by Lucie Thompson

This summer, I was privileged to accompany five high school students from our MMI Works Intern program to South Africa. They were selected for the Externship to South Africa based on their participation and growth within the MMI Works program.  MMI Works offers paid summertime internships to young people at various Memphis arts-based organizations, and offers personal and professional development sessions throughout the year.  The MMI Works program also touches on an introduction to the social justice movement and history of Memphis. This year’s destination of South Africa has a similar civil rights narrative to Memphis and the South.

The externs used the music and video production skills they attained through their summer internships, and a ProTools workshop series provided prior to the trip to assist the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival in the livestream of its evening performances. Stellenbosch is a university town about 45 minutes outside of Cape Town, near the southernmost point of the African continent. Young music students from across Africa and around the world descend into Stellenbosch for 10 days of master classes and performances by internationally renowned professionals. This year was the first to have the concerts streamed live on the web.

The first day at the Music Conservatory, our students jumped into the work, running cable and setting up microphones and cameras. It was a long and arduous day with occasional power naps to stave off the inevitable jetlag. The webcast that night was met with accolades from the international community watching online. A precedent was being set with the multiple camera angles and moving shots.

Once settled into the routine of their workday and as we began to explore, our group was better able to soak in the atmosphere of a different city, country and culture.  As a condition of the trip, the students were expected to make a presentation afterward to the rest of the MMI Works cohort.  In preparation, they began interviewing and having conversations with university staff members and festival participants from other parts of the world. They discussed race relations in South Africa as compared to the U.S., perceptions of Americans, and gun violence in the States.  The topic which came up more often than any other was President Trump.  Our students were amazed at how closely the world follows what is happening with our government. Many of the festival participants and staff had never met a young black teenager from the U.S. and only knew what they saw in movies and on music videos. Our personable, hard-working and energetic youth created new narratives on black Americans.

Several evenings we held informal group meetings to discuss the students’ impressions and observations of our surroundings. These conversations were sophisticated in depth and scope for high school seniors and graduates.  We talked about the stratification of South African society into white, black and colored communities, and its segregation of neighborhoods and schools. We discussed reparations – what they are, what is fair, what is equitable – comparing and contrasting the Zimbabwean treatment of white farmers to Georgetown University’s restitution to the descendants of slaves sold in 1838 to keep the institution solvent. In response to the stately oak lined streets and Cape Dutch, Georgian and Victorian architecture, our students considered how it would feel as a black South African to go school in your own country at a university where your culture was in no way represented or even alluded to. They also deliberated the importance of knowing our history in order to relate it to other civil rights and social justice issues in the world, and knowing their own responsibility to challenge oppressive systems using their unique gifts and talents.

After 10 days in Stellenbosch, the group moved to Cape Town. In addition to the work-side of the Stellenbosch experience, we had several adventures and revelations in and around both cities. We played in the water at Gordon’s Bay on the Atlantic. The students learned the art of negotiation in the local market place and got very good at it by the end of the trip. We drove past Khayelitsha, the largest township in South Africa with a population of 2.4 million black people, contained in 15 square miles. We took a ferry to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe were held prisoner. We went through the Slave Lodge Museum and learned about the history and long term effects of slavery in Cape Town. At the District 6 Museum, our group engaged the tour guide in a conversation about the home from which his family had been removed, and learned about the effects of apartheid. We took a boat ride to see seals in False Bay. On a walking tour of the townships of Langa and Gugulethu, the students listened intently to the resident tour guide about the continued underdeveloped conditions post-Apartheid. The jewel in the crown of African adventures, however, was our trip to the Aquila Safari where we rode in an open sided Land Rover and saw hippos, rhinos, zebras, springbok, kudus, wildebeests, ostriches, elephants and lions.

It was a full 17 days. The trip included a lot of firsts for our students – first passport, first flight, first time traveling out of the country, first trip to the ocean, first time riding on the left side of the road, first winter in July. These smart, sensitive, and passionate young people were affected and expanded by world travel. In the end, our students represented their families, MMI, Memphis and our country well. We all have a lot to be proud of.

As a native Memphian, Lucie Thompson feels the divided nature of this city, both past and present, very deeply. One of her earliest memories was being awakened by the sound of marching in the streets after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Having worked as an office manager in the non-profit sector for decades, she leaped at the chance to mend her home town and support the disempowered youth of Memphis through the work of the Memphis Music Initiative. Lucie has two sons who are almost grown and a husband who will never grow up.