Slightly Surreal: Hector Pieterson Museum and Kliptown

We began our morning my going out to Soweto which stands for “South Western Township,” located just beyond Johannesburg. As we drove, the red dust burrowed up against the wild cacti and people unpacked fruits and vegetables on the roadside as makeshift business stands in the early morning haze. Our beginning stop: the Hector Pieterson Museum. I’m kind of glad we didn’t go to the museum on Youth Day (June 16) because that gave me the chance to sort of digest everything that happened, before jumping into the actual facts the museum presented. Here’s some of that stuck with me:

the protests didn’t start as violent, but turned that way;
garbage can lids were used as sort of Captain America type shields, bursting bullet holes in the center;
Hector’s sister recognized him firstly by the patches in the toe of his shoe;
the riots turned against not only white’s cars, but everyone’s, burning automobiles and smashing shop fronts

Before entering the museum, Nate and Marit asked us to speak to one person as we went about. I finally plucked up the courage and called to one woman who wandered slowly throughout, reading each wall text as she went. Her face lit up right away when I told her I was a student and that I wanted to know what brought her to the museum. “For the children, of course!” As a teacher from Pretoria, she and several others brought the school’s students to this museum and later Nelson Mandela’s house in Soweto. “It’s all coming alive,” she exclaimed for herself and for the children as well which made me again consider the value of museums. For antsy kids itching to get out for a winter break, the museum was the perfect place to bring them. As we spoke, a crowd of kids gathered around us, one tugging at the ends of my hair, and by the end of our conversation, the whole class had swarmed us for a group photo. Next, we went to Kliptown.

It’s surreal hearing Taylor Swift’s popular song “Bad Blood” beating from inside the home tagged “Hip Hop” in swirly, green font. Amongst the trash strew streets of Kliptown, there are many things that are surreal. Bunnies and panda bears and roosters that ride on the cement walls above the street. But among the murals, open fires and strings of white socks on a line and children playing cards of magic in the dirt. The pink painted walls of the library at SKY (Soweto Kliptown Youth) where books were stacked upon one another, clouding pockets of dust in the air and the shiny gold NBA sponsor plaque plastered on the wall outside. But there’s also a lot of things that aren’t surreal as well. Upon crossing the concrete overpass to get to the township of Kliptown, our tour guide stated, “I’m sorry for the smell” as the stench of urine hit our noses. Even through my cold, I could sense the harsh smells of dirt and smoke and filth that came from the blue port-a-potties that hugged the boundary of the township. And as we met with SKY’s founder Bob—dream weaver, miracle-maker, Ted talk speaker, and supreme father figure—I found his words to be most truthful and honest. His humble spirit and feminist beliefs drove the operation of SKY into a successful light, and it’s clear hearing his family background (that both his parents and siblings had passed away) had given him the opportunity to grow this new community that would one day become his whole family. We signed the organization’s guest book, and I read through the countries previously listed: Egypt, Canada, Brazil, and more which made me wonder if they too had come to tour the space as we had.

We not only toured the SKY foundation, but all Kliptown as well by a young photographer who took as lastly to the studio where he does some of his work. As we came through the white washed doorways, I noticed works of photography and oil paint hung on the walls. He showed us a mantle of photographs of people before him, relatives and artists of the sort. Marit wondered later if we thought that had been a museum, and I kinda think so through its display and collection and open education for all.