South African Family Journey: A Trip to the Townships

south africaI haven’t yet gotten to what most people think of as the most wonderful part of a trip to Africa, the Safari.  But I cannot imagine that anything I will see on Safari will move me and thrill me as much as my trip to the township of Khaletsha did yesterday.

Township is a word with many connotations, some true, some not.  The townships are poor, and 100% African – no whites, no coloreds (which is how they refer to mixed race people here.) Some have no electricity or plumbing.  Some live in shacks made of corrugated metal, some in cement block houses, some in small, tidy, houses immaculately kept.  It is the townships that give Cape Town the dubious honor of having the second highest homicide rate  in the world. (With Johannesburg, also in South Africa, having the first highest.)

The township was also the place where I saw the the unbridled joy of South Africa, in the dancing and singing of children.DSC_0779

Here’s how it happened: My friend Caryn in New York introduced me to Monkey Biz DSC_0568last year. Monkey Biz is a non-profit organization that teaches women how to use traditional Zulu beading techniques to make the animals you see here.  They then give the women all of the supplies to make the animals, and buy from them every single one they make.  In this way, they are helping to support nearly 450 women in the townships.

DSC_0554Caryn arranged that once here, we would meet Mataps, one of the founders of Monkey Biz, and along with her mother, one of the two original beaders of the now 10 year old company that sells it’s wares throughout the world.

Mataps greeted us with a huge smile, and proudly showed us around the Monkey Biz office. Then, she took us into the township to meets some of the artists and deliver some beads.

What she didn’t tell us was that she had arranged a very special greeting for us. Here’s what we saw:



Turns out that Mataps doesn’t  only work with the women who bead, she has been teaching their children traditional dance, and her dance troupe , Thabang,  with kids aged 7 to 15 – greeted us with singing and dancing and a performance just for us.

It was quite possibly the best performance of anything I have ever seen.

The kids were transported with joy.  They danced for us – and sang in perfect harmony – for at least 20 minutes.  Barefoot on the badly paved road, in a township DSC_0764which many of them may never leave, where poverty is the the norm, and community is everything, they danced.  And danced. And the joy emanating from them was like a wave of beauty washing over us, suffusing the township, and all of us watching, with a shimmering light. They transported me, too.

After they danced, we handed out candy, and notebooks, and pens, and globe-beach balls, and they laughed, and held out their hands, and posed and posed and posed for picture after picture,  and all I could think was how art can bring such happiness.  That dance and music can bring such joy.  That poverty has nothing on art. Art looked at the unpaved streets, and the leaky roofs, and the chipped paint and the barbed wire that was supposed to keep them all in – and keep joy out.  And art laughed.DSC_0799

Mataps wants the kids of her dance troupe, Thabang, to compete, and travel, and to have dance not only make them happy, but change their lives. She’s already seen how art can do that – through Monkey Biz.  And yesterday, I saw it too. Right there in front of me: art bringing happiness. Thabang – the name of the dance troupe, means Happiness.



  1. anna rabinowitz says

    What an unforgettable, life-changing experience, and you’ve evoked it so movingly with the beauty of your description. Thanks, Nancy, for this.

  2. says

    The kids are gorgeous. The poverty heartbreaking. I’m interested in knowing how you dealt with any issues (if any) you may have had explaining the history of the townships, poverty, apartheid etc to your children. Enjoy your stay and thanks for sharing!

    • says

      True. Now it would be nice if our US School system would recognize that art — and not TV or electronics or more testing –is so so important. And not just PE.

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