Leaving Your Heart in Africa
Melissa Browning is a minister who lived years of her life as a missionary fighting for women’s rights and against the AIDS epidemic in Africa. From Kenya to Johannesburg, Tanzania to Cape Town, she gave so much of her heart and her life to the people of Africa. When I told her that I would be going to teach dance in South Africa she smiled a smile that started in her heart and worked its way to her lips and eyes. I asked her what to expect and what I should know. She told me something then that I didn’t really understand: “Africa gets in your blood.”
When I came home, my ex-husband asked me how it was. I had tears in my eyes as I shook my head looking for words… How could I explain the feeling of teaching children who walked four miles in the sun without shoes so I could show them how to dance, and then to have them thank me for it with honest genuine sincerity? How could I describe what it was like to wake up every morning to wonder and fall asleep every night exhausted from doing good and making a difference in the lives of people? How could I ever articulate the polite and honest desire to be better that I found everywhere from the townships to the cities?
The only thing I knew to say that could explain it came to my lips – a mantra heard once that had taken root deep as any religion or passion: “Africa gets in your blood.”
I’ve lived in the USA all my life. I’ve taught dance across this country and in a few other countries as well. In all my life, more than anything I’ve wanted to see dance used to change the lives of those who participate and those who attend its performances for the better. Seeing dance fundamentally change things for the better has been my life’s dream – and in South Africa, that is exactly what is happening! It isn’t coming from a charity drive or a telethon either; it’s coming from people with a passion for social justice.
According to Appalachian State University, “Social justice is generally equated with the notion of equality or equal opportunity in society.” What Dance for All and CAPA is doing in Cape Town is changing how the systems there work. It is providing the chance for people coming from true and absolute poverty the same opportunity as those coming from privilege and money, and it is holding them to the same artistic standard of excellence. I saw with my own eyes people who, through dance, started in townships with no money or chance for improvement and had pulled themselves out. I saw dance take people out of poverty and put them into a position of passion and means.
Melissa is currently a professor heading up the Social Justice Master’s program at a university here in the states. When we were talking about charities once she told me once that charity is well-intentioned, but it creates dependence; it reinforces a dynamic of one group being the “HAVEs” and one group being the “HAVE-NOTs”. What is happening right now in Cape Town is not charity – it is empowerment. It’s social justice.
I’ve had a fair amount of experience with social justice and charity. I’m the artistic director of a NFP that reaches out to the abused and trafficked. I’m going to be honest though, I’ve had a huge struggle with apathy lately. While working with Advocate Arts fighting human trafficking I’ve seen so many people, when presented with the reality of abuse and human objectification (including the trafficking of children) simply walk away. I’ve felt such a heart-crushing disappointment as people simply couldn’t be bothered to help those who are trapped in the worst nightmares you can imagine. Going to South Africa brought my heart back to life. It reminded me that there are people in the world who care. There are those who want to create change. There are people who refuse to just walk away – but more than that, I saw people who responded to being confronted with tough realities by standing firm in the face of the storm of horrors and saying, “No! They are my brothers and sisters. You will not take them!”
There is a philosophy in South Africa made popular by the late Nelson Mandela that is summarized in the local word “Ubuntu” which means, “How can any of us be happy if one of us is sad?” Seeing this not just on the lips of the people there but being put into action took my heart that was dying from apathy and pumped new life into it; Africa gets into your blood.
Here in the states we have DFACS, we have CPS, we have social workers. I can tell you though, from being on the inside of organizations trying to help others, the amount of legal hoops you have to jump through, the financial acrobatics, the political and legal red tape between you and actually helping a victim is so exhaustive that most give up before ever actually getting to make a difference. I struggle often with incapacitating laws that defend predators and disempower victims and those who would help them. In South Africa, this doesn’t exist.
It is a mixed blessing.
There is no red tape stopping you from helping others – but that also means there isn’t a formal governmental group to reach out to for help that those stuck in bad situations can call on. It’s up to the people to help each other. It’s like jumping into the ocean. There is no lifeguard. There is nobody making sure there aren’t animals in the water that can hurt you. There isn’t any chlorine – but there also isn’t a boundary. There is nothing stopping you from going as deep and as far as you can bear. There is nobody to tell you to get out of the pool, it’s closing time – but there is also nobody to jump in to save you if you’re drowning … nobody except the other people out in the ocean with you, in the thick of it with you, facing the same things and conquering the same fears and obstacles. There is a frightening liberation in that – knowing that your neighbor is who you must turn to, and that when your neighbor turns to you it is because you may be all they have. It sounds so very dangerous – and it would be were it not for Ubuntu. How can any of us be happy is one of us is sad? How can any of us survive this if one of us is drowning? Ubuntu.
When I set my piece, I was told it was ambitious. I was worried that having them journal might be a bit too mature. Their ballet technique wasn’t the strongest I’d ever seen. I was worried that it may be too much for them and that it might scare them.
They didn’t just rise to the challenge, they owned it!
They embraced it!
They championed it!
The dancers poured their souls into it. Watching them perform the piece for the audience took my breath away. They gave of themselves so deeply into their performance that I stood speechless, wondering if I’d ever put so much of my heart into a dance. I watched as quotes from their journaling accompanied their dancing. I heard one of the quotes say, “Today, I believe I am important. I am special.” I heard cheers in the audience as one person shouted, “AMEN!” with just as much passion as those dancing on stage. My heart melted. My eyes wept. They were giving their life’s blood into this and the audience was just as invested. Their hearts were full of so much passion and pride – it was so much more than I had ever dreamed possible. Watching this I knew what it meant to have Africa in your blood.
On the day I left, I cried. I cried at the airport. I cried on the plane ride home. When I landed in Atlanta, I felt like I was in shell shock. My ex-husband was worried about me; I’d come home from a lot of countries and tours before and was always so happy to be home. He said this time I looked like I had PTSD. He was right. I did. I’d left my heart behind.
The first few nights, I woke up confused as to where I was. I realized I was in my own house, my ex-husband who I love snuggling beside me in the bed, and I was so sad. I went back to teaching my kids here in the states who I love so much and am so proud of, and I feel like I’m just going through the motions. I hear them talk about twitter and their facebook problems and it doesn’t even register. It’s like being in a room full of echoes, none of it is real. I go out to eat or to the store and the lack of courtesy and impolite rushed treatment makes me awe-struck at how I ever lived like that. So very much of the things I thought were so important don’t matter – they never did.
I’ve had to learn to focus on what does matter to me here. I focus on my family and how important they are to me. I focus on dancing and teaching dance. I look at things that used to frighten me or intimidate me, and all I can see is the smiles on the faces of my kids who walked over four miles with no shoes to take dance class and all I can feel is angry that I ever let those things get to me. The things that used to fill me with so much fear now make me ashamed that I ever cared. What would my kids in the townships think if they saw me like that? Then I realize they would be worried about me. They would support me and tell me it will be okay. They would stand by me and face whatever it was with me. They wouldn’t judge me. They would stand with me – because how can any of us be happy if one of us is sad?
I want so badly to be more like them. I want so much to live with a love for my neighbors. I want to be fearless in my fights against social injustice. I want to stand beside others in this fight for no other reason than because we are all in this together. I want to shout my defiance at the horrors and the nightmares that try to take the hurt and the weak and the sad and the young. I want to scream, “No! They are my brothers and sisters. You will not take them!” I want to live Ubuntu. I want the world to know what it is to live Ubuntu. I want to see it get into their hearts. I want to see it in their proud smiles and defiant eyes. I want to see it in their intolerance for injustice. I want to see Africa in them! I want to see it in their blood.
Originally published March 2014.