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  • Writer's picturekristina jacobsen

Masimphumelele: A Township, a Community Space, a Home

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

at the seashore, western cape

From the outside, you see a lot of corrugated iron, a taxi rank with lots of white minibuses with colored stripes, many people on foot, and many, many souls (ca. 35,000) living in an extremely small, cramped space of even smaller, multistoried cement houses. From the outside, it’s hard to anticipate just how ordered it is.

From the inside, in the half-day we spent in the township of Masiphumelele (“Masi”)which in isiXhosa means “let us succeed,” making music and dancing with children and teens from two different community organizations, and later as my bandmates The Merlettes and I were led on a brief tour[1] throughout its various parts by community leader Mama Pat, I saw an extremely organized social organism, where women are leaders and community havens in conditions not of their own making but where humanity and a sense of connection reign.

with children from Prójekt Ubuntu, Masimphumelel

South African townships are as diverse as the communities that live inside them, and I have now had the privilege to spend brief periods of time in three. As I discussed in my previous blog about the township of Ocean View, each township has its own distinct history, each with its own way of being, its own cultural identity and ways of speaking, but all of them, in some form or another, have been impacted in the present by apartheid’s heavy and divisive fist and unequal structures of power. But these statistics fail to account for many of the intangibles of this community, and the sense of energy and joy present, for example, in the faces of the children we met as they walked alongside us, singing, and danced their hearts out to many genres of music, from Kora to country.

dancing the electric slide, Masi Taxi Rank

We stayed across the street and just up the hill from Masi, in a comfortable and spacious house with a garden, a yoga room, delicious vegetarian food and views of a stunning turquoise ocean. At the bottom of the hill, along the main road, lies Masiphumelele, a township of primarily isiXhosa speaking communities. Part of Masi is built on a marsh, known as the “Wetlands,” and comprises what are known in South Africa as informal settlements, or places where socially marginalized folks, and especially foreign nationals without papers, have built their homes. So, even within Masi, there is a strong internal social hierarchy of folks living in permanent structures and those who are making do with the materials they can get their hands on. But, just like on the Navajo Nation, where there is also profound poverty and where I lived for many years, people everywhere are incredibly creative with how to make a life, even with limited resources and only an informal economy to build it from. People are, in Masi and elsewhere, infinitely creative and profoundly resourceful. We saw this in the items being sold in the beautiful craftshop and in the fertile and lush organic garden that is cared for by elders.

with Promise Busisiwe Banda, social worker and team member, Prójekt Ubuntu

Merlettes with Promise Busisiwe Banda

I don’t know what the crime statistics are in Masi and as I write this post, I’ll choose not to look and to dwell in that space. Based on what was shared with me by new friends and community workers, I do know that it’s a community highly impacted by HIV/AIDS, and that the one healthcare clinic is insufficient to meet those community needs. I also know that Masi has experienced some devastating fires, the last one in 2019, and that, since then, wider roads were built in the Wetlands in order to facilitate the access of fire trucks. And I know that, as Mama Pat, alongside our new friend Promise, took us on our tour of Masi, chatting away with various women and teens in isiXhosa she encountered and cuing me when and how to respond, I was continually struck by just how how welcome I felt, as a relatively wealthy and privileged US outsider, into this space of such tremendous need and profoundly grassroots creativity. And I know it's a place that we as a band would love to return to, in some form or another, where social and artistic work, as it's defined by the late Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, is an engaged and shared project rather than having a "helper" and a "being helped" (Hanh 2009: 9).

walking with Merlettes and community leaders through Masiphumele, singing "We shall not be moved."

In our brief time there and visiting as outsiders and guests, we met many entrepreneurs, musicians, mothers walking across the entire expanse of Masi, children in tow, to bring them to the pre-school elementary school, or to the place that best serves their child’s needs; people greeting one another in the spirit of ‘ubuntu’ as they step over cracked pavement and passed modest, makeshift barber shops and corner fronts; people walking to the Taxi rank to take a minibus to work outside the townships; pastry and donut shops serving delicious-smelling fried foods out of small shop windows; convenience stores, grocery stores, barbers, and a thriving informal economy to meet any and every need.

In Masi, we saw one of the cleanest, best-lit and most organized libraries I have ever seen, offering computers, homework spaces and reading support for Masi’s children with a beautiful mural outside its doors; NGO’s and nonprofits at every corner, trying to fill in the various needs that the community has; a single health clinic, with a long line already formed at 7 a.m.; an elementary school, children in neat looking uniforms crossing the street to get to class on time, and an entire street where foreign nationals were selling fruit, jerky, also called ‘Biltong’ and other forms of fresh produce.

We also met the director for the SosBenza center, who has recently spearheaded an LGBTQ+ support center, resplendently painted in bright colors and a symbol of hope in a vibrant courtyard with a state, a community kitchen and various meeting spaces.

LGBTQ+ Center, SosBenza, Masiphumelele

And we had the incredible pleasure of playing a concert (and then an epic jam session, afterwards!), alongside WOMAD artist N’Faly Kouyaté and local artists Teba Shumba, Letsape Leo Metcalfe, Oceans Riff. The children of the Ubuntu Center and Ocean View also shared songs, at the Masi Taxi rank, shut down in our honor, with Ubuntu Center children passing around my western hat, tying down the red ribbon to keep it from dancing away in the wind, and moving to the electric slide led by community activist and dancer Amy Rosslind.

Merlettes performing at Masi Taxi Rank; thanks to Letsape Leo Metcalfe for serving as

Dair's mic stand!

with children from Ubuntu Center and my western hat

In closing, I am struck by the number of wisdom traditions that reflect so profoundly on our interspecies connections, between us as human beings but also with the natural world and the many beings around us in that world. And the peril of what happens when we ignore these interconnections, human and natural world included. As the Prójekt Ubuntu center’s mission statement puts it: “Umuntu. Ngumuntu. Ngabantú,” or a person is a person because of another person: I am because you are. We are all interconnected. As the late Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Han, might put this: we InterAre. From New Mexico, to South Africa, to the Navajo Nation, to the Camino de Santiago where I’m writing to you from, now, to each little crevice and corner of this big, beautiful, sometimes heartbreaking but always resilient and infinitely creative world.

mural outside Prójekt Ubuntu Center

mural outside Prójekt Ubuntu Center

final jam session singing Chris Stapleton's "Tennessee Whiskey" with Letsape Leo Metcalfe, Dair Obenshain and Jackie Chacón.

~Our thanks to Promise Busisiwe Banda for making this tour with Mama Pat possible.

~Thanks to Pròjekt Ubuntu, Candi Horgan and the amazing Yoga Shala folks, the community of Ocean View and Sosbenza Centre for Peace for their warm welcome and the hosting of these very memorable events.

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