Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Day 6 Johannesburg Back to the Birchwood

Following our meeting with Mozambican journalist Fernando Lima in Maputo, we left for the Maputo Airport and a short 50-minute flight to Johannesburg. Upon arriving, we were surprised to learn that we could not exchange Meticais—the Mozambican currency—at any bank or money exchange desk in Tambo International Airport. The signs outside the banks listed the exchange rate of dozens of other currencies. Why, we wondered, would South Africa not accept the currency of its closest neighbor?
The airport held other surprises for us, including the Spur “Soaring Eagle” Steakhouse, whose logo and menus left us shaking our heads. It appears that you can go halfway around the world and not escape the stereotypic portrayals of Native people. We returned to the Birchwood, the massive (665 rooms!) business, conference, and sports complex where we had stayed at the beginning of our trip. We had plans to meet Birgit Schwarz, a journalist for the German magazine, Spiegel, and a veteran radio reporter. Birgit is an investigative journalist who trains community-based journalists—most notably children. She’s received grants here and there, but mostly does this training on her own dime. She was very interested in our work in Mozambique and commiserated about the lack of proper equipment and training available to villages in rural areas. She was also interested in our outreach at home. We’ve been using multimedia to teach Native American children science within the context of Traditional Ecological Knowledge. We showed her a couple of Native youth-produced videos about climate change and she told us about the children she works with—6th grade and older who come to her from Johannesburg and Soweto and arrive with all levels of ability. Birgit is expanding her storytelling efforts from print to multi-media so we shared some video “how-to” materials with her.

She shared some valuable insights on communication in Africa with us. As popular as cell phones are in the U.S. they are that and more in Africa. She encouraged us to explore some of the 10-gigabyte phones to create and disseminate the Mozambique videos. It seems to me that cell phone technology was used for some of the “Reel Indian” shorts produced in connection with PBS’s We Shall Remain, the multi-part 2009 documentary series about Native Americans.
After our morning meeting with Birgit, we had the afternoon free. This was really the only free time we’ve had during the day since we arrived in Africa. We’d chatted up Amanda, our Birchwood hotel clerk, about things to do in the area. Unfortunately, the Apartheid Museum was closed, but Nelson Mandela’s House and the Hector Pieterson Museum were open. Amanda arranged a driver for us and we headed to Soweto.

Mandela House was both chilling and uplifting. Notable were the interviews with Mandela’s daughter, Zindzi, about the constant police harassment at their home and the banishment of their mother, Winnie, from Soweto during Apartheid. The tributes and expressions of solidarity displayed at the home were impressive. Many of the world’s most prestigious universities awarded honorary degrees to Mandela during his imprisonment and celebrities like Sugar Ray Leonard gifted his World Boxing Championship belt to the human rights leader.

Pieterson’s name is less well known to the world, but his visage is perhaps the defining face of Apartheid. In 1976, Hector was a young boy—just 13—when South African troops opened fire on a group of schoolboys who were protesting the imposition of the Afrikaaner language in schools and inferior education for township children. Hector was fatally shot. News photographer Sam Nzima snapped this picture of Mbuyisa Makhubo, a young man who picked up the dying Hector (and Hector’s agonized sister, Antoinette, running beside him) in what became an iconic image for the world. Like the famous anti-war photo at Kent State (the woman asking “why” as she crouches over the lifeless body of a fatally shot protestor), the photo of Hector Pieterson is my mental snapshot of Apartheid.

The Pieterson museum is pretty sizeable with three floors of excellent exhibits that detail the chronology of the protest movement, the origins of the African National Congress and the individuals, like Mandela, associated with it. It was a very, very moving experience and both Fawn and I needed a moment to collect ourselves before returning to the hotel.

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