Brittany Ballantyne, South Africa
Howzit? That’s slang for ‘how is it going, how are you?’ Yes, the majority of people do speak English. No, I am not living in a hut or with a tribe. The city of Cape Town, South Africa, where I am studying abroad, is a place filled with warm smiles, loud streets and the most welcoming of people.
It is far from the modernized New York City or Boston, but that is its charm. Fruit vendors line the side roads, women walk around with infants wrapped around their backs and internet is of limited availability. Hospitality, on the other hand, is something found in every place one goes-even in a township. Our study abroad program through the University of Cape Town was invited to Ocean View, a community that was built up from the ground during the apartheid era in South Africa.
During this time, black Africans were forced out of their own homes into new neighborhoods, many of them being communities where hundreds of shacks were piled on top of each other along lined dirt roads. The abolishment of apartheid took place in 1990, when the last repeals of apartheid laws occurred.
A majority of the adults who live in the town today were children when apartheid began. They told stories of the elderly who died of heartbreak from losing everything they had and stories of the struggles their parents, as well as their fellow peers, had to overcome. The area had never been inhabited until the great number of black Africans were forced to live there.
I could write about the violence and the confusion and how the apartheid, as they say here, was “good for no one.” But instead, Ocean View itself is a reminder of such a heartbreaking time, and also as a place of hope. People may not have everything, but together they have each other and that has been what makes them proud to call this place their home. One thing they are especially proud of is their talented artists. Some of the children from Ocean View put on a concert for us and others danced. I’m not sure if my smile or the children’s smiles were bigger. As if the buffet lunch for UCT students wasn’t enough of a farewell, the children playing on the streets of Ocean View stopped to wave, dance and blow kisses to us as we returned the sweet goodbyes from our bus. The citizens of the town said they were happy to have us, but the pleasure was all ours.
Many in this city, sadly, aren’t fortunate enough to have a roof over their heads at all. It’s not unreasonable to put even the most measly looking leftovers in a to-go box, for there are homeless people on the streets who graciously take anything a person is kind enough to hand over. It is very much a first, third and fourth-world country here.
I had never heard of fourth-world until arriving in this city, and ever since it has been before my eyes. An odd and almost ironic feeling came over me as our program took buses to the wine country, known as Stollenbosh, for a dinner and passed by another township. It stretched for what seemed like an eternity. What struck me most was not the roofs made of scraps of tin that gleamed in the sunlight or the broken fences that left little room between the highway and the township neighborhood, but the children.
There they were, playing on the side of the highway. There wasn’t a field, but there were grass patches sized for a great kickball game or soccer match. I couldn’t make out the exact game underway, but I could feel their energy. Running, kicking their feet and laughing, I could feel their energy from the bus as we sped by.
In that moment, the ball seemed like the best thing in the world. Such a simple thing was making the children’s day. I had already thought of Cape Town as a beautiful place, but it’s people and children are some of the most beautiful human beings I have ever seen.
“Capetownians,” as they’re called here, are as curious as they are knowledgeable. Being a woman who doesn’t exactly fit in with the crowd here, a handful of people have asked why I’ve chosen to study in South Africa of all places. When I tell them it’s because I want to help children, they are ecstatic, which gets me even more excited to be here. For instance, a man on a train asked a group of us “American” students what we were up to. Once we explained, he spoke highly of the United States and told us we had so much knowledge to share with the general person in South Africa. He asked us to spend just a few minutes with locals, get to know them and tell them what life is like at home and to encourage the children and teenagers that they can have the future they dream of. The positivity that flows throughout this city is incredible and I only hope to add to that uplifting atmosphere.
Although I’ve only been here about a month now, I’ve learned so much before stepping foot in a UCT classroom. I’ve learned that people are genuine and just trying to get by. Cars stop for almost nothing and drive on the wrong side of the road (on the left side).
I’ve learned that baboons are not afraid of humans and they can and will take your bag of food for themselves. Elephants are surprisingly gentle and make for a slow yet calming ride.
I’ve learned that most people use clothing lines to hang their clothes to dry and the stars are spectacular at night. Cheetahs purr when you pet them and curl their tails up. I’ve learned a few words in Xhosa, or the “click language” from one of my roommates. Here, I’m the one with the accent.
The most valuable lesson I’ve learned so far in South Africa is it’s not so much about where you come from or what you went through, but rather where you are now and where you are going.
I flew halfway across the world, but this place has taken me much further in my life than that. I came here to change the city, but the city has changed me.