Barriers Between Us

Over the course of just one week a lot has happened here in Cape Town that has altered my experience for the better and increased my understanding of life as a South African. One of the events put on by my exchange program is an overnight stay in the township Gugulethu, which occurred this past weekend. Additionally, I had my second week volunteering for SHAWCO, more volleyball practices, and of course several nights out on the town. This piece is titled barriers between us mainly because this past week I’ve felt a huge language barrier not only during the overnight in Gugulethu and volunteering through SHAWCO in Nyanga, but also within the South African accent itself during classes and volleyball practices. For those of you who have not been blessed to hear a South African speak: 1. you are missing out. 2. it’s this fascinating blend of a British and Australian accent. 3. There are 11 official languages spoken in this country, so add in a slight slang/twang/click etc for each one (Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Tsongo, Venda, Xhosa, and Zulu). Both township communities of Gugulethu and Nyanga are primarily Xhosa speaking but also speak English as well. I’ll begin with my experience during our overnight stay in “Gugs”.

We left Saturday morning around 11 am with a very little knowledge of the experience awaiting us other than the negative overgeneralizing comments often associated with townships. These were thought to be and known as undesirable places to live due to high crime and high poverty. It can be traced back to the apartheid era and its continual lasting effects on South Africa’s geographical divisions and huge wealth disparities. Upon entering the township the poverty level was evident as we peered out the windows on our bus to see a city comprised of shacks and shanteys. The dirt roads were lined with trash, wandering dogs, and unsupervised children. We reached our meeting place and had an absolutely AMAZING home cooked south african meal. Afterwards we headed to an orphanage in the township to learn about what they do and play with the kids. After heart wrenching goodbyes, we took a walk to a marketplace where I tried my first ever “smiley”. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this term, its basically a sheep’s face. 


After that exciting snack, we returned to our meeting place to meet up with our house moms! We had been informed the night before that my group would be attending a wedding and sure enough, there was our house mom Loretta with her friends all dressed up and ready to go! We threw on some nicer clothes and off we went. To my surprise we began to drive out of the township for the wedding reception. Me and my exchange program peers were the only white people in attendance and we received a few questioning looks. It was also challenging because most of the speeches and blessings were done in their native tongue, Xhosa. But after our host mom (who doubled as the MC) announced that we were visitors from the U.S. we were warmly welcomed by guests and even the bride and groom! They told us they were honored we were at their wedding reception and we went on stage to take a photo with them. I found a perfect dancing partner as well, roughly 6 years old and absolutely adorable. By the end of the night we were exhausted and returned home with our house mom. She lived in a quaint but nice two-bedroom house. We chatted in the living room next to the space heater to get to know each other better. But we retired quickly to bed because we had to attend church the following morning. 

The next morning we woke up to a delicious home cooked breakfast and were taken to church. Here we experienced the same barriers with language, but it was wonderful to experience the inclusion of music into their services. If there was ever a break in speech or too long of a transition, someone would initiate and song and one second later the entire congregation was standing, clapping, and singing. After church was over it was time to head to the most famed Sunday activity in the township….. Mzoli’s!

Mzoli’s is famous for its Braii, or in other terms BBQ. To get access to Mzoli’s you have to show proof of your meat purchase. Inside the venue, there is a DJ, bar, tables, and dancing. To me this proved to be one of the most authentic experiences in Cape Town thus far. The braii was out of this world, drinks were cheap, and atmosphere was fun and lively. It’s safe to say we will definitely be returning!

After an eventful weekend, it was time for yet another Monday, but with the start of another week of school is another Monday of SHAWCO. Back to the township I went but this time to Nyanga and this week I decided to help out with grades 4-6. I noticed they lacked volunteers, yet there were a ton of kids to be attended to. This week was a bit more challenging than last. We were given the lesson plan for the day which was a math exercise followed by arts. So we walked in and attempted to take control of the classroom. It didn’t help that it was pouring rain that day so one of the students was in the back corner taking off his pants. This inflicted a sea of laughter and out roars among his peers. The two other volunteers I was with were new this week as well so we were all at a loss of what to do. We somehow managed to get through the lesson and were rewarded by the arts portion in the end when the kids wanted to show us the work they had accomplished. (The math section felt a little more like pulling teeth). Although I left SHAWCO drained of energy, I realized that this was the grade that needed the most help and attention so I’ve decided to stay with the grades 4-6. Below is a photo of some our students with their art work. Here we experienced a lot of difficulty with the language barrier. As soon as we controlled the classroom, there would be an outburst by one child in Xhosa, which none of us volunteers could understand. I’m going to start practicing some basic phrases so I’ll be more prepared for the little monsters! I mean, angels 😉

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After returning home from SHAWCO I had a little time to rest until it was time to head to volleyball practice! One of the other girls in my house is on the team as well which is a really nice motivating factor. Our other coach finally came today and introduced himself as what sounded like “Roy”. We kept asking him “what?” and he repeated his name once more. We still didn’t quite catch it. He then put on his American accent…. GRANT! My teammate/housemate and I exploded with laughter. That accent will never get old. Our first game is this coming Saturday so look out for updates on that next week!

One last thing I’d like to share is my experience hiking Lion’s Head. I went last Friday morning after a late night out and it was just the thing I needed. It was rejuvenating, exciting, challenging, and totally rewarding at the top. There were portions of the hike that you had to use ladders, hand holds, and chains. One popular thing to do here in Cape Town is hike Lion’s Head during full moon! That will be the next adventure!