Langa, South Africa
By Lauren Drake
I Am Because We Are
When company comes over, I often shuffle dirty clothes into the linen closet and close the door. I make sure you can’t see into a disorderly playroom. I apologize profusely for not vacuuming the rug. I never want to seem proud of my home because I want to be humble and never mistaken as arrogant. Residents of Langa Township don’t conflate pride with arrogance.
They invite you to see their humble (or rather– to be honest– destitute) homes because they are proud of what they can do regardless of these situations. Langa township has four homes: the hostels, the informal homes, government homes, and “Beverly Hills.” A hostel, similar to a dormitory, consists of one small common area with two tables and bench seats. There is a sink and a window; the one we visited had a few small and simple houseplants growing in the window; these are the only decor. They also have four or five rooms and one bathroom. Each room has three beds and three families typically occupy three rooms. Privacy is clearly not an option. For families wishing for privacy, they often build informal houses. Think of the Great Depression-era “Hoover Home.” Tin roof pieces or scrap wood with a tarp roof. Families may have space, but they do not have a sink, toilet, or shower. Falling asleep with the oven on puts the entire group of informal houses in jeopardy. Government houses are for people who have spent most of their lives in Langa. They get homes with privacy– both extra bedrooms and a family bathroom. Yet, they still are smaller than most apartments in the United States.
The last homes are called “Beverly Hills” and are a point of pride in Langa. It is the white collar residence, but again smaller than some of our smaller homes. They seem in better shape and have fences around the property. The residents have a yard perhaps (and this is a generous estimate) of twenty square feet. These homes encompass a motto of Langa township: “Ubuntu.” It means “I am because we are.” The doctors and lawyers who live in Langa’s Beverly Hills literally share a street with the hostels and informal homes. They find their housekeepers and nannies in the township.
In the states, people look at education, the military, or sports as a way out of a disadvantaged environment. The people of Langa aren’t like that. The residents of Beverly Hills are role models and the students of Langa LEAP want to be like them and, in their own way, inspire others. Education is not a way out but a way forward. In the township, the difficulties and obstacles of living in Langa is not a source of shame. Instead, the students know this is a part of history and heritage. Their work in school paves a new path that shows all the goodness of Langa. Their work highlights how Langa residents will lift each other up by sharing a smile, a good word, or even a piece of bread.