We are only half way through our South African adventure and it is remarkable the people I have met, places I have seen and information I have learned. The most life-changing day I have experienced thus far in Cape Town was on Sunday January 10th. We spent our time in Langa, the first black Capetonian township. Langa was created about 20 years before the Apartheid, in order to preserve the health of the whites. We began our day eating and playing music at a delicious little restaurant owned by a funny, opinionated woman. While we listed to some local men playing the marimba, we feasted among a buffet of 26 different dished ranging from veggies to antelope. This was not only the tastiest meal I have had in Cape Town but also the most entertaining. It was as if I was enjoying an amazing, home cooked meal while also giving back to the community by paying for the food, drummers and crafts made by locals.
Following our lunch, we headed over to an artistic museum where we learned about the process of making the various crafts sold throughout Cape Town. A young man named Odon told us his life story, which truly pulled at my heartstrings. Odon came to Cape Town with only 40 rand (about US $2.50) and spent it within the first day on food. The next day he spent painting on pieces of wood he found and then sold them for 150 rand each. He now lives in a house with his wife and kids, selling his beautiful sand acrylic-based artwork for around 1500 rand each. Odon’s advice to us was “do what you love or you will find no meaning in life”. It was amazing to hear this story of a man who not only turned his life around through the help of a township but also is living a life that he truly adores. I was not only impressed by this local artist, but also by the all other forms of entrepreneurship taking place in the townships we visited. It is obvious that each artist/vendor takes great pride in what they do, which may explain the vibrant and friendly nature they had towards us when we visited.
Similar to Odon’s story, was something I read in our class reading in Chapter 8 of Ramphele’s A Bed Called Home, titled “Empowerment and the Politics of Space”. It discussed hostel dwellers and the type of empowerment that enables them to improve their lives. In day-to-day life for example, these dwellers do not think or talk about their lifestyle. It is not until tourists and/or visitors such as our class come in and ask questions regarding their lives that cause them to talk and think critically about their lifestyles. This prompted discussion then empowers them to find some sort of meaning, for example finding an art form that can bring happiness and also money to support themselves. Odon was a perfect example of being able to improve ones life by finding meaning.
We continued of day in Langa with a tour of its homes and community. Most homes looked like floppy shacks and were constructed of metal boards and other scrapings/objects. Floorboards were non-existent and the roofing was not very rigid, which (according to our tour guide) is a major issue in terms of flooding. Simply put, conditions were inhumane and inadequate.
Another aspect of the township life that caught my curiosity was the nonexistent health standards they live by. Just as I read in the local Cape Town newspaper on January 8th, waste management is a growing issue. In Langa, for example, there was trash everywhere. People would not only throw their garbage on the ground without shame but also showed no interest in cleaning the litter up. The newspaper also discussed the current heat wave in South Africa, and how this is a perfect breeding ground for flies, rodents and most importantly germs. It pained me to know this when we went into Langa, because most of the children did not have the resources to practice good personal hygiene. For example, people would be using the bathroom on the sides of the roads, and did not look very well kept (which is understood considering the conditions they live in).
Overall, our service learning has taught me empathy. Throughout the fall semester we discussed townships and poverty within South Africa, but I never understood it until I saw it myself and had meaningful conversations with those living within the townships. I realized that there are hundreds of issues that need to be fixed, and though we distributed snack bags and shoes there is so much more that can be done. My question now is, what more can we do (or is there anything we can do) to improve their lives and living conditions?