My time there produced contrasts and questions. It was odd to make a scheduled stop from a tour bus to a small patch of land that holds thousands of impoverished people. Within a mile in either direction are luxurious houses, private tennis courts and more tourist sites; not to mention the towering, beautiful mountains.
The township is visible from miles away, as the corrugated metal that makes up many of the houses reflects the sun. That particular area provides an odd sheen to the landscape of dwellings when viewed from the opposing hills. Our tour guide, Lovers, was a resident and seemed happy to share information and stories about the life of the people there.
Both crime and AIDS are rampant, and the small city necessarily has its own police building and clinic at its entrance. Some of the roads are paved; many are simply compacted dirt. One thing is for sure – it is filthy.
We walked up the main road and visited a number of families along the way. Several homes featured handmade goods for sale as most people did not have work. One particular woman took old cereal boxes, cut them into slim strips, rolled and glued them into odd shapes, and sold them as jewelry. Others peddled wood carvings and crude musical instruments.
Most of the buildings were makeshift and asymmetrically assembled with scrap materials, but some had modern construction with a stucco finish, thanks to the contribution of an Irish philanthropist. It was unusual to see the occasional satellite dish mounted next to what was essentially a lean-to. A few of the cars lining the streets were late models, but most were dented, rusty or not running at all.
At first I was concerned that my visit to Imizamo Yethu would be an intrusion; that I’d be perceived as the gawking foreigner paying his 50 Rand (about $7 US) to see the less fortunate. Instead, I was met with smiling faces, children playing and welcome conversation. Down one dirt road I found a few boys juggling a soccer ball, a woman outside washing clothes in a large bucket and a church with a service in progress.
I estimate that nine tour buses stop daily at the township, with the number of people who actually brave the exploration varying based on the season and maybe simple desire. Our group had eight people, but Lovers said that sometimes there are around 100.
I don’t have any grandiose conclusions to make about my visit, but it’s easy to see how the cycle of poverty here leaves individuals with few choices in life.