After our initial arrival in the beautiful Cape Town, we ventured about 2 hours northeast to the township of Zwelethemba. This was one of the locations where black citizens who were forcefully removed from their homes in the Eastern Cape were relocated during the apartheid era. Zwelethemba has a strong history of activism and community empowerment efforts. Unfortunately, like many other communities in South Africa, Zwelethemba has suffered greatly from the HIV/AIDS epidemic and there is endless talk about the devastating effects that it has had on families there.
The local language is Xhosa, which is full of different clicks and is therefore a blast to learn (x is a lateral click, so even saying the name of the language is extra challenging!). Many of the community members are either unemployed or are seasonal farm workers on local vineyards. The family structures in Zwelethemba are incredibly fluid, not only because extended families are an important source of support for people there, especially when parents are seasonal laborers, but also because there are many orphans of HIV/AIDS and other illnesses. My family house fluctuated from sleeping 1 to 6 children depending on the night, so it was always a fun surprise!
The most exciting part of being in Zwelethemba, for me, was how many kids there were who were thrilled to approach us and teach us their games. Chackalaka, chackalaka, chackalaka wooo ooo (one of those games). Even though I have left Zwelethemba, the songs and dances that I learned from the kids in the township are still quite alive in my head. When I returned home from school, regardless of how exhausted I was from the day, the sound of the kids playing on our front porch would almost always coax me out of sleepiness.
One of the best memories I have from my two weeks in Zwelethemba was our Thanksgiving celebration which we were able to share with our host family. Our family had never heard of Thanksgiving, so we were incredibly excited to be able to teach them about the traditions that we have at home surrounding the holiday. We only had a short class program in the morning, and then were free for the rest of the day to shop and cook for our family. My two roommates and I came up with a delicious menu and spent a few hours together preparing in the kitchen.
When dinner time came around, we had our host mother, host aunt and five of the children with us to feast. We went around the table saying what we were thankful for and then shared in the food that we had prepared. While Thanksgiving with my family is always a great time, I must say that this was one of the best Thanksgivings I have ever had.
We were blessed to have many other unique experiences in the classroom with great guest lectures, site visits and cultural events. We had panels from people affected by HIV/AIDS and professionals helping those with HIV/AIDS, a visit to a TB hospital and a talk by a clinical researcher of TB vaccines, a lecture on the struggle with child labor in the agriculture industry, a performance by a grassroots activism group working to fight against the high prevalence of fetal alcohol syndrome and even learned some traditional gumboot dancing.
While being in Zwelethemba was an absolutely amazing experience, I personally had a few struggles concerning my place within the community. While Zwelethemba itself has birthed great community initiatives for empowerment, it has also been the target of many NGO programs and other service organizations hoping to make a difference within the community. Consequently, a white person, to many of the community members, flagged me and some of the other people in our group as members of those NGOs and service organizations.
It would seem that this wouldn’t be an issue; however, there are some hard feelings towards such people because many of these organizations promised long-term change yet did not set up sustainable programs. I was asked many times why I was in Zwelethemba and was even told that I shouldn’t be playing with the kids at times because I didn’t belong there with them. These feelings were hard to reconcile and it made me consider my motivations for being there and really explore the choices I have made in the past, especially in terms of service, which is a very important part of my life.
Being an active participant of the community in Zwelethemba made me realize how important sustainability in programming is. Of course, this is always something we aim for as a gold standard; however, I was able observe the detrimental effects on the community when such efforts fail. Zwelethemba, being a place of extreme structural violence, feels these repercussions on many different levels. I hope that despite my position as an impermanent part of Zwelethemba’s history, I at the very least helped to break down walls and stereotypes of the transient populations in Zwelethemba and can perpetuate the lessons I learned throughout the rest of my life.