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Dead and Breakfast

by Katie de Klee / Illustration by Sasan / 28.11.2012

Last Friday I slept next to a murderer.

Since arriving in Cape Town I have been reluctant to be tourist. I am a tourist, I am in this city as a foreigner, and I am here – in part – for pleasure. But I have the luxury of time, so I have not rushed with my foreign debit card to the top attractions.

Township tourism runs the risk of being voyeuristic. It seemed a strange thing to do to walk around looking in people’s homes, taking pictures of their lives and of their poverty. But then it also brings tourism to people who might benefit the most from its lucrative returns.

I booked a room in a Khayelitsha B&B. Well reviewed, long established, and like its neighbours built of corrugated iron and wood. We drove up to Vicky’s B&B at dusk last Friday and parked on the sandy road outside the house. The family were watching TV in the downstairs living room; spines moulded deep into the old sofas, they held out hands to greet us but didn’t stand. Vicky was away, according to her the niece, who showed us to our room upstairs, brought us cola on the balcony, and told us we could go for a walk around.

She asked us all the questions she must ask everyone. Where are we from? Is this our first time in Cape Town? My answers she had probably heard before, but in the 14 years the guest house had been open only two other South African’s had ever stayed there, and I had brought the third.

Two neighbours took us on a tour. They walked us through the darkening streets and all around us was activity and life. Fires were being stoked for braaing; streetlights high above the shacks coming on, and children unwatched by worried parents were playing in the roads.

I did not feel afraid; I did not feel that anyone who waved at us or greeted us as we passed was dangerous. The only gory part of the tour were the sheep heads that lay baldly smiling at the sky waiting to be boiled. We don’t eat the brains, said Solomon, our guide; sheep are stupid, always looking at the ground. Better to eat a chicken brain. Or a chicken foot. But it’s hard to nibble on a knuckle with a claw in your eye.
Back at Vicky’s we were brought supper upstairs, cooked by Vicky’s daughter. Chicken and rice and more cola, and Vicky’s husband came up to smoke on the balcony, belt and button undone round his waist.
The bathroom in our room was not divided from where the bed was, except by a half pull-out screen. I blushed at the lack of privacy, and then blushed deeper at the thought of how many people in that community went without adequate toilets.

Through the walls of the bedroom I heard our host take a bath and share the bathwater. I heard the sound of bare skin sliding on the wet tub, and the bed groaned as I turned.
The sounds of humans in proximity was what I listened to that night. Creaking and coughing and snoring and then voices in the early morning.
Vicky’s mother cooked us mielie pap for breakfast which we ate with sugar and butter, with a view over the township roofs.

Saturday morning in Khayelitsha is laundry day. Almost every house hung out lines of white shirts and children’s cloths, and busty women swept the dust from their sand doorways. Small children, sucking ice creams, clutched at us with sticky fingers and men with beer bottles nodded as we wandered.
We were the last guests to stay there before the tragedy.

We left on Saturday morning, shook hands with the man of the house, held hands with his mother-in-law, were held closer by his niece as she hugged us goodbye.

Vicky was due back on Sunday. This Wednesday, four nights after our bodies had creased the sheets on the spare bed, Vicky was stabbed to death in her own house. Her husband is still in hospital, Solomon tells me. But they think he did it; stabbed her then stabbed himself.

And now what to think? When the place that had saved my perception of township life is now the scene of such a sad and shocking crime. Vicky had six children dependent on her. The walls of that house didn’t need to have ears, the walls are thin enough for you to use your own. Everyone must have heard the shouting that night.

*Illustration © Sasan. Images © Alistair Barnes.

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