In April, a string of xenophobic attacks shocked Durban, sending waves of chaos and fear throughout the city and its surrounding townships. Store fronts were set afire, homes were looted and a reported 8,000 foreign nationals were displaced into three interim refugee camps.
These attacks happened minutes from my doorstep, giving me no option other than to witness firsthand the scarring effects of such malicious crimes against humanity. My own host bhutis (brothers) were hesitant to commute to work, fearful that they would be mistaken as amakwerekwere (foreigners).
When I agreed to join a few fellow classmates to volunteer at the Chatsworth refugee camp I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that thousands of people – many of them children – were in need and I wanted to help.
While volunteering at the refugee camp, I experienced many different waves of emotion. I felt the nerve-wracking tension in the air as hundreds of Malawians demanded to be repatriated and brought back to the country they had once fled. I shared the distress of fellow volunteers as we watched people fight over the blankets we were distributing. My heart ached as I played with children who had no idea what was going on around them.
In stark contrast to these difficult feelings, I also felt hope as community members joined together to help one another in selfless generosity. Ubuntu was everywhere.
On our first day of volunteering, my classmates and I were greeted by a peculiar sight: a dozen leather-clad bikers stirring pots of chicken biryani larger than the bucket I used to bathe in just that morning. Their jackets were embroidered with bright red and gold threads proclaiming their kinship: The Revolution Motorcycle Club.
Despite their tough exterior, these bikers were the reason that thousands of refugees were safely settled in the camp, having brought the refugees from their homes to this vacant sports field when the attacks began a week prior.
I surveyed the camp: several large white tents to house thousands, one lone spigot surrounded by puddles of muddy water, piles of garbage swarming with flies, and patches of ashy, burned ground scarred by cooking fires.
Suddenly I am pulled from my trance-like state by calls of “chain!” and I look to find volunteers forming a line that snakes from the donation tent to the entrance of the camp where a pick-up trick is parked. Its bed is piled high with diapers, massive bags of rice, and hundreds of loaves of bread.
I find an opening in the line and join in. We pass item after item to one another, and within minutes the truck is empty. Behind it, a dozen other vehicles wait equally as swollen with clothing, baby formula, canned goods, toiletries, and blankets.
Our process is efficient and in under an hour the contents of the donation tent have at least doubled. I step into the tent and not only am I amazed by the sheer volume of food and supplies, but I am touched by a community that has responded so urgently, so generously.
I see two women sitting amidst piles of clothes, sorting the clothing into piles while two babies crawl about and undo most of the work they have done. I greet the women and they look at me in confusion. I give my broken Zulu a try – Sanibona, ninjani? (Hello, how are you?) – but they struggle with their Zulu as much as I do. I connect the dots and realize that these women are refugees living at the camp; their native language was as far from Zulu as it was for me.
Later, I learned that some of the refugees were helping run the camp, by cooking, sorting donations, and cleaning up garbage. Not only did the surrounding communities show a sense of Ubuntu, but Ubuntu was coming from within the camp as well. Even in moments of fear and desperation for themselves and their families, these women focused on the community as a whole.
Though the camp is now closed and the thousands of refugees have either integrated back into their communities or have been repatriated into their home countries, I will never forget the heroic actions of Revolution in setting up the camp or the inspiring acts of refugees themselves who wanted to help.
In the most unexpected ways, I found Ubuntu within the fenced confines of the refugee camp.