Unexpected Lessons in Langa

While many experiences here in South Africa have impacted me, our class’s visit to Langa Township has proved most resonant as we enter our last few days of this adventure. Prior to entering the township, I held many reservations about touring Langa. I feared that our visit would disrupt the lives and routines of its residents and that they would find our tour of their home to be a burden. Beyond this, on a more shallow level, I feared for my own safety and the safety of my peers and personal belongings. While we discussed many of these hesitations as a class, a simple conversation could not prepare me for the lessons I would learn in Langa.

To be honest, it was extremely hard to face the level of poverty at which most of Langa’s residents live. Although I knew places like Langa existed, it was easy to keep the images far from the forefront of my mind as I had never been to a township or witnessed its deficiency firsthand. In hindsight, my time prior to experiencing Langa is reminiscent of James Mathews’ political poetry. He states in Poems From a Prison Cell that, “we live unseen from one another, each aware of the other’s plight” (16). In the same vein, I knew of but did not fully understand the severe poverty of Langa and other informal settlements.

Langa poses as a stark juxtaposition to the million rand houses at Seapoint and the hotel that accommodated my classmates and I in Cape Town. The shacks are small and barren and the hostiles are overcrowded and missing important infrastructure. One woman we spoke with on our tour of the hostiles informed us that she lived in a room with her three adult children as well as another family of four. When we entered the room, my heart dropped. It was about half the size of my own bedroom at home. She pointed us to the corner of the room where the two families had set up a makeshift kitchen and lifted the covers of her bed to reveal boxes of tattered clothing. She did all of this with a smile and thanked us for visiting. In the common room of the hostile, children danced around us, tried on our sunglasses, and coaxed us into a game of catch. Every time we dropped the stuffed animal being used for a ball, they burst out in fits of laughter.

It took this moment of lightness inside the room those children would grow, learn, and play in to realize that despite the challenges touring Langa presented, it was important that I see these people and understand their plight. I remember recalling Mamphela Ramphele’s A Bed Called Home while in the hostile. While the children were playing in the same way the kids I babysit at home might and the mother held a welcoming smile on her face throughout the conversation, I knew that their living arrangement had the potential to result in extreme relationship struggles between family members. In chapter 6 of A Bed Called Home, Ramphele explores the effects living in a hostile has on families. While some advantages arise as families are forcibly bonded to one another and, “the father cannot turn a deaf ear to a crying baby right next to him,” most of her analysis focuses on the detriments of coexisting in such close quarters. She points out that, “The lack of private space for families limits their capacity to function as a coherent unit in day-to-day social interaction,” and notes that, “Children are not guaranteed automatic rights to the limited physical space available,” which may result in estrangement from the dominant father figures as well as, “tantrums, pestering, ridicule, and adoption of the sick role” (Ramphele 17, 18).

What was once a township wrecked with poverty became a little boy who would never feel like he had enough space for himself and a mother who raises her children not knowing if they will find enough work to fill their stomachs and cover their heads. Their safety wasn’t guaranteed. Their opportunities for mobility were slim if not nonexistent. And still they smiled. They played catch. The melancholic generality I had once assigned to those living in poverty faltered during my time in Langa as I met people who held their own stories and individuality.

I carried these faces and lessons with me as our class joined Call to Serve in an effort feed the children and elderly a few days after our visit to Langa. I reminded myself that it was more than just a line of hungry children and elderly who waited for us outside of the bus. It was individuals who deserved respect and intentionality. In another life, a different lottery of luck, it could have been me outside the bus and them inside, and although I will never be able to fully understand the extent of their resilience, I can treat them as more than a hungry mouth. I can listen, engage, and encourage the powerful spirit I have seen in South Africans since the start of this trip.

My short time in Langa made me a better and more aware servant leader, and while it was hard to meet those people, walk those streets, and leave without offering anything in return, I know that if we hadn’t visited Langa, I never would have taken time to reflect on the way I viewed poverty and those who live under its crippling hand. I take solace in the fact that the lessons Langa taught me can be used to better serve the people we will be partnering with in Johannesburg and will continue to shape me as I head back to Elon. I hope in the wake of reading this blog, some of you will take time to reflect on the space you allocate to questioning your own views of wide-scale issues whether it be poverty as addressed in this blog or something different but equally as demanding such as sexism or racism. I encourage you to shrink one of these matters to the unique face of someone who is affected by its authority and challenge you to reconstruct or at least question your current perspective.

Works Cited

Matthews, James. Poems From a Prison Cell. Athlone, South Africa: Realities, 2001. Print.

Ramphele, Mamphela. “Social Relations.” A Bed Called Home. Cape Town: D. Philip, 1993.   68-88. Print.

Posted by Maggie Lowman

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