It was embarassing! We arrived in Soweto, Johannesburg, inside a steel, air-conditioned fortress - fourteen white faces peering out the windows of a bus, while black faces peered back at us. We sat in comfort, driving past a mile of squatter camps and corrugated iron shanties (with t.v. dishes). Then we ventured into the heart of the 'hood.
"Soweto": an acronym for "South Western Townships," a cluster of townships sprawling across 20 kilometers southwest of Johannesburg. It was established in 1904 (Klipspruit - oldest township)as primary residence for black day-laborers in the City. Soweto burgeoned when migrants moved in. In the '50's it became a relocation center for blacks under apartheid, when the government reserved inner-city neighborhoods for whites. Census 2001 put Soweto's population at close to a million. That census will soon be redone in 2012. Whites will self-enumerate; census-takers will have to track down those living in rented rooms cemented onto legal residences, in tin shacks, or nowhere ("Kwerekwere" is a term for those who have immigrated illegally across national park boundaries and probably cannot be found).
Soweto: vibrant, colorful, sexist, dangerous, juxtaposing differences. Piles of garbage and pitted roads offset green fields, rustic streams, and luxurious mansions (i.e., Winnie Mandela's three-story fortress behind barbed wire, though she no longer lives there). Brown or gray four-room dwellings (the original migrant "matchbox houses") exhibited flowers along the front walk. A "shebeen" or local drinking joint neighbored Nelson Mandela's and Desmond Tutu's original residences on Vilakazi Street.
Soweto: Site of the 1976 Student Uprising, commemorated in Freedom Square. This spark ignited an entire country to overthrow the apartheid state.
We ventured out of the bus and began walking. Directly in front of us was a busy barbershop. Plastic sheets covered the sides of a 10'x10' structure. The back wall was half cement block and half iron fence. Razors hung from metal supports, with extension cords running to an unknown electric source outside. We asked permission to take a photo. No hostile faces reacted to our request - just curious ones, like us.
There were arrangements to eat lunch in a private home/restaurant there. Our hostess was a star in Soweto - a cook whose meals became so famous she won a government grant to take courses in Business. She had become a leading entrepreneur in the Soweto community and a role model for businesses in the home.
In the front room we helped ourselves to a sumptuous buffet of hot meats, vegetables, and Papa. On the walls hung the proprietor's awards and degrees, while to the side her husband stood eating on a built-in counter. Behind was the kitchen. In back of the house was an open area, then newly-constructed men's and women's toilets.
We sat in the double-length renovated garage at long tables, while uniformed family members served us drinks, cleared our plates, and brought desserts. Our table of travellers had a few beers and relaxed, while two of our group described an enrichment course they were taking together in California.
"We pick the topic for the semester ourselves, and the topic this term is 'The Popes,'" Nancy explained. "Each of us researches a Pope, writes a paper, and presents our findings to the class."
"What's been the most interesting Pope so far?" someone asked.
"It was Pope _______, who turned out to be a woman!" Myrna said.
"A woman??" we all wanted to know.
"Did they have to turn the chimney smoke from gray to pink?"
"How did they figure out he was a woman?" The jesting began.
"Well, after that they had to test each Pope to make sure," Nancy continued.
"How did they test?" my dear husband asked. "Did someone have to reach up under the robes?" Charley raised his right hand and motioned as if he were changing a light bulb!
No answer, amid the laughter.
"And who did the testing?" Charley continued. "The unlucky bastard!"
"The head Cardinal has to do it, even today," Nancy explained. By this time, we were laughing so hard, we had discontinued all eating and drinking.
When we regained our composure, we thanked our hostess outside. I snapped a photo of three local children in front of the house. One of them had severely crossed eyes. That snapped me back to reality. Still in Soweto.
We walked a couple of streets over and began a ritual that has, apparently, become protocol for tour groups in Soweto. Since the democratic government spearheaded a movement to develop parks and provide electricity and running water in the townships, its funds are depleting to do so, with 25% unemployment in the country. So tour groups help. We planted a sapling that we had brought in the bus. Two local men provided the shovels and chiseled away the rocks in the red clay, then watered with buckets. Each of us shovelled dirt onto the tree. The local children joined in, some in shoes, others barefoot.
Mrs. Kekana, the owner of the house, watched with interest. Behind her the high cement wall surrounding her dwelling was littered with drying laundry. "Did you know you had been chosen for this?" I asked her.
"Yes, someone came to the door one day and said they would like to plant a tree here! I don't know why it was me."
I asked her if the clothes that were drying were for her family. "Yes, they are for all my children and grandchildren." I suspected that she, like so many others, ran a very successful business out of her home.
We walked back and re-entered our bus. Our afternoon had been a peek - a very whitewashed peek - into a disparate lifestyle. I thought of the hardships and atrocities we hadn't seen, described by white author Steven Otter living in Khayelitsha, a black township outside CapeTown. I was grateful for the air-conditioning, among other things.