So on the last day at Mawewe high school, I asked my kids if they would write a little thank you note to my friends who helped me to come there and teach. They sat there for a good fifteen minutes, looking a bit nervous at writing in English, but as I read their words, I was the one who was thankful beyond words... This note from Mavis made my eyes tear up and I scooped her up in a huge hug and we both smiled the biggest smiles and our eyes shone as we looked at each other with gratitude. I look forward to seeing Mavis accomplish her dreams, and I have a special feeling that we will be a part of each other's lives from a while to come.
It's amazing how connected you can get with a person or a place in such a short amount of time. I've never been one to like trips where you jet in and jet out quickly, but have always chosen the travel plans where I spend a long enough time to know the ones around me, get a lay of the land, and begin to feel at home... I can't believe I've only been here in Ulu for two weeks because it feels like I am part of a family here. I only have a day and a half left, but if I think about it too hard I'll cry, so I will just keep cherishing every sound, every humid breath of air, every warm hello from the faces I've come to know and love.
Today was my last class at Mawewe, and the first time I had to say goodbye. I think Mr. Sibuyi thought I was a little nutso because I just kept thanking him, and I think I shook his hand and smiled at him half dozen times in my last half hour there. (David, please tell him I'm really a normal person!) Nthambi, Mavis, and Gerald met me in the library this morning, as did my sweetest Mpilo, and we went over things like formatting the memory card, making sure you wipe the lens with a soft cloth every so often, how to upload photos to the laptop, and encouraging the creation of a photo club. Then, from my backpack, I pulled out a huge stack of photographs from our week together and spread them all over the table, their smiles beamed as they sifted through the papers giggling. I could hear their excited chatter in Shangaan as they taped the photos into the frames I brought them. It was really pure magic seeing their faces illuminate as their friends funneled in the room pointing and commenting on their photographs. I thought I was going to have to surgically remove the cameras from their bodies, as they kept them around their necks the whole day, periodically grabbing friends for a snapshot or posing someone with flowers.
Even with all of this, I have to admit that my favorite part of today was when I got to see the photos that the three of them took after school when they went home. We gathered around my laptop as each one explained to me who was in the photos; "That is me with my dad" "That is my friend, and my mother", "This is my baby niece, In English her name is Beautiful, and her second name is Thankful. Her brother's name is Smile", "This is my grandmother making marula beer", I got to see a glimpse of their life, finally. I got to see their personality, their family, what is important to them. And, it was all possible because of a camera. Isn't it beautiful, that a small piece of technology can be the thing that brings you together and breaks the barrier of different worlds. Looking up at their sweet faces as they smiled and proudly explained their photographs to me is what I came here for... Nothing can beat how special it felt to be a part of this journey with them. There are now three more angels engraved in my soul. So blessed, so blessed, so blessed.
Here are some of Mavis's photos from her evening with the camera...
The following are images from our nice little gallery show today in the library!
Let me introduce you to my young photo prodigies, Mavis, Nthabisang, and Gerald. I have been with them for three days now, and they are slowly stealing my heart. We've had so much fun wandering around Mawewe finding photo subjects and playing with our cameras. They are super sweet, eager to learn, and they are taking their photography course very seriously. I absolutely love watching them in their elements, composing shots, posing their teachers, sharing what they have shot with their friends. It's so cool to see, and I am so grateful that Mr. Sibuyi hand picked these three lovlies for me.
Then there is Trevor. I met him when I first arrived at Mawewe last week, he was tutoring a girl in the library. He impressed me with his cobalt blue suit and deep pink button down shirt. Every day he has been dressed to the nines, even though it is hot and horribly humid out. I learned that he recently returned to his community after spending six years abroad in China at University. He wanted to come back home to teach the children of his town how to excel in life and share his knowledge, yet he still has grand plans of more studies and changing the world. When I told him what I was doing here, his eyes lit up and he wanted to be a part of it. This made me feel so much better, as I now had someone I knew could carry on the program once I leave. I've been giving him more detailed lessons about photography, as I know he will be able to relay the information well to future students.
One of my teacher students Ntombi and I were standing out under the tree chatting today, and she looked at my shoes and said, "You must give me your shoes, I love them, you must give them to me...!" I looked at her and smiled, and if they were any other shoes, I would have taken them straight off and passed them over, but they were my espadrilles from CapeTown and were my favorite shoes of all time. Now, yes, I did feel guilty and selfish in not giving them to her, but I did promise that next time I came I would bring her some. This pleased her and she said, "When are you coming back?!" I asked her size, and jotted a mental note to get some espadrilles for Ntombi in a size 7. Just then Trevor jumped in as well with "And you must bring me my nice camera!" I looked at him, smiled, and motioned for him to follow me, leading him back to the library. Reaching into my camera bag, I wasn't planning on leaving my G12 here, but this definitely felt right. This camera was for Trevor, my gift to him for taking care of my program for me. "Here, this is from me to you, I hope you enjoy it and learn a lot with it!" "Ahhh, I will be taking five hundred photos today with this!" He said, his smile wide and wrapped me in a hug. He tells me, "The kids, they really love this; they are so motivated to learn and think this is the best! Thank you so much!" Even though tomorrow will be my last day with Mawewe, I feel that I have at least created inspiration, and that, along with my heart felt hugs, is priceless.
In the 80's, I was in love with Christian Slater. With his slicked back hair and his soft, raspy voice, I thought he was the coolest guy on the planet... Okay, maybe Johnny Depp was a front runner as well, but Christian, wow, he was who I asked the Weegee board about when I wanted to know who I was going to marry.
So, it figures that my ex future husband also has a piece of his heart here in Ulusaba and Dumphries. I can just imagine the day when my lovely Mr. Slater was pondering what to gift his friend Richard Branson for his birthday. I mean, that has got to be one helluva hard gift to think of. You can't just get the man a coaster set or even a Picasso now can you? Christian, being the ex man I love, got it perfectly right. He donated a school, Akani, which means "to build" in the local language Shangaan.
We visited Akani on our first stop with a group of visitors from the lodges. It's a beautiful thing to watch people visit one of these schools for the first time. I watched and snapped photos as the women in the group scooped up any and every child they could, beaming the most exuberant smiles you can imagine, and got lost in their tiny little faces.
Our second stop was the primary school, Mahlahluvana (ask me to say it when you see me next, it's the most fun word!). Mahlahluvana means "scattered bones" because there was a tradition of throwing bones down on the ground and reading them to see if that is were you were supposed to build. Dulini was the first lodge to get involved with the community and build classrooms for Dumphries' schools. David explained to us that even though a school is deemed a "government school", all that means is that it pays for the teachers and for food. There is no budget for a classroom, supplies, or even toilets. Not many years ago, the classes were just held under a tree. Pride 'n Purpose came along as well to build another classroom building as well as a computer center where the children have access to the internet. All of the computers were donated by a lodge guest. We learned from David just how important the relationship is between the lodges and P'nP. "It is very special, the working together" he tells us as we drive through the village on our way back to the gate. He hopes to build relationships with more lodges in the future, but for now there are just two, with one more on the horizon. Personally, I feel it would be a vital part of any visit to the area. And, after all, the Shangaan people are the most welcoming and friendly people in South Africa. They are well known for their hospitality, friendliness, and consideration for others. I'm not surprised to hear this, as each person I've met from here is an absolute gem of a human being. It's a beautiful thing to walk on the stoop to offer an iced tea to the man who is weed whacking, share conversation, and feel a true human connection; feel genuine smiles from the woman who works in the spaza (food store) when you see her dancing and singing out at night in the bush; wave and say hello to each person who walks past during the day and see the kindness in their eyes. Here, I feel connected, even though I am still so foreign and have so much to learn. But I do, and forever will, love and respect the Shangaan people, how they appreciate life to the fullest, and how they make me feel welcome in their world.
And oh, that yellow hand print below, that is Christian's, and that is my hand on top. See, the Weegee didn't lie, we were meant to be hand in hand.
Today, it was just Charlie and I. He met me at the gate and drove me to three different schools in Dumphries. My mission was to take photos so that we can start to rebuild the collection of photographs which had all been lost this past year. It was also to say hello and see how things are going.
The first school was Ntseveni Day Care, where I met the lovely Miss Sandra. She took me around the two areas of her school, showing me the various class rooms and explaining the history of how each part has come to be. It opened in 2005 with just one tiny brick building that had to hold over forty students. That small space is now used as storage and an office. I couldn't believe that within those cramped walls used to be a classroom of 40! She told me how Africa Foundation helped out around 2011 and built a larger classroom and also proper toilet facilities. "Before that," she explained, "we had to just have buckets down on the ground with seats and we had to make a cover around them." Then P'nP came and helped to build another classroom as the school's population started growing, and now they have also added another which is just awaiting more furniture and school supplies. Ntseveni has nine staff, and about 175 children. I learned they get paid 1,000 Rand per month, which in US dollars is equivalent to about $100. The children's 100R tuition helps pay for this, but it is still not enough to have food for them when they are at school. Sandra shows me a small brick hut which is half finished, "That is where we want to stock bread so that the children can eat when they are here, but we have not been able to finish it, and we don't know when it will be done." 30R is enough to buy bread for the whole school, she tells me, but even if a truck full of bread arrived, there would be no place to keep it. When I asked Sandra what she felt they needed most right now, the first thing she said was "a kitchen." She pointed over to the brick wall where a woman was hunching over a pot and continued, "It is difficult to cook in the rain, we need a kitchen with a roof." Other than these things, the school is alive and bustling with smiles and playful little bodies everywhere. They have two lovely play areas, one which was built by the Virgin Unite crew two years ago, and the other which was donated by Pn'P. They smile, laugh, and look at me curiously. As I signed the guest book when I left, I noticed that I was the first visitor since November. Sandra says to me with hope in her eyes, "I would be so happy if you came back..." I would be too, and hope that I do.
It's so beautiful, sundowner time. I pull my chair out in front of my thatched roof home, pour a heap of ice and some white wine into my favorite goblet glass, and just feel the breeze, watch the sun set behind the koppie (hill), and listen to the local music start to sound from the round of staff housing across the way. Birds swirl above, sprays of chatter and occasional bursts of laughter fill the air, and I sit in complete adoration of where I am in this special place in time. The sisters have left this afternoon for the lodge above, so I am alone in this place tonight, as I will be for the next week ahead. I find peace and a good solitude in it, able to sit and write, edit, think, ponder, appreciate... I miss my ladies (and young gents), but I am happy to have this time for my mind to release, and to sit in my own thoughts for awhile. There are plenty of people surrounding me in this village, about thirty some-odd tiny homes, so I feel very comforted and safe.
This morning I went along with David Khoza as he took some lodge visitors around Dumphries to show them what Pride & Purpose does in the community. There were a couple women and their daughters from Brazil as well as an American newlywed couple from New York. We visited a few schools, played with the kids, and learned a lot about this area, its history, and the people. The rest of the day I spent in my new home editing photos and catching up. The following is a little collage of some of my favorite captures from the past week. I hope you enjoy... And, thanks again for following this journey, it means a lot to know I am writing to friends. Much love, s.
Today we headed out farther into the village to visit the school which our fellow volunteer Kerrie has funded, Tizameleni. Kerrie is here with her two sisters, Helene and Adrienne, along with Helene's two amazing teen aged sons, Finn and Callum. She fell in love with Ulusaba over three years ago while on safari and has since returned three to four times a year from England. Her heart is totally enmeshed in this place, both with the children and with the wild life. "The first time you hear a lion roar," she says "you are a changed person forever."
The day today was hot. The feel factor was close to 45 degrees, and the ladies were painting in the direct sun at noon. It was scorching, but they wanted to finish before they leave tomorrow morning for the lodge. Jen, who works at the lodge down the road, Leopard Hills, also came with today, and will be my partner for the next week. We'll be returning daily to Tizameleni to help the teachers create lesson plans and get a program going for the new school. She set up a hand painting station, and I helped funnel the kids in to mash their hands in trays of green, yellow, and blue paint, and transfer their colorful fingers onto a sheet of paper. Their little eyes wide with confusion, as they were a bit baffled as to why these white women were dipping their hands in paint and squashing them down. Of course, in true Shelly fashion, my radar set on one little girl who stole the very core of my soul. I found out later that her name is Tabile. She has the most infectious laugh, and that together with the dimple on her left cheek officially made her the cutest child on the planet...or at least in Africa.
At first, when I found out that the sisters were leaving tomorrow and I would be by myself here at Dagga Boys for the rest of my stay, I was a little freaked out. But today it all came together... Jen and I will be partners in crime for a few days, David Khoza (the other host of Pride & Purpose) and I will also be pairing up so that I can go around to all of the projects here taking photographs, I have so many portraits yet to take, and so many people to hand cameras to... I feel like I have only a blink of an eye to squeeze in all I want to accomplish. There is no place on earth I'd rather be right here, right now. I am truly blessed!
I wasn't expecting to begin the project yesterday, it just naturally happened. While interacting with them and taking their photos, they all want to see the picture on the back of the camera. They pose, then run to you and grab at your camera to see. I showed them that the little arrow is the button you push to see your photo, and instantly had twenty little fingers all over searching for it. They see their photo, giggle, squeal, and then run back to take more. I found myself turning to one child, Danelle, and putting the strap around her neck. I showed her where the button was to take the picture, "Push here" I said, she said "La", which I gather means "here", and within two seconds, she had it down. She looked at me with wide eyes that she now had control of the camera, smiled, and ran to her friends to take their photos. This happened with about ten children, then I ran to my bag to pull out my little green camera (which is about 1,000 times less expensive!) and let them pass it around. The following photos are what they did on their very first day of taking photographs. It was so fun to see them pose like little models with their friends, I saw their attitudes come out as they tried to put their most serious faces on to look cool. Turns out, kids are kids, no matter if they live in the big city or in the bush.
The minute I stepped off the truck and onto the community center playground, I see a little body running towards me, her arms wide open as she barrels right into me with a hug. It was my sweetest little girl from last year, I recognized her straight away. She wore a red and white polka dot dress the last time I saw her, today she had a denim one on. I said to her, "I remember you! You have a beautiful red polka dot dress." She nodded, I couldn't tell if she understood me, but she looked up at me and smiled with those big brown eyes and bald head. She squeezed me again, then grabbed my hand. Yes, I was back. This is what I had been waiting for.
Then the others started running in, one by one, I searched their little faces to see if I recognized them too. Yes! There was the little guy that gave us all those cool arms-crossed poses last year, and the girl from the balloon shot, and then the cutie that had stickers all over her face... I was so happy to see them, I hugged as many as I could and then felt the insane smile overcome my face as they all piled around me, I didn't have enough hands for them to grab.
As I looked around the community center, I saw the swings still standing proudly that Steve and Ted built, the play set we put together was crawling with children, the trampoline was dug into the ground (and had only just ripped last week, Lindsay told me, which I was astounded by due to the number of kids on that thing at any given time!), the garden we planted was overgrown but lush. I walked over to the swing set and started brushing off the dirt around the cement at the end of the poles. We had all carved our names there last year, and I wanted to see them appear for me again. Steve... Ted... 2012... How sweet it was to see our names and remember the day we all kneeled around and celebrated our friendships and our time at Dumphries.
We spent the next couple hours painting a beautiful mural on the side of the building, the three other women volunteers are Michelangelo incarnate, I swear! In between (probably more honestly, most of the time), I wandered out and around to find the children and take photos, cuddle, and play. I gave them my camera and showed them how to take a photo and also how to see it, and especially how to make sure the strap was around their necks! One after the other took turns being photographer, and in seeing their excitement and pride in being able to take a photograph themselves, I knew that this trip was destined to be. As we left Dumphries, they ran after our backie (pick up truck in SA) waving goodbye and squealing. What a beautiful sight. The following photo was taken by a boy called Shade, a star photographer has just been born.