The Nodars kindly introduced me to the Masiphumelele Library. Over the following weeks, I visited the library to work as a math tutor with Ikamva Youth’s participants, play chess, and help with a couple of websites. On my last Sunday in Cape Town, I visited Masiphumelele’s Anglican Church and was blown away by the Xhosa service and music.

Masiphumelele, also known as Site 5 in Fish Hoek, was originally an apartheid settlement for about 8,000 people. In recent years, it has expanded through informal housing to three times that population. A recurring problem is shack fires that sweep through the community, devouring the wooden shacks before fire crews arrive. I read about one of these fires the first time I heard of Masiphumelele in 2008, and they happen every year. The government’s response (to those whose shacks are formally registered) is to provide care packages, which include four wooden posts and five sheets of corrugated metal so that families can rebuild shacks according to the same fire-prone design. The most recent fire in Masiphumelele, at the beginning of May, killed one resident and left two thousand homeless. Seven of Masiphumelele’s Ikamva Youth participants lost everything they had.

Bus Stop House Shop

Houses for sale at a bus stop along Macassar Road in Khayelitsha

Houses for sale at a bus stop along Macassar Road in Khayelitsha

In my project application, I wrote that I hoped to observe the built environment surrounding bus stops. I didn’t imagine that I would pass bus stops where people were actually building the built environment. Indeed, on the UCT field trip I took, I saw a number of people at bus stops assembling shacks for sale. Other memorable parts of the trip included dodging skoro skoros (sedan taxis) and minibuses, seeing live chickens for sale (at prices slightly higher than imported frozen chicken from Brazil), passing the agricultural areas of Philippi (which, thanks to the industrialized food system, sometimes have to plow their produce under despite being adjacent to areas with high levels of food insecurity), noting that streetlamps were lit during the day (to deter potential metal thieves with the threat of electrocution), and learning about Cape Town’s strained water supply system.

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The wood and corrugated metal shacks for sale at the bus stops stick in my mind most clearly. People can buy a shack, cart it to an empty plot along a freeway right-of-way or in someone’s backyard, and move in that afternoon. With a severe housing deficit in the Western Cape, this relatively inexpensive, flexible housing expands to fill all available space in the Cape Flats. When a family receives government housing (almost exclusively single-family units on relatively large lots), they immediately seek to rent out the space in their yard. This practice helps explains why the population densities in places like Khayelitsha are some of the highest in the region. Khayelitsha struck me as a much more sensible name than some of the surrounding neighborhoods, which have apartheid-era names like Village 2 and Site C. I eventually learned that Khayelitsha, Xhosa for “New Home,” stems from the same history; when they were forced to relocate to the township, people referred to it as their new home.

Cape Town population densities (from the City of Cape Town)

Cape Town population densities (from the City of Cape Town)

The bus stop house shop initially struck me as being quite whimsical. Selling the shacks seemed like an interesting example of entrepreneurship and resourcefulness. The informal settlements comprised of these shacks are home to notable organizing (with Shack and Slum Dwellers International being one example). But slow delivery of basic services like roads, water, and electricity means that these matchbox dwellings are often deadly.

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Ewok Village

Next year, I will be living in Dana. The dorm has a great location, close to classes and directly adjacent to the Crum Woods. Click here for an aerial view.  The large number of trees makes my sister Quinn think it’s an Ewok village.

I don’t see how that’s a bad thing. I’m quite the fan of Ewoks…