South Africa - Round The World Tour 2003 Day 27
Tuesday 8th April
The highlight of our day today was the township tour. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect and, to be honest, I was a little anxious about going into the township and shantytowns of Knysna. I think it fair to say that my eyes have been opened as a result of today’s experience. It’s difficult to sum up how today has affected me but suffice it to say that I no longer bare any anxiety towards the township or its occupants. It was a very positive experience and I feel richer for having the privilege of having participated.
The guide that picked us up this morning was a young guy, also called Chris, coincidentally, who must have been in his early twenties. We got into his minivan and he told us that we were the only participants in today’s tour. We would in effect get a custom and tailor made tour just for ourselves. He outlined a little about where we would go and what we would see before taking us slightly in-land towards the township itself. As it turns out, the Knysna that we have so far been exposed to constitutes just 10% of the whole town with the vast bulk being made up by the township that is practically hidden from what the average tourist would otherwise see. It’s probably fair to say that almost every tourist that passes through here is completely unaware of just how big this place really is. There are some places where, if you point your head in the right direction, you can see some of the shantytowns on the hillsides but these are not the sights that the Garden Route trade are interested in and go largely unnoticed by most.
We entered the township and were confronted by several hillsides full of broken down, pathetic looking, rickety wooden shack buildings (and I use the term very loosely) where these people live. Surely, nobody could possibly be happy living in this apparent squalor? The wooden sidings that make up the walls are reject wood cuts from the local saw mill that were haphazardly nailed into place. The roofs were made either from corrugated tin or, astonishingly, corrugated asbestos. If you looked close enough, you could see that these materials were the only element of the structures that sheltered the occupants from the elements and you could see straight through almost every building almost all around. I’ve seen these shantytown constructions before on TV news reports but it was quite chilling to see them up close and in person. The TV screen was not there today to shield me from the emotions that accompany the realisation that people actually live under these structures. Some of them were leaning to one side and others had collapsed completely. Our guide told us of a few that had recently collapsed during bad weather, injuring the people inside.
Our guide went into great detail to explain about how most of the people live and work and how the economy functions. We drove around a bit as he pointed out various aspects of their lives and I was struck by the fact that I had seen lots of people and children walking about the place and not one of them looked anything other than content and happy.
We stopped the minivan several times during the tour and were actually taking into several homes to meet the people inside. Our white tour guide seemed to be very much at home in this environment and clearly had a genuine love for what he was doing and for the people here. Our first stop was a Rastafarian community and we would see one of their community leaders who entertained us in his house for about half an hour. We were politely invited in and he, and a friend of his, sat us down on the couch and we sat and talked about their religion and their way of life. Rastafarians are a warm and mellow group of people for whom marijuana is an important and integral part of their daily lives. We discussed the ‘herb’ at length whilst the second guy calmly sat sifting through a batch of the dried weed before finally rolling a huge cigarette of the stuff using the dried, outside peel of an onion. It was quite a sight to see him just sit there and smoke his weed whilst we chatted. Having never been involved with drugs before in my life, I was very curious about the whole spectacle and they were very pleased to explain things in great detail to me. They apparently have an understanding with the police authorities and may grow and use their marijuana at will within the confines of their little community within the shantytown. Their community encompasses not more that a hectare or two but the weed grows everywhere just like any weed plant would elsewhere. Every other living, green plant that grew around the place was marijuana.
We left the Rastafarians after a few group photos, both inside and out, and we were on our way again with the next destination being the local pre-school. A community activist, who begs and borrows funds and supplies from anyone who will donate, runs the school. There is no government funding yet we saw thirty or so happy children all singing and playing joyfully. Within seconds of walking through the door, we were the immediate subjects of all the children’s attentions and several even came running up to us and threw their arms around our hips in a hug. Somehow, my expectations were that the black population would be very skittish about us whites yet these children were neither afraid nor anxious of our presence. Quite the contrary, they seemed very pleased to see us and were very warm and welcoming. Although the language barrier made direct, verbal communication impossible, we were able to use body language to communicate some. The few minutes we spent at the school were very much an eye-opening experience for me.
After leaving children at the school, we went on to see the small house of a woman who was an herbal healer. She is quite a character. She’s a very large woman with a huge heart. She showed us her shed full of various dried herbs, roots and barks and told us about the various concoctions that she mixes and prescribes for various ailments. She spoke perfect English with a bit of an Afrikaans accent and she had a very motherly way about her. She spoke of her various community projects and told us about a soup kitchen project that she is working on initiating. She was very upbeat all the time and I felt quite inspired by her. Not only is she apparently very successful at her trade, but she also liaises with the local medical centres. When an herbal cure for a given ailment is found, she works with the local doctors to seek a scientific explanation and thus bridges the gap between western and herbal medicine. It’s quite extraordinary.
Our tour lasted about three hours altogether and helped dispel several preconceptions I had about these people and how they live. After a while, I felt quite at ease there. Prior to the tour starting, I was very unsure about going into what I thought might be a security nightmare situation but in the end, it turned out to be completely different. This experience will remain with me forever and I will look at TV news report in the future from an entirely different perspective.
We completed our day with trip to a spot just outside of town to look at a large collection of curio stalls with the hope that we might be able to pick up some bargains to fill up a crate to send back to Europe. The prices, however, were reflective of the fact that this is a tourist town and we never bought anything after all. Perhaps we will have better luck in the days and weeks to come.