The woman in the chair is still in her pajamas. She looked nervous when Mom pulled out her camera and asked to take a photo. The hairdresser is curling her short, straightened hair under in tight curls.
But the handful of candy and friendly banter from Ella, who runs Emzini Tours in Knyssa, makes this intrusion OK. And more specifically, Ella, the charismatic black woman who lives here and who started this company with a white woman from Zimbabwe, makes this OK.
And it probably also helps that much of the money from these trips into the township funds the charity work that Ella and Emzini undertake in this community. And I suspect many people in the community know that, too.
And so we spent a fascinating morning visiting a township that is very similar to many around South Africa … and where so many black South Africans call home. From afar, these communities look like a hodgepodge of shacks and small wood and block homes clustered up hillsides with splashes of color from laundry or paint. They look run-down, and shambly and maybe unclean. These are places we did not feel particularly welcome without an invitation.
But with Ella as our invitation in, we were fortunate to be welcomed into this township graciously.
What could have easily been a voyeuristic tour – and township “tours” are offered everywhere-instead was a warm and insightful visit.
The townships, she explained, were formalized after 1994 when Mandela took office and apartheid ended. The government committed to build everyone a house. The “Mandela Houses” are simple construction from cement blocks – one or two bedroom, indoor plumbing. Some have additions. Many replace the old wooden houses that pre-date them. Some families keep their wooden house for extra room as the family grows or to rent out. Everyone who meets the basic requirements – they are South African, they have children and they have an income below 4000 Rand a month (about $330 US) can get in the queue and wait their turn for a Mandela House.
The wait can take up to five years. If there is no line-jumping. And if the government is fulfilling its commitment and building the promised homes. There are some local governments diverting the promised money for housing elsewhere – you can tell by they proportion of poor housing to formal homes in a township if the money is being used appropriately.
They get free rent. Free water. They pay for electricity. There are free health clinics. Free schools. Wooden homes with no indoor plumbing are given public toilets and sanitation facilities while they wait for their house.
She says that while now – after apartheid – they could live anywhere many choose to remain here because of the community. And, as we looked around, there are clearly some very nice homes built amidst the Mandela homes and the wooden shacks by those who can afford to live in town … but chose to come back to the township instead.
As we stop and meet people, everyone greets Ella warmly. And everyone gets something.
We stop at a local store that stocks basics and staple food – in small sizes so if money is tight there is always something that can be bought to eat. Ella buys a big bag of Maize at the store, and we take it to a local pre-school for their morning porridge. We are greeted by 67 small children with welcome hugs and touches. They all gather for a photo, and sing us songs – at the top of their lungs. These children have working parents who can afford to pay pre-school fees and send them with a lunch. They are lucky. Still the school sells hand drawn cards to raise money to support the five teachers and cover costs.
From the school we visit the hair salon – set up as a private business in a refurbished ship cargo container. Ella brought these ladies candy and lots of compliments. And then we visit the community library, where they have books in the native xhosa language, English and Afrikaner, and where every resident can have 30 minutes of free internet access a day.
Even the local dogs got cups full of dog food thrown out along the road – which served to keep the dogs friendly and fed. A man ran out of his home with a container when he saw them coming to get food for his dog … he said work had been scarce the last few days.
Ella runs a safe-house out of her home, and currently has 13 children from abused and neglected backgrounds under her care and the care of the charity she has founded. The charity has grown to three separate houses in the community with a few employees, all providing children with a safe place to live, get a meal and get an education. Because “Education is the only thing they can’t take away from us.”
She is the person who the police came to at 1 AM when they found an abandoned 18 month baby girl in the middle of the road … because they knew she would care for her. And she has cared for her – that girl is in school and living at the safe-house today. She has just taken in an 11 year old boy who has only been to one year of pre-school, and has had no other education. She shelters him from an abusive home and has just gotten him placed into school in town, and is hopeful he will adjust because — she says he is very bright.
And this child – and the other children in her home, where we are her guests for tea and music before heading back into town, are polite and happy and clearly adore her.
Ella explains why she does all this by telling us about her own childhood. Her mother was an alcoholic, and they worked on a farm in the Eastern Cape before the end of apartheid, when child labor was legal and when it was accepted to barter room and board in exchange for work. One member of the household had to work every day – and as the mother was often drunk, Ella went to work as a child. She did not get shelter and assistance to finish her education until she was in her 20’s. She found religion. So now she is paying it forward.
And she has attracted a network to help her … her community, members of her church, friends in the local white community, donors from around the world who have taken her remarkable tours – and said yes to her invitation to get to know her home and township.
But what is clear to me is that this woman is the driver of something incredibly good in her community. One of those rare people who really has the drive – and is succeeding – in making life better for many others.
And I think she does it by understanding a simple part of our humanity that is so easily overlooked … that being open and including and inviting others to be part of a community is good for everyone. For people like my Mom and I, who are interested and want to learn and understand. And for those in the broader local community – black and white – who want to help. And of course, the biggest benefits are for those children in the townships who can’t help themselves.
I’m very grateful to have accepted her invitation.