A few years ago our oldest daughter, Hannah, studied abroad in a community health program and lived with a Zulu family in a township outside of Durban, South Africa. At the time, we weren't able to visit her. But her experience awakened a desire in us to visit that part of the world. So we saved and planned and organized, and just a few weeks ago, we went. Still bleary-eyed and jet-lagged, I'm home now, reflecting on the people, sounds, colors, tastes and experiences that we were lucky enough to have.
On our second day in South Africa, we visited an overwhelmingly enormous township in Cape Town called Khayalitsha (which sounds just like "Calle Leche" to a South Floridian). Our eyes were filled with poverty on a scale we have never encountered before. Miles and miles and miles of shacks, containers, tin roofs, one on top of the other. There we visited an extraordinary woman named Vivian who has started a foster center, preschool and community center called Iliso Care (http://www.charitysa.co.za/iliso-care-society.html). She has created this oasis of love and joy in the midst of desolation. A young man named Revolution was our guide. After he showed us a short video of the Iliso choral group, I asked if he would sing a piece for us. In the few minutes it took me to visit the little library, Revolution pulled together 15 others to give us an impromptu concert. It was as glorious as anything I've ever heard. What touched me so deeply was their joy and light, despite lacking for even the most basic necessities. I still feel the vibrations of their rich voices and deep soul.
I felt a kinship as well with Hannah's "brother" Aslam, who was our gracious host in the village of Cato Manor, where she had lived. We talked about religion and the similarities between the Zulu religion of Shembe and Judaism. Like in Jewish tradition, the Shembe Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday night and their mourning rituals include covering mirrors and a kind of sitting shiva. Aslam, a wise and pious young man, is considering entering the Seminary – how well I remember making the same choice 25 years ago.
Finally I'll tell you about Tando, an articulate and knowledgeable guide we met with a Xhosa background. Tando was born in prison, and raised by a foster mother in Khayalitsha. Miraculously, he has transcended his life circumstances and devotes himself to teaching, sharing and bringing people together. He explained to me that the Zulu greeting, "Sawubona" means much more than hello. It means: "I see you."
But I draw further insight from this greeting. For in "seeing" the other, I also saw myself. Thousands of miles from home, we met people with dramatically different life experiences from us – their race, culture, language, economic circumstances and religion were utterly and completely foreign. But in being there, it was so clear how well we were connected. How rich it is to encounter the other, and in so doing, see oneself. Thank you to all my new South African friends, for welcoming us with open hearts and sharing so generously.