Riot

Mandisi’s call came at 7:00 a.m. and I awoke as Thabiso prepared to bathe.  He told me that they were burning tires on the main road.  My first thought was: Why can’t they wait for a more reasonable time to protest, say noon?

I started the primer to fix coffee, figuring I’d need it, but also banking on African time for the actual burning.  When I arrived at the scene, however, the flames were reaching for the sky.  I soon understood why they were keen to start early—to catch the authorities off guard.  A Casspir (an armoured vehicle infamous for its use during apartheid) soon appeared, with a high pressure hose cannon on top.  It doused the fire at one intersection before moving on to the others, as far as the eye could see.  I imagined the show was over, but as soon as the Casspir had disappeared, more tires appeared from every direction and were immediately set alight.

Cue the Darth Vader track: the Casspir returned about 15 minutes later, this time with tear gas.  As I photographed people running away, I was pegged in the leg with the cannon spray.  It wasn’t until later that I realized the special attributes of the liquid splotched on my trousers.  The spray was neon blue as the Casspir continued down the street.  Children fled, screaming.

For much of the morning, the pattern continued.  Police vehicles trample and destroy barricades.  The people immediately find a way to reignite them.

Why tires, I wondered aloud?  A few responses: Symbolism/tradition.  Color of the smoke (black as night).  Quickly relit after dousing (unlike wood).  Longevity: a tire will burn for nearly an hour.

Councillors from every district soon arrived, making their political pitches on behalf of the people.  They echoed the pleas of the people: Electricity and Housing. No more broken promises.  The largest newspaper, The Herald, was soon on the scene.  More and more police appeared.

Eventually bargaining began.  Different police officers spoke to members of the committee, always surrounded by a mob of soot-faced people.

As I walked between communities with my camera, many thought I was a photojournalist from the local newspaper.  Children threw glass on the road while teenagers tied wire to flaming tires and spun them high above their heads like giant fire poi.  Most were keen to have their picture taken.

I take a break to go home to plant seeds in my new garden.  Carrots, maize, potatoes, and tomatoes with a border of sunflowers for protection.  Harvest in 3 months.

When I return, the tension of the morning, which saw rocks hurled at passing vehicles and protesters shot with rubber bullets (and me in the middle), dissipated as afternoon wore on.  The atmosphere began to feel more like a braai, people chatting and laughing, even police officers striking up conversations with us.

One officer had a frank and reasoned discussion with the director of the Informal Settlement Network, an impromptu spokesman.  He expressed dismay that Bethelsdorp taxes would have to pay for patrol and cleanup.  The director agreed, but countered that people with their backs against the wall have to do something—anything—to get attention to their cause.  It’s a shame but what else can they do?  The officer suggested that the blame lie with the councilors and that the people need to elect leaders that will truly help them.  I suggest that we go burn tires on their lawns.

The next morning, Chairman’s voice travels deep into my subconscious and gives me a slap to the face.  “Wake up!  Wake up!  P.E. is burning!”  Thabiso buries his head deeper under the covers on the couch.  I go to make coffee.

An officer tries to run me over on the sidewalk in his police truck.  I confront him and he refuses to give me his name.  “You don’t wear a badge?” I ask.  He checks his breast and replies, “Don’t have one on this jacket.”  I take several photos of his face and his license plate while he responds and inform him that I will be filing a complaint with his department.

I begin to discern my role as that of journalist/advocate.  If my lens is directed at the action, there is a better chance that human rights will be respected.  And if they are not, I will have proof.  I must deny the requests to help fetch tires.

The burning has lasted four days now.  There have been several arrests, a few injuries, an attempted looting,  no casualties.  Communities all over the city are now taking part.

Not everyone in the community is supportive of the measures.  Pastor argues that there was no forethought, no clearly defined aim, no leadership.  That it is destructive and illegal.  Though committee members are present during the day, schollies (hoodlums) run the show at night.

As stubborn conflict goes, each side has at least marginal merit to their actions.  There is logic in every idea and each argument. I take it all in.  A few schollies get out of control, but mostly, there is abundant spirit of community and togetherness.  People stay outside their homes and fellowship.  I’ve met more people from the neighboring communities than I previously knew altogether.  Whether it achieves results or not, demonstrations are the rare opportunity for those in informal settlements to change the power dynamics.  They give a marginalized community a say: power for the dis-empowered, voice to the voiceless.  This alone may be worth the tax dollars.(These photos are just a vanilla taste…photo essay to come?)

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Rain

Plop….plop….plop….. The room is still and quiet except for the repetitive sound of raindrops, forcing their way through the roof, cascading to a low spot in the ceiling and leaping into the kettle placed strategically below.  They are patient, waiting on queue for several seconds while they sign indemnity forms, strap on harnesses, and listen to lectures about safety precautions.  Their little, wet friends take photos from above, while down below, in the kettle, they sell DVD’s for ten times what they’re worth.

Port Elizabeth is a windy city, but rarely a rainy one.  The city is on water rationing; apparently the dam is at 25% and water will run out by July of next year.  But today, the rain has come.  Despite Thabiso’s reassurances, the roof does, indeed, leak.  Now, one solitary drop in a shack made of metal scrap, I consider quite a success.  Of course, as I write these words, I notice several wet spots on the newspapers lining the wall.  I can only hope the photo of 50 cent wearing a NY Yankees hat gets damaged.

Themba told me last night that if it rained, he would stay in bed (in couch) all day.  I didn’t have that luxury, as I noticed when I awoke that we were out of matches.  I left in the drizzle for Barakat’s to fetch fire so I could heat water for my morning Nescafe.  While I was out, I noticed the opportunity presented by the rain softening the earth and to my neighbor’s gleeful chiding, decided to turn the soil of the land I’m preparing for a garden.

Upon return to the house, I could see Thabiso was true to his word, blankets pulled over his head.  The only sounds were his stuttering snoring and the plip plop of water.  This soon increased with the mooing of nearby cattle in the bush and ubiquitous weekend kwaito from next door.

When Themba did arise, he immediately set about plugging leaks with bar soap and addressing issues with the roof.

A Day in the Life of Doing Nothing

Although it pains me to work on the Sabbath, I’ve decided to use today to finish my assignment: do nothing.  I realize that writing in my journal is immediately a breach of protocol, but I’ve decided to allow myself this one vice, in order to remember and reflect on the experience.

10h00

Pleasant time to think, staring out doorway at sheets drying on the line, green with orange flowers, flapping in the wind.  Hypnotic almost.  The noise they make sounds like the crackling of fire.  A larger, beige sheet seems to chase from behind.

I lift my coffee cup to my lips hundreds of times, only to rediscover that it is, indeed, empty.

I count the words on a book page, but won’t allow myself to read them—that would be cheating.

The sheets eventually disappear before my eyes (I don’t even notice, initially), and are replaced by the tiny shorts and socks of children.  They dance like they have little legs inside them.

11h00

There are 648 holes in each section of orange plastic construction fencing surrounding our yard.

My stomach begins to growl (but no food to eat).

I cheat and begin to make lists.  Can’t bear to let productive thoughts go to waste!

12h00

Cheat again.  Cell phone game: Super Jewel Quest

13h00

Begin to play with toes, pick dirt from fingernails.

It occurs to me that “doing nothing” is a contradiction of terms, impossible in its very makeup.  Making it an assignment gives me the psychological license to go forward….

Similarities to Eat, Pray, Love?

I haven’t read the book, but from what I understand, her idea is to learn to relax, enjoy your life, and be happy without the pressure of success, western ideas of movement, efficiency, etc.  My hypothesis is that inaction is a prison of poverty, difficult to overcome.  Doing nothing is not the same as Doing whatever you want to do.  If those bewitched by the demon Poverty could float above and take a long-term perspective, I don’t think that nothing is what they would want to be doing.

My persistent criticism of the lifestyle here so far has been: Why don’t you do something productive?!?  Not quite that easy, I don’t think.  Rejection breeds apathy.  Apathy is a drug.  Doing nothing breeds doing nothing.

Positive Nothing v. Negative Nothing

Nothing as space to do what pleases you.

Nothing as dark blob that overcomes all of what you might have wanted to do.

 

I begin to notice small things, like how the drape billows up in the wind and catches on the exposed splinters of the door, or how a bubble letter E is sketched on one of the ceiling boards.

The day begins with an opening of the mind—as we rarely give ourselves unfettered time to think—and end with a closing and eventual shrinking of the mind in malaise.

13h30

Themba stops by and I tell him of my plans to sit here all day.  His demeanor suggested, “it’s your funeral.”  He prefers to go to his parent’s and do nothing in front of the TV.  White noise…

Reflection on nature of poverty:

Those who have most to cry for are those with no voice.

Actively dis-empowering

Don’t have resources to obtain resources

14h00

Thinking of all the things I could be doing.

More coffee

Try to imagine if this were my life, with no way out.  Would seem like a world of walls.  But then I realize the folly of my abstract wanderings.  If this were my life, I wouldn’t be who I am today.  I wouldn’t have had the same opportunities for education, experience, upward mobility and progress, mind-opening.  I would be an utterly different person.

Social Anthropology.  Immersing self in a community to better understand the culture, the way they understand life, the earth, God, community, etc.  A window through which we better understand those things ourselves.

14h45

A thrilling one-act play starring the kids next door with slinkies wrapped around their faces.

15h00

Cloud gazing.  Becomes like those 3D pictures that you can’t see unless you cross your eyes.  I had never been able to do it before.

The theological parallels of the New South Africa—“semper reformandi.”  “Already, but not yet.”  A country that has technically changed, constantly changing, moving, shifting, striving, hustling, seeking to live out the ultimate change of reconciliation and justice.

What if they walls were filled with my books, my laptop set up for internet access, my photos on the wall and I enjoyed a semblance of privacy.  Would all we well?  Would I be home?  Missing ingredients: Relationships and Vocation.

15h45

Tent revival music drifts in from afar.

16h00

Greg, from next door stops by to ask for a cigarette.  Tells me he is tired, will take a nap.  I ask him if he slept badly last night.  “No, man.  Fine.  But I want to sleep now.”

How does one attain self-discipline?  What motivates?  Must you be driven by another, or at least by another person’s example?  Culture of malaise is hard to break.

Second cup of coffee

16h30

Brief walk to corner and back

Thoughts of sitting on a plane watching movies, snug in a blanket with ginger ale coming my way…

Hunger becoming more pronounced.

Body becomes accustomed to not moving—like its in the imprint on one of those Swedish mattresses.

17h00

So far still resisting tapping the remainder of the Ship Sherry.

18h00

Manawabis visits.  Seems weary.

I continue list-making as the wind ceases.

18h30

The sun goes down and my “fast” from activity is finished.  Not a moment too soon…

Ghosts

Ghosts

The Chairman of the Community Committee, H-, is a brilliant storyteller, naturally charismatic and animated.  His sense of humor buoys and accentuates every story, while his voice runs the entire scale of inflection accompanied by outrageous sound effects.

Gathered in the church cum community center on a gloomy Monday night, the flame of the paraffin lamp danced haphazardly, hurling primal figures onto the wall.  H- sat nearest to the lamp, which in turn cast him in a supernatural luminosity, giving peculiar life to each individual stub of facial hair.  Thabiso and Martha joined us, and the conversation ebbed and flowed from community projects to change in the new South Africa and ultimately, to ghosts.

Martha tells a story of seeing her mother, who lectured her about how to discipline her family.  Thabiso related how the ghosts throw something when the enter a room so that everyone outside of the intended recipient falls into a deep sleep.

“God hears me tonight,” H- begins his story, and ends with the ominous statement,  “Do you know how it feels to look into the eyes of a spirit?”   He blows out the lamp and sends us home in the darkness.  We trudge home under the haunting, pale glow of faraway flood lamps, quietly but resiliently.  I roll my eyes and chuckle to Thabiso.  He laughs into the stiff wind and we get ready for bed.  I did not sleep that night.

Two Worlds

My life in Port Elizabeth is divided into two.  I am like a man with two families (not terribly uncommon here).  One in the township, one in the center of the city.

My first life lacks running water, electricity and follows the pace of a snail.

My second consists of extended hours of internet access and correlating cups of coffee and is filled with busy paperwork, writing, emailing, and social activities.

The taxi is my portal between worlds, effectively serving as a buffer.

Afternoon Workout, continued

In retrospect, I’m a bit surprised by what I chose in the moment. I grabbed the dusty washcloths from the floor, turned up my nose slightly, and began to towel off. I was conscious that this was objectionable, but also aware that desperate times call for desperate measures. This is a new lifestyle I’m getting used to, and every moment is a growing one. Fortunately, Thabiso explained a much simpler shower method, and laughed heartily when I told him what I had tried to do.