Blank faces met ours as we drove into the petrol station. Expressionless, the men pumped our cars. Until we tried to speak their language. “Molo,” we said in greeting. “Molweni,” he replied. We were practicing the few words we knew in Xhosa, the language of the Western Cape and Eastern Cape provinces of South Africa.

Communicating in South Africa is easy for those of us who speak English. Most South Africans speak at least some English, one of the 11 official languages of the country. But according to the 2001 Census, English is the fifth most common language spoken, outspoken by Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, and Sethoto sa Leboa.

During our walking tour of Langa Township, Siviwe, our tour guide taught us a few words and even taught us how to click. Though the rest of us tried, only my daughter is able to click correctly, making the sound with her tongue as she pronounces the hard c sound in the word Xhosa. We learned the simple greeting, “molo,” when meeting one person, or “molweni,” when meeting more than one. And we learned how to say thank you, “enkosi.” As Siviwe brought us into the shantytown homes, we were able to greet those who lived there in their own language and to say thank you for allowing us to see their homes.

“Enkosi,” we said as we gave the man a tip for pumping the gas and cleaning our car windows. He smiled then grinned when my husband asked him if he was a Chiefs fan.

“Go Chiefs!” we all called out from the car, holding up our fingers in the American peace sign, also the sign for one of the biggest soccer teams in South Africa. He laughed and poked his friend who was a fan of the Chiefs biggest rival, the Pirates, and they cheered as we drove away.

We drove toward the coast, passing children walking down the dirt road. As we held our fingers up high with the sign for the Chiefs, they jumped up and down and ran after us yelling, “Chiefs! Chiefs!”

The people at Bulungula Lodge encouraged us to learn a few more words of Xhosa and to communicate with the people we encountered in the village. We learned to respond when someone asked how we were and to ask about their health as well.

I learned to say thank you in Sethotho (“galiboha”), and although my pronunciation was corrected by the women of the village, we all laughed together.

As we moved away from the coast, traveling to other provinces where Xhosa is not spoken and other languages are dominant, our lack of words separated us from the people. We never learned any Afrikaans or any Zulu, relying only on English to get us by. And although we attempted to smile and to talk to those we met, our response was most often a blank stare. Without knowing a few words, we had lost our connection and our individuality, becoming just another tourist in a sea of faces going by.

Cape Town Dance Troupe

Happy feet stomped and danced across the small open garage to the beat of a drum. Swirling and sashaying, children of the Langa Township, from 3 to 18 years, stomped and chanted and shouted and sang song after song. First the youngest, then the oldest, then all together as they sang the South African National Anthem, loud and clear. We stood just outside the garage watching the children perform, enraptured with their energy, enthusiasm and excitement. Their smiles infectious, we never stopped smiling ourselves.

Turning our hands over and over, little girls touched and stroked our palms, shyly at first. They held our hands and touched our straw colored long hair, so different from their own black hair, kinky and cut short, so short that sometimes it was difficult to tell the boys from the girls. Together we watched the others singing and dancing, the girls, in a circle and in a line, using their hands and knees and feet to dance to the beat of the drum. The boys wore rubber miner boots, stomping and clapping against the boots with their hands in rhythm and in sync.

Siviwe, our township tour guide, directs the Happy Feet Youth Project from the Langa Township in Cape Town, South Africa. While instilling in the children a purpose and hope, he provides the kids with something to do after school. He feeds the children snacks, teaches dance and song routines, provides instruments and props, gives the children uniforms, and brings them to competitions around the country.

We clapped and clapped to the beaming, smiling faces, so proud and so happy. We waved and left the township, smiling ourselves, infected by the joy and hope of these children.

Photo on this post by Tommy Taft.

Tour of a Cape Town Township

Broken glass lined the wall’s edge only steps away from the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. Like barbed wire but prettier, the jagged glass edges sparkled and reflected the morning sun, its sharpness a deterrent to thieves, intruders. Gates and high walls and barbed wire surrounding and shielding wealth and money.

From the highway you can see the shanty towns, metal and cardboard sheeted houses just big enough for a bed or two and a small kitchen. Bathroom down the dirt road in an outhouse by the river. Litter strewn and blown around. Children running and playing. Women washing clothes by hand.

Others live in dormitories. Three families to a room with only three beds and a TV. Children under 5 sharing the family twin bed with their parents, older children in the hall, sleeping mattress to mattress.

We walked through Langa Township, its resident, Siviwe of Cape Town Township Tours, our guide. We learned how to say a few words in Xhosa trying our best to click. We learned to greet people in their language as we entered their homes and learned to say thank you as we left. We watched women searing sheeps’ heads, making “smilies” a local delicacy. We passed small stores with hand painted signs. We saw a bed and breakfast and even a BMW. We learned that the community feeling is so strong that even those who make it big, the soccer stars for example, don’t want to move out. Instead they build a brick house in the “wealthier” area of the township.

Our tour ended with the children, dancing and singing, their smiles and talent giving us all hope for their future.

Photos on this post by Tommy Taft.