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.

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