Townships by Cara Driscoll

Before coming to South Africa, I dove into researching online about the country and participating in class discussions about the history, the culture, and the country. Although I am writing this blog post from our final day in Kruger National Park, I used this time to reflect on our time in Cape Town and specific aspects of that portion of the trip that moved me. Prior to coming to South Africa, I remember discussing with a few of my friends over the course of first semester at Elon and hearing a few of them say, “Well, South Africa isn’t really Africa, it’s more developed.” In the beginning of January, I flew to Cape Town without any preconceived notions in mind, ready to have my own experience and formulate my own thoughts. Although I did research on South Africa and attend class prior to coming to the country, I believe that you can not truly experience and/ or judge a place before coming and experiencing it first hand. I remembered what my friends had said about South Africa being nicer and more developed, and although I did experience that in the heart of Cape Town where we stayed at Mandela Rhodes, I also experienced the complete opposite. A main theme of this journey has been looking into the different socioeconomic classes of South Africa. A theme of the class in particular that relates to socioeconomic classes and that garners attention and focus is the townships throughout South Africa. 

We visited our first township as a group one of the first few days in Cape Town on our way to a small town on the water known as Hermanus. On our way to Hermanus, we drove through a township that evidently revealed intense poverty. Although I have seen (or thought) that I have seen true poverty, it became clear that I had not until I saw it firsthand. Fast forward to January 13th, our group had the opportunity to experience a truly incredible day. We began the day attending church in a township called Langa. We visited two separate churches, and I was in awe of what I experienced. In both churches, the people were extremely warm, welcoming, and excited to have us there with them. No one looked at us twice, and they accepted us with open arms. I was taken aback, because being so far away from home, I imagined church to be different. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I was completely wrong, as the second Baptist church made it feel like I was stepping into my own church at home, even singing some of the same songs. It made me realize that even though I am so far away from home, it really isn’t that different. Following the church services, we were led through a walking tour of the town of Langa. As we walked through the town, it was evident that the people were extremely impoverished. Our tour guide led us through the township and into some of the hostels, where multiple families resided at one time. He told us that a few adults slept in one bed together and children slept on the floor. At the time, it felt uncomfortable entering people’s homes, where they live with close to nothing, while we are on tour with a study abroad group and will later enjoy a nice dinner and a full sized bed all to ourselves. 

While it did feel a bit awkward stepping into someone’s home, I think that it was important to see and a pivotal moment in my learning experience. Although many of us hear about poverty and think that we know, one cannot truly experience it until it is seen first hand. Not only was it humbling, but it also makes me so much more thankful for what I have and the opportunities that are given to me. Even though the people of Langa do not live in the best conditions or have what other people have, I have never met more welcoming people. The children ran through the streets hugging us and dancing for us, and adults smiled and waved hello. 

Seeing the different townships firsthand, it made me think of my group’s research focus – the water crisis and how it has affected South Africa and the people within the country. After visiting the head of the water and sanitation center in Cape Town, I learned that at the height of the water crisis, families were only allotted 50 liters of water a day, which is less than an average length shower or one laundry cycle. Once a family reached the 50 liters, their water supply would be cut off for the day and they would not be allowed any additional water. Mike, the head of the water and sanitation center also described Cape Town as, “A Tale of Two Cities,” which I found extremely compelling. By this, he meant that Cape Town is divided. One moment, you will find yourself surrounded by immense poverty, and the next moment you will be surrounded by immense wealth. We experienced this as a group when we drove through a township on the way to Hermanus, and just moments later we found ourselves surrounded by beautiful villas. Mike explained that Cape Town hopes to change this, but that it does and will take time. 

Having the opportunity to see townships firsthand and reflect on them has allowed me to appreciate what I am given, but to also appreciate the simplicity in life and being happy without worrying about materialistic items. Ultimately, I chose to reflect on townships while in Kruger because my group was in the midst of putting all of our group research into our presentation for this evening in Kruger. While thinking about the water crisis alongside the townships, I thought – what can we do to make a difference? How can we help and change for the better? Although it may feel uncomfortable and awkward to visit townships and walk into people’s homes, it is important to be aware of what is going on in the world and think about what we can do to help, even if it is something small such as taking shorter showers or turning off the water while brushing your teeth.

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