January 13th, 2016
Throughout my time in Cape Town, the most memorable and transformative experiences thus far have resulted from our time spent at the different townships. Respectively, we have visited Khayelitsha, Langa, Zwelihle, and an additional “colored” township. In being part of the Zulu group within class, which focuses on health and security, I have personally focused on perspectives regarding health within these communities.
The first township we encountered was Khayelitsha. We originally visited this township to see the Philani Nutrition Project, yet it was closed due to the holidays. We later briefly returned to Philani on January 12th—Philani is a store that supports the local township’s economy by selling items that are created by local women and also acts as a women empowerment initiative. Before arriving to this township, I honestly wasn’t quite sure what to expect. When we drove through the township, I was immediately surprised to see the living conditions, especially considering how nice the areas of Cape Town we had been experiencing were. The homes within the township were mostly made of corrugated tin and other pieces of scrap metal. Children could be seen walking around the streets barefooted and wearing ill-fitted clothing. Overall, this first glimpse at a township planted a sense in pity in me that did not quite sit well.
On January 10, we visited Cape Town’s oldest black township, Langa. We first had lunch at Lelapa, a restaurant owned by a woman named Sheila, and her daughter, within their home tat serves traditional African food. Lelapa allowed us to have a taste of township life, ranging from the delicious buffet-style traditional food that can be found in the township, to the vibrant music played by a local band within the township. At the end of our meal, Sheila gave the class a talk regarding time, and how Americans tend to “live by the watch”. Her main message was that we should learn to be present and not allow our watches to dictate everything we do. This is a message that has seemed to resonate within the group, especially within our class discussions regarding our privilege in comparison to the privilege of the township residents. After lunch, we visited the township’s cultural centre and had the opportunity to see the different workmanship present in the township, such as sand art, mosaic art, and drumming. We also had a session where we were in a drum circle and were taught how to drum and sing to a traditional song. We then went on a tour with a township resident who spoke of the township’s history, and pointed out different cultural aspects. Our tour guide even showed us the hostel he grew up in, including a single room within the hostel where eight people (two families) currently reside. As we were walking around Langa, something that many of us noticed was how children were running around seemingly unsupervised. At first, some classmates seemed to be somewhat unsettled by this, but we were soon reminded that the culture within the township is very community oriented and although we may not see parents around, all of the community members watch out for one another. During this tour, it was evident that many classmates allowed the pity they first felt when seeing Khayelitsha to dig deeper, rather than allowing that pity to develop into a curiosity to understand the culture and situation and transform to empathy.
On Monday, January 11 we travelled to Zwelihle to provide bagged meals and sneakers to some of the school children at the crèche within the township. When we first arrived, the children were not yet there so we went to lunch in a nearby town called Hermanus. While driving to lunch, it was astonishing to see the juxtaposition of the informal settlement right around the corner from million-dollar luxurious homes. It was almost disgusting to see how seemingly oblivious the residents of Hermanus seemed of the immense need that was present literally right around the corner of where they live. After eating a nice lunch that instilled guilt into some of us, we then returned to Zwelihle. During out time at the crèche, the Zulu group helped to pass out sneakers and toothbrushes to the school children. When we were finished passing out the bagged meals that we had prepared and the sneakers, we headed outside to play with the children. It was at this time that other children within the township had discovered that we’d be there and came to ask for food. Although we did not have enough bags for all, some food was given out, yet it was observed that people often purposefully left bags behind to return to ask for food. Actions such as these, although first frustrating to see, demonstrates the level of disparity and need present in townships such as Zwelihle.
The last township we visited in Cape Town was somewhat different than the others, as it was a coloured township rather than a black township. The first things I noticed a difference in was the attitudes toward me once I got off the bus. Being a student who would be considered “coloured” as opposed to my white classmates, usually means that I’m somewhat overlooked when I enter a township. Here, I was greeted with young boys whispering “coloured” as I walked by, a woman kissing my cheek, and children asking to take pictures with me. After bringing this up in class, I realized that many of these children had not seen white people before, and I served as something familiar, and in a way represented what a coloured person could achieve, coming from America. While in this township, we handed out sandwiches, bagged meals, and then handed out tickets. All of this went relatively well, until it was time to hand out sneakers. We ended up having to create a human barrier for children to walk through to receive shoes. During this process, adults tied reaching over us to grab shoes, children tried crawling through our legs, and we did not have enough shoes for all of the children. This day was definitely the most emotionally taxing for me. I saw young girls who were breastfeeding, mothers offering to sell their children for less that 1 USD, and a desperation to survive.
Throughout the visits to the different townships, I at first felt somewhat uncomfortable intruding on a community, until I realized the importance of tourism within these communities. As we discussed in class, tourism within the townships boosts the economy, raises awareness, has the ability to dismantle stereotypes, and allows us to learn from a culture that is so different than our own. One of the themes that has stuck with me the most is the idea of materialism. When comparing our materialistic culture to the humbleness of their lifestyle, it is evident that happiness is not created by your physical circumstance, but rather on your attitude regarding it. In terms of health, it was easy for me to assume that the health within the townships was very poor. Ranging from the excessive litter strewn throughout the streets, the lack of sanitation, the scarcity of healthcare facilities, and lack of education in regards to health, it is easy to assume that the people must be unhealthy, yet when considering mental health, the question also arises of whether all the things we view as absolute necessities to maintain health, including mental health, are necessary.