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A Forgotten People

By:  Karen Doyle,Cape Town, South Africa,
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant

Township tours are becoming an increasingly popular tourist attraction in South Africa, but it's the locals who shy away from this remnant of their segregated past.

The first time I see Zipho he is running down the driveway, away from my dog. "Hai! I am not usually so fearful," he says. "But that dog is big."
And then we are off, careening down familiar streets towards the city of Cape Town, Zipho already late for his next pick-up.
"Are you a taxi driver?" I ask half-jokingly.
"Ha ha," Zipho chortles, a hearty laugh from a big, jovial man. "No, I don't normally drive like this, but we are very late."
He changes gears forcefully and speeds along the freeway, dodging cars and switching lanes like the best South African taxi driver out there.
"Jesus!" he swears at a man on a bicycle who is innocently making his way across the intersection. The gold hoops adorning Zipho's ears swing impatiently as he shakes his bald head. "It is not my lucky day."
He looks like a pirate, but the safari-style uniform he wears gives him away. Zipho is a Grassroute's tour guide, and this is my first taste of one of the most authentic African experiences in South Africa: township tours.

We pick up the rest of the tourists, all foreigners – an elderly Dutch man, an American couple, two Australian girls, and a student from California. No South Africans. Zipho shifts into full tour-guide mode as we make our way, a little more sedately, into the bowels of the Cape Flats - a low-lying, poverty-stricken area, where hundreds of thousands of people live squashed between middle-class suburbia and the city limits.

Our first stop is in a township called Langa, which in Xhosa means "the sun". Zipho points out a run-down block of flats where he himself lives.
"There are four standards of living here," he explains. First shacks and wooden buildings, known as either formal or informal squatter camps (formal ones are only slightly better off with makeshift roads and basic amenities). Then there are the hostels, built originally for men who came to the city to find work, now decrepit and tired-looking, with strings of washing strung from the windows. Next are simple, colourful houses, with 99-year leases ("no one has ever lived long enough to own them," says Zipho light-heartedly). 

Finally there are the famous "Beverly Hills of Langa", where people have built $40 000 - $100 000 homes in the midst of the existing township. They seem strangely out of place with their sturdy wooden fences, conservatively painted exteriors, and formal street numbers.

When I ask why people would want to carry on living amid such poverty when they can clearly afford to move into a better neighbourhood, Zipho tells me an interesting story.
"A friend of mine left to buy a house in the suburbs," says Zipho. "But he spends more money on petrol now coming back to visit us. He misses the sense of community we have here. In the suburbs, he never even sees his neighbour."

Zipho parks the van and we all pile out – a conspicuous bunch of "whities" clutching our cameras and handbags tightly to our chests – but no one takes much notice. Amid the hodgepodge of shacks, crumbling buildings and "Coca Cola" spaza shops, old men sit together drinking beer, women carry laundry back to their homes, and children play idly in the street.

While walking around we bump into another tour group, and another – tourists, it seems, are common enough in these parts. One woman sells sheep's heads, a local delicacy, on an outdoor table that emits a strange smell and attracts a horde of buzzing flies. She demonstrates the cooking process by taking a severed sheep's head (complete with wool and still-open eyes), heating it in an open fire, and then slicing it in half to be sold as a ready-made meal.

Zipho directs us down a dirt alleyway into a family-owned shebeen where the residents serve traditional Xhosa beer ( Umqombothi ) by day and sleep during the night. It seems that every tourist in Langa has congregated here, forcing the usual customers to sip their jugs of homemade beer elsewhere. A woman with a baby tied onto her back brings in a foaming pail of Umqombothi and passes it around the circle. I gingerly take a sip and am pleasantly surprised by the sweet, subtle taste of the thick brew of maize and sorghum malts.
"It's a meal in a glass," says Zipho.
A few wizened locals who managed to retain their bench in the corner break out into song, and the tourists begin clapping enthusiastically. It's hard to tell whether this is a customary practice or simply for the tourists' benefit.

For a moment, as I watch a Japanese couple pose with their jug of beer, I wonder  how the locals feel about the hundreds of foreigners who pass through their lives every day. Surely  these bizarre "human safaris" are intrusive and voyeuristic? I ask Zipho what he thinks. "At first we did township tours with the car doors locked and the windows rolled up," he says. "But the people in the townships asked that we get out and walk around. They are glad to see the tourists; it makes them feel like they haven't been forgotten."

Vicky's B&B, situated in Site C in the township of Khayelitsha, is the final stop in our township tour. I feel rather nervous as I bid farewell to Zipho and the others for the ultimate township experience: I'm spending the night. "The smallest hotel in South Africa" is just like the many other shacks in the community, simply made with wood and corrugated iron. The walls inside are eye-catching – cleverly crafted out of tree trunks and painted with red varnish – and cast a cheery glow over the rest of the home. The living room contains brightly coloured curtains, a few well-worn couches, and a prominent TV. I am surprised to see that the floors have been professionally tiled just as in any regular home. There is also a small kitchen, three bedrooms (one where Vicky, her husband, and five children sleep, and two for the guests), and a tiny bathroom, which is unusual. Most shacks have communal "outhouses" that are shared among several families, and showers are a luxury.

Vicky and her two eldest daughters run the B&B – cooking, cleaning, and serving the guests – while Jerry, their 17-year-old neighbour, helps out by walking tourists through the community. Vicky shows me to my room and I'm immediately made welcome by a horde of children clambering all over me, my bed, and my belongings.

"What is this?" asks a small girl, examining my notebook, while an even smaller girl tries to grab my dangly earrings and a two-year-old boy jumps into my lap. For an instant I worry about dirty feet on my bed, runny noses being wiped on my clothes, and – ashamedly – the germs that might be floating around. But I soon realise that personal space is not an option in this place – nor is it desired. Hlumela, a remarkably well-spoken girl who has just turned nine, shows me the picture she has drawn for me in my notebook. It is of two girls, dressed in matching skirts, high-heels and chunky jewellery, aptly labelled "you" and "me". The girls have exactly the same hair, noses, lips and eyes – we look like twins. I am strangely touched by the way Hlumela, however inadvertently, has shown that she thinks me no different from herself.  

Vicky, a dynamic, larger-than-life woman dressed in traditional African clothing with a colourful scarf tied around her head, sits with us in the living room a little later, nursing her two month old baby. The younger children watch Isidingo, a local program on TV, while Vicky's daughters prepare the evening meal. Numerous letters, newspaper clippings, photos, and framed certificates adorn the walls, including long features from various foreign newspapers – testament to how far Vicky's fame has spread. A display cabinet holds bank notes from all over the world, and there are knick-knacks around the room hail from America, Europe, and even Asia.

"Only about 10 South Africans have ever come here," Vicky says when I ask her about her variety of guests. "Why do you think that is?" I ask, but Vicky can give me no certain answer. "Perhaps they are scared," she muses, a common response which is certainly part of the truth. Tales of gang-related violence and crime are common knowledge in these parts
"How do your neighbours feel about the tourists who stay here?" I ask.
"At first they were confused," explains Vicky. "They thought I must be in trouble with all the white people coming to my house! But I had a community meeting and explained to everyone what I was doing, and how it would benefit all of us."
"Have you ever had any problems?"
"None of my guests have ever been robbed," Vicky says proudly. "If there is ever any trouble, like if a camera is stolen, the community will chase them and get it back."

Later, as I stroll through the streets with Jerry, a small child tugging at each of my hands, I marvel at how safe I feel. The township is alive and busy – music blares from all over, corner shops do fast-paced business, girls play jump-rope in entryways, and young adults shoot pool in the shebeens. Smells of cooking waft out from open doorways where TV's are always visible and the viewers wave at us as we walk by. I notice a small boy, about two or three years old, marching fearlessly among the throng of people in the gathering dusk.
"It's a lot of fun growing up here," says Jerry, when I mention the vibrancy of township life. "It's nice to know everyone on my street." I ask him if there is anywhere else he'd like to live. "No," he shakes his head as if this has never occurred to him before. "I don't think so."
One of the girls holding my hand has been keeping up an almost inaudible commentary of everything we pass. She tugs on my arm as we enter one of the corner shops selling everything from fresh fruit to household tools to beauty cream. "Those boys are naughty," she whispers, and I have to bend down to catch her words. She gestures to a few youths idling at the entrance. "Hold on to your bag."

Back at the B&B, I'm greeted with a polite "dinner's ready" from Thando, Vicky's eldest daughter. She has prepared traditional pap made from maize meal, thick pork sausages, and a vegetable "curry" with tomato, onion, and beans. A large bottle of Coca Cola is the only part of the meal that looks familiar. We say grace over the food and begin to eat, but my mind involuntarily wanders to severed sheep's heads and fly-invested outdoor butcheries. Gulping down Coca Cola I try desperately to get over my inhibitions, knowing that it would be disrespectful not to finish the meal.

Excitement erupts a little later when Piksteel, Vicky's husband, arrives home with birthday cake for his nine year old daughter. We all gather round and sing Mini Emnandi Kuwe (the equivalent of 'Happy Birthday' in Xhosa) and the girls carefully divide up the cake. Lholho, a chubby three year old, anxiously awaits his turn, before stuffing his face with the treat, smearing white icing all over his cheeks and hands. The others follow suit, spreading icing like war-paint on their faces. Hlumela is more dignified and eats her cake with ladylike bites, only allowing a dot or two of icing on her nose. Vicky just laughs and let's the kids go wild. For a moment I am reminded of my seven-year-old cousin and her friends who decorated their faces in much the same way on her birthday not too long ago. Maybe it's not too different a world after all.

The next morning I awake to the sounds of African hymns being played on the radio. It is Good Friday, and Thando and Landi are sweeping and mopping the floor while Vicky sleeps in and looks after the baby.
"They are good girls," Vicky says of her daughters. "Not like the other young people who go out partying with their friends and skip school."
When my transport arrives, the children all grab onto my legs in an appeal for me to stay. I feel a tug at my heart as I exchange hugs, kisses and smiles with everyone.

Driving back along the highway, I watch as the mass of shacks stretching out on either side of me slowly change into more familiar roadside scenery. Vicky told me of a Xhosa concept called ubuntu – meaning collective unity.  "Having tourists here is the first time we are seeing black and white people in the same place," she explained. Back home I wander around the wide expanse of empty rooms, feeling strangely displaced. It seems odd to have so much space, and no-one to fill it. Suddenly I realise why people in the townships refuse to move to more spacious surroundings. The suburbs may be clean and spacious, but they have also lost that sense of community.


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