The Awakening

I've lived in South Africa my whole life. I was born here. But can you believe that last year (2009) was the first time I ever set foot in an informal settlement? 

It was part of the SAWomEng conference, 2009. The delegates were working on a technical project titled "The Sustainable Upgrading of Informal Settlements" and on the second day, we were taken to Imizamo Yethu township in Hout Bay. I've been to Hout Bay tons of times, eating fish and chips at the wharf or picnics at Chapmans Peak, but this was a side of Hout Bay I'd never seen before...

The beautiful and rich town of Hout Bay, Cape Town

It was a cold, rainy July day in the heart of the miserable Cape Winter.  They gave us plastic ponchos to wear over our clothes. As ridiculous as this was, we wore them.  I guess the thought of ruining our nice, expensive clothes was motivation enough. I remember thinking "My shoes are going to look shocking after this". We were introduced to women from the community and in groups of ten, began our ascent up the slopes of Imizamo Yethu.

The lower portion of the township was relatively neat, with RDP houses and tarred roads, but as we snaked our way up, the roads ended sharply, becomming gravel and rock, littered with waste and concrete blocks.  White plastic buckets were piled in one area. We learned that this was the toilet system for the families who lived here, and were collected and replaced every night by city officials. The shacks were tightly packed together, leaving treacherous walkways between. We continued to climb as the skies opened up on us, pelting us with rain. Water gushed past and pooled in dark corners. All around us, low enough for a child to reach, were a network of electric cables, live. Thesespiders webs, spanning from nearby light poles are the cause of the fires that tear through informal settlement, spreading wildly and claiming everything in its path.

Imizamo Yethu township

We arrived at a large shack that belonged to our friend and guide. Inside was a shebeen, the family business. A pool table took up most of the room, and our guide's mother chopped fatty buts of meat in the corner. One thing I noticed though: despite the rain, the cold, the filth, the smell, despite the imminent fear of violence and rape, despite the enormous prevalence of AIDS and TB, these people were nice. They were friendly, they smiled and welcomed us inside. They asked us questions and shared their stories with us...

Reflecting later, I knew that something had happened that day. Something inside of me had changed, had woken up to what had always been around me. I felt like I had been shaken from a happy dream, one which I never would choose to return to. Now that I had seen and experienced and heard about what was really happening in our country, I never wanted to go back.

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