Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Recently my research company began working on a very interesting project regarding buildings in the city of Durban. Part of our research was to visit various buildings in the city – in various degrees of disrepair. One of the buildings was particularly bad and it was a complete eye opener for us to see that people are living in what I would describe as the worst type of poverty – not even my experience of rural living in South Africa comes close to this. Ten or more story buildings with non-functioning lifts, no running water, no electricity. In some cases rubbish and human waste isn’t collected and the stench is unbearable. Those living in the buildings include foreigners who have come to South Africa to find a better life but have instead found xenophobia, exploitation and obstacle after obstacle as they search for work, pensioners who lived in a once beautiful building and are now trapped on the top floors because the lifts don’t work and they can’t walk down the stairs, and others who simply had no idea that owning a flat included additional monthly payments of levies and rates.  The following are some fictitious accounts of the lives of some of the inhabitants:

His ears are tuned to the sounds of the city orchestra; the blaring hoot of taxis looking for passengers, the whoop of a police siren – like a demented city hyena on the run, the high pitched screech of a woman in the middle of a domestic dispute, the dull thump of feet running up the crumbling cement stairwell outside his flat. He longs for silence but this orchestra never stops, never ceases to play a new tune.

He arrived in the city as the rising sun washed a warm glow over the tallest buildings he’d ever seen, turning the grey cement into burnished bronze, leaving him mesmerised by the freedom and independence he thought he saw reflected in the faces of those around him. He’d begun his journey in his homeland of the Democratic Republic of Congo, after fleeing his ruined village when militia wiped it and his family out. He joined the long snaking line of refugees united in their desire to find somewhere safe to rest their butchered souls. He walked for weeks, his bloodied feet wrapped in banana fronds, and followed some ancient path, which the others seemed to be drawn to. He gave no thought to the outcome, he just put one foot in front of the other, and walked. Along the way he acquired new friends and lost others to different routes and destinations. Until finally, his small band arrived in Mozambique and then crossed the border into South Africa during the darkest hour of the night. They had chosen this country because of all they had heard over the years from relatives and friends who had moved here to study, to seek their fortunes, to find peace.

And now, some years later, he finds himself uneducated, poor and at war with the city he calls home. He longs for the jungles of the Congo, for the misty rain that sweeps down from the mountains covering the village in lacey swaths, softening the voices of family and friends, obliterating the reality of the civil war raging around them, creating a cocoon in which they hide. But he is not there, he is here; sweating as he trudges a 20 litre bucket of water up the stairs, because the lifts have not worked in years. He shares a room meant for two with eight other refugees and hustles in the streets every day as he fights for his patch of road, watching cars for their owners, so that he can earn enough rands to pay the rent each month. His life is on repeat, and the track doesn’t seem likely to change.

****

She tsks her tongue against her teeth, her lips purse automatically; they no longer have a will of their own. Every day she stands at the window and surveys the streets below; her routine is the same, nothing changes here on the inside, but on the outside the change is so rapid, she can’t keep up. She is alone. Her children left the country years ago when she was still young enough to get by without them.

But now her husband is long gone and she lives alone in this flat meant for two. The views are spectacular; the ocean stretches from north to south and she can see the stadium when it lights up like a halo at night. Oh, the fun they had back in the good old days. You could walk the promenade at two in the morning, or run down to the shore to let the ocean wash over feet aching from dancing in high heels all night. The cool air caressed your skin as the salt settled in your hair – but who cared when you were young and in love! The mellow notes from the local jazz band at the Edward accompanied them as they made their way back to the home they’d always dreamt of.

You can’t do that these days though she thinks – you’ll get mugged before you can scream, and even if you could, no one would come to help you. Oh yes, she sees it all from up here. She watches the thugs and the gangsters, the prostitutes and the vagrants – up to no good. All of them. She longs for the days of her youth, when the city was off limits to those who now seem to inhabit it in their millions.

The block she lives in is no longer the beacon of prosperity that it once stood for – now it is filled with foreingers from every corner of Africa, the smell of curry permeates the air and neglect is draped across the once gleaming facade. And she is afraid. Afraid of the strangers that surround her, with their foreign clothing, strange tongues, and loud vibrant music. She hasn’t been onto the street below in years. The new tenants don’t understand the concept of levies and rates, so they don’t pay them. So the lifts have stopped working and the electricity’s been cut. Her knees, along with her confidence, have grown frail and she now depends on her neighour to do her shopping and keep her company. How she longs for her children to come and fetch her, to take her back to the land they now call home. But the letters are few, and their concern is lacking.

****

Here comes the man. He strolls the streets with an exaggerated swagger, eyeing up the girls and spending his fortune as fast as he can make it. And boy can he make it – there’s a sucker born every minute, and he knows how to find them. Life’s been good since he moved to the city – no more rural back-of-beyond living for him. The day he stepped off the bus and onto the Golden Mile, he knew he’d left that life behind. No ways was he ever going back, but if he did – he’ll go back loaded and build himself a mansion overlooking the valley. And everyone who walks past would say, “That’s Lucky’s place – he’s the man!”

If he’s honest, it didn’t start out so well out here on streets. He had to graft hard, running errands for gangsters, but he had little choice – if he wanted to live, he needed to hustle. Many nights he slept in doorways, down manholes, up trees and on the beach. And each morning he’d get a boot in the back or a club on the head, and told to move on. Little by little, job by job, he made his way, he earned his keep. And now he’s in charge of one of the biggest buildings in Durban – who would have thought! That small boy from the location is now a giant of the city, he rules the roost and no one dares cross his path.

He’s blacked out the walls of the building entrance, taken out the lights and barricaded the exits. He makes the lives of the inhabitants’ hell, and if they can’t pay the outrageous rent he demands, he breaks knees and noses. He’s not interested in sad tales of job loss or old age – he wants his money, and he gets it, one way or another. He’s stitched up the police because he’s got something on enough of them – prostitution, gambling, drugs – he knows their vices and he uses it to his full advantage. No one comes near him – he’s Lucky, the man.

2014 Year End NewsLetter - ILTL (hw)

Maboneng Precinct

Maboneng Precinct

Over the past while I’ve been reading Resident Alien, a collection of articles written by Rian Malan (author of My Traitor’s Heart, a book I bravely tried to read in my angst addled teens, but gave up after chapter 1) spanning twenty-something years. It’s been an education. I think as South African’s, we forget, or at the very least, are blasé about what we’ve been through, and what we managed to achieve. Has it all been good? No. But has it been exciting? Without a doubt. What I really love about Malan’s writings is that he isn’t afraid to put it all out there; sometimes messy, often negative, but always honest. But then he’s as brave to admit when he was wrong, and when his white, male South African-ness was just a tad too quick to judge, too quick to expect the worst.

I remember sitting in a bus, on the way to the beach, in 1994. It was one of those perfect Durban summer days, and the beach was calling. The bus was full; whites standing alongside blacks, jostling against Indians, swaying against all of humanity. Next to me sat an old white man, in fraying shorts and leather sandals. As he watched another black passenger embark, he turned to me and said, “I don’t think you’ll ever quite understand how hard this is for some of us.” And to be honest, at the age of 14, I didn’t. I’d grown up in a fairly liberal household, with a black sister, attending an all-girls, ethnically mixed Catholic School since Std 1. And before that, a multi-racial primary school. This was a pretty normal experience for me. But for this man, who’d been raised to believe in an ideology of superiority and separation, it must have been hell. Every fibre of his being must have been screaming out in bloody protest. Nearly 20 years later, and I still have moments of utter revelation at how far we’ve come. I see it when I sit in one of those wonderful Woolies café’s, sipping on a gingernut and honey cappuccino, and at the table next to me is a young black family; little girls in frilly dresses, mom looking like she just stepped off of a catwalk in Milan, dad looking every inch the successful businessman. Or when I head into the more unsavoury parts of Jozi and find, in an old parking lot, a roaring food market and a completely racially mixed crowd, chomping on oysters and chucking back glasses of champagne, tucking into steaming plates of paella and waiting for handfuls of exotic mushrooms to roast and layer onto their freshly baked sourdough loaf. It’s amazing. Here we all are, together, merging and actually enjoying it. Who would have thought.

In Malan’s article, Kind Words for a Mean Town, he talks of his fondness for his hometown, Johannesburg. And how, though strangers and foreigners will probably never understand it, he loves it. It’s a city of contradictions and surprise; of old Africa and the new world, “witchdoctors entering one building, accountants exiting the other” (p.268). And I feel the same way, not necessarily about Jozi, because it’s not my hometown, nor do I feel particularly drawn to it, with its beige and tan coloured gated estates, and its obsession with money and status. But it is how I feel about South Africa. As broken and dangerous as the rest of the world may perceive it, I love it…it makes me feel alive. I’m rarely bored, hardly a passive spectator, always a participant in some aspect of life (often someone else’s). Malan says to foreigners, and I’ve thought it enough times myself: we may not live as long as you, and we may never be as materially wealthy , but man will we live on the edge (p.269), on the cusp of something wonderful and dangerous and exciting. And I don’t know if this in an unhealthy way to live, but I couldn’t think of anything worse than being perpetually safe, nanny’d and unchallenged by the sheer ferocity and unfairness of life, which is dished out in a seemingly random lottery in our neck of the woods. Because as Malan says, “it’s a jungle out there, the most dangerous city in the world. But also the most interesting, if you have the courage to go.” (p.267). And courage we have aplenty, and go we did, into the heart of darkness.

Myself, and two friends, recently returned from our bi-annual cultural pilgrimage to Jozi; South Africa’s crime-ridden den of iniquity – and it was awesome! Durbanites are considered lazy, backwards and far too cool to actually buy a ticket to an international concert or play 8 months before the artists arrive. Instead, we find ourselves excluded from virtually every tour, spending three times the amount on accommodation, and flying or driving up to Jozi. So, to make it worth our while, we really go out of our way to explore the city. This time, we stayed clear of trendy and “safe” Parkhurst and Greenside, and headed straight into inner Johannesburg.

Maboneng Precinct main change

View from the Main Change building

Our first find was the Maboneng (place of light) Precinct, which can be found under a freeway, just off of Fox Street. It’s part of a regeneration plan for the less than desirable parts of the city, and has been upgraded to encourage urban artists to flood the inner city with their creative spirit. We headed into a courtyard of pebbles dotted with lemon and olive trees, and walked through to an old building filled with art galleries, edgy clothing stores and photographic exhibitions. It was a Friday, so it wasn’t exactly humming, but apparently the weekends are great, with a little market pulling in the crowds. We walked up the street, past gritty walls covered in graffiti, and were greeted by private security guards standing on each corner; letting you know that you are safe here in this once unloved section of the city.

At the Main Change building, we took a lift to the fifth floor, to check out a rooftop venue called Living Room, an eco urban café,  and walked into a fresh, green oasis of calm, succulents hanging off of and out of every available space. Nedbank was hosting a “green” event, but no-one seemed to mind our intrusion, so we sat and drank revoltingly healthy fruit and vege smoothies, and watched as small succulents were tenderly separated and replanted, as take home gifts for guests.

Maboneng Precinct

A walk through the Maboneng Precinct

The next day we made our way to Braamfontein, to find the Neighbourhood Goods Market. The market, can be found inside a building on 73 Juta Street, and is based on the successful Cape Town version. It’s apparently a landmark building, and again, the concept is based on regeneration of urban areas; getting people back into the city, claiming space that had fallen prey to misuse and crime. As we walked up the street, we passed a little corner deli and coffee bar; the scent of roasted coffee beans spilling out the door. Next to it is a retro camera shop, selling lomograph cameras and showcasing an exhibit of images taken on an iphone across South Africa. If you look closely enough at the detail, you’ll find small cement turtles making their way up the sidewalk, ready to cross the road, and explore the great beyond. You’ll also find a bustling, noisy, wonderful crowd of hipsters, students, foreigners, locals, buyers and sellers, all under one roof. The market has the feel of an underground car park; cement floors, harsh overhead lighting, and pools of water bought in by sodden feet and dripping umbrellas. But inside it’s also alive, with the scent of community spirit and optimism.

Juta street

Unconventional art on Juta Street

I left Jozi feeling a little less uneasy about the city, and more inclined to continue our exploration on our next trip. Walking those streets, I got the strong impression that the people that now inhabit these formerly avoided areas, did so with confidence and with sense of belonging. They were staking their claim and creating a new space, filled with movement and purpose, and a love for their city.

Place of Shades

place of shades

She sits alone on a bench of roughly hewn timber; her gaze sweeping over the vista before her. From her perch, high in the undulating folds of petrified rock and long grass, she watches the world unravel below. To the untrained eye, the land is mostly silent and empty. The only signs of life — the most obvious: the belching roar of a baboon troupe bouncing off the quarry walls, and the swoop of a hawk as it flies in low to catch a scurrying mouse. But to her the land lives and breathes, and in it, she finds comfort. She has sat on this bench, for months now. Her time spent learning the habits and patterns of the creatures that live in it, on it and above it. She has sat from sun-rise to sunset, and this is her favourite time of day, that magical hour between the suddenly rapid descent of the setting sun, and the onset of the darkest of nights; it is called the gloaming, and with it comes a sense of another time and place.

It’s not that she’s been lonely, up here on her hill. For each day He joins her and they sit together; sometimes talking about her life and her dreams: both realised and unfinished; sometimes sharing the hopes she has for her family as they continue without her. And He tells her that she was always loved, even when she felt so separated from His presence. No, she has not been lonely, but she has grown restless of late; a sense of longing wells in her chest every now and again, which she does not quite understand. There is something deep within her; a memory perhaps. A feeling of expectation, that she knows must soon be resolved. She lets the spiced scent of the veld wash over her like the gentle eddies of a lazy stream, and she watches.

Across the veld, caught in that soft light, a long line of elephant sway gently as they make their way home from the water hole. When she first arrived, the smallest elephant was fragile in its bumbling gait; she feared for its safety against predators. But now, these many months later, she can see he has grown in confidence as he chases a small warthog, trumpeting with glee as his quarry flees into a burrow. His trumpet unleashes a flock of tiny birds, which move as one in a wave of flight, their bodies swerving in and around the acacias and lala palms.

It is then that she notices she is not alone. There is a subtle shift in the density of the air, and she feels a presence add weight to her own. Her gaze moves across the breadth of the veld, and then down into the depth of the quarry. At the base she sees a small knot of people, who look both familiar and foreign. She stares hard at each one, trying to place them in the landscape of her mind, which feels like it is no longer her own. And slowly, the memories start to filter through; a vivid reminder of a life once lived, a life of colour and character, of love and friendship. It is a motley crew, for this small band of warriors have all fought a war of body and mind – some for months and years, others for but a few minutes. Their bodies display the scars of battle, and their weary heads are bent low as they make their way up the rocky path. She is standing when they reach the top. She understands now why she has been waiting here all these months; waiting for something she couldn’t quite explain. But now she knows that she is here to welcome them home, to have them sit their shattered souls upon a bench of roughly hewn timber, to have them rest from their fight for life, and the fight to convince their loved ones to feel strong enough to let them go. As the six of them sit, facing the soft orb of light that sets their hair alight; their bodies begin to mend, their souls begin to heal, and hearts — destroyed by sadness and loss — begin a beautiful reconstruction. And all the while He sits there, the heat of the day radiating from his open hands, and suffusing them all with His glorious light and enduring love.

(This past year has seen many dear and wonderful friends and family lost to us. When my mom passed away from cancer in August last year, we scattered her ashes over one of our favourite places on earth. High up on that hill, the wind swept through, carrying her spirit over the land and into the heavens above. I like to imagine that she sits there, watching over her domain, welcoming in the new arrivals, as they are born into life ever-after. This post is in remembrance of my mom – Geraldine McCarthy, of our dear Aggie’s sister – Tiny Sheshange, of Simi Harrison – friend to so many, of our childhood American dad – Rowan Caderet, of the wonderful and soft hearted Joyce Samuels – friend and helper to Kate, and most recently of Mrs Searle – my long-time friend Kerry’s mom.)

 

 

 

May 2013 newsletter

Tonight the moon is bright, throwing the shadows of acacia trees across the bone white of the veld. The wind is sighing, and bats skim low over our heads, chasing each other through the dark. We don’t often get to do this, us city-dwellers; lie back on the grass and look up into the domed canopy of the night sky. There is something wonderfully primitive in being still, watching the stars multiply as our eyes become accustomed to the blackness. Out in the veld, past the safety of the fence line, the fiery necked nightjars wail over and over again, “may the good Lord deliver us”.

This night reminds me of the many we shared as children in a magical place called Bonamanzi (which means see water in isiZulu). We’d pile into the family kombi, perhaps with a childhood friend or two, and make our way to our small piece of wilderness. Yesterday I returned to that childhood haunt, where as kids we’d stare up into the bright glow of the milky way, barely able to keep up with each other as we plotted out the fall of shooting stars. Tonight we see but three; either our childhood eyes have dimmed, or the light is creeping in from the nearby town.

Lalapansi (lie down), Bonamanzi’s bush camp, is no longer that childhood garden. The old beehive huts, made of reeds and thatching, have been replaced with proper little houses. The island on which our small human shapes morphed into mermaids and pirates, is now a grassy knoll on which future husbands and wives can declare their lifelong commitment to each other. The kitchen, which stood on stilts at the water’s edge, is now a gathering place for guests to relax and while away the hours, as the sun seeps crimson across the rippling water.

The old A-frame huts

View from the old kitchen – the old A-frame huts

The new lounge

The new lounge

Though much has changed in 20 odd years, I could still catch glimpses of myself and my sisters as we hunted for tree frogs, running wildly through the dark to the fire at the boma; we treated the camp as if it were our very own kingdom. Here I am reminded of family and childhood, and the happiness of being totally unaware of anything other than the freedom of the bush. It’s been less than a year since my mom passed away, and as I walked through the camp, I felt her presence; watched her walk ahead of me, turning to call out to us girls — urging us to hurry as we headed to the car for a night drive in search of crying bush babies and other small creatures of the night.

Going bundu-bashing

Going bundu-bashing

When I walked the trails of the bush camp, I had to remind myself that I don’t own this place, even though it feels very much like it is mine. I felt an intense sadness for all those visitors who will never know the true Lalapansi, that wild place of a bygone age. But then I think about my own future family. And I can see my children running through the bush, seeking out strange insects, learning the names and calls of birds, and living a life filled with the sheer wonder of nature. I can see my dad, with a grandchild on his knee, pointing out a yellow-throated longclaw, as he imitates the phooooooeeeet of its call.

When I returned home, I dug out all our old family photos; boxes holding moments in time, captured in all their innocence, untainted by the perfection of technology . There are my grandparents, out from Ireland, standing next to an old beehive hut. They loved South Africa, but I can well imagine they thought my parents were quite mad; living in Hluhluwe (a name they simply couldn’t pronounce), holidaying in an old hut with no electricity, dirty brown river water filling the bath. There is my dad, looking very much like a raven haired and moustachioed mercenary, sitting on his haunches, gun in hand, proudly holding onto the giant tusk of a warthog. On the back, my mom has written, “Don’s great moment of truth!!”.

The grandparents at Lalapansi

 

Dad with his first, and probably last, game kill

Dad with his first, and probably last, game kill

And there is my mom, grinning wildly as she swims alongside her three water-winged mermaids, in the cool and magical waters of our youth.

One of those days

Purple breasted roller

Purple breasted roller

Sometimes I get to experience a day so wonderful that I feel I might spontaneously combust with the type of joy that makes my body TING from the roots of my hair to the tips of my raspberry painted toenails. February 1st was one of those days; when living in South Africa just makes sense, and the idea of being anywhere else, doesn’t.

My day started off with a visit to the local high school which my non-profit, I Learn to Live, works in. We met with the life orientation teachers to discuss the programme we are implementing this year. Our programme is essentially about teaching high school kids in rural areas that they are valuable, that they are unique, and that they have a destiny. Our intention is to create a new culture in the school; one of working hard, putting your head down, and focusing on the task at hand (learning) in order to construct a better and more productive future. I have to be honest and tell you that it is hard work.

Not only are we working against a culture of apathy and disinterest in the learners, but also the very same culture within the teaching cohort. I can assure you that the two LO teachers were not exactly thrilled to see us. However, we persevered and brought out the teaching material we have the great privilege of using this year. Quite simply, it is awesome. The facilitator manuals are weighty and substantial and each learner gets a book with work sheets to do in class. The material constantly reiterates how valuable these kids are, and how much they have a part to play in ensuring that they can have a different future; one which does not have to be a mirror image of the life their parents/caregivers have led.

We handed over the material to the teachers to have a look through and as they flipped the pages, it was as if a tiny spark lit up from within and their demeanour became ever so slightly enthusiastic. They liked what they saw, and they wanted to incorporate it into their classes. This is important to us because if we don’t have the buy in from the teachers, they aren’t going to encourage the learners to grab hold of the wonderful opportunity they are being presented with. We left that meeting with the hope that as the teachers read through the material, they too will be encouraged to see value in themselves and their role as teachers in a rural school in South Africa. We know the task ahead is daunting; we don’t see this as a short term project but rather as a long term commitment. Changing learnt behaviour is incredibly difficult and we know that it might only be in 5 years time that we see significant change. But we are committed and we are excited to be part of changing a small part of the social fabric of South Africa.

The night before, Empangeni experienced one of those awe-inspiring storms that flood your home, damage your car and litter the road with strange artefacts. As we headed up to Hluhluwe, the rain continued to fall in torrents, and we weren’t holding out much hope for our weekend at the game farm. However, by the time we arrived, the sun had emerged and flooded the veld in the soft magical light found just before twilight. We headed off in the jeep out into the veld to see what we could find, and our first sighting was a male cheetah; fat and lethargic, resting in the open space of the airstrip. Just up the road we came across a large nursery herd of delicate impala, posturing male nyala, and five small wildebeest chasing each other in the open veld as their mothers ran rings around them. There was such life in that small patch of land. I was reminded of August last year when the earth was dry and dusty and the animals were skin and bone. I remember feeling like we would never see the rain again or that a shoot of tasty green grass may never pass the lips of an impala. And I thought of the seasons in our life and how change is always around the corner, waiting for us.

Baby impala

Nursery herd of impala

Eagle in flight

Eagle in flight

On the wind came the sound of reed frogs chirping, so we followed the calls until we came across a small pond and were deafened by the chorus of frogs in the fading light. Never before have I heard such a concentration of frogs serenading. The air pulsed with energy and we felt almost hypnotised as they sang in unison (click to hear sound – takes you to another website which is also mine). As we headed back past the airstrip we saw the cheetah dragging the very mangled body of an impala out into the open space. We went in for a closer look and realised he’d been feasting all day on that carcass and the whoop whoop of the hyena told us they were already encroaching on his territory. We ended the day watching him eat the last of his impala under a yellow fever tree, a double rainbow arcing across the sky. That night we stood out in the open veld, heads lifted to stare into the cavernous depths of the sky studded with millions of stars. I glimpsed a shooting star track its way across the sky and knew that it was just one of those near perfect days in South Africa.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.