Monday, September 20, 2010

Road Trip History

(Thursday, September 16)

Cornelius decided to take us all out to Fort Hare in Alice, which is about an hour and a half away. I was really excited to take my first venture outside of the immediate vicinity of East London. As we passed by Mdantsane and the other townships, moving into rural countryside dotted with goats and cows, Cornelius told us stories and histories related to each place we drove past. It's amazing how much he knows. I hadn't realized how complete the segregation of people was under Apartheid government until he started to explain it: how everyone was restricted to their own "homeland," designated by the government, and could not move between them or enter white South Africa without a special pass. And it's always so strange to me how recent it all was - it's not ancient history like it seems it should be. Mdantsane was huge - the second largest township in South Africa - and is made up of old shacks and new RDP housing. The RDP housing is government-subsidized, part of the promise to give every South African family a home, but still substandard. These are identical (but differently colored) block houses, placed in neat rows, shaped like kindergarten drawings (rectangle, door, two windows, roof). The rest of the dwellings are old shacks of scrap metal and wood, some sturdier than others but all looking unsteady and undignified, scattered haphazardly across the dry ground. There are no yards or paved roads - the shacks and houses just look as though they were dropped from the sky.

We drove through deep Xhosa country, where Cornelius said 90% of people would be unable to speak or understand any English. Here were the same solid rectangular brick houses, plastered and painted bright pastels, that I've become very used to. Some have fences of sticks stuck in the ground with a few wires strung around them - none of the high walls topped by spikes, electric wire, or barbed wire that are all through the city. Everywhere are the small white goats and brown, furry, horned Nguni cattle. We could see the Amathole mountains in the near distance: big, green, rolling mountains. Out here government rules and regulations don't matter much, their loyalty is to the tribal chief. Don't start imagining people out in the bush, wearing grass skirts and carrying spears, because I know some of you are; they dress just the same as they do in the city.

When we made it to Fort Hare we were given a tour of the campus by Cornelius, who used to work there as historian and curator. The main attraction was the De Beers Centenary Art Gallery. It's filled with incredible and powerful art by South African artists. The paintings and photographs were beautiful and very intense - they really reflected the very colorful, culturally rich, and often painful history of South Africa. It was really a great exhibit.

After arriving back in East London we headed off to Auntie P.'s, where she served us samp (sp?) and beans and a kind of porridge with maas that I won't even try to spell. The beans were really good, and the maas porridge was very sour and somewhat inedible, but better with a lot of sugar. Auntie P. is going to give us the majority of our food-related cultural experiences; she cooks us all the traditional dishes. We chatted for a long time, watched SA's Got Talent with all the kids and cousins who were there, then headed home laden with leftovers.

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