Township Trekking

In America township is the confusing name for communities with strict boundaries (especially in New Jersey or Pennsylvania) or specific land measurements. South African townships may have boundaries but have little to do with rhetoric. Townships were created through the infamous apartheid government to isolate the races. In a grotesque fashion, different ethnic groups were removed from their lands and relocated in a designated community or township. This was how places like Soweto (South Western Townships) emerged. Even though apartheid was officially ousted in 1994, poverty and racism (which can unfortunately is known to stick around for 100s of years in some countries) still confines people to townships. Townships still exist all over South Africa, and unfortunately have a bad rap.

Take the township in one of my closest towns. Across the local SPAR (grocery store), there is a beautiful bridge that crosses a river. On one side the view is a grain silo and the other is Katane a township. Mention Katane to the town residents and people quote extreme sexual assault and HIV prevalence rates that would make any Public Health student triple check their numbers. Yeah any area with high unemployment will have nasty social issues like domestic violence, substance abuse and in my program’s case HIV/AIDS. We can dwell on those statistics all we want, but then the townships are unable to share their positive attributes. My experience with townships is that they have an incredible sense of community. Many of the movements that counteracted apartheid originated in townships. With houses in close proximity to each other, everyone is aware about everyone’s business. People are forced to care about each other.

How can I claim this? I spent a weekend in a South African township (and am fine parents!)

Last week, my living arrangement got a much needed ceiling. While the addition curbs my irrational fears of freezing to death in the Drakensburg winter, it was a trying week for someone who dislikes packing (the process puts this autistic in an overwhelmed frenzy). Also my host family asked me to move rooms so the kitchen is close to the outside (with no plumbing it makes more sense). In the middle of my moving angst, one of the wonderful PCV ladies of my cluster (we all share a shopping town) offered me a brief escape from my temporary chaos. So Friday, I went into town for a much delayed flu shot and took a taxi to my friend’s (aka the Social Worker as that is how she views the world) township for a weekend away.

My first interaction with the Social Worker’s community was being the palest occupant of the taxi, and the other passengers helped me get off at the right taxi rank. My particular taxi got there in record time, and I had to wait for my friend to get a taxi to town In South Africa travel through taxis is unpredictable and eventually she decided to walk 20 minutes to the towns taxi rank. During the wait, some man started to yell at the sight of a white girl from his truck. I was not uncomfortable but two women came up addressed me in isiZulu

Nicela usizo? (Please can I help you).

In my community, people usually address me in English (which makes my isiZulu practice difficult). These ladies forced me to adapt to their community and I loved that push! Even though I told them Kulungile (I am okay) my friend is coming, they still sat with me on the curb when I moved to get away from the uproar of “Hey Mamas” from the truck driver’s jeers. I watched a calf devour peanut shells while a gogo dissected enormous bags of peanuts into packets for sale. Simultaneously, I saw goats walk in front of the car, as if they owned the road (there may be a rude awakening for entitled goats in South Africa). Eventually I started to play with one of the women’s infant sons and warmed up to the women. One of them actually worked as a Home Based Carer, and by the time my friend arrived we were deep in conversation about South African hospices.

Shortly after reuniting with the Social Worker, we parted ways with the women and headed to the grocery store for supplies. I am slightly jealous that the grocery store was reached on foot. With the exception of tuck shops (junk food central…plus eggs) the closest overpriced grocery store in my community is a 20 minute taxi ride (and 12 rand). Usually I get buy food in town and hope that I did not forget any supplies in the process as we have two shopping weekends a week. We bought a few groceries and walked back to the taxi rank for a 5 rand/10 minute ride to her township and disembarked at a tuck shop. We met the Pakistani owner and a Sotho worker, apparently the owner is the only other non-black in the area. The Social Worker is turning to eggs as her primary source of protein, so the tuck shop owner bantered with her copious egg purchases while I attempted Setswana with the Sotho cashier. is so lovely

Rondavel…it is so lovely

After obtaining eggs, we walked 5 minutes (really I am amazed at how close everything was) to her house. The Social Worker lucked out and was placed in a rondavel separate from the house. The round shape provides great ventilation and space. Since a New Mexican was visiting, the Social Worker decided to put me to work making tortillas for tacos (I made them for a party during PST and my cohort raves about Red’s homemade tortillas…I am still figuring how to make them well in SA) The end product was chewy but okay, except klutzy Katey was sidged by flying flour particles. Nothing major, it was easily fixed by the PC provided antibiotic ointment. We also met her lovely host family that night. In addition to making good food, we spent the weekend taking it easy and talking about social justice for hours straight (somethings will never change…my quirky conversational preferences is one of them). We needed to recuperate after our Saturday visitors.

The Social Worker lives in an area that has a surplus of children. This is both good and bad. Good because the Social Worker is great with children but bad because we are both introverts. The two weeks before I came, the Social Worker was overwhelmed by 15 children and penalized them for not listening by banning visits the following week and had to set a rule of only 4 children in the rondovel at a time and they could only come after noon. Saturday morning we took it easy and used low-shedding (the electronic hot water heater would not work) as an excuse to bathe late. The children were not allowed to come until noon, and I have become skilled at quick bucket baths. Once the power returned round 10 AM, the Social Worker went while I gave her privacy and then it was my turn.

Around 10:45 AM, I think I hear a knock on the door. I could be mistaken (then again I managed to understand a bit of a bar fight in isiZulu the night before from a shabeen four blocks away from the rondovel) so I notify the social worker. Sure enough another tap comes through the door and child’s voice says the Social Worker’s isiZulu name. For a second we are unsure of how to handle the situation, because I am bathing and fully exposed right in front of the door (I rather South African children learn about female bodies through their families, not a visitor to their community). The knocking and calling continues, and finally the Social Worker apologizes and while averting her vision tells the child to go away because it is not noon yet. The child runs away crying and I finish my business, amused by the new cultural context of privacy.

After the child went away, we ate our delayed frittata (which was also impacted by the power outage), gathered water at the family’s tap, and the Social Worker swept the rondavel. Noon came…and there were no children. After her descriptions of the weekend that instigated the rule, I anticipated a line of children waiting at the rondavel. Around 12:15 a few children slowly made their way to the rondavel door. The three boys asked for help with a school fundraiser. The social worker gently denied them, as she would have to give a donation every child in the township. The boys left and a few minutes’ later two girls came. They asked for a movie and a passionate debate ensued between the two choices: Cinderella and Aladdin. I said that the boy changes for the girl in Aladdin and my feminist comment (not really) resolved the argument.

The Social Worker put in Aladdin and we all started to color. A few more kids came and started a card game. They asked me to play a game called 5 cards and asked me to join. I warned them that I am a staunch rule follower and I will call any player out if cheating occurs (why I cannot play board games with my immediate family). That did not deter them and we started the game. The girls became a little bit impatient as they taught an American the strategy of getting two pairs and an ace in a hand, but we made it through. I only had to call them out once for using Jokers. Around 2, another group of kids wanted to come in so the Social Worker decided to excuse the children with a dance party to Beyonce’s Halo. Those kids could dance.

After the children left (and we got the two older girls to stop tapping on the rondavel door) we went to visit the former PCV’s family. The former PCV was one of the best presenters at PST, a great role model for how a sensitive PCV should behave, and left a great legacy in the township. The Social Worker is close to the former PCV’s host family and the sisters wanted to meet me. We took a beautiful 10 minute walk to the other side of the township and met her gogo. The generously offered juice and biscuits as we visited. The Social Worker made plans to make pizza for one of the sisters’ birthdays. I also learned from the gogo that there are Catholics in my valley (which was not something I was aware of, I am not religious but it is always nice to see my culture and know someone else understands what mass means)!


The weekend was too short but the lessons learned transcend the 48 hours. Townships are painted as this gloomy, dirty, slum of social problems. Honestly I did not see any dramatic displays of social issues. Yes there was a shabeen (or bar) 4 blocks away but I also have a shabeen down my hillside. I am just in a more rural area. There are extreme HIV and substance abuse prevalence rates but at the same time, there are vivacious children playing on every block. There are citrus trees juxtaposed with cinder bloc houses in distinct harmony. There is pain in the community but there is also life. I also have to credit the Social Worker. She and the former PCV are incredibly sensitive to ethnic injustice and you have be to live as a white girl in a community founded by racist policies. Had she not been there to guide my perceptions, I may not see the beauty of townships. I am excited to learn from her in the next 24 months.

This sort of looks like home!

This sort of looks like home!

Overall it was a nice visit. I loved seeing another area of South Africa through another PCV in my cohort. It was especially great to see the Social Worker interact with the kids (she is really gifted in that area). Also, gave me a welcomed taste of New Mexico.

This is basically a New Mexican Landscape!

No really this is basically a New Mexican Landscape!


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