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Out of Africa

Princeton High School teacher takes her sport on the road and learns much along the way

Editor’s note: Tiffany Gonigam, Princeton High School varsity girls basketball coach, had the experience to spend her spring break in South Africa, teaching basketball through Zebra Crossing Adventures, a learning and growth experience. Here is her story.

On Saturday, March 11, I left for the adventure of a lifetime. It was a journey that had already been months in the making; I just didn’t realize it yet. Back in September, the work that a mentor was doing in Africa was weighing heavily on my heart. The stories, pictures, and experiences he shared in the time I had known him really had me curious. I wanted to know more; I wanted to do more; and whatever gave him this passion for growing and loving others, I wanted to experience it.

Chad Songy, director at Point Guard College (PGC) and founder of Sustainable Giving Homes and Zebra Crossing Adventures, had already made a huge impact on the way I approach life, especially coaching and teaching. I knew anything he was doing was worthwhile and adding value to the lives of others.

Knowing I would be working with Chad at a PGC Shooting College course at the end of the month, I decided to reach out for more information. I texted Chad and asked how I could help. His response back: “Crazy you say that because I added talk to Tiffany about Zebra Crossing to my to-do list about a week ago.” I could never know at that moment, the value of that simple text. God has a funny way of putting things together, and this was one of those things. What had been weighing so heavily on my heart, was already in the works.

That weekend at PGC, I learned that Zebra Crossing Adventures was a learning and growth experience. Chad’s intention in the trip is to bring diverse leaders to South Africa to learn via cultural experience and teaching sport. Zebra Crossings is about learning, not serving. I was humbled that someone I look up to so much had offered even the chance to apply for such an experience. I felt anxious about the possibility of traveling across the world with a diverse group of people I had never met. Mostly, I was excited about the opportunity to grow and learn from Chad, my fellow team members, and the people, history and culture of South Africa.

On Oct. 29, I got the official acceptance onto Team 1 of Zebra Crossing Adventures! The next few months brought some preparations for the trip and a lot of excitement. As the trip got closer, the more nervous and worrisome I got. That seemed to subside as I began to meet my group members via video calls. The assigned readings along with the video calls really prepared my mind for the journey. I couldn’t believe I was being given this opportunity — that this was my life.

I left Chicago March 11, and caught my flight to New York City where I would meet up with the other group members. If I said I was completely excited and had no reservations or nervous feelings, I would be lying. But, as I arrived at the hotel in NYC, a familiar face appeared as the elevator doors in the lobby opened — Chad! I felt I could now relax; I had arrived. I made it to my room, met my roommate for the night and relaxed before our team-building activities and dinner that evening. I went to bed feeling blessed to be given this opportunity. I just remember feeling thankful and ready to begin the rest of our travels.

We arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, early afternoon on Monday, March 13. The flight from New York to Johannesburg was about 14-1/2 hours, and the flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town was about 2-1/2 hours. We started to make our way to the Zebra Crossing house. We were the first group to stay in the house, and I remember the excitement as we entered. Every detail in the house had been so carefully planned; it was perfect! The big table in the kitchen, open to the cozy dinning/living space — complete with perfectly themed wall art and decor. In the hallway outside the “Elephant” room where myself and the other women on the trip would be staying, photos of previous Zebra Crossing teams alongside a map of South Africa caught my attention. I would soon have these memories and connections to the unique people on my team.

I remember the view of Devils Peak, Lions Head, and Table Mountain as we drove into Cape Town from the airport. It was beautiful, but having never climbed a mountain before, I found myself wondering — we are going to climb that? We had a short time to get our things settled into the house before taking off for the Zebra Crossing traditional sunset hike up Lions Head. It was difficult, climbing a mountain is not something easily prepared for in the Illinois Valley. However, part of the joy, awe and wonder of being atop the mountain is the journey.

I remember the last few steps to the top, beginning to see the view of the ocean. As I reached the top, the views of the water and Table Mountain amazed me. I almost raced to the far side and took a seat on the edge. As I looked out, I noticed an island that I assumed must be Robben Island. I couldn’t help but reflect on my reading of Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom” — he was so close to home and yet so very far away.

A certain part of his autobiography would not escape my thoughts, “There in front of us, glinting in the morning light, we saw the ocean, the rocky shore, and in the distance, winking in the sunshine, the glass towers of Cape Town. Although it was surely an illusion, the city, with Table Mountain looming behind it, looked agonizingly close, as if one could almost reach out and grasp it.” (Mandela, 289)

His thoughts became even more tangible later in the week as I followed his footsteps through the maximum security prison on Robben Island. My perspective was already being changed by this beautiful country.

The next day (Tuesday), Greg and Ricky, two local leaders of the ZCA experience, took us on a tour of Cape Town. Greg and Ricky are natives of South Africa and grew up facing very different life situations. Together, they now run Crossings Travel, aimed at giving you a culturally relevant and conscious experience in Cape Town that helps you understand social injustice on a deeper level. This day was filled with untold stories of South Africa and its people. The history is much more meaningful coming from people who lived it.

As we drove to several locations throughout Cape Town, you could see how apartheid tore the city apart. Sometimes using geographic features to separate people and other times forcibly relocating them to separate areas of the city, as seen in the still barren District 6, where Ricky once lived. As a social studies teacher, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the stories shared by Greg and Ricky.

Wednesday brought our first basketball day, and we traveled to the Heideveld Community to teach hoops. The first thing I remember about the Heideveld school was something very special, but as it turns out, this was something to become common on our visits to other communities as well. As we entered the gym, the athletes ran to the doors to greet us and lined up to shake our hands as we entered. This is certainly not a gesture I expected nor deserved.

I was so excited to be there, but I could tell the readiness was mutual. As we greeted the athletes, I turned around and I couldn’t help but be drawn to the smile on Chad’s face. I have never seen him as happy as he was in that moment; it was easy to see his passion for this community and this game.

This community is filled with passion. We worked in stations based on age and gender. Each group brought joy in their own way. There was the excitement of the youngest boys group every time they made a basket; the competitiveness of the middle boys group; the connectedness and spirit the girls group brought; the desire of the oldest boys group to improve. Sport proved to be a universal language.

On Thursday, we worked with an organization called Hoops 4 Hope. As we drove to the community that we would be working in, the shock at the sight of poverty and stark difference between the area we were staying and this area outside the city stole our conversation.

I remember Chad saying, “There’s something really beautiful here.” It was a little surprising at first, because there was not much beauty that could be easily seen with the eye. What I learned in this moment can be reflected in a quote by Confucius, “Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it”. This beauty constantly showed through community. I didn’t know it yet, but this word would come to have incredible significance over the next couple of days.

The sense of community was so strong in this village. It was felt overwhelmingly through appreciation and love. Everyone waves as you drive by; every child’s’ smile brightens your day; the songs and the dances all bring joy. After our session, I put my hands on the shoulders of a young boy as we watched an older group of girls begin their practice. He grabbed my hands, wrapped them around his chest and held onto them as we stood and watched practice. Suddenly, basketball didn’t matter. Only the expression of love.

These children normally play soccer with rolled up plastic bags; most of them wear no shoes. I don’t tell you these things because I want you to feel like I was doing them some great service. They gave me so much more than I can ever give them. Basketball was such a small part of what we were doing. It is simply a tool to the larger purpose and learning experience.

We had a lot of kids of various elementary ages, and today’s focus was bringing new drills to the Hoops 4 Hope Community. We divided into groups and brainstormed ways to teach basketball skills in a way that could engage a large group with minimal resources and a big emphasis on having fun! As Nelson Mandela said, “Sport has the power to change the world ... It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.”

I had been looking forward to Friday, a trip to Robben Island. Maybe it’s the history teacher in me. Maybe it was everything I had learned that week about the past racial injustices and the system of apartheid.

As we got to the Robben Island Museum, I was intrigued by a display showing the perspective of the prisoners as they viewed it years after their release. Their light in the darkness of the prison was the greater good of what they were doing. A message that would coat my mind as I began this tour.

All of the tour guides on Robben Island are ex-political prisoners. Being able to experience history from people who lived it is a powerful thing. Of course, you learn about Nelson Mandela, the hero of South Africa and face of the struggle to end apartheid. However, you also learn about the unsung heroes, such as Robert Sobukwe. Education should be used not only to sing about the heroes of our past, but to give those who don’t have a voice a place in history.

The heroism of the community of prisoners as a group was what impacted me the most. Hearing the stories of selfless lifestyle of the prisoners inspired me to live life in a more selfless way. I was captivated by how small and depressing the place was, and yet there was “something beautiful here.”

The story that represents the beauty of community the best to me was that of writing letters back home to loved ones. Depending on the level of threat to the government you were deemed to be, you were placed in a certain area of the prison. Based on this you had certain rights, such as the number of letters one could write home each month. Our tour guide told us that it was very common for them to give some of their letter quota to those prisoners who didn’t have them. Cut off from the world, cut off from their family, their one way of connecting to the outside world, given to someone else, with no desire of gaining anything in return — selfless community.

Friday was also a basketball day. Our team divided into two groups in order to teach in two different communities. My group went to the University of Western Cape for a clinic. I was so thankful for the group of coaches and athletes at the University of Western Cape. It was my favorite basketball day. We had some time to teach the athletes some of the PGC culture in a classroom environment, and then we headed outside to practice the skills we had just learned.

These athletes were so hungry! I was blown away by their desire to improve and their willingness to get outside their comfort zone and push themselves to the point of making a mistake. It was a huge sign of the growth they were making in just a short amount of time. As the sun went down and our session came to an end, the athletes stuck around, continuing to practice the skills we were working on. The girls, especially Hanim and Shazia, were so eager to learn. They had so much faith in us coaches to make them better. Hearing the way they called out my name, “Coach Tiffany” was something I won’t ever forget.

We wrapped up our final days with a hike up Table Mountain and had many more discussions about life, injustice and learnings from the local team. Our beautiful drive to Pringle was detoured due to wildfires, which was an eye-opening experience. Cape Town is experiencing extreme drought and seeing these wildfires and their devastation first hand really gave some perspective to the environmental issues that we face around the world. It was quite windy in Pringle, which did not making for ideal conditions to be the fighting wildfires.

Like the other places I had seen in South Africa, Pringle Bay was beautiful! Perhaps the best part was spending our last moments together as a team. Getting in our final conversations, sharing our learnings with each other, growing and stretching ourselves outside of our comfort zone and just enjoying life with great people.

In those moments I realized the importance of family, community and love. How we treat each other matters. Loving others is the greatest gift we can bring others and ourselves.

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