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.


  1. really does sound unbelievable. despite the bugs, i can tell from your description why people would never want to leave. makes me miss my block parties. though boy...thats a pretty different world. love you.