Afternoon Workout

It was the first sunny day out of many and I was inspired to go for a jog.  I like to stay fit, but moreover, I enjoy taking meandering, spontaneous jogs through new places as a method of exploration.  My hosts were, of course, shocked that I would attempt such things.  “Run?  Can you do that?”  H asked.  Thabiso declined based on the rationale that, “in the township, you don’t run after 8:00 in the morning.”  When I asked why, he just shook his head and repeated, as if it were so obvious he could explain no more.

The jog itself was primarily uneventful, but interesting, as I was viewing new places.  I stopped to chat and try out my Afrikaans greetings with a man who introduced himself as Patrick.  I informed him that I was heading back toward Riempi and he said, “Be careful.  Tsotsis.”  I thanked him for his concern.

Further on, two “boytjies” sat playing with rocks and staring at passing cattle.  When I stopped to talk, they were suspicious and shuffled off in the other direction.  An unfamiliar white face usually elicits one of these two reactions.  Either the concern of Patrick, or the suspicion of the two loitering shepherds.  The dream is that someday, a white face will simply be another part of the Rainbow Nation and that the welcome and pleasure of my community in Riemvasmaak is not an exception, but the rule.  For now, that is part of a grander vision that involves many difficult step.  The road to reconciliation is long, but is filled with small strides.

When I returned home, I was hot, sweaty, and smelled the part.  I knew that I would need a full body wash and I had no idea how to do that with the facilities in my shack.  Until this day, I had subsisted on sponge baths and showering on weekends when I returned to town.  I had anticipated this moment since I first moved, but hadn’t quite prepared myself for the ten people gathered at Martha’s when I arrived to ask for instructions.  (Imagine a guest in your home asking you to teach him how to bathe.)  I braced myself for shack-shaking laughter, and was relieved when Martha calmly explained the process.

(People in the township know what life is like in the more developed world; they’re not ignorant.  These are their primary grievances.  They want plumbing, electricity, etc.  It is logical then that I don’t understand some of the intricacies, in fact, they expect me to know quite a bit less and understand quite a bit less than I do.  In their eyes, whiteys are accustomed to life at a higher level of luxury and incapable of doing what they do, thus the questions that sometimes make me feel like a five year old: “Can you walk there by yourself?”)

To this point, my bath each morning has taken the form of a sponge bath in a large, plastic basin.  It closely resembles the manner in which you would over a sink, except that you have to dump the water afterward.  I would now attempt the full-body in this same scratched, black basin, which suddenly didn’t seem quite so large.  Fortunately, Thabiso was visiting his “future wife,” so I had some rare privacy.

Aqua green paint peeled from the door slats, where the noonday sun sent streaks of light into the dark room.  The orange and white checkered plastic tablecloth flooring, which resembled the University of Tennessee end zone in miniature, was splotched with puddles of water and mud.  The white plaster and newspapered walls peered down upon me, judging.  I had to squeeze my body into the basin, which again, would be like sitting in your counter top sink at home.  To be clear, this basin is about two feet in diameter.

I am not as flexible as I once thought.

Crammed into this thing as far as I could go, yet unable to reach the bottom, my knees flailed around hopelessly.  I splashed about like a fish out of water (in every sense) and attempted to spread soap around.  The rinse was nearly impossible, but not quite as humorous as the next part.

Thabiso and I were now staying “on top” in a different shack for a week while we expanded the one below.  In the move, I had forgotten one or two items which, until now, had proven superfluous.  Suddenly I remembered one of those items which would prove more crucial: my towel.  It was still below.  My eyes darted around the dark room anxiously looking for an escape hatch.  How would I dry off?  Ideas flashed through my head:

1)    Shake off like a dog and dry in the sun

2)    Use clothing for a towel

3)    Utilize some dusty washcloths from the floor

4)    Toilet paper

5)    Never get out

Which would you choose?


Blog Business

A couple of notes:

1) You will have obviously noticed that my recent posts are long on words and short on pictures.  This is a conscious choice.  Though it is killing me, I have intentionally avoided bringing a camera with me so as not to alienate my new neighbors.  I want our relationships to be authentic relationships of equal footing, as opposed to the relationship between subject and object.  Hopefully, I will soon have acquired enough social capital to venture forth with a camera…

2) Also, I’ve been spending long hours on Saturdays compiling thoughts and observations at a coffee shop with internet and then scheduling my posts so they come at a readable pace during the week.  So, just because you see posts on the blog, please don’t think I’m ignoring emails, etc.  I still have no internet access during the week.  In fact, living without my accustomed level of communication and access to the outside world has been one of the most difficult assimilations.

Protest in the New South Africa

The closed door displayed a poster featuring the man who worked behind it, tight-lipped and staring ahead, as if looking straight through you.  His name was printed at the top with a message, bold and underlined, that read: “Please Note: 1) Do not interfere with my private life, 2) Mind your own business, 3) My lawyer’s letter is at your doorstep, 4) I thank you for your consideration.”

After three hours of waiting, the four of us were ushered into a room with three chairs, one covered in broken Xerox equipment.  Andre crouched beside the desk and Thabiso stood.  The wall beside the councilor was covered with Eagle Computer Training course completion certificates, 8×10 photos of political events, and a Springboks rugby poster.  Sitting in front of a large poster of DA leader Helen Zille, was the man from the poster, spectacles perched atop his head, a kakye button-down with pens in the shirt pocket, and gold rings shining from the three smallest fingers of his left hand.  As we were introduced, he rose to greet us and began an autobiography which grew steadily into a sermon, complete with Scripture references.  His voice rose and fell in crescendos; his body followed, occasionally standing to lean across his desk with both arms or pace the one step back and forth that space allowed.

He challenged us to guess his highest level of schooling, which we all declined to do, then bragged about his achievements despite the limitations of his Standard 4 education.

My companions declared their intention to march to the police station the following day to present a list of grievances.  Though it had been arranged, registered, and approved by the requisite authorities, the councilor’s word could make or break the occasion.  A moment of tension and anticipation followed before the councilor agreed to participate.  He pontificated further: “We want to destrrrrrrrrrroy Mr. Crrrrrrrrrrrime!  But we need the right tools for the job.”

Martha nudged me, indicating that I should say something.  I began to introduce myself.  Deep breath.  “Yes, yes.  You must participate yourself, experience the life of the people,” he said, approvingly.  He dramatized a conversation:

“I was in Riemvasmaak,” he mimicked someone stating and then responds to his own statement: “Oh yeah?  What did you do there?”  “You will be able to say, I know what it feels like to have a smiley in your stomach.  I know what it smells like to use a bucket for a toilet.”

On the walk back, trash had been gathered by the wind and pinned against fences as if it had been superglued.  Thorny brush bushes looked like Christmas trees adorned by empty candy wrapper, newspaper, and diapers.  Two laughing children did back flips on an old set of mattress springs in the flood plain separating communities.

The next day, the everyone gathered in the local church, which doubles as a town hall.  Orange sashes were tied around the arms of the marshals, who were given the task of containing the marchers within their self-created boundaries.  Cardboard panels were marked haphazardly with black marker in English, Afrikaans, and Xhosa:

“Help us help ourselves!”

“No more housebreaking, rapes, thefts!”

Bundled in scarves, various headgear and jackets to guard against vicious howls of wind, the march began on Manu Abis’s whistle.  Behind a police escort and in front of the councilor’s SUV, nearly 100 participants surged forward toward the Bethelsdorp Police Station.   The most remarkable feature of the march was the foot stomping, chanting, and dancing of toyi toyi.  Broadly reminiscent of a military style of marching, it was originally used during the days of apartheid and is still utilized in protests to express grievances against government policy.

Thabiso emerged from his shell, sprinting to the front of the pack and marching backward, knees to his chest, spurring the others on and invoking the most famous of the toyi toyi chants:

“Amandla!” he shouts, “Ngwethu!” we all respond.

Power!…is ours!

“Ngwethu” he yells again, “Amandla” we reply.

Another of the songs proved the lasting contribution of the Beastie Boys to political struggle:

“Amalungela” (Our right)

“Silwela amalungela” (Fight for our right)

And the classic, transcending all nations and cultures:

Viva Riemvasmaak!


A primary school halfway through the route provided the most exciting part of the march for me.  The entire student body, cheering and waving in their navy and white uniforms, climbed and pressed against the fence to witness our passing.

At the police station, the councilor danced alongside the group.  He later gave a speech that followed one by the Chairman.  After the grievances were handed over, we dispersed peacefully and returned to the town hall to debrief.  Patricia exclaimed on the way back, “I am so happy!  Our voices have been heard.”


Outside, it looks like a typical shack.  Inside, it’s a home.  Martha lives at the end of a row that includes two of her three sisters.  Between the three of them, they have 5 children ranging from 4 to 6 months.  They float between the three homes, children and cats in tow.

Martha likes to pronounce the benefits of hard work and discipline. “We decided to move to an informal settlement so that we’d appreciate a brick house when we got one.  When I look at that house, I’ll say, ‘that’s my house—and I’ll appreciate it.”  Describing her approach to parenting, she intones an old maxim, “Bend a tree while it’s young.”

Though in outward appearances, Martha’s shack is of the same mold as Thabiso’s, inside it is an altogether different manifestation.  Thin patches of carpeting are covered by a roomful of furniture, which is needed to accommodate her many and frequent guests.  There is a small couch that can fit up to three people, a cushioned chair for a couple more, and two beds, one larger for mother and

A Riempian uses the water tap

father, plus a small one for the two kids that during the day is pressed into service as another sitting area.  The cardboard and plywood walls house two windows with ornate dressing, and can scarcely be recognized behind a houseful of appliances.  They have everything a “wealthy” family would desire—stove, oven, refrigerator, washing machine, TV/DVD, Computer—with only a few exceptions.  There is no running water.  Riemvasmaak has seven outdoor taps scattered through the community and available toeveryone.  The water is clean and potable.  For a family of four (and all of her guests), Martha makes an errand for water about every other day.  She fills six ten-liter jugs of water that the family uses for cooking, bathing, washing up, and any other imaginable need.  Two of the jugs are stored on the counter next to a plastic basin.  Except for the initial effort of retrieving water and the end result of dumping the water outside, this functions very nearly like a sink in Glendale, Illinois.  The washing machine is filled and emptied manually.

To run the various appliances, Martha contacted a woman up the hill and offered her R 80 per week to connect to her electrical supply.  This symbiotic relationship provides the unemployed woman with an income and Martha’s family with electricity.  The family (including the houses of her two sisters) has installed a breaker and run electric wiring up and over three rows of shacks, a tarred road, and down again to link into the electricity of a brick house in the nearby township of Kleinskool.  On any given road, you are likely to see tangles of wiring at your feet crossing intersections, connecting homes and collecting dust.

A well-used toilet

Whereas Thabiso’s toilet facilities lack a door, Martha’s toilet, perched between the her house and her sister’s, has the numerals “33” left over from it’s previous life.  I ask if I can have my mail sent here.

I eat when my hosts eat.  Due to Thabiso’s bachelorhood and lack of cooking facilities, this usually involves a stop by Martha’s in the evening and a visit to Thabiso’s parent’s in the afternoons.  If this fails, I go hungry.  Martha has taken to calling me her second son, and consistently admonishes me for being too shy about what I need or want.  If I desired, I could walk to a neighboring area to find one, but there are no restaurants in Riemvasmaak.

Growing up, my father occasionally told stories about growing in poverty.  One story I remember well involved the necessity to eat ketchup sandwiches when there wasn’t enough food around the house.  One afternoon, myself and five of the committee gathered around a bench to fill our stomachs with mayonnaise sandwiches.  All in all, considering the hunger that persists in the community, I have been provided for in the most incredible ways.


Packing list for move:

1 tattered, red and white blanket

2 pairs of shoes

2 of every other essential article of clothing

1 jacket

1 winter hat

1 puzzle of Africa

The house is 3.2 x 3.7 meters.  I know this not because I am Rainman, but because it is spray painted in large red numbers on a dusty piece of scrap metal that is perched above the double swinging window at the front of the shack.  On each side, old addresses from previous government administrations have been marked and forgotten by the (Housing Department).  The current address, RVO 337, is hardly distinguishable from the multiple previous manifestations.  This is a classic “shack,” walls and roof of silver and rust from edge to edge.  A single, wooden door to the right of the windows allows a manageable space for entry before wedging stuck between the laminate floor and plywood ceiling.

Inside, the room is dominated by a full-size bed, complete with decorative duvet and pillow covers.  In case of insomnia, the wallpaper features newspaper from 2008, horizontally plastered for ease of reading.  Last night, I christened a crossword puzzle by filling in the word, “engine.”  A fairly “busy” wall, the only additional adornment are three poster/photos of 50 Cent.  Underneath one, on a worn, but still very comfortable loveseat sits Thabiso.  With his diffusive yet goofy smile, the only obvious resemblance he has to his hero is a gold tooth, and a stab from a fight over a girl.  A paraffin lamp sits on the bedside table while a battery-powered radio dictates in Xhosa.

It is not your average bachelor pad, but a largely resembles a place of transience, as Thabiso has been “commuting” for two years from this shack in Riemvasmaak to his parent’s house in Izinyoka for food, clothing, and bathing.  I make fun of him for being a “mama’s boy,” while some in the community call him bederft. Nevertheless, there is a bucket outside for a toilet and a basin inside for bathing.

We spent the afternoon I first moved in sitting on the couch, and getting acquainted while putting together a puzzle of the continent.  He honored me by bestowing upon me a Xhosa name, Elethu.  He explained that his reasons: first, it forms a piece of his full name, Thabisolethu, symbolizing that we were brothers; second, the literal meeting is “our hope,” which he said is what I symbolized to the community.  “I am the first one of my family to go overseas,” he grinned.  “I have an American living in my home!”

Thabiso has been unemployed since 2008.  He says this with no emotion. He estimates that Riemvasmaak experiences 65% unemployment.  This is no scientific study, but accurately captures the depth of the issue in South Africa.

There is a photo of his daughter on his cell phone, which turns itself on and off of it’s own volition.  He sees the girl’s mother a couple of days a week when she is not working, but cannot stay too long, otherwise he will incite her parent’s ire.  When Liefie was born, Thabiso’s parents had to visit hers to pay a fee for the pregnancy.  Now, he has to wait until he can earn enough money to present a “labola” in order to marry her.  He usually refers to her as “my future wife.”  Her brother is frightened of him.  “He won’t look me in the eye,” he explains.

Most people in Riempi can’t afford airtime (which functions pay-as-you-go, like a debit card), but everyone seems to have a cell phone, anyway.  The phone companies have a function whereby you can send an SMS that reads, “Please Call Me” to any other phone for free.  You simply enter a short code before the appropriate phone number.  If you’re cagey, there is room for a message of about 6 characters alongside the “Please Call Me.”  My friend, Andre,  has saved every number he has in his phonebook with the code in front, meaning this is the sole function for which he uses the phone.  Thabiso and his girlfriend have a ritual communication each day before she goes to work.  She sends a PCM with a message that reads: t.ilu.d.  Decoded, it means: Thabiso, I love you, Disa.

Most township denizens are entrepreneurial at heart.  The ordinary individual has extraordinary dreams of buying low and selling high.  Thabiso is no exception.  Plans are now in the works to expand Thabiso’s shack to make room for a spaza shop (the equivalent of a corner store).  Buying paraffin and peanuts in bulk, one can sell for a modest profit.  In a few years, there may be enough for his labola.  He has decided the name will be “Thabiso and Elethu’s Spaza Shop”


Riemvasmaak, more commonly known as “Riempi,” is an informal settlement technically known as Extension 27.

An Informal Settlement is a track of land that is owned by someone other than the people who live there.  This usually takes the form of  “shacks,” but what tenants reasonably prefer to call homes.   These homes are thrown together from any and all of the available materials.  The trade has formalized slightly in the modern age, with businesses selling pre-fabricated shacks of wood and metal.  Construction is simpler if only for the lack of plumbing and electrical wiring.

Material for shacks comes from the hustle of the streets.  Plywood originates from boxing used to ship auto parts from Germany.  Palettes used for walls and fencing are bought from factories for a modest price.  Cardboard can be picked up behind local businesses.  Roofs are of two types: sturdy, cement and asbestos, and various thicknesses of corrugated metal.

If necessity is the mother of invention, the Nobel Prize committee could do worse than seeking its next beneficiary from the land of informal settlements.  Innovation and ingenuity are the rule.  Picking a random point and taking a 360 degree view would reveal a world of innovation: mattress box springs for fencing, old tires used in ways you couldn’t imagine.  In fact, shantytowns are the new architectural trend for green, efficient designs in the western world.

A private corporation named Urban Foundations owns the land on which Riemvasmaak was hurriedly situated.  The driving motivation of the committee is to gain the title deeds to the land and acquire brick and mortar housing.  The committee members have no doubt this will happen, and will happen soon.  They work with an organization called Informal Settlement Network, which supports them in their organizing. “We are the most powerful informal settlement in Port Elizabeth,” the Chairman of the Committee declares. Truly, Riemvasmaak is the most politically active community I have ever lived in.  In a nod to revolutionary predecessors, the members of the committee refer to each other as “my leader” and, less frequently, “comrade.” They work tirelessly, often meeting several times a day to discuss urgent community matters.  “Our shoes are wearing thin,” one of the committee members expresses.

Riemvasmaak is a “mixed” township, meaning it contains people from different ethnicities.  With the exception of one non-South African (and myself), this effectively means there are both Xhosa and Coloured.  This is remarkably uncommon.  The legacy of apartheid is still alive in the spatial dynamics of sub/urban residential areas, which functionally means that Xhosa live in black townships, Coloured live in coloured townships, and whites live somewhere completely different.  Riempi prides itself on breaking those barriers and is conscious of the image they project.  The Committee reflects the overall demographic, 7 Coloured and 3 Black members.  Before a recent protest march, the Chairman (Coloured) noticed that all the signs had been written in English and Afrikaans.  He instructed Thabiso to make a few signs in Xhosa to accurately represent the people.  The languages themselves are merging, Thabiso explains.  “Here in the Eastern Cape, the Xhosa guys and the Coloured guys are mixing the languages.”

One man, “Pastor,” as they call him, owns a truck, but no one else in the community has an automobile.  “Our shoes are our cars,” Andre explains.

Dusty, rocky paths are the salient feature of Riemvasmaak.  The rocks present formidable obstacles to walking around at night, yet are convenient ammunition against the mangy, malnourished dogs that tend to block passage.  Metal wires are strewn about at every conceivable location and angle to dry laundry and to provide  protection against intruders who likely wouldn’t expect a wire at neck level as they’re running from the house.

Visibility at night is limited to the full moon and the glow from steep floodlights up the hill in neighboring “formal” townships.

My new home

I spent yesterday afternoon meeting with the Community Committee of Riemvasmaak, my new neighborhood in Port Elizabeth.  It is a four year old informal settlement, meaning that the occupants lack title and deed to the land, but are working diligently to receive it.   The name, Riemvasmaak, means “to tighten your belt,” signifying a knack for survival that one can immediately see in each member of the committee.

As I sat on a couch at the home of the man they call “Pastor,” enjoying pineapple Fanta (tastes like a lifesaver), I laughed jovially with everyone else as the committee considered my situation in a combination of Afrikaans, Xhosa, and English.  Everyone I met was the epitome of caring and supportive; they seem as excited to have me in their community as I am to be there.

After subtle twists and turns of conversations and gestures, I was informed that I would be staying “under,” which apparently meant down the hill on the far side of the community.  (Far is relative, there are only about 1500 people in Riemvasmaak; it’s probably a 5 minute walk).  A young man entered the room and introduced himself as Thabiso, my new housemate.

Thabiso built the shack himself.  It consists of one room, wallpapered with old newspaper, very convenient if you can’t sleep at night.  The floor was a sturdy plastic and supported two pieces of furniture, a full-size (?) bed and a small couch.  There are two outhouses with a unique, minimalist twist: three walls and no roof.  Water is from a tap a few minutes down the road.

I officially move in to my new digs this afternoon.  My current emotions are the standard ones: excited and apprehensive, just like anyone making a move to a new living situation with new people and new challenges.

More will follow, but probably very slowly, as I’ll be lacking electricity, much less internet access.  Thanks for your thoughts and prayers…