This City Only Works For a Few

This City Only Works For A Few

I started school last Monday. Hard to say, but I kind of missed school in a weird way. As much as I “dread” going to school, not being in school for 3 months I was eager to get back to learning. I am taking three courses this semester, because classes here are worth more credits than in the USA, its confusing so I won’t explain.  I am taking Italian level 2, Religion, Conflict; Violence, and lastly Political Economy of the Social Service Professions. Classes are almost every day, but are only 45 minutes. Local South African students keep asking me if the classes at UCT are harder than the ones in the states. Apparently most American’s struggle. I’m not sure if they struggle because of the difficulty of the class or the fact they are doing other things rather than study. So far I feel like I can succeed! *knock on wood*

I also joined a volunteer program called “Shawco.” If you are interested in what Shawco is about you can check out their website at’s great! I have chosen to volunteer with grades 4-7 and I  help out with the English, Math, Art and Sports. I also chose to volunteer in a township called Manenberg. It is a short bus ride of maybe 10 minutes away from the University of Cape Town and has been in the news for their high crime rates, unemployment rates of 65%, and known for their famous gangs “The Americans,” “Hard Living.” Manenberg was a township created during the apartheid for coloured people living with high poverty rates to live. If you want to read more about the town here is a link (if you read about the town don’t freak out- there are positives of the town as well, and it’s not all dangerous- I go with the University of Cape Town so it is as safe as possible for me!)

It is one thing to talk about gangs or high levels of poverty in a class room sitting in Seattle or for that matter most any other University in the USA, but it is heart wrenching seeing it in person. Today I went on my first volunteering project to a township called Manenberg. I sat in awe in our van as we pulled up through a barbed wire fence, drove through a dirt path, and stopped in front of Manenberg Primary school. The school resembled a large shack, rather than a typical middle school. I instantly wanted to bawl and if you know me I’m not usually one to cry.

As we got off the bus all the kids came RUNNING, and jumping on us. I had three kids playing with my hair asking if I knew Tupac personally and two kids WRAPPED around me. After prying the kids off we then went to our class room, I was working with 3 other volunteers and 14 7th graders. Our program advisors warned us how unruly the kids would be, so they asked some older students to help.  The first task we were suppose to do was have the students do a lesson in their math book. I was shocked how simple their math was at 7th grade- they were learning how to write 1/10 as a decimal and visa versa. We then read with the kids for a little, I think for the whole 2 hours I was there, 75% of the time the kids were yelling, running around, jumping on the tables, and speaking in Afrikaans to avoid any actual learning. All of the kids were nice to me, it was rather them being rude to each other. They kept hitting each other with this big piece of plastic piping. I finally grabbed it from one of the boys and he told me I was suppose to beat the kids. I gave him a confused look, and he said yes you beat the kids if they’re bad, that’s what you’re suppose to do. I can’t even imagine.

I was speaking with a couple boys and they kept throwing up a sign with their hands, which in the USA means “I love you,” but I obviously knew this was not what they meant, rather it was a gang sign. The boys went on to ask me if I knew about “The Americans” and I said yes (the famous gang). I asked if they knew people in the gang, and one of them said yes, and one pointed to a younger boy who was maybe 7 and said his dad was a gang member. The boys then went to inform me if a gang does come to the school I will need to duck and dodge the bullets.

Talking about gangs to them and joining gangs to them was a right of passage. It was a common sense thing, once you turn 18 or 19 you join a gang. But do they have a choice? I mean the obvious answer is “yes” we all make our own decisions. But I mean do they LITERALLY have another option? I think in this specific case, these kids don’t. There isn’t another way of life, there isn’t enough (if any) support from family members, government funding to provide extra curricular activities or proper tools for education. It’s a vicious cycle-yes they go to school, but they don’t have the proper tools ( food, clothing, text books, writing utensils) to learn, to prosper, to dream, or to hope for much of a future. As I was leaving the kids came up to me and made me promise them I would come back next week, they’re infatuated that I am from “America.” They act as if I am royalty of some sort. It’s twisted.

I think about the way I was raised and it’s the complete opposite, the theme of always being able to do more, or to do better, or to dream bigger. Whatever I have wanted to do in life my mom has always supported me and helped make it happen. If I had never had her I would not be the person I am today. I think this goes for most everyone.  It was in these moments with these kids that I realized how truly lucky and grateful I am to be able to have the luxuries of things I don’t have to think twice about- feeling SAFE in school, at my house or not having to worry about gangs coming to shoot me or my family members and having a support system.

I know I am just one person, and it’s not that I am going to be able to make a huge difference in my time abroad at the Manenberg primary school, but maybe my difference will be one less ignorant person.

Manenberg is one of many townships that faces these problems in South Africa today. I was learning in my Social Service class that since the rise of democracy here, there has been an increase in poverty levels. When I get a complete answer of why this has happened I will write about it, but as of now I don’t know exactly why there is a rise of poverty. I think part of the problem has lied within the questions of what defines poverty is? And what constitutes poverty? There is no exact definition of poverty in South Africa and I think this plays a large role.

Interestingly, former president Thabo Mbeki promised in 2004 that poverty levels in South Africa would be cut in half by 2014, clearly this isn’t going to be possible. It’s so hard to wrap my head around the idea that both the United States and South Africa are democracies. I feel as if the word democracy means two different things for each of these two countries. How can you have democracy with a Constitution guaranteeing its people, basic human rights, social justice and an improved life, but then COMMONLY have townships like Manenberg?!  On the way to Manenberg we drove past another township and written in spray paint in huge letters was, “This city only works for a few.” Sadly, today I can truly say I have both realized and experienced this.

This wasn’t suppose to be a sad post, but hopefully we can take a second to be grateful for everything we do have.