Sunday, 27 February 2011

First day at the office

“You will have to sit in the back,” Rachel says as she opens the car. She grins ruefully. “The front door is stuck. I keep telling my husband we need to sort it out but he is Johannesburg a lot at the moment.” I clamber into the back seat. The interior of the car is like a furnace; my shirt clings to my back. It is 7:30am but already hot. Rachel revs the engine and we move out of the parking lot.

“Where are you from Rachel?” I ask as we pass the boom-gate of the medical campus and onto the highway.

“Zambia. I came a few years ago to study at UCT. And then I stayed.”

“Why did you leave?”

“I did my medical school in Zambia but there are not many opportunities for graduate study up there. And my husband had more opportunities down here.”

“Do you think you would ever go back?” She smiles and shrugs.

“I don’t know. Its home but what would I do up there? And the children are in school here. They didn’t like it much at first – it took a while but now they are happy.”

“What made school difficult?”

“Oh – just settling in, you know. It was hard at first because most of the black kids were Xhosa and would speak Xhosa to them but they didn’t understand it. They hung out with just the white kids at first because they spoke English. But now they are settled and have loads of friends.”

We are on the freeway now, heading out towards the airport and beyond that, Khayelitsha. I am being introduced to the clinic – and vice versa. A concrete fence shields the road from the huts behind. I notice one spot where a few posts have been removed creating a gap. A gap just big enough – it would seem – for a cow. For tethered by a rope a few metres from the road two cows stand grazing on what little grass grows on the verge, untroubled it would seem by the vehicles hurtling past at 130 kilometres an hour. We leave the freeway and few minutes later and follow the road into the township. The central reservation is beautifully landscaped with palm trees, rocks and scrub. It leads to a gleaming new building that looms incongruously among the tumbledown shacks. “Visitor Centre”, a sign proclaims, a heritage of the World Cup and the tourist interest in township life. Rachel points out landmarks to help me find the clinic when I come on my own. Turn right after the shipping container that has been turned into a hair salon, go through the next “Stop” sign and then turn right at the BP garage, NOT the Caltex garage. The clinic is after the Shoprite store.

“I would come a few times with someone else before you make the journey alone,” she says to my alarm.

“Why?” I say nervously. “Is it dangerous to come alone?”

“Hmm? Oh. No. But you might get lost.”

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

We step out of the air conditioned halls of the airport into a blast of Cape heat. It is nearly 30 degrees and I am wearing jeans and walking boots. I have been met by three friends from Hlabisa days, gathered in Cape Town for a wedding. We are chatting animatedly in the car as we leave the airport complex - developed massively for the 2010 World Cup – and I am struck by how glitzy and new everything looks.

10 minutes later and we are hurtling down the freeway towards the city. Table Mountain looms ahead of us, cloud pouring over its edge like the head on a hastily pulled pint. As the road curves the towers of the city centre buildings bristle at the mountain foot. I turn to look at the road side – I had seen it before but I am still startled: the glass of the airport buildings has given way to the shacks of the Townships and informal settlements that line the freeway. Thrown up with scraps of wood, corrugated iron, and plastic sheeting these are no temporary shanty towns. There are street lights, webs of cabling dangle from central pylons dispersing electricity to each dwelling, and one shack wears a precariously positioned satellite dish. At the edge of the road stand around 30 or 40 huts, each big enough to accept a person standing.

“What are those?” I ask, puzzled.

“Toilets” our resident Capetonian replies. “The shacks don’t have their own plumbing.”

As we approach the city the Township becomes more developed. Shacks give way to one room bungalows with water and waste plumbing. A large billboard by the highway shows a smiling black family and the tagline “From shacks to civilisation”.

My friends drop me off at my home for the next few months, a flat in a Cape Town suburb belonging to a family friend in the UK. I wave them off and lug my bags into the building. I walk into a reception area. “You must be Ed? We were wondering where you had go to!” says the smiling woman behind the desk in heavily Afrikaans accented English. The reception area is decorated with pictures of times past and several high backed chairs placed around a table are occupied by a group of white haired pensioners. A little old lady heaves herself slowly across the hall on a Zimmer frame, followed closely by a nurse. A poster on the wall declares “Are you having trouble getting to the shops?” I am momentarily puzzled, and then realise: this is a retirement complex.

A man comes down the stairs on a stick. “Look at you, young man!” the receptionist shouts at him cheerfully, “using the stairs at your age!”. My apartment is on the 4th floor. I take the lift.
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Friday, 11 February 2011

The return

After 3 years back in the UK I am returning to South Africa. This time to help with a research project in Cape Town. Kick off next week.