Service in South Africa
Renowned yoga teacher and social activist Seane Corn on how yoga and the practice of service can connect people across cultures.
Africa has called to me for many years. My father, although a white American, was raised in Northern Africa. As a young child, I was fascinated by this culture more than my family’s Eastern European roots. When I got involved with the HIV/AIDS crisis, I felt the urgency to understand Africa better than I ever had before.
Africa is home to the largest percentage of AIDS carriers in the world. There are more than 25 million people living with HIV/AIDS in Africa. An estimated 11.4 million people are living with HIV in the nine countries of Southern Africa, which accounts for almost 30 percent of the global number of people living with HIV in an area where only 2 percent of the world’s total population resides. There are more than 5 million orphans due to AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. That’s the equivalent to every child in the United States under the age of 5. The havoc wrought by this disease will certainly shape the lives of several generations of Africans to come.
AIDS spread in a variety of ways, but most commonly through unsafe sex practices. Without a cure or vaccine, the only prevention is education. AIDS is not just a health emergency; it is an educational, political, economic, and spiritual crisis. It’s important that when we address the issue of AIDS, we don’t solely focus on sex. Global AIDS is often a by-product of poverty and illiteracy, and it is necessary to focus on all the issues that can lead to an environment for HIV/AIDS to occur. Being in Africa and working directly with the community was so inspiring and gave me great hope for the future of Africa. I witnessed firsthand what the local population is doing to serve each other and provide help for those in need who are either infected or affected by HIV/AIDS.
Ubuntu—the philosophy of the African people, and the cultural mantra I heard from the mouths of the mamas (the caretakers), the politicians, and the children—means, “I am only who I am because of who you are.” It recognizes that for the whole to thrive a community must work together to serve and support the needs of every being within that community. Ubuntu is evident at Baphumelele Children’s Home, located in the township of Khayelistsha, home to more than 1 million people and where over 30 percent of the residents are living with HIV. Baphumelele Children’s Home grew out of the destitution in the shacks and is now a thriving community center that supports and saves the lives of hundreds of children each year, while creating job opportunities for the people who live there.
In 1989, Rosalia Mashale “Rosie,” a trained primary school teacher, was disgusted to see her neighborhood’s young children going through rubbish dumps in search of food. She responded by taking the children into her home, and together with a group of women from the community, they began looking after them. By the end of the first week they had 36 children. Today, Baphumelele Children’s Home has a pre-school that cares for about 250 children between the ages of three months to six years, as well as Educare, a place of safety for abandoned, abused, and neglected or orphaned children. This housing unit accommodates more 140 children. In addition, the center’s community outreach initiatives include a woodwork shop, Rosie’s Kitchen, Baphumelele secondhand shop, and the HIV Respite Care Center. This is Ubuntu in action.
Working with the Baphumelele Children’s Home and meeting with other educational and activist organizations like LEAP and Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) has been so rewarding for me personally. I am happy and fulfilled because being of service in this way is my greatest joy. It is the culmination of 22 years of practicing yoga. The work I have done “on the mat” has prepared me for being in the world in this way. Yoga has given me tools to use, and I am never more comfortable in my skin, and my breath is never calmer and more even, than when I am in the presence of a child being protected, educated, and empowered.
While in Africa, I went to a private function honoring Ahmed Rathrada. This remarkable and courageous man was one of the eight Freedom Fighter, including Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 26 years, 18 of them on Robben Island, for their political actions against Apartheid. He spoke through tears about his experience and the miracle of seeing so many of his comrades going from prison to the parliament, and even to the Presidency. He spoke of an evolving Africa where peace and harmony is possible for his people, and for all the people on this planet, and suggested we commit to right action, but with truth, dignity, and love toward all. He said that of all the hardships he experienced—the isolation, the solitude, and abuse—nothing was worse than being deprived of holding a child for 26 years. He’s committed to holding in his heart all the children he could not hold in his arms, and it is for their freedom that he still finds the strength to speak about his past and the possibilities of Africa’s future.
How can yoga help these children struggling with their health, their education, and their home life and circumstances? As an American, I am sensitive not to impose my comfort levels or judgments onto a culture that is foreign to me. I believe it is important to respect their practices and beliefs, especially when I am introducing them to something like yoga. Christianity, the primary religion in Africa, has created a fear that yoga is a cult or religion that may be in conflict to the values of their belief. How could I connect yoga to their culture in a way that was universal? I’m reminded of a young man from Zimbabwe who told me there were three African words I needed to know if I wanted to connect with the people. The first word he taught me was Molo which means “How are you?” The second word was Enkosi, which means “Thank you.” The third word he told me, while looking seriously into my eyes, was important and should be said very slowly. “Simonye,” he said and smiled. I asked him what it meant and he said, “We are one.”
I pray that we find the grace and strength to commit to our truths, speak our minds, and live among each other safely, joyfully, and with sincere respect. May we celebrate diversity, learn from our differences, and honor the places where we find ourselves alike. May we live each day in infinite gratitude for the planet we inhabit, her animals, and each other. Every moment that we share on this world together is a gift and a blessing to be holy treasured. May we serve each other from love and may that love define our lives.
Seane Corn is an internationally known vinyasa flow yoga teacher and spiritual activist. She is the cofounder of Off the Mat, Into the World®, which trains leaders of activism.