Christmas in Khayelitsha Township, South Africa

Khayelitsha is one of the shanty towns that was established by the South African government under apartheid, and blacks were moved there from Cape Town in the 1950s. It’s inhabited by 1 to 1.5 million people. The infrastructure is poor; many people share public port-a-potties, many shacks don’t have running water, and most roads are unpaved. The current South African government is building proper housing at a furious pace (the right to housing is enshrined in the 1994 constitution) and things are improving, but conditions are still poor. Despite this, most people that I met there returned my smiles with even bigger smiles, said hello, asked my name, and most seemed to be enjoying life. The sense of community was super strong. It was a good reminder about how far a smile and a little interest in another person can go – something I often lose sight of when I get too focused on my own problems.


Khayelitsha Township

I’d been once before to visit a wonderful couple there, but wanted to see and learn more, so I took a tour of the township. On the tour, we visited Vicky’s B&B. Vicky Ntozini started her B&B in 1999 because she wanted to show a different side of Cape Town to the tourists on the buses that came through the township but didn’t stop. She has grown from a one-bedroom to a three bedroom B&B, which is a stop on many of the township tours. Since she started her B&B more than 10 others have sprung up and she’s been on the BBC, CNN, and a bunch of other major media outlets.

When she first started it, her neighbours wondered why there were lots of white people around, and asked her if she was in trouble. At a community meeting she explained what she was up to, and explained that what was good for her was also good for her community. I asked her if she was worried about anything happening to one of her guests, and she said absolutely not – she knew the people in her community. And indeed, nothing bad has happened to any of her guests.

When we were there as part of a township tour on Dec 23, she told us that she was holding a Christmas party for the neighbourhood kids. After she was done telling us the story of the B&B, I asked her if she needed help with the Christmas party. She said sure, and told me to call her the next day.

Dec 24 was rainy in the township, so she postponed the party to Christmas day. So around noon on Dec 25, Mike, Daniela and I drove to Khayelitsha with 4kg of cookies and 84 pieces of KFC in tow.

When we arrived, Vicky was hard at work setting things up with her two friends. Daniela was put to work in the kitchen with Vicky, while Mike and I sorted out six large boxes of gifts that B&B visitors had sent in from all over the world. The gifts ranged from pens to toothpaste to Batman toys to lined paper and coloring books, and everything in between. What struck me was how most of us wouldn’t think twice about throwing away 99.9% of the stuff that was in those boxes.


We be sortin’

After we finished, we served up the food. The 50 or so kids lined up in order from youngest (less than 2 years old) to oldest (15). While they waited, they sang in Xhosha:

Afterwards we juiced them up with cupcakes, cake, juice, and candy.

The tunes were bumpin, a dance party broke out, and old and young busted moves for 10 seconds in the dance circle:

After the cupcakes, Vicky handed out toys. This could have been a feeding frenzy – the kids were eager to get anything from the stuff that Mike and I sorted. But when the kids would crowd around too closely, Vicky would bellow in Xhosha and the kids would snap into a line in about 3 seconds. It reminded me of when I sprayed DEET on a bunch of tse-tse flies that were getting too close – they scattered as soon as I let loose.

christmas in khayelitsha
Mugging for the camera

At one point Vicky held a quiz to give away some of the more awesome gifts. When she asked who the current president of South Africa was, only one answer was offered – a young girl tentatively raised her hand and asked, “Barack Obama”? But when Vicky asked who the president of the African National Congress was, you could hear the woosh as every kid’s hand shot up high.

As Vicky gave out the gifts, the kids were beside themselves with glee about receiving a new pair of underwear or a toothbrush. Seriously – I can’t remember when I’d last seen that look of happiness on a kid’s face. Kids were comparing underwear, playing with their toys, and loving it all. And it was all stuff that we in Canada or the US would barely think of as valuable.

christmas in khayelitsha
A girl and her Christmas present

The kids were super friendly, interested, and almost joyful. Many insisted that we take their pictures and when one would pose, others would crowd around, hamming it up and laughing with glee when I showed them the pictures. There were few adults around. A couple of Vicky’s female neighbours sat around and watched, and a few men passed by every so often, but it was essentially Vicky and her two friends who ran the show.


The Christmas party crew

We left Khayelitsha after 6 hours, utterly exhausted and full of a delicious and huge turkey dinner that Vicky cooked for us. We zipped home on the N2. The windows were down, the sun was shining, and Radiohead’s In Rainbows was blasting on the stereo as we reflected on the day.

The biggest lesson for me was how frigging lucky I am to have won the lottery by being born in Canada to middle-class parents. That realization makes it much easier to be thankful for my lot and to give back. The day reminded me of something Nipun Mehta says in this *amazing* talk at Stanford. He says that those who give are thankful – they say things like “thank you for providing me with the opportunity to give”. I definitely felt that.

The second is that it’s easy to complain about being dealt a bad hand, but ultimately you get to choose how you react to a situation and thus you can improve it. For example, Vicky decided to open a B&B and has brought a lot of good to her community. She also decided to throw a Christmas party for the kids in her neighbourhood, and through sheer force of will she made it happen. Too often I complain about a situation without making the choice to improve it. I’m working on it, but helping Vicky and her friends out was a great reminder that it’s more satisfying to be a part of the solution.

Finally, Christine over at Almost Fearless recently wrote a good post called “The moral dilemma of street kids”. I’m not sure what the solution is to poverty, but I do know that supporting people like Vicky, who are motivated to make their communities better, is an excellent way to tackle the problem of making the world a better place.

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