Written by Steven Otter, this book documents his interesting choice (as a white man) to move into Khayelitsha, one of South Africa’s most notorious (black) townships. I was expecting it to focus on the crime levels, poverty and terrible living conditions he encountered, but the book delved much deeper into more positive aspects too. It followed the true friendships he made and revealed the emphasis on sharing and companionship found within this community, the members of which grew to accept him for who he was, rather than for the colour of his skin. Otter had to come to terms with the prejudices of his white co-workers and family – prejudices left over from the apartheid- as well as facing up to his own. It does seem that Otter is coming from a slightly biased viewpoint as any references to white society are wholly negative, whereas he refuses to criticise any of his new friends and neighbours. I did find it a little strange that despite Khayelitsha’s reputation as having the highest crime levels of all townships, there’s hardly any violence noted in the book, but maybe it just wasn’t an issue for him.
The most interesting theme for me was that of the collectivism found within the predominantly Xhosa community, in stark contrast to the Individualism so highly valued in Western cultures. This is just one important value that Otter learns whilst living in such close proximity to people who may lack materialistic advantages, but benefit from a world of greater emotional intelligence. He certainly writes about some hardship, both in his own life and around him, but there’s also laughter, drinking (mostly illegally in the local shebeens!), triumphs in his work as a journalist and, perhaps most importantly, love. Whether it’s for his friends, within their families or his own romantic pursuits, love can be found in many aspects of his life in Khayelitsha, which is a somewhat surprising setting for such strongly felt emotion? Despite difficult landlords, noisy tenants and leaking roofs, Otter was happy in the life he controversially created for himself and his days were full of joy rather than constant struggle.