Seeing the Townships

05/15/2015 04:16 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2016

In the summer of 2014, I lived in Cape Town, South Africa as part of an international graduate internship program through the University of Southern California. Going to Africa was chance I could not pass up, and I feel blessed everyday that I'm could visit the Motherland. The experience broadened my perspective, but also connected the dots on a lot of things.

For the first week of the program, my classmates and I settled into our lodgings and satisfied some of our tourist angst before we got to work at our respective internships. We visited Robin Island, where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners from the country's liberation movement were held. We gazed at the beautiful city from Table Mountain, visited a bird house, interacted with monkeys, petted a cheetah and other touristy things. I debating whether I want to go on a safari or not. Part of me really wanted to (who doesn't want to see a lions and elephants walking around), but my reservation may have been an inner protest about the prevailing idea that the interesting thing about Africa, a continent of billions of people, is animals. Alas, I caved, but I had an amazing time.

One thing I was very ambivalent about was going to see the townships; the extreme poor areas of South Africa -- remnants of the terrible history of Apartheid. Part of me didn't want to see my distant relatives live in those conditions. But another part of me knew that leaving Cape Town without seeing them was not possible. I had to. It was my duty to, but even the word "duty" truncates my need to see it with my own eyes. It was going to happen.

The next week, our two tour guides showed us around different townships like Langa, Khayelitsha, Guguletu and others. Inside me was a hurricane emotion, while my demeanor was the eye of the storm. Sadness, anger, guilt, pride, shame, feeling guilty because of my privilege as an American. Here I was, a young, Black, American man in Cape Town, on my first trip to Africa. Seeing the townships was supposed to be a proverbial "eye-opener"; witnessing the misfortune of others, then reflect back on my own experience in a "counting your blessings" type of way.

But why is that? I'm suppose to compare my life to someone else's, and feel better for my privileges? Doesn't that rob people of their dignity, especially in a country where "dignity" is mentioned first in its Bill of Rights? I couldn't help but feel like my presence there (regardless of my intent, my sociopolitical mind or my Pan-African sensibilities) was that of a tourist; that essentially, I come to where they live, see how they live and then leave.

I'm sure most of colleagues assumed I was being "anti-social" (a curse of being an introspective), but my quietness at that point was far from being withdrawn. The constant thought as I looked around was that this was all too familiar. Some of the houses looked like shotgun houses in impoverished areas of Florida and Louisiana, the homes of the paternal and maternal sides of my family. The apartments looked comparable to the ones on 95 and Princeton in my hometown of Chicago.

One of the young students our group met told us that the worst neighborhood in the Cape Flats was called "Chicago." The townships also bordered a highway, reminding me of how highways in urban areas have been used as de facto barriers between races and classes, restricting their social and economic destinies to the tenement of their neighborhoods. It reminded me of how they are used to drive pass areas privileged people don't want to see. I wondered how many citizens commuting around the Western Cape have never been in a township. What emotions are stirred when they drive by cramped shacks made of wood, bricks and slabs of metal? Do they know the history behind it? Does seeing this make them feel bad? Do they feel at all? Maybe, but as Baldwin once said, "People can cry much easier than they can change".

Racism and poverty are only the results of the bigger issue we face: The issue of owning history. Baldwin's words haunted me as we rode and walked around Cape Town's various townships. It made me think of the 1969 conversation in London where he and Dick Gregory exposed the true cause of injustice; avoiding the mirror of history, and engaging the "race problem" as "whether or not you are willing to look at your life and be responsible for it, and then begin to change it."

Townships in South Africa are not a mistake. They are products of the Natives Resettlement Act that robbed Black South Africans off their homelands, demolished their homes and moved them by gun-point into townships. The highways passing them are just physical metaphors of how each day, we circumvent confronting the realities of this messed up world. To borrow words of Cornel West and put them in a different context, our ignorance about things often reflect how we "adjust to injustice."

I wish I could give a more flowery, touristy account of the experience, but to be clear, it also gave me some deeper, more "positive" revelations. I was standing in the history of colonialism. But maybe more than that, I was the history of colonialism. Maybe my presence there was not the act of a tourist looking at the life if misfortunate strangers, but a distant cousin paying a visit. It made me think how subjective wealth is, how I was imposing my Western idea of "poverty" on to them. Their circumstances could have easily been mine if it were not for our divergent histories.

But then again, these people were carrying out their lives with no more or less pride than I or anyone else with more privilege does. People were sitting in parks, talking in front of their houses, gossiping in beauty salons; kids were playing soccer in the street, petting their dog, walking to the corner store for a bite to eat. If I gazed into their eyes and only saw misfortune, I was the one with the problem. They were living with the cards they were dealt. So my initial ambivalence was just familiarity; something that doesn't need to be explained or over-intellectualized. It didn't come from a fear of the unknown, it was from knowing exactly what I was about to see and the feelings I was about to feel.

At the end of our tour guides were chatting in Xhosa and laughing with one of the local guys. The man walked over to our bus to say that the town was blessed to have us, and thank us for coming. That meant a lot to me. I'm not sure if it was just the formality of a business transaction (township tourism brings money to these neighborhoods) or the respectful pleasantry of a gracious host. But it felt genuine.

His graciousness helped eased the storm of emotions I was feeling. It put me in check, making me understand that his and his communities' dignity isn't something to be taken, lead alone by me. Yes I did come to where they lived, see how they lived, and ultimately, I boarded a plane at the end of the summer back to the U.S. But I won't be going back the same person.

Amandla Ngawethu. Power to the People.