When our class visited Zwelihle I was overwhelmed by the welcoming attitudes of the people that we met. They accepted us into their community and let us interact with their children with no hesitation whatsoever. This showed me that the residents there had complete trust in our group to help however we could at the time. They did not second-guess our intentions for the visit. All they did was open their arms and guide us on how we could best help them out at the time.
On that particular trip we visited a school full of children on their very first day of the year. Some were quiet and reserved while others couldn’t get enough of our attention. We introduced them to Play-Doh (which surprisingly didn’t interest them all that much), colored with them, and played outside with them as well. At first, the majority of the kids held back and did not interact with anybody much. However, after a little while most of kids began playing with somebody and enjoying themselves.
After playing with the kids for a while, our group prepared and served them lunches, which consisted of hot dogs, chips, apples, candy, and a juice box. Although it was a simple and inexpensive lunch, the kids seemed very happy and the teachers seemed grateful. Following lunch for the kids it was time for lunch for our group. I knew we were eating at a nice restaurant that day and so I expected the bus ride to be decently long. I was shocked when we arrived at the restaurant only five minutes later.
We had arrived in Hermanus, the whale-watching capital of the world. There were glass pools, extravagant restaurants, and luxury resorts that all overlooked the ocean. Multi-million rand houses dotted the coastline as wealthy (mainly white) residents and tourists laid out in the sun to try and get a tan. But I noticed a discrepancy between the two areas other than the economic gap. The people in the beach town were not nearly as welcoming as the people in the township were.
The contrast between the picturesque beach town and the poor township that we had just visited was stark. Less than two kilometers away from hungry children were lavish meals that costs upwards of R250 per person. Kids wondering whether or not they’ll go to bed hungry gave way to people deciding whether or not to have dessert. The proximity between the rich and the poor in South Africa surprises me every time I encounter it. There have been multiple times where I have looked out one side of the bus and witnessed somebody begging for food and then turned around to look at the back of a house in a well-off neighborhood. Back in the United States the change in more gradual and less shocking. I know where to expect the bad parts of town and where to expect the wealthier people to settle. I know the cultural norms that surround both areas and so I know what to expect when approaching both landscapes. When we started visiting townships in Cape Town, though, I was thrown off. I was thrown off by the extremity of their poverty, by the sheer quantity of people living in these communities, and by the proximity to wealthy communities. The whole experience took me out of my comfort zone and made me just utterly bewildered about the whole concept. How could you enjoy yourself on an expensive vacation when blatant poverty is literally down the road from your beach house?
We touched upon the subject a few times during class discussions and we always came back to the same answer, you just had to either ignore or accept what was going on around you. I understand the concept. If you work hard and earn your money you should be able to enjoy it however you want, even if it does happen to be minutes from people living in poverty. In the beginning I just could not understand how the people living in these townships could seem so happy whenever we visited when they knew that people had extra food and space less than two kilometers away. I also didn’t get how they were so happy and accepting when we pulled out our iPhones and expensive cameras after getting off our luxury tour bus to take pictures of their homes and communities. After trying to understand on my own I had my perspective turned around and was forced to think differently by a guest we had come perform a show for us. He made us do an exercise that forced us to look at ourselves from the township resident’s perspective. All of the sudden it hit me. Maybe they aren’t always happy; maybe they actually don’t truly like it when we come to visit. I am sure that at least some of the people of the townships are excited to see us and genuinely enjoy our company for the short time that we are there. But I am also sure that some people see us as spectators that think we are truly helping a lot, even though we really aren’t, by buying a few items from the vendors and giving food to the kids for a meal or two once a year.
This all made me realize something bigger. No matter where people live geographically, there are always going to be people better off than others living close by. That’s just the way the world works currently. It’s not all about me helping on my small-scale individual level. It’s about the communities and the people within them. Everybody can use some help now and again no matter who you are or what you do. But it’s more about the people you have surrounding you, such as family and friends, than the things you have surrounding you, such as a nice car, that truly help you out when you are in need. That’s what I came to realize while visiting the townships and wealthy areas of South Africa. It’s true, the people in the townships could have been nicer because they wanted us to spend money there, but maybe it was because they have such a tight knit community that they all fall back on when they are in need. A community that helps you out when you need it most can make you much happier than an ocean view from your balcony.