On a visit in March to Kliptown, a shanty township in Soweto, Johannesburg, I was prepared for the poverty but not for love and the joy that I encountered. My hosts were the leaders of Soweto Kliptown Youth (SKY) and the Women’s Support Group who prepared our lunch. I discovered that the reason the women needed a support group was that they, their partners and in many cases their children, had HIV/AIDS. The issues associated with this were that in order to receive medical treatment they had to travel many kilometres, which without a car or money to pay for transport is difficult, especially when one is too ill to walk long distances.
The second problem is that once people are ill they often are unable to work (either through ill-health or discrimination) and they have no income. There is little social security in Kliptown. We were told that somewhere between 800,000 and four million people live there – you can’t pay social security to people you don’t know exist. In such circumstances people with HIV/AIDS die of starvation, not illness. As we sat to eat lunch, I realised that my lunch contained more food than the women who cooked it would get in a week. My companions and I sat with the support group and ate while they told us about the reality of their lives. No complaints, just acceptance and gratitude that we had come to visit. Not everyone will sit down to lunch with them. One woman had her baby with her. This infant too had HIV/AIDS. I never heard him cry.
As our visit continued we walked past a long line of children receiving their lunch provided by SKY who had discovered that most of the children who went to school did so without breakfast and often went home to no dinner. The children were so keen to see us. Most of our party had digital cameras and the children’s cries of “shoot me, shoot me” arose from the desire to see their own picture. The streets we walked on were unpaved and covered in rubbish (there is no garbage collection). The houses we visited were the size of half a small room in an Australian home. Made of bits of ply board or tin, the houses have no electricity, water or sewerage. Toilets are portaloos in the street. They are locked. My rough guess is there was one for every 100-200 houses. Each house accommodated several generations of a family. They cook on paraffin stoves about the size of a large rock melon. The stoves regularly blow up, sometimes burning down the houses. The only requests I heard from any of the hundreds of people I talked to were they would like a steady supply of paraffin (for their stoves), candles (for night light) and mealie meal (a grain which is their staple diet). Instead of complaints we heard how grateful everyone was that we had visited them – so few white people do. We heard about the strength of the community and the great strength people gain from supporting each other. We heard about the compassion and sharing and love that form the staple diet and make the poverty bearable.
I thought of the great extravagance of my own life – running water, ample food, roomy accommodation, ready cash, council services, holidays, medical treatment. I remembered all the times I had complained because some luxury was missing or slow arriving. I laughed at the misery I had caused myself due to my over-laden expectations of life. I felt so very grateful to the dignified, humble and loving people who had shared their scant food and meager dwellings with us. I left wondering how we can be so wealthy and yet often so complaining and unhappy while in Kliptown people with very little were so full of spirit.
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