Behold O Cape Town, Here Comes the Sun

The past few weeks have brought an array of different experiences, emotions and adventures. Our program director Bill left, and the group welcomed Bob, our director for the latter portion of our stay. We met Denis Goldberg, Desmond Tutu and Tony Ehrenreich. Brandon and I helped orchestrate a Constitutional Literacy Camp for Cape Town’s youth. We’ve been horseback riding, great white shark diving, ridden elephants and walked with lions. And we’re all realizing, I think, that we’re in the final stretch of our time here in Cape Town, and with that realization comes a certain level of anxiety. So I apologize in advance for the stream of consciousness that is this blog post.

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Last weekend, Brandon, Ella and I were driving through Hout Bay, a beautiful port town that enjoys both mountain and beach views. Our taxi driver was a white British man who had spent the last ten years living in Hout Bay, and described to us the demographics and landscape of the area. He was pleasant to talk to, and I was excited to learn; so at first I was grateful for his presence. Pointing to the cardboard and tin shacks of an informal settlement, he designated this section of Hout Bay as where Africans (meaning blacks) lived. Across the way by the mountains was the coloured area. And then there were the white homes in the heart of Hout Bay, where he lived. The frankness with which he described this racial separation was chilling. The justification he offered was disgusting. Coloureds, blacks and whites, according to him, preferred their separation because it meant they could keep their communities with their unique traditions and cultures in tact. It also hindered violence, and kept the ‘spirit’ and ‘charm’ of Hout Bay alive.

IMG_2876Hold up, what?

There, in our cab ride to go beach horseback riding, I received probably my best lesson on the pervasive and inescapable legacy of apartheid. Our driver, I perceived, did not consider himself a racist. And that to me was the saddest part. Here was a man that wasn’t even from Cape Town… who was friendly and helpful and whose company I honestly enjoyed. Yet that same man was propagating and justifying the very same ideals we vilify the apartheid system for creating.

I was reminded of this experience the other day when Brandon and I were working at a Constitutional Camp that District Six was hosting. Twenty-five kids from schools in Cape Town and its surrounding townships came to dissect and learn about constitutional laws dealing with land restitution and dispossession. There, we had ample opportunities to gauge the perspectives and experiences of Capetonian youth who were more than eager to share their political and social views. One in particular, I think, gives voice to what is happening (sadly) in Cape Town today: “I don’t know why we discriminate against black people nowadays even though they gave us what we have. We have to thank so many of them”. That voice belonged to sixteen year old Zainab who, when asked to reflect upon her impressions of a ‘Reversing the Legacy’ exhibit we attended, ended up identifying that, in many ways, the legacy of apartheid has yet to be reversed. Later that afternoon, our group visited Robben Island where we learned more about just how much black people did for South Africa. A day later, President Obama also visited the ex-prison and wrote that “the world is grateful for the heroes of Robben Island”. Juxtapose Zainab’s statement to Obama’s and you’ll find yourself unbelievably frustrated. Because the extent of the coloured population’s racism (coupled with the fact that the racial designation of ‘coloured’ is an apartheid-construction) is just that… frustrating. And heartbreaking.

Reading this blog over, I realize that the tone is a bit downtrodden, which is not a fair representation of my experiences on this trip. The general rule of thumb, I’ve found, is that for every tough or sobering encounter I have, two glorious ones follow. Meet Revina. The coffee shop attendant at the District Six Museum, Revina is a resident of the primarily black township Langa. I don’t normally like to exploit people’s stories to achieve emotional or dramatic appeal, but I think Revina’s story is too important to ignore. Revina is the mother to five or six children (I’m sorry I can’t remember which). Her eldest son died in a shelter in Langa that lit on fire. She cares for his surviving daughter. Her other sons left home. She provides the only income for the family as her husband is a pensioner. Yet, it is for the sake of her two ‘baby girls’ (her sixteen year old daughter and her granddaughter) that she works so hard and remains so positive. Last week, Revina asked me, her ‘tall lady’, for help. Her daughter hopes to attend American university and Revina wanted me to talk to her. The next morning, we met and I found a sharp, curious and realistic peer in front of me, questioning financial aid, asking what standardized scores were and what she needed to be doing as a second year high school student. Completely unprepared, I did a sub-par job attempting to explain the conundrum that is the college application process – a process throughout which I had supportive parents, two guidance counselors and countless teachers to help. Revina’s daughter doesn’t have Internet. But she promised to e-mail me once school resumes, and I have a feeling she’ll follow through.

The point I’m trying to make is elementary, but I’ll say it anyway. Cape Town may still be plagued by the legacy of apartheid, which is completely understandable but nonetheless upsetting. But it is also bolstered by an engaged and politically aware youth who spend their winter breaks at constitutional literacy camps and come to their parents’ work to discuss college opportunities with a nameless American student. That’s inspiring and uplifting. With Madiba in the hospital, things in Cape Town are a bit on edge. But as the floor map at the District Six Museum reads:

“Behold O Cape Town, Here Comes the Sun”

– Kerri

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Changing Lenses

[19/06/13]

Michael. Michael from Johannesburg. Michael from Johannesburg who lives in the ghetto on 50 Rand a day. I was sitting today at my registration table for the Arts & Culture Indaba 2013, greeting people and giving them their generic registration packs when Michael walked in through the wooden larger-than-life City Hall doors. He seemed confused, lost, so I handed him a program from the conference explaining the panel of “experts” gathered upstairs discussing ideas to ameliorate the arts sector in Cape Town. I am quite unsure how our conversation got started but before I knew it I found myself listening to Michael for more than 40 minutes, blatantly ignoring my mindless and repetitious intern task.

He talked about poverty,

He talked about the ghetto.

He talked about traveling around Europe & Africa.

He talked about hunger, true hunger that goes deeper than your bones, and what hunger does to people—and he teared up and paused and I knew in that moment that he wasn’t pulling my leg or putting on a pity show.

He talked about violence,

Desperation,

Rape,

Apartheid.

I sat there speechless and completely enthralled by his words, wondering what had brought this man to walk through those ornate doors to talk to me. I listened, because I knew (I felt) that he needed someone to listen to him. This man leaning across my desk was illustrating to me, in simple words, the poverty that permeates townships. Michael was telling me that the reason he didn’t steal or assault or rape was because he had lived and experienced and seen these horrors with his very own eyes. He stared at the wall behind me and told me that his father raped his mother and sisters every night. He said that in the ghetto, entire families go to bed hungry because they don’t have 8 Rand (80 American cents) to buy a loaf of bread. He said that in the ghetto, men get away with murdering pregnant women and justice is nowhere to be seen.

But Michael also told me about the power of smiling and staying happy—and he also told me about the charity he wants to start. I stopped him there, saying that I was at work but would be willing to talk to him in my free time. I asked him for his contact information but since he doesn’t own a cellphone he gave me his boss Nigel’s number, whom he praised endlessly for paying him those precious 50 Rand every day.

I said goodbye to Michael, promising to call him, but not before giving him 3 sandwiches from the conference. He said “God Bless you,” limped away from a mysterious injury, and I knew instinctively that those sandwiches were all that he would have for the rest of the day.

It’s not hard to say that coming into close contact with someone like Michael changes one’s perspective on a beautiful country like South Africa. It is one thing to go to museums and learn about apartheid. It is one thing to hear speakers like Simon Eppel from SACTWU talk about the difficulties of the working class and the conditions they live in. But it is an entirely different and humbling experience to listen (truly listen) to a man tell his story and to see the pain of life distort his face. Being confronted with Michael’s reality—and thousands like him—taught me that South Africa still has a long way to go if it is to become the nation of equality I know it strives to be. We may be living in a post-apartheid society, but poverty has yet to release its grip on the lower working class. 

 -Ella

The Time I Was Schooled by Some High Schoolers…

I’m an English major, so this should be easy. But staring at a blank blog page for an hour makes one realize that, for me at least, it’s just not. I think my reluctance stems not from the experience of blogging in general but, instead, from blogging about service. To me, writing or even speaking about service has an inherent danger in it, often appearing as useless fluff. To avoid falling into this trap, I’m going to try in my future posts to be as frank and genuine as possible, so bear with me.

Before Cape Town, we spent a week in Johannesburg that was a sort of ‘crash course’ in South African history and current events. One of my favorite days during this week involved a visit to the Albert School, a secondary school primarily attended by Zimbabwean refugees who were living in Jo’burg’s Central Methodist Church. There, we were given the opportunity to teach (if you could call it that) the freshmen and sophomore classes about American history and its connection to African history. I personally realized how desperately I needed a refresher when I informed a student that the Statue of Liberty’s current color shade was a result of ‘natural rain’ before Brandon mercifully provided the correct scientific answer (*which is exposure to oxygen if you’re wondering*). Regardless, the experience was, for me, unprecedented as we were fired with provocative and quite uncomfortable questions concerning homosexuality, dowry payment, immigration policies and even “are you a racist” (which luckily our program director Bill responded to with his usual thoughtfulness). The difficulty in answering their questions was not lost on me as it illuminated the tension between what I believe is right and what I accept as normal – something that I, as a college student am encountering far too often. These kids were challenging the most fundamental platforms of my societal life, and I was quite frustrated to find that I couldn’t uphold these norms to an intelligent or well-executed standard. Afterwards, Brandon and I stayed to meet the students, comically breaking up into a clear ‘boys’ group’ and a ‘girls’ group’. While the guys discussed sports and politics, we gabbed about boys, celebrities and, inevitably, looks. It was then that the sassiest and – I’m sorry but I have to say – my favorite girl in the group Shamwari (even if she did say I looked thirty-eight) sighed to me, “I wish I had hair and skin like yours because then people would like me better”. My natural response was to point blank protest, insisting in horrible clichés that she was beautiful just as she is. Writing that, I cringe… not because I think she was unattractive, but because I now realize that her comment was not about physical beauty in the way that I understand it, but more or less about race. Shamwari was concealing a definitive and loaded statement about her encounters with race and subsequent racism as a compliment to her new American acquaintance. And I responded with the dreaded fluff – a frustrating fakeness poisoning what I had in my American, white naivety meant as an entirely sincere and convincing denial.

Not to make generalizations, but I think my interaction with Shamwari quite perfectly parallels tourists’ interaction with the undeniable populations of impoverished black and coloreds living in South African townships. I’ll never forget my visits to the Jo’burg township of Alexandra and the Cape Town township of Lwandle – both comparable in their extent of destitution. Visiting these two places, one encounters the most extreme states of poverty. Cardboard shacks meet cardboard shacks, and it’s hard to actually picture human beings living there. Equally as challenging is to divorce oneself from the conventional pitying perspective that often runs congruent to notions of superiority. Parading through Lwandle with an army of fifty children all eager to hold my hand or driving through Alex on a tourist bus, it’s hard to reconcile the rewarding experience that is visiting these townships (and exposing myself to their way of living) with respecting the dignity of their homes and lifestyles. I felt that my visit to these places was a great gift, combatting my naivety and helping to expand my otherwise limited (again) American, white perspective. But, at the same time, I knew I was an intruder, invasively entering their homes and belittling them with my photographing, my videoing.

Enter Mandy. Probably the most original character I will ever work alongside, Mandy is my ‘boss’ at District Six, where I will be interning this summer. Never hesitant to express her anti-American sentiment, she was quick to point out this contradiction in my own theology, offering her proposal of a project where African children tour American neighborhoods with their cameras and buses. It’s not even remotely difficult to imagine what would transpire if ever a project were to take place. And that made me painfully aware of the injustice I was engaging in, treating these peoples’ homes as an opportunity for a photoshoot, as an object to be pitied rather than respected. My biggest fear in embarking on this Duke Engage experience already realized in the first three weeks, I can only hope that the next few weeks will involve the personal growth required to be a better citizen of the world and to make me worthy of this experience. So wish me luck!

– Kerri Brown (because I’m too technically inadequate to figure out my own user name)