Joshua Iserhoff had to go all the way to South Africa to find out that he is actually Superman, in the eyes of a few poor black children, at least.

Iserhoff, the Grand Council’s Cree Youth Ambassador, was visiting the country in early December for an international education conference when he took a day to interact with a group of children living in a vast shantytown near his host city of Cape Town.

While playing with Iserhoff the children dubbed him “Superman” because of his gelled back hair. But what impressed him most was the warmth they showed him and the joy they took in welcoming him to their modest community.

Iserhoff was part of a delegation from Youth Healing Services and the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay to attend the 31st FICE Congress in nearby Stellenbosch, South Africa, December 7-9, 2010. FICE stands for the Fédération Internationale des Communautés Educatives, or the International Federation of Educational Communities. UNESCO founded the organization in 1948 to improve childcare, social education and social pedagogy.

According to Gordon Hudson, who runs Youth Healing Services in Mistissini, a delegation attended the congress after a FICE representative had become familiar with some of the unique programs run within the Cree nation.

“I got a letter from the Chair of the conference and she had heard about some of the work we had done up here with the wellness camps,” Hudson explained. “She thought it would be really good to invite a delegation down to South Africa to share stories and network a little bit.”

With this in mind, Hudson found funding within his own department and through funds provided by the health board to send a delegation of five adults and five youth. Among the adults were: Nancy Voyageur, Helen Voyageur, Theresa Longchap, Maria MacLeod, all of whom work for the health board. The youth attending included: Nicholas Wapachee, Alicia Argarutac, Samuel MacLeod, Charity Lacroix, Kiana Vachon Ottereyes and Iserhoff, who is the Youth Ambassador for the Cree Nation Youth Council.

Hudson actually hand selected Iserhoff to go in his stead on the trip because he said that he felt it necessary that the entire delegation be Cree. He chose Iserhoff in particular because of what he described as his openness and his tremendous capacity to communicate with just about anyone, particularly large groups of strangers. That and as Iserhoff is the Youth Ambassador, Hudson felt that there was no one better to represent the youth or be able to tell other youth what life in Cree society is like.

While the Crees have attended one FICE conference in the past, two years ago in Victoria, BC, the trip to South Africa was able to give the Crees an opportunity to meet and learn from Indigenous nations from all over the world and particularly those from Australia, New Zealand and their South African hosts.

Though the event was in Stellenbosch, the Crees stayed in nearby Cape Town, an upper class city that is home to the rich and famous and also a tourist hub. Hudson said that he also thought it was particularly important for the youth to attend this particular conference because the nation has transformed so much within the last two decades as apartheid ended and a new society with new social problems has emerged.

“The difference between now and then is so up in your face,” said Hudson. “Cape Town is really where the rich live but just outside of there it looks as though there is a 300,000 cabin bush camp. It is all little cabins where the people feed themselves by going through the garbage of the rich. They will frequently eat a lamb’s head because is frequently thrown out by the rich. They will find them, boil them and just eat that.”

Witnessing this extreme poverty was part and parcel of the trip. In that it took two days to travel from Quebec to Cape Town and the conference lasted a total of three days, the trip was planned so that the delegates could have an additional four days to take in South Africa, its attractions and culture. From what he has gathered from those that were there, for every single one of them the trip was a life-changing experience.

“I have been up here for eight years and I really do understand the impact that the residential school system had on the people and how the government has tried to oppress the Cree. But, in the big picture, I wanted them to see what another race has gone through. Let’s face it, the blacks down in Africa are really, really poor. So, hopefully people will be coming away from this with an appreciation for what they have,” said Hudson.

According to Iserhoff, while seeing the dire poverty that many South Africans live through daily was gut wrenching for him, what was most notable about the trip were his interactions with the children of Gugulethu, a township 15 km from Cape Town.

That’s where he discovered the powers of his gelled hair. Iserhoff also learned about the educational disadvantages these children face.

“One of the ladies told me that because these kids don’t really have the chance to get an education they are instead taught colours. Life is blue, yellow represents happiness, and red represented the heart and so on. In order for someone to be happy they had to make a necklace that symbolized all of these things and so with these necklaces the kids were taught how to colour coordinate to talk about life and describe the whole cycle of life. It was so interesting because all of these small children were telling me about their lives and what they wanted to do from these necklaces made up of ten colours,” said Iserhoff.

Coming from such a dramatically different society, Iserhoff said that he could see what the Crees had in common with the Indigenous there and where both societies differed. What was most similar was how the people loved to laugh and joke around.

South Africa is rapidly developing since the fall of apartheid; a middle class has rapidly emerged from the huge poor underclass. But, this has come at a price for the Indigenous as rapid expansion has also meant an influx of Western fast food and corporate products. He said that the obesity of these people is apparent and with it has come a massive rise in Type 2 diabetes.

“These kids drink tons of Coca Cola. You would see people walking around with two-litre bottles of Coca Cola and a straw because it is a status symbol to be able to afford it,” said Iserhoff.

Maria MacLeod, who works at Youth Healing Services with Hudson, said the trip was a tremendous opportunity for learning but she felt it necessary to shield the younger kids on the trip. Three of the youth attending were between 10 and 13 years old, but only the older youth and the adults attended the actual conference workshops. They younger kids were also not taken into the poorer neighbourhoods on the tours because she feared the impact witnessing such extreme conditions and suffering would have on them.

Instead, the younger youth were taken out to see various cultural attractions while the older ones participated in the workshops along with the adults. The overwhelming favourite was the safari the entire delegation took part in.

The Cree adventurers encountered giraffes, zebras, hippos, lions and other exotic beasts. They were surprised that the vehicle did not have walls or windows, only bars on the back of a flatbed truck. This, and the fact that the guide proved to be a bit of a trickster when they came across the lions, made some a bit nervous.

“We drove to a lion’s den and it was so scary that I didn’t even want to look it in the eye because they say that they can smell your fear and then kill you,” said Iserhoff.

But, when the tour guide stopped the vehicle, telling the Crees that it had broken down nearby a group of lions who he also said were only fed once a week, Iserhoff feared that he would be the first to be eaten as he was sitting closest to them.

Fortunately it was just a friendly ruse and the guide quickly restarted the vehicle.

In terms of what the Crees are taking home from this trip of a lifetime, MacLeod said that those attending the conference really had the opportunity to learn a great deal about youth at risk, particularly those on the streets in Africa.

“From this I have a much more open mind from seeing how they dealt with youth living on the streets, how the workers make their approach so that these kids don’t feel so alone. They provide a hotline and make sure that the minute someone calls in that a worker is going directly to them. This was something very big for me as I recognize that it is not something that happens in our area. They follow up with these kids too,” said MacLeod.

What rang true to both Iserhoff and MacLeod was simply how privileged they are in comparison and the luxuries they can afford. MacLeod said that she learned to appreciate her own family so much more from witnessing what she saw and wants to find a way to help those living in the poverty.

As for Iserhoff, he feels the trip changed his life. “I learned not to complain at all. I don’t know how much the average person makes over there but it is not as much as we make and yet these people seem to be so content with what they have. They do not complain. We need to be happy with what we have,” said Iserhoff.