The Thinking Citizen’s Tour of the Townships
by Mary Glen Frederick
Studied in Cape Town, Winter 2011
Photos by Cole Murphy-Hockett
One of the girls sits next to me on the tour bus. I can’t remember her name —per usual, I am conflating and confusing the students I do not yet know. She forgot her lunch so I offer her my walnuts, some slices of tomato. She turns the tomato down, takes some walnuts. I turn away, to squint out the window at sunny sand and dusty sky.
We begin in a literal paradise. Cape Town, one of the Most Beautiful Places on Earth. Lush and rich and surrounded by mountains keeping watch over an eyelet of aqua, winking turquoise in the glorious sun. The ocean air hangs so thick on sweatered nights you can trap the salt between your fingerprints.
We drive fifteen minutes. That’s all it takes. The mountains are gone. The color muted. The water evaporated. Welcome to the Flats.
The “we” here is thirty North Americans Studying Abroad in South Africa, seated safely inside this behemoth of a bus, protected by the air conditioning, cushioned seats, and curtains that shut out the unattractive world behind them with the flick of a wrist.
I blink and turn away from the window. What’s her name again? I want to ask but I can’t now—we’ve been sharing a seat for too long. I find myself wishing she was louder—that she would express an emotion other than an impossible serenity. Sandwiched between her and the truth outside my window, I wish I could tell her how I feel, ask her, how do you feel, how should we feel? Are you as messy as me inside? I would feel better if she nauseated me with optimism, burdened me with weighty statistics or maybe patronized me into submission—something. I wish she had taken a chunk of slurpy tomato.
Out the window, the land has been tousled and tamed with a flat iron. Sand and litter and government housing, seared to the ground by the fever of the sun.
We, of course, that fortunate and beneficent we, cannot travel here alone. Not safe. Too much crime. Or was it poverty?
But we can come here in this bus—a perverted zoo on wheels.
We drive through Khayelitsha. A city on the Western Cape, the El Dorado coast for those who moved here looking for destiny on earth. Set the bag down, the belongings spill out. Set the people down, they spill out. And keep growing, reaching, spreading. This is what is called a township. An informal settlement. A shantytown. A slum.
We are on A Township Tour—as it is advertised to Wealthy Westerners. Hop on board a bus, pull out your binoculars, and take a look. No touching please.
But it’s certainly not so for us, because we are a we of university affiliation—we ride the bus for academic purposes, Eyeing is justified, if you do so Critically—this is The Educated Citizen’s Tour of the Townships.
We drive dirt roads that are too narrow. Our tour guide speaks into her microphone, which crackles in the heat. These roofs are made of corrugated tin, the walls packed up with mud, the windows and doors sculpted with the finest O2. In an almost choreographed movement, cameras are pulled out of our group’s pockets and bags. I feel the tug, I want to take out my own piece of suddenly ostentatious equipment, snap a memory, that Reminder of Poverty which will keep me honest and true and popular amongst my friends. Wow, AFRICA, that’s so brave, it must have been so hard, to be out of your comfort zone like that, to witness such poverty, such hardship.
Yep. Hard to look at hard things. Easier to take a picture.
I lean my head back and shut my eyes, flashes of sun strobing red behind my eyelids. My brow furrows as I remember, a year and a half earlier.
I had the chance to spend the summer teaching English in a rural village of Ethiopia. This was five years ago. I wanted to travel. I spent my childhood reading encyclopedia entries about countries in faraway places with beautiful names that were photographed in National Geographic. And so I seized the chance.
I walked shakily off the plane in Addis Ababa and made my way down the ramp through security, trying to feel calm and look casual, as if I had missed it, as if it was nice to be back.
I was dropped at the hotel, introduced to the group, and shown the shared quarters—patio out back, plastic chairs, glass beer bottles. Here, have a drink.
We play drinking games to get over the strangeness of finding ourselves here, together. We name drop schools attended, languages spoken, volunteer accomplishments. We share too much and brag even more.
In this moment, clutching this beer, I do not know what the two months ahead will hold. I will come to realize that I am about as underqualified as anyone could be; that this imperial mission, to bring English to poor people, is pretentious and paternalistic; that the words to describe my impact are Negligible at best, Damaging if honest. I will have to come to grips with the fact that, no matter what justification or commendation, I came here for myself. I will be forced to recognize my own naïveté, my own pride, my own goddamn stupidity.
But I do not know these things now. I am sitting in the cool, night-drawn air around a plastic table full of strangers, and the two months ahead hold promise.
I am selfish. But in the head-light mist with my cheeks flushed, I do not know it. Not yet.
On the bus, I finger the strap of my digital camera then tuck it back inside my bag. I can’t overcome my humiliation at being One of Those Tourists. Not again.
I lean my forehead and cheekbone against the glass, playing chicken with the heat until it gets too much to bear. I pull back, see the grease marks I have left and wish I could somehow wipe them off discreetly.
All things whip by. Cracked and peeling paint on gates that swing off the hinge, children that swing off the gate. Faces, upturned, curious or discouraging or excited or closed. I see them, or sometimes just the mark of my sweat, which I so badly want to wipe away.
We stop on a wider road, and children run to catch up with us. They stand beneath our windows, reaching arms, fingers climbing up our vehicle, they wave and ask for nothing but acknowledgment. I half-smile and wave back—I want to reciprocate. But I feel it so acutely—my height above the ground, the seat cushioning my ass, the meal stipend sitting in my pocket, my privilege, my plane ride across the ocean to this place. My skin, my self.
A young girl holding a baby walks out of the house in front of us. She shields the sun with one hand across her brow bone, and her eyes appraise us: up and down, end to far, far end. She takes slow steps forward, toward us, stops when she reaches the half-a-fence that bounds her home. She stands rooted amidst the children’s laughing, jumping dance. She looks at us, across each window, each staring and curious face. She rocks the child.
I have no idea how to do this. I have no idea how to fill this gap between me and the outside, me and you. I want to. But I don’t know how.
My seatmate suddenly sits up and leans far over my lap. Snap. That girl, with those eyes, and the broken fence and the baby, and the colorful puzzle piece roofs all in the background—what a beautiful picture.