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Photo by Taylor Rapalyea.
By Taylor Rapalyea
JOHANNESBURG - On a bright Monday afternoon, a student group in South Africa temporarily adopted two toothy boys under the age of five, and a bashful little girl.
We, a primarily white group from Simmons College, were walking through an illegal squatter settlement as part of a tour. The houses consisted of single rooms, were made from tin sheets, and had no electricity.
It was the safest I'd felt since landing in Africa.
We were in Kliptown, an informal settlement that was one year older than its better known surrounding township, Soweto, outside Johannesburg. It had formed due to a stark lack of housing and the inability of black people to own land under the apartheid government. While it has long been an unofficial residence, the extreme poverty was clear.
But the sense of community and joy overpowered the misfortune.
"We all care about material things," said Thulani, our tour guide. "We just address it differently."
Thulani works for a local community organization, the Kliptown Youth Program. The group helps kids with their homework after school and provides sandwiches for the school day that they would otherwise go without.
KYP received a grant in 2012 from the CNN Heroes program to equip a computer lab, where students can learn IT skills and communicate with remote tutors to enrich their existing education.
The standard of living in the Kliptown settlement is indicative of the great disparity in South Africa. Just a stone's throw from the settlement is the wealthy area of Soweto--right on the township border, across from the lavish 65,000-square-meter Maponya Mall.
According to Section 26 of the South African Constitution, every citizen has the right to housing. But 18 years since the inception of the constitution, a massive section of the population is forced to live in illegal squatter settlements.
The 2011 Census Report noted that 13.6 percent of dwellings are informal and .9 percent classified as "other." That means 7,040,796 South Africans live in "informal" housing, and 3,106,200 live in "other."
In the Kliptown settlement, the only toilets are outdoors and have padlocks that make it difficult for the children to manage. A single community pump supplies their water.
Despite this, young local kids bounce around our group, gesturing frantically to have their photos taken before immediately craning their necks to try and see the resulting picture.
Thulani said that even though having the one water pump can be frustrating when someone is taking time to do laundry, waiting in line is an opportunity to catch up with your neighbors.
Before we began our tour of one of the poorest communities in South Africa, we nervously gathered around Thulani to hear his introduction.
"The important thing to remember," he said, "is to make yourself at home."