I don’t exactly live in a neighborhood; it is more of a random cul-de-sac. I only have three neighbors and my family doesn’t really interact with any of them. Occasionally we wave when they are outdoors gardening. Others don’t even acknowledge our presence. Sometimes my dad spies on them. I live in a beautiful house and have a wonderful family, but said neighborhood is seriously lacking a sense of community.
Conversely, in the townships of South Africa, there is a strong, great sense of community. During a township tour that our class took last week, we learned about the areas of Langa, Guguletu, and Khayelitsha. These are not small areas either; Khayelitsha alone stretches for hundreds of miles (or kilometers if you are South African) and is home to close to 3 million inhabitants (according to our tour guide, Mike).
For those unfamiliar with South African lingo (as I was prior to my trip), a township is an informal settlement. During apartheid many black and coloured peoples were moved from their homes in the city centers and relocated to more inconvenient locations (to make room for white settlements). I actually work in Guguletu and Philippi (two different townships located right next to one another). Each township has a distinct vibe, history, culture, trend, population, etc. For example, Lindela told me and Allison that people in Guguletu are known as being “trend setters” while those in Philippi are more down to earth (if this is true, I have no idea).
As we were driving our large 15 passenger van through the different townships, I couldn’t help but notice all the neighbors interacting. Most of the kids are out on winter break (weird to think about for all you Americans back home, huh?) so they are running around playing games in the road. They play with simple toys; zinc cans stacked atop one another, tires, and deflated balls. Everyone seems to wash their laundry together or on the same day; it is almost like a community event. All the women gather around a large bucket of water, scrub and chat. After the laundry is done, everyone hangs the clothes out to dry and leaves them there unattended. For all the supposed (and real) crime, everyone seems to trust that their clothes will not be stolen.
After most BEEP workshops, we have to walk the kids through the township to the nearest busy street so that they can catch a taxi home (if they don’t live in walking distance from school). I love these short walks because I get a street view of the townships. The kids waive to their neighbors, stop and talk to others learners and introduce us to their friends. One time, Allison got proposed to in the street and a man offered her 8 cows (impressive!). When cars drive down the tiny roads, they honk at the dogs and the children, everyone screams, the driver waves and all activity resumes. I feel very alive when I walk down these streets. It is rare that anyone is ever cooped up inside their homes because there really isn’t any television to watch, internet to surf or Xbox to play. Additionally, you can’t really call some of these homes a home; mothers and fathers have probably done the best they could for their children. But most of the time, shacks are really just zinc, sheets of metal or wood nailed together.
My house is made of brick, with a big black front door and a nice black-board fence all the way around the property. There is a pond off the in distance and horse farms are close by. Of course, I have great family and friends, but I have never had great neighbors near this house. I don’t even know their names. Most of the kids I work with live in a shack. They know what has happened to their neighbor’s cousin. They know how their other neighbor’s dog died and what their best friend’s plans are for the evening. They know what time to go outside to play a game. They know who to turn to when they are upset and who the best cook is on the block. The majority of white South Africans would tell me to stay away from the “crime ridden townships”. But most of the time, I find myself wanting to be a part of a community like this. I wish I could have the best of both worlds.