When you think of a museum guide, you think of someone trained. You think of someone speaking off a script prepared for them. You think of someone informed about the history but detached from it. That’s not District Six. The District Six Museum is different from other historical museums because it keeps the history alive. Its guides are not regularly trained employees, they are ex-residents of the district. They don’t carry a memorized script with them, they speak about their own experiences. They don’t just know about the history; their stories are the history.
The most remarkable thing about the District Six Museum is just that: it gives people the chance to tell their own stories. There’s nothing more moving than that. Something I’ve noticed recently is that we hear so much information second-hand. Whether it’s gossip that spreads, and you hear “my friend told me that her friend overheard another guy talking with him who said that . . .” or it’s politicized headlines that describe major events in a biased fashion, we rarely hear important information from its source. There are reasons for that. Sometimes, people aren’t comfortable speaking about their experiences. Sometimes, we don’t have access to someone who can tell us first-hand what happened. Sometimes, it’s more useful to put a spin on things to tell the story that we want to tell and silence the authenticity of first-hand stories.
In my first experience working at District Six Museum, I’ve learned how important it is to give people the agency to tell their own stories. To give you background about District Six, it was a multiracial area of Cape Town that, during Apartheid, was bulldozed by the government. 60,000 people were forcibly removed from their homes and moved to the barren Cape Flats, about 30 kilometers away. For District Six residents, Apartheid took away their familiar heterogeneity and forced a foreign homogeneity.
Now, I want to tell you about Auntie Farhanaaz. Farhanaaz took me and some students from the University of Cape Town on a tour of the museum and the site of District Six, located directly behind the museum. Her tour proved the importance of her telling her District Six story versus a trained guide telling a general story. Instead of giving me facts and figures about the racial makeup of District Six or the year-by-year events of the forced relocation, she told us about her street. Horstley Street, she said, had people of all skin colors and they didn’t care. She said that she called her neighbors brothers and sisters even though they didn’t all look like her. She told us that she, herself, was part Scot, part Indian, and part African.
Then when she took us to the site, she showed us her street as it exists now. It is overgrown with weeds and full of rubble, but she looked at it as if it were the most beautiful place on Earth. She sat on a rock and said that she sits there every day. She told me to come to sit with her and she showed me the view – ocean on one side and mountain on the other. She told me that this was what Apartheid took from her. The view that she missed every single day that she walked out of her new house in Cape Flats. I say “house” and not “home” because Cape Flats was never her home, it was always District Six and that view.
What I appreciated about Farhanaaz’s tour was not her knowledge of general history or the eloquence of memorization, it was the emotion that she spoke with. She made sure we realized how little she thought of race before she was moved. She told us over and over, “Look at the colors of the people in this photo with me! We didn’t care what color they were.” She teared up as she told us how important it was to her that she lost the view that she loves. She made District Six come alive even though it is now a bulldozed, weed-stricken area. That’s the importance of a person telling their own story. That’s something I’ll never forget.