The University of Cape Town Accommodations


My sophomore year dorm room at Wash U had a 38″ high-definition TV, two refrigerators, unlimited high-speed internet, a comfortable couch, and an Xbox 360. I don’t mean to brag, but my flat at the University of Cape Town — where I am spending my fall semester — has a microwave. All of the other Americans living in the Leisbeeck Gardens residence are envious, but we all have our little indulgences. Some of them even have showers; I have no sympathy.

It would be a mistake to dwell on the amenities of Leisbeeck — the hourly fire alarm, the bathtub shared with three flatmates, the “natural” heating and cooling system — because these sorts of lists hardly capture the charm of the place. How, for example, to do justice to Mowbray, a neighborhood shared by college students and the destitute who urinate in the traffic circle across the street? Mowbray, positioned in Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs one mountain and ten minutes removed from City Centre, is a place of beauty salons housed in crumbling architecture, of KFC and a pizza parlor featured in Conde Nast, of homeless dumpster divers and quaint cottages surrounded by palm trees and razor wire.

The dorm — “res” — is a fortress, housing some 450 UCT students. Even its best days, which I can’t imagine lasted longer than the planning phases, Leisbeeck must have looked a little bit like a prison. The place hasn’t aged gracefully, and now there is graffiti, chipped paint, and missing tiles to add to the ambiance achieved by creating a seven-story Howard Johnson with open-air hallways centered around a grey, lifeless courtyard that doubles as the roof of the parking garage. Floors are divided into co-ed apartments split into four singles. Flatmates share a kitchen, a bathtub, and a general apprehensiveness for Ms. September, who sometimes goes door-to-door asking for food.

Though the elevator may not be reliable — “PLIZ USE LIFT FROM 1st FLOOR,” a piece of scrap paper adhered to dangling wires instructs — the stairs build thighs and character. Moreover, the res is safe, the rooms are spacious, laundry is free, and every suite has a balcony with sweeping views of the area. And with regard to the semi-annual “squatter raids”: know that I am willing to do battle with anyone who compromises the integrity of this fine residence by illegally housing friends and kin.

“Leisbeeck is a special place,” my roommate, Ken, often says with a grin. Ken is from Zimbabwe, where, he says, Internet is faster than it is here. But Ken and the hundreds of other UCT students who live here are to me what makes living in the res worthwhile.   The Americans instantly stand out because no one else living here is white. And because living in Leisbeeck is cheap and Cape Town (by African standards) expensive, many of the residents are from all over the continent — Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Namibia, to name a few countries.

This is not to say that I suddenly have a UN-worthy posse of friends. There are large cultural and even language barriers to overcome and since I got here during their second semester, breaking into cliques is that much harder. Then there is the difficulty in not constricting yourself to a handful of American friends who immediately understand your fondness for Superbad and Nalgene bottles. But I can’t imagine that living in a house or apartment full of Americans, the accommodation of choice for most study abroad students at UCT, makes any of this any easier, fraught as they are with Real World-style distractions and isolated from the rest of the city by gates, maids, and a security guard. Cultural assimilation takes work, but the rewards often come unexpectedly, like, for example, discussing Darfur with PhD students from Sudan while waiting for laundry. And when all else fails, there is always microwavable comfort food.

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