3 Aug

We went to Masiphumelele. Masiphumelele is a township right up the road from Fish Hoek. About 38,000 people live there. They are not white. Here they are called Black and Coloured. Unemployment in Masiphumelele is over 50%.  Many people, 30 to 40%, have HIV AIDS. Drug addiction and alcoholism is rife and attendant crime. There are some brick and block houses but the majority of people live in shacks, some without indoor plumbing and without heat.

Dana and I had decided we did not want to visit the townships. They have tours for tourists that somehow to us felt disrespectful.  We did not want to be seen as observers of someone else’s struggle to survive.

But then we met Sue Alexander, the head librarian of the Masiphumelele Library. Sue invited us out for a tour of the library and we went. Sue urged us to go on a walking tour of the township and called her friend Charlotte who gave tours, to come over to the library to meet us. What we saw on that walk is a living monument to hope.

“Education is the great engine of development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mine worker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm workers can become president…”

Masiphumelele Library is a town center where people come to meet, to study, to create art, to take classes in English and computers, to develop career goals, and  to learn to read and write.

Sue came from Fish Hoek library to start the new library in 1994. Through book donations the library grew. In 1996 the library shared a building in the land office for Masiphumelele. The office was burned down in a dispute with the people and the library went with it. Sue and the community started again.

Today the library building is a complex built one workroom at a time and there are plans for more. Funding for the library came originally from an American couple, John and Carol Thompson from Centre Harbor, New Hampshire who started MasiCorp.  Today funding comes from a coalition of local organizations and volunteer teachers and tutors.

Nelson Mandela giant puppet made by Masiphumelele children to celebrate his 94th birthday.

On a beautiful day last week, we walked through the township with Charlotte as our guide. We met, Charlotte hugged me and off we went walking the dirt streets of her town.  Every few yards we would stop as she greeted her friends and acquaintances. Most called her, “Mama.”

As we walked with Charlotte we saw people living in rusted shacks without electricity and with open sewers running next to those shacks.  We saw women washing clothes at open water faucets and their children coming home from school in clean uniforms. We saw people on the street trolling for drugs or drug money and entrepreneurial businesses on many corners meeting the needs of the community.

Most of all we listened to Charlotte testify about her community, its troubles and its hopes. And we saw her as a woman entrepreneur with her own township tour business. Her dream is to have her own brick house with electricity and hot and cold running water. She has been waiting 16 years for her name to come to the top of the database for that dream to come true. As soon as there is money, MasiCorp and Habitat for Humanity, will be back to build more homes. Charlotte hopes that hers will be one of them.

There is great inequality in South Africa. It can break your spirit or it can inspire you to wash your clothes, to learn to read, to walk to work and to invent a business.

In the Xhosa language, Masiphumelele means ‘we will succeed!’ Nelson Mandela was Xhosa. He is a daily reminder to people in the townships that there can be another reality.

6 Responses to “Masiphumelele”

  1. Maryl August 6, 2012 at 2:21 pm #

    How great (and fortuitous) to have a personal guide that gives you her own personal experience of living in the neighborhood. Something you would definitely miss on any organized tour.

  2. Leah August 4, 2012 at 11:46 pm #

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful posts. I am really enjoying them. South Africa sounds so interesting and heartbreaking.
    I saw coyote pups playing down in the green belt yesterday!

    • Jill August 5, 2012 at 12:39 am #

      That is exactly what it is like Leah…exquisitely beautiful and heartbreaking. We are learning a lot about the history of South Africa. It is a long complicated racial story.

      The coyote puppies made me miss home. How is everything? Hope everyone is well. Email keeps us in touch and the blog is great. Love hearing from you. J

  3. Nancy Lehrhaupt August 3, 2012 at 2:23 pm #

    It is so eye opening to see other countries, cultures and peoples. We get so insulated in our little world. Thanks for sharing, Dana and Jill! Looks like we got it pretty good, here in eldorado. Sounds like they need a Community Garden over there!

    • Jill August 3, 2012 at 2:37 pm #

      They do have a community garden in Masi. Serves the HIV clinic patients. Yes, our life in Eldorado is pretty wonderful!

  4. Ursula Freer August 3, 2012 at 6:23 am #

    I admire you for letting Charlotte be your guide instead of the impersonal route of a tourist bus. As a regular contributor to Habitat for Humanity I am happy to learn they are making a difference. I very much appreciate this post!

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