Friday, May 13, 2011
Cape Town Culture
We had a really full day of fabulous cultural events, starting with a visit to Langa Township. One of the reasons why Cape Town is such a beautiful city is (sadly) part of the legacy of Apartheid: there is no poverty in the city because all the poor people live in townships like Langa outside of Cape Town. We drove to Langa by crossing behind Table Mountain, leaving behind the ocean, the plush landscape, and all the beauty of the city for the desolate, sandy, scrubby terrain where the townships are located. Langa is one of the oldest townships in South Africa, and the different phases of history are clearly visible. Old dorms built to house working men, shacks, informal shanties, small one room houses, modern small homes with electricity and plumbing, and new condo buildings are all jumbled together. It is a stunning contrast to the beauty and order of Cape Town.
We began our day with a visit to a woman who brews traditional Xhosa sorghum beer. We were invited into her tiny shack made of corrugated metal, where most of the space was taken up by large plastic fermentation barrels. She showed us the sorghum meal she uses to make the beer, which is apparently quite healthy (it's not brewed and it doesn't use yeast). She used a huge metal jug to scoop out some beer for us to taste. Traditionally, the Xhosa people kneel down to drink, so we knelt, and those who wanted a taste tried it. I think most of us thought it was an acquired taste, but it was certainly an interesting experience.
From the traditional brewer, we went to another community, not formally a township but housing many former residents of other townships. This is a newly-built community called Mfuleni, filled with small neat one or two-room houses built since the end of Apartheid. Housing continues to be the greatest need for this country, with so many people still needing homes with running water and electricity. The scope of the problem is amazing and absolutely apparent when we were visiting this huge community sprawling for miles in each direction.
In Mfuleni, we got to visit an elementary school to meet a champion children's choir. The school was built so quickly that it was basically a sandy unpaved courtyard ringed with classroom trailers. Dogs and kids wandered through the courtyard. When we met the choir, they sang for us the songs they were using for their competition (they are the regional champion choir and will soon be competing for the next level). They sang several songs in the Xhosa language, in multi-part harmony, dancing as they sang. Then they sang a song for us in English: Eidelweiss, although they used African harmonies in their arrangement. It was amazing! Those kids were fantastic. Clearly, they were poor, wearing patched and worn uniforms, but they were so incredibly talented! Before we left, they asked us to sing for them, so the students started snapping their fingers, and we sang Simeon Benjamin. I don't think it really compared, but the kids of the choir seemed to enjoy it and they gave us a big round of applause!
We then were treated to a performance, in Mfuleni, of a Xhosa dance group. This mixed-gender group was wearing such an interesting costume: they had traditional cloth skirts (both the men and women), with traditional colorful long fur belts, bead work on their necks and around their waists, and small bells on their belts. But it was clear that traditionally, this dance would have been performed shirtless, because the traditional costume was only for the bottom half. On top, they all wore random colorful t-shirts (including one who was wearing a bright green Abercrombie and Fitch polo shirt). It was an interesting blend of old and new. And the dancing was great (again, it was mostly from the waist down as well, with very precise footwork; they didn't really use their arms at all to dance, although they carried large ceremonial clubs).
We left Mfuleni for another large and dynamic township, Kahyelitsha. Here we visited a woman who started her own bed and breakfast in the one room house she owned in the middle of the township. After the end of Apartheid, she was a believer in the new South Africa, and began taking in guests. She has now expanded (upward, as there is no space in townships to expand outward). She can host up to 12 guests at a time now. She is a real dynamo and she told us about the projects that she runs for the local children. Many of her guests contribute to the projects, such as helping feed local children who often don't get enough to eat, giving out pencils and pens for school, etc.
After we left Kahyelitsha, we visited the largest township in the area, Gugulethu. This township is huge and as we entered, we could see the mix of the old and the new. The entryway is the home to a huge modern supermarket, along with open air stalls selling huge pieces of meat for barbecue, along with women cooking the meat over open flames. Kids, dogs, broken-down cars, brand new BMWs, taxi-vans, and people walking everywhere: it was incredibly stimulating, and you could feel that this township had a lot of energy in it.
In Gugulethu, we first stopped to visit a traditional healer. This was fascinating. The healer had learned his craft from his relatives, passing down traditional herbal recipes for everything from headaches to the treatment of food poisoning to treatments for getting the one you love to love you back. We had to split into two groups to visit his tiny shack (built in the back 'yard' of another shack). Most of the space in the room was taken up by a single bed. Along one wall was a set of shelves filled with various dried herbs, many just bundled into newspapers, some in jars. There were bits of animal skins, and there were several buckets of rather unsavory-looking concoctions. One larger metal bucket on the floor held some kind of liquid with a thick foam on top, almost like egg whites. We were told that someone who was unlucky might use this liquid to wash themselves so that they would get luck. Another dark brown fluid in a smaller pot was for acne. The healer asked if anyone had a headache and wanted to try a remedy. Both Meesh and Brendan volunteered to try (although neither had a headache). They were given a jar with powder in it and told to stick a finger in and then sniff or snort a bit of the powder from their finger. Meesh started sneezing quite intensely. No ill effects, though. And it would have been interesting to know if it would have worked on a real headache.
We ended our time in the townships with a really fascinating experience for lunch. We went to a thriving bar-bq restaurant called Mzoli's, where you first stop at the butcher counter to pick out your cut of meat. They toss the meat into a big metal bowl, dust it with their special spices and sauce, and then you take it back to the rear of the restaurant, where they cook it for you over an open flame. No vegetarian options here, just beef, pork, sausage, chicken, or mutton. We ended up with a giant delicious bowl of meat (they mixed it all together) and we ate it with our hands (no utensils here either). Thank goodness we had napkins!
In the afternoon, we headed back to Cape Town for a quick visit to the District 6 Museum, which memorializes the destruction under Apartheid of a thriving intercultural neighborhood which was just literally razed with very little notice. This had been a very old neighborhood in Cape Town, and it never was built on again. In fact, it still sits empty in the middle of the city.
We ended our day with a stop in the area called the Bo-Kaap, with beautiful and colorful old houses built along the hill up to Lion's Head Mountain. This was an area that was originally settled long ago by the slaves from Malaysia and Indonesia that had been brought by the Dutch to Cape Town hundreds of years ago. When the slaves were freed, they settled the Bo-Kaap, eventually joined by some of the Indians who had been brought to South Africa by the British. Not only is the architecture of the houses distinct, but the culture is distinct as well. It's now called Cape Malay, and much of it is influenced by Islam. There is a distinct cuisine, and we had the opportunity to visit a woman who opened her house to us to show us how to cook Cape Malay food. We got to help her make roti bread, which was a lot of fun (and also delicious!). She made us samosas filled with cheese, onion, and curry spice, and she cooked a chicken curry that she served us with the roti that we made. She gave us fried pepper bites, and made us a hot pudding-like dessert that was similar to a tapioca flavored with cardamom. The students were covered in flour and having a lot of fun cooking and eating, and it was a fabulous way to end our day.
Tomorrow we have a free day, and students have many plans. At 5:20 AM, our shark cage divers are being picked up to go out to the ocean and look for sharks for the day. Another large group of students is heading to the beach and hoping for some sun. A small group is going out for another look at the craft markets. We leave on Sunday afternoon. It's hard to believe that our wonderful time here is soon coming to and end.