I’m Just Here For The Free Windoek Light (Just Kidding PL)

            Imagine a town where you can drive past house where cardboard held together by stolen Vodacom advertisements meet dried the dried mud floor, A Mercedes C-Class pulls up and the inhabitants of the shanty get out of the car and walk through the open door into the dark, unlit house.

            Welcome to Langa. Our first morning in Cape Town we attended two church services home to the Xhosa people (pronounced with a clicking sound typical of the Xhosa and Zula tribes) in the first all-black township in South Africa. There’s only one entrance and one exit to the town, and the sign that welcomes you in is endorsed by Coca-Cola – a startling introduction to the imperialistic nature of American advertising in South Africa.  The first church, the Methodist church introduced me to the most honest and beautiful music I have ever heard in my life – a bold statement, but one that I will maintain at least until the Beatles make a posthumous comeback (Here’s to hoping John Lennon and George Harrison are in Cuba with Tupac Shakur and Pac’s grandmother.) The songs and hymns were unlike any you’d hear in the United States, laden with the hurt and suffering that was sustained through over forty years of apartheid and the hope instilled by Nelson Mandela and the spirit of a Rainbow Nation.

            It turned out that Lindsay, Bobby, and I were doing our three-day internship at the Naledi Pottery Project in Langa at the Guga S’Thebe Cultural Center across the street from the church we went to on our first day.  Honestly, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect before I got there; we stopped by for a few minutes that first day and, to my dismay, I found that the chances of me reenacting the scene from the movie Ghost seemed slim at best.

            Still, the three days spend at Naledi were some of the best in South Africa. As much as I would like to say that I enjoyed doing pottery, the simple fact is, I didn’t. It must be noted that I do I love and appreciate art more than most people but mixing a dry batch of clay with water and pouring it into molds isn’t exactly what I’d call art.

            The real artistic beauty came during the afternoon we spent touring the township of Langa on foot with two of the guys we met at the Guga S’Thebe Cultural Center and it came in the ease of conversation that passed that day and the genuine belly-laughs that could be heard from our group.  If you passed us by on one of the streets of Langa, you would think that we’d known Bulilani and N’Thobeli, both in their mid-twenties, for years.

First, they took us to one of the local “shebeens”, an illegal watering hole with a name derived from Irish slang, where we tasted the beer made in a dark and damp shanty in a back alley offshoot of one of the roads.  Bulilani and N’Thobeli were both extremely knowledgeable about Langa and its history and they were excited to be able to share it with us.  After the shebeen, we started making our way over towards the hostels in the middle of the township. When the Xhosa people started migrating to Cape Town from the Eastern Cape to find work, the only place a lot of them could find refuge was in the small hostels in Langa.  The congestion of people got so bad that at one point, three families were living in a room half the size of the dorm rooms at Elon.  With three beds in it, one family to a bed, many of the kids would end up sleeping in the kitchen, the only other room in the hostel besides the bedrooms that was shared by all four (yes that’s right, 12 families to one small living space.)

Although many of the hostels have been flipped into much nicer apartments to accommodate two families per hostel, there are still many that are dilapidated and decrepit, and all of them are without air conditioning.  We actually went into one of the old hostels and into a room that was inhabited by three families at the time.  The most amazing quality, in my mind, about the people of South Africa and especially Cape Town and its surrounding areas is the sincere generosity they have towards one another and towards us.  Even under such conditions, the three families welcomed us into their home with warm smiles and enthusiasm, addressing us as their brothers and sisters.

We learned a lot about Langa and its people that afternoon –their privities for nice cars, the uncanny similarities between guys in their mid-twenties in the United States and South Africa, the history and tradition behind the famed Initiation School attended by Xhosa adolescent males out in the Bush, and the economic disparities between Langa and the international tourist hub of Cape Town just a mere few kilometers away – but what I took away from that day more than anything else was the feeling of brother- and sisterhood that I now feel with the people of South Africa.  I don’t think my life in the U.S. could be any different from those of Bulilani and N’Thobeli yet somehow we were able to connect on an incredible level that has cemented our friendships. It turns out that Bulilani and N’Thobeli actually have a Facebook account, even though neither of them owns a computer (Langa has a few Internet Cafés where you can pay for Internet use) so we will be keeping in touch once our trip is over.

The best part about our walk that day was that, for the first time in years, I was able to spend an afternoon with six friends without anyone being on their cell phone, not even to check a quick text.  Because of that, we were fully able to actually listen to and learn from one another – something that is unbelievably invigorating but extremely rare in this day and age. From that, I wonder, are you able to put away your cell phone for one day without touching it?  You should try it – you may actually begin to hear what the people around you are saying.

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