During my recent stay in South Africa, I visited a couple of townships to fully immerse myself into local life and culture.
Built on the outskirts of towns and cities, the term 'township' usually refers to severely-underdeveloped urban spaces that were reserved for 'non-white' citizens during apartheid.
On the drive from Cape Town Airport to the place I was staying, the highway was lined with townships on either side.
Rows and rows of tin homes were sprawled across the landscape, creating an eerily-beautiful tiled mosaic that meandered on for miles.
Life spilled out onto the streets, where locals would set up makeshift stalls on roadsides and highway exits. They would sell anything and everything, attempting to make a dollar and get through the day.
There were signs warning you not to stop driving every few hundred metres; but no matter how fast you drove, it was a sight you could not outrun.
One of the townships which had a huge impact on me was Imizamo Yethu, approximately an hour bus ride from Cape Town.
This township was no different from any other that I had visited. It was crowded and claustrophobic and the only way to move around was through a narrow alleyway. Each open doorway provided a brief insight into local life.
The alleys themselves were covered in litter and what can only be described as black sludge. The sludge snaked down these alleys, with a viscosity that reminded me of that dark stuff that made Tobey Maguire's 'Spiderman' suit turn black.
A local explained to us that the township of 35,000 had to share nine toilets between them. Hence, they'd wait till nightfall before heading out into the alleys to do what they had to do. So that explains the sludge, I guess...
After hearing this, you could be forgiven for thinking that the locals were distraught and desperate. But, surprisingly, they were incredibly upbeat and hopeful. There was not a tinge of spitefulness, nor a word of complaint, they were just grateful that we were there -- opening up and embracing them as equals.
This gratefulness was not always reciprocated.
During my visit to Imizamo Yethu, a number of travelers (grown women and men) were incredibly rude. They refused to shake hands with the locals, or high-five the kids. When people would come up to talk to them, they would make sure there was a good distance kept between them. They squealed at the living conditions, and made it a point to react to every smell and sight.
I'm not writing this to call those individuals out. But I think it is important to understand that when you are travelling, you are a humble visitor to the culture of the country you are visiting. There is a responsibility that comes with such travel; to be respectful, to be empathetic, and to be humble.
Let me end on this story:
While walking through Imizamo Yethu, an incredible gentleman invited us into his home to taste some of his family's dinner. A single-broiled lambs head to be shared between his family of eight. As he brought it around to the group of us, people couldn't hide their disgust; some gagged, some heaved, some just turned away unapologetically.
I had some. He sliced me a soft piece off the cheek, dipped it in salt and smiled at me expectantly. The fatty flesh was as warm as his beaming grin, his wide eyes glinting with gratitude and thankfulness. Slowly but surely, people began cutting off pieces of their own -- he hugged all of us as we left.
For me, that moment represented more than just an opportunity to taste a local delicacy. Such an act of selflessness, even though he had a family to feed, served as a reminder that we all need to be mindful of others.
Our actions can change the course of someone's day. Never forget that.
See more from Ryan here.
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