I've seen poverty right here in America. And in Peru, where people were living out of puddles on highway medians. But something about the gestalt of Cape Town remains inherently disturbing--clearly the after effects of apartheid and its devastating effect on the Blacks and Coloreds (those are terms used in South Africa, not mine) who were uprooted from their homes and tribal lands and plopped down in townships that still exist today. And in those townships, one of which we spent an afternoon touring, there are many people living in overcrowded tin shanties, with dirt floors, little if any running water let alone hot water for sanitation. One woman recounted that when it rains hard, snakes get washed into the house along with the mud, slithering across the same floor her kids put their mattresses down to sleep on every night.
What makes this so disturbing is the curious juxtaposition with million dollar homes, wine estates (that have in the past paid their migrant workers with wine, leading to an epidemic of alcoholism and fetal alcohol syndrome), luxury beachfront resorts with high rise buildings that destroyed the natural landscape, and upscale shopping malls. Poetic justice that the gorillas are wreaking havoc along the Cape of Good Hope, breaking into homes and cars, venting fury that their natural habitat is gone along with the now extinct black lions, and the waning populations of Cape zebras.
At times I could have been in London, Paris, New York City or Montreal, with the fusion cuisines and ubiquitous British, French and West African influence until I looked up and saw Table Mountain, The Twelve Apostles, Devils Peak and Signal Hill--then turned a corner to find groups of men hanging out, begging, hawking souveniers. or screaming out windows of mini vans promising us the cab ride of a life to city center or back to the suburb of Mowbray, where we were staying.
Needless to say, Americans are not blameless when it comes to our past treatment of minorities and Native Americans. And parts of our country have pockets of poverty as well. But I'm still struggling to reconcile my feelings about being a "have" as opposed to a "have not" in a land where there are three classes: rich, poor, and destitute.
On a chilly, gray winter day, the residents of Langa welcomed us into their township, their home and their schools-and yes, a shabeen where I drank beer from a communal bucket (even though I hate beer) to show solidarity. And we sprang for the entire tab R20.00, which is about $2.00 US for enough home made brew (it wasn't bad) to intoxicate about fifteen adults.
No one knows what will happen to this fragile, lopsided democracy when Nelson Mandela dies. There is conjecture, fear, and resignation that, without the moral compass that he and other political prisoners and exiles set will be spinning aimlessly when he is not lying in that hospital bed and the daily prayer services and tributes have ended. They're trying hard to build houses on top of the rubble of shanties at townships like Langa, just outside of Cape Town, but more spring up, tacking themselves onto every spare piece of land even if a dirty river with pigs and chickens wading through it laps at the sides.
My daughter and I will be starting a Girl Scout project to send book bags and school supplies to the children of Langa, so stay tuned. And, as if I don't have enough to do, I'm going to try and organize some sort of nursing, dental, and medical team to go down to a township for a special project focused on women's and children's health needs.
We did spend some time in Europe (Italy, Vienna, and Amsterdam) en route to Africa and on the long road back--hence the three continent reference. And from Johannesburg to the Numbi Gate to Kruger National Park. It was an incredible family journey with multiple flights, train, bus and van rides, reminiscent of the TV show The Wild Thornberries. When we cleared customs at Kennedy, the officer asked how long we'd been away surveying bags full of dirty laundry and souveniers, including four bottles of wine and an African drum from Mamanapusa.
"Three weeks." I said at 9 p.m. EDT in North America in our 36th hour of travel, at what felt like 3 a.m. in Africa.
He stamped our passports, each in turn, then pushed them across the counter with a smile. "Welcome home."