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South Africa: Experiencing the road to forgiveness

Photo Courtesy Of Ryan Lion

Ryan Lion, St. Francis student, plays with children at Khumbalani Day Care Centre during a summer trip to South Africa.

Ryan Lion, a student at St. Francis High School, shares stories of his life-changing trip to South Africa last summer with Global Leadership Adventures.

Before me lay a vast abyss of poverty and obscurity as I rode through the Guguletu township in Cape Town, South Africa. The paint-chipped, decrepit shacks wobbled loosely in the fierce blowing winter wind. Mangy dogs howled into the gray listless sky out of hunger while shivering children in tattered clothing gazed at our bus as we passed. Suddenly, the bus halted to a stop, and we all emptied onto the sidewalk of a busy street.

There rested a cross with a brick outlining labeled, "Amy Biehl Memoriam." This small monument was established to honor a white American girl who was an anti-apartheid activist killed by an angry mob of black youths 15 years ago, Aug. 25, 1993. We then visited the Amy Biehl foundation, an afterschool program for impoverished children, to participate in community service and listen to a speaker named Ntobeko.

Ntobeko explained that he has been working as a coordinator for the Amy Biehl Foundation for five years and is the director of many organizations that serve to help underprivileged children and to ameliorate the effects of apartheid. After telling us of his accomplishments, he astounded us all by revealing the fact that he was one of the murderers of Amy Biehl!

Ntobeko explained his traumatic story. He had been fighting apartheid his whole life, and during a protest, a combination of anger and fear led the group to kill Amy, who was passing by in her car. He and three other men were found guilty of murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

However, as apartheid fell that same year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was formed in South Africa. This permitted perpetrators of violence to request amnesty as victims of the apartheid regime. Five years into their sentence, these men stepped forward and did so. Ntobeko's eyes glistened with tears as he began discussing Amy Biehl's mother, Linda Biehl, who came forward to the TRC and argued for the release of these men. She argued for forgiveness and even shook hands with the murderers. Eventually all four were released.

As I sat and listened, I realized that because her heart was strong enough to forgive, a man like Ntobeko was freed from prison, and as a result, he has been able to do many great things and inspire hope in a community in desperate need of it.

After listening to Ntobeko, our group walked to the nearby Khayelitsha Township for community service. Knowing the economic status of the inhabitants as well as the historical oppression by the whites in government, I was expecting many people to be somewhat vindictive and hostile toward me for being a privileged white.

But as we walked through the neighborhood, everyone was so incredibly kind and warmhearted. Each person who passed smiled and greeted us. Children would sprint toward us and playfully jump on our backs while continuously singing and dancing. Elderly men and women would approach us with broad, cheerful grins and bow their heads.

This experience and numerous others I encountered during my three weeks in South Africa have shown me the importance of forgiveness. This country had so much turmoil and chaos between blacks and whites in its past. Yet because of strong, courageous people in both ethnic groups who were able to forgive, South Africa has been able to escape its dark history and move toward a brighter future.

South Africa is approaching its 15-year anniversary of the transition from apartheid to democracy. As shown by the kind attitudes of the people I encountered, blacks have found it in their hearts to forgive whites for the cruelty and hatred inflicted upon them. After all of the pain this group has gone through for so many years, it is exceedingly valiant that they are able to do so.

Consequently, with this forgiveness, South Africa has been able to become a better place in which diversity is embraced and racism is rejected.

Through my daily community service at Khumbalani Day Care Centre during my trip, I was able to make a small contribution toward a happier and healthier environment for HIV/AIDS-infected children.

I worked with fellow students from all over the world to organize projects, raise money and gather supplies to paint and clean.

The most rewarding aspect was the chance to play and interact with children dealing with so many hardships in their daily lives.

Thanks to Global Leadership Adventures, the unique program that organized this experience, I had the fortunate opportunity to go on this trip and do such meaningful work. I developed essential leadership skills through serving others with a diverse group of people, and from hearing renowned speakers such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu. This is a wonderful organization that gives teens the opportunity to explore our planet and be conscious of the fact that every individual in the world shares common ground.

My teachers, Ms. Muller and Ms. Deal, who personally worked in South Africa, inspired me to go. I take to heart the St. Francis High School mission of serving others and contributing meaningful work as a global citizen.

After this overall experience, in which I gained such remarkable insight and encountered interesting people, I have a better perspective on what it means to broaden my scope to not only be an American but a global citizen.

For more information about Global Leadership Adventures, visit www.experiencegla.com.

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