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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.