What I’ve Learnt From Working In The Townships Of South Africa

What does working in an impoverished community teach you? Read interesting confession from our lovely contributor about her experience in South Africa.

Since I moved to Cape Town to work in a township, I’ve hung out with thieves, murderers, drug addicts and so forth. It’s given me a new perspective of life.

Life isn’t Fair: Accept it and Work to Change it

There are said to be two kinds of situations: those you can change and those you can’t.

I grew up in a fairly safe environment in Sweden. While I experienced the loss of my mother, a not so nice step-mother and bullies in school, I still sort of believed that when you grow up you can do anything. Once you are in charge, you can change your life into anything.

That’s partly true, as you can look to turn any situation into an opportunity to create something good. It’s also true that people end up in wheelchairs, get sick and die, wars break out, economies crash and famine ensues. There’s cruelty in this world. Either you accept it and are thankful for being able to experience life and are grateful for the good stuff or you end up sad and bitter.

It wasn’t really until I moved to Cape Town that I came to realize how bad things can get. Personally, I’ve been through things I never thought I’d experience. At one point, I ran out of steam: I was terrorized by what I’d been through. I slowly rebuilt myself, though, because as the Oscar Wilde quote goes: “We all live in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” This leads me to the next point….

Look up

children play and pose for the camera outside a shop in a South African township

Things will get bad at times—really bad. What I’ve learnt is that you still need to celebrate. Celebrate on a Monday before you know what will happen. Celebrate being alive. Take time off to do things you love, if only for an hour and especially when you feel you don’t want to celebrate, or you don’t have an hour because you’re too busy with all the things you have to do, but don’t enjoy doing.

Don’t get caught in tomorrow

Sometimes, when we work really hard for our goals, we forget to live in the moment. Some goals take years and even decades to achieve, and that’s a really long time to wait to start living. Sure, some goals are important, and when you see suffering around you, it can fuel you to throw yourself into helping create something that would bring relief, but you have to also live now.

You can’t help everyone

I’m one of those big picture people: I build a global emporium before I can see the first step. I need people around me to break down the bigger structures into smaller steps.

In the same manner, I easily get caught up in everything that needs to be done to help a community, rather than focus on one thing. In South Africa, there is so much that needs to be done. It’s essential to get one thing right before you tackle the rest, helping ten people properly before you help a hundred.

Say no

Tour around the Imizamu Yethu Township Houtbay near Cape Town

I often take on so much that I can barely walk—especially when I see people in need. I try to help everyone, and sure, I love doing it, but by the end of the day I have bills to pay and I need a social life. I can’t be there for everyone always. I have to prioritize myself.

Appreciate what you do

When I had my period of getting caught up in all the negative things, I kept feeling like I wasn’t good enough because there was always something more to do. We never had the resources at Little Angels (the community center for kids and youth in Hangberg where I worked) to ensure that the kids attending had everything.

We provided a daycare for the little ones, but really, we needed to provide them with more clothes, food at home, a bathing service, doctor’s visits, weekend playtime and so forth. On top of that, the teachers were not paid properly (try living off $35 per month), I often felt helpless, angry and disappointed in myself. I wanted to do more than I could. I stopped seeing what I was doing and it brought me down. It’s really hard to uplift others if you’re down though. Appreciate yourself for what you do.

Unless you live, you can’t teach others to live

Once I stood with the youth and I felt like I brought them some magic. I brought them something like hope. What I felt I really brought them, though, was a look into the life I love—the life in the Hollywood Hills, my travels, my passion for the movies, my knowledge of life—and I felt that, if I lost that, I’d have nothing to give them.

However, you’ll also find me in a coffee shop in L.A. feeling really bad as I was paying $5 for a coffee, when I knew the people in the townships don’t have $5 for food that week. I needed to get out of the house as a freelance writer, or I’d go insane. I needed to be in L.A. to raise funds for my business (which is a social enterprise that will donate to Little Angels). All the same, I felt guilty. I felt guilty for having a life I enjoyed when my friends were caught up in misery.

The truth is, if you want to bring people joy, you have to have joy. What you are trying to bring them is a happy life. You can’t do that unless you are happy. Getting caught up in misery is not the solution. And no, you’re not a bad person for going out and enjoying yourself, even if your friends are sick, have problems, face financial issues and so forth. When we forget a part of ourselves, it’s like a part of us dies. Fuel your passions. Without them, you don’t have much left to give.

Your surroundings shape you

Tour around the Imizamu Yethu Township Houtbay near Cape Town 2

It’s true that you become like the people you hang out with. I’ve seen life in a township. There’s drugs, rape, incest, crime, murder, unhealthy foods and a feeling of despair mingled with a sense that people owe something to the poor. If you look at other poor areas in other countries, it’s often different. There are poor communities that live good lives and poor communities that live terrible lives. There’s crime all over the world, but it’s a lot worse in areas where people grow up around it.

If you want to change a community, you have to change many layers of it. You need to teach people to take pride in themselves and their community, you need to educate people to give them knowledge about how to live a better life and you need to provide resources.

Now, think about that and think about your own life. Your surroundings, your clothes, your home, your friends, your work—it all shapes you. Make sure you choose wisely.

Appreciation makes you blossom

I’ve never been more appreciated than I’ve been at Little Angels. I’ve faced a lot of problems there, too, but I’ve also received a lot of love. Coming from a mentally abusive childhood, it healed me. The love of the teachers and children healed my wounds a little bit every day.

Most people in life are sad, angry, shy, overly cocky or hostile because they are hurt. When we receive love, all that tends to fade away. Our patterns might be rooted so deeply that we can’t accept the love at first, or we do something to prove that we are unworthy to receive it, but I believe if we stick with it long enough, it will heal us.

You don’t know what the people you’ve met might have been through. Give them the benefit of the doubt and hand them some free smiles and compliments. It might just turn their lives around. People believing in you is magic.

Moving to South Africa is one of the best things I ever did, and I think everyone would be much better off if they spent some time away from glittering shopping malls and flat screen TVs and got out there, helped the world and reconnected with the planet we live on. It gives you purpose. It gives you meaning. It brings you love and gratitude. It can also be a harrowing experience if you have no one to guide you and support you, so make sure you have that too.

As I said earlier, learn to accept life for what it is; it won’t always be good, but enjoy the good times and let the bad ones go. Learn to find love in all areas of your life over and over again. Keep the door open—don’t let bitterness close your heart. And, when you meet others, show them some love, too. It might just mean the world to them.

About the author

Maria Montgomery

Writer. Social Entrepreneur. Foster mommy (twins). Change maker. Foodie. Health freak. Nature lover. Creative nutcase. Blogger (Confessions of a Dizzy Blonde). A friend of mine once described me by saying “One minute she’s like the Dalai Lama, the next a dizzy blonde” and maybe that does sum me up…

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