welcome

Perspective

In Uncategorized on July 17, 2011 at 3:59 am

Yesterday was a lesson in perspective.

We live in an apartment in a neighborhood called Sea Point in Cape Town. Sea Point sits between Signal Hill and the Atlantic Ocean. It is picturesque to say the least and is regarded as one of Cape Town’s most affluent suburbs.

Sitting in an apartment with a simultaneous view of the ocean and the mountain, it is easy to think this is Cape Town. It is not.

Before 1991 or even as late as 1994, I would not have been able to be in this apartment unless I was cleaning it. Sea Point was once classified as a white’s only area under the Group Areas Act, that forced blacks to live in the less developed parts of the city, sending them further away from available work. “Post Apartheid” the neighborhood has become more multicultural.

Saturday is our community service day, which means another session with the children from the townships. We are a little more prepared this time; our rigid lesson plan is out the window for sure. It is my favorite day of the week because it puts into sharp perspective, what really matters.

It is also the day we venture out of the blurred views of sea point into where life really happens. Our trip is to a township called Khayelitsha. Many blacks were relocated forcefully or not to Khayelitsha in the 80s as an attempt to remedy the construction of illegal settlements or “squatter camps” around Cape Town.

We travel in 2 cars and drive about 40 minutes out of Sea Point toward Khayelitsha. As the journey progresses there is a clear transition between the settlement areas in the city. One of the other students who drives us is South African; she gives us a brief history lesson as we drive on how the non-whites; blacks, coloureds and indians, were arranged throughout the city.

Life for many people has simply stalled in the era of apartheid, for them there is little difference between now and then. As we drive, I’m struck by how many of the areas remind me of Makoko, a slum fishing village that rests on stilts above the Lagos Lagoon. We are all bound by the same thread, and in all circumstances, the human spirit remains resilient and resourceful.

We arrive at the Khayelitsha Methodist Church. I step out of the car and a woman who is staggering in her resemblance to my late grandmother immediately envelops me in a huge bear hug. She says “welcome my baby! My name is Winnie!” and kisses me on the cheek. I can’t find the words so I smile and say thank you. Winnie and 3 or 4 other women welcome us at the doors to church. They are dressed in uniform, black skirts, red tops with large white collars and white hats. From the doors we can hear the natural harmony of 30 or more women singing in unison. My eyes well up.

This is what is called a Women’s Manyano. A women’s group that meets here in the church every Saturday to find support in each other and in their shared faith. Manyano is the Xhosa word for “unity” and these women know all about it. They are the backbone of communities like Khayelitsha where poverty is only one of the myriad of problems they encounter in their day to day. We join them in a mix of English and Xhosa gospel songs, they smile as they dance, surround us with love. One of the women whispers to me “this is how we keep ourselves happy, we sing, we dance”. She too has my grandmother’s smile. The singing comes to an end and I sit down, overwhelmed by how familiar each face looks to me. Like many things in my life, this feels fated.

A representative for the group steps forward, they accompany her with a song. In fact, little happens in this space without a song of praise to go with it. She tells us how happy they are to have us share with them, how they find strength in this sort of fellowship with each other. “Our work does not end here” she says, they do not rely on praise alone. They are the foot soldiers, going into what are the most damaged parts of this community’s soul and doing all they can with limited resources and a lot of heart. They tell us how at 6 am they woke up to bury one of the founding members of this Women’s Manyano. They have buried four this month, with nothing but contributions from each woman in the group to make it happen. Every penny counts here and no one gets left behind.

The ceremony is short and sweet. We congregate in the parking lot taking pictures.

They giggle like young girls when I show them the pictures on my camera, then they walk out of the gate into the reality of life in Khayalitsha.

Our next stop is at one of the homes inside the township. We are there to visit the family of one of the student in the program. She introduces us to her brother, a tall black boy who towers over her, a white woman. The ties that bind this family together is steeped in more history than I can share, but the love is apparent, she is one of their own.

We are welcome into the home of her aunty who is having us over for tea. It is 6pm.
The living room looks nothing like what the homes appear to be on the outside. It is beautiful. She has worked tirelessly to renovate the space, turning lemons into lemon meringue pie. The floor is marble, a large flat screen tv sits at the end of the room. I’m dumbfounded. She welcomes us into the kitchen for tea, her daughter who has just walked in from work is already hard at work mixing cups of tea and setting out cookies. I’m reminded of my mother.

We gather around the table over hot cups of tea and are immediately drawn into the family. There are stories and a lot of laughter. One of the boys is an aspiring rapper, he whips out his phone and plays us some of his demo-tracks. The beats are completely homemade he tells us, “are you listening?” he says.

He begins to translate the lyrics, “my hands are empty, my pockets are empty, there is nothing on my shelf, I am bare”.

This is life in the townships, with hardship around every corner. If you listen closely there is laughter pouring out of the open windows, the sound of 30 women singing an ancient harmony, and all around Khayalitsha the glow of a spirit that spits in the face of oppression.

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