Glimpse Photo Essay

First things first: my photo essay has been published over at Glimpse.  Find it here.

I enjoyed the process of writing for Glimpse.  I have spent years of my life writing academic papers (usually hurriedly, with little sleep and not a little beer)  to be submitted for a grade and never thought of again.  I used to joke that once I hit the prescribed word count, I would stop mid-sentence, press print and elatedly (if not belatedly) turn it in.  This was no exaggeration.  Most of my papers in graduate school really did go straight from screen to submission, without even a hint of revision.

“Creative Writing” (for that’s what they call it, it turns out) was never required, nor was it attempted in my normal life, for the most part.  I began to write “creatively” as a means of expression, to give critical thought and voice to my experience as I traveled and encountered new things.  I never really thought about the difference between this and how I had written in school, except that this was more fun and more fulfilling.

Nothing I had done in school had prepared me for the experience of submitting a piece of my creative writing for the editorial process.  I had become used to the red ink on a critical essay for class; I had not anticipated the emotions I would feel when I received my creative writing, basically my journal, with pages of feedback and critique.  My travel journal was a place of freedom.  I hid my embarrassment, fuming about my editor at Glimpse: “These are my thoughts.  If you don’t like them, too bad.”

Whereas I really wasn’t that concerned with how well I expressed my analysis of theological typologies, my creative writing was much closer to my heart.

After the initial shock, I began to appreciate the feedback from my editor.  After several months of the editorial process, I emerged a better writer.

I initially applied to Glimpse as a photographer.  It turns out that words definitely form the core of the program.  While I do enjoy that form of expression, photography is my passion.  I was allowed one photo essay of the four pieces that will eventually be published.  Where writing was sometimes a struggle, the photo essay was pure joy.

My photo essay is now live on Glimpse.  In pictures, it tells the story of a mass public protest action in Riemvasmaak.  I wrote this about the experience at the time.

You can find the photo essay at Glimpse here.

Special thanks to Erica for feedback on the original round of photos.  Thanks to everybody for your support!


Returning to the (Real?) World

So I am now leaving the life of the township for Western habits and mores.  The transition is not automatic.

I initially mistake the reflections of sunlight on the polished metal bench at the Port Elizabeth Airport for insects crawling around my couch back in Riemvasmaak.  Chairman once said to me, “you know the insects personally and they know you.  This one knows when he sees you, ‘that’s the owner of this house.’”

One of the many things you learn in the township is how to wait—often, for nothing in particular.  I have adapted.  The initiative and ambition that is so valued in the Western workplace has taken a backseat to endurance and perseverance.  I will have to realign myself.

Scarcity and transience causes a particular mindset: better to do it now—there may not be another chance.  I notice a peculiar, but now familiar anxiety as my phone charges in the outlet at the airport.  I must get as much as possible now, before it goes away.

My withdrawals from township style living are now being overcompensated with overindulgence.  Long hot showers, hours of surfing the internet, oversleeping in a full size bed with clean sheets, sitting on the couch and wasting time watching TV.

Riemvasmaak Goodbye

My closest friends on the committee had a braai for me on the day I left.  The food was lekker, but my departure time of 16h00 came fast, with Pastor counting down, “thirty more minutes in Riemvasmaak!”  After eating, I said a few words about what a privelege it was to spend time with them.  Chairman responded, “you are no longer an outsider, you are now one of us.”  Later, they gathered around to pray for me.  Pastor, one of my dearest friends, said he didn’t want to pray so he could avoid crying.  Another man prayed in Afrikaans, or at least it sounded like he prayed, I wouldn’t know.

Before leaving, I visited my neighbor’s homes to bring them photos I had taken.  Lozelle hugged me tight and claimed it was the nicest gift anyone had given her.  I told her she must be crazy.  Clara came to the door in only a bra.  Her husband described how happy because they didn’t have any photos of the youngest child.  They asked if I had any of the neighbor’s 2 year old son who had died two weeks ago.  At Christina’s home, 2 year old Mawethu said thank you (the first words I’d heard him speak) as he tried to eat his photo.

Zola was the most emotional.  I brought him photos of he and his 12 month old daughter.  He shoved me in joy as he saw me approaching with the photos.  He was so excited that he began swearing.  When I informed him that this was my last day in Riempi, he turned away for a long period.  I thought he was going to cry.  I tried to distract him with another subject.  He paid me one of the most meaningful compliments I’ve had here, “When I see you walking, I don’t even see you as white anymore.  You’re black, like me.”  His parting advice was to buy Spice Gold rum for the plane.

Four of the guys formed an entourage to walk me to catch the jigaleza (public taxi).  I tried to tell them that they needn’t waste their time, but they insisted on coming.  It was touching.  After so much solo traveling where I’ve departed by myself and arrived to the blank faces of strangers, it meant a lot to me (except for my wonderful parents, who have always been there to take me to the airport, no matter how early in the morning).  As opposed to kwaito or house music, the soundtrack for my exit was Phil Collins and Queen.

How do you keep in touch?  The vast majority of people don’t have email.  International phone calls are wicked expensive.  They have no address for “snail mail.” They could disappear and be erased cleanly from the system.  They have no permanent marks outside of relationships.

Riemvasmaak Big Events

Solar Oven

I posted previously about efforts to encourage solar cooking in Riemvasmaak.

The Rotary Foundation has a Sutainability Trust which encourages green projects to benefit the poor.  They have partnered with Solar Cookers International in an effort to equip township residents with solar ovens.  The advantages are: 1) Sunshine is FREE! (yearly savings of R500?) 2) Safer and Healthier (prevent fire, disease), 3) Green, 4) Cheap to build

Last month, I gave a presentation at the PE Rotary Club, and they agreed to sponsor the materials to build eight solar ovens.

Two days before I left, I held a workshop with eight people in the community, discussing the advantages of solar cooking and teaching them to build a solar oven out of cardboard and tin foil.  Despite my lack of experience, the community members were excited and passionate about the opportunity, three women even showed up early—unheard of.  Several mentioned the opportunity for job creation, building the ovens and selling them to other informal settlements.  Others were ready to have more workshops and teach more people.  This is the key to development projects, I’ve learned—local ownership.  It was fun to see how much fun they had and how many innovative plans they “cooked” up (no?  well, I thought it was funny).

Fun Run

the Fun Run winners with their medals

The day I was scheduled to leave was the culmination of months of planning by the Riemvasmaak committee, the Bethelsdorp Police Department, and the councilor: a 5K Fun Run “Against Crime.”  Sixty people ran, at least half were under the age of twelve.  I finished first in the “American Division” (created by yours truly), 24th, and practically last of the adults, overall.  The Committee was very happy with the results.  Getting anything like this off the ground in an informal settlement is quite a success.

I prepared for the run in an unorthodox way.  It came out in the Solar Oven workshop that I had never had “umpokoqo,” or African Salad, so one of the women invited me for dinner that evening.  I had heard so many wonderful things about the dish.  Many people told me it was their favorite African food.  I was excited about the opportunity to try it and had already convinced myself I would love it.  I was not adequately prepared.  Nandi emerged from the kitchen with a giant cauldron (seemed so to me) about the size of four normal soup bowls.  Huge.  When you’re trying something for the first time, “huge” is not ideal.  Pokoqo is made of dry flaky pap mixed with sour milk.  The last ingredient should have been enough to temper my expectations.  The first bit was quite a surprise.  I immediately began praying that I could somehow finish the massive bowl in front of me.  It’s basically sour mush, and I’ve got a King Kong bowl in front of me the night before a 5K.

I almost tried to sneak some to the puppies, Two Face and Bling Bling.  I took small spoonfuls at each bodyslam of WWE on the television.  An awful variation of a drinking game.

Eventually, I turned to Nandi, horrified by my lack of cultural sensitivity, and told her I didn’t think I’d be able to finish.  Her brother laughed and said he was just telling her it was too much.  Apparently, pokoqo is notorious for killing an athlete’s fitness on gameday.  Then, they offered me beer.


My neighbor, Bessie, and I shared a banana and coffee this morning, sitting on a bench in the shade next to his garden. He told me about his efforts to find a job.

He interviewed for a job to unload tires off of a truck into a factory. All day long. Four other peopl interviewed at the same time. Bessie asked, “How much will it pay?” The man informed him it would be R13/hour (about $1.85). Before anyone could respond, one of the other guys jumped in, “I’ll do it for seven rand.” “Where is your taxi fare?!” Bessie exclaimed to me. The job market is so bad, people are negotiating below minimum wage. It is an “employer’s market.”

Themba had joined us by now. Hearing the ending, he immediately asked, “kwere?”—short for kwere-kwere, or foreigner, “because when they talk, that’s what they sound like.”

The story brough a few thoughts to my head:

1) Need for effective enforcement of minimum wage.

2) Utility of a trade unions.

3) Xenophobia will not die easy.

4) Comparison to USA and Mexican labourers?

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.

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.