Tuesday, March 9, 2010


How have things - race relations, poverty, the economy - developed since the end of apartheid? To answer this question, it's impossible to avoid Soweto, the name which became an amalgamation of "South Western Townships". Established in 1904, Soweto was the epicenter of black resistance during apartheid. Its Vilakazi Street is the only street to boast two Nobel Peace Prize winners - Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

I wanted to get a feel for what life was like there, and ended up with something closer to groping. You'll better understand why in the next post, but first I need a short lead in.

I tagged onto a couple people at my hostel who happen to disdain museums and just want to interact locals. Perfect. Did I mention I love hostels? The tour was informational and a good start, and led to an important lead which I'll discuss in the next post, but the short hour in the slum wasn't overly revealing. The end, though, led us to Kliptown, the oldest section of Soweto and the birthplace of the 1955 Freedom Charter.

Here we were led to the Soweto Kliptown Youth (SKY) center. When we entered, some 50 children were doing a coordinated dance and song, the power of which gave me goosebumps and send shivers up my spine. It was amazing to see such happiness amidst gripping poverty. I think about this often - the smiles on the faces of poor that seem to trump anything I've seen in the States. Perhaps it's just because I'm analyzing things closer here, and perhaps these smiles are just mirages of frustration and sadness that they won't reveal easily, but still I was impressed.

As I am traveling uninhibited during these two weeks - no laptop, no certain places to lay my head, and no upfront plan, I brought my bag along with me, looking for a place to stay somewhere near the slum. Finding out that SKY allows people to stay, I jumped at the opportunity. Concerning the cost, I asked Bob, the director and easy-going Rastafarian who I swear is the reincarnation of Bob Marley. He said, "It's not about the money; it's about the soul connection." At that moment "No Woman, No Cry" started playing the background and the faint smell of ganja could be detected in the air.

For the rest of the night I hung out with all the children (and young men/women) learning about where they came from and SKY. The interesting thing about SKY is that they are more famous abroad than in Soweto. Take for example their ties with the NBA. Every year for a week they host the likes of Dirk Nowitzki, Dikembe Mutombo, and Dwight Howard. Victor, who I talked with, starred in HBO movie named Ithuteng and is pals with Chris Tucker.

The next morning, shortly before the breakfast of white bread and French fries (I said I wanted local, and that's what I got...it's best to put the fries in the bread, topped with cheese and ketchup, and consume like a sandwich), there was bathing time. 10 minutes after asking about a shower, Wise Man, in whose bed I was sleeping, plopped down a plastic basin of water. I asked if I should take it into the bathroom, which left him perplexed. We were both looked at each other like dumb freshmen in a graduate level course. Pretty confused. When I finally explained I thought I would be using the "bucket method" (which would've been luxury), he said no, "you can learn to bath the South African way." The "South African way", I learned, is basically a bucket of water, always in your room, that you use with a wash cloth as you stand naked. How you are supposed to rinse your body with the same water that rinses the wash cloth I have still yet to figure out. Washing (and properly rinsing) is light years beyond me. I asked Wise Man if he had a wash cloth, and as if he or anyone else had never taken a bath, he starts searching through the dusty boxes of donated clothes in his room. A couple minutes later he came up with a small, dirty rag. It would do, though I can't tell you if I actually got cleaner or dirtier after that exercise. Next, on to the real immersion...

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