Usisi, mamela, and sweet-treat-o’clock. When I think back upon this trip, those are the highlight words I remember, the words that make me smile, the words that bring back memories I never want to forget.
When we first drove into Langa, all I remember was immediate silence. I think we were a little stunned by what our eyes saw. Coming from the city into the immediate transition to the township, the remains of the Apartheid were clear. It was frustrating and hard to digest. Apartheid may have ended decades ago but so much work still has to be done to reverse its changes. I think that first drive taught us all to be thankful of our own lives, but also challenged us to think of what we would do to help make a change. I think it inspired us to give everything we had to the kids we were about to work with. And when we walked into the first ECD, the kids gave us another reason to give it our all. Out of nowhere, smiling children were running up to us. Utter joy spread across their faces as they attacked us with high fives. I don’t think any of us had ever felt more loved in our entire lives yet we had only known these children for less than a minute. These children came from a life hardened by the remains of fifty years of racial segregation, yet they were willing to give us, strangers to them, everything. We began smiling and never stopped the entire three weeks we spent with those kids. Each of us developed incredible relationships and I think a week and a half in, one of my girls began calling me usisi. At the time I just smiled and nodded at her because I had absolutely no idea what it meant. I soon found out it meant older sister in Xhosa. I don’t think anyone could ever say something more meaningful to me. That moment changed my life and finally made me feel as though I did something, that I had some sort of impact on someone.
“Mamela, Mamela!” I don’t know how many times we said that. It has to have been in the hundreds. Mamela means “listen” in Xhosa and it’s probably the one Xhosa word we all learned. Working with the kiddos was no easy task. They were just toddlers after all, so learning that word was so important for us to get their attention. I have such fond memories of us gathering them up and saying that word over and over again until they really did listen. And when they did, it was unforgettable. Seeing their attention turn to whoever was speaking, with eyes wide open, just absolutely ready to shout the answer to our quizzes was so inspiring. Each of them had a true desire to learn, it was inspiring and a mentality that I feel is being lost in the States. I think seeing them want to learn was a reminder to us that all of the education that is provided to us in the United States is a privilege, an incredible opportunity that most around the world are not provided with. I think it reminded us to be grateful and think of ways we can make education more accessible around the world.
To Megan, this one’s for you. I think about a week in, Megan introduced us to this term. Sweet-treat-o’clock was the time after a meal dedicated to celebrating with friends over dessert. We began a nightly ritual of sweet-treat-o’clock. Each time I think of it, I am reminded of the eleven unforgettable friends I made on this trip. Twelve different athletes selected, most of us strangers prior, now unbelievable close. It was incredible to watch as each one of them opened up civic service. Discovering what they were good at, discovering how to handle the kids, discovering new relationships, discovering how each one of them were inspired by what they saw. How were they going to make a difference when they got back? From wanting to start college athletes run sports camps to younger generations, to starting a club where college athletes go support younger athletes, to gear drives, to educational tutoring, the ideas were endless and I know each one of us are excited to see how our civic engagement journey continues moving forward. So here’s to usisi, mamela, and sweet-treat-o’clock. Thank you South Africa, our hearts are with you always.