At first glance the town of Swellendam in the Western Cape is an elegant blend of museums, restaurants, boutiques, galleries and places to stay. Yet just over the railway line in the satellite township of Railton, things are very different. If you don’t take a township tour in Swellendam, you’re not seeing the full picture or all its colours.
When we joined her for a township tour we got to meet some of her 7-13 year-olds when they performed in her tiny garden. A carpet-covered concrete slab was their stage. A bench under some shade was the auditorium. The dancers and singers wore some items of traditional attire, like beads and headgear. Two little girls in striped pink jerseys weren’t really part of the show. They were Meisie’s great-granddaughters, but they didn’t want to be left out of the fun. The three-year-old was already showing an aptitude for stealing the show with her bright eyes and winning grin.
After the animated welcome, we walked with Meisie to the shebeen at the end of her street. If it had been the weekend, we could have tasted traditional Xhosa beer made from maize and malt. But it was midweek and mid-afternoon, and the place was deserted. A pool table hid under some dusty black plastic and a juke box slouched in a corner near the bar. Around the hard dust floor, scuffed benches leaned crookedly against the walls. Like most of the houses on that side of the street, the walls were a makeshift mix of corrugate iron and wood.
We ducked through a broken iron gate to visit sangoma Fezeka Jaxa. A quietly spoken woman, she allowed us into her spic-and-span RDP house to see the room where she consults with clients. Herbs and remedies in packets and buckets and jars were neatly piled in one corner next to a grass mat. Against the opposite wall, two plastic chairs for her clients. She might do a consultation if you ask, but we didn’t have time and the kids were waiting for us at Meisie’s, eager to perform another three songs to the beat of the drum.
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