Over the winter break my family went to South Africa. My husband is having a “big” birthday this year, and we figured we might as well celebrate with a once in a lifetime trip. We started in Cape Town, the home of Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent years imprisoned, and from which he was ultimately freed. Cape Town, is a cliff side city with gorgeous views, a lively nightlife, extensive shopping at the Victoria and Albert Shopping center and warf, a vast array of international restaurants, and a distinctly European vibe.
But just outside of Cape Town lie the townships. Township is a word with many connotations. The townships are poor, and 100% African – no whites, no coloreds (which is how they refer to mixed race people here – it is not considered derrogatory) Some of them have no electricity or plumbing. Some consist of shacks made of corrugated metal, some of cement block houses, some of small, tidy, houses immaculately kept. It is the townships that give Cape Town the dubious honor of having the second highest homicide rate in the world. (With Johannesburg, also in South Africa, having the first highest.)
The township of Kayaletsha was also the place where I saw the unbridled joy of South Africa, in the dancing and singing of children.
Last year in New York I was introduced to Monkey Biz, a non-profit organization that teaches women how to use traditional Zulu beading techniques to make the animals you see here. They then give the women all of the supplies to make the animals, and buy from them every single one they make. In this way, they are helping to support nearly 450 women in the townships.
We arranged to have a tour of the Monkey Biz office in the colorful Bo Kaap section of Capetown, followed by a trip to the township to meet some of the artists and deliver some beads.
Here’s what greeted us:
It was a dance troupe of kids aged 7-16 – and it was quite possibly the best performance of anything I have ever seen.
The kids were transported with joy. They danced for us – and sang in perfect harmony – for at least 20 minutes. Barefoot on the badly paved road, in a township which many of them may never leave, where poverty is the norm they danced. And danced. And the joy emanating from them was like a wave of beauty washing over us, suffusing the township, and all of us watching, with a shimmering light. After they danced, we handed out candy, and notebooks, and pens, and globe-beach balls, and they laughed, and held out their cupped hands as if trying to scoop up the happiness in the air. , All I could think was how art can bring such happiness. That dance and music can bring such joy. That poverty has nothing on art. Art looked at the unpaved streets, and the leaky roofs, and the chipped paint and the barbed wire that was supposed to keep them all in – and keep joy out. And art laughed.
Thabang – the name of the dance troupe, means Happiness.