The afternoon light in Hout Bay was a muted purple, the sky tinted a cool gray from the drizzling rain that fell on and off throughout the day. It was mid-July—South Africa's winter—and the cold air hit my face in sharp, intermittent gusts as I walked away from the harbor towards the township.
I had just arrived at Cape Town International Airport that morning after over thirty-five hours of travel. I was there for a six-week volunteer and teaching program with a non-profit organization called One Heart Source. Chase and Kevin, two of the program’s coordinators, greeted me and several other volunteers in the baggage terminal with signs and promises of a life-changing experience.
We piled into two cars and drove toward Hout Bay, a laid-back coastal community twenty minutes outside of the city. I watched red clay mountains, green hills, and rusty blue townships flash past me. Chase told us the apartments where we would be living for the next six weeks wouldn’t be available for another couple days, so we would be temporarily staying at a family-style hostel called the BackPackers. One squished granola bar, one quick two-hour nap, and handfuls of flurried introductions later, I was standing outside the hostel about to visit the nearby township with a local tour guide.
Our program coordinators wanted us to see a township before we began teaching in one, so they introduced us to Rafi, a local and regular township tour guide. He was born and raised in South Africa. He had dreadlocks down to his waist, frameless reading glasses, and one of the softest voices I’d ever heard.
“So, we’re about to enter the Imizamo Yethu township, my home,” Rafi said. I scooted toward the front of the group to listen better. “The township is home to around 15,000 people, fairly small in comparison to the majority of townships in the country.”
I learned later that the townships first began in the late 1940s when the government relegated all non-white South African citizens to the peripheries of town and forced them to live in these undeveloped areas. Apartheid was lifted in 1994, but the townships persisted. Today, townships account for the country’s most crowded, dangerous, and poverty-stricken areas.
There was no particular entrance to the township, no gates or enclosures. We walked up a black concrete hill that was slick with rain and cracked in large jagged segments. I scanned the area around me, trying to absorb as much as possible. The ground was covered in filth. Dog shit smeared the edge of the road, crushed cans littered the walkways, chips and candy wrappers shimmered beneath the dirt. I saw bottle caps and cigarette butts, gum blobs and bits of toilet paper. Shreds of towels caked in dirt, buttons, and a deflated ball.
I looked away from the ground in time to notice Rafi’s lips moving. Again, I moved closer to hear his quiet voice.
“In townships we do not pay taxes to the government. Therefore, we receive no help from the government.” He put his hands in the pockets of his bright blue windbreaker and nodded up the road. “It’s a shame, but it’s always like this as a result. There is rubbish in the streets because no one comes to pick it up, there is piss in the streets because there is no sewage or plumbing.”
I stared at the hundreds of houses that crowded and swelled together, most of them not two feet apart. They were made of tin, some of it rusted or painted in bright oranges and blues. Towels, sheets, rags, and plastic bags hung from doors, windows, and roofs.
Rafi led us up the township’s main road. There was a humble church on one side and a tin stand with a man selling cigarettes, chips, candy, and drinks on the other. To my right were two men sitting in plastic lawn chairs and drinking beers as they watched the sun begin its slow descent toward the ocean. A girl in her late twenties approached from the road to the left, ran forward, hugged Rafi, and said something in Afrikaans. “Most people in this township speak either Afrikaans or Xhosa,” Rafi said, turning to us. “Those are just two of the country’s eleven official languages.”
We passed by the candy stand and the man behind it yelled something I didn’t understand. Rafi turned, paused, and walked toward the man smiling. None of us moved until Rafi beckoned for us to follow him. I thought about how calm and cool Rafi was as he chatted with the man and smiled. He kept his hands mostly in his pockets, and I was impressed by how much he could communicate without gesticulating.
“I was just explaining to him who you are,” Rafi said as we walked away. “He wanted to know about you. He asked why you were here, so I explained that you are not tourists, but teachers. I said, ‘They are here to educate our community about English and HIV prevention.’ I told him you are good people.”
I glanced back at the man as he lit up a cigarette. He took a deep drag and stared back at me, not in a condemning way but with focused intensity. I was wearing jeans, black Vans, and a crumpled sweatshirt. My hair was ratty and matte against my face from the nap at the hostel, and my cheeks were pale with exhaustion. I looked around at the rest of our group—ten foreign twenty-something students with blurry eyes and timid expressions—and I understood why he was curious about our intentions here.
I learned later that day that in recent years townships have become popular tourist destinations. It’s a common practice for locals to offer tours of their townships to earn money. Rafi said he likes giving the tours for educational purposes, to enlighten outsiders and make them aware of the locals’ plight. But I wondered if, instead of education, this was exploitation.
Imagining eager throngs of tourists lining up to view the poverty in these communities reminded me of the concept of safaris. When people go on wildlife safaris, they want to witness the grandeur of nature, to see the raw strength and muscle of a full-size rhino right in front of them, to watch the awkward yet graceful lope of a giraffe. Maybe they even want to learn more about wildlife preservation and how to take positive action. But at the root of their decision is the desire to see something in direct opposition to everything they know—to catch a glimpse of danger, of savagery, of harsh reality.
It’s the same reason we slow down and crane our necks on highways to see the wreckage from a car crash. We want to see devastation and heartache and death. We want to be shocked and disgusted, but only for a brief time. We want to be close to catastrophe, but not so close that it affects us.
I moved toward the front of the group again, curious to hear Rafi’s take on the issue. “Are locals upset that tourists come in the townships just to gawk at everything?” I asked.
“Some,” he said. “But it’s a way to make money. It’s what we have to do.”
I nodded, considering the cruel irony of making money from people who come to see your destitution. “I think,” he continued, “if I can make one person take action or have more compassion for people in different life situations, then it’s worth it.”
The sky started to drop soft pellets of rain as Rafi turned toward the inner road and led us past rows of houses. I pulled the sleeves of my sweater over my hands and lifted my hood to shield my head from the rain.
Rafi gestured toward his windbreaker. “You should all buy one of these,” he said. We followed him down a dirt staircase behind a house and beneath a wide outside area covered by a thin sheet blowing in the wind.
“This is my home,” Rafi said. Burnt orange, purple, and green sheets hanging from the walls shook and swelled as the breeze slipped beneath them. A Rastafarian poster hung on the back wall, Bob Marley’s black and white mid-song expression looming over the living room. On the right was a table covered with herbs and medicinal items: small glass bottles, plastic bags filled with leaves, and tied bunches of leaves and twigs.
Noticing our curiosity, Rafi walked over to the table. “My family and I believe in nature’s medicinal powers,” he said. He picked up a vibrant green sprig of mint. “This mint here, it’s good for curing headaches and stomachaches.”
A younger woman walked out, her head wrapped in a striped scarf. Rafi introduced her as his sister, and together they began holding up different bundles of sticks and herbs, explaining the natural remedies they contained.
After a few minutes, Rafi took us beneath a small wooden doorway into a makeshift studio. There were amps on the ground, a set of scratched silver drums, a couple guitars leaning against the wall, and dusty stacks of CDs on top of a record player.
But all of that faded into the background as Rafi introduced his friends, who emerged from the darker, shaded part of the room. One guy had caramel skin and a mustard-yellow shirt. The other had dark brown skin and warm, shiny brown eyes. Another wore glasses and bracelets. They all had thick, tightly wrapped dreadlocks and faces that melted into soft, easy smiles when they saw us. Amid the exchanging of names and the hellos and the nice to meet yous, I heard someone say, “Welcome, sisters and brothers.”
“We are friends who grew up together, and now we are family, too. We make reggae music together,” Rafi said. The guy with the yellow shirt pressed play on a small stereo and the slow, centered rhythm of reggae began filling up the room.
Suddenly white plastic chairs were being passed around and we were being urged to sit, to please make ourselves at home. The group of us, who’d been somewhat quiet—whether from jet lag or culture shock, I wasn’t sure—started brightening sitting among Rafi’s family.
A girl named Amy started asking them about their origin as a band, how they picked their name, how often they practiced together. Someone else wanted to know who played which instruments. Another girl mentioned that she played a little guitar and when the guy with the glasses placed the curved wooden instrument in her arms, she started strumming “Blackbird” by the Beatles, her fingers a delicate yet insistent whisper on the strings.
I heard laughter bounce out of my throat, rusty from too many silent hours sitting on a plane and absorbing a new country. I felt my shoulders drop from the warmth in the house, felt my eyesight sharpen as I studied the face and hand gestures of the man with the glasses who told me reggae reinforces the idea that we are all one. The music sounded like water-like waves lapping against an old dock or rain dripping from the side of a building.
I closed my eyes for a brief moment and let the scents overwhelm me: the damp, earthy smell of fresh rain mixed with the dusty scent of faded cloth tapestries and over-worn sweatshirts. Chopped mint and black licorice. Vacuum-sealed body odor. A hint of seawater. Wet dirt.
I thought about the weeks ahead of me—unknown, empty, and yet full of promise and purpose. I thought about Rafi and his intention to open our minds to a different lifestyle and culture. I thought about my dual roles in South Africa: to teach the children around me and to learn what I could from everything and everyone around me.
A new song from the CD started—this one bold and lively, yet with the same consistent, relaxed beat—and as I glanced around the room at the beautiful mix of people before me, I felt sure everything was already happening.
Paige Smith is a freelance writer and editor from Southern California who specializes in travel, lifestyle and wellness topics. When she's not writing stories and articles, she's planning her next trip. See more of her here.