Memories of Soweto
Our group spent an emotional and educational day in Soweto, a township in Johannesburg burned into global history and memory through the terrible riots of the 1970s. The day was a study in polar opposites, extremes and unresolved social issues.
We began with a celebratory Mass at St. Martin de Pores Catholic Church in the Orlando sector. The two-and-a-half-hour ceremony was an exercise in unbridled joy and passionate expression unlike any church service our group members had ever attended. Rhythmic music was provided by an orchestra with brass, woodwinds and percussion, including a marimba, while adult and children’s choirs led the congregation in song and dance. Standing still was impossible as the music elicited swaying and pulled the community together in spirit and body. The Offertory as well as Communion involved a procession by the entire community. The Communion hymn added a surprise – Let It Be by the Beatles. Two Jesuits who have worked in this area for an extended time took their final vows in front of their superior, Jesuit brothers and this larger community which they have served and have become a part.
Afterward the local community hosted a tea and cake reception for the priests. Their hospitality was genuine and we are learning the necessary etiquette to help us engage and interact with local people. Our students posed a bit of a curiosity and several students who hope to study in the U.S. discussed their studies and exchanged information with them.
We glimpsed the future as Father Bruce, one of the Jesuits who that day had taken his final vows, shared with us plans for a completely environmentally sustainable school building. It will house the students at St. Martin de Pores and is projected to be completely off the electric grid, using hand pumps to extract water from its own collection reservoir, geothermal heating and cooling and hydroponic gardening to assure a supply of fresh food to the students and the local community.
In this day of stark contrasts, we also reviewed the tragic past as we visited the Oscar Pieterson Memorial, erected to remember of death of a 14-year-old boy and as many 500 others in 1976 when a student protest spiraled into a major conflagration between the Soweto community and the police. This detailed a period of heartbreaking history that we had glimpsed earlier at the Apartheid Museum. In addition, we visited Nelson Mandela’s older home, which gave insight into the small spaces in which so many live in Soweto and also has become a memorial to the honors he has received from around the globe.
Additional insights came later in the week. Our group returned to the local Soweto soccer stadium to cheer the Orlando Pirates onto victory. Complete with vuvuzalas and $2 beers, the students got into the joyful spirit of the event, quickly learning that coaxing sound from these horns is not a trivial undertaking. We were told that the Orlando Pirates are considered the best soccer team not only in South Africa, but in all of Africa, and a source of pride and joy for all residents of Soweto.
Though our affiliation with the Jesuit Institute of South Africa we have been able to experience many facets of this complicated culture. Our learning continues on several levels. The students and I will continue to remember and process our days here long after we depart.