There are some things that you expect you’d only see in a movie or a documentary. These could be things like the weaver bird making it’s upside down hanging nest, or the fish that can flop its way to new water in times of drought. These are not the documentary type things I want to write about. I know you’ve probably clicked on a link bringing you here with the assumption you’ll be entertained, have a laugh, or at the very least be diverted for a few minutes, and if you know me, you know that I love to be entertaining. But I feel like I have the responsibility to tell you about this documentary that was never made, and photos that were never taken, even if it’s not funny and only mildly interesting. I hope you’ll bear with me, I promise to entertain you in the next blog.
We were making our way along the southern coast of South Africa on the Baz Bus, a hop-on hop-off bus for backpackers going from hostel to hostel. Noel and I had finished the first leg of our trip which was 15 hours from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. So it was time to complete our journey to Durban (another 16 hours) and that meant another van, another group of foreigners, and another driver. We had done the rounds, picking up all the Port Elizabeth backpackers before setting off when our driver pulled to the side of the road, parked, and turned to face us. He started telling us about the area we’d be driving through, its natural beauty, its history, and the state of its people. Then he asked us if we’d allow him to make a few stops to drop off clothes and food he had gathered for his biweekly drive through. After we all agreed, we hit the road. The first couple of stops we made were pretty uneventful, just one or two people, maybe five at the most waiting for the approaching van with some goods. It was easy to deny the fact that these people desperately needed these things. They were dressed fairly well and looked like a lot of the Cape Tonians that we’d just left the day before. So we passed by without any real conviction tugging at the hearts of the Baz Bus Backpackers.
We all chatted away about the places we’d seen, the places we wanted to see, and the various mishaps and misunderstandings we’d had along the way. A few gasps and snaps of the shutter now and again with the mountains looming on either side of us, but we were SO far removed from the world we were traveling through. We were in it, it was all around us, but we knew nothing of it.
The bus rounded a large bend in the flattening landscape, there were few trees and very little to obstruct the view of a group of teenagers and older women gathering at the side of the road. It wasn’t an uncommon sight to see a group of people gathering on the side of the highway, usually they were there to hail a minibus/taxi to take them to the nearest town. But as we approached more and more children and women came running to greet our then slowing van. Our driver, an older, short, balding, Indian man, put the van in park, and with the growing crowd of people outside, turned around and told us that this would be the last stop but that it was also the most important because these women and children had almost nothing, most of them orphaned from the AIDS epidemic. At first, it was still easy to deny their need despite what we saw. Again, they were dressed fairly well, they looked strong, they were even smiling and had friendly banter with each other. But that was only at first glance. The pleading in their eyes when a decent pair of pants was held up for the taking, that was the pleading of a human in need. It was then that I realized they were well dressed with clothes from this very driver.
We all sat in the comfort of our van, with granola bars, bananas, cookies, and chocolate bars just in case we got ‘hungry’. When actually we’d never felt real hunger before. These boys and girls were grabbing after kitchen rags and old t-shirts when just a week ago I had thrown away a perfectly usable bath towel because it was too bulky and I didn’t want to carry it on my travels. There, young men and women had little to no family left in the world and perhaps longed for just a few more days with them, when I voluntarily left my family for years at a time…
So I sat there just watching helpless and convicted. I wanted so badly to pick up my camera and photograph that girl smiling because she got the blouse. Or that child too young to be bothered with the process, just looking in the van windows with awe, wondering at the glimpse of an entirely different world. Oh how I wanted a picture of that little boy all covered with light colored, drying and cracking mud to keep him cool. But I was torn. Take photos and deprive these boys and girls of their privacy? Take away a second of a lifetime of their reality without permission? Or capture this exchange, this evidence of need and a reminder that we can and must do something…. There’s always that fine line when taking a photograph… it really is all about the motives behind the finger that clicks to capture.
But no, no images were captured, by me or my fellow travelers. No videos were taken. No documentaries were made. I can’t show you the eyes, so thankful for receiving a bag of bread and tomatoes. I can’t show you that little girl clinging to the skirts of her older sister, who may have been her only family and guardian. Nor can you hear the joy in the teenage boy’s voice when the pair of jean shorts were thrown at him and not the other boy. Or the disappointment, when all the items were dispersed and the van pulled away, knowing it would be awhile before that kind driver would return again. But what I can do is tell you about it. Remind you with my words that there is need out there. Real need. And we can do something about it. I don’t know exactly what, but like the Baz Bus driver, he saw a need along his path and he didn’t just pass it by, he stopped and helped. Maybe you can’t give food and clothes to a village in the South African countryside, but you can help people along your path, can’t you? Or maybe you already are and you can invite others to join you. I know I’m not good at doing this myself, I know I get so egocentric. But even though my camera didn’t capture these images, my heart did. I know I have to do something…. As my friend Annie once wrote, “to go is to know, to know is to love, to love is to act.” It’s time for me to act.