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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Grahamstown 101

It occurs to me I haven’t shared much about Grahamstown itself. I’m no expert, but allow me to give you an introduction to this town.


Grahamstown is like many college towns in the US (at least, the developed part resembles most college towns -more on this later). Rhodes University is the main hub of life, and consequently most of the town residents are either students, faculty, or families of faculty. As you might have guessed on account of it being a college town, there is a steady turnover in the population. As far as fun activities, there isn’t much to ‘do’ here other than the typical college nightlife of bars and dance clubs; ask someone else if you’re curious about those, as I’m definitely no expert there! 


When I go into town with a monk, they are typically dressed in casual clothes (like what they wear outside of church anyway); however, they don their monk robes (aka “habits”) on special occasions, which can create unique moments such as this:


Contrary to what you might assume, this town -at least, the developed core- is not “the bush”. There are stores, running (drinkable) water, paved roads, and lots of other amenities you might associate with a developed city.

All that being said, the following things differentiate Grahamstown from your typical American college town:

Beggars: Get ready to be asked for money. And rides. And food. And whatever sort of favors people might think you can do. This happens to me probably 90% of the time I go into town. More often than not, I give a quick yet kind ‘no’ and keep walking. My personal advice is to say no to strangers (*especially* hitchhikers, if you ever drive), and to set clear boundaries with people you befriend. I hear stories of other YASCers, past and present, being asked for money all the time, and you can see how it corrodes whatever friendship they once had with a person; they are now only thought of as a walking atm. I’ll stop before this becomes a sermon :)

Car Guards: Almost every public parking place in town has people ‘guarding’ your cards. It is expected that you will tip them upon returning to your vehicle. When they aren’t running up to collect money, they are typically sitting down on the side of the street. High Street (the main street of town) has guards with handheld machines that indicate how much you owe based on the duration of your park. These guards are wearing street clothes plus yellow vests. There’s a little uncertainly about who exactly these guards work for. 

If a guard is not wielding one of these machines, this means they work for no one and they are guarding the area simply to earn money. They might wear a tattered, older vest of some sort, but they are not official in any way. This is most common at night. 

I’ll be honest: I’ve yet to see a car guard that made me feel safe about the car. Many times, you can tell they only seek money.

side note: Grahamstown’s unemployment rate is 70% (yes, 70), and you can find people trying to earn money through various small tasks -wash your car, sell you fruit, etc. It’s up to you if it’s worth payment.

Language: English is the common language of business, but on the streets you may also hear people speaking Xhosa (pronounced “[click]hosa”), and/or Afrikaans. If you only speak English, you are quite fine.

The Townships: Like many South African cities, Grahamstown has a large township -an urban area of unkempt buildings and roads. You wouldn’t see a township on brochures or websites, but it often comprises the majority of the city.
Believe it or not, that is just a fraction of the entire township.

In my experience, driving into the township feels like traveling back in time. Dilapidated shacks and houses (predominantly single-story), poorly maintained roads (usually unpaved, hardly any traffic lights), tattered and dusty clothing of residents (often the fashion fads of past decades), and stray animals roaming about (typically dogs and goats) all give it an identity quite divorced from the previously discussed developed part of town.

During apartheid, non-white residents of South Africa were forcibly relocated into the townships. When I asked a former township resident about the changes the townships have experienced since then, he said the only noticeable difference is the absence of police -during apartheid, police patrolled the streets and often used tear gas on crowds; it was common to experience this multiple times while growing up.

For the sake of being thorough: There’s actually a xhosa township and colored township in Grahamstown; “colored” describes anyone of mixed race, while “xhosa” signifies non-mixed.

I typically only enter the township with others, and usually with a specific purpose. The area is not particularly safe, especially for a caucasian. That being said, I can attest that you can find wonderful people living in the townships, much like you can in most places in the world.

Remember St. Augustine’s? Stephen, Br. Josias and myself have kept up regular attendance, spending approx. 90 minutes each week with some happy kiddos.


I hope you enjoyed this insight into Grahamstown!!
Have a good week, everyone.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Cameron. I really like seeing the rest of your environs and the vast expanse of housing that stretches to the horizon there. sigh. I sent one last card out today with a check. I think that will be it because of the timing, right?