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’.

On Stupid White People and Ubuntu

So, last night at the Spur (two burgers for the price of one, and all) my husband and I are in the middle of an enthralling married people conversation about what screens to put up on the sides of our new deck when a good-looking young black guy in an expensive shirt comes over and sits down at our table. We look up in surprise and say hello and he says hello back. ‘How are you doing?’ I ask him. He says, ‘I’ve seen better days.’ I think (being a stupid white South African with no conception of Ubuntu) ‘oh no – here it comes. He lost his job and his wallet was stolen and he just needs R20 to get home. Or worse – he ordered the full size portion of ribs and now he wants us to pay.’ I wait. He says, ‘my friends are late.’ I say (with no small measure of relief), ‘ja, that’s Capetonians for you.’ He laughs, takes out his new Samsung and checks his facebook updates, while we self-consciously resume our conversation until it’s time to go.

And it was one of those weird South African moments which illustrate how little understanding we have of one another’s cultures and ways. For we whiteys, joining someone else’s table would be unthinkable unless it was preceded by an explanation: ‘my friends are late and there aren’t any empty tables. Would you mind if I joined you for a while?’ Clearly, for him, such an explanation was unnecessary. Of course he can join us. He is a human being and we are human beings. And I was mortified with shame at having assumed what I did. But that’s how little we ‘get’ each other. And it reminded me of an incident a few years back when our nanny and cleaner (yes, the now infamous Nosipho) invited us to attend her birthday party on a Sunday afternoon in Khayelitsha. While we white folk know very well where Khayelitsha is because we drive past it en route to the winelands (irony intended) I honestly couldn’t think of one single white person who had ever been there.

So, I asked around: ‘have you ever been to Khayelitsha, and is it okay for four blonde chicks to go visiting a friend on a Sunday?’ The resounding response from white people was no, and don’t be mad, while black people ummed and aahed and said it’s probably okay if you know where you’re going, but don’t get lost. Don’t get lost? I get lost in the city bowl. Anyhow. I knew that it meant the world to Nosipho that we showed up on her special day and that she had already told all her buddies we’d be coming, so on that given Sunday I piled myself, my mom and my two little girls into our Toyota Tazz and off we went. You can imagine what we looked like with our deer-in-the-headlight eyes crawling along narrow, dusty roads with not a street sign in sight behind groups of (what I imagined to be) tsotsis who turned around slowly and watched us as we passed. In my mind we were already newspaper headlines when we pulled up at a Spaza shop and phoned Nosipho to come rescue us.

We were actually closer than we thought, and her grandson appeared and showed us the way to her house. It was already full to capacity with friends and neighbours, some of whom had come to see the crazy madams for themselves. It was an extraordinary afternoon, and one I will never forget. As Nosipho was a hardened feminist and had less than no time for the men of the world, the house was filled with women of all ages, dressed to the nines for the party of the year. Not being Xhosa speakers, we were handicapped and could only contribute so much to the conversations, but we were received with grace, respect and wholehearted acceptance as we joined the table and partook of a feast of fried chicken and stewed meat and salads and drinks followed by every dessert imaginable.

And the women sang, song after song, their voices rising up in perfect harmony – proud women, poor women who had seen heartache and suffering beyond our wildest imaginings. They sang their pain, their tragedies and their hope while we sat there, stupefied, trying to fight back our tears. Being Women’s Day, the 9th of August, that place we found ourselves on a sunny Sunday afternoon somewhere in a South African township couldn’t have been more fitting. And another thing that amazed us was the gifts. Some of these women hadn’t worked for a long time and relied on the handouts of neighbours for their survival, yet the generosity of what they gave to Nosipho – Woolworths vouchers worth R500, expensive towels and linen, imported beauty products – made us feel ashamed of the relative cheapness of what we, the rich ones, had bought for her.

And then, as the afternoon started to wind down, we were taken on a tour of the neighbourhood. Her friends wanted to show us the homes of which they were so proud. There must have been thirty people, at least, forming a procession up the road being followed by children, curious hangers-on and stray dogs. And then, once we had seen the houses of her guests, we started on the other houses. Nosipho didn’t even knock, just marched straight in, followed by her entourage. People were cooking, watching soccer, taking a nap, and they all got up, said their greetings and offered us something to drink or eat. Nobody seemed annoyed or put out in the slightest. And I thought to myself, imagine this in Clifton or Camps Bay – a troop of people letting themselves into other people’s homes and being received warmly and offered tea.

It was an amazing day and it taught me a thing or two and I wish we did stuff like that more – moved out of our comfort zones and tried to understand the different people who make up this country. Because until we do we’re going to be stuck and never move on from the past. As we drove home towards Table Mountain with the sun in our eyes I felt nothing but gratitude for that experience, and for the gift of being a South African and the opportunities for growth and learning that this astonishing country presents. If only we would be better at taking them.

A Day in the Life of a South African Maid

“I wake up at 4:30am because Catherine and Stuart (not their real names) like me to serve them their tea in bed in the morning, and it takes a long time to get from Khayelitsha to Camps Bay. The first thing I do when I wake up is take a bath and get dressed. Then, I get my older children up, make them oats for breakfast and get them dressed. My son, who is 11, takes the baby, who is one-and-a-half to crèche by taxi in the morning. My other daughter helps me feed and dress her before she walks to school with her friend. I have to leave my house at 5:30am to make sure I am at work by 7:30am when they wake up. Sometimes there is traffic or strikes or the trains aren’t running properly, and I get late. I have been late twice already, and if I’m late a third time Catherine is going to give me a written warning.

When I get to work I change out of my clothes and into my uniform. The first thing I do is wash my hands, put the kettle on and get the tea tray ready. Once they have their tea and rusks in bed, I go and wake the boy. I look after two kids, a boy of three and girl who is six months. The baby will be with the night nurse. Then the night nurse goes home. I get the boy up and make him breakfast. He likes French toast and rooibos tea in the morning. He is a good boy. I give the baby porridge and dress her. Stuart goes to work and Catherine goes to the gym. While she is gone I make her bed, pick up her clothes and shoes from the floor (she is messy, that one) and put everything away. I put the baby on my back when I clean the house. Sometimes it’s hard because the boy wants me to play with him, but if the house isn’t tidy when Catherine comes home she gets cross. I am not allowed to put TV on for him because she wants me to only play with him. So that is difficult.

In the morning we go to the park. Catherine likes us to get out so that she can have some peace and quiet. I pack some food for the kids. There is a park close by, and we play there. I have a friend who goes to the same park, so we meet each other. Sometimes I worry about my girl. She doesn’t like the crèche, she misses me. She cries in the night and wants me. It’s a long day for her to be without her mother. I took her there when she was one month old because I had to go back to work. I couldn’t breastfeed her anymore. She was always sick and I think it is because I couldn’t breastfeed her. It is a long time for a baby to be without her mother, but I must work. My husband earns R3500 a month. It is not enough for us to live.

When we get home Catherine likes me to make her a salad. She won’t eat bread because she’s on a diet. Only fish and chicken every day, but she is too, too thin. Then I make lunch for the kids and we sit together in the garden and eat. In the afternoon when I put the boy down for his sleep I put the baby on my back so she can sleep and I do the ironing. Then I start with supper. I used to work in a restaurant so I know how to cook. Stuart wants to eat meat every night. I make steak or a stew or I cook chicken and vegetables. I bath the kids at 5pm. At 5:30pm I must leave to catch my bus, but sometimes Catherine asks me to iron the dress she wants to wear if she is going out. Then I get home very late. It takes me two hours to get home. My kids are already home. I leave the key with the neighbour and they let themselves into the house and do their homework. My son fetches the baby at crèche after he finishes school. I cook supper and I am very tired.

My husband comes home at 7 o clock. At the end of the month the money is finished. Then we only eat pap and vegetables. Together we earn R7000, but most of that is for school fees and food and transport. Transport is very expensive, I must give my son R20 a day and my bus costs R150 per week. My husband works on a Saturday too, so Sundays we are all together. We go to church in the morning and then we eat meat for lunch. We only eat meat on a Sunday. I am lucky for my job, and my husband is lucky. There are lots of people who are not working. Then I try to do everything right. I tidy the cupboards and I wash the curtains. Catherine gives me old toys and clothes. We are also lucky that we have our own house, but in the winter the roof leaks and the kids get sick because it is always wet. There is water on the floor and our shoes and clothes are wet. It is very cold in our house in the winter. I am looking for an old washing machine because it is difficult washing all the clothes by hand. When I get home from work I wash. It is difficult to make the clothes get dry in the winter.

I have good kids, but my girl struggles at school. Her teacher wants her to have extra lessons, but it costs money and we don’t have money. If my kids are sick it is a problem because if I don’t go to work Catherine gets very cross. If the baby has a fever she is not allowed to go to crèche. Then my son must stay home from school and take care of her. I am worried then because he is only a boy of 11. It is not so easy, no. I have a good job. They give me paid leave at Christmas, two weeks. My family is in the Eastern Cape. It is very expensive to take the whole family so every three years we take the bus to see my parents for Christmas. They are old now. I don’t know if I will see my parents again before they die.”

As told to me by Florence, 36.