A friend of mine recently returned from several months living in an informal settlement in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He has, at the same time, been working a foreign correspondent for Glimpse.org, a website supported by the National Geographic Society that seeks to “[bear] witness to place, people, culture, and especially the stories and struggles that might otherwise go unrecorded.” His first piece, “In the Shadow of Table Mountain,” on moving from his first home in an affluent (and mostly white) part of Cape Town to the settlement of Riemvasmaak, was just published.
The piece is complex and layered and a beautiful read. And I so appreciate his intentionality in making the move. But I’ve been mulling it over for the past few days more because of the unexpected similarities between the predictably segregated South Africa in his story and, thousands of miles away, my current home in Washington, DC.
For Kevin, Table Mountain served as an emblem of a divided South Africa––it graces every tourist’s postcards and guidebooks, defines the city’s skyline, but is at the same time absent from the lives of his new community in the Riemvasmaak.
The Capitol Building is Washington’s Table Mountain. Many of the affluent white residents of the district have never been neighborhoods on the other side of the river. And for many of Jon’s students, for example, who live in the shadows of this national icon, the Capitol is more an image in their history textbooks than a background to their lives.
It is without a doubt the most difficult thing about living here.
How to bridge this gap, to serve as a restorer of streets to live in? What is my settlement and how to be a light?