What South Africa taught me: Stories from UVic’s Colonial Legacies Field School

Features Stories
Tori Wong (photo)
Tori Wong (photo)

Looking around Cape Town International, you wouldn’t have any idea you were in Africa. Whether you land in London, Vancouver, or Cape Town, you won’t know where you are until you leave the gates. Just beyond the doors was a scene that epitomized what I knew about South Africa. On one side of the highway, slums lay beneath overpasses while on the other, downtown Cape Town emerged with views as idyllic as any European vacation destination.

Beneath the imposing shroud of Table Mountain sat this confusing and paradoxical city. Western tourists come to rave that it is “so modern,” “like being in Europe.” They explain how “you couldn’t even tell it was Africa,” conveniently forgetting that just to the east of their golden city is the area known as Cape Flats, where most of Cape Town’s Black African population still live.

As we drove from the airport and past the townships to the Victoria and Albert Wharf where our luxurious hotel stood amidst the poverty, I began to feel uneasy with my affluence. Later that day, as we walked through the Langa township, my skin crawled with my own privilege; a feeling that I would become accustomed to throughout the trip. I attempted to justify my presence to myself as young people stared from across the road at the group of white foreigners snapping photos of their homes and wandering their dusty roads; we traipsed into homes to interview individuals, and their families often quickly left the room, hands covering their faces telling us “no photos.”

I wondered to myself how many research groups had walked into their lives, studying them. I pondered how we could be a different, better example of researchers, but also what right I had to be there. I knew that the intentions behind the field school were to study colonialism, racism, and poverty, among other things, but I wasn’t prepared for how it would change my perceptions of these topics, or to what extent it would alter my understanding of my own education. 

Makeshift settlements both legal and illegal, iron houses of corrugated metal lining dusty dirt roads: these are South Africa’s townships. Empty shipping containers serve as convenience stores, and bars; chicken-wire fencing surrounds homes made of pallets and sheet metal; dilapidated workers’ hostels from the Apartheid era are scattered throughout the township, now serving as apartment complexes. In the more affluent areas of the townships, those with means live behind wrought-iron fences with private security signs in the windows. In Langa we visited a home with three bedrooms and one kitchen, no bathroom. Seven families lived in this home. Entire families shared one twin bed.

Our guide, Lele Mbinda, explained that privacy is not a concept here. Cars drive these streets quickly and Lele explained to us that the rules of the road do not apply in the townships; we must not assume cars will stop for us. He also described the townships as not just places of poverty, but also places of community. Lele, a young and smiling Xhosa man with the most amazing set of dreadlocks, lives in Langa himself and says even though he has risen above the poverty level he was born into, he now rents a gated house in the relatively affluent “Beverly Hills” of Langa. Leaving the township would be leaving his community. For some residents, such as Lele, leaving is an option, but for most it is not.

At the University of Cape Town, we interviewed three local community activists. The stories they told in this classroom session were harrowing: of rape, gang violence, and poverty, of lost dreams, homes, and lives. Their strength was unbelievable; I could not comprehend how one could live through such tragedies and still smile, laugh with us, and be so warm and kind to strangers from across the world. Yet, they were. Moreover, these three women were all working to enact positive changes within their communities to prevent similar tragedies from affecting others. Despite facing more than their fair share of difficulty, these women were doing far more than their share of good.

[pullquote]I was horrified that a girl my age could look at me and think that I would shun her simply because our skin was not the same colour.[/pullquote]

After Cape Town, we travelled to the villages of N’wamitwa in a rural area of South Africa’s Limpopo province, where we would spend the next two weeks. We flew into a landing strip in a game reserve and drove two hours to reach N’wamitwa. As locals would call this area, it is understood to be “deep, deep rural”—so rural that it doesn’t show up on a map. The area is mainly made up of citrus farms and small residential plots. There is very little infrastructure. Limpopo is the hottest and driest province in South Africa and even with us visiting during their “winter” months, the temperature ranged from 25–35°C, yet the locals kept telling us how cold it was. 

N’wamitwa seemed like the Africa I once imagined. Women walked the roads carrying water or fire wood on their heads, families cooked meals on top of open fires in front of traditional rondavel houses, tuck shops, fruit stands and shebeens littered the red dirt roads hawking their goods. We were welcomed to N’wamitwa by a group of children returning from school who chased our van laughing and waving until we reached our destination. 

We visited the Xitsavi Youth Centre’s Fit for Life program, which teaches basic life skills, English language, and sexual health education to young people from 18 to 35. During the lunch hour of our visit to the centre, I was chatting with a couple of the female students, when one of them, Cornia, asked me: “Can we be friends?” 

“Of course,” I replied. 

“I cannot believe a white person wants to be my friend.” 

I was shocked. She asked me to take a photo with her to prove it to her friends and her mother, explaining to me that they would “never believe it.” In this moment, I had no idea how to respond. I was horrified that a girl my age could look at me and think that I would shun her simply because our skin was not the same colour.

This was only one of the conversations I had in South Africa that gave me pause. I soon realized that a high degree of racial segregation still exists in South African culture. While the legal aspects of apartheid may no longer exist, the social and cultural aspects of it have continued. Apartheid has changed the way South Africans view themselves and others. The intense racialization of apartheid is still prevalent in the way young “free-born” South Africans view their future, what they see themselves as capable of achieving.

While Canadians are generally a hospitable people, we were put to shame by the South Africans we met in the villages. Throughout N’wamitwa, we were constantly welcomed into homes, offered food and drinks, and treated to many music and dance performances. Wherever we went, we were fed meals generally reserved for holidays. Baths were poured for us, and all of the neighbours would come to the house we were staying in to meet “the students from Canada.” 

[pullquote]When we first arrived in N’wamitwa, we saw the people as research participants — when we left they had become our friends.[/pullquote]

We went to a remote part of N’wamitwa one day to interview January Mathebula, a farmer. It was during lunch time, so we told him we’d bring food, to which he replied, “I will not allow you to bring any food into my home.” When we arrived, his family served us what would typically be a wedding feast.  We were welcomed into many of the local’s homes. People who had little to eat themselves would insist on preparing such feasts for our entire group. The graciousness and hospitality were both amazing and overwhelming. 

The day before our first interviews at the Hleketani Women’s Farm, one of our field school students fell ill and had to be hospitalized. Though many of the women had not yet met him, they had heard of his illness and were extremely concerned about his condition. They insisted on doing a rousing prayer session to ensure his recovery. 

Prayer in South Africa means something very different than our Western understanding. Prayer in South Africa means dancing, chanting, singing, and clapping. In fact dancing, singing, and clapping are a part of everyday life in South Africa, especially in the villages. Song and dance are routine and they are shared and passed down. Their songs are the definition of oral histories, as they tell stories from generation to generation. 

One night in Joppie Village, I was speaking to a group of teenage girls with some of the other field school students. The girls, being typical teenagers, asked us what shopping was like in Canada. They asked us how much a t-shirt would cost. We told them around 200 rand—about $20. The girls were shocked; they told us we could buy t-shirts in Limpopo for just 30 rand (equivalent to $3) and that if we wanted, they had some old clothes we could have that they didn’t need anymore. It took us about half an hour to convince these girls that we did not need their old clothes, and one girl still insisted on bringing my friend a dress. 

Surprisingly, it was the ordinary events that were the most moving. Particularly striking for me was election day. As a political science student, I knew that witnessing the national elections would be a highlight of the trip, but the reason I loved this day is hardly political. Instead, I reminisce about walking our hosts’ daughter, Vina Mtsenga, down the red dirt roads of Joppie Village to the polling booth. Local young people surrounded my fellow students and I as the Mtsenga’s grandson led the group, strumming a guitar. The energy of the night and the excitement of the locals after the elections was palpable. After the energetic fervour of the national elections, we returned to our hosts’ Mphephu and Daniel Mtsenga’s house, and found a pleasant calm as we sat in the dusk on wooden mats preparing corn kernels for the evening’s meal. While we worked, chickens pecked around the ground, the older women had soft conversations in Tsonga, and young children ran around us as Daniel brought the cattle home from pasture. All of these events and sounds were so unfamiliar to me, but yet so very comforting. 

The following morning, we woke up in the Mtsenga’s home to the sound of the rooster’s crows, and sat journaling in the early morning warmth of the African sun as Vina bustled around us performing her daily chores. I felt utterly grateful for the South African hospitality we had become accustomed to. I do not mean to romanticize the life that the Mtsengas lead—they work exceptionally hard, and the peace and quiet I felt is of course different from the busy lives that village women such as Vina lead—but I still envied how genuine and down-to-earth life seemed in the villages.

During our interviews in Limpopo, we heard stories both heartwarming and heartbreaking, and we were so blessed, not only to be welcomed into people’s homes, but also to leave knowing their stories and better understandings of their lives. When we first arrived in N’wamitwa, we saw the people as research participants—when we left they had become our friends. They attempted to teach us their local language, Tsonga, and we endeavoured to learn. We laughed together after learning we had been pronouncing thank you, inkomu, as “inkomo” which meant cow in Zulu (one of South Africa’s 11 official languages). We became accustomed to a few simple phrases during our time in Limpopo, like saseka (beautiful) and shwaunanzika (delicious). However, my favourite word we learned in South Africa is ubuntu, which is common in all South African Bantu languages and means “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.”

Coming back home to Canada, I miss South Africa. The comforts of home seem almost unfamiliar as I go about my everyday activities. In the back of my head I think, Three months ago I was lying under the South African stars. Three months ago I was dancing a traditional Tsonga dance in the middle of the living room of a village elder. Three months ago I was sitting at dinner with the traditional leader of N’wamitwa, Hosi N’wamitwa. The simplicity and luxury of life at home seems to be missing the colour and flavour of South African life. 

The villages held a distinct beauty, as did much of South Africa, in its countryside, its animals, and particularly its people. However, that beauty always existed tangentially with devastating structural inequality. Our interpreter in the village, Basani Ngobeni, could not afford to receive a post-secondary education due to the poverty she had been born into. At 25, Basani speaks fluent English and six other languages, and works at a coffee shop in Tzaneen. She is the sole supporter of her mother and four younger siblings, who share a two-room house in Nkambako, a village of N’wamitwa. In the villages, stories like Basani’s are not the exception to the rule. 

Going to South Africa, I expected the experience of poverty, of instability, of racism and patriarchy to affect me, change the way I thought. What I did not consider was how the positive aspects of South African life would also change me. How the music and dance would inspire me, the art would move me, the kindness and hospitality would amaze me, and the intelligence and perseverance of the people remind me over and over again of the strength and resilience of the human spirit. 

At many times throughout the trip, I both loved and hated the country, and the best moments of my time in South Africa were often intertwined with the hardest moments. Yet I could not be more thankful for my time there, or more excited to return again one day. Going to South Africa, I had the notion that I could help, but instead I came back strongly believing that South Africans are perfectly capable of helping themselves if given the means to. I would advise anyone wanting to “help” Africa to try and learn from Africa instead. Learn the languages, make conversation, make friends, be part of the community, help where needed but do not presume that you can do it better, or that you will make a difference. Africa does not need you, but it has much to offer you.  

The Colonial Legacies Field School is an experiential learning program open to all disciplines, run by Dr. Elizabeth Vibert of the UVic history department. Students spend three weeks in both rural and urban South Africa studying many topics, including poverty, development, land rights, gender, colonialism and community. The school will be running again in 2016. Contact Dr. Vibert at evibert@uvic.ca for more information. To read more, visit the course blog at uvicsouthafrica.wordpress.com