We spent the past two weeks in Zwelethemba, a township of 40,000 established under apartheid when blacks were pushed to city outskirts to provide cheap, controlled labor. One of the poorest and most welcoming communities I’ve ever lived in. I’d say about only 1% of our group bucket-bathed regularly (if at all), slept uninterrupted by kids, and got physical exercise. Things like shaving and handsoap and hot water have been out of the question for a month or so now. As a group, we’ve never looked so fine. Our tour of the township on day 1 painted a pretty accurate picture of how the rest of our stay would be—Xhosa children aged 3-15 clung to us like monkeys, fighting over our hands and stroking our hair and climbing into our arms.

Before you read any further, this song should be the soundtrack to this post. This blasted out of Mama’s cellphone twenty times a day and she burst into dance every time. By the end of our stay, so did I. We lived with Mama, a 38 year old HIV counselor at a nearby hospital, her husband, 14 year old daughter Anovuyo (Ano) and precious 4 year old son, Somilaa (Soso). My last IHP roomies of this journey were Danielle and Tina, and we rotated between a double bedroom and a single. The family slept on the floor, along with the three sisters from next door whose parents were out of town.

A few notes…

1. The health of the community. Watching neighbors rip apart chucks of white bread and stir them around in full cream milk for supper was exasperating. As was complying with Mama and hitching a ride to places just down the street, or hearing her tell me “oh the library is very far from here…maybe 4-5 minutes walking.” 

2. Ano, my 14 year old sister, amazed me with her maturity and wit. Sure, writing a paper in my bedroom as she blasted my iPod and belted out Rihanna or Chris Brown or Alicia Keys in the next room was a tad difficult, but she always redeemed herself when she cleaned up the baby cousin’s throw up, washed all our dishes, or babysat four neighbors and changed all the diapers. Fluent in Xhosa, Afrikaans and English, to boot.

3. I have never been more aware of my white skin. Beyond the girls crowded in our living room pining to braid, unbraid and rebraid our hair, and the puffy-cheeked little boys who bolted out of doorways as I walked down the street to wrap their arms around my legs, my existence was often questioned verbally (and rightfully)—like carrying a pan of brownies to the neighbor’s with Mama past dark to use their stove since ours was broken, and hearing men yell to Mama “What are you doing with that white girl???”

4. Mama likes to walk around naked. 

5. Church played out a little differently here. The pastor had recently passed away so the entire congregation was at his funeral. Including Mama…who dropped Danielle, Tina and me off at a very empty Methodist service on her way. There were more people in the choir than in the pews, but it was still great!

6. What’s a homestay synopsis without food talk? Mama insisted on “spoiling” us and woke up at the crack of dawn to cook and bake many-a-meal. Her breakfast buffets and bran muffins were a huge hit. The “mince meatless lasagna” (??) a little less so. But I gotta say, the eggs I scrambled every morning were the fluffiest, tastiest eggs I’ve ever had. So fresh they were still covered in dirt and chicken feathers. The three of us often boiled pots of water after meals and scrubbed away at the dishes for Mama.

7. I’ve learned to recognize the moments when it’s better not to question or object or open my mouth at all. Like when Ano disciplines Soso by whacking him with a long black stick under the eyes of Mama. Or when 4 year-old Soso jams at his pork with a sharp knife. Or when Mama yells “PUMAY SOMILAA” (get out, Soso!) when she thinks he’s bothering us. 

Danielle, Tina and I madly grocery shopped on our Friday off and spent all afternoon preparing a Mexican feast for the family and neighbors! And brownies for dessert :)

Alright, a little on academics. Our lectures and discussions were held at the library every day. The attached disposable captures the view across the street from the library—all the tin roofs held down with stones.

As in Cape Town, we had a Zwelethemba homestay panel in which three mothers talked about their experience with health in a region where HIV prevalence reaches upwards of 17%. Thembsi had lost her two children to AIDS. Eunice recounted her experience as a nanny for a white family, eating her meals under a tree outside and being forbidden from buying or eating white bread, white cornmeal or white sugar. Little did they know, she only grew stronger. Eunice also lost her son to AIDS. After the homestay panel, four community members presented an HIV panel—including Mama since she’s an HIV counselor! A sangoma (African traditional healer) spoke about how she used to unintentionally spread HIV by using the same razor to make small incisions on many different people. Tandy, an HIV support group founder, related the story about placing the doctor’s letter stating her HIV-positive status under her daughter’s mattress to share the news.

Between hearing Susan Levine talk about her PhD research on child labor on vineyards in South Africa, listening to how the NGO Women on Farms challenges gender inequality on farms (fact: you are sentenced to 25 years prison if caught rhino-poaching; you are sentenced to 5 years is you rape and impregnate your 11 year old daughter), and South Africa TB Vaccine Initiative’s (the most advanced TB vaccine site in the world) ethical and logistical difficulties to producing a better TB vaccine, we also visited asangoma and an herbalist. The herbalist was endearing and amusing, as he insisted on the efficacy of periwinkle, grape seed and stinging nettle. When Mel asked him “if your house was burning down and you had to grab 1 herb, what would it be?” He responded without hesitation: “I’d take my wife.”

But one of our favorite site visits was to Fairhills Farm, the largest fair trade project in the world! Twenty-one farms are part of the project, in which owners and laborer work towards empowerment and ‘transformation’– workers are stakeholders in the success of the produce and money is reinvested into bettering their lives through schools for their kids, adult learning and health care programs for their families. The visit ended with my new favorite activity: wine tasting.

Our farewell brai (barbecue) turned into a culture show by a few community singing/dance groups!

Last stop: High Africa for our final retreat in the mountains for 3 days, back to Cape Town for 3 nights, and jetting home!