Paul and I Weren’t Ready

We arrived in Johannesberg directly from Ngala. Poor J-burg. It never stood a chance. By the time we got to the hotel, I was so weepy, it was like leaving for college and mistakenly thinking I was never going home. It was dark and we were hungry. We were stepping out the door to find dinner and one of the porters said,

“We can’t allow you to do that.” We looked at him confused.

“What?”

“J-burg is very dangerous and it is almost a certainty your phones will be stolen.”

We ate dinner that night in the employee cafeteria. I really cried then. We returned to our room and I looked at all of the tourist excursions offered in the city. They offered private cars with private tour guides. No way. I called down to the front desk and asked them to book us a bicycle tour in Soweto, one of the powder keg locations of student resistance in the battle  against apartheid. I wanted to see it. I was determined. Paul decided to stay mum. Maybe he should have spoken up. I’m not going to lie. It was a tough day.

A car arrived the next morning to pick us up. One of the staff members came outside and took a picture of our license plate.

“In case you go missing, Mr. Klenk.”

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Soweto was not like I imagined. It was huge. Hundreds of van taxis drove incredibly fast on narrow city streets. Benalia, a twenty-something go -getter, was our tour guide. He jumped curbs and rode without hands while Paul and I wobbled around on our bikes, weaving back and forth next to the traffic, and up hills that never seemed to go downhill. He gave our tour shouting over his shoulder. We didn’t hear a word he said. We were just trying to survive.

The Hector Piterson museum, however was beautifully done. In 1976, the South African government passed a law saying that all black children living in townships would be forced to abandon English and their tribal language and instead speak and read in Afrikaan–the language of the oppressor.  Forcing black South African children to speak Afrikaan would essentially render them voiceless. Thirty children, many just twelve and thirteen years old, gathered outside their school, Phefeni Junior Secondary School, and began singing a traditional Sotho anthem. Police fired on them and Hector was one of the first children killed. The iconic picture of Mbuyisa Makubo carrying Hector while Hector’s 15-year old sister ran alongside became one of the images of apartheid the world could no longer ignore.

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Benalia told the story of his township, his predecessors, and his future with such conviction, I almost believed I could ride that bicycle to the end of the day. Thankfully, he recognized our struggle and called back to the office to pick us up. We spent one more hour in Soweto—I asked to see a school where students were working on computers and practicing their spelling and math. We met seven little students. The girls shyly spoke Zulu to one another while the young boys boasted about their skills while speaking English. Side by side, Zulu and English, Hector and Benalia, Soweto believes in the impossible while making it happen.

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