“In Johannesburg there is a neighborhood called Soweto,” said Barbara Sears, an impeccably dressed woman of palpable charm who looks like she might let slip a little off-color joke if she warms to you.
“You find everything from lovely brick houses to small shanties that are made out of any kind of building materials found on the side of the road,” she said recounting her recent trip to Africa.
Later, she does.
Soweto, which began as a gold mining camp in the 1880s, was later a veritable prison camp, where black Africans were segregated to live and work under the strict rules and curfews of Apartheid by the white Afrikaner government. Today, residents who can now live anywhere and work in whatever profession they wish, still call Soweto home, Sears said.
“This is their home and they are determined to make it better,” she said. “There’s a pride in those people there.”
President of the Ashe County Frescoes Foundation, Sears lives in Warrensville, and took the trip to Africa with 29 other members of the Naval Academy Alumni Association. For 30 years the wife of U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Scott Sears, she was widowed in December, 2011, when her husband lost a long battle with multiple systems atrophy.
Sears volunteers at the Ashe Free Medical Clinic, where she serves as a Spanish-English translator. She also works as a personal affairs liaison for the Military Officers Association of America, New River Chapter.
“We went to the Kliptown Youth Program to plant an olive tree,” she said. “While we were there we met Thulani Madondo.”
Madondo, Executive Director of KYP, was selected as one of CNN’s Heroes of 2012 for his community work in Kliptown, Soweto’s oldest residential district. He co-founded KYP, a before- and after-school program with a mission to “eradicate the poverty of mind, body, and soul and to fight against the disadvantages imposed on the children of Kliptown,” where unemployment reached 72 percent in 2005.
“The prevailing theme that I saw throughout that part of South Africa is that education is power,” said Sears. “The world is your oyster if you’re an educated individual.”
The school children of Kliptown each have a laptop donated by a group from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she said.
At the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, visitors were given ticket stubs that read “whites” and “non-whites” based on skin color, and were obliged to use entrances, restrooms and other facilities bearing those labels.
“At various stops we had lectures in the evenings,” Sears said.
The first lecture was in Capetown, and began “Welcome home, all of you.” The bones of an early hominid were unearthed there with over 98 percent of it’s DNA shared across the entire living human population of the earth.
In Botswana, a lecturer told of a former Ngwato tribal leader’s frustration with nepotism and graft in his country’s white government. Seretse Khama took his grievances to England, won the backing of the British government, got elected president, and, re-appropriating his country’s diamond mine revenue, brought education and medical care to every village.
On Robben Island, Sears visited the prison where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, the tour guided by a former inmate who served time with the first democratically elected president of South Africa. Photos on her hard drive show his tiny cell – no plumbing or bed – and the small recreation yard where he buried pages of his book, “Long Walk to Freedom”, written on pieces of paper concrete sacks and stuffed into bottles to be smuggled out piecemeal by accomplices.
Sears has dozens of photos from Africa, including one at a hotel near Victoria Falls. It shows a family of warthogs rooting around the lawn just a few feet from her breakfast table.
Drawing comparison between poverty in southern Africa and poverty in southern Appalachia, Sears said “It does not seem to be a burden to them…it’s not naivety or ignorance…they are positive about their situation.”