Soweto: Scratching the Surface of A Rich Township


I am lucky enough to have a fellow ELCA global missionary friend who is in a year-long program called, Young Adults In Global Mission (YAGM), and is living in the largest and arguably most historical township in South Africa. She resides in Central Jabavu in the South West Township called Soweto, also known as the home of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

My friend, Emmeline, invited me to spend some time with her over the holidays since we were both on break. I had spent some time there before and was eager to return.

The area that I live in is a mainly white suburb that could easily be mistaken for an American town. But when you go to Soweto, there is no mistaking that you are in South Africa.

The township has received a lot of funding since the end of the apartheid to help both the living situations and education systems. Some of the houses look quite nice from the outside, while some still do not have proper plumbing. Yet, each house is colorfully painted, small shops spill from front windows and garages, children run and play through the maze of pedestrians and scraps in the sidewalks, and vendors look on as they display their best produce or trinkets while trying to earn enough to eat.

When I drive to my friends compound, I soak in the vast amounts of color and life. Soweto feels like a community, like a family. When I am there I am one of the only other white people in the whole city that holds somewhere between 3-5 million people. The city bursts at the seams with history and stories to tell of oppression, injustice, poverty, and neglect. The Hector Pieterson Museum ripped at my heart and reasoning as young boys and girls lives were taken because they fought for the right to a fair education. Power oppressed the truth, but hope prevailed. This beautiful museum holds the stories of hundreds, and yet the streets outside still whisper the history. Scars of injustice show deeply in the separation of white and black communities. But, the people I have met and spent time with throw open the doors to their hearts with smiles and laughter. Most are proud of Soweto and are eager to share their perceptions of life.

This last visit offered a chance to get to know some fellow 20-year-olds who wanted to just hang out and make new friends.

We talked about the corruption and structure of South African politics and then how complicated American elections are. We talked about how most black South Africans speak at least three languages if not more where as some Americans can barely speak two. I am always ashamed of how I know only a few words in Zulu, and have only a tiny bit of basic French left in my brain after 6 years of classes.

The new friends were not bitter or angry, but were rather amused at our American background. They more laughed at the ridiculous stereotypes of Republicans and Democrats, and were happy to hear that not all Americans are like the ones they saw on TV.

We talked late into the night, and by the time we left for bed I felt a glow of peace inside.

Where I currently live, it can feel very isolating. My apartment complex is mostly white families with kids, my work place is mostly people old enough to be at least my parents or they commute from far enough away that it is hard to hang out, and there are not a lot of places to hang out to meet people.

When I visit my friend in Soweto, I remember what community and friendship feels like. I of course stick out with not only my American accent, but also my skin. I am a blatant minority. Some people see my skin as an invitation to my wallet or a gross cat call, but some people don’t care. Some people even see it as a chance to get to know a different culture. This conversation may start with differences and questions about America, but can also end in a friendly feeling of bonds growing across barriers of race and culture.

I am so thankful for these conversations. I am in awe and eager wonderment towards the richness of Soweto and the millions of stories packed into the community. The explorations of Soweto have been few, but the depth of experiences have become a beacon of welcome, calling me back for more.

Author: allihoff

An asthmatic ginger searching for justice & peace in the redwood trees with coffee in one hand, a pen in the other, and Switchfoot playing in the background.