Townships

Yesterday was another day touring. We went to Gugulethu, which is a township (townships, under Apartheid, were where the black and colored population lived, if they had jobs inside the city, otherwise they were not allowed to live in the cities at all). We went with Mzwai, who showed us around again.

He took us to Fezeka high school, where he is a teacher. There were bars on all the windows to prevent theft of the computers and other school equipment. We went to the school library, which had so few books. I think of the libraries of the schools my children went to, and even the elementary school libraries had five or six times the number of books this high school library had. There were no computers in the library.

We then went to Phandulwazi high school, which was much newer looking than Fezeka, as it was built in 2005. There we had a surprise—the entire school had gathered for an ethnic celebration of heritage. Monday is Heritage Day in South Africa, and is a holiday. So the students and staff were dressed in traditional garb and the students put on acts and skits and dancing and music of their heritages. It was beautiful, and amazing to see. We were blown away by the dancing and drumming and xylophone playing—they were probably not xylophones, probably called by a different name but they were similar instruments. The skits and acts went over our heads, as they were conducted in languages other than English.

When we arrived, we were taken into the hall where the event was already underway. We were taken into the large room, about the size of a small gymnasium, where several hundred students were gathered in a semi-circle to watch the dancing that was already taking place. We were ushered to a table behind the dancers—where the dais would have been. Center stage, in other words. Right behind the performers. During the event, one of the school staff hustled over and offered us tea, and brought it and served it to us. Sweet, but kind of embarrassing, as no one else was having tea and we were already quite prominent in our placement and the fact that we were, I think, the only white people in the room. I leaned over at one point and asked Mzwai what the students were making of this, did they think we were just crazy white people or what? Mzwai roared with laughter, and said that no, this kind of thing would never have been heard of when he was in school, but that “it has been 18 years (since Apartheid ended) and they are quite used to visitors.” For their part, the students were paying the most attention to the main parts of the program and not to us, so I felt able to relax and enjoy. Still, I like to blend in a little better than that, normally.

Lastly, we went Khayelitsha, another huge township, to tour Baphumelele (means “progress”) Respite Care and Children’s Home, for orphans and vulnerable children. This home started with one woman, Rosie, who noticed children wandering the streets during the day with no one to care for them. She approached the parents and offered to care for the children during the day. Like a day care center, although they call it a crèche here. This was in 1989. As time went on, children were placed with her by the South African equivalent to Children’s Protective Services. Soon she had 65 children that she was caring for full-time. This in a tiny house, with shacks all around. Over the years, Rosie has gotten help and there is now an entire complex of buildings, housing 230 children full-time. They live in small groups, maybe eight or ten to a house, with a care worker who cooks for them, has them do their homework, keeps order and generally acts as a parent. On staff are social workers and health care workers who help keep the children healthy. There are staffs to work on reconciliation efforts, either to attempt to place the children back with their own family, if possible, or in foster care situations. But many of the foster care children wind up coming back to the home, if their foster care situation does not work out. We got to tour the facility and meet staff members and see some of the children. We even got to meet Rosie, who remembered Robin from past visits.

The townships are hard places to see. In some cases, the buildings make Blikkies look like palaces. Shacks constructed of small pieces of corrugated metal, in patchwork fashion, held together by what method I do not know. Roofs are the same way. And so tiny, maybe ten by fifteen feet? The really large and spacious ones are maybe twenty by twenty. And so tightly packed. The density of population is staggering. The roads are narrow and people step out from the sidewalk at random intervals, heedless of oncoming traffic. There are few robots (traffic lights to us Americans) and many intersections are every man for himself.

Exhausted, we got home and fell into bed, where I stayed, sleeping hard, for the next 14 hours.

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