Africa Stories Live On: Mall Day

Maddy’s brother, Ben Hoepf has an Africa story to tell and it’s my delight to share with you.


This summer, I flew across the world, and in to winter. My flight from Chicago to London totaled 3,300 nautical miles in distance. After feeble attempts of wrestling jet lag during my ten hour layover in the enormously large London Heathrow airport, I flew again. This flight jetted us from the northern hemisphere, to the southern hemisphere finally arriving in Cape Town, South Africa.

When people talk about South Africa, or Africa in general, they tend to repeat a single story they have heard. Specifically, when people talk about South Africa they say, “It’s not that bad!” or “I hear Cape Town is nicer than the rest of Africa.” Or even, “Isn’t Ebola happening over there right now?” Now the reader may think these statements are ridiculous, but ask yourself, “What are your notions of Africa?” One must ask this question because it is essential in understanding that our cultural perspective as Western, Americans is not the same as the cultural perspective of South Africans. For how can we understand a place where the night sky is even different, without ever having traveled there?

Landing in Cape Town provided me with a telescope view the size of my airplane window. I gleaned shimmering azure waters, with waves crashing onto white beaches. Suddenly, mountains jump from the sand and grasses, with Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain, and Lion’s Head. These peaks create the natural shelter from which Cape Town sprawls down the mountainsides and into the sea like spilled legos. Careening closer, my telescope window moves into focus. I see the mansions on stark, bouldered beaches with their blue pools and high fences. Then, zooming by, I observe the skyscrapers and the 2010 world cup stadium at Greenpoint, marking the main downtown of Cape Town. As the plane neared the airport, I finally caught a glimpse of the shacks, and old Apartheid housing, a lesser known part of South Africa. These parts are called townships, and they are by far the most populated and one of the most integral parts of South African history and culture. These townships are the areas the non-white populations were forced to move to under the old Apartheid racial segregation laws.

I bring up this birds eye view because I want to show how these immensely populated townships are an integral part of South African lifestyle. Cape Town is rapidly modernizing, and in many ways more forward thinking than even some American cities, but looking at these impoverished townships of South Africa with a Western ideology will not provide us with a clear idea of the culture and history of Cape Town.

These township cultures are different. Townships settled next to each other may not even speak the same language. For example, the Townships of Langa and Gugulethu are populated mainly by groups native to the Cape, like the Xhosa people, who speak Xhosa. While less than ten miles away, the township of Manenberg is populated by people who migrated from outside of Cape Town, speak mainly Afrikaans, and traditionally adhere to Islam.

But what really opened my eyes is something that takes place in a shopping mall. I know, it is not nearly as exciting as seeing lions on safari, or hiking jagged peak. Both of which I did… They do have shopping malls in Africa, and let me tell you, they could give any American one a run for its money. This mall is located off of the highway, in a near suburb of Cape Town. I went on an unremarkable, cold and rainy day. After walking through countless stores like Mr. Price, and K-Way, we decided to stop for lunch in the food court. This food court is massive, and looks as if the people of South Africa decided to put every neon sign in the country into this one large hall. As I was sitting, eating some Chinese food one of my friends had given me because I had forgotten rand to buy food, a little girl and her mother sat down next to me. (Side note: Speaking of food, the cuisine of Cape Town is quite diverse due to the amount of foreign influence through trade and colonization, and is all very delicious.) As the family sat down, the little girl caught me making fake walrus teeth with my chopsticks, she giggled.

I said hello, and they immediately caught my Chicago accent. They taught me how to say, “hello” in Afrikaans. “Hallo,” is “hello” in Afrikaans, in case you are wondering. Make sure to start with the “H” in the back of your throat, though. We struck up conversation about my travels. They asked me where I was from, and what Chicago was like. I asked the girl and her mother about where they were from, which was a suburb of Cape Town. I also asked them what Cape Town was like, and about what brought them to the mall. It was then that they told me about the holiday of National Youth Day, which they were celebrating at the mall. National Youth Day in South Africa commemorates the youth uprising in Soweto, in 1976. This protest, was put on by public school students in Soweto, a township outside of Johannesburg, in which many middle school age students were shot to death by police for protesting Apartheid education regulations placed on black children. It just so happened that in my conversation with this girl and her mother, I realized they were there, eating at the same table as me, celebrating the day that sparked a wave of massive change in South Africa, and ultimately led to the election of Nelson Mandela and the rise of the ANC. The day was June 16. I had no clue about the importance of this day until my first conversation in Cape Town with a young child, and her mother. I must have seemed quite ignorant not knowing about National Youth Day considering the little girl’s mother grew up during the end of the Apartheid rule. However, the willingness of the mother and her daughter to share its meaning in a South African context to me gave it value I will always hold on to.

The story of my lunch with a little girl, and her mother holds meaning to me because we sat across the table from each other eating as people trying to understand each other’s real story. America tends to view Africa as a basket of catastrophe stories. It is why we send missionaries, and air commercials, in our own land, of starving Ethiopian children asking ten cents to save their lives.   I did not assume these two people were starving, in fact I was the one begging for food. I simply tried to hear an untold story. South Africa grows from a history we fail to contemplate because we overlook it. Its history starts before oppression by European colonies, and continues to struggle to break free from its oppression to this day. The story I share is not about working with African children, which I did. Nor is the story about poaching, or war, or feeding starving people. Even though the stories are real, and hold just as much power, I wanted to tell an untold story. It may be unremarkable, but it is a part of the Africa no one is told about. Hopefully this experience I share just opens your eyes a little bit to the fact that Africa is really billions of stories, all varying in infinite, meaningful ways. These stories range from fighting countless years of oppression and colonialism, to eating Chinese food with strangers in a mall. However they are all interconnected, meaningful, and not solely the ones we hear about Ebola and lions.