Tourists in the Townships

[We’re in Botswana, settling in at the home of our friends Jim and Linda. Before I begin my Bostwana blog, I want to finish up a post I began several days ago, about our last day in Cape Town.]

On Sunday, October 31, we were on our own within the Gate1 tour, and thanks to Deb’s pre-trip homework, we had a chance to tour townships in the Cape Flats area. We visited an amazing orphanage, had lunch in a Spur Steak Ranch restaurant, and ended the day at a Peace Cafe at the Novalis Ubuntu Institute.

Cape Flats is the setting for a gory novel I read while in South Africa. It’s titled Wake Up Dead: A Thriller by Roger Smith, a tale of gruesome murders, many of them committed with Okapi knives, the rest with a dizzying array of guns. I know it wasn’t a fair representation of Cape Town’s black townships, but it set my radar for detection of violence during our tour. Was it even safe to venture into these areas, where anyone can now live in post-apartheid South Africa but were once the only legal residences for blacks?

Our guide was Mzwandile Sangweni, or Mzai, who had been introduced to Deb by the CEO of the Novalis Ubuntu Institute, Anne Lise Bure. Mzwai is in his early 40s, a college graduate who studied drama, an entrepreneur starting an education and training business, and a father of two daughters.  He casually mentioned, as he drove us past vast clusters of shacks made from corrugated metal and cast-off wood, that he himself is living in a shack, with a friend, while he looks for work.  This information was the beginning of my adjustment in perspective about the townships. Mzai did not represent his living situation as terrible or even remarkable. As we drove through the township of Khayelitshe, he frequently had things to say and laughter to exchange with acquaintances and friends on the streets. We were riding in a bright red little Kia which Anne Lise had rented at the airport for the tour.

Our first stop was the Baphumelele Children’s Home, the inspired project of a woman in the township, Rosalia Mashale. Rosie founded the home in 1989 with a single building, and the greatly expanded complex of buildings now provides lodging and care to upwards of 4,000 children. We walked through a nursery staffed by volunteers, playing with infants in a setting as clean and welcoming as you might find in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Many of these children are simply left at the door of Baphumelele, which now has two closet-sized rooms with empty cribs, available for drop-offs after hours.

I urge you to check out the link to the Children’s Home, because I’m not going to be able to do it justice here.  The overall impression I had was that it is an example of the power of a single individual to make a difference.  We did not have a chance to meet Rosie, but her presence was all around us, and her photo was on a billboard-sized sign over the home.

Baphumelele was protected by concrete walls topped with barbed wire, but we heard no stories of violence while there.  Nor did things look dangerous at Spurs, right in the middle of a new mall in the township.  We sat across from a table of girls who looked to be about four years old, singing and celebrating a birthday.  But Mzwai himself, during lunch, casually mentioned that he’d been mugged two weeks ago as he was waking near his shack at about 11 p.m. Six youths jumped him, and one of them hit him with a brick on the back of his neck.  This was probably designed to knock him out, but he resisted, and he thinks two of his assailants knew him and talked the others out of stabbing him.  They were looking for his cellphone and whatever other valuables he might be carrying.  I was so taken aback by the story that I neglected to ask if they did actually rob him. Mzwai said such attacks don’t happen during the day, which made us feel only slightly better.

When we reconvened with our fellow Gate1 travelers for the farewell dinner, we learned that another couple, from Albany, NY, had also taken a tour of the townships. They found their tour on the web, and there are several to choose from. I think the one they went on is this one.  They raved about their guide, and about the chance to actually go into one of the shacks to meet the woman who lives there.  She makes her home available to the tour for a fee, and it gives her a chance to introduce people to her art. At first I thought this phenomenon of tourism in historically depressed areas was odd, but a quick search of Google resulted in impressive offerings in the U.S. as well. For instance, Harlem Heritage Tours and Discover Roxbury both look like terrific opportunities to see parts of America that may not be the first to come to mind as tourist destinations.

We learned so much about South Africa in a short time on the Gate1 tour that my preconceptions about such tours have undergone a big change.  When we’re back in Denver and Boston and we see some big, fat white bus delivering bewildered tourists from abroad onto the sidewalk, I’m going to appreciate their spirit of adventure and hope they’re having a great experience.  I’ve even wondered what it would be like to sign up for a tour of Boston or Denver, especially one where the participants are mainly from overseas.

In any event, I’m glad we saw the townships.  The peace gathering and concert afterward at Novalis was also inspiring, but by the end of it my cup was full to overflowing with new sensations, and I was ready to return to the hotel and pack for the train.

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