After a few years in the limelight, it’s not news that South Africa offers an amazing diversity of treats for people to enjoy on their Career Break or Sabbatical leave. The country’s crime is an issue which attracts plenty of news, all unwanted. There’s no dispute that the worst crime takes place in the townships, so I was amazed to find out that these over-populated and impoverished shanty towns are open for tourists. Two of us, plus guide, head for Khayelitsha. The legacy of apartheid remains blossoming and burgeoning to this day.
We’re armed with a Canon, the photographic version, and a toothbrush. An overnight stay in the township awaits as part of our Career Break..
Over four in ten people here are jobless and seventy per cent are HIV positive. But behind these stark statistics lies an amazing attribute.
It’s called Ubuntu.
In an African version of rock, paper and scissors, Ubuntu would defeat despair and disease every time. Ubuntu means spirit. Their saying goes “a single straw of a broom can be broken easily, but the straws together are not easily broken.” Fierce adversity brings them together with a ferocity that is Ubuntu.
We meander further to a shack where Cynthia leans studiously into a window frame. We engage in conversation, chatting easily despite her strong township African drawl.
She was born on 30th July 1966, the day England won the World Cup and since then has had six kids, three of each and is a Grandma several times over. She works as a cleaner in an office in the city. Her monthly income is not much more than £100. By the time she has paid for electricity for her ancient TV and tiny fridge, bought paraffin to provide meagre heat for her home and paid for her Golden Arrow bus to work, she has less than a pound a day to feed the kids. Six days a week, they eat mealie pap and sour milk. If they’re lucky, they may have enough for meat on Sundays, but fruit and vegetables never bless their table.
She goes on. Her eldest son has just “gone to the bush.” This means that he, at 18, has left the township and now resides in a field by the motorway under a plastic tarpaulin with dozens of other teenagers. Here an unskilled nurse will perform a circumcision on the poor fellow. This is his official Xhosa coming of age. Dozens die from this operation every year as a result of blood poisoning from poor hygiene. They remain there recovering for a couple of weeks after the operation.
Her husband is a gardener in Stellenbosch. He rises at 4 to get to work at 7:30, returning in time for a late dinner and bed. It’s an existence. Hope is an aspiration, Ubuntu a drive.
I humbly volunteer Cynthia the equivalent of a few pounds and she thanks me calling me “Master.” I have learned so much from her, especially humility. “Bless you teacher,” is my response and she laughs. What an amazing woman.
Kids play in a rust-infested playground. The most infectious thing around here is their grins. And the Ubuntu. They pose for photographs, keenly reviewing the results on the digital screen. Their football is made of plastic bags and elastic bags. Humbled again. They have so little and yet they have so much of the sort of things that we seek and cannot find.
Vicky’s B&B is a small success story in a place where failure abounds. It was started as a small enterprise in 1999 by Vicky and her husband. This is my third visit in 10 years but the first time I have parted with the R200 you pay for a bed, a hearty hot (ish) chicken and pasta dinner and a simple breakfast. As the two of us sit there enjoying the fruits of our afternoons labour as well as a glass of red wine, we are invited to join Vicky and her team of young and old for evening prayers.
We join in. It’s the least we can do.
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