South Africa

Life in a Township: Journal Entry Reflections

Khayelitsha Township

Each day, I open my journal and put pen to paper. It isn’t always a lengthy entry, but the committment to write daily is still there. Knowing I’ll not always have a chance to get to a computer, it’s important to write down the day’s events or observations. Here’s an excerpt from last night and my reflections of my current life as I live in a township in Cape Town, South Africa.

Sunday, July 3

I’ve been thinking a lot about the living conditions in my township. My original expectations of my home here, and the reality of Khayelitsha are quite different from one another.

I walked into the Student Travel Agency one day after class, it was on the way to my car which was parked in the wrong lot without the proper permit (I got a ticket), I was curious. I’d always hoped to go on a study abroad but had heard horror stories of students either going deep in debt from their trips they couldn’t actually afford or losing a whole year’s worth of credits to poor university planning and/or communication. I have a scholarship for four years and can’t afford to lose it so anything longer than a semester is out of the question. 

This trip, this summer trip to South Africa, was for two months and was a price I thought I could reasonably find a way to afford. I could somehow find a way to make affording this trip a reality, perhaps. It was the title of the program that spoke to my heard, a Human Rights and Peacebuilding trip. It’s like whoever wrote the pamphlet was speaking directly to my heart. Yes. I have to do this. Luckily, I found a way.

Following my decision to go on this trip, which happened sometime in the Fall semester preceding the summer trip, the group met regularly. It was a chance to get to know one another but more importantly it provided the space and time to lay the necessary groundwork to travel to this intensely different country. There are two leaders of this trip. One, an adjunct professor I’d had a few classes with and currently wildly respect, seriously I don’t think I’ve ever met another person I’d more like to emulate. She’s intelligent, well-read, and passionately follows her heart. She’s by far my favorite teacher and I’m thoroughly looking forward to what I can gleam from her. The other leader, a South African man highly involved in South African culture and politics whom I also have great respect and admiration.

It was their goal to ensure our preparedness both emotionally and scholastically to enter this country. We read books and articles from varied perspectives of culture in South Africa and discussed our reactions, challenging out limited outlooks on life to expand our minds to see a world different than that to which we’ve grown up knowing. Several articles we read described the history of townships, where we will be living and spending the majority of time. What I read depicted townships as areas with diminished resources and those who lived there struggling to make ends meet. What I did not know is that not all townships are created equal. Depending on where you are, the townships can vary dramatically. I had no idea what my new township would be like and I approached the trip with a little trepidation.

What I knew: There is a possibility of no running water, no indoor plumbing, and/or no electricity. I also knew it was a little bit of a drive from the city center. I knew I’d have a host family. Khayelitsha was founded on racist principles which were perfected in the law. When choosing a new home for black South Africans, the government looked to the wastelands. Being close to the water, the ground is sandy and very little will grow in my township, including trees and grass. 

What I didn’t know: My township is not a rural place and about 20 minutes away from a Maserati dealership. We have modern toilets, they’re just outside. We have running water, it’s just outside. We are 20 minutes away from posh homes with nice little gates and manicured lawns.  

My home is warm and loving. The people in the neighborhood have embraced me since the first day and welcomed me into the community. I play with the neighborhood kids when I’m off work and we giggle and run around until it gets dark. There are several hundred homes in here, of varying shapes, sizes, and color. I’m learning where the good Braai spots are and the good Shebeens (bars) to go with my host sister.

Stay or Go?

Depending on the people you talk with, the sentiments about the townships vary. There exists right now what seems to be a split in South African youth. Many stick strong to their roots and are proudly South African, while another faction longs to be American or European. I met a man at our Braai last night who expressed to me a strong desire to ditch Khayelitsha for bigger and better opportunities abroad. My heart sinks as he tells me his dream is to go to school in America because my conversation with him echoes many I’ve been having since coming here. He, like many others, has seen America on television. He wants to live in a place without crime, where everybody is comfortable and rich with huge houses and fancy cars.

I say to him a few uncomfortable phrases that always seem to rattle out of my mouth when I run into this conversation. I tell him “I love it here in South Africa. ” Ramble ramble. “I recognize that I was fortunate to be raised in the States, but America is not a quick fix kind of deal.” Ramble ramble. America is not without its problems and he should be proud to be South African. SA is a beautiful country with overwhelming strength, it is just going to take time to heal is all. None of this is resonating with him. Maybe it’s the language barrier. Maybe not, I’m unsure.

He was distracted by other things and messed up for a while. I am comfortable with his ambiguity, I can assume. It is difficult for him to study living with his parents and siblings. He shifts his body weight around, suddenly more shy than he started off. He’s being candid, with a stranger, it makes us both uncomfortable I think. He wants to succeed, but doesn’t know how. I want to listen and understand and I don’t know how. He’s battling stereotypes in his life and at this moment and so am I.

He’s right. I hate that he’s right. This intelligent, well-spoken man has very little chance of furthering himself financially or academically unless he goes far from home. I fell into my college career, 10 minutes away from family. It was very, very easy for me to do. This man sees no way out, and I’m not sure I do either. His eyes move from mine to the fire. From the fire to the ground, the back to mine again. I struggle keeping eye contact, feeling guilty, out of place. I was waiting for that feeling to come, and here it is. Hello guilt. My luck of birth affords me opportunities he and my other new friends in Khayelitsha may never present.

Not a single person can choose their fate. Birth is a random compilation of millions of other peoples’ decisions. As for now, his fate is not in my hands and mine not in his. He is in charge of that one and I have every hope he pursues his dreams and finds the opportunities he needs to go where he wants to go. My friendship is all his if he wants it. Seeing as that is just about all I have to give.

The more time I spend in this township the more I realize how little I actually know. I resolve to listen more, be open to hearing and seeing what unfolds.


About to sign off for the day, thanks for taking the time to read. I’m about to catch a kombi home to Khayelitsha as I’m working in Obs today. Xolo Namba 🙂


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