could hesitate no longer; it was time to speak. I opened my mouth.
I began by introducing myself and named cities where all of us students were from: New York, Barcelona, Shanghai, Seattle, Los Angeles. We were truly an international force connecting on this one plain. Next, I tried to explain the effect that the afternoon had had on us, but the force was just so immense, words seemed to slip by me. Instead of thinking before I spoke, I began to just speak, letting the eyes of the starved people I was looking at inspire my words. When I was finished, I remember the sad smiles of the adults changing to reflect an optimistic glow. I remember the hugs of the children, their laughter emanating from a place that has been the subject of police brutality, famine, and death.
Most of all, I remember a man approaching me afterwards, shaking my hand, and telling me – “When you return to South Africa, I will be waiting for you with my family, down in my hole in the ground.” That night I realized for the first time I could be someone greater than who I already am. I realized that with just one little push, the elimination of all of my hesitation could yield immense rewards not only for me, but for all those around me. If I could apply what happened that night in Africa to all aspects of my life, I am now convinced I can do wonders with my life, and more importantly, with the lives of others.
One day I plan to return to Khayelitsha to seek out the man who lived with his family in the hole. He should know that with just a few words, he changed my life forever.