Life in Cato Manor (Austin Plier)

As of this past Thursday, my homestay experience in Cato Manor (an area that is like a “neighborhood” within Durban, only much bigger) began. Just like everything else in the SIT program, the selection of this particular area has significant historical and cultural implications…

During the apartheid era, Cato Manor was designated for Indians and Blacks and had a population that, while generally quite impoverished, was vibrant and brimming with a unique culture. That all changed in 1960, when the apartheid regime ordered all non-white residents (everyone there at the time) to evacuate the area or be forcibly removed. This was done with the intent to build “white housing” and make the area an all-white suburb. Forced removals ensued, and within days, bulldozers left thousands of families without a home.

Years passed, and plans by the government for a white suburb fell apart as most of their time, money, and energy went into enforcing their ridiculous laws on a revolting majority. The space of land that was forcibly cleared, sat vacant for 30+ years! As we know, the apartheid government finally fell apart in the 1990s, and Nelson Mandela negotiated a democratic government for South Africa. Upon being elected, Mandela declared in his inauguration speech that Cato Manor would be a focus of his new government in housing development for the thousands of families searching for shelter in light of decades of mistreatment. Building began in 1994, and today Cato Manor is once again a cultural hub for the Black and Indian community of Durban. In fact, in talking with the people here, it is common to find that the children of those forcibly removed in the 60s, are the ones that have journeyed back to populate today’s Cato Manor.

So, with that brief history lesson behind us, let me introduce my new family! On Thursday, I moved in with the Ngcobo family, which consists of my Mama (Gugu), sister (Makhosi), as well as an Aunt and niece. On Friday, “Grannie”, Mama’s sister, stayed for a night as well. She comes and goes between various family households in the greater Durban area. The family has been nothing but gracious and hospitable thus far, and has gone out of their way to make me feel at home. I often feel bad at dinner time, as I am having trouble stomaching the mountains of food put in front of me! In just a few days, I was forced to learn various aspects of Zulu culture on the spot.

The most awkward was yesterday, when Mama went to do my laundry by hand in the tub, and quickly brought back the bin, with my underwear in it. “I think this is your laundry to do,” she said, in a tone that suggested I should be embarrassed. It came back to me quickly that I read in the handbook a while back that it is considered unhygienic to not wash one’s own underwear in Zulu culture. I proceeded to do wash my own underwear by hand in the tub for the first time in my life! It wasn’t as bad as it sounds…

The other thing that has taken some adjusting is washing in the morning. Most families have a tub rather than a shower, and few have hot, running water. Thus when you want to bathe in the morning, you must go downstairs and request for a bucket of water to warmed over the oven. Even then, there is very little water to use in the bath, and so washing is difficult to say the least. Needless to say, I am still adjusting.

My most recent awesome cultural experience was on Saturday night in Cato Manor. I attended a “Braai” with other SIT students, which is basically a Barbeque. We enjoyed the company of a seemingly endless flow of friends and family of the house we were at. Music played all night as the food was prepared. People laughed, danced, and drank, and finally around 9:30pm, food was served! It was an awesome tasting sausage prepared on the grill, reminding me of a Wisconsin brat. The entire experience was surreal. Under a bright, nearly full moon, I indulged in hours of conversation on the front lawn with both the SIT students, and countless people from Cato Manor. It felt like I was part of a really, really big family! I even became real good friends with Sbahle, a four year old girl who enjoyed being on my shoulders.

At night’s end, my fellow students and I were escorted home by a caravan of new friends, making sure that each one of us made it to our front door without problems. They were very adamant about this! It was humbling to feel so cared about and to see these people—many that we had now known for only a few hours—take such pride in the hospitality they provided for their guests. That is one thing that has become crystal clear about Zulu culture in these last few days: guests are taken very seriously!

Considering how nervous I was about moving in with a family that I did not know at all, as well as being introduced to a culture completely foreign to my own, these past four days have gone pretty well! Today (Monday), my first full week of classes at the SIT building begins. It is hard to believe that I have to get back in school mode! Given the circumstances, I think I’ll have enough going on around me that it won’t be that bad.

Austin Plier is studying abroad in South Africa with SIT Study Abroad.

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