Saturday, March 28, 2009

Politics and a dash of culture

It's easy, with all of the amazing things Cape Town has to offer, to forget that this is an election year in South Africa, one of the most important in recent history. It's easy to ignore the thousands of signs posted on poles and lampposts when you are focused on school work and other things. But the fact remains that the county, after April 22nd, is likely to experience significant change.

South Africa has around 14 different political parties, with only 4 actually in contention. Since 1994 elections have been dominated by the African National Congress, the party of Mandela. However, in recent years, the ANC has been plagued by corruption, cronyism, and poor policies. It still holds the majority and it is likely to stay that way, but serious opposition is starting to emerge.

On Thursday I went to a debate hosted by UCT during which four of the major parties were represented (the ANC, the Democratic Alliance, COPE [an offshoot of the ANC], and the Independent Democrats). It was incredible to see how enthusiastic the students were; the place was absolutely packed, and people cheered, booed, and were jumping in their seats to ask questions.

The actual debate was very interesting...a lot of ganging up on the ANC, accusing it of corruption, incompetence, etc. The parties all seemed to agree (despite some minor bickering here and there) about issues like poverty, HIV/AIDS, and crime. Some of the most intriguing debate was around the xenophobic violence that has erupted against immigrants from Zimbabwe and neighboring countries. Also, there has been a lot of controversy around the ruling party's recent refusal to permit entrance into South Africa for the Dalai Lama for a peace conference. There has been a ton of criticism of the ANC, and the way the ANC justified it was absolutely ridiculous. The reality of the situation is that South Africa is a staunch ally of China, nothing more, and didn't want to upset Beijing.

The debate was really, really exciting. The ANC's presidential candidate is a man named Jacob Zuma, who, according to common perception, is incompetent, inexperienced, and corrupt. He has also been accused of rape. In a parliamentary system like South Africa's, though, the way places are set on the ballot is determined by who's been around longest, not who's most qualified. In other words, since the ANC is still the dominant party, South Africa's likely next president will be a man that most people don't trust or believe in. It really is absurd when you think about it.

Yesterday me and a couple people went to a see a play at the Baxter Theater that was part of a month long theater festival. The festival apparently won an award for cultural development, so I was eager to see part of it. The play we saw was pretty bizarre.... half of it was spoken in Xhosa, and it told the story of a white man coming to a village to set up a shop. The story was a little confusing, but the singing and dancing were amazing. It's amazing to see how important singing and dancing are to cultural expression, especially among the Xhosa people.

Luckily, I'm close to feeling better, FINALLY. Only an essay and test left before Botswana and Victoria Falls!

Thursday, March 26, 2009


From the front page of the UCT website. Most staged picture of all time!

Hundreds of Cape Town high-school learners are set to become 'legal wise' as UCT students take a legal-education programme to disadvantaged communities.

Launched last year, the Legal Welfare Community Organisation (LAWCO) is furthering initiatives to educate the youth about human rights and the law.

Workshops have been hosted at Aloe Secondary School in Mitchell's Plain, at Lavender Hill High School in Steenberg, and at the Student Health and Welfare Centre Organisation (SHAWCO) Saturday school at UCT. This has given Grade 10 and 11 students from Athlone, Crossroads, Heideveld, Kensington, Khayelitsha, Manenberg, Mitchell’s Plain and Nyanga basic legal education.

Workshops have also been scheduled for schools in the SHAWCO Student Mentored All Round Tuition (SMART) education project. These will examine civil and political rights, labour law, and family law.

The LAWCO project is funded by LexisNexis and is one of SHAWCO's 12 flagship projects.

LAWCO project leader Rebecca Metz said the organisation aims to create a culture of meaningful student involvement in the community and targets all law students. They not only contribute to community development but gain practical experience while applying their knowledge.

"The LAWCO project adds to the options available to UCT law students when fulfilling their community service hours," said Metz.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Not too much to write on this week. LAWCO went really well again. It was funny because as we were leaving the school to load equipment onto the bus, a group of young kids swarmed us, giving us high fives and laughing with us. And one of them even said they liked my pointy nose!

I have loved getting to know the UCT students in the group. Everyone is really motivated and intelligent. It has also been awesome hanging out with some different people. On Monday I went to a random surprise birthday party that a girl from my glass invited me too where I was the only American for once. It was refreshing, and I met some of my leaders for the Botswana trip, which is going to be just incredible.

On Friday I went with Will and Cami to Kalk Bay and Fish Hoek, two towns along the cape which were both beautiful, except for the fact that I randomly started feeling really sick. I had a pretty bad fever and headache all weekend, which was sooooo annoying.

Today I just started feeling better. I saw advertisements hanging on poles for a Cape Town Festival in the Company's Gardens celebrating Cape Town's 'cultural diversity.' Aaron and I minibused downtown to go, and had a very bizarre day. The 'festival,'; for example, was nothing more than a few shabby food stands and a very awkward concert with people sitting on the grass in the heat. We then passed on the way out what looked like a demon man. He was really short and pale with a huge nose and enormous head. Then, on Kloof Street (which is a pretty upscale trendy street) we were sitting outside drinking smoothies when a little beggar child accosted us. He started begging for money, and when we ignored him he threatened to steal Aaron's phone. When he put it away, the kid sat down and started kicking and shaking the chairs. So we went inside as he swore at us. Later on as we were walking down the street, a teenage-ish girl asked us for money for a cab, and when we ignored her she followed us for a block swearing and threatening us. It was a little unnerving because a couple people on our program have gotten mugged recently in broad daylight.

But this is Cape Town. Always a little bizarre.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Busy Saturday

Saturday we took a group trip the the District Six Museum, a collection or artifacts commemorating District Six, an enormous area that was designated to be for whites only by the South African government. The neighborhood, which at time was a bustling community with an incredible black culture, was virtually leveled. The museum has a collection of street signs, maps, newspaper articles, pictures, and first-hand accounts. It was a powerful place and reminds you that these just weren't collections of houses that were destroyed....they were societies. We only spend twenty or so minutes inside, which as a little disappointing. I would love to go back.

We then traveled to Langa, the first black township in South Africa. It was similar to Tambo Village, just bigger. We did, however, tour one of the hostels, where families would pile into tiny rooms (sometimes 5 families to one room). I can't imagine two families living in one of them, never mind five. Our tour guide compared the place to a prison.

We also got to go inside some of the informal shacks that migrants and really poor families still live in. It was pretty tiny, of course, but we did get to taste a traditional South African beer (which tasted putrid, haha). It felt kind of weird t o be touring a township like it was a zoo or a museum. This is how people live. But at least we were led around by someone who lives there. You could really hear the pride in his voice, even though he was sometimes speaking about how terrible the living conditions are.

After Langa we took a ferry to Robben Island, where political prisoners were kept by the apartheid government. Despite an incredible view of Cape Town, the island is considered the 'hell of South Africa.' And for good reason. The place is absolutely barren, the stone buildings ash gray. The vegetation is brown and parched, and the sun beats down ceaselessly on the sand and limestone. We saw some of places where prisoners were kept, learning about the history of political struggle in South Africa. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned here for twenty years (his cell was 6 feet by 6 feet).

Robben Island is certainly a forlorn place and represents the horrors of political oppression. But it also symbolizes the struggle and eventual achievement of freedom. That struggle's success is the only reason we were on the island to begin with.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Considering that this was the first workshop LAWCO has ever done, it went surprisingly well. We traveled to a school in Mitchel's Plain, a township about twenty minutes from Cape Town. There were a few glitches here and there, but the students seemed really interested. The tried to answer questions, laughed at all the skits, and were really enthusiastic about the auction at the end (we put on a fake auction to discuss the importance of various human rights in South African society). My role was pretty small...I only have a couple lines in one skit. I am also responsible for leading discussion in groups when different rights are being auctioned off. Again, it was amazing to see how much students were engaged, and I really do think that they learned something. Will it change their lives? Probably not. But it's a start, of course.

I haven't been doing too much this week because I have been pretty sick (with what, I'm not sure). But I have been noticing somethings when talking to foreign students and observing things around campus. It is just amazing to see the influence that American culture and politics has here. Everywhere there are posters advertising lectures on Obama and American foreign policy. American music is played, people watch American movies and TV shows, dress in American clothes. Our culture has also invaded; despite the fact that you gain nothing legally, 21st birthdays are consist of huge themed celebrations that usually take over an entire weekend. One girl was talking about Halloween, and how she had no idea why South Africans celebrated it. She told me about a time when she was a kid she tried to go trick-or-treating at an old white man's house, and he came to the door with a shotgun thinking he was being robbed! This is all new to me. You don't realize until you travel outside the States just how much our society influences others.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Orphanage, Lion's Head

I have been adjusting more every day to life at UCT... people are generally very friendly, and I have met a lot of people from South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and more. I have found that some groups tend to take cliquey to the extreme. I was talking to a girl from Zambia the other day, and she was telling me how intimidated she was by the Afrikaner girls, who all hang out together and look EXACTLY the same. She told me that she usually only hangs out with people from Zambia, and that most people tend to stick with those that are similar to. I mean it makes sense, and it's not like it's that different in the U.S. But here I feel like the divide is a little more serious.

Yesterday I visited an orphanage about 15 minutes away with a pretty big group. One of the girl's on our program has been going every Saturday, so she let a bunch of us tag along. It is impossible to overemphasize how close these townships are to Cape Town, but yet, how easy it would be to never leave the city and assume that 3/4 of the population was middle class and white.

The building was painted green and was pretty shabby. We were led inside by a South African guy Mike who lives on our street and has been volunteering there for a couple years. There was an outdoor play area with a concrete floor, a couple buildings for sleeping, and a kitchen. We met the Mama in charge of the orphanage, one of the sweetest most genuine women you could imagine (easy to see, despite the language barrier). We learned that she started the orphanage from scratch in 1994, and that it has been taking in more and more kids from the area throughout the years. Some have no parents, some were abandoned. There was one child, for instance, who was named, simply, "Gift." It was just incredible to think how much dedication and love it must have taken to initiate such a difficult project, how much motivation and selflessness is must have required to keep it running so smoothly all these years.

The kids, like all kids, didn't waste any time taking advantage of their new group of visitors. We played with children from ages 1-12 for literally three hours, learning their songs and dances, playing games with them, carrying them around, coaching them in a giant one-legged race, hugging them. The kids were fascinated by such simple things, like American girls' hair, or my leg hair, to my friend's beard. None of us seemed to care how dirty and sweaty we were getting. The most amazing part about all of this was that they spoke barely a word of English. That's the thing...with kids, it really just doesn't matter. Kids are kids no matter where they are, no matter where and how they are growing up. Playing, hugging, dancing, are common, human desires, and it doesn't matter if you speak Xhosa or Spanish, if you live in a poor orphanage or a mansion. That, I think, is the most important function of this orphanage. It gives kids a chance to be kids, which we all need.

We spent some times talking to the older kids, who were pretty shy. They spoke a little bit of English, which was impressive, and despite their general quietness, seemed to have so many talents and passions. I had an amazing time there this weekend, and I definitely plan on going back in a couple weeks. I am not going to sit here and pretend that visiting an orphanage is some incredible service to humanity. But seeing their excitement, their joy at having new playmates (even for three hours) makes it worth it for me.

The incredible irony of my Saturday is that when I returned to my flat, I took a minibus down to Camp's Bay, one of the most beautiful areas of South Africa, to meet some people. It also happens to be the wealthiest, and thus, whitest. The contrast was really difficult to reconcile. For a while I felt guilty.... that I can go take a trip into a township and visit an orphanage in my free time, and then just like that leave and forget about it while the kids and people there still struggle to survive. That seems to be the curse of this country. That it is so easy, which it's beaches and restaurants and mountains, to forget what is really going on.

Anyways, the beach was beautiful, and we rushed through dinner in order to get to the Lion's Head trail in time to make it up for sunset. The hike wasn't too strenuous, and Aaron and I broke off toward the top to take a short cut that required you to climb up slippery rocks vertically, using chains and ladders. That is when it got a little more difficult. But it was worth it, because we made it to the top just in time to see the most spectacular sunset I have ever seen. From the top, you can see Cape Town, Table Mountain, Camps Bay and the jagged peaks of the Twelve Apostles, Robben Island, Sea Point. You can see it all. As the sun sank below ocean, the whole area was a beautiful orange/purple, including the clouds that slid like waterfalls down Table Mountain. As the lights of Cape Town began to blink on, everything was covered in a deep shade of purple. It's obviously impossible to describe in words.

We hiked down in the dark with a South African church group, and somehow made it down without any incidents. My Saturday, like much of this country, was really one giant contrast. Like the top of Lion's Head, it is part of what makes this country so beautiful. But it's also what makes this country so, at times, so frustratingly perplexing.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Tambo Village

This will be a pretty long update. I just got back from a home stay this weekend in Tambo Village, a township 15 minutes outside of Cape Town. That’s right. 15 minutes. The contrasts and contradictions of this country, as I have said before, are just shocking. It’s probably necessary to give a little background on why these townships exist. It’s pretty simple; part of the apartheid laws enacted by the South African government during the second half of the 20th Century relocated non-whites (separating out coloreds from blacks as well) into these gated off communities outside of the white urban areas. So when SA had its first democratic elections in 1994, these communities of course still stood. By that time, the people growing up there were stuck in a virtually inescapable cycle of poverty. The laws may have perished, but the social and economic results of them are still very real.

I went with seven other people (I was the only guy,), and we took a taxi on Saturday afternoon to Tambo, where we were staying. It was amazing to me how quickly the township just kind of appeared. Before I knew it, we were driving along a dusty, trash-filled road with rows of colorful cement houses and children carelessly running around the streets. There were people EVERYWHERE. There were also stray dogs wondering aimlessly. I could tell right away, though, that this was a town that emphasized community. And that was just the beginning of it. Just that itself was a slap in the face; it took less than 15 minutes to enter what was a completely different world. I looked back to the night before, when I was at a completely white club in District 6, or driving around listening to blaring music on the way to a 24 hour food stop. I felt really bad about myself for some reason, which I don’t completely understand.

We stuck out right away, of course, and got a lot of curious stares from the black residents of the village. Mama Knox (the mother in charge of home stays) greeted us and showed us around her house, which was lovely. We then walked outside and were virtually attacked my a group of little boys (the girls must have been helping with dinner, because they joined later). We spent an hour giving them piggy-back rides and learning their names and where they lived. It was exhausting! They kids loved playing around with our cameras, taking pictures of each other and of us. It was amazing… they were so far from shy. They would just jump on you, demanding a ride or a hug or a high five. Kids were playing games with rocks and chalk in the street. Some of them were pulling sand-filled soda bottles with strings attached to them. When I asked one of them what they were, he said, “Dogs.”

We split up into different groups to meet our host families. Me and the girl I stayed with were led to another house down the street that was just as lovely as the first. The inside was very comfortable; they had a TV and a nice kitchen and couches. Not all houses looked like this, of course, which again made me feel a little strange. Our host mother, Mama Pikey (not sure of the spelling) was a rather large, gregarious woman who embraced us right away. She didn’t speak much English, which I was fine. It really enjoyed listening to the people speak Xhosa, the first language of most of the blacks from the Western Cape. It’s a beautiful language, full of clicks and clacks, and it kind of just flows softly off the tongue.

After meeting our host family we walked to Khanyisa Community Church, which is a nondenominational place of worship and community center. We were met by a group of young twenty-somethings who were incredibly friendly and welcoming. We all sat in a circle and chatted for a while, learning their names (which are very difficult to pronounce and remember) and about the incredible role the church has in Tambo Village. We then played charades (girls vs. guys), which was hilarious because everybody WAY too into it. Then we sat in a circle and talked about our perceptions of our lives and where we thought we were heading. Everyone seemed so interested in each other, and people were just so sure of themselves, so comfortable and happy and motivated. I met a girl from England that has been living there for months who is making a documentary about the village, trying to show people how vivid and flourishing the culture and community can be in these townships.

We then walked back for dinner, which was fluffy bread with chicken and potatoes and some kind of salty gravy. Family life seems pretty hierarchical; the daughters help the mother cook, and the father sits there with the kids drinking beer and watching soccer. The food was delicious after walking around so much in the heat, and we tried to engage our host father in sports conversation—difficult because his English was limited. I watched Wicker Park on TV with Mama and her daughter. Conversation was pretty limited because of the language barrier, but I still felt welcome, and it was kind of nice to relax with them. I didn’t see my Mama again after that because she had to wake up to go to a funeral in a neighboring township. We went to bed pretty early. Or tried to. We were supposed to sleep in our Mama’s room, which looked like a normal bedroom except for the fact that is was stuffy as hell. And, and the bed board was a virtual colony of fleas, cockroaches, and ants. I probably got about three hours of sleep and woke up with some wonderful red bug bites the next day.

Our host daughter made us breakfast (some sort of bran/wheat bars with warm milk and sugar), and we went outside to hang out with one of the sons and his friends and cousins out back. The back of the house had a couple shacks with beds in them, and they were filled with 18 and 19 year olds drinking Heinekens at 8:30 in the morning. I wasn’t exactly feeling like a beer that early, but I took one anyway and chatted with them. They were all really friendly, and a lot of them were going to the funeral (the boys, according to custom, were to forced to wear long-sleeve suit coats, despite the heat).

We then walked to church. It was such an incredible experience People were streaming in from the streets, sitting in rows of orange chairs in front of a set of bongos, drums, and guitars. It was great to see such diversity in the crowd (there were whites and blacks all mixed together). The visitors were all welcomed and we all stood up and introduced ourselves to applause to the crowd. The mass was completely reliant on music, which was incredibly uplifting. The two women singing had beautiful voices, and the twenty-somethings from the night before made up the band. Everything was spoken in English and translated into Xhosa, even the lyrics, which were displayed on a big projector screen. The minister, back from a three month leave, spoke about how happy he was to be back in the community. I remember standing there while the crowd sang “Amazing Grace”, feeling like I was part of this wonderful community of people who, despite all of their problems, cared so deeply for their families and for each other. I felt like I belonged, and I just took it all in. An enormous group of children performed some songs for the mass, and I noticed that there were way too many kids there compared to parents in t he crowd. This must mean that the church is getting into the communities to make a difference in these kids’ lives, despite the parents’ apathy. It is certainly a sign of hope. After the mass I met a ton of people from the village, the States, and Europe. It was such a community event, and I could really feel the fabric that holds these people together. It was there in the air, in the songs, in the tears of the parents and the shouting of praise.

We then went to Mzolli’s, which is in a larger town called Gugaletu (my internet isn’t working well so I can’t check the spelling on both of those). This is a pretty famous restaurant where you choose your own meat for them to braii (barbeque). The place was PACKED, and we had a few drinks and snacked on warm sugar rolls while we waited for our food. It came on enormous plates, which held piles of sausages, lamb chops, and chicken wings smothered in this delicious barbeque sauce. We literally just dug in (without napkins) and stuffed ourselves. It was DELICIOUS, and I the chance to get to know more of the local residents.

The whole experience went by in a flash, and in reality it was. It is impossible to fully understand one of these communities in one weekend. They are complex, and the bonds of community run deeper than we can comprehend. I had heard that a lot of people can afford to leave Tambo Village, but choose not to. Why? It’s the community. That sense of belonging, of family, of warmth.... of life. I was there for two days and I felt it. Whatever IT is, I felt it.

I am happy I got to experience a little of the township culture before I start LAWCO. I feel better equipped to understand the life and culture kids are coming from.

Definitely one of the most memorable weekends of my life.