"Be honest, man. You expected us to pick you up riding on elephants and lions, didn't you?"
Ignoring his strange joy in placing me in uncomfortable situations throughout our time together, Malusi turned out to be one of the most intriguing people that I have ever met. Growing up during the tumultuous final days of apartheid in a township outside of Durban, he witnessed the bloody government conspired feud between the IFP and ANC parties that occurred in his home province as a boy. He remembers traveling to and from school in fear of becoming a victim of the violence. His estranged polygamist father left him and his siblings without much support, but he did have the rare opportunity to attend a mixed-race school; although that experience was not met without conflict. He recalls the hallmark of animosity towards black students in his school as the time when a white teacher dismissed he and his friend's celebration of Nelson Mandela's freedom by proclaiming to the class that "they are happy that their monkey has been released."
Up until recently, Malusi had been the director of a program that empowers young people from the townships. *(As a quick side-note, I have mentioned townships often in my writings so far, and I just wanted to clarify what I am talking about for anyone who may be unfamiliar. Basically, the townships are the areas of land that the government banished non-whites to live in during Apartheid. The black townships are slowly starting to become more westernized with the construction of shopping malls and paved roads. In spite of that fact, they continue to retain some major elements of African culture while the areas outside of the townships have been, as Malusi would say, "over-run by European culture.")
He received very modest pay for his work and his program depended heavily on donations. His incredible dedication to his organization was recognized by the U.S. embassy in South Africa and he was selected to attend leadership training in America a couple years back. Spending most of his life living in a dirt-floor shack, he selflessly poured his time and meager income into serving in his community. When I asked Malusi how he had managed to do so much with so little he responded simply,
The impact that Malusi had on me in 2010 kept him and South Africa on my mind up until today and reconnecting with him has been one of the highlights of living in Durban for me. Today, he works for a new youth empowerment group called Activate and makes a full-time salary. However, a few weeks ago I received the unfortunate news that his younger brother had passed away exactly 31 days after his sister had passed the month before. Funerals in the townships are a unique combination of mourning, reflection, and celebration of the deceased's life through vibrant singing and dancing. After a long service of friends and family members speaking and singing in the Zulu language, we traveled to Malusi's newly built house on a small plot of land within walking distance of the one-room church building for a traditional South African meal.
|Malusi serving in the townships in 2010 |
(Photo Credit: Lauren Pupillo)
"We saw you sitting next to her, do you intend to marry that woman?"
With a slight grin on his face, he detailed the Zulu courtship process for me and informed me that my actions had been read by his group as a desire to enter into their version of the dating ritual. He joked that I was well on my way to sending a cow over to her family.
Our conversation took a more serious turn as we began to discuss the immense cultural divide found amongst people who live so close in proximity to each other here in South Africa, but their lives couldn't be more separated. One of the more profound items he touched on that I have found difficult to adjust to is the fact that there isn't a false need amongst Africans to be "nice" to everyone. As the neighbor stated, they "don't do fake smiles and fake friendships."
That made me ponder on how often we feel this need in America to brandish a superficial concern for others through our words, even if we have no intention of caring for them through our actions. It can be uncomfortable here to smile at someone and not your friendly gesture returned, but at the same time it is refreshing to be around people who don't have a culturally ingrained need to upkeep a plastic image interest for the people around them that they don't really know or care about.
One other thing about South Africa as a whole, both inside and outside of the townships, is that there exists little, if any political correctness. For better or for worse, you hear people saying exactly what they think and not feeling a need to artificially sugar coat it. For the worse, you hear comments shared in public that will make you recoil in a 'did you really just say that?' that kind of way. Whether it's a salesman proudly sharing that used car has "only had white owners" or a real estate agent casually dropping racial slurs to describe former tenants, it's hard to go through a week without overhearing someone uttering something disgraceful. However for the better, there is no false concept of South Africa being a post-racial society. There are problems. BIG problems. Everyone recognizes it and there aren't attempts to sweep the issues under the rug. On the other side of the coin, back in the states it's not uncommon for us to designate ourselves as a country that doesn't see color. "It's all good, we have black friends (and a black president)" or "we're all colorblind" are common flawed philosophies to diffuse the possibility that racism still exists in America. And yet, segregation heavily exists in my country. We just do a better job of pretending it's not there.
As the sun began to tuck behind the rolling hills in the distance, Malusi's neighbor pointed at the eldest man sitting amongst us and asked, "Do you know why he's been smiling the whole time since you sat down? For the majority of his life he never would have dreamed of seeing a white man and a black man sitting together in a township sharing a meaningful conversation."
Everyday I spend in the townships I feel as though I am uncovering a new treasure of wisdom that is unique to this section of the world. When I first reunited with Malusi I asked him what directions he had for me as I began my time teaching here. I was half expecting one of his signature articulate monologues on mentoring and inspiring students through non-traditional educational methods. Instead, he was uncharacteristically brief in his words,
"Be quick to listen and slow to speak"
It may be a cliche, but that advice has made my experience so far.