Poverty is not an accident.
Like slavery and apartheid,
it is man-made and can be removed
by the actions of human beings.
Nelson Mandela 2005.
I know I’ve said this multiple times, but imma say it again:
When you see something in real life, it is an incredibly different experience than seeing it from a distance; be it on TV, or on the internet.
seeing animals in the wild, roaming free is vastly different than seeing photos of them.
It is this contrast between reality and filtered narrative that has inspired my own purpose.
I had this moment where I realised that a lot of what I thought I knew was reconstructed – to fit a specific context.
And if I hadn’t travelled to Africa (or caved in to the expressions of fear expressed by those who heard of my plans to travel Africa) – my view of Africa would go as follows:
~ extreme poverty
~ war – warlords – child soldiers
~ just sadness everywhere
But, after my two week escapade in South Africa and Namibia – I have come back with fresh eyes and a brand new understanding of Africa as a continent.
Now, it is important to be honest here –
South Africa and Namibia are two of the safest (safe being a relative term) countries on the continent.
I do wish I had visited other places, taken a few more risks.
But I guess, I did have some underlying fear myself.
However, on this trip, the places that impacted me the most were two townships that we visited in South Africa: Soweto and Imizamo Yethu.
Soweto is a township located in Johannesburg, and we spent the day wandering through the area on bikes with our local guide named Wellington.
Soweto itself was incredibly diverse; Wellington took us to three distinct areas – the township (essentially a slum), the middle class area, and where the ‘rich’ people live.
The middle class area mirrors the suburbs here in Melbourne, quaint houses, clean roads, and well kempt gardens. Obviously there a ton of gates and cameras, but aesthetically that would be the dichotomy drawn.
The ‘rich’ area would be like Kew or Toorak.
Houses here are huge.
Cars are fancy.
Again though – gates and cameras a plenty.
But the township was where we spent most of our time.
Homes were crammed together – packed in like a can of tuna.
Roofs still had asbestos in them.
Living conditions were appalling.
But what struck me the most was that there were actually perfectly good apartment blocks located within the slums – that were empty.
Wellington explained to us that these apartment blocks were built for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
Like a societal spring cleaning – the government built these homes and gave them to the local people. It was meant to ease the pressure of everyday life for people in these townships, providing access to clean water, proper toilets and a dependable (asbestos free) roof over their heads.
And so it goes, tourists and dignitaries arrive for the World Cup and leave impressed by the great social work undertaken by the leaders of the country.
But as soon as Spain lifted the trophy and departed South Africa as champions of the world
– the Zuma administration went about displacing the people they had previously housed stating that the housing project was not actually considered social housing.
It was unbelievable hearing all this, as we stood out front these perfectly sound homes.
One had a burst pipe – streaming fresh, clean water – an amenity that many within the township did not have access to.
They weren’t allowed anywhere near the water, with routine security patrols doing the rounds to ensure that no one squats within these homes.
The burst pipe has been burst for 6 months – just a fun fact.
However, Wellington told us that that didn’t stop some people from making use of the empty rooms when security details weren’t around.
And we believed him – because we saw a man clamour into a room, desperate to make it his own.
(ii) Imizamo Yethu
The township of Imizamo Yethu is located within the greater Hout Bay Valley area – and is distinctly different from the township of Soweto.
This township was located at the foot of a mountain, and just felt a lot more crowded than Soweto did. With a mountain towering over in the background, the homes (if you can even call them that) seemed squashed, with only one major road running through the township.
This tour was on foot, and we navigated winding alleys that without our local guide – would have been an unsolvable maze.
The most shocking thing was that for a township of approximately 50,000 people, there were only 9 toilets.
Not 9 toilet blocks.
Just 9 toilets.
Our guide, who’s name escapes me (my apologies) – explained to us that the smell which lingers in the air was that of human faecal matter.
He explained that due to limited toilet access, locals would wait till nightfall and just do their thing in the street.
At this point, you’d be asking:
‘Ryan, it seems like your previously held views of poverty and sadness seem to have been confirmed by your recent trip to Africa!’
And to some extent you would be right.
Because I saw some truly dreadful and disheartening conditions.
It makes you question – how in the 21st century can things like this still happen?
But what truly surprised me was the attitude of the people that were living in these conditions.
They were incredibly welcoming.
Always willing to stop for a chat.
Within these desolate spaces, there was a sense of community that I hadn’t felt anywhere else before.
This man –
invited us into his house to have dinner with him, even though he had his own family to feed (a family of 6), and we were a group of 8 people.
Contrast that with the French couple and German couple in our group – who screamed at the lambs head offered to us for dinner
who were visibly and audibly disgusted by the township
who refused to shake hands with the locals –
It was clear that they had not learnt much that day.
Our privilege has detached us from the sense of togetherness that locals of these townships had exhibited.
For some reason, as our society advances – we think we can leave values such as community and connection behind.
That those values are simple, tribal, survival mechanisms – if a lion is about to eat me, its better to have people around me to warn me about the threat.
But now we have an abundance of luxuries – a roof over our heads, more food than we can ask for, a plethora of amenities that ensure our quality of life.
So we detach, because we have everything we need.
We don’t need others anymore – not when we live relatively threat free lives.
And its this attitude that allows poverty to continue, like a vicious cycle.
Because we forget that as long as we are alive, we are responsible for what happens to others.
On some level, we are always in the service of others.
And that’s why my trip to Africa absolutely shattered all my preconceived ideas about Africa.
Because unlike the chaotic and tumultuous society portrayed in everyday media – the African people showed me that sometimes those that have less, actually have more.
That even without the strapping of 1st world life – they never forgot what defined human existence – our intertwined responsibility to love each other wholly.
Just remember, what happens on Earth, stays on Earth.
Ryan Cheng is the founder of The 88, and is passionate about telling stories surrounding travel, culture and identity.
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