Hi there! I'm James Brown-Kinsella, a freshman, a prospective philosophy major, and a baritone in the glee club. I'm excited to bring you the first blog post from the ground in South Africa! We're resting in Johannesburg right now, and we'll be off to Pilanesburg tomorrow!
Today started bright and early with a wake up call at 6:00 am and breakfast at 6:30. I'm very thankful for the delicious food and potent coffee that the Protea Hotel provided us; our bodies were still used to Eastern Standard Time (South Africa is +7:00 hours EST), so we needed a jump start to get ready for Johannesburg. And the city certainly had a lot to offer us!
We started off the day with a South African history lesson on the bus ride into Johannesburg. En route, our tour guide taught us a bit about South Africa's colonial past, featuring the discovery of gold in Jo-burg, the colonial conflicts which culminated in the Anglo-Boer War, and the ensuing rise, slow fall, and rebirth of Johannesburg, the country's biggest city.
Once downtown, we found our way to St. Mary's Anglican Church where we sang the liturgy of a mass. The church community received us well; they appreciated our songs, like "Agnus Dei" by Frank Martin (my personal favorite) and welcomed us to join in their hymns. The minister gave a thought-provoking sermon based on St. Paul's letter on the analogy of the church as a body, which begged us to think beyond ourselves, our friends, and our community and led us to consider ourselves as indispensable members of a linked global society: when one of us hurts, we all hurt.
On my way out of the church, I greeted the minister and told him I enjoyed his sermon, and he replied with a wry grin, "I kind of like your singing too."
From there, we delved into Soweto where we continued our history lesson. Soweto's name comes from "South Western Township," originally a large plot of land where many African people were forcibly relocated following an outbreak of the bubonic plague in a gold mining camp. The people living there started with literally nothing: no houses, no infrastructure, no help. Over time, Soweto grew to a sizable suburb of Johannesburg, home to 4 million people as of 1999 and likely many more today. Soweto is home to the largest hospital in the Southern Hemisphere, the Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital, and its Vilakazi Street is the only street in the world to house two Nobel Peace Prize Laureates: Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Soweto is also a hotspot for political change. As our guide said, "If Soweto sneezes, the rest of South Africa is bound to catch a cold." Hector Peterson, a thirteen year-old Sowetan, was the first casualty in an uprising to demand equal education for black students that started with a youth riot in Soweto and rippled across the country in 1973. We saw the street corner where he was shot by police forces as well as the memorial dedicated to him and to all the brave children who risked and lost their lives for the sake of their education.
In a sober pall, we walked to Holy Cross Anglican Church in Soweto where we prepared for a joint concert with two local singing groups later that evening. The jetlag, the heat, and the emotional gravity seemed to conspire to sap our energy and render us inert and empty, but over the course of the two Sowetan acts, an infectious enthusiasm spread over us, like popcorn popping slowly at first, then gaining speed and exploding vivaciously.
Any stage-fright we might have had at the beginning of our set immediately vanished after "Immortal Bach." As soon as Gabriel lowered his hands and released the suspended magic, the crowd erupted in applause. They continued cheering heartily throughout our program and particularly loved "Nelly Bly." But when we got into "I'mfundo," the song in Zulu that Bongi Duma wrote for us, the crowd really came to life. Ululations, vibrant whistling, resounding applause, and stomping feet sang back to us as we gave our triumphant finale. At the end, after making it absolutely clear that they loved our show, they demanded an encore, so we sang "N'ko si si ke le l'iAfrica," the national anthem of South Africa, with the other two choruses from the evening. And the church's leader ended the night by leading us all in "Tsho tsho loza," another traditional South African piece. There was nothing but smiles in that hall.
Given the hardship Soweto has faced, and the struggles that still remain, it's absolutely remarkable how every single person in the audience was ecstatic. It's a sort of kick in the pants to show you what you truly need to be happy. Just as when one person hurts, we all hurt; when one person smiles, we all smile.
Tomorrow we'll spend some time in the Apartheid museum to try to get a better understanding of South Africa's rich history, and then we'll board a bus to Pilanesburg, home to a big game ranch. For the next day and a half we'll explore the safari, but we won't have access to the Internet, so stay tuned for an update in a couple days when we arrive in Cape Town!