Thursday, July 2, 2009


Dear Friends and Family,

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about privacy. Not the kind of privacy we think about in the States when we argue we have a constitutional right to privacy; or privacy of health records, or privacy from search and seizure without cause. I’m thinking about personal privacy – the privacy you get when you shut the bathroom door, or take a bath, or as a teenager go to your bedroom and lock your brothers and sisters out of your personal space. It is something most of us take for granted.

This all started last week when Floyd and I talked Ted, a tour guide friend, into taking us to Langa. We wanted to take two theology students from Duke University to visit a school there so we, and they, could get an understanding of what it was like in a public primary school system in a township.

Langa is the oldest township in the Cape Town area. It originated when the citizens of Cape Town moved the colored and black workers, specifically men, out of the city into barrack structures (which they today call hostels or dormitories). Only men were allowed to live there at the time. Women were put in jail if they were caught visiting. The conditions were much like the conditions found within the South African mining industry today. Men leave their families to work in the mines, live in male only barracks/hostels, send home monies, and return home about once a year to reconnect with their wives and children. It is still a bad situation. Later I was told the unrest and strikes by miners over conditions were what started the end of the apartheid movement, but I digress.

First we visited the Langa primary school Siyabulela where children, mostly from the informal settlements (shacks), surrounding Langa are educated. The original families in Langa often are working and live in small brick or concrete homes (often with shacks in back for relatives) and can send their children away from the community for school because they have money. The principal, Sheila Galo, related the children coming to Siyabulela now are often from other countries or from the East coast of

South Africa, where homes are spread out and the children often don’t attend school because there is none close by. Most of these children have never held or seen a book when they enter school. Needless to say, they don’t read and the problem was exacerbated over the last few years by the Department of Education ruling it was not
required that the children learn to read or write in school. They have since changed their minds. More on this later.

After leaving there we stopped to get a guide for a walking tour of part of the township. Anthony took us first to the town marker, a large tile fresco, commemorating the history of Langa. It says, “The main barracks consisted of 84 dormitories each with 24 concrete bunks. Langa was build to accommodate the migrant labour population.” So we went deeper into Langa; our goal, the hostels/dormitories.

We went by the women cooking vats of “smileys”, heads of sheep with their tongues hanging out, a staple of the local diet, then past the ladies butchering the heads of cows. You can see a cow jaw bone in the picture below. It seems in this region the poor eat the least desirable pieces of meat when they can afford them. Not a vegetable in sight. Did I mention I am off meat at the moment?

In the picture you can also see some rehabbed dormitory buildings in the background. But many are not rehabbed, and Anthony wanted us to see ones in their original condition. So we climbed over some rubble on our way into a nearby courtyard and entered the common area of a hostel/dormitory.

The common area was a dark, moldy room with two stone picnic-like tables covered in old wood. There was very small sink. That sink provided the only water source for the barracks. In a small area there was one toilet (literally) without a door for all six rooms on the floor and one shower stall without a curtain. You had to climb through the shower literally to get to the toilet. Without any form of privacy I wondered how any used the shower. Also there was only cold water so it is doubtful many used the shower in the winter anyway, since it is often in the 40s here at night and even we do not have heaters. One refrigerator was provided for all.

On the other side of the common room was a small cooking area for everyone’s use. Now you might be thinking that there is clearly not much privacy, or wondering how so many people can share one toilet, but the shock was yet to come.

Anthony insisted we see the inside of one of the rooms and opened a door to greet someone. There were 6 narrow beds in the room: 3 upper bunks and 3 lower. One man was still in his bed wrapped tightly in his pink blankets to get warm. The other two families were out. We learned that one bed slept seven, a couple with their five children; on the other was a family of six in a room with just enough width between the beds for one small dresser. All of one family would have to be in bed before another could walk into the small space. In actuality not all of the family of seven could fit on the bed either so the children slept in the narrow space on the floor or outside when the weather was better.

Each family’s meager possessions hung from the top bunks. The occupants of the room could not have stood up at the same time to get dressed! And there was mold everywhere.

So that is why I am thinking about privacy. I asked Anthony why anyone would let people view their room while they were still in bed, and he said in the hopes they would give him a small bit of money for food. It must be part of the tourist experience. The bed person also may have been left there to protect their meager possessions. I must admit to having been overwhelmed…and this is just one family of thousands of families who live like this…but there was more to come.

We continued walking through “Langawood”, so named by the locals because of the nice (by our standards incredibly small) brick homes with proper doors and bars on the windows and concrete slab front yards. By the way, the window bars are common. They are on properties everywhere; businesses, homes, flats, everywhere for security purposes. We then walked on into the Joe Slovo informal settlement.

Joe Slovo originally was settled with local South Africans, many of whom have since moved on. Now foreigners (i.e. people from other African countries) have moved into the open spaces and this has created tension. These people live in small shacks. In the picture above are four or five of the shacks in Joe Slovo all lined up next to each other in typical African fashion. These particular families sell bead and wood products to the tourists that happen by on township tours from under the front tarps on their homes. They were also happy to allow us into their homes so we could understand the conditions in which they are living.

There is no water or toilets in these shacks. Common port-a-potties sit in a line for their use on the edge of the settlement. Anthony said a big problem is there are so many people who use them and they are only emptied once or twice a week, if the settlement is lucky. Some shacks have electricity lines, but electricity is often too expensive for most of these families and electricity has to be paid for before use.

Inside the shack we visited, a metal cabinet held a few small lanterns and dishes. There was a hot plate for cooking, but no other source of heat. Like the people in the hostels/dormitories the primary focus of the shack – which was separated into two rooms by curtains – was the beds, with lots of bedding to keep these people warm. It is like camping out forever without any hope of moving on. And it is very dangerous because most of the crimes in South Africa are crimes of property and rape and there is often only a thin curtain or wood slats between you and those outside.

And so, though in my mind the settlement with a curtain might be better in terms of privacy, in reality the hostels sleeping 13 to a small room might be the more desirable location because at least those families had a door. Imagine!

Blessings to all from South Africa,


No comments: