Money Troubles

Riemvasmaak has been labouring to start a crèche for local children to give freedom to the mothers to work during the day, while at the same time creating jobs. Recently, the teacher quit over a money dispute. She accepted R 150 for each child and spent the money on supplies (or so she says). The problem is, she can’t produce any receipts documenting the use of the money. Better record keeping could have prevented the dispute, and possibly sustained the project.

Last week, the accuser in the crèche case staged her uncle’s death. Xhosa tradition dictates that family members each contribute an established amount of money toward funeral costs. Patricia amassed over R 1,000 by spreading the word that their uncle, who lives in the Transkei, had passed away. Her plan was foiled by her ignorance of the bus schedule, telling family members she was travelling on a non-existent route. They pooled money to call the Transkei, realized the uncle was still living, and drug Patricia to the police station.


Perils of Fire in Informal Settlements

The danger of shack fires is well-documented. I have witnessed several. Last week, I was present from beginning to end.

We called the fire brigade at 11:53am. They arrived with the truck at 12:10pm, after the fire had been contained by residents. (In other settlements, I’ve seen the residents hurl stones at the fire truck in anger when it arrived.)  Initially, people stood and watched, frozen. Eventually, people were scurrying about, searching for a way to control the fire. It was the same old story: access to water was not substantial enough. Seven people waited in line to fill buckets at the water tap, about 30 meters away. A water chain eventually formed, but it just wasn’t enough. The fire spread to each side, eventually consuming three homes before the people miraculously got it under control.

While some struggled with water, others used the only means they had to combat the flames. Some used planks of wood to swing at the structural poles while others used stones to throw at the sheets of plywood—all in an effort to break the materials to the ground and prevent the fire from spreading.

The fire was started accidentally by a young man smoking dagga in his shack. He was brought before the community as if before a jury. In tears, he mouthed, “I’m sorry.” His face distorted in agony. Expecting some kind of mob justice, I waited for the beating to begin. Yet, to my surprise, they let him go, collapsing into the outstretched arms of a woman I took to be his mother.

Looting began while the embers were still hot, older boys carrying away metal grating.

A Spaza Blessing

The Spaza shop is the only real place of commercial activity in Riempi, so the energy is a welcome distraction,

plus, I enjoy visiting Farouk, the elder statesman of the family-owned business. Farouk is a former Golden Boot rugby star, a devout Baptist, and has a joy-inducing laugh similar to Dr. Hibbert from the Simpsons.

As I arrived, a young boy of about eight steps up onto the blue, plastic milk crate, dirt overflowing its crevices. “One Chicago, please,” he says, the black sweater and grey slacks of his school uniform baking in the afternoon sun. Farouk hands him the discount cigarette through the grates of the spaza window, holding it between his large thumb and forefinger until the child will answer his question, “How was school today?” “Fine,” the child finally responds and Farouk releases the booty. The boy walks off, his shoes crunching the pebbles on his way to a) give it to mama, or b) smoke behind the church.

My mission today was to get airtime for my phone. Buying airtime is a bit like putting together a puzzle; it comes in pre-packaged amounts, so it’s a quest to put together the right combination of cash denominations to get nearest to your sum without going over. I told Farouk I had R20 to spend and prepared myself for the negotiation of numbers.

He informed me that the he only had vouchers of R12, then shocked me by telling me to take two R12 vouchers and he would pay the extra R4. Embarrassed at the prospect, I began to search my pockets earnestly for leftover coins. When I happened upon a R5 coin, I handed it over, relieved. Farouk replied, “You don’t want to be blessed this morning, hey?” followed by his world famous chuckle.

The man behind me drug a large flour bag full of dusty liquor bottles to exchange. He pulled them out one by one andhanded them over. Farouk clasped them to this chest and returned with four cigarettes and a bag of Nik Naks, a local chip that resembles a Cheeto. A strong burst of wind kicked up moldy dust and hot gravel, carrying it through the streets and spraying it noisily, rock on metal.




While I may seem a paragon of stability and courage in my blog posts (at least, I write them to sound that way), I have begun to feel the effects of living in an informal settlement. While culture shock is familiar and, indeed, present, I’m reacting to my environment in ways I haven’t experienced before.

I am beginning to understand why clean, orderly shopping malls are so popular with people in developing countries. When your living situation is chaotic and inconsistent, even polished tiles and humming fluorescent lights are calming.

My uncertainty has manifested in physiological issues. I experience a latent sense of insecurity and anxiety. I’ve noticed a consistent shortness of breath; filling my lungs is like trying to fill a mattress that has a hole in it. Nothing is ever sure: time, people, weather, transport, food, health, job. I’ve been experiencing an emotional shift toward people and surroundings.

I am sleeping on a mite-infested couch and being consumed on a nightly basis. My lack of power to make a change to my environment, gives a sense of how health, hygiene, and poverty interact. It doesn’t help that I am unable to clean myself properly. I haven’t had so many dermatological issues since I was thirteen. I looked at myself in the mirror recently and realized just how scrappy I look. In contrast, it is amazing how polished Themba’s appearance is, consistently.

Our dishes are never cleaned, just rinsed out. I try to use hot water when to rinse them when I can. It’s no wonder I have an eternal cold.

Tireless Political Action

This week, as a continuation of the tire burning of a few weeks ago, several informal settlements in the Northern Areas organized a march to City Hall. Over 1,000 people participated; most even paid for transport to the location where it began.

The toyi toyi was top notch, much more passionate and animated than I saw on my first march with Riemvasmaak a few months ago.
I learned some new songs:

“My mother was a kitchen girl.

My father was a garden boy.

That’s why I’m a Riemvasmaak, I’m a Riemvasmaak, I’m a Riemvasmaak.”

Access to adequate housing, in the new South African Constitution, is guaranteed by law.  “The state must use legislative measures and other measures within available resources to achieve progressive realisation of this right.”  This has been interpreted to mean free housing for all who don’t have it.  A very different approach than the one I am used to in the United States.

The whole idea of the best method to achieve access to housing raises questions for me. (questions I would never speak to anyone in Riempi.) Obviously, my home is Riemvasmaak, so I am sympathetic to their cause, but I can’t help but thinking about the big picture. Protesting, political pressure, etc. seems like little more than jockeying for position. There are “X” number of people in South Africa that need housing and “Y” amount of money. Human Settlement can only build so many houses at a time. Riempi’s political activism works well for them, but on the grand scale, it is stealing from Peter to pay Paul. That, of course, doesn’t dissuade someone who has to use a bucket for a toilet.

What should be done? The most important actions for South Africa as a whole would be to have qualified, effective, and driven leaders in charge of important departments of service delivery, increasing the quality of homes (many RDP homes fall down after a couple of years because of shoddy building) and decreasing government corruption.

Tale of Two Pastors


I have been intending to write a nice, in-depth essay comparing two Christian pastors who have recently caught the attention of the world.  Unfortunately, I have neglected the task and the timeliness is fading.  As a compromise, allow me to at least juxtaposition the two and perhaps spur some critical thinking.

In one corner, we have Pastor Terry Jones of Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, USA who made news for his pledge to host an event to burn copies of the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam.

In the other corner, we have Xola Skosana from Hope for Life Ministry in Khayalitsha, the largest black township in Cape Town, South Africa who attracted controversy for his sermon entitled, “Jesus had HIV.”

The stated purpose of Pastor Jones was to fight back against Islam, which he labels a violent religion.  He eventually cancelled the event after intense international pressure, including an unprecedented phone call from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.  Supposedly, a local imam promised that the proposed Islamic Center near Ground Zero would be moved.

Pastor Skosana’s intention was to address the stigma of HIV in African townships and popularize testing.  At the conclusion of his sermon, he took a blood test in front of his congregation.  While South Africa is at the top of the list in HIV infections, Khayalitsha doubles even these astronomical numbers.

While I will necessarily leave out a number of important factors relating to each pastor and church (this is a blog after all), let’s give a cursory examination to each pastor’s position.

Methodologically, each pastor is purposefully outrageous in order to attract attention.  Both conclude with a physical act as a culmination, a textbook call to action.  Their intended audiences are different.  Pastor Skosana presented the sermon that would speak to his congregation, to the local community.  Pastor Jones was sending a message to the world.  It would seem that he was hoping for grand attention.

Pastor Jones idealizes the angry Jesus that cleared the temples and flipped the tables of the money changers.  This Jesus is righteous and seeks justice, clearing out the promised land for his people.  Pastor Skosana loves the Jesus that took compassion on the people and healed the sick; take any number of  lepers or the apocryphal Adulterous Woman of John for example.

Those against the Pastor Skosana emphasize the divine nature of Jesus.  This Jesus is sacrosanct, holy.  The Bible never states that Jesus actually had leprosy.  Nevertheless, it does portray Jesus as speaking and acting against the marginalization of lepers, etc.  Neither does it state that he burned scrolls from pagan religions.

Ecclesiologically, Pastor Skosana believes in an open and inclusive church.  He desires to show the church as welcoming and mimic Jesus’ ministry to the marginalized.  Pastor Jones is in battle mode.  He sees the church on the apocalyptic battlefield with evil.

Societal trends of Pluralism and Globalism play a key role here.  Leslie Newbigin and David Bosch (fitting to bring in a South African) are instructive.  Unfortunately, as my books are in boxes 10,000 miles away; my accuracy may be lacking.  Newbigin wrote prolifically about the proper way for the church to function in a pluralistic society.  Bosch’s magnum opus described the historical paradigms of the church.  In it, some churches with good intentions get stuck defending a particular interpretation of church that lacks relevance in a new paradigm.  

One can’t help but notice that the detractors of Pastor Skosana would likely support Pastor Jones and vice versa.

The two of them together ask us a question: which represents Jesus more fully in our world?  As a church member, which would you rather follow?

As I was contrasting the two in my mind, I entered a classroom at Habelgaarn Primary School in South Africa.  Scrawled on the wall in bold black letters was graffiti pleading, “Lord, please murder my enimies” (sic).  It reminded me of the Anne LaMotte line about the folly of people whose god hates the same people they hate.