Youth Day and Reconciliation Lunch

Today is Youth Day in South Africa and a public holiday. This day was set aside to commemorate a dark event in this nation’s history: The Soweto Uprising that began on June 16, 1976. Young students and their allies took to the streets of Soweto (the largest Township in South Africa, located in Johannesburg) on this day 40 years ago to protest the government changing the official teaching language of some parts of public education to Afrikaans. This was perceived by many people to put black students at a disadvantage, as their focus would shift from understanding the content to deciphering the language of instruction.

Police responded to this protest with shocking brutality. The official number of people killed is 176, despite police reports at the time that only 23 had died, and others claiming that as many as 700 were killed. This is the photo most closely associated with the Uprising:

Hector Pieterson

Hector Pieterson, a 13 year-old boy killed by police in Soweto on June 16, 1976 (photo credit Sam Nzima)

Other communities joined in the protests, and by the end of 1976 more than 600 people had died. Although it was another 14 years before Nelson Mandela was released from prison, these protests forever changed people’s acceptance of apartheid rule in South Africa.

I think I have mentioned before that there is a white family living in the Township. They moved here in 1998, inspired by the spirit of reconciliation and a desire to do what was within their power to help heal the wounds of the past. This is so extraordinary that even today, 18 years later, their friends in Town introduce them as “the people that live in the Township.”

Every Wednesday the Lady of the House hosts a Reconciliation Lunch. She serves a full lunch (honestly, I can’t have breakfast on Wednesdays anymore) and the doors to her home are open to anyone in the community who would like to attend. Anyone. I have been going regularly and I don’t know that I have ever seen fewer than 30 people in attendance. Imagine. Opening your home to 30 friends and total strangers every single week and feeding them until they’re stuffed.

Steam bread, township lunch, South Africa

Steam bread and stew. Delicious traditional South African food.

The idea of the Lunch is to sit and eat with people that you would normally not have an opportunity to sit and eat with and learn about one another’s lives. The Lady of the House has a topic to discuss every week and everyone at the table must share their perspectives on the topic. Sometimes the topic is light and fluffy, for instance ‘talk about your best friend growing up and what you did together’, sometimes it can be quite intense and heartbreaking, such as when she asked us to share about our experiences with crime.

Sometimes I think the topic is going to be fluffy, as in ‘talk about your mother’ following Mother’s Day, and I end up crying at the table.

I always learn something. This week we talked about our hometowns. Several people spoke about growing up in the Township and how much it has changed in terms of safety since they were kids. A student from the University spoke about growing up in Joburg and living behind electric fences and having their family dogs poisoned by people trying to break in. One lady spoke about how lovely her hometown was because she was able to ride her bike to and from school without worry. That one really struck me. It never occurred to me that it would be a privilege to be able to ride your bike as a child without having to worry about what might happen.

I don’t feel that I contributed much to the conversation this week. Barrie was…nice?

I would love to ask the Lady of the House if she would make one Lunch topic about tourism, but I won’t because I don’t want to take away from the objective of the Lunch, even though I know it would be an amazing discussion. As it is I feel very lucky to have met such incredible people and to have had the opportunity to learn about the community in such a special way. On this Youth Day it is nice to reflect that the simple pleasure of sitting down and sharing a meal with one’s neighbours is no longer impossible, just special.

Playing dominoes in the Township, Cape Town, South Africa

Local dudes and students from the University playing dominoes together

First Impressions

Welcome to South Africa

 

February 23, 2016

“This is scary, and I am scared. But I can do this.”

I woke up in the middle of the night with this phrasing in my head. In the midst of a fitful, post-flight sleep I decided that this would be my new mantra. Sure, this new adventure is scary, but I have done lots of scarycool things before and have loved all of my adventures.

Only now that I’m fully awake and can hear the sounds of the morning, the unfamiliar birds chirping and the traffic roaring past on the highway – commuters on their way into their jobs in the city – I’m not sure that this is scary. I’m taking very seriously the warnings to not walk alone at night, to exercise caution around ATMs, and to ensure that the burglar bars are locked tight at all times. However, this part of the country, this town, this neighbourhood feels more like a cross between Beverly Hills and the Okanagan Valley than like any part of Africa I have ever been to before.IMG_2771

The highway that the taxi took from the airport last night is a beautiful 4-lane road complete with streetlights and overpasses and nary a pothole to be seen. The other cars on the highway all appeared to be Mercedes’ and Land Rovers and Toyota Highlanders, all shiny and new. There was one beat up looking pickup on the side of the road, possibly a farm truck, but apart from that there was no evidence of battered cars or even crappy public transit buses crammed to the rafters with people on their way home from work. I saw one public transit bus on the highway – it was nicer than the city buses in Guelph.

I picked up my apartment keys at a private college, a beautiful old colonial building on a leafy tree-lined boulevard. Once settled in my short-term AirBNB apartment, I went and picked up some groceries from the supermarket in the plaza around the corner, which also features a fish mart, an organic health spa, and a wood oven pizza bistro.IMG_20160302_191941810_HDR

The shopping plaza

What does it say about me that I’m disappointed in this state of affairs? That despite the fact that I was not looking forward to again facing the challenges of what I have come to associate with living in Africa, that I’m just a little let down with how easy yesterday’s travel and set up was. What does it say about me as a poverty advocate and researcher that I am disappointed to find my own living conditions well beyond anything I have ever before experienced?

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My garden

To be fair, I think I could have chosen to live this sort of life in Dar es Salaam, to live behind high walls and never have encountered local people apart from cashiers and cab drivers. The fact that I chose not to live that way (and I probably couldn’t have afforded it anyway, let’s be honest) probably exposed me to more daily ‘challenges’ than I would have faced otherwise, but it also allowed me to live IN the city, and not in a fishbowl.

I could be wrong about this, but I feel like the difference might be that in Dar the white communities were the enclaves, and that as soon as you emerged you were in the bustling, chaotic metropolis with all of the noisiness, pollution, industry, and poverty that that implies. Maybe that’s why Dar doesn’t have any ‘reality’ tours – the whole city is reminiscent of a slum (I mean that in the nicest way possible). Maybe that’s why tourists don’t like to stay in Dar.

This town (based on my vast experience of having been driven through in a taxi from the airport yesterday afternoon) feels almost like the polar opposite: it is the Black Africans who are living in the fishbowl, allowed to emerge to go to work, but otherwise relegated to behind the fences that have been built. Don’t get me wrong, there is a fence around my house too – only mine is to keep people out, not to keep them in. At any rate, there may not even be any fence, but I think the metaphor holds. The Black people are kept in and the White people and the tourists will occasionally choose to wander through their neighbourhoods to marvel at the ‘reality’ of life in this city.

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My big electric fence

None of this is news of course, and none of it is based on my actual experiences here yet, just the early morning musings of someone who has done too much reading on the subject. I worry that I’m sounding a little bit like the American blogger of whom I was so critical a few years back, who wrote that she┬áneeded to ‘check her privilege’ after a luxurious vacation at the Kloof, and so went on a Township tour to get a dose of ‘reality.’ I’m worried that I can have little integrity and rapport with the people that I hope to work with if I choose to live behind walls designed to keep them out. How do I balance my (perceived) safety with my (perceived) integrity, or is that a really stupid question to even be pondering? I worry about being a good poverty researcher when I live in wealth and privilege. I worry about how the community will appear to my eyes when I live so far removed from it. And I worry that people in the community will never come to trust me in any small measure – and why should they?

I got a glimpse of the sprawling Township near the airport yesterday. From the highway I could only see the rooftops and the tangle of electrical wires and TV antennae, although occasionally some houses had been built on a rise so I could see their facades. The community was bordered by a high coral-pink wall, which in Canada would have been considered a noise barricade from the highway, and may also serve the same purpose here. There were some small red-roofed houses within that I could tell were government-built homes, but overwhelmingly the roofs were of corrugated tin. What struck me the most was the imponderable size of the community – it seemed to go on for miles along the side of the highway – although this tells me nothing about how far it stretched in the other direction. I think I read somewhere that 1 million people live there, and having now seen its boundary I don’t doubt that estimate.

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I also saw some small jumbles of homes outside the walls of the Township that looked like truly wretched abodes – tiny little hovels of patched together tin and canvas sacking. What must these residents think of all the shiny cars that race past them everyday?

….

It is really nice to be able to drink the tap water.