On my trip to Africa in November I spent a few days in Cape Town, South Africa. Cape Town is at once a beautiful metropolitan area with the glitz and glamor of bustling city AND the home to some of the most impoverished communities in the country. While there I had the privilege of meeting with the good people of The Lalela Project, a NGO whose mission is to provide educational arts to youth affected by extreme poverty. The Lalela Project is working in schools in some of the “communities” (a South African euphemism for “shanty town”) to deliver after school enrichment programs that allow young people to express themselves via art. To learn more about their incredible work visit www.lalelaproject.org.
As part of the visit I had the opportunity to tour one of the communities. I have spent a good deal of time in struggling and downtrodden urban environments in the United States, including working in Newark and Trenton and Camden, New Jersey. While I am extremely sensitive to the plight of and compassionate toward the residents of such places, I consider myself fairly hardened to the reality of life in those areas. In spite of that, I have never experienced the level of poverty I witnessed in Cape Town. We entered the neighborhood via a locked, barbed wire-topped fence that was in place to protect the nearby school. Homes were built of plywood and corrugated aluminum and other available scrap materials, and it appeared that a stiff breeze could take down an entire block. Electrical power was available from a centrally located, government-provided pole, but the wiring took the term “DIY” to an extreme. The streets and alleyways were strewn with litter and trash, and there was the unmistakable odor of sewage permeating the air as gray water flowed down the street. The living conditions were deplorable.
What was more striking than the environment, though, was the spirit of the people living there. As we walked the street we encountered people curious about who we were and why we were there. We were met with smiles and handshakes and, in one case, an impromptu dance performance. I asked permission to take photographs of the residents and, more often than not, as I pointed my camera my subjects would stop and pose and smile. Children approached us and wanted to connect. The community residents were living in unimaginable poverty and yet shared a generosity of spirit that made it hard to leave. They were beautiful people inside and out. And they reminded me of the toughness and resilience of the human spirit.