A non-profit organization in South Africa found that the youth in their programs had experienced 8 highly traumatic events each year in comparison to the UK/US average of 4.8 per lifetime. Childhood trauma is something that can alter the trajectory of your life leading to mental and physical health concerns. My global theme is Public Health, and as a social work student, childhood trauma has been an interest of mine. Here in Cape Town I was exposed to more than I could have ever imagined – with this, I also met some of the strongest children ever.
I work in communities 30 minutes away from Cape Town called Hangberg and Imizamo Yethu. They are communities nestled in between the beautiful mountains of Hout Bay. Hout Bay is a bustling fishing community. Hangberg is a coloured community and IY is a black community referred to as a “township.” Both are largely informal settlements made of aluminum, brick, earth, and any other scraps. Both are in the same locations (and many of the same conditions) as they were during Apartheid.
I have been working at the James House, an organization that provides support for children, their families, and the community. I am working closely with a Social Worker named Jana. Her focus is mainly with the children in the Hangberg schools. For a while I had the opportunity to shadow her as she had sessions with children and parents who were struggling with various issues. The communities are suffering with high levels of school dropouts, gang activity, drug and alcohol abuse, violence, neglect, hunger and malnutrition, sexual and physical abuse, and more. I also assisted Jana with organization, filing, paperwork in the office, created a couple lessons for teachers, and sat in on some group sessions.
This last month I was able to begin doing my first real individual sessions! The sessions were with high school students identified as “high risk” and in need of support. The sessions ranged from 10 minutes (with the more shy kids) to 45 minutes with others. Since this was the first interactions most of them had had with the James House, my focus was on discussing things they enjoyed, strengths of theirs, dreams they had, and more positive things. These kids are often bombarded with what is wrong about them and their lives, rarely to they get the chance to consider the good.
In Hout Bay, trauma is often generational and sometimes never addressed. Children experience pain that no human should ever have to endure. And in communities as tight knit as Hangberg and IY, trauma never touches just one person. But despite all the pain, this community remains the most resilient group of people I have ever met. When I first stepped foot into the school in Hout Bay, I was struck by how lively and joyous the children were. They played together and laughed, some of them running up to me (a clear new person) asking me questions about America. During some of the sessions I was honored that some children would share serious things with me – many were very open and honest. I was also impressed with their ability to find the silver lining in the bleakest of circumstances.
In fact, it is often the hardship and frustrations caused by the government that can tie people here together (and trust me there are many frustrations). For instance, while here I experienced “loadshedding” which is when the electricity gets shut off from 2-16 hours a day. Everyone shares the misery and helps each other out how they can.
When people search South Africa online, they get flooded with articles about violence and inequality. Headlines never address the extreme resilience people here have. The vast majority of people here are giving, supportive, and welcoming. I feel it is easy for first world countries (like the US) to look down at South Africa and criticize. When in fact our country too leaves its people out on the streets and suffers from gross displays of racial prejudice.
Coming to this country in a place of privilege, I had the opportunity to see and do the things that only the top 1% usually get to experience. Working at James House gave me a window into what the rest of the country’s experience is and the hardship they face. I feel so incredibly honored to have been able to learn from the people of South Africa.