Igama lam nguCaitlin

That phrase means “my name is Sisipho (a gift).” Sisipho may be my Xhosa name, given to me by my new Xhosa homestay family, but that is more how I would describe the family and the last few days.

Before I describe my wonderful new family, I need to describe Friday night and Saturday morning. Friday night, we went out to a pub to celebrate my friend’s birthday. This pub experience exemplified to me how diverse and international a city Cape Town really is. Aside from the horde of 25 American college students that I was with, there was also the owner—an Irishman—and a table of people from all over the country and the world. One man was from Scotland, a few others from Josie, one from the Eastern Cape, and even a guy from Atlanta! One of the ones from Josie, Fidel, was telling me all about the differences between township life, rural life, urban life and life in other areas. It’s always intriguing to see how other people react when I say I’m about to stay in the township of Langa for three weeks—they are consistently horrified and terrified for my well-being! I had heard before coming that non-township South Africans had serious misconceptions about the townships, and these reactions—along with my initial experiences in Langa, which have been lovely—have completely proved the point.

Saturday morning, we woke up very early to climb Lion’s Head, which is a mountain just next to Table Mountain. The hike was gorgeous. I took so many photos, and I know words cannot do it justice, but I’ll try. The amazing thing about Cape Town—which this hike exemplified—is the incongruence. In the US, you never see a gigantic, sprawling city situated on pristine beaches, at the valley of gorgeous mountains. You may have small ocean-side cities, or cities situated in valleys or between mountains and oceans, or ugly beaches near a huge city, but you never see a beach, city as pristine, natural, mountainous, and gigantic all at once. Cape Town is just like that, however. It is indescribable, but I just think it’s the most beautiful city in the world.

The hike, however, was rough. I enjoyed every moment of it, mostly because of the view and because I haven’t been running as much as I should. It was great to get a workout in, although my arms and back are pretty sore. Why? Because Lion’s Head is more of a hike/climb than a simple hike, especially on the way down. At some points, you pull yourself up or down by chains and hooks. Going up was fine, but as some of you may know, I am genuinely terrified of heights when I am in charge of the motions I make. I am fine on a rooftop or in an airplane, but climbing down mountains or even getting on an escalator freaks me out. Until I was embarrassingly old, I refused to take escalators and would freak out if I needed to take one. So, the climb down was not very fun, although it was good for me. I did, however, enjoy how friendly the other hikers were. Whenever I would be paralyzed by fear, someone would inevitably instruct me on what to do and encourage me.

At one point, I was struggling on a portion with ropes and chains, when a really good-looking guy asked me if I needed help. I had just seen a ledge to step on, so I declined politely, all while noticing how he bore a striking resemblance to a certain handsome actor I wanted to marry in middle school. Seriously, guy was good-looking, but it seemed highly unlikely that Will Turner/Legolas/random dude from that awful movie Elizabethtown/Orlando Bloom would be in Cape Town, hiking Lion’s Head, asking me for help, just when I was there…so I continued on. Really, you never think the celebrity doppelgangers you see are the actual celebrities until, of course, your program instructor and a few other students reach the bottom of the hike with stories of how they got pictures with Orlando Bloom. New life rule: from now on, if I think I see a celebrity, I ask. On the other hand, I can now say I was totally nonchalant when speaking to Orlando Bloom, former man of my dreams. Just playing it cool, I guess.

Anyways, after the hike we moved into our homestays! My new family is so wonderful. There are five women (I’m trying very hard not to give names on this trip) plus myself. I’m still figuring out the family dynamics, since I’m not sure what is acceptable to ask. One of my sisis (sisters) is just a couple of years older than me. I haven’t quite figured out the others’ ages yet. My program gave me an info sheet on the family, but all I’ve been able to figure out is that the sheet is pretty much completely wrong. The sisi around my age works at a store owned by another sisi. She travels around the world, buying clothes and bringing them back. Family members also run an event service, hosting events mostly for the elderly. The mama (mother) unfortunately had a stroke recently, and is not doing well, so I think the others take care of her. I know a little girl, a cousin, (age 2!) is here all day weekdays until 5, and sometimes later. I hope she stays later soon, because I get home at 5:30 but I want to meet her! She’s a cousin’s daughter.

Last night, I mostly settled in and chatted a bit with the family. Today, everyone went to church. The family is divided into two churches, but I went to the one in Langa with one sisi. On the way, we talked about birthdays and I mentioned how funny it was to be turning 21 in a country where no one cares. She informed me that actually, people do care. She said families that are still traditional—whether Xhosa, Zulu, or Suthu—view 21 as the age where girls become women. They have a big celebration, with major gifts (often a car), and they slaughter an animal and give the woman the skin. You only get this celebration if you have been a “good” child. If you have been pregnant or have done anything else the family views as bad, you don’t get the celebration. Also, she told me more “Westernized” (her word) families tend to celebrate 21 the “Western” way.

The church service itself was an experience, to be sure. One thing I love about African churches is how engaging and spiritual they are. Everyone gets involved in some way. I have now been to I think 3, and that is a common pattern, although all have differences. Today, there were constant shouts of “Alleluia!” and “Amen!” and they often had you turn to your neighbor and say things like “Neighbor, I must go forth and spread the word of God.” The lesson was on bringing people into the church and into the word of God, and at the end they divided us into groups and gave each group a number of people to bring to the next service. The pastor said I specifically needed to bring one friend (Hey SIT! Anyone want to go to church with me on Sunday…? Maybe?) I feel like this adds an aspect to church life that many American churches don’t have—accountability. They did say a lot that I disagreed with, but it was fun and everyone was nice.

Cultural faux pas are the worst. The director told us that we would mess up something in the culture and everyone would laugh at us and we would be embarrassed. Yep, just happened. A friend of the mama came to visit and we’d been talking to her for a while when I realized I did not know her name. I asked as politely as possible, but she got on to me, telling me that I am a visitor and she has to be the one to ask me my name. Whoops. I apologized, thanked her for telling me, and told her I was still learning all the culture. Unfortunately, I understand just enough Xhosa to know that she is currently telling everyone else about it. She keeps repeating, “What’s your name?” and laughing. There was a long conversation between her and my sisi in which I never heard my name but I heard my program name. She doesn’t sound happy. I feel bad, but no one told us! Literally, the only conversation I can even have in Xhosa is asking someone how they are and what their name is. Ahhh cultural misunderstandings, I guess I have to get used to you.

I’ve already noticed so many misconceptions about the townships, or at least this township, and the families within them, or at least this family. It is clear to me that even if these prejudices and ideas tend to be true, they are not universal. I bet several of them aren’t even true at all. I may write more about those later, but for now, a sisi is cooking lunch and it smells way too good to keep writing! It’s considered rude to smell food here (the one thing they did tell us), but it is a struggle because everything smells so good!

Hamba kaluhle (go well!)



One thought on “Igama lam nguCaitlin

  1. Hi Caitlin! Welcome to Cape Town!!
    Thanks for sharing your experiences, it’s interesting to read. I just wanted to give you peace of mind that you’ve unlikely offended mama about asked her name, they probably just think it funny and keep the joke going (I see this often). The traditional Xhosa way of greeting a group of people is to address the oldest male and if no men are in the group then oldest female and going down the social order. That person then usually speaks on behalf of the group. By you asking their name, they were probably surprised. They wouldn’t likely have been offended but your question so don’t feel bad.

    Also, in all my work in townships, I’ve never heard that you shouldn’t smell food – I enjoy the wonderful aromas all the time 🙂 I also checked with the Mamas here at Linawo and they also know nothing of that!

    Enjoy your time and hopefully we’ll get to see you here soon.


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