Written by IMPACT Scholar: Megan Gieske, Asbury University
“We are not just dancing for fun. We are dancing to learn more about the world.”
In a township of Cape Town outlined with shacks, a group of Semester at Sea students on an IMPACT Program tour of Baphumele Orphanage and Township by bicycle cycled through Khayelitsha and Langa townships to visit Baphumele Children’s Home and Happy Feet Youth Project.
Siviwe Mbinda founded Happy Feet Youth Project in 2007 to provide a safe after-school environment for township kids.
“I’m from the townships, and I’m proud,” Mbinda said.
Langa Township, which means “the suns,” is the oldest township in South Africa. Like Khayelitsha, Langa is a suburb in Cape Town established in 1927 after the Urban Areas Act. It is one of the many townships in South Africa designated for Black Africans before the apartheid era. However, there are township people waiting for the government to build homes for them, and the buildings, built without concrete flooring, are constantly being flooded, catching fire, or suffering from intense heat and cold.
Since the 1960s, when the forced resettlement of the apartheid era began, the people of Langa have strived for privacy and a sense of ownership. Apartheid is an Afrikaans word meaning “apart-hood.” Langa was the location of much resistance to apartheid.
Mbinda who lived in the township for twenty-three years, said, “All we wanted in South Africa was to be free—to live together without any hatred or separation. The townships achieved that. This generation is still enjoying to be free.”
In Llanga, Mbinda says that 60 percent of mothers must choose to prostitute themselves to provide for their children. In Khayelitsha, with a population close to 1.5 million is the fastest growing township in Cape Town and the HIV/AIDs infection rate is suspected to be at 50 percent.
“When you grow up in the township, you only see these things. That affects how you plan your life,” says Mbinda.
However, life in the townships is filled with entrepreneurial energy and community spirit.
When Mbinda founded Happy Feet in 2006, he wanted to be able to say “I live in the squatter camp (the township), where we have the best dancers.” Now, Happy Feet has connected with event planners who invite them to perform in hotels around Cape Town.
“If you say ‘Let’s come and dance,’ they will come,” says Mbinda.
“How do we, the people of the townships, see South Africa? How do we feel about South Africa?” After Mbinda asked himself this, he and the other volunteers at Happy Feet looked at the township they were from, and asked themselves how they could provide leadership skills, a sense of belonging, and role models for 70 boys and girls ages 3 to 20.
“We feed the brain through education, the heart by giving kindness, and the stomach by offering food,” Mbinda said.
At Happy Feet, they have been able to establish scholarships to pay tuition fees and school uniforms for fifteen of the youth. Mbinda believes, if they get these, they get a better chance of being whoever they want to be.
On the high wall that surrounds Baphumele’s many educare centers, there’s a world map painted in bright colors like the bright smiles of the township kids.
In the township spirit, Rosie Mashale founded Baphumele as a beacon of hope in Khayelitsha through establishing a creche with a group of women from her community. The name given to the community-based project was Baphumele, a Xhosa word meaning “progress,” and to Mbinda who led students on a tour welcomed by Mashale, it means “We have succeeded.”
Lauren Hartig, Director of the Field Office, who first met Mashale on her initial voyage in 2004 said, “When I saw her again at Baphumele all the memories of what a profound impact that day had on me and the other voyagers came full circle. I thought I was there to learn about Langa and their programs, but instead I learned so much from the people of Langa and their exuberant spirit.”
Many of the buildings on Baphumele’s campus have plaques recognizing local and international support that say “America House made possible by the generous grant from the U.S. Consulate in Cape Town.”
After an inspiring performance of gumboot dancing by Happy Feet, Semester at Sea students met the vibrant culture found within the townships of the Western Cape, and Semester at Sea introduced Happy Feet to places outside of the township.
“This is our way of exposing ourselves to you,” Mbinda explained.
Both Baphumele Children’s Home and Happy Feet Youth Project are demonstrations of what a community, local and international, can achieve when everyone works together
“It’s a very good partnership, Semester at Sea with us,” Siviwe Mbinda said.
There’s something in the spirit of Langa that’s like the spirit of Ubuntu which means “You are who you are because of me. I am who I am because of you.”