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Breaking All Borders

My journey ended in Nairobi, Kenya, after 5,000 miles of dusty, potholed roads traveled alone on public buses and matatus, sharing crumbles of food, shoulders to rest on, and cryptic stories told without common language with people who taught me what the term “change ambassador” really means. It started more modestly, with a suitcase packed with enough just supplies for a five-week volunteer grant in Cape Town. Somehow five weeks turned into a year.

Many months earlier, an inexplicable pull to South Africa erupted after reading a sports journalism book, the now-famous story of Nelson Mandela’s work to reconcile his new democracy before the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Kids my age grew up in apartheid while we in America memorized a fleeting definition of it for a pop quiz. And in its aftermath, every single South African had to make a conscious choice—to look beyond the divides and choose unity over civil war. With a sense of human kinship, I started reading South African news, where headlines revealed a 17 percent HIV infection rate, gnawing unemployment, and a host of other issues the country still faces. 

I didn’t apply to be a Change Ambassador with some grandiose idea of fixing it all. I felt compelled to go—a need to open my own perceptions, to let this extraordinary, strong country tell me what I could do to be a part of its evolution.

Travelocity’s program partner runs a yellow-and-white Victorian house in the leafy southern suburbs of Cape Town as a base camp for its volunteers. There were about 20 of us, each assigned to a different community-run organization, most working in the grim shantytowns that tumble from the outskirts of Cape Town’s glittering, prosperous city center. Before we arrived, we all filled out an assessment of our skills and experience. I wanted to work in hospice care, injecting the request with a psychic message that as an only child I don’t know what to do with children, am kind of afraid of children, please don’t make me work with children. My assignment: patient visits on the pediatric floor of Groote Schuur Hospital.        

Each day, as everyone else headed off to the plywood-and-sheet-metal jungles that house Cape Town’s poor, I crossed through the stately white façade of the institution that houses its sick. Like most everything else in South Africa, the country’s healthcare system reflects deep inequality. Those with money go to private clinics; those who don’t go to Groote Schuur, the largest of the city’s public hospitals, where long lines and few resources await. On my first day, I shadowed a nursing sister whose church friend Buyiswa was just admitted to the adult intensive care tuberculosis ward. Clutching a thin surgical mask to my face, we darted past quarantine warnings through labyrinthine wings of beds filled with the chronically ill. TB, HIV, malnutrition, meningitis: afflictions of poverty that are commonplace on these charts. 

My medical expertise ends at changing a Band-Aid, but that wasn’t why I was there. Sometimes the patients in Ward G25 have no parents, thanks to the same ailments that plague their little bodies. More often parents need to work, or to take care of other family members, or simply can’t afford the $2 minibus fare to town. Whatever the reason, no child should ever stay in the hospital alone.

That first day, standing between rows of primitive metal cribs in an open room painted Pepto Bismol pink, amid rotating shifts of medical students and a soft cacophony of English, Afrikaans and Xhosa, I remember picking at the hem of my gray dress, feeling very small, and wondering what I could possibly do to make a difference.

But that turned out to be the first of many lessons: You can’t volunteer with any preconceived ideas of how things should be.

Groote Schuur isn’t like hospitals in the States. No frantic Code Blue requests crackle over intercoms, no disinfectant smells permeate impersonal hallways. Instead, there is a warm, languid energy to medical care. Doctors wear plain clothes, stethoscopes draped around their necks. Nurses take tea at 10. I joined the daily routine, going on rounds and sitting in on counseling sessions. Exhausted mothers, grateful for someone to talk to, would unload their grievances on a sympathetic ear. As kids ravaged through the box of toys and stickers I brought, I thumbed through patient histories, a mental image of places like Khayalitcha, Gugulethu and Samora Machel starting to form.

It was no coincidence that this eight-year-old could only communicate on a four-year-old level.     

Most patients only stayed for a day or two. Some lingered. When tiny Mechelle was admitted for chronic diarrhea, the wraithlike shell of a girl was so wasted the nurses often mistook her for a boy, patting the ridges of a skull topped with shorn hair. She wouldn’t make eye contact for the first two days. On the third, she shyly took a crayon. Not knowing what else to do, I started reading her a story.

The next morning, she peered over the railing of her crib as I walked in. Her eyes followed me as I let down the rail, pulled up a chair, and opened my Cinderella book. She sidled up to me. When I got to the end, she flipped the book to the beginning. She grasped my hand to make a rubbing motion on her stomach, which made her feel better.

For the rest of the week I read to Mechelle. She spoke Afrikaans. She didn’t understand English.

On Saturday, our day off, Mechelle invaded my thoughts without mercy until finally, at 2 p.m., I walked the two miles to Groote Schuur and read to her. The sparkle in those dark eyes, where before there had been empty waters, had turned my wariness of children into love.

“She’ll be back,” the head nurse assured me when I greeted the empty bed the next day. “She’s here a lot.”

I did see Mechelle again. Each week, in an adjacent wing, the nonprofit organization Kidzpositive operates a clinic where HIV-positive children receive their anti-retroviral medications and caregivers cluster in the waiting room working for an income-generating beadwork project.

I joined Kidzpositive’s doctors and counselors, on Thursdays in the hospital clinic and on other days of the week when they would operate from satellite sites within the townships. On my first trip to the field, Sister Susan sidetracked us to her own family’s house in Mitchell’s Plain, where we shared Gatsby sandwiches as cousins dropped in to say hello.

Travelocity’s five-week grant ended. I packed up my suitcase, found an empty room in the classified ads, and set off in Cape Town on my own. 

Kidzpositive was a wake-up call. Not because it was the sad, desperate image of an African pediatric HIV clinic, but because it was exactly the opposite. There would inevitably be one escapee—one shrieking, happy, bumbling toddler—who squirmed from the grasp of playroom supervisor Tanya and made a beeline for the gate when I walked in. These kids were happy… and healthy. Antiretroviral drugs do a remarkable job, if adhered to properly.

The issues patients face aren’t caused by their illness, but by the side effects of their poverty.

Most township kids don’t get any sort of educational stimulation before they start school, and they never overcome the deficit. By Grade 6, 70 percent of students can’t read at grade level or do basic maths. Almost half drop out by Grade 12. Crime, gangsterism, substance abuse and a 25 percent unemployment rate create a web of hopelessness young people struggle to escape.

Education is the key to change, in an individual life and in the direction of a country.

A friend introduced me to the South African Education Project (SAEP), and I found a practical outlet for what I do best: While talented teachers ran seven education intervention programs that support and mentor students from preschool to university, I wrote the news stories and grant proposals that got them funded.

I could explain to big foundations how important early childhood education is. I could tell the tale of the dedicated adolescents who show up to our office every day for intensive tutoring, the young man who avoided the pressure to join a gang because of after-school marimba lessons, or the students who beat all odds to study at university and change their communities.

Graduates of SAEP’s programs were my colleagues. They are my friends. We would sometimes grab a six-pack and cook out—braai—at their houses in Philippi.  

There was one crisp, clear morning when I was walking to work in the shadow of Table Mountain that I realized I was the happiest I had ever been.

And this is why: I wasn’t in South Africa to help those people. I had worked for understanding, had worked to make a home, and was motivated to help my people, my community. It’s a tiny shift of perspective that makes all the difference.  

It doesn’t take a year—and it certainly doesn’t take uprooting and moving to Africa—to look at the world in that way. Gandhi’s most famous quote instructs us to be the change we want to see. That can be taken quite literally: If you want to see kindness, be kind; if you want to see an end to homelessness, volunteer at a homeless shelter. At its core, however, is a philosophy of sameness, a realization that we are all in this struggle together. It is my people, not those people. 

A common misconception about volunteering is that you should go to a foreign country and do something tangible—paint a school, build a house, teach an English class. A volunteer program can be a great catalyst. But you don’t need to do that to be a change ambassador.

On a luxury vacation to Mexico, venture outside the confines of the resort and buy groceries from the local village. Learn about and support community-run organizations. At home, ask the shopkeeper you see every morning for your cup of coffee about his family.

The change that makes the biggest difference in this world is internal. Expecting commonality instead of differences. Breaking through divisions instead of building fences. Defying stereotypes and media portrayals of those people by talking about them from first-hand experience.

The final four months of my own journey reinforced that realization. “Africa is much more than Cape Town,” my colleagues at SAEP told me, and they urged me to get to know their roots. So instead of booking a plane ticket home, I boarded a train to the far side of South Africa, visited Beauty’s bridesmaid in Zimbabwe, set preventative fire lines at Kasanka National Park in northern Zambia, showed up on the doorstep of Kennedy’s hometown chief in Chipata, slept in a Malawian baobab tree, swapped spit with a giraffe, meandered through Tanzania and Kenya, depended on the kindness of strangers, and became good friends with Iranians, Somalians, Congolese, and so many other bright souls along the way. I never would have had the courage to do such a trip if it wasn’t for the people I met in Cape Town, the ones who taught me to tear down my walls, the ones I was sent to help. 

Be the change for education.

Be the change in yourself.

Know that whatever small step you take reverberates much farther than its footprint here on Earth.  

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