Wednesday, December 8, 2010

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.

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