Community matters

A quick overview of the area and community we’re living and working in.

We’re living in an area called Crawford, Athlone – it was originally designated a ‘coloured’ township under the Group Areas Act, which split South African residential zones along racial lines. Across the highway there are areas that were designated ‘Indian’ or ‘black’. The majority of the established community in these areas tends to be of the racial groups that were first moved there, somewhat inevitably. However there is a black and Indian population – and even a handful of whites – in Athlone.

The family we’re staying with are coloured and Muslim – they come from the Cape Malay community, who mostly have little to do with Malaysia, but are descended from the freed slaves who settled in Cape Town. This community has been racially mixed over the centuries, with mostly South-East Asians and Indians, but also Africans and Europeans, intermarrying and creating a melting pot community. This leads to many different skin/hair/eye colours within the one family – for example, Mrs Gool’s granddaughters – three sisters, two with dark brown skin and black hair, the youngest with fair skin and blonde hair. The Cape Malays are technically a sub-set of the wider coloured community, and were so designated under apartheid. The Cape Malays also have their own delicious cuisine, which is something we have been hugely enjoying while we’ve been here with our host family. The Cape Malays also introduced Islam to South Africa, and we can often hear the competing sounds of two muezzins from nearby mosques in the evenings.

So the surrounding area is largely, but not exclusively, coloured – but the majority of the kids we are teaching are black. In Athlone, most of the houses are what’s called ‘formal settlements’, i.e. permanent buildings of bricks and mortar, or concrete, or breeze blocks. Not all of these permanent houses are in good condition, by any means – although several have two stories and double garages. Some of the plots of land along our street have corrugated iron houses on, with a brick wall separating them from the street, still others have an additional ‘slum’ building built out the back or onto the side of the building. Most of the formal settlements – i.e. brick and mortar houses – are occupied by the coloured residents who have lived here for longer.

But a few streets away from the school you will find a small ‘informal settlement’, or slum, consisting of houses built from sheets of corrugated iron and wood. These houses are about the size of most of our bedrooms, or smaller; no running water (except from the single communal tap), no toilets (there are maybe ten chemical toilets set up in the street), and the electricity is stolen by jimmying nearby pylons. Oh, and the streets are dirt roads just big enough to fit a car through, and there is no drainage – so in heavy rains (which happen pretty often in CT) the streets and all the houses flood. There are a few tiny shops, and a fair few ‘shebeens’ or quasi-legal pubs – but very little employment. There are also serious problems with drink, drugs and violence. When we were there yesterday, we had to reverse out of a street because there was someone resisting arrest and the police were going to be there a while.

This is where the majority of our kids are living. Some are in permanent houses, but not many. A fair few are coming from one or other of the children’s homes in the area. A few more are coming from slightly further afield, from the larger townships of Langa and Gugulethu. But few of them have access to clean water or a toilet in their homes.

One of the targets of MDC 7 is to improve the living conditions of slum dwellers, and increase access to clean water and basic sanitation. I heard on the radio yesterday that more Africans have mobile phones than have access to clean water. Looking at conditions like these, it seems believable.

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