The sun beats down on my hat and garbage crunches under my shoes. Around me are a mixture of shantyhouses and government-built homes. Laundry hangs from lines everywhere, like colorful flags or fruit. Music occasionally blooms outside of the windows of patchwork homes. This is the first time I've ever seen extreme poverty outside of a screen and my thoughts are overrun with questions and people and the smell of sand and dust.
We woke up early in the morning (again) and took a bus to the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, where we were given a warm welcome. We got a quick lecture on the history behind the townships around NMMU and then split up into groups. Each group contained some MIT students, NMMU students, and community members to lead us around the township. I joined the group going to the Veenlaar township. Our community leaders gave us a brief overview of where we were traveling on our transect walk. We took a van to just outside the township while one of our leaders pointed out the characteristics of the township we were going to. As we got out of the van and both of our leaders passed out maps, I took out a pen and a notebook and got ready to take notes.
We walked into the township and then continued along the river. As we observed homes made of scrap metal and were greeted by curious dogs, our community leaders answered our questions about the people and the area. Even within the community, we could see income divisions. The poorest had metal shantyhouses, the more fortunate had government issued homes.
We first stopped by a community garden. It was a bright patch of green in the middle of pastel and metal walls and yellow-orange dirt. Two men were looking after the garden and watering the growing vegetables. They told us that about 20 families had gardens in the plot, where they could grow food to eat and/or sell. It was one of the first examples of a grassroots movement that the people of the township had undertaken to improve their situation on their own.
We walked along a section of the river that included a rough “stepping stone” bridge made of large boulders. Workers in red uniforms were dragging trash out of the dirty grey water with only gloves and a rake. They told us of their sense of hopelessness at their battle with pollution. How much could they do to clean the river when people would just toss more trash into the waters than they could ever pick up?
Emma interviewed some of the community members. I followed along to take notes. We kept hearing similar things – people were frustrated with the lack of change. Many had lived in the township their entire lives without any sign of improvement. A combination of community expectation and lack of management had left a sense of hopelessness.
We returned to NMMU to discuss what we heard and saw from the community. We spent several hours conversing about the lack of proper housing, the lack of affordable services, and finally the importance of education in improving the lives of the people residing in the townships. Right on cue, we wrapped up and headed toward a school that had started without water.
It was there that our trip had a high note. Here was a public primary school that was doomed with an unusable water system. Taps would only drip and toilets could not flush. Numerous calls for aid and repairs went unanswered and when an expert did come to analyze the issue, he/she found that the water pipes under the school had collapsed. However, the principle persevered. She saw the importance of primary education for the children in the poorest of townships and was determined to keep the school open. Parents volunteered to manually flush the toilets and proved water through a bucket system. Eventually the school received a rainwater collection system from Coca Cola and finally had running water. A school garden was started to help teach the children about proper nutrition. Here was a place where children were encouraged to learn and go out and do amazing things no matter their background or how impoverished their families were. They were taught not to have their poverty hold them back. And many of them have succeeded.