“I too am Human”- youth from Johannesburg

“I fear rejection and judgment. Also I fear commitment because it leads to abandonment. My mum abandoned my 3 sisters and me when I was 7 years old. I’m now 17. She has contributed to my fears as well as my dad. I feel that every time I open up to a person, he/she ultimately does something to let me down. So I do not trust others easily.”

“I used to be very angry with myself and self destructive. But I am starting to trust myself and other people in my life. My parents aren’t together but I don’t blame myself for that. Just the tension of only seeing my mother every six months is a bit frustrating. My father is an alcoholic and him and I don’t have a bond. But neither do my mother and I. There is a lot of negativity in my life…”

“My dream is to be a scientist or a biologist. My obstacle is that I was born into a poor family, I couldn’t further my studies and I had to re-write my Matric. But at the end of the day I passed, so from now on I am saving money, so that I can further my studies and be what I want to be in life.”

“I am a young mother too and I want to work hard so that my child can have a better life than mine. I really want to be a good role model for him.”

Young people from South Africa articulating their fears, sharing their dreams, reaching out for compassion…these are a few excerpts from a creative writing session that I was conducting with young people in Johannesburg and Durban, participants of the BEING HUMAN workshops that are a part of the Shared History festival, initiated and run by Teamwork Productions, India for the past 4 years.

The Shared History festival is a coming together of the arts and culture of India and South Africa – a unique six week program encompassing Music, Dance, Drama, Literature, Cinema, Cuisine, Textiles and Youth workshops. Year 2010 has an added significance as it marks 150 years of the arrival of indentured Indian labor on the shores of South Africa. This year the festival celebrates the remarkable enterprise, resilience and vision of these cotton plantation workers, who came as cheap labor primarily from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat, and today occupy a significant position in South African society.

This is my 3rd year of facilitating Youth empowerment workshops with disadvantaged young people from Durban and Johannesburg – a multi racial mix of black South Africans, Indian and Colored youth who battle a range of issues within a society seeking to heal the wounds of the past, attempting to move ahead with a promise of equity and social justice for all. And yet, not much seems to have changed.

1994 saw the promise of a new era in South Africa. After more than 300 years of white rule, South Africa’s first democratic elections elected Nelson Mandela as the first-ever black President of the country. It was a euphoric time as South Africa moved out of apartheid into a democracy, earning the soubriquet “ the Rainbow Nation” – a culturally diverse country with 11 different official languages, a multiplicity of traditions and skin tones ranging from ebony to sun burnt pink. Each time I return though, I am aware that the ghosts of the past have not been laid to rest. Lurking in the shadows is the forbidden word – Race. It still exists, racial prejudice. Mere denial will not make it go away. Disadvantaged communities of black South Africans who have been denied decent housing, sanitation, education and opportunity for years, still struggle to stake their presence in a playing field that has been leveled, albeit on the surface!

Perhaps 16 years is too short a period to judge the success of this transition, but the reins of power still lie in the grip of the dominant class – the white South African. The best housing, schools, seats at prestigious Universities continue to be filled in by this group, traditionally seen at the receiving end of the best opportunities.

A gradual but steady infiltration has begun with the Indian community and some of the more successful black South Africans buying into the dream of the Rainbow nation. However, the ghettos remain a smoldering hot bed of frustration and unfulfilled dreams! Poverty, HIV/Aids, drugs, gangsters, teenage pregnancies and lack of good education have fuelled the anger and bitterness into a sense of entitlement amongst the youth. The popular perception is that this is “Our” time in the Sun, the State needs to take care of us! So why work? Why be productive? Against this backdrop a few chosen NGOs in Johannesburg and Durban select a core group of young people to initiate a change – a change of thought in the way they view themselves and their role within their community. This becomes the core group of the BEING HUMAN workshop that the Tehelka Foundation launched at the Jaipur Literature Festival, in January 2010.

The workshops begin with a 2 day session at Newclare, Johannesburg, with the support of a local NGO called “Conquest for Life”. Sharing a similar vision with the Tehelka Foundation, they focus on tackling the problems facing their communities, and believe that young people are not the problem, but are central to the solution.

On 21 and 22 September, a group of 18 young people consisting of teenage mothers, a convict on parole, a community worker who “hates people” and other black South African youth from disadvantaged backgrounds, come together to connect with different realities and learn to start loving and respecting themselves first, then others. Stepping out of their comfort spaces, the participants are encouraged to reach out to one another, to share dreams and aspirations with ease and discover a part of themselves in the other! A series of games and other ice breakers help, as the space begins to transform with a friendly warmth. A variety of tools used in the workshop including role playing, meditation, creative writing and lots of interactive discussions, making the process of self awareness and empowerment, one of laughter and fun.

The feedback has been gratifying.

“The facilitation helped me to access who I am, where I am going and what to expect in life because of the person I am towards others. It taught me what are the values and qualities of being human, and how to adjust in every situation you are in as a human being.”

- Ipelang Magoai, 19 Years, Westbury

“First of all respect yourself and then you can learn to respect the other person. I loved the conflict session because people were expressing their feelings according to their everyday lives, and believe me it is very painful to know that some people have bigger problems than us.”

- Loreto Sono, 24 years, Soweto

“I’ve learnt a lot the past two days especially to solve conflicts communicating with one another. I’ve learnt to be grateful for things I took for granted, leanrt how to love and respect more and how Dignity plays a big role in our lives.”

- Halley Moses, young mother, Newclare

“What I learnt today is how to communicate with my Self, how to be open about your burning issues and how to resolve conflict between two different people, not forgetting to respect each other.”

- Tshidiso Matloga, Soweto

“The Being Human workshop inspired me so much as it made me look to a better side. It helped me focus better on my future plans to become what I really want to. And that a human being has much potential at living a healthy, wealthy, good life when looking to the bright side of being human. Had much fun and much experience.”

- Ilana Phillis, Westbury

An important aspect of being Human is understanding how best to resolve conflict and workout a safe space for negotiation. Ironically, there are some rough moments of conflict within the group as some role plays strike too close to home and open up painful wounds. But these only reinforce the importance of mutual respect for every living being, and to acknowledge that every opposing point of view can also be a valid one, to agree to disagree!

“I personally enjoyed every activity done during the workshop and I am grateful for the opportunity of attending the workshop. It taught me different things about being human and how to value life.”

- Karabo Nyathi, Soweto

“It was a great workshop with a lot of fun and activities. I learnt a lot about Love – giving it away, receiving it. Respecting yourself and those who are around you. How to speak with your inner self. I think it is nice to understand yourself so that you can reach your goals in life.”

- Senoela Mokeloisa, Soweto

“I am an ex-convict who was released this year on parole and I think and believe that I have changed. I strongly believe that this program is contributing to my inner being in terms of making me accept change.”

As I wrap up the workshop at the end of the two days, I am humbled by the spirit of these young people, battling the toughest of circumstances with their sheer grit for survival. I hope to be back to spend more time with these “unpolished diamonds”, who have so much talent inherent in them and yet, have to still look out for where their next nutritious meal could possibly come from!

- Puneeta Roy

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