After photographing animals and landscapes for so long, it was time to add to our collection of Faces of Africa for the book. Today we woke up early and headed to town to meet Sam for a Township Tour. After Soweto, this would be our third venture into the townships since arriving in Africa and we were excited.
It may seem strange to visit townships. It’s not exactly like Home-a-Rama in the States. You don’t go looking for decorating ideas. It is however a chance to peek into normal, everyday life of some of the citizens of this country. You can learn a lot about people and cultures by seeing how they live.
Today’s tour would take us to a museum and to four different townships. What is a township? A township is basically a group of shacks all thrown together by families who have nowhere else to live. Usually the reasons the people select the location is economic. For instance, there is township not far from our rental home here (more on that one later). We live near a bay where the daily fishing boats go out for squid and kingclip. The boat workers got tired of trudging over 15 miles to work every day on public transport and took over an abandoned building on a hill nearby the wharf. More and more families joined them and now close to 15,000 people live on the hill spilling down to the road. The area covers only about 2 square miles.
Our first stop on our tour is the District 6 Museum. During the 1950’s Cape Town was divided into a number of districts. District 6 was a thriving community of blacks, coloreds, Asians, and Malays. Everyone got along well and the area was vibrant. In 1958 the white government decided they wanted to “clean up” parts of the city. They forcibly evicted all the families living in District 6 and forced them out of the city. The men were taken out first, leaving the wives and kids in the city to fend for themselves. They razed the homes and businesses except for a few buildings. The museum is housed in one of those structures, an old church. The Museum workers are all men who used to live in the area. Families can come in to the museum and record their names on a huge 30’x50’ map of the area on the ground. Photos and personal stories line the walls.
Our next stop is the Langa township to see a “shabeen.” A shabeen is a men’s only bar. The only woman allowed in is the lady making the beer. Men sit around a small fire built in a metal can and pass around a gallon-sized jug of beer. No individual glasses here. Hope you like the guy next to you. White tourists are the exception. Our group of 7 was invited in to try the beer. Not too bad actually, a little sour, but not bad.
Our next stop is a traditional healer. Healers are men who are born into the profession. If your grandfather was a healer, you will be as well. Healers skip a generation as a new healer isn’t recognized until the previous one dies. Traditional healers use plants and animals to heal the body. They do not use any pills or medications. Many Africans of all races use these healers.
The next stop was what used to be a men only hostel. Now this building of about 1000 sq. feet houses 16 families. When I asked how many people that was, he couldn’t answer. The family members come and go depending on work. There was running water for the kitchen in the home. They shared one burner for a stove. Each family cooks for themselves. I can only imagine the lines to cook in the evenings. They must not eat hot food very often, or take turns. The bedrooms were small but clean. Two people share a twin mattress. You rent the mattress for 18 Rand a month, which is about $3. There are not nearly enough beds for everyone, so those that don’t have sleep on rolled mats on the floor.
When the families first moved to the townships there was no power or running water. Since 1994 the living conditions have improved. Power lines have been added. Running water is more available. Outhouses are placed in rows along the roads. While the conditions in the townships are bad, they used to be much, much worse. Slowly the govt. is building more small houses for the families. Your name goes on a waiting list and houses are built in order. Sam said after you get your house, you usually keep your shack as well for extra living space. It’s free, so I guess no harm done there. Some families prefer the shack life to the homes and chose to sell their homes and move back into the shacks.
One of the reasons we chose Sam is that 25% of the cost of the tour goes to a preschool. He started raising money in 1999. In 2003 the school was built using cement and stones. It is the only proper building in the township. When we arrived the kids literally jumped up and grabbed us all. They wanted to be picked up and held. They went crazy feeling our hair.
At times I would have 4 kids on me. One little boy grabbed on for dear life and wouldn’t let me put him down as his tiny legs were wrapped around mine so tightly. The kids were smiling, had clean clothes, a regular school schedule and generally were the lucky ones in the townships. It was great to see.
Our last stop was a township of over 500,000. Yes, you read that number correctly. The place goes on for miles. It is near the airport so it is one of the first things you see when landing in Cape Town. You can see it from the air. One of the things women need here is to learn how to feed and care for their children nutritionally on not a lot of money. The Woman’s Workshop was started to teach these skills. The women spend most of their days weaving beautiful rugs. They sell the rugs in the town and the money goes towards funding the school and directly to them. 75/25. It is empowering for these ladies to be able to support themselves.
One thing I noticed on all the townships is that women do most of all the housework. They cook, clean and mind the kids. The men seem to be hanging out, chatting and drinking beer. Supposedly the men do the building and the heavy lifting. I didn’t see much of that, but that’s the story Sam was sticking to.
Sam was a wonderful tour guide. You could ask him anything. He had a generally positive spin on the direction the country is headed. He admits there is a lot of work that needs to be done, but he feels progress is being made.
I left feeling very fortunate to live in America. Even the poorest of Americans live better than they do here. Having said that, overall the townships were not as bad as I expected. There were no big bellied, emaciated children around. The families here have food and very basic necessities. They all seem relatively happy and content with their lives. There was no huge feeling of despair.
Tags: Cape Town, Children, School, South Africa, Township, Travel