Experience #1 - Soweto, South Africa

Now we are here live, the idea we thought and planned so much became reality. As always, the beginning has that weird feeling of “gooooo”. A mixture of excitement with hesitations of where to go now… The impression we take so far is directly related to our expectation, so it was great to leave it clear for ourselves that we still will get our traveling pace, so we should relax. To leave you comfortable, the start has to involve the funny moments. In four days of trip I’ve pushed two cars, one for no gasoline and the other for an unexpected breakdown. Gabi, certainly, didn’t forgive and lost the opportunity to register both cases – to see just in a future making off… Another very curious fact is that the most restless boy among the group we were talking to (there is always one), just after urinating in the bush aside, came to play fight with me and friendly gave me a “fingers-to-teeth stroke”. It was very funny, internally…

As suspected, to find change makers just walking in a big city wouldn’t be exactly easy. Therefore, nothing more practical than finding someone who knows more challenging areas and go there to the famous “tête-à-tête”. That’s what we did, we went with the pleasant and laughing Ray (not Charles), recommended by the hostel, to the less developed area of Soweto. There, we talked with the local residents who doesn’t necessarily promote changes to everyone, but inspired us a lot by the generosity and happiness they live, even in a situation so unfavorable.

A brief historical explanation about Soweto. It appeared in the end of the 19th century with the migration of the black population who went to work in the mines after the discovery of gold in Johannesburg. Started to grow big in 1948 when racial segregation, through Apartheid, was officially established in South Africa and the white (obviously) government obligated the black people to live in the surroundings of Johannesburg. Its name comes from SOuth WEstern TOwnship and was baptized so in 1963. The region also grew due to an English military hospital that became the biggest hospital in the continent, still working. Soweto became worldwide known in reason to violent protests in the decade of 1970 – 1980 and for its residents Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, two Nobel Peace Prize winners. It developed itself throughout the years and in 1994, with Mandela elected, was revitalized with many houses built by the government, electricity distribution improved and sanitation in a broader area. Today is a small city, has a population of approximately 1.3 million, from which 98.5% are black. There are since big houses with garage and gate to shacks with no bathroom and no energy, such as in Elias Motsaeledi, the suburb where we went. To improve basic life conditions, at least streets have a drinking water tap and community toilets with sanitation.

There we met Charles and Lennox, two householders, humble and pleasant. the first is a barber in the region, cuts hairs in a white canvas hut, asks for two dollars for a regular cut and one dollar to shave it all, what is quite common. – Gabi didn’t accept to shave, even being a foreign best price… – The second, Lennox, is unemployed and his last job was in a supermarket. They kindly invited us to walk around the suburb, know their homes, their families and stories.

We arrived at Lennox’s house with walls and roof made of a thin metal, with a kitchen and a room, where he lived with his wife and three children. We talked a lot with them about their lives there, how they feel, what is missing and their dreams. It was very clear that even with the adversities they face every day they are happy and verbally stated it more than once. They miss a lot a descent house, what the government says to be working on to improve their lives soon. It impressed me that they really believe in this promise, even being aware that only every five years thing seems to happen, in reason of the elections. Ridiculous, naturally. They don’t remember having received direct assistance from humanitarian organizations. What they ask more is for a quality education for their children and to have money to raise them and guarantee they have a better life. This is clear in the video below, with a few moments of what we lived that day.



A proof of humble of these man was noticed when we told we were Brazilian. In this moment Lennox, a bit shy, questioned us if it was true that while it was day there it was night in Brazil and why it happens. I felt very glad for his willing to learn and briefly explained him the difference of time zones and my knowledge of solar system. And of course I caught thinking to myself why my lovely geography teacher never highlighted to me that I would need to know more details about this, to explain in my grown age for a friend while walking through Africa…

Then a proof of generosity we had when we gave them a typical Brazilian bracelet, called “fitinhas do Senhor do Bomfim”, as a symbolic thankful gift. While giving it to them, Charles very gently gave us two white chaplets, as a gift back. We felt very thrilled by reminding that he was not only prepared to please us, but he wanted to compensate a kindness gesture at the same time. This totally dropped any minimum social barrier that could exist between us.

Moving forward, besides being impacted by the huge differences among the districts of Soweto, also impressed us that at least there is drinking water available, as it is very common to drink tap water in Johannesburg, and stations with a humanized toilet. This made us think a lot that just a black man leader was capable to bring change, after a secular racism had dominated the ignorant conscious of who’s always believed to be a superior race only because their skin color. I bring this up as numerous times we heard mentions to “since 1994” as a renewal year, that was when finally the blacks took out the power with Mandela.




Of course the timing was quite late, by reminding that the most “successful” political system in earth, the democracy, values the will of the majority and until today more than 70% of South Africans are black. Walking in the streets, blacks and whites are seen in all social classes, but there are suburbs where we were the ONLY white passing by. In other areas we often saw white people living a very comfortable houses and black people in less well paid jobs. Segregation is a topic openly discussed in the past two decades, since the blacks assumed the political power, maintaining ahead of it still today. A curiosity very different from what we see in Brazil, is that in meetings between public and private sector is clearly noticeable by the skin color of their spokesman that in the government the absolute majority is black and in the companies the white dominates. Rules were created to increase the presence of black people in companies (similar to a Brazilian law to guarantee vacancies for blacks in federal universities), but we felt it is still an obligation and not a society consensus.

Well, what we take so far from our first African experience with empathy in our eyes, is that the consequences of the ignorant selfishness that dominated the 20th century are still noticeable, but improving. The visible skin color difference somehow helps putting people together easily, what, unfortunately, might not be that simple in many countries where the preconception still is related to social class difference. And by being part of miscegenation, it ends making less visible in naked eye, as in Brazil.


Felipe.