Notes from Cape Town

Reflections on the luxury of life interrupted

Bowdoin in Khayelitsha

We meet at the University of Cape Town’s Middle Campus late in the afternoon on a Monday. A driver in a van pulling a trailer waits to transport us to Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s youngest township, a 30 minute drive out to the Cape Flats.  Filled with red, blue and orange plastic tables and chairs made for small children, the trailer looks out of place next to the Law School.  I hop in and smile at Hannah and Tracy.  Slightly nervous, though with much enthusiasm, I am eager to join them on this afternoon’s journey; they are generous to invite me.

On the last drive out to Khayelitsha, Tracy seems to be thinking about what is to come

My time in Cape Town so far has been filled with interesting days and adventures common to any western tourist.  Though I shop, drive, cook, read and socialize all things Cape Town, my contact has been with a small slice of the City community and I know I have not yet even begun to see – let alone understand – life in South Africa.  It’s not surprising, as has been the case in the past, that my education begins with a couple of Bowdoin students as I accompany them on their last trip to the township neighborhood where they have been volunteering with kids twice a week over the past semester.

The prior Thursday we host five Bowdoin students for dinner.  Near the end of their study abroad experience at UCT, they have been living in Cape Town since July.  Sitting around our long dining table we hear their stories and reflections of studies, excursions and everyday life over the past six months.  Soon the conversation turns to the ways in which living in South Africa for a short period of time has changed them.

While these range for each student, it is evident in all. For several of them it is their volunteer work in the township that has been the most pivotal experience.  Before the night is out, we learn they have taken significant initiative to leave more than just having given their time. Moved by the relationships they have built and the poverty in which those they have come to know live, they draw upon their networks to move others to action.  This is not a surprise to me, but nevertheless I am once again inspired by the ‘Bowdoin student way’: see a problem – fix it; see someone in need – determine how to meet that need.  And so they do.

At first timid, then full smile for the new visitor

Will Horne ’14 from Colorado gets involved directly with an umbrella organization, CHOSA, which serves the Khayelitsha community through several projects. Working with kids in orphanages and impoverished pre-schools, Will starts a website, Youth of Today, to educate his friends and family about the conditions in Cape Town townships while soliciting their partnership in bringing some basic resources to the organizations he has gotten to know.

Tracy Shirey ’14 from Iowa and Hannah Wurgaft ’14 from New Jersey, both softball athletes, just wanted to work with kids and were intrigued with a project that uses traditional Xhosa dancing as part of an after school program.  They commit all their time to one site. Today they are leaving supplies – a collection to which some of the Bowdoin community has contributed – that will continue to help ‘their kids’ after they are gone.

The new tables all set up in the classroom while kids enjoy the treats the students brought

We drive up several dirt roads between multiple corrugated shacks and store fronts. When we come to the site, the kids recognize the van and run as fast as they can to greet us.  Tracy and Hannah, engulfed in hugs, are clearly adored by the 20 or so kids here today.  Though primarily Xhosa speaking, the communication between them is clear.

With help from neighbors, we unload the furniture and several fully packed boxes of school supplies along with juice and cookies to share.  Walking along narrow pathways between tightly situated homes and businesses, we unpack our loads in a dirt-floored 18′ x 15′ room made out of plywood walls and a tin roof.  “That’s the corner I work in, and here is where Tracy teaches her 15 kids,”  Hannah says.  Each afternoon that they come, four American college student volunteers take 15 kids to a corner of the small makeshift room and sit on the floor to teach the kids English – the unique skills they can share here.

The scrapbook the students make for Nandi and the kids is the center of attention

Today, it is all play.  With the tables set up and the juice dispensed, the kids engage in games with each other and vie for the Bowdoin students’ attention.  Nandi, the woman who started the program next door to her home so kids would have a safe place to be after school while connecting them with their cultural roots, gazes at the scene quietly but with a contemplative smile. It’s hard to read her, but I think there is an element of overwhelmed appreciation with what is happening.  The tables and chairs transform the room; the supplies are likely more than she can comprehend.

As the time nears for us to say goodbye, the Bowdoin women pull out a scrapbook and give it to Nandi and the children.  In it are pictures of all the kids.  It is the highlight of the afternoon.  For many, it is the first photograph of themselves they are able to keep.

It’s hard to leave…for many reasons.  Hannah and Tracy know it is the last time they will see these kids.  But they also know they will be approaching other communities they encounter in the future with a new understanding of poverty.  Though I have myself been transformed by experiences like this in the past, to date I have been relishing a less involved life in South Africa. The invitation I received for this visit to Khayelitsha is more than a day’s event.  It is an invitation to begin to think differently about the next six months I have here, and the ways in which I can expand my circle of friends.  I will be back, and hopefully in some small way carry forward what the students have started, and perhaps in the process gain a deeper understanding about life in South Africa.

Bowdoin students Will Horne, Emily McNeil, Caitlin Hutchinson Maddox, Hannah Wurgaft, Tracy Shirey and me at 4 Tantallon Road



This entry was posted on November 27, 2012 by in Cape Town, Living Abroad, South Africa.

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