Two weeks ago, I stayed with a host family for a weekend in the township of Enkanini, just outside Cape Town. Although the experience was eye-opening, it was also one of the most awkward times in my life.
My host family was comprised of a man in his mid-30s who was the head of the household, his wife, her sisters and children and his 29-year-old brother, who was a talented up-and-coming painter in Stellenbosch. Their “iShack,” a solar-power upgraded housing unit, serve as a community center for the settlement.
Enkanini is an illegal and informal settlement, or squatter camp, resting on a hill overlooking Stellenbosch that boasts one of the best views of the surrounding mountains. The township is made up of hundreds upon hundreds of roughly built shacks made of plywood, scrap metal, cardboard and doors — anything and everything to make a structure strong enough to withstand the elements.
The iShack project provides off-the-grid electricity to shacks through solar PV panels, which enables people to charge their phones, illuminate their rooms and use appliances such as small televisions. Although the South African constitution guarantees free housing, the government is only able to build a few hundred houses per year in Stellenbosch, even though Enkanini’s population far outpaces new housing. Instead of waiting for the government’s help, the iShack project empowers people in informal settlements to take matters into their own hands by making the spaces more livable and providing a higher quality of life.
The predominate language in Enkanini is isiXhosa, and while nearly everyone speaks some degree of English, language presented a difficult and sometimes comical barrier during my weekend. When watching music videos with other members of my host family from a neighboring township, I made a joke that some people think Nicki Minaj is “flawless.” Unfortunately, all of the guys adopted the word and began to call her flawless, though I think they were referring mostly to her curves.
Thankfully the younger brother in the host family always accompanied me; he introduced me to his friends and showed me hangout spots such as “taverns,” which are makeshift pool halls. When I first arrived Friday afternoon, a few drunk middle-aged men were eager to teach me how to play pool, and we laughed hysterically together at my many scratches.
On a more serious note, I had never been so sexualized as I was during that weekend. My host brothers translated what women said to me as they passed. Quite a few of them were drunk and jokingly asked me to come into their shack, told me that they wanted my body and said far more explicit things.
With little to do in the township, men and women frequently begin to drink Friday afternoon and continue until Sunday evening. When I was walking outside Saturday morning I saw more than a handful of men stumbling and holding bottles of liquor. My host brothers refer to them as “zombies.” Unfortunately, some wine vineyard workers are still illegally paid in alcohol. This perpetuates problems such as fetal alcohol syndrome, which plagues the children of Enkanini and has presented me with challenges when teaching fourth-graders “stepping,” a form of dance, at a local school each week.
The iShack project provides an alternative to drinking in the township. The goal of opening iShacks is to provide multipurpose spaces or community rooms that allow adults to chat and children to play safely inside instead of running through broken glass, polluted alleys and gutters while dodging cars on the narrow “streets.”
Watching the rugby match, in which the South Africa Springboks crushed Samoa, was my favorite experience. It didn’t matter that the team is still largely made up of Afrikaaners; the residents of Enkanini were proud and enthusiastic supporters of their country.
It is almost unheard of for a white person to be in a township, particularly if he is not teaching or volunteering with an organization. Children often ran up to me yelling, “Teacher! Teacher,” eager to be picked up or to play, just as my fourth-graders do at their school. I was told that white people are almost unanimously referred to as “teacher,” because these black children never see a white person outside the context of school or the volunteer workforce
One study in Stellenbosch showed that on a given day, more than half of the people in the town do not interact once with anyone outside their social class or race. The remnants of apartheid urban planning fuel this statistic, but South Africa is not unique in such segregation and classification into groups of “others.”
How many white Hoyas have entered Black House this year, let alone know where it is? How many Hoyas of faith have ever attended a different religious service on campus? How many Hoyas have even set foot into Washington, D.C.”s Wards 7 and 8?
It is easy to simplify life down to a routine of familiarity circling around people who are just like ourselves. But how can we possibly learn from one another, engage with new ideas and create innovative solutions to societal problems we constantly rant against like inequality or poverty if we don’t repeatedly force ourselves to be uncomfortable and break that cycle?
How will you engage with a community on the Hilltop or in Washington, D.C., that you have never interacted with before? How will you break your own cycle?
Alexander Bobroske is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Oh The Places You’ll Go appears every other Friday.