I am writing this after a somewhat ethereal, pinch-ourselves type experience we had recently over ten days in the former Transkei, a large region on the south eastern coast (bordering the Indian Ocean) of South Africa. The Transkei is one of the tribal “homelands” of the Xhosa people. During South Africa’s apartheid government, the then-government fully endorsed the notion of the Transkei as its own sovereign nation – part of the broader effort to push black people out of South Africa at the time. The experiment lasted only until 1994, when Mandela assumed leadership and Transkei was reabsorbed into the country.
How to describe it? Unbelievable, breathtaking natural beauty – rolling, verdant hills and streams as far as the eye can see, dotted throughout with quaint looking rondavels – colorfully painted round huts that are home to millions of Xhosa people. The roads, with the exception of major highways, are bad – unpaved with huge ruts and stones and potholes for miles on end. When we weren’t dodging cattle and dogs and sheep and goats and pigs which constantly seemed to meander their way in front of our car, we were avoiding potholes and simultaneously oohing and aahhing at the rainbow of colors of the rondavels. The animals had us asking the question – where are we? Ireland? New Zealand? The houses left no doubt – South Africa! Pink houses, teal houses, yellow houses, blue houses, orange houses – all perched with like color groups, beautifully juxtaposed amidst and between hills and valleys. We couldn’t refrain from comparisons with the land of the munchkins in the Wizard of Oz. Only when we drove by closely did it become apparent that these were not homes with means, featuring dung floors, perhaps only a bed and a table, often times with no electricity or indoor plumbing. One stretch of about 50 miles had been without water for five days – courtesy of the government.
Children – babies – were everywhere, walking along the road, crossing the road, waving gleefully to us, playing with each other. People were joyous and friendly, which led us to a lot of debate: are they happy because they don’t know what they are missing? What right do we have to impose our values on them, to pity or feel badly for them? They seem happy so they must be, right? Happiness and Dignity – these will be the subject of a future post.
At one very remote lodge located in a nature reserve, we were advised to keep our hut doors and windows closed so playful monkeys didn’t pop in and rip off a sock or anything else that happened to be lying around. Luke focused a lot on that advice, asking frequently if we were protecting our belongings (read hockey cards and small candies) sufficiently. And there were animals EVERYWHERE! On my first beach run on the most remote and beautiful beaches I’ve ever visited, I was wowed – and intimidated – by the herds of cattle that roamed freely. We made wide circles around them and avoided eye contact. By the 10th day and probably 1000th animal, we did no such thing. Sheep, pigs, horses, cows – this was their land, and they didn’t care at all about us. On foot and in the car, we spent the week dodging and honking and clapping to get through the masses. We even hosted happy hour outside our rondavel hut one day!!!
As has been the case throughout our time in South Africa, we had many “didn’t expect that!” type of moments in the Transkei. One was the “ferry” that helped transport us to our first lodge. While we knew it wasn’t going to by Steamboat Authority or HyLine a la Hyannis-Nantucket, we didn’t expect this!!!! Of course the entrepreneurial local people took advantage of a captive audience (there was no where else we could go), showing their wares in little baskets on the side of the float, so we were able to do some shopping.
As the week progressed, we jumped off cliffs, trudged across hills reminiscent of the moors of Scotland and Ireland, kayaked on an ancient misty river replete with fish eagles and jumping fish, walked remote beaches and collected beautiful Indian ocean shells, played cricket with local children, and tried to soak in the natural beauty and kindness of the Xhosa people. A very different language from English, we each knew only the basic phrases, but that was enough to inspire gleeful smiles and laughs. Our trusty 4×4 Toyota did its job; for the most part we drove on dirt paths (which in some cases could hardly be called roads) filled with ruts and gullies and large rocks we were forced to navigate. On the last day, we had to navigate 30 miles of wet muddy road; we very nearly got stuck and would never have made our flight without chris’s suberb driving skills!!!
Our favorite experiences were visits to three early childhood centers, where local cuties laughed and clapped and danced and listened and played and argued just like kids in Milton and across the world. We were in awe of their teachers, who managed to create such colorful, gleeful, informative, and fun learning environments in the poorest, most rural region in South Africa. These women were amazing – working with extremely limited resources and serving children who are among the poorest of the poorest, often times from single parent households and neglected in the delivery of most common services we expect at home – water, electricity, quality education, health care, roads, infrastructure, etc. The programs were cheerful, loud, and happy – exactly what quality early childhood centers should be. To learn more please visit https://www.wildcoast.co.za/ncinci-ones-montessori, http://www.sustainablecoffeebay.org.za/projects/ikhaya-labantwana-montessori/ and https://bulungulaincubator.org/centre-based-ecd/
We are so grateful for our trip to the Transkei, and we were grateful to come home to the comfort of our home in Cape Town. Talk about two worlds – wow. Trying to comprehend the challenges of poverty and culture at times seems overwhelming. So much more to try to digest and reflect upon during our time here.