Building Walls, Breaking Barriers

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As the Live 8 concerts, the G8 conference and the BBC’s “Africa Lives” series challenged the world to look again at Africa, Katie Cartwright rolled up her sleeves and pulled off her blinkers in one of Cape Town’s many impoverished townships.

Last time I flew into Cape Town, for the benefit of the international tourists, the pilot gave us a tour of the peninsula prior to landing. We flew over picturesque vineyards, vast expanses of golden sand, rich suburbs with swimming pools dotted in their gardens, and finally, over the vast sprawling townships that spread along the road leading from the city to the airport, and beyond.

Our tourist-friendly pilot did not point out the townships. Perhaps he did not want to see them; perhaps he, like some others, felt them to be an eyesore. Perhaps he – as sometimes all of us do – simply forgot they were there.

But the townships, squatter camps, or informal settlements, are there. Spreading for miles across the dusty, infertile Cape Flats, millions of people inhabit tiny shacks constructed out of plastic, wire, wood and corrugated iron – the flotsam and jetsam of more privileged lives.

The shacks are packed together – a tinderbox in summer, an icebox in winter. Few have either water or electricity. Diseases, not least TB and AIDS, are rife. As an appalling legacy of apartheid, the best hope of most of the inhabitants is to get a job in the city, servicing the lives of the rich.

The divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ – an increasing global phenomenon – is writ large here in Cape Town. The settlements are suburbs of the city, but many city dwellers have neither dared to visit one, nor are even able to pronounce their names. The nearest that many of us come to a township is to drive along the freeway out of Cape Town – car doors locked and mobile phones on and close at hand.

‘Habitat for Humanity’ exists to bridge this gaping divide. A Christian organisation which acts as a ‘broker, banker and builder’, Habitat seeks to uplift those who dwell in the settlements by giving them the chance to live in something more than just a shack – something fireproof, with running water and an electricity supply.

For the sum of ZAR36,000 (£ 3,000), which Habitat provides as non-profit, inflation indexed mortgage to the prospective homeowner, the organisation builds a 2-bedroomed house, with a kitchen and a bathroom area. The homeowner pays back the loan over ten years, but also, as a condition of the loan, supplies ‘sweat equity’ by cooking lunch and providing drinks for the house builders.

It’s a simple idea to build houses, and it’s also cheap, even by South African standards, because labour is cheap. In fact, apart from the lead builder of any house, the labour is provided free of charge. Churches, schools, universities and corporations form teams to build houses. Those who would normally be whizzing past on the freeway – those like me, who live a more comfortable life – voluntarily provide their services as house builders.

Given what I had heard about the townships, it was with a sense of trepidation that I left my cosy suburb one hot summer Saturday to venture to Khayelitsha on my first Habitat build. And yet the townships, which seem so threatening when driving past, attained human proportions and human faces when we drove into them. Colourful signposts bursting with hyperbole demonstrated that some shacks double as shops, shebeens and service centres – ‘BEST EVER welding’ ‘NUMBER ONE for Haircuts’; children lined the roads – some waving, some jeering; women busied themselves with domestic chores; men sat on upturned crates drinking in the summer sun; dogs of all shapes and sizes lolled everywhere; cattle, all horns and haunches, meandered in the road.

The teams of ‘builders’ met together in a central Habitat venue, were equipped with prayer and some more temporal tools, divided into groups, and went to work. But we had been well instructed. Our first priority was to build not houses, but relationships. We spent the day doing just that.

The odd turn at mixing the cement, forming a human chain to shift breezeblocks and cleaning the walls was surprisingly effective and unsurprisingly exhausting. By the end of the day we had built four solid walls to apex level. More importantly, by the end of the day we had hugged, carried, played with, laughed with, talked to and touched hundreds of children.

Almost immediately we arrived we were surrounded by swathes of curious faces, and pretty soon, our bodies became ‘jungle gyms’ with a child hanging off each arm and one around the neck. We realised quickly that this was the only close experience that many had had of any white people, in spite of the fact that we live in such close proximity.

We attracted unreserved fascination, the children examining our hair, our skin, our veins and our clothes. Even a fourteen-year-old girl, who had affected disdain for the whole event, came to stroke my hair when she thought I was not looking – such was her curious intrigue. We chatted with the house owner and realised quite what this house meant to him and his family, and as the day grew cold, we shared food with the family.

Returning to Cape Town that evening, I was overwhelmed by a sense of awe at the ‘one city, two worlds’ in which we live, and what the poor have to endure on a daily basis. The rich can afford to ignore the poor, but the poor, travelling this road each day on their journey to work, cannot avoid the rich. The day had built four walls; it had also removed at least one pair of blinkers.