Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Township Tour

August 3, 2006

My last day in Cape Town. I will stay in Jo’Burg for a few days after my safari, but this is really my farewell to South Africa in a sense. I am coming back to South Africa (Jo’Burg) for a few days to decompress before heading home. I think I’d suffer from culture shock if I boarded my plane straight to Chicago from Tanzania! Oh, Lordy. The nice thing is that my safari ends with three days on the beach at Zanzibar, so that will prove a perfect end.

Today I went on a township tour with ten other foreigners picked up at hotels and hostels across Cape Town. A mixed group of ages and countries, and we were an interactive, questioning bunch.

Throughout my trip so far, I have seen the economic differences in South Africa, but I haven’t written about them much—if at all—on this blog. You cannot come to South Africa and miss this reality. It’s everywhere. From the street kids in Grahamstown to the people lingering on corners. Published figures put unemployment at 40%, but our tour guide today said that the numbers are probably higher.

We started our tour at the District 6 Museum. Starting in 1966, the entire community was torn down and declared a white area. District 6 is still mostly a vacant area in Cape Town, but this museum documents the community with stunning exhibits. For example, there’s a big map on the floor where old members of the community came to write down where they used to live. The old street signs are preserved and hanging in the museum. It’s a museum for tourists and the community, and I think many people come here to help them remember their past.

After the museum, the true experience began. We spent most of our morning in Langa, a township community that originated around 1901. We first went to the community center and met local artists making pottery, sand paintings, jewelry, and other crafts. Such friendly, empowered people. I met a guy who does sand and chalk “paintings,” and he has been an artist for eleven years. If I had any room in my luggage, which I don’t (don’t laugh), I’d have bought something.

Then we went further into the township to experience the four different economic lifestyles from the Hollywood of Langa (“normal/humble” 3 bedroom family houses in the US) to the shacks on the edge.

Our first stop was a shock to the system. Our guide pulled right up to an outdoor food stand. I don’t even know if it’s a stand, or more of an outdoor cooking station. Twenty sheep heads sat on a plank in the morning sun and waited to be boiled. I really tried to be a brave vegan. I did. I stood there breathing through my nose and trying not to go woozy when the woman was using the hot knife to shave the head. When another woman and two guys from my group stepped away, I sighed with relief and joined them. The smell is still in my nose hours later. It’s a delicacy for this community, but I had a hard time. It was worse than sitting next to someone eating a lobster. Oh, not a Maureen-friendly experience.

After this, we wandered down the road, half of us feeling queasy, to a Shebeen, an informal bar. We sat around a little fire with ten local men (currently unemployed) and the two women running the Shebeen. A fresh jug of homebrew was passed around to us, and it was a sour cider beer. The men then drank after us, but the women did not. As owners, they are not allowed to drink, but they kept everyone comfortable. Our guide is from Langa, and they all know him. They were friendly and welcoming to all of us.

We then went to the new houses being built in Langa. A gorgeous little boy came up to me and hugged my leg, then proceeded to push me away! Children are gorgeous and fun everywhere, aren’t they? We walked into a few different homes—two and three room houses (a lounge, one bedroom, and a tiny bathroom for one family). Here, the local community was involved in building these houses; 80% of the construction workers must come from the local community.

We talked to one woman who has lived in the same room for 15 years. When I say room, I mean room. 11 people live in this one room. Yet, this room was full of life and color. She radiated happiness and cheer. I bet if you went into the biggest house in Johannesburg, you would not find the same cheer that was on her face.

Our last stop was at a traditional healer. Snake, crocodile, and springbok skins hung from the ceilings. Herbs and dried plants were piled high. I later asked the guide how community workers working with HIV education interacted with the traditional healers. It seems to be a delicate balance. You may not know that South Africa is suffering from conflicting messages about HIV. Urban myths about getting rid of HIV spread fast (take a shower, sleep with a young girl, go to a healer to appease your ancestors, etc.), and there are heavy advertising campaigns that try to combat this. In fact, as we left that same street, I saw two large billboards about HIV that urged people to be proactive and smart: “HIV loves to sleep around” and “HIV: Know the Facts.”

It was a day full of contrasts. As I sit here typing this hours later, I am so grateful for this experience. It’s been years since I visited a township, and it reminded me that I love this country for its contrasts—its artists, its children, its community workers, its unemployed. They all tell South Africa’s story—then and now.

I am off to Nairobi tomorrow and a weekend of touring the city. I am hoping to see Karen Blixen’s home (Isak Dineson), and I’ve already bought a copy of Out of Africa. So, go rent the movie and think of me wandering those grounds, as the movie was filmed there. Better yet, go rent some South African movies, like Tsotsi and Yesterday, and reeducate yourself on South Africa.

So, I shall love and leave you. Stay well and remember we all have our own stories to tell. Tell yours.



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