A twilight moment as I returned to the land of the rising sun

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A return visit to her Japanese homeland has made Kyoko Morgan strongly aware of the stark differences between the land that was once home and her newfound homeland — South Africa. She was also reminded of just why she has come to love life on the African continent, so much.

I recently travelled from South Africa to my home country, Japan. As I stepped into “the land of the rising sun”, I was overcome by a ‘twilight’ feeling.  

Perhaps it was the gloomy winter weather — a stark difference from sunny Cape Town. Or the lack of cheery children, synonymous with South African townships. Maybe it was the realisation that one third of Japanese people are now pensioners. Regardless of what exactly it was, the twilight feeling was palpable.

Having lived in South Africa for nearly three decades, I’ve become accustomed to the spontaneous affection that children give me — even if I am a stranger to them.  This is more especially so in townships where streets are often filled with young children, visiting each other and walking together.

Children often approach me with a certain curiosity. Some dare to impress me, showing off their karate moves and making ridiculous comments. I get annoyed by their silly prejudices sometimes, which are often reinforced by the adults around them and the shows they watch on television. Still, I can never get tired of their friendly smiles and their readiness to hold my hand.

But back to Japan.

Japanese children living in urban areas seem very disconnected from other human beings. In my hometown, it is rare for children to greet others; even the animals seem very subdued. I was in Japan for two weeks and neither dogwalker nor dog greeted me, without my prompting.

In fact, after a few days in Japan, I started craving friendly children. Whenever I saw a baby or child on a train or bus, I was immediately drawn to them. I would smile at them, expecting they would smile back. But they simply looked away. I felt hurt and disappointed.  I suppose that when I’m in Japan, I just blend in with the other Japanese and am not given any special attention. In South Africa it is still a novelty to see a Japanese person, so I receive attention.

There are many factors that contributed to how I felt on my trip. I think it was not so much what was missing but what I had returned to Japan with — a gift that was not nearly as present as it is in South Africa.

“The great powers of the world may have done wonders in giving the world an industrial and military look, but the great gift still has to come from Africa – giving the world a more human face.” 

Steve Biko

The first time I noticed that Africa had given me a great gift was about ten years ago.

I was sitting with a friend in a sunny restaurant courtyard, chatting away. Suddenly, we heard a heavy and dull sound, followed quickly by a scream. In an instant, I found myself holding and consoling a child who had fallen to the ground from a jungle gym. I did not know her but I immediately reacted and cared for her, before taking her to her parents who were sitting at a nearby table.

I felt a surge of joy, realising that a profound change had taken place in me. In the past, I would’ve just stared at the screaming child wondering where her parent was. But on this occasion my body automatically moved to attend to the child.

I have received this gift repeatedly in my daily encounters over the past years. One such moment was sitting in a shack in Khayelitsha with many women and a few children.

Another such moment took place while I was sitting in a car, stopped at a traffic light in Wynberg. I saw a young black man walking briskly across the zebra crossing. As he crossed the street, he saw a woman begging. He stopped to put coins in her hands — pouring them into her hands with both his hands — and said: “For you, Mama!”.  This after many of us around him, pretended not to see her. I felt ashamed as well as honoured to witness this casual yet incredibly respectful exchange.

Exchanges such as these are common. For some, they are completely natural but it seems to me that there’s something truly African about this approach. Indeed, after my time in South Africa, I have become someone whose personal boundaries are now less defined by what is mine.

I recently took a Japanese tourist, a young IT professional, to visit a crèche in Khayelitsha, an informal settlement in Cape Town. He had been well warned of the dangers and the crime in South Africa. After a week’s stay in Cape Town visiting many of its beautiful tourist attractions, he told me that one of the most special moments for him had been drinking coffee with my friend Buyiswa, who runs the crèche. The simple act of sharing a table and a drink and the experience of being mobbed by small children will be a highlight of his trip to the city, that he will forever remember.

Could it be that this is what my Buddhist mentor, Dr Daisaku Ikeda, meant when he wrote in his poem “Africa! Vision of Hope”?

“We are one family, brothers and sisters. Learn from Africa! Follow Africa!

Only then will the world change, with the new dawn of humanism come.”

Today there is an increased awareness and critique of the “white-saviour complex” and “voluntourism”, where foreign visitors use poor and vulnerable children to show off their good deeds on social media. The intention of such acts needs to be thoroughly examined but there is also a different side to consider.

Perhaps it is us — the visitors — that are helped through the uninhibited affection and trust of the local people. It is not about what is posted on social media but about that we are given on a far deeper level. When spending time with African children, we are radiant and joyful. Our humanity is restored as the sun rises again in our hearts.

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

 

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A twilight moment as I returned to the land of the rising sun

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