It was raining. Hard. Apparently around these parts, in a remote part of South Africa’s Eastern Cape, it didn’t rain cats and dogs… but rather goats. We’d pulled over at the side of the road to make an enquiry, and there in front of us was a goat waiting at a bus stop. We knew that we wouldn’t be having a very typical tourist experience in this offbeat beach town, much thanks to that very stop we’d made leading us to discovering the Chintsa locals through the Chintsa East Soup Kitchen.
It was my fourth trip to South Africa to see my sister. She lives in the winelands near Cape Town and each trip usually involves discovering something new of this beautiful and diverse country. This time we packed up her family and flew across the country to the lesser-visited Eastern Cape region.
“Cows on the Beach,” advertised my brother-in-law Mark. And he wasn’t wrong…
In fact, that’s the first thing we saw when we went down to the beach after getting settled in our little rental cabin. A cow appeared out of nowhere and trotted across the beach to the amazement of the few scattering groups of tourists who were taking in the sun on the virtually deserted, expansive white sandy stretch before us.
Then came the cheeky monkeys… who hopped around in the trees outside our place and even helped themselves to our bananas (yes, that’s exactly what they stole). They were followed by forging semi-wild pigs who snorted their way from cabin to cabin in the hopes of sniffing out was food scraps.
They weren’t the only friendly locals we were to encounter… now back to the goat.
The lovely sun from our first afternoon vanished at dusk and sadly didn’t return until the end of our little trip. Our second day was one of the worst for weather, the steady rain didn’t seem like it was going to give.
“Wasn’t there a cultural center on the way into town?” One of us remembered.
“Oh and a brewery,” Mark coyly added in.
The Eastern Cape is still rather traditional, we’d experience this even more during the second leg of the trip, in the meantime we’d read that there were some cultural villages to visit. Perhaps that’s what the little place on the edge of town was?
We were a little reluctant to visit a Xhosa village that was geared just towards tourists, but it could be an interesting way to learn about the local culture. As luck would have it, when we pulled over to have a look at the few traditional houses which we thought would be a sort of museum, found the goat… then we happened to catch Themi, a friendly local woman who looks in on the info center.
“I run a Soup Kitchen,” Themi explained. “If you want, tomorrow I can take you on a tour and we can finish at the Soup Kitchen for lunch.”
This seemed like a more authentic experience than a place targeting tourists, so we called her back (after our tasting at the nearby Emerald Vale Brewery) to confirm our tour with her in the morning.
Themi met us down near our accommodation and we took the back roads towards the other side of the squatter camp. Sometimes the townships in South Africa are also called squatter camps, however, the former were designated areas where the country’s black population was obliged to live under Apartheid. This is not the case for all squatter camps, as we learned from Themi. This particular one was not a traditional Xhosa village, instead the land used to be a mango farm. when the farmer closed it down, many of his employees stayed living there and when the nearby gorgeous beach and coastline started attracting tourists, the people in the squatter camp gradually encouraged family from other places to come here for work.
Unlike the sprawling and crowded squatter camps next to large cities, since we were out in the country, the inhabitants here had more space, often with little gardens around their houses. However, this didn’t mean that life was easy here.
As we walked down the road Themi told us that she’d started up her Soup Kitchen to help feed the children of the poorer families of the community. Having grow up here in a difficult situation, Themi wanted to give back, especially now being a mother herself, it meant that much more to her.
Our first “official” stop on the tour was a daycare center, a similar community initiative to her own. As soon as we approached the door, three little girls smothered my adorable nephew with hugs. Who was this strange looking kid? They pet his super blond hair and dragged him around to play.
We popped into the nursery to see some of the babies and going back outside were swarmed by the rest of the kids who wanted their turn posing for photos and or showing Z their toys.
Peeling ourselves from the eager kids, Themi took us to a nearby home where some of the mother’s were preparing for a celebration to take place the next day. Boys and girls of the community still undergo a rite of passage to enter adulthood and a boy of this house was about to do come back from his Ulwaluko and a feast was being prepared (in case you’d like to learn more about this, I came across this interesting article that was actually written about from this town here).
We were invited in to meet the family and try the homemade beer they’d been brewing for the occasion. Think and potent, we might have preferred the ales we’d tried the previous day, but it was still a unique experience!
We then carried on our walk down the main road, meeting more local kids along our way, some of whom started tagging along behind us, knowing where we were headed. We passed the little primary school and then reached the Soup Kitchen.
Located in a converted cargo container, the Soup Kitchen is more than a place for the local kids to fill their bellies. As Themi prepared a large pot of meiliepop (similar to porridge), the kids got out a big bag of balls and soon the patio was transformed into a soccer/basketball camp. Impressive moves!
Taking photos of some of the kids, I cam across some shy girls who were playing hard to get, hiding under the table. The gave into the lense in a fit of giggles. My iPhone, on the other hand, was an instant hit, and we snapped around 100 selfies as they braided my hair.
After a while Themi opened up her countertop and dished out per pipping hot meiliepop, which was pretty tasty! It was school holiday and so more kids were at home with their parents, but Themi feeds dozens of kids almost daily, not counting all the other additional benefits the children have from being in this welcoming environment.
We were sad to leave behind Themi and the kids as we hopped in the local tuk-tuk taxi and back down the hill. Themi receives a little funding from the community government, but the center is mostly run by Themi’s grassroots events and the tours which are paid on a donation basis, all funds go towards the Soup Kitchen’s supplies. If you happen to be visiting this remote part of the country, I highly recommend stopping in. It was a special, rewarding experience to connect with these local kids and see how people like Themi are making a difference.
You can reach Themi by phone: +21 (0) 78491362 email: firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like more information about the center or via their Facebook page. She also takes donations by bank wire.