Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Life Behind Walls & the St. Leo's & St. Theresa's Kids

Today was our first day shooting on what is literally the other side of the planet. South Africa is an incredible, incredible place. We’re staying in a retreat house on the property of the Augustinians, which is situated atop a hill that looks out over the sprawling “Valley of 1000 Hills.” The Valley is home to mostly the Zulu Community, who lives in round, thatched-roof houses or tiny shacks.

Everyone in South Africa lives behinds gates with barbed wire and high-wall fences. Robbery is a huge problem here. There are bars on all our windows, and a locking gate on our front door. The day before we arrived there was a robbery on the property. A group of men broke into one of the volunteer’s house and stole his iPod and cell phone. When we leave for the day, we have to hide our passports and valuables incase of a break-in. It’s a very strange way to live, but the Zulu population has a 70 percent unemployment rate, so much of the crime I think comes from desperation. There’s still a huge tear in the population that’s lingered since Apartheid. The white people, in many ways, live in fear of the black community. White people who’ve lived here their entire lives have never seen many of the places we’re going on this trip.

Otherwise, however, the country is beautiful. We’re on the Eastern coast, near Durban, so there is an amazing variety of landscape. It’s on the Indian Ocean, but there are sprawling hills, riverbeds and mountains.

Our first day was an intense one, to say the least. We spent most of the day at St. Leo’s school, a primary school run by the Augustinians and largely populated by kids who have lost one or both parents to AIDS. These are the most genuine, sweet, kind, caring kids I have ever encountered. Many of them live in tiny shacks without parents and many siblings. They don't get enough to eat, they don't have any worldly possessions but they are so happy and appreciative of what they do have. We began the day by walking to school with one of the families. They had 14 kids living in a tiny, one-room shack, and they were being raised by their oldest sister. They had lost both parents to AIDS. But the kids take care of each other, it's incredible. They help each other get ready for school, carry the little ones on the walk.

When we arrived at the school the kids had prepared an incredible music presentation for us. They sang traditional songs, did traditional Zulu dancing, it was amazing. They sang with such enthusiasm, energy and passion. I can't remember any school assemblies at my elementary school being quite that moving. There are 680 kids attending the school, and really it's the only solid thing many of them have. They are provided with uniforms, two or three meals, access to computers and the staff is incredible.

We spent six hours filming at the school, and I would've loved to stay there the entire trip. However, the next stop was just as amazing. We went to St. Theresa's Home for Boys, run by the Augustinian Sisters in Durban. It's home to about 80 boys who have either lost their parents or left a bad situation at home. They boys were very grateful, and mesmerized by the camera of course. "We're going to be on American television!" Again, I was just blown away by the way these kids take care of each other. They look out for the little ones, make sure everyone is involved in whatever game or sport is happening.

It's hard not to be changed by what I've already seen here. What we're filming is incredible, and I can't wait for you all to share the experience too.

Tomorrow we're going to an AIDS Clinic in a remote village in the mountains called Pomeroy. I've read so much about the AIDS epidemic (yes, because of Bono) but seeing what it's caused first-hand is really altering. More tomorrow, good night from the other side of the planet. I'll try to get more pictures up, but the connection here is pretty weak.

(P.S. - We got all of our bags back! Thanks South African Airways!)

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