October 6, 2011

Driving Through Alexandra

Fellow blogger 2Summers' recent post about Alexandra inspired me to add my own. I have no shortage of posts about Alexandra Baseball and my involvement with them, but Alexandra, the township, deserves a post in its own right.

As 2Summers pointed out, Alexandra is steeped in history, perhaps even more so than Soweto, its much more famous cousin to the South. And if you want to get a glimpse of township life, I'd argue that Alexandra is a much better place to go than Soweto, which has become a tourist hotspot in the last few years and in a way lost some of its authenticity. Or maybe it's just that inkling of "danger" that makes Alexandra so interesting to me. After all, I was warned to never drive there unless I wanted to be killed.

But drive there I did, borne out of my wish to help and the simple fact that I'm the one with the car. If my baseball equipment is to be given to the people who need it, I have to bring it into Alexandra, it's as simple as that. But I usually have either Tedius or Cedric, the baseball coaches who are so much more than coaches, as my trusted guides, without whom I'd get hopelessly lost. I'm always amazed how well they know their way around. It's a kind of knowledge that is becoming lost in the age of GPS-guided cars, but very much still in demand in a place like Alexandra. My GPS would have been no help recently when they told me to turn into a side street and drive on the right side, into oncoming traffic it seemed. It was the only way to get to another side street for a stop at Cedric's office. Miraculously, the oncoming traffic veered to my left and here we were driving on the right side of the road, just like home.

That's Alexandra. Rules are often flaunted, new paths are made by minibus taxis looking for a shortcut, everyone drives into the intersection at once it seems, and yet a set of unwritten rules seem to be followed that make the whole thing work, like reversing the traffic flow on that one side street. Once you get past your inhibitions it's actually kind of fun, forcing your way into an intersection and seeing who "wins" his way through.

Every time I go to Alexandra, there are always new sights to behold, like the guy sitting in the middle of the sidewalk at an ancient sewing machine the other day. Goats roam freely, feeding off the abundantly available trash and belonging to no one in particular, from what I'm told. I'm sure the occasional goat ends up in someone's cooking pot every once in a while. On any given day Alex buzzes like a beehive, with everyone out and about going about their business. You will find pretty  much anything for sale, from a sheep's head to an iPhone. Everything seems to teeter on the edge of chaos. Roads are ripped up to fix the plumbing but then no one shows up again to repave them, because according to Cedric "that's the responsibility of the Joannesburg Roads Agency" and judging from my own interactions with them I'm afraid it might never happen.

Read 2Summers' post for more information on Alexandra and some amazing pictures. To delve deeper into Alexandra's history and get a really good understanding of what life there was like during the apartheid years (and I suspect still is like in many ways today), read the book Kaffir Boy.


Jenna said...

Hello - my name is Jenna and I'm an American ex-pat living near Cresta in Jo'burg. I often read your post and find that I have much of the same experiences as you do!

I studied abroad in Stellenbosch in 2008, fell in love with a Saffer and never left :)

I was really involved in volunteering within the townships in the Stellenbosch area, but haven't yet got involved in anything in Gauteng, but would looove to.

I don't know the details of what you're doing in Alexandra, but if you ever need a helping hand please contact me - I'd love to get more involved!


martina-in-jozi.com said...

I was about to ask if I could tag along too next time you go! I would love to see Alex and the difference that you are making to these kids

2summers.net said...

Great post, Sine, and thanks for the link to my blog. Nice pic of the hostel building, too. We need to go to Alex together sometime!

I actually have a good friend who grew up in Alex and her family still lives there. She told me yesterday that the next time I go, I must stay overnight with her family. I think that would be really fun.

Sine said...

Well, it sounds like I'll have to organize a trip into Alex so some of you can tag along! Jenna, thanks for the offer to help, I just sent you an email. I'll let you know when I go next time or when I need help!!

2Summers - wow, staying overnight, that definitely would be a different thing to do - maybe the most memorable thing you could do the entire time you stay in SA!

W. A. Jeffrey said...

Interesting. Even though I am fairly risk averse there is a part of me that wants to go to places people tell you not to go. That said, I think 2Summers must be the bravest expat on record.

Sine said...

Yes, Heather aka 2Summers goes to all sorts of places with her camera and I greatly admire her for it. I hope you've found her blog by now. I think the trick is that she knows people everywhere and gets them to show her around. That way, you are not an outsider. It's amazing what a camera around your neck will do for you. I can greatly recommend the Joburg Photowalkers should you look for ways to go to "forbidden" places.