I had the wonderful opportunity of studying at Wits University in recent months, as part of my exchange programme with the University of Chicago. Desiring a fuller immersion experience, I opted out of campus housing to look for home stay opportunities on my own. I ended up connecting with the extended family members of a friend from Chicago. My host family lived very close to school, in a neighbourhood called Hillbrow.
I didn’t know anything about Hillbrow previously, but would soon learn about its notoriously high levels of poverty and crime, a place known as the “hood of Johannesburg”. Some people, including members of my host university, expressed concerns over me staying there. I took their concerns seriously and thought hard about my decision. I wanted a holistic experience of South Africa, beyond just the touristy areas, but I also was not going to recklessly put my life in danger.
In the end, I decided that I trusted my friend and his family enough to give Hillbrow a try at least. If I really didn’t feel comfortable staying there, I would move on to campus.
During the two months that I stayed in Hillbrow, I never felt unsafe. Granted, I tried to be smart and followed all of the safety instructions from my host family, such as never walking alone. And while I, a Chinese-American woman, stood out in the community, nothing bad happened to me, not even a hint. Yet whenever I mentioned to others who asked, including my classmates at school just one neighborhood over, where I was staying, I would always receive looks of complete disbelief, sometimes a scream, followed by earnest pleas for me to “get out of there, fast!”.
I know Hillbrow continues to face many challenges, and it’s not the safest place. I’m not necessarily advocating for people to now move or stay there. But I believe it is important to talk about Hillbrow, or any other neighbourhood for that matter, in a nuanced manner. There is a lot more to Hillbrow than the negative stereotypes.
It is in Hillbrow that I met my wonderful local church family, who, while itself under-resourced, provides warm meals for the homeless every Sunday. It is in Hillbrow that I witnessed Door of Hope staff members lovingly care for abandoned children and the “Well of Life” group minister to at-risk women. It is in Hillbrow that my neighbours would introduce themselves to me and warmly welcome me, a foreigner. It is in Hillbrow that I learnt the stories of immigrants and refugees living in South Africa, which add even more colour and life to this beautiful, tenacious country.
There is much good happening in Hillbrow. And there are people there living their lives and working hard to make it a better place.