Tour of Langa
As the trip was coming to a close, I reflected upon all of the life-changing experiences we had gone through as a group. From the incredibly passionate worship services at camp to the overwhelming sense of community and welcoming in the townships of Khayelitsha and Lotus River, I knew that who I was as a person before this trip was no longer the person I am now. My faith had been strengthened, my fear of expression and vulnerability somewhat diminished, and a passion for making connections and reaching out to people intensified. However, little did I know that on the second to last day, I would have one of the most life-changing experiences of the whole trip. This was the day we toured the township of Langa.
Walking into that township already felt different than our previous two tours as this time we were accompanied by a guide instead of a few of our Africa Jam friends. Instead of being shown personal homes and feeling like a friend visiting another friend, I was overcome with the sense of being an outsider. This feeling was so strange to me, especially this late in the trip, because we had experienced nothing but inclusion and welcoming embraces from our friends in Africa Jam. The people of Langa were still very kind (especially the children) but on this tour I felt much more conscious of the fact that we were essentially touring the place where these people lived. This wasn’t a friend paying a visit; this was a group of tourists examining the living conditions of people who had been affected by an oppressive social structure.
We toured the ‘big five’ housing types of Langa, but the part of the day that affected me most was when we walked into one of the many hostels. Hostels are formal structures and on average house anywhere from 6-10 families in about four rooms. Walking up the misshapen concrete steps to the hostel I was so nervous of what was beyond the open door frame. What we walked in on was a family just going about their morning routine: father fixing an appliance, daughter eating her breakfast, and mom trying to finish up some wash with a baby on her back. What I saw was a loving family, just four people making do with what they had. But then I looked past their routine and took in their living condition. From my perspective, the walls were literally falling apart and the whole building felt worn. The bedrooms that held two beds (and on average 6-8 people) were so small. Earlier I had seen two rats scampering down the steps from one of the buildings between the children playing on the steps. Physically being in this place, and imagining one of the Africa Jam campers living out their life here just hit my heart so hard. It’s not to say that having a bigger house and material items is a better lifestyle by any means, but those hostels were in no way a humane place to live.
Later we went to the one nice restaurant in the township, which was primarily designed for tourists, since most of the locals don’t have enough money to afford a meal out. At this point, I was nearly emotionally spent, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to stomach any type of food, no matter how delicious it all was. As I got in line to get my food, I looked out towards the gated door of the restaurant, and there were three children pressing their faces in-between the bars peering in with their big brown eyes at all of us. At this point, I couldn’t take it anymore. I was consumed with guilt at having treated their homes like a display meant for examination, frustration at the fact they were in this situation, and a little confusion. Why was I fortunate enough to be born into the prosperous North American lifestyle? What had they done to deserve this poverty? What could I do to make it better? Would me intervening even make it better?
In this moment, a woman who had accompanied all of us around the township named Gisette offered me a really great perspective. She explained that feelings of guilt were normal, but they shouldn’t consume us. The mere fact that we were willing to walk through these townships was a sign of recognition, which she said was more than most South Africans could muster. I still struggle with the idea that these impoverished people are on display for tourists to take pictures and marvel at and I think it’s because of a lack of connection between the two. I didn’t feel this way in Lotus River and Khayelitsha because I felt like a wanted visitor of their community. This stark contrast taught me the difference between making an effort to establish a connection and simply walking around and observing a place that’s different than where we’re from. Instead of simply feeling awkward and out of place in these situations, I now recognize the solution to the problem: it’s people to people interaction and connection. Only through these interactions can we ever realize we are more than just outsiders: we have the potential to be life-long friends if we reach out and just start to talk.