Saturday, April 2, 2011

Robben Island

So, Halloween was kind of a bust. After Tony and Emily dropped me back at the hostel in Cape Town, I discovered that my party partner was in rough shape. My beloved Marnie had gotten herself so excited about Halloween that she’d already spent the entire weekend doing shots of tequila until 5 in the morning. I couldn’t help it! There were parties everywhere I turned! Someone won a costume contest dressed as a tampon last night – sorry you missed that! Needless to say, I’m knackered beyond repair. So rather than find a rager on Long Street, my vegetarian pal, a few other roommates, and I decided to go out for steak. I could probably use the protein to soak up the alcohol. And I’ve already had ostrich on this trip for Christ’s sake… If ya can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em, right?
The next day, much to my sadness, Marnie packed up and headed off along the coast with the backpacker bus. We vowed to try to meet along the route somewhere, and otherwise we’d have a shot in Australia next summer, when I’d be arriving and she’d be finishing up her adventure there. I knew I’d see her again, but I was sad about having to start all over in the new-best-mate department – how could anyone replace the spitfire Brit? But I guess that’s what it’s all about, really: another day, another new connection. And little did I know, the next lady love of my life would be waiting in our dorm room when I returned that night. Ask and ye shall receive in record time.

To occupy the rest of my day alone, I was headed out to Robben Island. I’d been trying to get a ticket for the boat since I landed in Cape Town, and today was the day. It was only a 30 minute ride out to the infamous prison island, but I soon discovered that 30 minutes is plenty of time for me to get seriously seasick. When will I ever learn to listen to my mother and pop a Bonine an hour before I step on a boat? As I clung to the seat in front of me and tried not to revisit breakfast, I learned from an info video that the island had previously been a leper colony, hospital for the mentally ill, and WW II training base. Over the years it had become a prison where the Dutch and British settlers stashed undesirables, including local and far-flung colonial opposition figures. Like Alcatraz, the distance from the mainland and the shark-infested waters ensured that no one, from the lepers to Nelson Mandela, was getting off this island without permission… or a nauseating ride.
When we arrived, we were held up by an attention-seeking sealion doing a twenty minute posing routine on the dock. Apparently, for him, the island has always been a great place for sunning and free food… not quite the same as Mandela’s experience. After the usual crowd jockeying, we boarded a set of buses for a tour of the island. I got stuck in the back the bus that didn’t seem to have a guide. The bus next to us took off – with their spunky, young, female guide at the helm – and we waited another ten minutes until a scruffy older man stepped onboard, gave us a once-over, and said, So where are all you silly tourist people from? Oh man, I’m totally on the crappy bus.
As we drove past the main prison and on to our tour of the island, he poked gentle fun at each of our respective countries, and even his own. South Africa’s middle name is hope. As in, hope Mandela lives forever or we’re screwed! His warm smile and Hindi-tinged Afrikaans accent lent him a sweet, grandfatherly aura – the kind of grandfather who’s lived his life in pursuit of a great pun. He joked that the other bus guide wasn’t even born when Robben Island was closed and explained that the young lady’s pretty face was meant to provide relief from the parade of ugly old mugs like his. He was growing on me.
We pulled up next to a row of tiny cement buildings and he asked us what we thought they were for. They look like doghouses, right? And small ones at that. Maybe for the prison’s guard dogs? We all looked at him in silence, agreeing with the possibility and lacking the bravery to venture a further guess. This is where the apartheid government held Robert ­­­­­­­­­­­Sobukwe, head of the military branch of the African National Congress and president of the Pan African Congress, in solitary confinement. He was arrested for leading the Pass Law protest in 1960 and was deeply feared by the apartheid government as an effective opposition leader who saw an African-only path to the country’s future.He looked back out the window and a sardonic smile drew across his face. On the day Sobukwe was released, the government passed the General Law Amendment Act, also known as the “Sobukwe Clause”, which allowed them to renew his imprisonment annually at the discretion of the Minister of Justice. They sent out a new warrant for his arrest. He stepped off the boat and they put the handcuffs right back on him. Back to the doghouse on Robben Island because they were so afraid of him… He paused and leaned over onto the wall of the bus, one foot crossing over the other. Imagine what that many years alone in that small, dark cell does to your mind. Imagine. It’s a good thing our man, Mandela, didn’t end up in there or we might not be where we are today. Robert Sobukwe spent his life fighting for freedom, many years of it in that cell there, and he died before he could see his dream come true. Many great men died before that dream could come true.
As I stared at Sobukwe’s tiny cement hell, I couldn’t help but wonder whether there is something like a next life for all of us, and what his would be like. If there are such things as souls, do you carry all of that with you? Do you emerge into the daylight, fists high for a fight? Or does it all get left behind, on the floor of that cell, where it belongs?
We drove on from the doghouses and pulled up next to an old quarry, bright with the midday sun. The inmates of Robben Island built their own prison with the stone from this quarry, he told us. The bright sunlight your sunglasses and this bus are protecting us from stole the sight and burned the bodies of the men who worked here. They were beaten and humiliated by the guards here on a daily basis. This is where the torture greater than imprisonment was carried out… He leaned forward, resting each hand on one of the front seats. But it is also the place where Mandela and his fellow prisoners changed the world. You see that cave there? He pointed to a craggy split in the rock in the back of the quarry. That was the “bathroom” for the prisoners working out here. And it would also become their classroom. Mandela and the other leaders of the ANC working in this quarry believed education and reconciliation were the keys to freedom – anger at the oppressor would only consume you and perpetuate hatred. “Each one, teach one” they said. Each one. Teach one. And the teaching that lead to the South Africa we know today took place in that cave. Young men learned to read and write, human rights issues were intensely debated, and the first meeting of the parliament of the ANC took place in that cave.
He adjusted the tweed newsy cap on his head and crossed his arms over his chest. They were allowed this space to gather and learn, amongst their own piss and feces, thanks a twist of apartheid irony. Because the cave was technically designated a “black toilet”, the white guards couldn’t enter it. No one could touch them in there. In the end, apartheid brought itself down.
I watched a patch of white dust swirl in the wind and imagined them crowded in their foul-smelling classroom, huddled around a lesson drawn in the dirt by some of the greatest minds of our time. I imagined them discussing growth and forgiveness, remarking on the blindness of an eye for an eye. I imagined their incredible strength, a strength I couldn’t begin to imagine in myself.
Before leaving the site, our guide pointed to a small pile of stones close to the bus. He told us that Mandela and his fellow prisoners had returned to the quarry in 1995 for a reunion. After standing here for a few minutes in silence, Mandela had bent down, chosen a stone, and placed it firmly on that spot. All of the others followed suit and vowed never to forget.
We were driven to a beautiful viewpoint on the east side of the island and told we had 10 minutes to take pictures of Cape Town and grab a snack at the small shop. When we returned with ice cream in hand and began the drive back to the prison, buoyed by the treats and lovely scenery, our guide told us something I should have guessed but was not at all expecting to hear.
I was sentenced to Robben Island for crimes against the state when was I was a very young man, in the early 1960’s. I was a stupid, loud-mouthed rabble rouser, with a distaste for authority, and I made the mistake early on of talking back to the head guard. He decided to make an example out of me. This was back when they could really beat you. I learned my lessons quickly… When I was released, I couldn’t get a job anywhere, doing anything. The incredible woman I married has had to provide for our family for most of our lives. A few years ago, a young man in a suit came to my house and asked me if I would like to work as a tour guide for the museum they were opening on Robben Island. I’d never been so angry or insulted in all my life – I screamed at him and kicked him out of my house. Those were the worst years of my life, I said. How dare you ask me to go back there?... But it was my children who eventually convinced me to change my mind. They said I had to help the world understand what had happened to us on Robben Island. I had to help make sure it would never happen again. I had a responsibility to everyone who had fought for the closing of this terrible place, for our freedom. It was my responsibility to humanity. They were right… so here I am. He smiled, pinched his eyes closed tight for a minute, and nodded.
We arrived at the prison entrance and he thanked us for visiting the island. He told us to enjoy the rest of the tour with his younger and more handsome colleague, who was waiting for us inside the gate. When I reached the front of the bus, I smiled in the gaze of his soft, kind eyes. Everyone had been shaking his hand before getting off the bus, but I gave him a hug – I couldn’t help it. I thanked him for taking this job, for helping me understand. He smiled from ear to ear and cocked his head. Didn’t you say you were American? I’m surprised you are a hugger. You must have an African heart. He gave me a wink and, as I followed the others down the steps, I thought how wrong I’d been about getting the crappy bus. I was one of the lucky ones.

Our prison guide told us up front that he had been a prisoner on the island in the 80’s and 90’s. He told us he’d spent most of his time in F Block, which is where most people were transferred to after being a “newbie” in A Block. The leaders, like Mandela, were held in B Block, and C Block was reserved for the trouble-makers. Those who were unlucky enough to make it there were placed in solitary confinement and given only water and sugar for anywhere from seven to fourteen days. No matter what block you were in, your life was totally controlled by the prison administration. Any letters you might receive were heavily censored – in one case, in fact, a prisoner received a letter that was entirely blacked out except for the word “Dear” and his name. If you had a scheduled visitor, there was a good chance that person might travel all the way from the other side of the country only to be told you were in the medical wing and unavailable – you could be one room away, in perfectly good health, and they’d be sent home. While serving your time, you could apply to study and earn a degree, but the little access to those privileges that was granted was based solely on whether or not they liked your face.
Our guide paused and absorbed the distressed looks on our faces. He flashed a kind smile, as if to remind us that were not in fact being processed into the prison today. Welcome to Robben Island, he said and marched off down the long hall in front of us.
He took us first to the courtyard, where prisoners like Mandela had sat in the searing African sun, crushing stones each day. They used to bounce tennis balls with messages in them over the tall stone walls to prisoners in the other blocks – this was how the movement communicated. Large photos now sit in the middle of the courtyard, one of them the famous photo of Mandela, dressed in a special uniform for press and Red Cross visits, talking to a journalist. The outside world had occasionally been paraded in to inspect Robben Island’s conditions, and a pleasant little show was put on by nicely-clad prisoners for their benefit. While Mandela was posing for these farces, he was also writing his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom”, and hiding chapters under the far corner of this courtyard. He would get the truth out eventually. Four years of his work was actually destroyed when guards discovered his stash during the building of a new wall, but Mandela hid the rest of his writing in a fellow prisoner’s photo album and rewrote the lost chapters from memory when he was released.
Mandela’s cell in B Block is an iconic image, now familiar to the world. All I can say is that seeing his mat, his bucket, and the sad light drifting in through his tiny window is still arresting. You stand there trying to imagine all those years… and you can’t.
In A Block, there were stories from individual prisoners mounted in each cell: moments they remembered, things that brought them hope, lessons they learned. One story that struck me was about a prisoner who had ended up tutoring some of the white guards. During one of his lessons, a guard turned to him and said “My parents always told me that blacks were evil… spawn of the devil. All they want is to be set free so they can kill all the white people, they said. I realize now how wrong they were. I’m ashamed I listened to them. I’m sorry.”
As we all wandered the A Block cells, our guide stood in one of the doorways, observing our reactions. I wanted to know his story. Do you mind if I ask what you were here for? I said as I stood across from him in the doorway. Well, I was arrested in ’84 for inciting riots, smuggling weapons, etc… you name it I did it. After they beat and tortured me for the requisite period, I was convicted of high treason and sentenced to thirty years. I arrived here in June 1986.
I was born in June 1986, I said, feeling a pulse of heat run up my spine.
The thumb and pinky finger he’d been tapping back and forth against his leg stopped dead. Well… then we are connected, you and I… Your journey was beginning just as I thought mine was ending. I watched tears fill the hulls of his eyes as his gaze turned and locked on mine. Turns out, we were both at the beginning after all.
The force of his words stood me still. I watched his lips slowly pull together into a warm smile and felt one draw across my mouth in return. Wet cold ran down the heat of my face. I nodded and chewed the inside of my lip. It felt so true, so monumental. Atoms colliding.

The last block he took us to consisted of one very large room with several bare-looking bunk beds and a blown-up photo of a prisoner ID and meal card. This was where you were sent if you’d been in the prison for a while and weren’t causing any trouble: the average Joe block. He explained that the meal card would indicate how much or little food you were to receive each day, based on skin color. Until hunger strikes forced the prison to change its policies, black inmates received less and lesser-quality food than coloured inmates every day simply because coloureds were seen as slightly superior, even in prison. The bunk beds, he said, came only after the Red Cross visited and demanded them; before, there were just mats on the ground. The speakers in the wall, supposedly for announcements and playing the radio news for the inmates, were in fact used to listen in on them. Eventually they made boxes to cover the speakers when they needed to talk, he told us. Every month you’d leave the block to see a parole panel and keep silent as the warden answered all of their questions for you. Every day you’d wish the next one would be different.
That was our life here, he said with a long sigh… Does anyone have any questions?
Someone raised their hand and asked if it was hard for him to do this job, to come back every day and lead people around a place that had taken so much from him. It was very hard at first, he said. I really couldn’t do it at first. I had to stop and excuse myself during tours. It was very emotional… But now, it’s really the best form of therapy, I think. It helps me process everything.
On our way out of the prison and back to the dock, he said it was time for him to bid us farewell, and we each took a moment to thank him. The woman in front of me said to him, I’m sorry this happened to you. He shook his head. It was my national duty.
When it was my turn, we smiled at each other and he shook my hand. See you at the end, my sister, he said.
Between waves on the way back to shore, the feeling of hope I was left with began to turn to sadness. I worried that future generations would never have the chance I’d just had. Someday those men will be gone and my children’s children won’t be able to hear their stories while watching the lines in their faces change. Someday it really will just be a museum. What will happen without their kind eyes to share with us? What will happen when there are only plaques to read? Who will remind us that we are connected, you and I?
I can only hope that someday we won’t need reminding.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Stellenbosh 1: Craft fair, vineyards, and horses

Click on the photo to see more

The Smiths - Part I

Have you ever met someone and just had the feeling they were kind of a big deal? Not so much in the Ron Burgundy sense, but in the grand scheme of things sense – like you were somehow always meant to cross paths with them, like you might have already held their hand in a former life. They’re like an express stop on the subway; you can take the A, C, or E train, you can go fast or slow, you can stop for a coffee in DUMBO or a meeting in SoHo, but eventually you’re going to end up at 14th Street, no matter what. It’s just the way the plan goes. That’s how it felt when I met the Smiths.
You must be the American. I looked up from the glowing screen on my lap to find a scruffy man with grey-stroked hair and a clever smirk standing over me. I’m Tony! Sorry I’m late to fetch you… Holy shit – is that your bag? Nice packing, man! Oh, sorry – is that rude? I tend to curse uncontrollably. Hope that’s ok with you! Queen of the sailor-tongue, I let out a broad grin. Well, are you ready to roll?
I’d been connected with the Smiths through one of my favorite college pals named Robert. He’d stayed with them while studying abroad in South Africa a few years ago, and I had heard him wax poetic about his African family since the moment I met him. When I arrived in Cape Town he sent me their info and insisted I get in touch with them. I emailed to ask them if we could meet up for lunch or something and they immediately wrote back: Lunch? Are you mad? You must come for the weekend! We’ll fetch you on Friday! And so here I was, sitting next to the infamous Tony Smith, on our way out to the ‘burbs. 
You must tell me about yourself so I can decide if I like you or if you’re the female version of Wilson Cecil. …Wilson Cecil? I really hope you’re not the female version of Wilson Cecil. The girls will be very disappointed to hear that. Shame! With a loud laugh, Tony shifted the car into high gear and pulled onto the N2 towards Stellenbosch. I couldn’t help but smile – I had no idea what the hell this guy was talking about, but somehow I knew I liked him. He reminded me of my favorite college professor: booming laugh, brilliant mind, and a touch of the crazies.
I told him a little about myself, about my plan (or lack thereof) for the trip, and about how I was struggling to decide what to do or where to go next, stranded in the middle of a field of freedom. Well, what are your options? I’ll tell you what to do. He turned to me with smirk in tow, eyebrows raised. I told him about the backpacker bus along the coast, the overland camping possibilities, and my dreams of East Africa. When I finished, he said, Which one scares you the most? Which one makes you nervous? I paused for a second to think. That’s what you should do. Whatever just popped into your mind. That’s what I would do. I bet you’re like my wife. She has a bad habit of wanting to be too comfortable. You gotta fight that shit. I mean stuff. You gotta throw on that thousand-kilo backpack and march out into the wilderness, man. That’s what I’d tell her to do. Not that she gives a rag what I say. But you probably shouldn’t listen to me – I’m kind of a bastard. My wife will tell you I’m a bastard. I mean it, right in front of me, she’ll tell you. And it’s true! He slapped the steering wheel and laughed his firecracker laugh. Oh man… this was going to be good.
As we pulled into the Smith driveway, Ingrid and their daughter, Jessie, were waiting for us on the front stoop, looking equally excited and concerned. I met Ingrid in the warmth of a giant, soothing hug. After greeting me, she turned and placed her hands on either side of Tony’s face for a loving kiss. Then she replaced them on my shoulders, looked me in the eye and said, I truly apologize for whatever this crazy man has said to you on the way here. He’s a total bastard. I let out an irrepressible snort. Told you! Tony shouted with glee. What? What are you talking about? Ingrid asked, eyes wide with confusion, as we made our way into the house.
After an equally welcoming embrace, Jessie took me on the grand tour of the Smith household. Here’s the kitchen, that’s the living room, that’s the dining room, down that hall is where we sleep – you probably won’t be going there, unless you’re a total creeper. Or Wilson Cecil. From the other room, I heard Tony explode with knee slaps and laughter. That’s your little shed out back, and those are the killer rabbits – if you like your fingers, don’t stick them anywhere near that cage. They’re assholes.  I heard the collision of teacup and saucer in the other room.  Jessie! Don’t say assholes! She just got here!
During a delicious meal of leftover barbequed chicken and coleslaw from younger daughter Emily’s ballet fundraiser, we bonded over our mutual love of New England, Thanksgiving, and Robert, the American Jew (What, Mom!? He IS Jewish! …Are you Jewish, Lyssa? What, Mom!? I’m just curious!). Ingrid apologized many times for the unceremonious meal and her family’s obvious lack of modesty. I assured her over and over again that it was more than fine; in fact, I spent the whole meal thinking about how wonderful it was to see such a dynamic family in motion. The last thing I wanted was for them to slow down, fly right, and offer me a fancy dinner. I enjoyed the warmth of being folded right into the family dough.
I learned that their oldest, Simon, was living in Jeffrey’s Bay for music school – He’s basically crazy just like my dad… but a little quieter. – and their youngest, Emily, was out with friends: Which is good, cause she’d be mortified right now. Like throwing a fit. Emily was apparently the family propriety police, which was a tough job that left her in a fairly constant state of embarrassment. I guess somebody has to be, right? I mean, we’re pretty embarrassing. Amid laughter almost to tears, Ingrid told a recent story of Tony making an inappropriate scene with fresh produce at the supermarket that resulted in Emily storming out to lock herself in the car. I knew the feeling exactly, and countered with the time my dad humiliated me the whole way down the main street in Burlington: eyes crossed, tongue hanging out, and foot dragging like Igor as he clung to my arm and shouted “Yesth, Masther! Yeeeesth!”. Tony loved that one. He vowed to use it next time he sensed Emily was getting too comfortable with him in public.
After such an introduction, I expected Emily to be the anxiety-ridden trembling bunny of the family. As it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Even the Smith “stick in the mud” was still a member of this incredible family, and she could give Lucille Ball a serious run for her money. Or at least make you snort hot tea up your nose… more than once.
Jessie soon claimed her space as the “problem child” – I’m ADHD like you would not believe. I pretty much drive the world insane on a daily basis. But I knew there was more to her than that; Robert had told me about how Jessie is going to save the world, and I could see that fire in her from the moment we met. Well, I hope so. Someday. I’m taking a gap year to go to work at an orphanage in Ethiopia after I graduate, actually. Tony and his signature grin explained that, though there were plenty of orphaned children right here in South Africa, the best ones were definitely in Ethiopia. Dad! You don’t even know what you’re talking about!
But my favorite thing to witness over the course of dinner was the way Tony’s wonderfully frenetic energy was balanced and complimented by Ingrid’s calm warmth (and occasional frenetic outburst of her own). She was so clearly the bright, pulsing heart of the family, quietly keeping everything running and blanketed in love. Something about her reminded me of the actress, Emma Thompson, who I’ve always thought to have a deeply good heart and amazing mind. Ingrid surely has both. And the connection to Robert was so clear – she (and the rest of her family) had the exact same kind, open, curious spirit that I’d come to know in him. I couldn’t wait to spend more time with her. With all of them.
By the end of our epic first dinner, I had already been invited to borrow the family car and stay in the guesthouse as long as I wanted. I don’t know if you can tell by the 15 animals we have, and the revolving door of foreign students we’ve housed, but we like to collect people. We’d love to have you stay indefinitely. Does that suit? At that moment, I wanted nothing else in the world but to stay forever and be adopted into this family. Being around them made me feel bright and funny and alive, like the best version of myself. I wanted to forget the rest of my trip and be a Smith… I thought for a second and then asked aloud, But what if I turn out to be the female version of Wilson Cecil? A rip of laughter came from Tony’s end of the table. Oh I like her! She can definitely stay!
I still have no real idea who Wilson Cecil is. I just know he stayed with them and didn’t go out the front door of their house for three weeks. Can’t say that I blame him, really.
The next morning, I awoke in my own little guest house to the sound of Jessie’s voice outside. She’s not up yet. Can I go wake her up!? I want to wake her up! Then I heard a younger, unfamiliar voice. Jessieeeeee! Leave her alone! That’s so rude! I made my way out of my cozy bed and across the cobblestones to the kitchen, where I was introduced to Emily, Rooibos tea, and Ingrid’s buttermilk rusks. Let me tell you, those rusks will change your life. I got the recipe, and if you’re extra nice to me, I’ll share some with you when I get home.
Emily was shy at first, and very curious as to the extent of mortifying damage her family had done the night before, but she soon opened up into her incredible Jim Carey faces and dead-pan impressions. With her sense of concern for decorum and sophisticated sense of humor, she’s a bit like a 40 year old trapped in a twiggy, 14 year old body. And the best part about Emily is how easily she can laugh at herself – a rare find in a teenage girl. She may not always find her family’s antics as funny as I do, but it’s clear that she’s cut from the same cloth, whether she likes it or not. If she’s the glue that holds their decency together, she’s definitely Krazy glue, not your average Elmer’s.
After meeting Emily, I decided that she and Jess must take their sister stand-up on the road someday. I would personally pay lots of money to watch them go back and forth for hours on topics like Gossip Girl and Zac Efron. I’m just lucky I got to do it for free. And the girls made a decision of their own: in order to ensure my place as a permanent member of the family, I’d have to marry either their brother, Simon, or their adopted brother, Robert. I said I’d have to talk to them about that.
Both the girls had studying to do that day, and Tony had some project cooking, so Ingrid and I made a plan-du-jour that involved four of my favorite things in the world: shopping at a local craft fair, driving through beautiful countryside, tasting amazing wines, and eating lots and lots of cheese. We took off into the mountains after breakfast.
As we worked our way through the winelands east of Stellenbosch, Ingrid and I talked about everything from townships to relationships as if we’d known each other for the better part of a lifetime.
She told me about the latest violent incident in the local township – a young, white, male Stellenbosch University student had recently been murdered while walking around Kayamandi late at night. The university students were now up in arms about this latest in a string of disturbing events and the town was on edge. Some people just don’t understand that simply because apartheid is in the past doesn’t mean its wounds are healed. You just cannot go walking around the townships like that after dark. I don’t know what he was thinking. And we have very good friends who live in Kayamandi – my children stay with them often – but you can’t go wandering around without having a real connection there, without people watching out for you. Our friends have lived there for 15 years without a single violent incident. In fact, they feel safer there than in the white part of town because the criminals don’t break into houses in Kayamandi; they do it in our neighborhood. But there is still serious danger there, and these kids just don’t get it. The really sad part is that I think, in a way, things are much worse now than they used to be. I grew up in this town, never afraid to walk the streets alone, but my kids can’t do the same. They can’t ride the train into Cape Town. They can’t walk anywhere without concern. They can’t even be in the house without locking every door. I mourn the loss of my children’s freedom.
She told me about how Stellenbosch has traditionally been an Afrikaans-speaking town, with an Afrikaans university, and that this, too, was now adding to local tensions. The university has always taught its undergraduate classes in the traditional Boer/Coulered language, and the debate regarding whether to teach in English or even Xhosa was now a hot button topic. Afrikaans is no longer the national first language and is often branded as the language of apartheid, and Stellenbosch is one of the top universities in South Africa, so some concessions and changes are being made. Ingrid is of English decent, but speaks Afrikaans fluently thanks to a childhood spent in Stellenbosch. Tony and her children speak very little, despite the required classes in school, and it saddens her that they haven’t grown up with both languages. The increasing backlash against and marginalization of the Afrikaans language appears to be creating even more lines of division these days. Just what South Africa needs.
As we climbed an incredible mountain pass, I told her that her country, with all its beauty and complexity, makes me ache inside. It’s a fascinating, terrible feeling to be falling in love with something that also makes you so sad. Welcome to our world, my darling.
Mostly, Ingrid and I talked a lot about love. We discussed the many ways in which the family you were born with, or the one you create, can both fill your heart and break it at the same time. We planned out our dear friend, Robert’s, future, involving the great success and deep love he deserves in return for all that he gives. We dissected the relationships of my past and decided on what the men of my future should look like: older, tall, adaptable, adventurous, devastatingly handsome,  and always an equal. And he must like animals and children. I’m telling you – that’s the key. Most importantly, Ingrid said something to me after our fifth wine sample and 50th cheese that I will never forget. She said it with such sincerity and such little fanfare, that it simply took my breath away. Through anything and everything we’ve been through, I know I absolutely, without a doubt, picked the perfect partner for me. The most wonderful part was how positively I knew that to be true.
For dinner that night, we ate, almost exclusively, the truckloads of cheese we had returned with from our travels. It’s a miracle I didn’t expire from lactoverload that day. Between bites, I explained to my new favorite people that I did, in fact, have to return to Cape Town the next day, as much as it killed me. I’d promised a certain British girl that I’d be back in the city for Halloween night adventures, and though they graciously invited her to come stay as well, I knew I had to finish up my time in CT before I could go planting myself out here. We all sat quietly and a bit depressed for a while, trying to figure out how this wouldn’t have to be the last we’d see of each other. Stellenbosch is not exactly a quick cab ride from CT and the train was not an option they’d let me consider. After going over my possible routes onward from the city again, we discovered that the backpacker bus along the coast could drop me in Stellenbosch and pick me up again when I was ready to leave. It was perfect. We made a plan that I would return in a week or two and we’d pick up right where we left off.
It was truly hard to say goodbye to them the next day, even knowing I would return soon. I didn’t want to leave the comfortable warmth they’d wrapped me in or the fantastic high I’d had all weekend – the one that comes from laughing too hard for too long. I wanted so much more time with this amazing couple who breathed-in, questioned, and reveled in all that life had to offer, and were teaching their kids to do the same. No family is perfect – I know they’d be the first to say they’re far from it – and I’m incredibly lucky to have an amazing family of my own (with an extra one in Chicago, actually). But this family was getting something right in a way I’d never really witnessed before, and all I wanted was to soak it up for a while. I wanted to become a Smith by osmosis. But that would just have to wait...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Langa & Khayelitsha

The Townships


So I missed the dumb bus. Not a big shocker… let’s be honest. (Frankly, it was about time I bolloxed something on this trip – we’re over a week in). But a major bummer, none the less.
I was supposed to meet the township tour bus in the lobby of my hostel at 8, but I was told they’re usually late… Just a tip: never, ever tell me something is usually late because I will sure as sunshine use up those extra minutes with extraneous crap I think I can fit in. I hit the lobby at 8:05, after jam-packing my enormous bag and storing it in the hostel’s luggage room (I was spending that weekend in wine country with a family called the Smiths - much more to come on them soon…), and the bloody tour had left already without so much as a peep. Turns out they thought they’d collected everyone because the guide asked if there was anyone else, and some Sweeds decided to jump onboard in my place. This was just the beginning of certain white-blonde people ruining my day. Sorry Sweden, but it’s true.
A very nice woman from the tour company eventually came to fetch me and dropped me with the group just as they were finishing the District 6 museum (good thing I did it on my own the day before). As I boarded the bus, I said hi and introduced myself to the group. In accordance with every other group experience I’d had so far in Cape Town, I assumed they’d all bonded already and I needed to fold myself into the party. Yeah… not so much. Ok… good for you. Sit down so we can go, said their faces. I hadn’t missed the party; there was no party. This was a smile-free zone. At least until we’d have something horribly sad to take a picture of… but I’m getting ahead of myself again.
As we drove to Langa, the oldest Cape Flats township, our local guide pointed out the sad, empty grassland that is the old District 6. All that pain for nothing… just grass. Black Africans make up an overwhelming majority of the population in South Africa and, thanks to the legacy of apartheid, an overwhelming number of those citizens still live in the townships today while places like District 6 lie barren. Under apartheid, the white government physically, mentally, and socioeconomically relegated people of color to the margins of society, which was believed to be their rightful place (and sure as hell where they needed to stay to ensure the white minority’s jobs and safety). An uneducated, sedentary people are an easily controllable people… or at least so they thought.
Once in Langa, the guide explained that, contrary to common perception, the families who were forced out of their old neighborhoods by the Group Areas Act weren’t actually sent into the streets or even into the shacks you see lining the highway now. Actual “homes” were provided, but they were tiny and decrepit and didn’t offer enough space for the average township family, which tends to include extended aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. We pulled up to some the original brick structures, sitting one absolutely right next to the other, and he pointed out the makeshift shacks that had been constructed in the small space behind each – this was where the overflow of family members would sleep and where the shantytowns we know today were born.
As we exited the bus, my stomach began to churn. This was partly due to the sight we encountered as our feet hit the dirt – in front of us lay rows of tables covered in severed, fly-infested sheep’s heads… mouths agape, eye sockets empty. The overwhelming smell and image of dried blood on matted wool will probably stay with me forever. But it wasn’t just the sheep. What I found almost as upsetting was my sudden comprehension of the nature of the group I was with on this tour. After really taking us all in as a unit, I was at first concerned and then mortified. Everyone in our group was white, and not just regular white, but as pale as a sheet and blonder than Barbie. As my eyes followed their camera straps down their bodies, I realized that most of them were dressed absolutely to the nines – black silk mini-dresses, diamond Rolex watches, Hermes scarves. Almost as a simultaneous thought, they all reached for their enormous DSLR’s and began shooting. (Though I have one myself, it was sequestered in my bag, as I’d been warned that taking pictures of these people’s lives would feel a bit like taking photos of a deadly car accident). My tour-mates zoomed in on the severed heads and posed next to them, smiling or pretending to chow down. Holy crap.
I tried to regain my composure as we were greeted by “Blacks”, our next local guide. With glee, his predecessor explained why they call him by that name: Because he’s so damn black, man. Look how dark he is! Blacks smiled and welcomed us to Langa, his home. Feel free to take as many pictures as you like. We enjoy it. Great… Please follow me. Though I appreciated his warm welcome and looked forward to hearing all he had to tell us, I felt a bit like I was stepping into a funhouse as he lead us down a dirt alley to our first stop. I didn’t really want to see what we looked like in the mirrors.
Blacks took us first to a Langa shebeen (or informal local pub). It consisted of little more than a shanty shell, a single lightbulb, and men waiting patiently in their seats as two women brewed beer over a small fire. Their faces held no expression, and they stared off into the ether as we piled inside. Blacks explained that drinking in the shebeens is very much associated with cultural rituals brought to the townships from the villages. Men are sent away as teenagers to learn the ways of their ancestors and be circumcised before being allowed to come drink. Women are apparently just for brewing. Beer is also used, along with slaughtered animals, to satisfy the ancestors on important occasions. As he spoke to us, I finally pulled my camera from my bag. His wide, honest eyes and glowing black skin beneath the single light were beautiful. I decided I was allowed to take pictures of the things I found beautiful and interesting. Just not sheep heads. Eventually, Blacks took the first sip from the bucket of freshly brewed beer and passed it around to the rest of us. The brew tasted bitter and thick – Guinness is probably the closest thing I could compare it to… though I found the experience a little different from sipping in the big factory in Dublin. When it was time to leave, we were encouraged to drop spare change to support the local people sitting with us – they remained expressionless; we all reached for our wallets.
On our way to the next site, we passed women doing their washing in large buckets in the alley, sleeping babies slung on their backs. They continued their conversations in Xhosa clicks and only glanced up at us during a convenient breath. Blacks told us how to say hello and thank you in his language: molo (for one person), molweni (for more than one), and enkosi (for gratitude). I wondered how to apologize. When we rounded the bend, another group of extra-white people walked by, all wearing matching red t-shirts with the logo of some tour company on them. I closed my eyes, inhaled long and deep into my lungs, and thanked God we weren’t wearing matching red t-shirts.
Just before we reached our next stop, Blacks pointed to some large steel holding containers – like the ones you’d find at a refuse center for compacting trash – turned on their sides. Several people were standing outside the entrances to the containers, jamming to Jay-Z, which was blaring from a busted stereo. Those are the containers for people waiting for the new housing, Blacks explained. Wait, people are living in those containers? Yes. Their shanty houses have been demolished to make room for new housing. So they stay there while they wait. In response to the look of distress on my face, he continued, At least they have three walls and a floor made of steel… a shanty shack is not so good. An emaciated dog with sad, sagging teats trotted out from behind one of the containers and stared up at me as she went by. Wipe that look off your face, baby, she seemed to say.
Next Blacks took us into one of the hostels, originally built for men from the villages who had travelled to the city for work, often in dangerous mines. These buildings used to house one man to a bed, several men to a room, but after the revocation of the ID paper requirements in 1986, the hostels soon became flooded with entire families from the rural villages who came to join their husbands and fathers. Blacks brought us into one of the rooms, about the size of a modest walk-in closet, and explained that at least two or three families lived there, often with around 10 kids each. As there were only two beds, he said most of the children would sleep on the cement floor of the entrance room we’d just walked through. And this housing is not free. They must pay twenty rand per month or be forced out. This is not an easy sum to come by with an unemployment rate through the roof, jobs being taken by illegal African immigrants, and the good jobs located primarily on the other end of a long, costly taxi ride to the white suburbs.
After showing us the buildings considered the next rung up on the housing ladder, in which only one family resides with a few rooms to share, Blacks walked us through the hostels towards the “expensive” part of town. As we rounded a corner to duck between buildings, I felt the air seep out of my lungs like a lost balloon – small children with tight black braids and unaware smiles were walking on either side of a dead dog, petrified legs in the air, lying in the middle of the ally. All bones and matted fur, flies swarming. The children stopped to beam up at us and one of my group members ran up next to them, turned to face his girlfriend’s camera, and swung an arm around to pose over the fallen canine. Other group members followed suit, zooming in on flies chasing each other in and out of nostrils. I pushed past the morbid party and turned the corner so I could no longer see. Blacks sauntered up next to me and smiled his wide, white smile. It’s ok, you know. Pictures are ok. We like you to take pictures. About to launch into a deep sea of a rant, I took a step back and settled for a pained smile and shrugged shoulders instead. He landed a swift pat on my back and walked on.
We re-boarded the van and drove through the “Beverly Hills of Langa”, which consists of slightly nicer one family houses, mostly owned by people who do things like work for the government. These houses can only be purchased flat out for 400,000 rand. That’s equivalent to about $58,000. Big bucks in Langa. But there is no animosity here, Blacks explained. There is no animosity between the people who live in the hostels or the shanties and the people who live here. It is beautiful. While that was nice to hear, it was hard not to notice the large cement walls and barbed-wire fences protecting these more costly houses from the rest of the community. Maybe not animosity, but still a healthy respect for reality.
As we drove to the shanty side of town, you could hear American pop and rap blasting from somewhere on every street. I couldn’t help but laugh as I heard a group of women belting along to Kelly Clarkson. We passed barbershops, phone shops, and fruit stands – all housed in tin shack creations, all with brightly colored signs. The shops and homes are made from whatever materials can be gathered when a family arrives from a rural village with nothing. Most of them come to look for work and to provided their children with a fighting chance to go to school. Though the life here is no picnic, at least there are roads for ambulances and supply cars and school isn’t a 10km walk each way. The shantys are free for them to live in, though they pay for electricity (yes, most have electricity and even a tv). Generally only one family lives in each, as opposed to what we saw in the hostels. When we reached the shanty living section itself, we were allowed out for about five minutes to check out the 50 electric lines coming from a single pole to power the surrounding shacks, the rows of porta-pottys, the water pick-up location, and the inside of one of the homes. Then we were ushered back onboard. Not quite the walking and talking to locals tour I was envisioning.  
For the last leg of the tour, we were driven to another township called Khayelitsha, the newest and largest one outside Cape Town, holding around 1.3 million people. We passed miles and miles of colorful shanties along the highway – Xhosa-speaking black townships on one side, “nicer” Afrikaans-speaking coloured townships on the other, explained the driver. Coloured peole are what Americans would consider mixed-race, and their lighter skin was given preferential treatment under apartheid. As we drove, Blacks told us about the biggest problems his community faces today, problems that have probably been faced by nearly every impoverished community since the beginning of time: alcoholism and domestic violence. It’s a vicious cycle. People make little to no money and live in despair; when they (usually men) do get a bit of money, they often spend it on ways to make the despair go away; when their family asks where the money went, they lash out in hopeless violence; the cycle begins again, never-ending as the sea of metal roofs we’re passing.

In Khayelitsha, we visited the township’s B&B, named after and run by an amazing, larger-than-life woman named Vicky. She told us that the locals were confused and upset by her business in the beginning, but they have now embracedit and so have the tourists. The B&B has been very successful and Vicky has been given many awards for her achievements in the community. Her business bridges the racial gap, gives outsiders a more accurate picture of township life, and provides locals with money from tourists who purchase their wares and services. She also runs a charity organization for local schools, providing students with much needed supplies and field trips to reward achievement. All in all, she’s pretty badass.

The best part was when she asked where we were all from. I was at the end of the line, and everyone before me answered Sweden! …Obviously I hadn’t gotten the memo. I tried not to form a big prejudiced bubble around Sweden in my mind… not sure how well that worked.
Finally, we were taken into the primary school behind Vicky’s place and given a show by the many tiny students. Their miniscule classroom had no desks or chairs, only room for them, 40 or so in all, to sit around the outside edges. They remained absolutely silent as their teacher spoke to us and then let loose a torrent of “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “If You’re Happy And You Know It” on her signal. They screamed the songs at the top of their lungs and focused intensely on getting the hand motions correct. Big practiced smiles painted their faces, a toughness and intimacy with survival lay behind their eyes. A show of familiar white songs for the unfamiliar white people.
I smiled as I watched them, and took photos and gave them hugs in the chaotic aftermath of the performance, as they grabbed, pinched, and tugged, desperate for attention. But I felt all the while that my sense of humor had been sucked out of me somewhere along the way. I couldn’t just roll with it and laugh and sing with the kids crawling all over me. My camera felt like a weapon, my smile like a big fat lie. I felt a bit like being sick or crying, not necessarily because of how and where these children live, but because I had been paraded through their world like someone on safari. Please keep your hands safely inside the land cruiser as you take pictures of the wild animals.
As we drove back into town, I felt grateful for the experience, but saddened by the way it went. I realized that it’s not poverty or hardship that upsets me in the end – it’s feeling like an outside, rubbernecking observer of it. I don’t like being rolled through it in a big glass case. I’d rather walk around all day with a local I trust or even do a homestay. I’d rather talk to people and hear their stories. I’d rather be closer to it. I’d rather feel it on my skin.
I don’t know if it’s just the miles of colorful shacks and roaming animals, but I find the townships really beautiful. There’s something about them that is incredibly photogenic and entrancing. I’ve always thought the same thing about pictures of the crowded streets in India. It seems that in these places where life is supposed to be at its roughest, the intensity of that existence forges order and beauty in the fire. I could have watched those metal roofs pass by, imagining what was happening under them, for days.
But I still hope they’re nowhere to be found when I come back to South Africa someday. An animal extinct.