South Africa is not a third world country unless you live in a township. There is electricity and paved highways and clean water fit for drinking, unless you live in a township. I didn't really have a concept of what a township was until I came here. The word itself, township, is innocuous, unless you are in South Africa.
If you are not in South Africa, the word township does not conjur up images of corrugated tin shacks with no plumbing and sometimes no electricity. Somewhere else in the world the word might not mean abject poverty. Outside of Capetown there is a township that stretches out into the horizon farther than you can see, an ocean of corrugated tin.
Then I think of my kids. Most of them are township kids. It's hard to wrap my head around. They come to school sharp in their school uniforms, focused and ready to work. How is it possible for them to remain so focused in the face of such desperation at home?
Some probably do live in government housing that is slowly replacing the shacks in townships. These have electricity and indoor plumbing although many will still build an outhouse so that extended family still living in shacks can share in the plumbing. Can you imagine that? I cannot, not coming from where I do. The lists for these houses is long and the little houses go up so slowly.
When you speak to the kids you begin to understand that they know that their only hope to bring about progress is their education. It is everything for many of them. But, jobs are growing more scarce. Even if they are able to get degrees, even advanced degrees there may not be jobs for them unless the situation changes. Currently, there is increasing desperation among these people due to issues in the world market. The prices of their food, transportation and daily expenses are increasing. They cannot afford to feed their families or even get to work. Many of the kids in my classes pay taxi buses to pick them up at one stop, usually far from home. They have to walk sometimes as much as an hour to these stops and it costs their family money. The fares are rising due to the sky rocketing price of gas.
There has been progress in the past 14 years and I wonder if the current market will halt this progress for my students. Will these kids be able to continue to alter the face of the townships for the better? The worry is going to stick with me long after I leave, because now South Africa has a face. And the face isn't desperate and defeated. It's not what you see in movies. For me the face of South Africa is that of its bright-eyed, earnest students.