Christmas in the Slums of Gugulethu: Part 2

The rains coming in mean bad news. In Gugulethu, the shanties here are on dirt and when the water comes, this equals mud. But even though the rain has poured during what is typically the dry season, people are out and about preparing for the Christmas tradition. Here, there are no gifts. No decorations. No blinking lights or packed car parks. The “better off” people of this area are buying live chickens and preparing Christmas meals. What characterizes the holiday is open doors and closed doors. A closed door means you have nothing to offer in the way of food to passersby. An open door means anyone can come in for a snack. Children roam the dirt and mud corridors, going from door to door, stuffing their faces with good eats. When they get full, they put food in their bags and carry on. It’s like a like a savory U.S. Halloween with no ghosts.

This was how Laura, our guide described Christmas tradition. But as we drove with her, the meta-stories turned more personal. Though she’s what anyone would call a survivor – educated, powerful and kind – she’s had a tough year. Many in her family have died from all sorts of ailments and she’s been looking after a ten-year-old girl with HIV whose parents passed away earlier in the year. The child doesn’t know she has HIV and her parents made Laura promise she would not tell her. The girl takes anti-retro viral drugs but is told that the drugs are for asthma. What concerns Laura is that the girl is looking to start drinking and when drinking happens with women, it means sex. Yes, we’re talking about a ten-year-old girl. Many are mothers by 13 and 14, and eager boys will use inebriation to initiate sex with their young counterparts. Laura is concerned about the HIV and doesn’t know what to do. She’s concerned about the girl drinking and having sex too, but much is out of her power. Drugs and alcohol are big problems in the slums.

The men are the ones who typically drink. They brew a crude beer there and spend the days drinking it. With so much unemployment, there is little else to do. Meth is an issue and so is something new: Smoking anti retro viral drugs. The HIV medication is so plentiful and cheap here that apparently one can smoke it and get a crack-like high. The come down, I’m told, is extremely painful and thus the drugs used this way are highly, highly addictive. But again, Laura invites to look at the good things we see – the children laughing, the young girl playing a game called Puca which involved drawing a circle and placing stones inside it. The goal is to throw one stone in the air and remove one from the circle before the stone is then caught with the same hand. Once all stones are out of the circle, they replaced in the same but opposite fashion. If successful without dropping the thrown stone, the player wins. Imagination holds children’s minds here – there are almost no books (the pages of books are often used as toilet paper), and definitely no soccer fields. The family dwellings are squatted illegally, but no one kicks anyone out. There is nowhere for them to go. Power is supplied but there is no plumbing. Several families share what amounts to a stone outhouse with a bucket. Once a week, if they are lucky, a service comes round and empties the bucket. With the sun beating during our visit, the evidence of too many people sharing the same bathroom lingers thick in the air.

On the outskirts of Gugulethu, just before a Muslim camp, we come across a circumcision shanty situated between the freeway and the off ramp. When boys are 18 they are sent here to be circumcised without anesthesia as part of a ritual into manhood. The shanty amounts to what look like several igloo shapes, only made of old tarps and plastic bags. They are hot and dirty and unsanitary. Laura explains that many boys get infections from the procedure.

But there are no hospitals. Well, there are, kind of, but ordinary people can’t walk into them and be treated. One hospital serves two million on the outskirts of Cape Town and I’m told that people fear it as it is a place where you go to die. There has been some aid from Doctors Without Borders, but two million people is a lot. Much of the resources that would go to help people here are cutoff by corruption in government. Corruption happens at a very low level and as soon as someone gains a bit of power, he looks to siphon money from aid. There are crackdowns occasionally, but officials are rarely, if ever, prosecuted.

As Laura drives us back into the colored and white part of Cape Town, we see the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping by those who can afford to do it. We’re getting dropped off at The Two Oceans Aquarium and I’m talking about the work on pollution that 5 Gyres does; we have a display we have at the aquarium. Laura mentions that she’s never been to an aquarium. When she says this, I can’t believe it. She’s educated, she’s a home owner, she makes a living. But the stigma things such as aquariums being for people other than her is pervasive. I tell Laura to park the car and come in with me. She’s like a child in a candy store looking at the sharks. She’s amazed. She’s heard about these creatures but has never seen them. We are together and still worlds apart.

Merry Christmas Laura. You’re an inspiration to the world you serve. And beyond.

Editor’s Note: This is part 9 in a special series. Voyage with Stiv and catch the exclusive each week here at EcoSalon during his months-long journey into the heart of the South Atlantic Gyre and beyond.

Images: Stiv Wilson