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Finding My Humanity in South Africa

“I told them that although I wept most of the time, I also laughed a lot, and that even in the time I felt great pain, I also found comfort and strength. I told them that when I cried feeling the pain of others, I felt very human, and that solidarity is the essence of humanity.”

Yasmine Mahmoud Fakhry
Alexandria, Egypt

Being a human rights educator who struggles for human rights in Egypt, I was selected to attend a course on Applied Conflict Transformation by the Action Support Centre in Johannesburg in which the course intends to connect people working for peace and empower them with skills and strategies for change. Arriving at 75A Second Avenue in Melville and charmed by the elegance and warm atmosphere of the Wedgwood, I already felt peace. Although knowing that the program includes different methodologies, field visits, reflection sessions and discussions, and lectures by different professors, nothing prepared me for the journey of self-discovery that was waiting ahead.

After eight nights in Johannesburg and after a heartbreaking goodbye and walking away from the Cradle of Humankind, it took me 24 hours to get back home. I woke up next morning and decided to dress informally and go to my class wearing a traditional Moroccan blouse and jeans and carrying a purse with ‘South Africa’ inscriptions all over it. I told my students that I am not following the lesson plans according to the course program because I came back with more valuable life lessons. I learned things that are more important than the words they study in human rights books, which are detached from reality. I told them that I went to Johannesburg to deepen my knowledge of theories and strategies of conflict transformation, but instead I learned about something deeper; I learned about life.

I shared with my students the experiences of Zimbabwe, Somalia, Kenya, Syria, and South Africa, and I told them that connecting to people is the best way we learn about life. I shared with them how I was personally moved by the empathy, warmth, and tenderness of the instructors and how I learned from them that love and compassion can transform and touch the hearts of others and lift people up. I also learned that a smile and a pat on a shoulder can be the beginning of great love. I told them how those who touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand are the greatest treasure in our life journey. I learned from Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss philosopher and scholar, at the University of Johannesburg to open my heart and mind and view the world from different perspectives. Ramadan called on reviving the message of love, compassion, and justice. I learned during the Somali Solidarity Campaign visit that life doesn’t stop even when there is a lot of pain and suffering and that there is always hope. I learned from the Zimbabwean participants that patience and perseverance are the key to change. I learned from my Syrian mate to be strong and never have fear and to always look for the bright side of every story. I learned from Kenyans the spirit of brotherhood and solidarity.

I told my students how I wept after my visit to the apartheid museum and after listening to stories about many struggles in this world. I explained how I arrived with mixed feelings of anger, depression, confusion, and hopelessness, and how I was transformed gradually to leave Johannesburg with feelings of joy, hope, and love. This transformation must have taken place between sharing and listening to each other, holding hands, patting on the shoulder of one another, hugging, laughing and crying together. I told them that although I wept most of the time, I also laughed a lot, and that even in the time I felt great pain, I also found comfort and strength. I told them that when I cried feeling the pain of others, I felt very human, and that solidarity is the essence of humanity.

I told them that I learned great life lessons. I told them that I learned how life-changing it is to share your feelings and pain with others, and how when you cry on the shoulders of a friend it is even happiness itself. I told them how the power of love, empathy, and spirit of solidarity in our group somehow detached me from all the troubles of the world, and how this warmth and tenderness made me feel that everything can be conquered, even pain itself. I told them that the greatest lesson of all is that love and solidarity are stronger than anything else.

Just as reading about love in love stories is not like actually falling in love, reading about peace, solidarity and empathy is not like really feeling and experiencing it. Although we might be raised in diverse cultures, have different ideologies and beliefs, or be filled with clashing narratives sometimes, feelings of love, tenderness and empathy can connect us to our humanity. The solidarity and feelings that I felt during interacting with people from different parts of the world not only directly influenced me, but I also brought them back with me as great lessons that can inspire people around me.

23.01.2013 | Victoria Uwonkunda