As I hit the halfway mark of my internship and my time in South Africa, I was finally feeling like myself again. I have carved out a place for myself within Slangspruit Public Primary School. My after-school sports program has just been launched. Our proposal on alternative discipline needs some minor revisions. Regardless, it is progressing and hopefully shifting the school away from their use of corporal punishment. In an attempt to encourage critical thinking, I started a debate club over the lunch break, which, to my surprise, has been met with tremendous enthusiasm.
My boss’ bike has been sitting in our garage collecting dust since long before our arrival in Pietermaritzburg. She had offered it to the group back in June when we first arrived. I had nearly forgotten of its existence when Ayo, one of the grade 5 girls I tutor in Math, pulled it out of the garage and started riding it around the compound. The light bulb had barely sparked when I raced inside to pull up Google Maps. At seven and a half kilometers, it was decided. I was biking to work.
I heard many cautionary tales warning me against cycling in South Africa. In retrospect, they sounded a lot like those I heard in Canada. “I don’t trust drivers”. “I don’t like biking on the road”. “If there wasn’t traffic,” the list goes on. I have never been one for basing my decisions on the opinions of other people but in this case, I figured that it would probably be wise to take the bike for a test spin before committing to the distance. Surprisingly, drivers gave me more room than I anticipated. That was really all that I needed to finalize my decision.
The following day I awoke to torrential downpour, lightening and heavy thunder. I was determined to take on the uphill trek to school while the idea was still being backed by enthusiasm. Like a cat wanting to be let out, I paced back and forth by the front door desperately hoping that the storm would break. The rain eventually let up. I barreled into my bedroom and emerged, moments later, fully suited and ready to go. Claire, one of my fellow Canadian interns, gave me a faint look of concern.
“Not to sound like your mother, but remember when Lynn told us not to get stuck in a lightening storm?” My heart hit the floor. I knew she was right.
Exactly 3 months after I arrived in South Africa, officially the halfway mark of my internship here, I biked to work. I gave myself more than enough time to make the trip and ended up arriving feeling sweaty and well worked, before our taxi. Honestly, my endeavor was more challenging that I anticipated, a nice reminder that I’m not in as good of shape as I once was. The first half of the trip is a steady climb uphill; when I reach the point where I’m not sure how much more I can endure, I begin my decent, rapidly weaving through different townships until I reach Slang.
There are no words to describe how it felt to get back on 2 wheels. However, darting around all the various chickens, pigs and some goat’s gone rogue added an additional challenge. I received several strange looks the first day but I wasn’t overly fazed. Once I arrived at school, the kids immediately swarmed me with mixed looks of shock, horror, ridicule and bewilderment. They seemed to find it completely unfathomable that I would even consider biking from my place in Scottsville when I had the option of getting a ride.
One of the learners approached me, certain he was about to catch his friend in a lie. “This boy… this boy say you brought the bike all the way from Scottsville.”
“Hawu!” (Pronounced “how”. A common Zulu expression indicating shock and disbelief.)
As the learners stood around me, eagerly asking questions, countless little hands lingered over the bicycle. They squeezed the brakes, stroked the frame, and attempted to spin the tires. There was a plethora of hands coming from so many different angles I was unable to connect them to their respective faces.
The level of poverty that exists in the community of Slangspruit is difficult to effectively communicate. Unless you actually see it and, even still, coming from a middle class background, its difficult to truly comprehend. However, there is significant disparity between the levels of poverty within the community as there is economic disparity within the country. I’m not trying to overshadow this community with nothing but doom and sorrow. Although they face many challenges, the children are vivacious and incredibly resilient. Many children at Slangspruit regard my dirty old Vans sneakers and four-year-old HTC phone with a cracked screen and no power button, things I perceive as being on their deathbed, with admiration. Thus, up until this point, I have been very conscientious not to display signs of my relative wealth. The learners’ reaction to the bicycle was so intense and unexpected; I desperately began questioning whether riding it to school had in fact been wise or merely selfish. As I was feeling overwhelmed and drowning in my own guilt, a learner approached me and started arguing some of the reasons for cycling.
“It’s good for the planet. It’s good for your health.”
At the very least I had started a dialogue. For peripheral communities like Slangspruit who are fighting daily just to stay afloat, issues such as health and the environment are simply beyond popular consciousness– even though they will likely bear the brunt of their impact. When there are so many issues demanding our immediate attention, there is no time, let alone energy, to attend to issues lurking on the horizon.
I left school that day later than usual and still unsure whether I would bike again. As I began the steep climb out of Slang, my name was echoing through the township.
I was unable to detect where the voices were coming from. As I turned the corner and began climbing up the main road, children were cascading from their homes and onto the street, waving eagerly to see me off.
I decided to ride the bicycle to school the following day. It was a beautiful morning. The sun was out early and shinning in full force as though foreshadowing the greatness the day had in store. As I began to descend through the townships, I passed three older women waiting for a Kombi, presumably to take them to work. (A Kombi is a mini bus. It is the most affordable means of public transit, and thus, the most popular, especially for black South Africans). Their smiles stretched from cheek to cheek. They were beaming and chuckling amongst themselves. Their energy was infectious. I couldn’t resist greeting them as I passed by.
“Yebo,” they replied perfectly in unison. (Yebo is the isiZulu word for “yes”. It is also the courteous way to acknowledge a greeting when there isn’t enough time to commit to a conversation. Greetings are an important part of Zulu culture.)
Something about this brief interaction stayed with me. I wasn’t exactly sure which part they had found so entertaining. I’m sure by that point, my face was the same colour coral as the shirt I was wearing. I continued my descent passing numerous people who where all appearing to share the same expression– a kind of intersection between shock and delight. There was also something inherently unique in the expressions of the older generation that sent me searching for an answer.
In my time working at Slangspruit Primary it has been nearly impossible to get white people to come to the school. When my work, or what brought me to South Africa, enters the topic of conversation, sadly, it’s not uncommon for people to ask questions like “aren’t you afraid?”
Although segregation has not been imposed since the end of Apartheid, townships are still very much perceived as being black spaces. Knowing that the Apartheid Government borrowed the township model, a way of successfully marginalizing people within a democratic system, from the Canadian Government, there are undoubtedly many parallels with First Nations communities in Canada. How many Canadians wouldn’t dare to step foot onto a First Nations Reserve out of fear? It’s the same thing in South Africa. However, townships house 38% of the South African population so they are a bit more challenging to escape.
In countries like Canada and South Africa white people move in racially insulated environments. Public spaces are comfortable because they are impregnated with Anglo Saxon norms and values. Therefore when spaces fail to meet that framework, which disrupts our white privilege, discomfort is easily mistaken for danger. However, for minority groups, the discomfort of feeling slightly at odds with the dominant social mores is very likely a common part of everyday life. So when I go peddling through several townships exposed and totally at ease, it takes a few people by surprise. Rather than barricading myself in a car with the windows rolled up alluding to the supposed need for bulletproof glass, I am cycling through these communities unabated.
Cycling to work has offered me tremendous insight. I am interacting much more with the community in which I am working, simply by coming and going daily and greeting everyone along the way. It has also served to highlight the enormous disparity that is endemic in South Africa. Every morning I leave my comfortable middle class existence, cycling through different suburbs until I begin my descent weaving through townships and moving further into the depths of poverty. At the end of each school day I climb back out. The ascent is challenging in itself, without having any of the racial, educational or socio-economic barriers to weigh me down.
I have been cycling to work for nearly a month now and I still get asked daily,
“Alex…Where’s the bike?”
“In the staff room.”
“Sharp sharp” (Pronounced “shop” which from my understanding means “cool” in isiZulu).
There is still so much fascination surrounding the bike. As much as they ask, I don’t let the learners ride it because it can’t be shared 1050 ways. Where do you draw the line when you don’t want to play favorites? They fight each other just to walk it for me as I come and go on school grounds. As a result of the preoccupation with the bike, I decided to turn it into a topic for debate. I posed the question: should South Africa ban cars and buy everyone a bicycle?
Without skipping a beat, a Grade 7 girl from the Debate Club sassily told me: “All your biking is going to your head!”
Maybe it has, but I’d argue it’s for the best.