On the mountain, he was like a springbok, quickly darting ahead of other hikers and bouncing to the top. On the descent, the shoes came off and he stopped to make jokes and/or playfully insulted everyone we passed. He’s the type of guy who gets away with saying anything he wants because he is so eminently personable and charismatic. He’s the perfect guy to show me Khayelitsha, not least of which because he wrote a book about it.
When I first moved to Cape Town, a former housemate described a book he had bought at the airport when he arrived. “Khayelitsha,” he said, “It’s about a white South African who moved to the largest township in Cape Town. I was instantly enthralled. Two weeks later, my head was filled with the stories of his experience and my spirit was buoyed by the idea that it was possible to break the extant color lines and transcend the barriers between the two distinct worlds of South Africa. So I did what anyone would do, I stalked the author.
I had a few minutes before a Thursday evening class, and I felt a peculiar inflection in my stomach as I pressed “Call” on my phone. I chastised myself for my timidity. “What is wrong with you?” A dropped call, a series of text messages, and a few days later, I’m riding in the car toward Table Mountain with Steven and a Scotsman named Ray. After setting the Table in the morning, we were headed to Khayelitsha that afternoon.
A book is a powerful thing. Steven’s story of his friends in Khayelitsha is no different than if I were to write one of mine. But reading about Steven’s friends in a book transforms real people into mythological characters. Visiting Khaye was like visiting Narnia. My imagination had turned everyone into celebrities. I had a recurring desire to ask for autographs.
Yet, the initial celebrity awe was only a tiny part of the experience. As we walked the dusty streets and alleyways past metallic shacks, I felt liberation at the annihilation of cultural safety zone of Cape Town. As we sopped up meat sauce with white bread, shared liters of Coke and beer at the shebeens, and met the families of some of our new friends, I was overcome by acceptance and community—community that quickly transcended the superfluities of normal day-to-day interactions.
Steven’s friends were quick to become our friends. They shook our hands, gave us hugs, bought us beer. One gave me a bottle of wine from his house to take home with me (turning western etiquette on its head). My phone is loaded with new phone numbers. Occasionally, strangers even approached with questions or just to shake my hand. The banana vendor at the fruit market gave us a bunch to welcome us to the town. A random guy purchased us beer.
Playing pool in a shebeen barely large enough to hold the table and hot enough to fry meat, I am overwhelmingly hopeful. Compared to the shopping malls of the southern suburbs and the clubs of Long Street, this is a deep, satisfying, life-giving breath.
photo courtesy of shiyaafrikatours.com
I am prone to romanticize, especially regarding this type of context. The level of poverty cannot be exaggerated, and I am sure that I was shielded from the depths of it by the nature of my time there. The shacks were precariously built, some teetering at the edge of destruction. The fruit market was constructed completely of palettes. Most homes were without toilets. The informal economy thrived. But it is instructive to note that I didn’t sense poverty. The only thing greater than the destitution was the determination of individuals, through their community to rise above it. In much of my previous experience, the poorer the people in material wealth, the greater their net wealth and consequently, their kindness to others. It makes the words of Jesus ring true, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” I have much to learn about community.