Posh vacation itineraries rarely include exposure to human misery, but sometimes things just work out that way. For nine luxury-filled days we travelled by train through South Africa. We dressed formally for dinner which were of the gourmet variety. We were taken, almost by hand, to game drives to view gorgeous wildlife. Then we could be found comfortably ensconced in our observation cars contentedly sipping champagne while enjoying breathtaking African scenery.
Anytime our train stopped, however, for sightseeing excursions or track changes we were warned to lock our windows. “That’s Africa” said our train manager. He was not referring to wild animals, but to the human variety. Soon I saw the kind of poverty that makes people do unspeakable things nestled right next to the most luscious landscapes and ultimately beautiful hotels of Cape town. More incongruous were the inhabitants laughing and jumping and waving furiously at us as we whooshed by seemingly unaware of what lay behind them. An inexplicable picture. That burst of hope and excitement amidst a background of squalor.
“I lived in one of those shanty towns for 3 years once,” said Brian, a charismatic man who we hired as our guide once we reached Cape Town. Brian’s alcoholic father had left Brian, his mom and his 7 siblings in dire poverty when Brian was just a boy. “I didn’t know any different. We would all play and laugh and we had each other.”
Growing up during apartheid he was unaware that there was any other kind of life.“As a non white I used to step off the sidewalk anytime a white person would pass by and make sure I never looked him in the eye.”
While his whole youth was spent separated from the whites of South Africa, he remembers the one time that his brother became angry enough to stand up to this injustice and refused to step off the curb to make way for whites. He looked them right in the eye as well. The result was swift and violent. “Two policeman started to beat him and he started to cry,” said Brian.
“I never wanted to have children” said Brian. I did not want to bring them up in this country.I told my wife if she wanted them then I would not get married” But then came Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 and the subsequent ending of apartheid. “I came to the square hours ahead of time just to make sure I could hear him,” said Brian referring to Mandela’s very first public speech in almost 30 years. For black South Africans, the thrill and excitement of this moment cannot be overstated. Remarkably, despite his unjust incarceration of 27 years, Mandela revealed no anger or bitterness in his speech. “I have fought a against white domination and I have fought against black domination,” said Mandela. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Brian, too now shares the high hopes of Mandela. He finally went to university, albeit at age 37. He and his wife did have a child. And they have created a foundation called Jorvan Outreach to help young people who, without their intervention, would undoubtedly never escape their life in the shanty town. “Girls get raped just walking to the outside bathrooms,” said Brian.
Brian, who describes himself as “a Cape Colored” lives in a “Colored” township across the road from the black townships. He could have gotten out all together but elected to stay in order to offer young people a chance to escape the ghetto. He has used his own money and that from supporters to purchase another small home nearby to house from 9 to 12 students during the week. He and his wife, who works as a teacher, buy the students food, clothes and their school books. The couple cooks for them 5 nights a week and helps them with their studies. He says it costs R4400.00 (approx $400.00) to support a student for one year which leaves very little left over for Brian and his own family. I couldn’t help but notice that although handsome and always neat, he wore the same sweater and scarf all week long.
Although no stranger to sacrifice Brian recognizes his family needs him too so on week-ends the students must return to their own homes so that Brian and his wife and daughter can be together as a family. “Thursday nights are always a quiet night for the students,” says Brian.“But we owe this to our daughter.”
Brian talks with unabashed pride when he describes his students and how well they are doing. His enthusiasm is infectious. His devotion to the kids, rock solid. He is convinced that his organization is the chance they need to be inspired to succeed.
Even when my husband gave him a contribution to thank him for his excellent service to us all week long he immediately talked about what this act of generosity would mean to the kids. “I appreciate the money you gave and will use it to buy the children a warm winter jacket as it’s getting colder now as we (sic) getting settled into our winter.”
Brian’s hero, Nelson Mandela once wrote to Makhaya Ntini, who became the first black African to ever represent his national cricket team, “Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.”
Of course, Mandela was not thinking of Brian when he wrote those words, but he very well could have been.