by Liz Flynn
We were brought to Alexandra Township, arguably one of the roughest areas in South Africa, only a few hours after landing in the Johannesburg airport. Our group consisted of 18 students and two advisors from Susquehanna University. We were met at the airport by two guides, Cedric and Nettie, along with our driver for the trip, Lebo. We boarded our bus, a little too tight for 22 people, and began our trek to Alex, the first village we would be visiting on our 15-day stint in South Africa.
The ride didn’t seem all that long, and it was difficult at first to tell where Johannesburg ended and Alex started. We were surrounded by what seemed like regular suburban homes: mud colored slabs, the white caulking visible, it reminded me of houses I’d seen in magazines of Arizona or out west. Some houses had black iron gates, others had high walls. It was nice, calm. Within a matter of two turns, or so it seemed, we were in a drastically different area. The ground was no longer paved but instead a dried mud, orange and dusty. From the bus, it looked like the ground was shining beneath the dirt. I learned after getting off of the bus that the shining was just broken beer bottles, scattered. The township was hundreds of metal shanties crosshatched, housing 30,000 residents, on a three-mile radius.
We were split up for most of the day. Some of our group went to the women’s hostel, the men’s hostel, and a veteran’s house. The township was like a maze. To get to our various locations, we were led by some residents, trustworthy navigators of this labyrinth they lived in. Each guide seemed happy to be showing us their home. Many couldn’t speak English, not that I had expected them to, but a smile could be shared between our languages. After a few hours of being separated, our group reconvened. Hurried voices of the different things we’d seen or heard. Much of the talk I remember was about the different hostels. Everyone saying something different but exactly the same. The water damage, the industrial-looking kitchen with steel countertops so rusted I didn’t even want to touch them, let alone cook food on them, doors that had unidentifiable scratch marks on them. When I was walking through the women’s hostel, I tried to picture myself living there, raising a child there. The people I had met, or even passed by seemed so loving and kind that it was hard to picture them living in such a violent looking place. Near the women’s hostel were mud-slabbed buildings. Cartoon faces of black men and women painted onto the buildings so perfectly, advertising barbershops, smoke shops, Coca-Cola, their paint was the only thing that looked new, fresh in the neighborhood.
I remember the children weaving us through their makeshift neighborhood until we reached this overhang. It was like a rusted metal cliff overlooking the rest of Alex. I looked over the tops of bald children’s heads, whose names I never got. All of them pointing out their homes, showing us, speaking a language we wished we knew. I remember looking out, seeing the tops of houses for miles, no clouds in a sky so blue it was almost white, and garbage caked into their earth, feeling like I had just stumbled upon the most unfortunately beautiful place in the world.
After the children brought us back through their maze, our whole group met up at the Shebeen, the township’s pub. A few of us walked into this cement block “bar” where we met a man behind an iron cage, the 40 oz. beers behind him. On the sides of the cage were different beer brands with prices I didn’t really understand. I was thinking of the conversion rate, trying to count my money inconspicuously as I moved forward in line and thinking that there was no way a 40 is only two American dollars. When it was my turn to order, I asked for a Hansa, partly because that was the only name I could pronounce and partly because the two people in front of me, also on the trip, asked for that as well.
The man behind the counter asked for the 16 rand, a mouth full of mismatched teeth, cross-hatched like his neighborhood. I had only a 20 and assumed in handing over the money that I would get my change like a normal encounter. I stood there for a minute before I asked the man about my money. My questioning consisted of shrugging my shoulders and contorting my face like I had just eaten a lemon, as if that would translate into his language. The man looked at me and in rushed English said, I’ll get it to you later. And I said, Okay, and left the inside bar, taking the milk crate from the stack to the left of the beer counter to join the rest of the group outside. It wasn’t until I was sitting outside, drinking my enormous drink, that I realized, Fuck, I’m not getting that change back. Had it not been for the setting sun and the locals joining our milk crate gathering, I might have cared, but instead I just drank my beer, getting comfortably buzzed, and watched everyone.
The local women kept coming up to our group asking for photos, which I later learned is something you have to get used to traveling to a place where people have rarely interacted with or seen white people. There were three women that stuck out the most to me. They each had on some form of material with Nelson Mandela on it, either a skirt, head wrap, or shirt. All of their clothes were bright yellow, and Mandela’s face was in a black and green bordering. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t stop looking at their outfits. I never talked to the women, though. I smiled at them occasionally, when our eyes would meet, between their twists and turns, their rhythmic dancing, a greeting for us all.
Later on in the trip, we went to the Apartheid Museum in Pretoria. At the museum, all I saw were influences of Mandela. I read information I had never known, like how he grew up in a village like many of the ones we saw on our trip. If he hadn’t been pushed to get an education, he wouldn’t have been the man he was. I heard people talk about a man that I really only knew the last name of. And it wasn’t until after the museum that I started to understand why those women in Alex had Mandela draped around them. It wasn’t just Mandela that they wore. It was hope. It was Mandela’s promises to the people of the townships. It was their history.
We stayed in our milk crate circle until it was nearly pitch black. I took in the chill of the night that crept up on my arms as laughter escaped my mouth. Drinking our drinks, talking with one another, pretending to understand the locals. Waving our hands in a big X when the locals would ask us to join them in dance, only to surrender with a shrug. It wasn’t until someone signaled, I guess, that we made the great migration from our crate corral to our host’s house for dinner.
We were given inflatable pillows and thin foam mats to put our sleeping bags on. Girls in one room, boys in another. Our mats were only a few inches away from each other set up in our host family’s dining room. They set up an antique-looking lamp as a nightlight, to help us feel more at home, maybe, but it didn’t take long before we were all passed out on the floor. I remember lying on my sleeping bag, just before I let sleep take over, looking at the ceiling. I noticed the crown molding, how detailed these loops were, carved with a purpose. But only one spigot in the kitchen for water.
When we woke up around 5the next morning, we found out that we had actually fallen asleep closer to 9pm rather than our perceived time of 11pm or midnight. I woke up to the sound of our host mom’s swift feet shuffling against the tiled floor, her hair in some type of a wrap and an apron on over her clothes. From my mat, I could see her boiling large pots of water. I hadn’t thought much about what she was doing. I thought that she might be preparing dinner for that night. As I got my bearings straight, got the sleep totally out of my eyes, I overheard someone say something about a bath. Then I realized what the pots of water were for.
The baths were held in the room across from the bathroom—a cement room with a toilet, no seat, a sink with dripping water, lit by a candle on the floor. The room across from the bathroom had also functioned as the four boys’ bedroom the night before. The room had swollen, tired wood as the floor, grooves that held the dirt from over the years. The walls were white, dirtied from hands and wear.
There were three or four buckets to use, each person getting their own. A toddler could fit comfortably in one of the buckets, but unfortunately we were all adult sized. For a while I just kind of stared at the bucket, not really sure how to go about it.
I had gone to sleep away camp for many years, shared cabins with ten girls each summer. Undressing in front of people wasn’t really an issue for me, or so I thought. But as I stood there, above the basin, I felt out of place, unsure of what to do with myself. I thought that maybe I just felt this way because I didn’t know the girls I was sharing this small room and large experience with. I remember not wanting to make eye contact with either one of them. I thought how odd it was that this basin, this situation, could make me feel so insecure. I stared at the molding on the ceiling for a while. I thought that it was kind of funny that this house had such elegantly carved swirls, painted white, surrounding the room, yet we were washing ourselves in basins.
I figured I’d start by washing my hair; it seemed like it’d be the easiest. I was wrong. It’s really hard to wash long hair in a bucket, hair flipped over, my face less than an inch above the bucket of lukewarm water, soap sliding down my upside down head and into my eyes. As I knelt before the bucket, I laughed, soap getting into my mouth, thinking about the other Susquehanna students getting their cultural immersion by going to a museum. Our university believes that it is important for every student to get a cross-cultural immersion at least once during our four years, and I couldn’t help but think that I, along with my fellow SU students on this trip, were getting more than our fair share.
After we got our bucket wash, we ate a breakfast of bread and tea, elegantly splayed before us, at a large table with a white tablecloth embroidered with delicate swirls and loop where our mats had been the night before. We headed out to the next part of our journey. Before we left Alex, we gathered in front of the house and took a photo as a group, including our hosts and some of the locals we had met the night before. Some of us stood on the ground, others stood on the mud stairs that led to an outdoor patio. We had our arms around one another, “got close for the picture.” I wish I remembered the names.
We had only been in this village for less than 24 hours, but I felt a real connection to the people of Alex. As we hauled our bags into the trailer some of the locals thanked us for visiting them, our hosts asked us to come back, said that they enjoyed our company. Our group stood in front of the bus, finishing the last of our conversations, told our hosts and the few villagers that remained that we would come back if we could.
I look at that photo now from Alex, see how happy we all were, how wide our smiles were. I wonder if we looked happy in the picture because we felt that happy or if it was because we weren’t yet worn out from the trip. I wonder even more if our hosts truly meant it when they said they wanted us to come back, or if they said it out of obligation, just as we had said that we would return if we could.
When I came home from my trip, my parents couldn’t stop asking me questions about everything that I did. Their mouths were moving from the second they picked me up at the airport until we got home. I remember feeling like such an idiot in the car. How can you go to Africa and only have a few sentences to say about the whole trip?
“You must have seen rhinos and elephants, right? That had to have been cool!” my mom asked from the front seat of the car.
I paused my iPod, and shuffled around in my seat a little. “Yeah, actually, I fell asleep during the bus ride while we were travelling through Krueger National Park.”
My dad laughed in disbelief. Mom sighed, “You went all the way to Africa to fall asleep on a bus?”
I forced a laugh, defensive, “Well, we were in the bus for so long, and once you see five elephants and some zebra, it gets a little old. I don’t know.”
It was true. I had fallen asleep shortly after we entered the gates of Krueger, but I didn’t feel bad about it. I justified it to myself and my family that asked by saying that I didn’t really like animals that much anyway. But looking back on it now, I can’t say that I cared about Krueger at all. The only thing that I know I truly cared about on this trip was Alex.
I wish I knew the answer as to why I cared so much about Alex. I wish I could say that I came from an affluent neighborhood, came from a wealthy family, have never experienced poverty before, but none of that would be true.
During my first year of college I went into New York City and pretended to be homeless for a day as part of an assignment for a writing class. I dressed as if I truly were homeless, didn’t even shower for the few days prior to fully take on the role. The result of the project was that I got a small glimpse as to what it’s like being homeless for a day. It’s not glamorous.
For as long as I can remember I have always felt such a strong and deep connection to people and places that are suffering. I remember walking through the Apartheid Museum and looking at all of the pictures on the walls, the bits and pieces of information, the small video clips, and feeling my throat dry up, ready to choke out tears. Tears that I knew I couldn’t utter. I wasn’t a part of this culture; I wasn’t even alive for most of apartheid. I couldn’t cry for something that hadn’t directly affected me, but yet I wanted to so badly.
I walked through the Apartheid Museum and thought of the women in Alex wearing their Nelson Mandela garbs. I thought about how they must have felt, or how I thought they must have felt about apartheid and their current economic and social situation.
I thought of them accepting Americans that they didn’t even know into their township, their culture, their society, for 24 hours, and making each of us feel at home. I thought about how grateful I was to these people for reasons I wasn’t evens sure of.
The thing about Alex was that it wasn’t just a village for me. It was a feeling. It was looking out over the overhang the children showed me and feeling on top of the world at the bottom of the world. It was seeing joy in children and adults alike, a joy that I find in most adult Americans to be hidden. It was the feeling of community that I didn’t have in my suburb back home. It was a feeling of connection to people that I couldn’t actually talk to but still somehow both got what their meaning across.
Alex was something indescribable and something that still is indescribable five months later.
Maybe it was the obvious poverty that drew me to Alex in the first place and is the reason it is so vivid in my mind all these months later. I’m not entirely certain what keeps drawing me back to Alex, but what I do know is that Alex was the only village I didn’t take notes on during my trip. Alex is the only village where I can close my eyes and see everything as if I was seeing it that first day.
Read an interview with Liz here.