Hips That Move Like Africa – Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town Explore
Cape Town, South Africa

“Your hips, Jenny! Your hips, they move like Africa!”

This is by far one of the greatest compliments I have ever received, an exclamation made by a Xhosa friend in a tiny house in a black township in South Africa not too long ago. I had traveled with a group of American students to Port Elizabeth, a town in the Eastern Cape, along with our local contacts Moss and ZaZa. The two of them were Xhosa school teachers in Cape Town’s Langa township, but many of their family still lives in townships around Port Elizabeth and so a handful of us were invited along to a party one night during our trip.

It was late, and so with the exception of Moss and ZaZa, we threw on jeans and university sweatshirts, stifling yawns as we piled into the kombi and left our hotel. Moss navigated us through dark streets, explaining to us that we would be visiting a friend who used to teach with them in Langa. He passed beer around the kombi (laws in South Africa are a bit more lax), which animated Moss but only seemed to make the rest of us more groggy. When we arrived at the house, people streamed outside to greet us. “Molweni!” they called in Xhosa greeting, embracing and teasing at the same time, as the Xhosa people often do. The women wore tight sequined tops, and had carefully applied eye shadow and lipstick, making me and my American counterparts appear scruffier than before. We were ushered through a backdoor into a small house that was only slightly bigger than my family’s living room and kitchen combined. Although it was close to 11 p.m., grandmothers and grandchildren lingered together in the main room, deafening dance music reverberating off the walls. Beer cans were pressed into our hands and the smell of the braai going on the steps outside the back door filtered through the house. I felt immediately welcomed into this boisterous bunch of people.

Within minutes, the dancing began. I don’t even know if I can call it dancing, because it was unlike anything I’d ever seen before – a group of teenagers with rubber limbs, bending and shaking, hollering and laughing. They blasted Malaika, a popular African dance group and my American friends and I watched spell-bound from an old ripped couch.

They encouraged us to join them, waving with their hands and trying to pull us from our seats. We all smiled shyly, shaking our heads and thinking, I could never dance like that. They continued in their circle, while everybody else drank and ate and laughed, all piled on top of one another in the increasingly warm room.

Eventually, two of the boys from my group decided to join in, showing the Xhosa teenagers our own moves, like the funky chicken dance. The boys’ style of dancing elicited much laughter and pointing, but the dancers seemed thrilled to have some of us join them. I finally found myself being pulled to my feet when a Destiny’s Child song came on (something I know!) and I decided I was determined to show the group that we could dance too. I called upon Cameron Diaz’s booty shaking moves from “Charlie’s Angels,” wiggling and twisting to the sound of Beyonce’s voice. And they loved it! They hollered and whooped, copying the steps and patting me on the back. It was at that point that Moss ran over to hug me, yelling in surprise, “Jenny, your hips! Your hips, they move like Africa!” I couldn’t stop beaming for 2 days.

I consider myself very lucky, because most visitors to South Africa never set foot inside a township, whereas in my three months in the country, I spent time in various townships, attending parties, working and drinking in shebeens. My time in the townships was what made my trip so special, and is something I recommend to anybody visiting Cape Town. Although you may not have the contacts or the time I had in Cape Town, it is easy to arrange tours through places like Langa as well as to stay in bed and breakfasts or eat in restaurants in Cape Town’s townships.

Many white Capetonians will warn you against visiting the townships, recalling the horrors of apartheid, but you will find that the majority of them have never been anywhere near a township. You are best to research any area you plan to visit and avoid wandering through any township after dark, but during my months in Cape Town I never felt endangered in the townships and was always the most welcomed by the Xhosa people living there. People I encountered were always happy to chat, from topics like AIDS in the United States to what life was like during Apartheid. You can learn so much about South Africa’s history from the people, as I did, as well as their ideas on forgiveness and reconciliation (two huge themes in black South Africa). One of the most amazing things I walked away from my experience with is the Xhosa idea of ubuntu (loosely translated to “people are people through other people”), a philosophy that furthered my understanding of what it means to be a human being. That, and the confidence to always know that my hips move like Africa.