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Student Voices: Trip to South Africa reveals spirit and plight of people

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Courtesy of Mayu Alten
Los Altos High School student Mayu Alten plays with young children during a visit to South Africa.

Sunlight isn’t supposed to be tangible, but in South Africa, it is.

Every morning, floating dust particles catch on rays of bright light, drenching the vast lands in a brilliant gold and transforming the midnight sky into one of life and color. Without fail, the sun rises every day in the same unparalleled manner. The incomparable nature of an African sunrise not only reflects the physical beauty of a country such as this, but the unyielding spirit of its people.

When I visited South Africa with my family last July, I spent my first week in the quaint town of St. Lucia volunteering with an organization called African Impact. I worked with a dozen other volunteers to provide aid to the surrounding community. That meant going to severely underfunded creches, or preschools, to help teach English as well as attending Reading Club to help older children hone their reading skills.

When it was too far to walk somewhere, we took the communal van. Everywhere we went, long dirt roads snaked through the land, walled in by the signature tall, dry African grasses. Every day, we were blessed with the privilege of air conditioning blowing in our faces and a view of the world below. We watched as nearly all of the community waded through the dust toward their houses or the town despite the heat. Small stands stood next to the roads selling decorative homemade cooking appliances and bottles of honey. The loud clattering of the products as the merchants strolled along the dirt roads and exchanged them for money through open car windows, the loud laughter and charismatic smiles – it resounded with me. A corrupt government and the aftermath of a racist society left the country in tatters, but the people remained strong.

As part of their culture, a hardworking and persistent spirit is borne into the South African people since childhood. Still, thanks to a poorly regulated government and historical oppression, poverty runs rampant in the surrounding villages of St. Lucia. That’s why many have created new markets and opportunities within their communities to rise above their obstacles. With approximately a 30% unemployment rate, those who don’t have a job still need to fight to make money. But at times, it can manifest negatively.

Outside the fence

My family and I volunteered at two creches, where we were expected to teach children the basics of numbers, reading, writing and vocabulary as well as play with them during their recess. With a tuition of a few cents, one of the creches was considered among the nicer ones as it had a functional playground and a slightly larger classroom. It was blocked off from the surrounding neighborhoods with a rudimentary metal fence and outside, the children who couldn’t afford to attend school would sit and watch.

Often, these children were only two or three years older than the ones within the preschool but were much more focused on mercenary means. They shoved their bony hands through the holes in the fence and would repeatedly ask for money. When they were denied, they would spit on the younger ones and make fun of them until they were told off. Afterward, they would walk on the dusty dirt roads in groups of three or four and search for ways to entertain themselves. My heart ached for them.

Watching those around them receive better opportunities at such a young age and not being able to do anything to improve their standings must take a toll. Being stuck in a predetermined place in society and having to stay there and accept it – the concept wasn’t a new one, but I’d never seen the effects so close-up before. Despite the extensive preparation that went into going to St. Lucia, I felt helpless in the face of their adversity. I had technically come to South Africa to make my small contribution for the good of the country, but when I was faced with poverty so severe that they could hardly seek help, I was left speechless.

I wish I could say that I went on to then help them, but the creche supervisor had already shooed them away three times and they didn’t come back. Instead, I went back to reciting the ABCs and carrying toddlers around the playground. Still, that’s not to say that the work I did in South Africa wasn’t helpful or impactful – it’s just that I wish I could’ve helped the other kids who seemed to need it even more, too.

Now, they’re long gone from the memories of the little children who they spat on. But months later, my mind keeps returning to the band of three that walked along the dirt path and into the waning daylight. To me, they left behind much more than just dust in their wakes.

Mayu Alten is a senior at Los Altos High School and a Town Crier intern.

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