Week 7: Broken Water Heaters and Bravery

My roommate at William & Mary, Reeana, is also working abroad this summer. With each challenge I face, I think back to a conversation we had the week before we left. As we talked about our fears she explained that whenever she was nervous about not being able to handle something, she reminded herself that she would be able to handle it – because when you’re on your own in a foreign country, what other choice do you have? When hard things happen, you handle them because you have to. One of the most important lessons I have learned over the past 7 weeks is just that (see: changing a tire and driving without GPS or street signs in week 3). At the beginning of the week we lost electricity. It only took one day to come back on, but before I had a chance to put the candles away and celebrate, the hot water was shut off. Until I came to South Africa, I never imagined that I would find myself standing in the rain watching YouTube videos on how to restart a hot water heater, while trying to keep a stick on fire long enough to light a pilot. But after a few (several) failed attempts, it worked! The more time I spend here, the more I learn that I can handle things I never thought I could.

Don't worry, teaching myself how to be an electrician isn't the only thing I've been working on. Over the past few weeks I have been writing a letter to the government explaining the importance of signing and ratifying a UN Convention. After conversations with people from the UN and the International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances and a lot of research, I finally finished the letter. At the beginning of the week, Khulumani sent the letter to 11 people working in the South African government. Writing this letter was one of the first goals I set when I started at Khulumani 7 weeks ago, so it was incredibly rewarding to see it sent out.

This week I also continued to be struck by the grace and strength of the people I meet. On Monday morning I met a woman named Elizabeth. Her younger brother, Tonny, is among the estimated 2,000 people who disappeared during apartheid. In 1991, Tonny was at work when a group of police officers arrived. The police told Tonny’s boss that they needed Tonny for a few hours and would bring him back when they were done. Tonny was never seen again. That day, Elizabeth began a painstaking search for her brother. Shortly after he disappeared she was given a lead that he was in a prison Durban, about 300 miles from their home. Elizabeth spent a month saving the money to travel to the prison. Inside the prison, she waited as group after group of prisoners came out to see their visitors. Her brother was not among them. When she sought the help of a prison guard, he told her that Tonny refused to come see her until she gave him money. She handed the money over to the guard, and a few minutes later “Tonny” appeared. The man was not her brother. In the years to follow, she continued to look for him in other cities and other prisons. Each time, she walked away alone. Khulumani and the Chairperson of APLA MVA are working together to contact former members of the police and the military to find out what happened to Tonny.

As I said goodbye to Elizabeth, she looked at me and said, “You’re too young and too small to be fighting this. You’re just a baby. But it’s always the littlest ones who are the bravest. God bless you.” I will never forget her words or this moment. I couldn’t imagine how this woman who had seen and lived through so much hardship could possibly think that I was brave. In the uphill battle of human rights work, it’s easy to forget the difference you’re making. Elizabeth reminded me that in both the small and the big steps, the work we do at Khulumani is changing lives.


I always take pictures of the people I interview to post on blog #2 that I write for Khulumani. The interviews aren't easy, and often people look sad in the pictures, so I wanted to share this quick snapshot of happiness that I caught while doing an interview in Soweto.