I was hit with a full on experience of poverty in South Africa. When I was nine years old, I went to South Africa to visit my great uncle. My parents decided to take us to the District Six museum in Cape Town. I was fine with this because I thought that the museum would just be some pieces of art.
District Six is the name of a residential area in Cape Town, South Africa. The area was originally made for freed slaves, merchants, laborers, and immigrants. District Six was a mostly black neighborhood. In 1901 black inhabitants of District Six were forced to leave their homes because they were declared to be in a “white people only area”. The racist discriminators flattened the black people’s houses with bulldozers. 60,000 people were forced to move from District Six to the outskirts of
Cape Town. This was during the apartheid era in South Africa. Apartheid was discrimination against people with dark skin.
I didn’t want to go to the museum. I just wanted to stay and swim in my great uncle’s pool. My parents dragged me along anyway. I’m glad they did, but I definitely wasn’t at the time. My brother didn’t want to go either. My parents told us that the drive was short, about fifteen minutes.
My dad parks the car around the corner of the building. We walk into what turns out to be a civil rights museum. There are about thirty people in the large space, and they are clustered around signs, paintings, and photographs. There is a big map of Cape Town that covers the whole floor of the museum. I walk across the map jumping from an avenue, to a park, to the beach. After milling around for a while I realize that the museum has something to do with the history of how black people were hated in South Africa. I grow tired of the first floor so I go upstairs. The second floor is set up like a balcony. I want to explore it, but there are too many old people, so I turn around and sit down on the stairs.
My mom comes to get me a little later. She says that we are going to be able to get a tour of the township of Gugulethu. I try to remember what a township is, but I have forgotten. “What’s a township?” I ask my mom. She says, “Remember when we saw all of those small houses that looked like shipping containers after arriving at the airport?” I say, “Yes.” My mom says, “Those houses were in the township.” I remember, the houses looked like they were made of scrap metal from cars. I imagine the township, children my age begging for food and money, some perhaps so hungry that they are forced to steal. Crazy people in the dark corners of these scrap metal homes. I think about people that look as thin as paper lying on the ground from starvation, wrinkled old men that were once kind, but now use their beady-eyed stare to make people give them money. I imagine strong men working day and night for their children.
I don’t want to see children begging me for money. Why do my parents want to take me there? I tell my mom that I don’t want to go. She says we have to because she already paid for the tour. I can’t take the fear of poverty. I still haven’t overcome it. I run into the corner of the museum and start crying. All I want to do is go to my great uncle’s house and sunbathe by the pool. I don’t want to know about the lives these poor people live. I don’t want to see the poverty of the township. My mom tells me that there is nothing to be afraid of so I stop crying. I still have a feeling of fear in my stomach as I walk towards my dad, my brother, and the tour guide. The guide is a short, dark skinned woman with red glasses and a small black turban. Her car isn’t working so we take my uncle’s Mercedes Benz.
Throughout the whole ride, all I could think about was what the township would be like. I didn’t want poverty to exist, but I knew it did. My great uncle had told us that he thought we shouldn’t go. This was probably because he is wealthy and prefers to ignore the poverty. This was what I had been doing until the age of nine. I denied that poverty existed and completely ignored the poor. I can no longer live in denial so now I accept poverty. After driving through the suburbs of Cape Town for about twenty minutes we reached the township.
We get off of the highway and drive down a small dirt road with some plastic bags and stones lying here and there. We drive over a patch of sun-dried grass and then pull over to the side of the street. I step out of the car and immediately feel the intense heat of the sun on my back. The sun’s glare seems to come from everywhere. There is not a single cloud in the sky. The sidewalk is just chipped concrete and loose pebbles. The guide explains that we have stopped at a witch doctor’s hut. I look and see that the hut is about fifteen feet high, made out of large yellow bricks, and has a curtain made out of hanging silver beads. There are two stands for people to buy souvenirs and sculptures on both sides of the hut. Two wiry black men stand next to the table on the right, and one older man stands next to the table on the left of the hut. Upon seeing us exit the car, all of the men ask us if we want to buy any of the items on display. My parents say, “Maybe later”.
I follow the guide into the witch doctor’s hut. I am interested in seeing this witch doctor and the kinds of medicines he uses. I part the silver beaded curtains and walk into the dark room. I take in a breath and smell a dark, musky odor of herbs and animal skins. A light is flicked on in the back of the hut, and I see rows of animal skins that line the middle of the hut. On the left are skulls of at least a hundred different kinds of animals. I see a huge skull with crooked teeth, a wide forehead, and curled horns that are about three feet long. The left side of the shop is lined with plants and herbs that hang from the ceiling. The guide tells us that the witch doctor is not here. We head back outside and a brilliantly bright ray of sunshine hits my eyes. I am blinded for at least three seconds, and when I can finally see the men who own the stalls are insisting that my family buys something. Surprisingly, I don’t feel any sympathy for them. I was actually going to ask my mom if I could buy something, but now I will not because they are being rude.
A couple seconds later I feel horrible about what I had just thought. The men definitely deserved the money. I was being selfish a moment ago. I realize that there is a reason that these people need the money and I feel horrible. At this moment I wish that I could give the fifty dollars I have been saving up to buy a remote control car to these three men. My parents decide to buy a little box that a snake pops out of whenever the box is opened. Even though the men were a little demanding, I was still happy that we gave them some money because I knew that they needed it.
We got back into the car and headed further into the township. I look out the window. I feel like I do not belong here at all. I am riding through the poorest neighborhood in South Africa in a Mercedes Benz. I live in a comfortable three-story brownstone, and everyone here in Gugulethu lives in a house made of corrugated tin or a shipping container. I am also probably the only white person in Gugulethu right now besides the rest of my family.
As we drive along the faded worn out road, I see a building with different colored sheets of rusted corrugated tin. A fence made out of wooden crates and tires surrounds the building. Sand and small shrubs grow around the building; some of the sand has been blown onto the street. The guide tells us that this is the school. I see a sign that has a marker drawn picture of some white kids on a swing set. On the red side of the building the word education is written in white. We make a turn around a corner and I see a house made of flimsy wood that has about twelve crushed cars sticking out of its roof. The doorway is overflowing with about thirty tires, and the whole house looks like it is about to collapse. I assume that this is the Gugulethu junkyard for scrap metal.
Farther along the road I see a shipping container that has been made into a barbershop. The barbershop is open and on the door of the shipping container it says: Andy’s Barber Shop and then under the types of cuts it says chiskop, brush cut, shaving, trimming, and cut.
I am still a little nervous about possibly seeing a starving child on the street. I do not want to know about the miseries of poverty. We pull up to what the guide says is a shebeen. We learn later that a shebeen is a place where the locals come to drink mild liquor and celebrate the day; even children take part in this event.
I get out of the car and look around me. There is a white pickup truck parked on the other side of the road. I turn around because I hear the noise of a TV. Above the shebeen I see a kid in the window of a building watching Tom and Jerry cartoons. I am surprised because I expected the township to be incredibly poor, yet there is a TV in the middle of the poverty. This makes me feel better, and I do not feel like I standout in the township as much as I did before. I look back at the shebeen; it has corrugated tin siding and what looks like an old guardrail to support the sides.
I walk in to the dark hut and I am greeted by a family of four black men, two women, and a cute little kid, no older than five with a WrestleMania shirt. I feel like an intruder despite the fact that they are all welcoming. It feels strange to watch these people’s everyday lives. We talk to them about their customs and Coca Cola because I notice that the man sitting next to me has an official looking shirt that makes me think that he works for Coca Cola. I think that they don’t mind us watching their customs because we are all having a good time and they seem to enjoy our company. While we are talking, two of the men rummage around in the heaps of tied up plastic bags that contain the ingredients to make the homemade beer. In a couple of minutes the beer is ready. They have used a coffee heater to make the beer. A kind man with a yellow striped t-shirt and a gray vest goes around and offers the beer to every person in the shebeen including the little boy whose head looks no bigger than cantaloupe. When the beer comes to me I see that it is in a large white plastic bucket with a strap on the top. The beer is frothy like bubble bath; I lean forward and take a sip. I pretend that it tastes really good because these people are so generous, but it is probably the worst drink I have ever had besides eggnog. After everyone in the room has had a drink, one of the men starts to drum on the bottom of a bucket. All of the sudden the room has come alive with happiness; everyone is dancing and clapping to the beat. I jump up and start clapping and dancing too. Everyone is smiling and I take my hat and throw it into the air. I dance and play catch with the hat until the drumbeat dies down. My family and I thank everyone in the room. Many smiles are exchanged then we regretfully exit the shebeen.
We walk back to the car and our guide says that she is going to take us to a place called Vicky’s bed and breakfast. After a short drive we pull up to the only two-story house in the township of Gugulethu. The bed and breakfast building is painted completely red and has four windows, a balcony, and a fancy metal front door. The building is made of nice wood and it has a welcoming feeling to it. I see five black kids playing soccer at the end of the road. When we step out of the Mercedes, all of the kids stop playing and turn their heads and look at us like we are aliens. The street is dusty with uneven patches of concrete. The kids are still staring. Two of them start walking towards my brother and me. I am worried that they might start begging us for money. When they reach us, I can see that one of the kids is taller and about thirteen years old; the other is about my age and he has a red tee shirt with a necklace made of shells around his neck. The tall one says,
“Hey you want to play footboll with us?” His accent is thick, probably a native one. I say, “Sure!” with a smile on my face.
We walk towards the four other kids and begin to pass the soccer ball around. I notice that all of the kids are barefoot except the eldest who has red basketball shoes. I kick the ball high into the air and one of the kid’s heads it. The passing suddenly becomes a game of “keep it up” as it is bounced from head to head. I see the ball about to hit the ground and I jab my foot out just in time. After we play this for a while, some of the kids leave because they have to go back to their families.
A kid with a blue Atlanta Braves t-shirt and dark blue shorts notices my watch when I look at it to check the time. Two-thirty. He asks to see it, so I show him everything it can do. When I show him that it can light up an immense grin comes across his face. He grabs hold of my arm and touches the watch as though it is magical. Three other kids come and crowd around it; they press every button with fascination and joy. I have an idea to get my dad’s camera and show it to them. I go inside the bed and breakfast place to get it. When I come out of the building, they stare at the camera with curiosity until I explain to them what it is. I tell the kids to line up against the red wall of the bed and breakfast place so I can take a picture. One of the kids puts his thumb up and smiles like a maniac. He has dark jeans and a plaid collared t-shirt. Next to him is the kid in the Braves shirt. Leaning against the wall of the building is a small kid with dark jeans and a t-shirt that says BAJA above a picture of a monster truck. They rush over to see the picture I have taken and they love it. They rush back to the wall and all of them make the scariest face they can. I take the picture and then they rush over to see it. This process happens again and again. I feel like it is the best day of my life. My heart floods with happiness and I love that these kids are having so much fun. I would love to show them everything I have in my room; I want to show them a computer and an iPod. I can just imagine their shrieks of happiness if they saw one of these things.
Fifteen minutes later we have to get into the car and leave. We slowly drive away from the bed and break fast place. I wish I could stay longer. “Hey!” I hear someone shout. I turn around and see all of the kids running towards us. I feel happiness swell up inside my chest. I look around the car to see if there is any thing that I can give to them as a gift. I find a box of white mint Tic Tacs. The car slows down and the kids now walk alongside it. I say, “Here, you guys can have these. They’re good to eat.” I hand each of the kids a Tic Tac and they drop them into their mouths. I can almost see the new flavor burst out on their tongue. Every kid is smiling. I say “Goodbye” and they all wave as we turn around a corner. The car picks up speed and I see the figures of the running kids get smaller and smaller until they are blotted out by the gray dust that swirls around the back of the car.
Age 13, Grade 8
Berkeley Carroll School