Featured Letter: A glimpse of South Africa
Kimble Burke Snyder, a frequent visitor to Block Island, has worked on First Lady Michelle Obama’s 2012 campaign and was a coordinator for this year’s inauguration. Ms. Snyder was traveling with Mrs. Obama last week, and sent this letter about her impressions of South Africa to various friends and relatives, including her father, Arlen Dean Snyder, and Fran Migliaccio, who were kind enough to forward to The Block Island Times. As of press time, former South African President Nelson Mandela was in a Soweto hospital in critical condition.
To the Editor:
I know I mentioned writing much sooner than I am getting around to. It’s been a hell of a trip so far. Things here are incredibly hectic and busy... not that I expected much else on a foreign work trip — but with Mandela’s condition things have become rather cumbersome.
I am working on the First Lady’s largest solo event for this swing and that in and of itself has proved to be quite challenging. My trip lead had to fly back to the states after almost a week with us... has left me to fend for myself. My event is a program with MTV, Google and students from around the world who will meet with (both in person and virtually) Mrs. Obama and discuss education and the issues which face our youth (mostly in South Africa) today. Africa has always been on my top spot for travel — and so you can imagine when I first found out that I would have the opportunity to head to South Africa I was thrilled. I am sad to report that I’ve not had much, if any, time to actually explore Johannesburg. However, yesterday and today I was able to interview the students who will be meeting with the First Lady, and I feel that I have an immense understanding of the culture here and what the youth must face.
I am without words for what an impression the students who I met with have left upon me. Yesterday I met them at my site — 30 in total — and I was told about their families, hobbies, concerns and solutions. One boy let me know that he is top in his class, and has left for school at 4 a.m. everyday since he began the first grade. Many told me that they are appalled by the government demanding only a 33 percent pass rate of them. Still, others told me that their peers believe more in living for the moment than striving for what they may become tomorrow. The opportunity I have had to speak with these students, as well as another 10 who live in Soweto and participate in YMCA programs there, cannot possibly be measured. I spent my time with them imagining what I might have said, when I was 16, if someone asked me what I would say to the minister of education should he be in front of me. I highly doubt that while being filmed, and sitting in front of a U.S. white woman from the White House, that I could have possibly stated that, “the government expects me to fail, expects us all to fail. It’s as though we found our way to freedom and now those who went before our generation are finished. Now that we have a government, we don’t have to struggle anymore or do anything — there is nothing to fight for and so they do nothing. We must not make our past an excuse but go out and find opportunities.”
Impressed doesn’t begin to explain my feelings towards these students. I often find myself wondering where my life has taken me. Why things are so hard, how everything will all add up. And yet, in speaking with these students, who are up against so much more than I could possibly imagine, I am truly reminded about how one can accomplish anything. About how life can be molded, and shaped into exactly what we chose to make it. Perhaps more interesting than anything else I’ve heard over the last two days were the responses to the question I asked: “Do you find that your peers have the same view point that you do?” While many said that they were friends with those of their age group who resided in their towns, they also pointed out that something stronger guided them past the drugs, alcohol, peer pressure and social stigmas. That something may have been a mother who was all alone, who had said to them something as simple as “you deserve more; you are worth while; I am here for you.” Or perhaps it was a personal drive to help others around them, and particularly from those students who had been offered even the slightest leg up. I heard they wanted to make sure they did not put their opportunity to waste. So, a boy who has no idea where his father is, who has been waking up at 4 a.m. to get to school since the age of 7, and who has managed to become top in his class and be accepted to an extra curricular program based on his marks, who participates in a student United Nations, who works in a local community center and has six family members living in one room — one room — he can look me in the eye, and with complete honesty tell me that all he wants in life is to make his mother proud and be a good role model for his younger siblings. And when he then goes on to tell me that his solution to the education problem in South Africa would be to take away the bursaries that teachers receive (so they don’t just take the job in order to make some extra money — which they then use to get drunk) in order to ensure that students get teachers who want to be with their students, and on top of that that he would demand the government expect more of its youth, raise standards and change the perspective of what African children can achieve — I have to wonder what I’m doing with my life. I have to wonder what I would say if I was in the same position. Would I be a drug user? A youth who believes that Africa has sealed its fate and I had better just live every day as it comes, looking for easy money and thrills? Or would I fight, and go to great lengths to better myself and pave the way for others.
I can only hope it would be the latter.
All of that being said, I am running on no more than four hours of sleep each night, and up against very stressful circumstances. But as my experience has always been with the First Lady, I am so incredibly thankful for this opportunity, and only hope that it will stay with me, and that I will always strive to use the lessons these incredible students have taught me.
I can’t wait to share with you the rest of my trip — although I have to imagine it will be ending much differently than planned, due to [the health of] Mr. Mandela.
Kimble Burke Snyder