Everyone kept telling me the townships were so dangerous, but I think that only applies to cows and goats.

A lot of cows die in the townships—every time there’s a birth, or a wedding, or a funeral, a cow gets stabbed in the back and then cooked on a fire. Among the Zulu in Durban, most major life events involve slaughtering an animal and then sharing the meat.

On a Sunday afternoon, I followed the smell of boiling beef to an outdoor tent floating above a yard in Umlazi Township. Neighbors came and went, carrying offerings of food and drink. Outside, a few old men tended the fire and stirred two cauldrons of tender meat, and in a backyard shed I encountered what was left of the cow that once was: the smiling square-toothed jaws and a several humongous sides of beef dangling from a chain.

“This morning we served all the people from the church,” reported Nandi, the woman of the house. “And now all the neighbors will come to eat.”

She’d been awake since two that morning with her sisters and cousins, preparing and cooking for an indeterminate number of house guests.

“About 300,” she counted, already planning for the next setting. These Zulu gatherings are true feasts—akin to American Thanksgiving but served in shifts, one group after the other.

Beef and beer make up the main menu. Giant slabs of meat are salted and peppered, then slowly tenderized in a cast iron pot. The sour-smelling umqombothi is brewed from maize, malt, sorghum, yeast and water. Pungent bubbles pop and fizzle on the surface of this yeasty concoction that gets passed in a round black pot from one mouth to another.

I was a stranger, a man pulled in off the street, but Nandi counted me as her guest and handed me the spherical pot. I took a sip of the drink that’s alive, feeling the cider-y flavor wake up my tongue—this drink that’s been brewed by Zulu for ages. As I wiped my mouth, all the women sang out in a shrill cry, ululating, “Yiyiyiyiyiyi!”

Nandi was celebrating her father-in-law’s unveiling, a ceremony where the tombstone of the deceased is unveiled one year after death. It is less of a somber ritual then a bright celebration of the ancestors, fueled by food and friends. Already, neighbors were dancing in the yard, and women were singing and clapping their hands.

I was a total stranger, an out-of-place mlungu wandering around the township, but I was suddenly included, pulled in off the streets of Umlazi and made to feel welcome. Once again, I was touched by the warmth of Durban and reminded once again never to judge a place based on reputation. Everyone kept telling me that Umlazi was dangerous, but I honestly think that’s a generalization based on the past.

The fact is, Umlazi is bigger than the phone book.

Phone books normally just stick to the letters of the alphabet—and the last four letters, XYWZ, usually get squashed into one final abbreviated section.

But not in Umlazi.

In this city-by-the-city, there’s a section for every letter of the alphabet—and then some. Over the past few years, as the South African township outside Durban grows larger and larger, blanketing new hills with new people and quick homes, the neighborhood-naming has rotated back to the beginning: Sections AA, BB, and CC.

“I stay in AA,” said one man to me, on the beach in Durban. Then he asked me where I stay. It’s the ultimate African idiom—the question, “Where do you stay?”, which in fact means, “Where do you live?”

Many Zulu have asked me this same question, “Where do you stay?” and I thought they wanted to know the name of my hotel. But I have since learned to respond, “I stay in America.”

I love the frank poetry of African English, and the truth revealed in the odd wording. I am American, but considering my travels over the past few years, it is difficult to state that, “I live in America.” I merely stay there on brief occasions. America is my township.

Nobody can tell me the exact size and scope of Umlazi Township.

“At least a million,” said one woman. “Over 1.5 million,” corrected the other. “Probably closer to two million,” insisted one city politician, “with all the informal settlers.”

“Informal” is everybody without an actual address—all the newcomers who’ve moved to the city from the countryside of KwaZulu-Natal and from the whole rest of Africa: Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Congo and Somalia.

The informal settlers put up homes wherever they can find a patch of dirt—often on a steep slope. The houses are ramshackle, ingeniously crafted from timber, mud, tin, sticks, plastic, bricks and thatch. Refurbished containers (just like the one stacked on ships in the harbor) are placed on concrete and serve as ablution blocks, with toilets, showers and running water.

Once the primary black settlement of apartheid-era Durban, Umlazi is now the pan-African Brooklyn of South Africa’s east coast port. The area is growing so fast, they keep adding new double-lettered sections.

“We’re bigger than Soweto now, you know?” they said proudly. The people of Umlazi take pride in being the largest township in South Africa–a vast landscape of hills that are freckled with identical cement houses, as if a child kicked a lifetime collection of Legos across their backyard.

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I thought about about the American suburbs I know, with their ridiculously soapy street names like Pine Blossom Crescent, Meadowlark Lane or Nightmist Court. I myself grew up in a subdivision called Fox Run. But out here, the subdivisions of Umlazi are all business–in a single day, I visited Section D, Section W, Section S and Section AA. Each section of Umlazi was entirely indistinguishable.

Children played barefoot in burned-out bottle stores, women braided their hair on sidewalks or hung clothes on the line. In the heavy afternoon heat, organized teams played football in the various grassy parks. Dogs barked and chased cars.

The fact is, Umlazi is where Durban lives—well, about half of Durban. And much of the rest of Durban lives in formerly black-only townships that are a lot like Umlazi: KwaMashu, Inanda. The geography of apartheid left a metropolis of co-dependent neighborhoods spaced inconveniently apart. Today, the city center needs Umlazi and Umlazi needs the city, and yet the two still exist in somewhat separate realms.

Durban is a city of millions of people, but it’s also just one big village. The day after I met Nandi in her backyard in Umlazi, I ran into her in Durban’s city center–at the gym. She was in workout clothes and bench-pressing a dauntingly large barbell. We said hello to one another; I found out she worked as a manager at the university nearby.

Such is life in this African city where Zulu traditions and high-tech lifestyles are compatible. Based on a few days’ exploration, I’d say that life in in the townships is not what it was twenty years ago. New communities have evolved and a middle class has emerged.

Durban taxi drivers may still avoid Umlazi at night, but the fact is, I walked around in broad daylight without incident.  I did not get mugged or robbed or stabbed or attacked.

Rather, I was invited into the home of a total stranger. I was greeted warmly by new friends–I was offered food and drink and made to feel so welcome. And I left with several warm hugs and loving pats on my arm and back.

That’s what “township” means to me now. And I’m sticking with it.

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