The thing that I cannot describe to you is the smell. No picture could ever do it justice. No documentary. Only setting foot in such a place could make you understand. In my mind, the informal settlement would not be an informal settlement were it not for the smell. It would just be a collection of tightly knit metal homes. No, the thing that defines the shanty town is the smell.
It is hard to hold back the tears when walking through Kliptown, the poorest informal settlement in Johannesburg. Its paltry one third square miles of land is packed full with 7,500 people. That’s a density of 25,000 people per square mile, which is comparable to New York City, except no one in Kliptown lives in a multi-level home. Instead, they live in mkhukhus, small corrugated tin shacks erected hastily for immigrants who come to cities but never find work. Hundreds of thousands of people in South Africa inhabit these shanty towns, the majority of whom are not actually South Africans but refugees from neighboring Sub-Saharan countries.
That day in Kliptown was my second time visiting families in informal settlements. I thought I was prepared. I thought I was calm as I took a deep breath of fresh air before stepping into the alleyway, its ground strewn with trash and atmosphere suffocated with decomposition. I thought I was ready as I sneaked farther and farther into the complicated maze of paths and corridors. I thought I knew how the mkhukhus would engulf me, eat me up until all I could see, smell, and hear was the poverty that inhabits their bowels. But I wasn’t. I knew nothing.
“We’re going to meet the mother of the neighborhood,” my guide informed me as we maneuvered around streams of filthy water and waste to enter the gate of a small courtyard surrounded by three tin shacks. “She raised me, you know” he continued. “She raised us all. Her compassion never ends.” I peeked inside the open doorway to my left into a room maybe five feet wide and seven feet long, with three women, two children, and no furniture, heat, or electricity inside. “Come meet her,” he interrupted my gaze, beckoning me into the middle shack.
“Mama, these are my American friends!” She looked old, probably much older than she is, sitting on the floor of a tiny kitchen wrapped in a blanket next to two children with two younger women seated on chairs above her. She smiled and shook my hand before I was ushered out of the room, off to meet someone else important, someone else who meant the world to these people but meant absolutely nothing to the world. Forgotten, the people of the informal settlements are pushed off of the good land, into communities that are overlooked by the average South African citizen and the pervading corrupt politicians.
I left her and continued down the alleyway, hopping over piles of rubbish and streams of God-knows-what as we made our way to the water spout. “An important part of our community,” our guide informed me. “My parents met at the water spout; it holds a sort of mystical charm for me. Were it not for the water spout, I would not be here.” One water spout and one port-a-potty for seven to ten families with ten to fifteen people per family. That is one toilet for up to 150 people. I stood, staring at that port-a-potty in the hot afternoon sun, fixated on that number. One hundred and fifty. I share a bathroom with one brother who spends half his time at college. One hundred and fifty. The bowels of hell leave no room for comfort.
I stood staring at that port-a-potty and water spout with a bead of sweat dripping down my back until I heard his voice, a mix between a shout and a yip of glee. I turned and saw the boy I will never forget—a small child, maybe four years old and only reaching up to my knees. With pants but no shirt, a right sandal but no left, this little boy came running and dancing out of an alleyway, slamming into my friend, wrapping his stubby little arms around her legs, and refusing to let go. She bent down and patted his head, and he smiled up at her before moving on, attaching himself to a new set of legs and receiving another pat. One by one he greeted us, a face of heaven in the depths of hell. He smiled and jumped and played in front of me, fascinated by my camera and jubilated by our presence.
Soon enough it was time to move on. We walked away, leaving the little boy bent in the dust by the water spout. It’s hard not to cry when walking through Kliptown, and in that moment tears stung at my eyes. In the midst of all the poverty and violence and disease and overcrowding that makes Kliptown the hell that it is, there was a beacon of light. Right there at the mystical water spout was a boy, much like every other little boy. The residents of informal settlements like this one are often forgotten. And those who fight to help them face a constant lack of funding and support. But I will not forget walking through hell and seeing heaven. I will not forget that boy.
As we worked our way back out of the bowels of the mkhukhus, a woman stopped us. “Help them. Help these kids.” She pleaded, pointing to the youngsters crouched in the trash and dirt. “Help them have a better life than I do. I used to think that I could be someone. I used to think I could make something out of my life. But then I realized that I was wrong. No matter what I do, I will never be anything because I was born here. It shouldn’t be that way. Help them.”
So that is exactly what I plan to do.