South Africa Reflection
On August 7, 2011, 31 members of the US Tzu Chi family from California, Ohio, New York, Massachusetts, and Michigan arrived in South Africa. We were about to embark on a two-week volunteer journey, splitting our time between Johannesburg and Durban. Everyone was bleary-eyed and tired from the 16+ hour flight and 6- to 9-hour time change but extremely eager to begin helping the needy in South Africa. None of us could possibly have known that in the next two weeks, we would be receiving so much more than we would give. Even after 6 months of massive email threads and conference calls spanning 3 different continents, I still was unsure of what to expect.
From inception, the South Africa project had 4 main goals: 1) US youth should realize and appreciate their own blessings after witnessing the suffering of others. 2) US youth should learn more about Tzu Chi spirit by joining our South Africa family in their acts of charity. 3) This experience should inspire US youth to become more dedicated to Tzu Chi missions. 4) Based on this pilot program, a Standard Operating Procedure will be developed for deeper work in future years.
These goals are all geared toward the advancement of US Tzu Ching. Nevertheless, as young Americans coming from one of the most powerful nations in the world and traveling to the Dark Continent, we all were more focused on helping those less fortunate than ourselves. In the United States, we even organized a nationwide drive for books, school supplies, toothbrushes and toothpaste, and computers as a way to send love from the United States to South Africa.
However, as soon as we met our South African Tzu Chi family, our attitudes began to change. From the very beginning, we received such thoughtful care from our hosts that it often felt like no matter what we did, we could never repay their kindness. We were the first people to stay at the new branch office in Johannesburg. The property had just been purchased, so it was a rush to clean and renovate the buildings in time for our arrival in Johannesburg. The Lien family in Durban even went so far as to remodel their own home to create a meeting space for our group. Additionally, because of our voracious American appetites, the Shr-Gus had to work overtime to prepare twice the amount of food they expected to feed a group of our size.
With the jammed-packed itinerary of volunteer work and cultural exchange, we were all so focused on the tasks at hand—helping people in desperate need and educating others about the wonderful work that US Tzu Chi does around the world. We were going to visit primary schools to teach the children lessons in health and hygiene, humanity, respect, compassion, and environmental protection; we were going to tutor high school students in various English, math, and science; we were going to go out to the townships and rural villages to care for the injured and sick in their homes; we were going to hand out hot lunches to orphans, many of whom lost their parents to violence or HIV/AIDS, and help to feed the younger ones; we were going to help raise awareness of Tzu Chi in South Africa and promote The Power of 5; and all along the way, we would hand-deliver the gifts donated from the United States.
However, once the volunteer work actually began, we quickly discovered that we had much to learn from our South African family—not just the methods for their service work, but also the spirit with which they carry out their mission. In the course of this journey in South Africa, we encountered so many people with such tragic personal stories of violence and injustice. Unlike our South African family, I think every member of the US Team, at some point, felt a sense of helplessness and disappointment in our inability to relieve all the suffering around us. Conversely, the South African alumni are so dedicated to their Tzu Chi work, and the completely embody the “just do it” attitude necessary for making a real difference. The Zulu sisters, despite some of their horrific pasts, exude such joy and warmth as they sing while caring for the sick and wretched in the urban slums and rural villages.
We developed a motto for our South African journey, “Turn sadness into compassion, compassion into wisdom, wisdom into strength, and strength into action.” I think it is pretty good summary of the goals and accomplishments of this project. A bunch of American youth were moved by the suffering that exists in South Africa, and with compassionate hearts, we traveled to the other end of the globe with the intention of helping. In South Africa, we learned from the wisdom of our South African family members and bonded as a group. We have now returned to the United States with a better understanding of the challenges of making the world a better place and have been inspired to support each other in doing so.
Our next step, what we discussed our last night in South Africa, is how to put all that we have learned into action. We must continue to build strength by sharing our stories with as many people as possible. In this way, we will never forget the people we met, the experiences we shared, and the lessons we learned. Therefore, I must thank you (the reader) for taking the time to read about our journey in South Africa. With your support, we will continue with our work to relieve the suffering of people, not just in South Africa, but in our own communities and around the world.