For all the adrenaline, beauty and culture on offer in Cape Town, for true inspiration you can’t do better than to head to the townships. Most people assume that these are places of crime and squalor which should be avoided at all costs. But go with the right guide and you’ll find that behind the rows and rows of shacks that line the road from the airport there are real life stories full of proud, positive and caring entrepreneurship.
As James Fernie of Uthando Tours points out, a visit to the townships isn’t about gawping at life on the other side of the fence, but about facing the ugliness of the past and supporting the many fledgling projects that are a triumph over adversity. A good tour should be a chance to learn about the problems of both past and present while seeing how people are rising to the challenges that face them. Community-based projects range from old age homes to daycare centres for children born with HIV, from art projects to rehabilitation programmes, theatre groups and music tuition. These are thirsty for recognition, and a steady trickle of visitors not only raises their self-esteem, but brings in much needed funds.
Dance For All is a prime example. Started 20 years ago with the bold idea of empowering street kids by teaching them classical ballet, today it reaches over 1000 children across the Western Cape. Run entirely on donations it has been a spine-tingling success, with former pupils now working professionally in the performing arts industries all over the world. The enthusiasm, energy and jaw-dropping ability of these children – many of whom come from the harshest of backgrounds – is both inspiring and deeply moving.
In a similar vein, the Siyazama (‘we are trying’) Garden Project is a true oasis amongst the dusty streets of Khayelitsha. It is one of 100 such micro farms dotted throughout the townships in which, from some of the poorest soil in the famously rich-earthed Cape, the workers grow a fabulous variety of organic herbs and vegetables. Much of the produce is then sold, in weekly boxes, via schools in the wealthier suburbs. Anyone is welcome to visit, from local students to a gardening dunce like me. Admittedly I hardly rolled up my sleeves, merely drank tea on the shady stoep and then pottered around the garden collecting snails, but I left revitalised and inspired.
Most guides insist that their tours are not begging bowl routes. Tourists are specifically instructed not to give any money during the route, though they may make donations afterwards should they wish to do so.
It’s a wise policy. There is inevitably a sense of guilt which, as an emotion in search of a direction, can easily be turned sour by a suspicion of being ‘milked’. But let a little time pass and the extraordinary sense of goodwill felt in the townships will linger. If, then, it is thought how easy it would be to donate funds so that the Khumbalani Daycare Centre could repair the wall beside the road and the children could play outside again, or so that Siyazama could drill another borehole to increase their water supplies, or the Volcano Arts Project could buy some plaster and paint for their newly built theatre, then that’s wonderful.
But in fact anyone merely paying the ticket price of the tour will have helped towards those things. And that, together with the stark reminder to count our blessings every day, has got to be a step in the right direction.