Who’s afraid of the big, black township? Khayelitsha For Beginners.

One of the best damn coffees in town.
One of the best damn coffees in town.

So, shortly after writing my Ubuntu piece (and how synchronicity works) I met an old friend, Pippa, for lunch who has been working in Khayelitsha for the past 8 years. She talked about how white South Africans (myself included) have no idea of what this place on our doorstep actually is about, or what happens there, and offered to take me in with her one day for some much-needed enlightenment, and today was that day. And it didn’t take me long to realise what a one-dimensional view most of us have of this sprawling suburb, seeing only the rows of shacks which line the n2.

This hospital could be anywhere in Europe.
The new Khayelitsha hospital is so fancy it could be anywhere in Europe.

In truth, Khayelitsha is home to nearly a million people, and while it certainly has its quota of informal dwellings, the suburb itself is divided into suburbs, some every bit as middle class as Kenilworth. It has schools, a mall, a gym, a large college and a brand new, modern hospital. It also has spaza shops, hairdressing salons, panel-beaters and cash stores, and even on an arb Wednesday morning there were women braaing meat, washing clothes, walking babies, chatting to their buddies. There is a cool, laid-back vibrancy about this place and ja, it’s shabby and ja, the soil is of such poor quality very few trees manage to grow, but it has industry, an energy and a sense of community that made me wonder who the poor people in this country really are.

Pre-R's learning a dance for their upcoming graduation ceremony.
Grade R’s learning a dance for their upcoming graduation ceremony.

And I’m not romanticising poverty. The reason why Pippa is there is because she started a project called ‘Home From Home’ (www.homefromhome.org.za) which provides housing to children who have been rescued from circumstances of physical and/or sexual abuse or who, for whatever reason, have lost their parents and their homes. ‘Home From Home’ has 32 houses with six children and a surrogate mother in each. We visited some of these houses which, while they are modest and everything in them is second-hand, are homely, safe spaces which provide these kids with stability, family life, nourishing food, warm beds and place to call home. And the surrogate moms work hard and the kids don’t have a lot but, despite their circumstances, they are happy and thriving and have great hope and plans for their future, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.

Surrogate mom, Beaulah, with her assistant, Sandile
Surrogate mom, Beaulah (on the right), with her assistant, Sandile

We also visited a very cool place called ‘Learn to Earn’ which teaches its students a variety of skills such as sewing, baking, carpentry and office management which makes them employable and empowers them to start small businesses and support themselves. And the people running this place are so dedicated and passionate it’s humbling to witness. And I thought to myself as I talked to staff how careful we must be of dehumanising these ‘off limits’ zones. Just go visiting on a Friday which is braai day (of course) and when a hard working week ends with a much-deserved cold beer; where Saturday is for kuiering, shopping and getting your hair done, and Sunday the enormous church with its very (very) long service is filled to capacity with singing, dancing worshippers. The ‘other’ is much less other than we imagine.

Where adults of all ages are able to learn a trade.
Where adults of all ages are able to learn a trade.

And sure, it’s sad – there’s a ten-year-old little boy who keeps running away in search of his parents who are missing somewhere in the Eastern Cape and obviously don’t give a hoot about their child but, being little, he still tries to find them. And some of the tiny ones whose faces lit up when we entered the room and gave us huge smiles and waves and thumbs-up ‘sharp-sharp’s – it’s heartbreaking imagining anyone abandoning these gorgeous little creatures. But it’s not depressing, it’s uplifting and encouraging seeing the amazing work being done there. ‘Home From Home’ hires a clever, dedicated young social worker who makes herself completely accessible to these kids and helps them transition and process some of the stuff they’ve had to deal with.

And what a huge wake up call and reminder that we must damn well stop whining already. We live incredible lives in an incredible place and we need to stop blaming and pointing fingers; it’s time to pull up our sleeves and, like Gandhi said, be the change we want to see. It’s not that hard – there are so many opportunities available for reaching out and changing things. Today was proof of that.

A talented graphic art student at 'Learn to Earn.'
A talented graphic art student at ‘Learn to Earn.’

Pippa told us how often she gets warned by white South Africans that she shouldn’t go into Khayelitsha; that it’s not safe for a woman. And these are sentiments a lot of us have been led to believe (I think it was that Amy Biehl story nobody can get over) but, in reality, it’s just a place like any other. Everybody we encountered was friendly and approachable. I left my leather jacket in the car when we went inside homes, and I didn’t feel frightened or wary for a second. We stopped at a coffee shop which did fabulous muffins and a latte that would put Vida E to shame. Nearby an old woman running a stall was dancing away to some music that only she could hear. The wind blew, and a young woman held onto her skirt. We drank our coffees and headed back towards the mountain, and it was a day which gave a lot of food for thought.

The ethos of Home From Home.
The ethos of ‘Home From Home’.
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35 thoughts on “Who’s afraid of the big, black township? Khayelitsha For Beginners.

  1. Sitting in the cold of London and reading your blog brings a smile and a sense of home. I absolutely love your writing, your insights and sharing’s and most especially; your courage! Thank you for sharing such fresh and invigorated perspectives on my home country!

  2. Thank you, Susan, I have been away and disconnected for SO long, I had no idea other than what fear dictated to me before leaving SA! Just feeling sad when the idea of kids without parents is in front of me . . . I know this is worldwide, but just so raw and dreadfully sad no matter the continent, culture and age! Thankful these children have a place called home, but they still need hugs and kisses and crazy loving rituals with their parents! Ai!

    1. They do, of course! But you know their ‘mothers’ are very, very carefully screened before they’re chosen, and they are incredible women with a calling. These kids are like their own, and I was blown away by the love and dedication shown. It was a big lesson in how much some people give :-)

  3. So delighted to have been introduced to your blog! You are all shades of amazing :-) Thanks for sharing your journey, it’s inspirational!

  4. My day is made when I see an email from you in my inbox! Your blog is my favourite and I subscribe to plenty. Have to admit, am a bit of a blog junkie!

  5. I am hereby declaring this blog my bladdy favourite read of eachday! Your writing is great and your insights superb. Take the rest of the day off for being so full of awesomeness :-)

  6. Great post. After never having set foot in a township, I ended up working in rural, ruuuuural Limpopo for five years. Those places you see on the news where they deliver voting forms per heli. Those places where kids run away from you because it’s the first time ever they’ve seen a white women. Those places where, because you’re driving a white bakkie, you must by phoyisa.
    It opened my eyes to the wonderful people this country. Friendly, welcoming, the picture of what this country can be.

  7. Howzit from warm, Brisbane! Loving your blog and your writing with the fresh perspectives … makes me feel like I’m back in the lovely Mother City all over again (I wish …. !!!) Keep it coming xx

  8. Susan, that was another brilliant read, i have signed up and will be donating to this special and very much needed cause going forward, thank you for writing this article!

  9. I’m too scared to go into Khayetlitsha, to see where my kids’ other mommy lives and how house proud I know she is. Would love to be brave enough to venture in and experience the township. I mistakenly drove a couple hundred meters into Langa one early morning on my way to the airport this year and nearly had a panic attack. It’s ridiculous. Next time your friend is willing to take a friend along take me with please! Show me how stupid I am.

    1. Ha ha! I felt exactly the same way the first time, and then after that couldn’t imagine what I’d been so tense about. Drive with her and let her show you the way. It’s too intimidating going alone the first time. Pack a chicken and some rolls and go and have lunch with her at her table. Do you know how much that would mean to her? It’ll be FINE, I promise, and a wonderful experience for all of you :-) Have an awesome Christmas! xxx

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