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.

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