I love this photo, not that it is well shot, but the context. The poster in the back is rather inflammatory without seeing the whole thing. It’s a beer ad that says basically “I hate being white because people assume I’m a racist…” but goes on to point out that South Africans come in all shades and unity trumps ignorance. Add to the foreground this picture of us (5 Americans – 1 African American (me), 1 Bi raciacial (black & italian), 1 Mexican American, and 2 Caucasian American) and I guess this poster could really be almost anywhere in terms of the issues that most countries are dealing with around race. The beautiful thing is that across the table from us are 5 South Africans and I like the symbolism that the table represents, we’re all reaching out across a divide to understand each other better.
After church w/ the Archbishop and crew, I hightailed it back to the ship to change clothes and meet up with Samuel, Lydia, Ammy (ah-me) & Danny to take an independent Township tour. Samuel has friends of friends who hooked us up with Gerald, a local media personality and Gerald gave us a peek inside of his world. No tour buses, no staring at people from behind panes of glass, no group ogling of the locals, we were going to get into the township and look people in the eye, connect, communicate…or so I hoped.
I should have known the day would disintegrate into a comedy of errors when Gerald rolls up to pick up the 5 of us in a 2 door BMW convertible. We were all like “no way, we’re not going to ride through a township in a Beemer are we?” but we packed in like sardines and chipped in to gas up the car and off we went. The Townships are hard to describe. they are like large ghettos with shacks, few running water sources, high population density, lots of trash blowing about, anything that can be used in some way is put to work, people, materials, ideas. But that would only be 1/2 of the picture. Most of the people in the townships are educated, there are lots of entreprenuerial pursuits being undertaken and there are relative middle class folks as well, some sections are nicer than others in terms of building materials, relative amounts of land per house, etc. The townships are a direct result of the impacts and residue of Apartheid, the unequal distribution of land, the stolen resources…it all sounds too familiar.
Gerald first took us out to Khayelitsha township (Shameka, I liked your vote for Soweto, but we never made it out there!), the largest township in Cape Town with something like 1.4 million people living in a fairly small area. We were warned not to go to townships on our own and I’ll admit that I questioned the sanity of our decision to go even with a guide, but Gerald parked and ushered us into a shabeen (local bar) called Morgan’s Place, and my fears melted away. People were either super friendly to us or paid us no attention. For the rest of the day I would never sense animosity, malicious intent, or even an ounce of ill will toward us. On the contrary we were turning down beers from the locals, playing a game called “waterfall” that I won’t discuss right now (smile) and talking all over each other “what languages do you speak? were you born in cape town? where is your family? why do you want to come to America?” and answering their questions “yes America has similar race problems, but I can live, work and play anywhere I want, yes I like hip hop music, no I am not married and I don’t have kids”
We were having such a good time in the little tin bar, snapping pictures, writing down propper spellings of our names, getting e-mail addresses and learning how to say hi in 3 different African languages, that when Gerald said it was time to go, we protested noisily, but he assured us that more and better were waiting. He took us to his home which was very obviously upper middle class and we finally got to joke him about his modeling career (hair products, corn flakes, clothes) and got to see some of the ads he has been in. Even more heartwarming were the 2 teenagers that were at his house, under the watchful eye of a neighbor, doing their homework in a clean, quiet space. I loved it. We got to see his bachelor pad, pics of his family and hit the bathroom before we tucked ourselves into the BMW again. He dropped the top and the afternoon sun, coupled with the breeze, the music (kwaito), the vibe and the continual realization that “Hey Man, we’re in South Africa!” overwhelmed me with what I can only describe as joy. We were all feeling it as people waved to us, we waved back, the music blasting with table mountain and the blue sky as backdrops.
Next we headed to Nyanga township for the best braai (think bbq) I’ve ever had. I’m not kidding. Maphindi’s is a butchery/restaurant and all the meat is fresh and seasoned and grilled/cooked to perfection. I was a little skeptical when we first sat down at a stainless steel table with nothing but a stack of napkins and a loaf of white bread (what?!), but when the meat came out (and it was ALL meat, no veggies, no potatoes, nothing but meat), we were like a pack of wild hyenas who hadn’t eaten in weeks! The meat was cleaned from the bones by our teeth and hands, the loaf of bread was reduced to a demolished plastic bag and some random crumbs. Little did we know that Gerald had called the owner and he was making his way towards us. Khaya and his family own Maphindi’s and a couple of other local businesses. He was funny, handsome and gracious as he gave us a full tour of the facility, including the expansion they’ve almost completed, the banquet rooms and finally the rooftop where we could see the township, the airport tower and the power plant as well as kids playing soccer on the schoolyard. The whole neighborhood was buzzing with energy and activity, Maphindi’s doesn’t serve or allow alcohol on premises so that the restaurant can be family friendly and I found myself falling a little bit in lurve with the idea of marrying a South African entreprenuer with a family business…but alas, Khaya is happily married and I am happily unmarried, so we kissed on the cheeks, hugged a bit too long and said our goodbyes.
At this point it was about 3pm and I thought Gerald would probably be ready to get rid of us and take us back to the ship, but we drove around for a while looking at the townships, the cityscape, the types of businesses and services that were around. Finally we slowed a bit and turned a corner into what looked to be the biggest block party I’ve ever seen. Out of nowhere there were more than 4,000 people, cars, dogs, beer bottles, stereos and did I mention PEOPLE!
We parked the car, which was a miracle in itself, and grabbed stickers, pens and pencils to give to the kids, stuffed some rand (so. african money) into our pockets and locked everything in the trunk before joining in the revelry. We made our way to a cargo container which doubled as a “brew thru” — a place where you could purchase beverages, we picked up Savanna Cider and made our way into the thick of things where we danced for almost 4 hours non-stop. The music was AMAZING, Kwaito is so. african hip hop with jazz and house infused and reminds me of early hip hop (which i love) and international house music (which i like a lot). Gerald taught us a sexy trick where you open one beer bottle with another and we were all thinking about who we could impress with such useful knowledge!
We met up with Nanna (a doctor from Ghana) and his girlfriend Maria (from Namibia) and all 4000 pairs of eyes were on them almost all day as they were a stunning couple with a knack for dancing suggestively. Our group swelled to about 12, but we kept mixing and mingling with local 20 and 30 somethings, dancing with anyone who would subject themselves to our enthusiastic appreciation of the DJ.
We shared beer, wine and cider with other visitors from the UK, Germany and France, dodged the local boy’s (and girl’s) attempts at kisses, and went to the bathroom 3 at a time because, hey…that’s just what they do here. And I don’t mean 3 people you know at a time, I mean you go in and 2 other women would push in too. At 8pm the DJ shut down so he could take a nap before he had to spin at a club downtown that evening so the party was over whether we wanted it to be or not.
We got quiet and somber on the way back to the ship, coming off of a natural high, knowing that a day like this would happen only so many times even in the most blessed life, believing that there was some magic to the particular mix of people that shared the experience, and knowing that our time in Cape Town would dwindle fast. All of this served to make us teary-eyed. At the dock, we couldn’t let go of the day (or Gerald) and stood around for another 45 minutes re-hashing the day as if we hadn’t all been there together. Ammy and Lydia cried so much they got the hiccups. I just tried to soak it all up, breathe it all in, and thank God for the chance to see, touch, taste, smell and feel, to be overwhelmed with sensation, overtaken by joy and overcome with gratitude. It really was one of the top 5 best days of my life.