Goodbye #2

Leaving Port Elizabeth involved a second set of emotional goodbyes.  During my stay in Riemvasmaak, I spent about 5 nights per month in the “volunteer house” where a group of constantly shifting Dutch volunteers stayed.  I had come to treasure my relationships with the Ready 4 Life (the NGO I worked with) volunteers almost as much as those in Riemvasmaak.

There were two other volunteers leaving the same day as me, so we did the South African thing and had a braai.  It’s a nice “go to” tradition; you don’t have to wonder or worry about how to mark a special occasion.  It’s standard: you braai.

We all stayed up late, ate a lot and drank a lot.  The evening ended when the electricity went out while we played “Hearts.”  In South Africa, you have to keep careful watch over your electricity meter, as it works on the debit system.  You have to buy wattage in the form of vouchers at any supermarket.  If you run out in the middle of the night, like we did, you’re out until the next morning when the store opens.  An ancillary effect is that the alarm doesn’t function, another South African no-no.

I gave everyone photos with a message written on the back.  As I left, Frank told me, “You’ve made me change my mind about Americans.  I used to hate them all.”   It underscores the impact of meeting people and forming individual relationships.

Port Elizabeth will always hold a special place in my heart.  It is a place of unique opportunities, if also anxiety over sharp changes of plan.  Yet, everything that went awry turned out better than could possibly be expected.  Without my car breaking down there on the way to Mozambique, I never would have spoken to the PE Rotary club.  Without speaking to the PE Rotary Club, I would never have met Marieke.  Without meeting Marieke, I never would have heard about Ready 4 Life.  Without Ready 4 Life, I never would have had the opportunity to live in Riemvasmaak and become part of the community there.


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.

A Quiet Street in Suburbia

A few weeks ago, I visited a friend to a black suburb, not terribly far from my home.  I was immediately struck by a sense of freedom.  I breathed deeply  in an effort to experience it fully and, perhaps, save some for later.  It was a few minutes before I realized what it was unique about the neighborhood, causing these feelings.

I scanned the street.  There were no fences or gates, only a door onto a lawn.  There were open doors onto open sidewalks.  There were warm streetlights and pedestrians strolling around—at night!  There were empty lots filled with green grass instead of dirt and glass and rubbish.  My soul breathed.

For the first time, I realized explicitly the effect of the constraints that are an everyday part of life in South Africa.  White areas are clean, but protected from danger like compounds.  In a squatter camp, rubbish is everywhere and you must constantly look over your shoulder.  In Kwanagxaki, at least on this street on this night, I felt liberated, and my soul rested for a brief moment.



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?

The Bayanda Route

The Transkei continued…>

OK, so you won’t find this person in the history books, but she is still important and played a large role in our pilgrimage.  An old friend of mine (and Intramural sports teammate) has spent quite a lot of time in the Eastern Cape.  When he heard that I would be taking a journey into the Transkei, he connected me to a friend of his.  Bayanda hitchiked to meet us in Fort Beaufort and served as our companion and guide during the sojourn.  In addition to obtaining marriage proposals at many of our stops, she was a wonderful source of information about life and culture in the area.

On our last full day in the Ciskei, Bayanda showed us the areas surrounding her home near the city of Queenstown.  She works as an interpreter in the courts at the Department of Justice, where we observed a case sentenching and she introduced us to the magistrate.  We visited the township where Bayanda grew up and her brother danced “krump” for us.

Then, we visited the villages where her father and mother grew up, respectively.  The houses of the township were much the same as brick township houses in Port Elizabeth, which were in turn, much the same as the houses in the villages.  The primary differences between township and village are 1) villages have more land for cultivation and livestock, while townships are more densely populated, 2) townships enjoy some degree of service delivery, while villages are on their own.

In Ntabelanga, we me Bayanda’s grandmother, a lovely woman with a beautiful smile.  She began speaking to Bayanda in Xhosa and I asked her what she was saying.  She interpreted, “It makes us black people feel good when white people visit.”  I was a bit horrified, I must admit.  I quickly responded, “it makes us white people feel good to visit black people.”  I believe that I understand what she means, but oh my, what would Steve Biko think?

Seeing smoke rising from a nearby house, Bayanda deduced that there was probably a ceremony happening as part of the Xhosa initiation process, the ritual where a boy becomes a man.  They take place each year in June and December, a modern assimilation to school holidays.

We decided to walk by and were invited in.  The celebration was an “umguyo,” where all the local boys get together to send off the initiate, who will leave to “go to the mountain” the next day.  The men sat in the dirt yard on stumps, paint cans, etc. and drank beer.  The woman prepared “umqombothi” (traditional Xhosa maize beer) which they had just given to the boys.  We heard a great cry of excitement as we approached—exulatation over newly received libations.

The boys responded by rushing out to the yard and dancing in a circle, kicking on eknee in the air and hopping, arms up and down like a drum major.  Occasionally, two would enter the center of the cirlce and mock fight using sticks as weapons.

One of the boys stood up and said (first in Xhosa, then in halting English) that he wanted to know why they were called from their umqombothi to come and dance.  What were we going to give them as a gift?  As the only one who spoke English as a first language, I was the default spokesman.  I was dumbfounded.  What was I to give?

An older boy then stood and explained in perfect English that he was going to the mountain and told of the significance of the ceremony.  By his physical stature and the maturity of this speech, he certainly looked ready to become a man.  Then, he explained to me that (as the only male) I must come and dance with them.  I happily joined.  Step by step they showed me the parts of the dance and handed me a “weapon” to thrust.  Then, the leader in the center announced, “jigaleza” and we went round the circle.

Later, the women danced and my Dutch companions joined in.  Tessa was a favorite of the boys for photos, so I left her as our gift.

The pilgrimage continued on the route back home to Port Elizabeth, as we drove through Cradock, where we stopped to see the Cradock Four Garden of Remembrance, as well as the home of Fort Calata.  The Cradock Four were abducted and murdered as they traveled from P.E. to Cradock in 1985.  The four were leaders in the freedom struggle.  The murders of the Cradock Four became international news during the amnesty trials of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, when it was revealed that the South African Defense Force executed the killings.

The Biko Route

The Transkei continued…>

I had just finished the compilation of Biko’s writings, I Write What I Like.  I was struck by what a precise and logical thinker he was.  Even his contemplation of issues that could only have been of secondary importance for him were incredibly sharp.  For example, the book contains clips of correpsondence he had with a local priest over theological issues, and with some chagrin, I noted his grasp and explanation of theological issues was probably superior to my own, even after three years of intense study.

Of course, his primary historical importance concerned his ideas on the nature of the black struggle against apartheid.  He is considered the father of the Black Consciousness Movement, which asserted that in order to be free, blacks in South Africa need to free themselves from an ingrained inferiority complex (thanks to colonialism and apartheid).

His eludication of issues has caused me to reflect on my own country’s racial history.  For example, Biko argued for a black solution to apartheid, i.e., an exclusively black organization fighting for an inclusive future.  He likened the liberal white insistence on a multiracial solution to “expecting the slave to work together with the slave-master’s son to remove all the conditions leading he former’s enslavement.”  In the United States, you will often hear people lambasting something like the Black Entertainment Network with the line, “If there was a White Entertainment Network, somebody would get sued.”  Biko disavowed me of these notions.

I am embarassed to write that, despite his inclusion on the list of Top 50 African Icons since Independence (1960 in Ghana), I had never heard of him before my arrival in South Africa.

As we entered King William’s Town, the car dashboard emanated heat like a stove and my hands stuck to the steering wheel with sweat.  The wheels slid through puddles on the blacktop from the afternoon rain as we turned into the lot for the Steve Biko Garden of Remembrance, his final resting place after being murdered by the security police.  A giant rainbow embellished his tombstone, which stood in the center of a large grass lot peppered with stone markers bearing only an anonymous number.   It announced, “One Azania, One Nation.”

Biko was a rarity: he combined great intelligence with extraordinary leadership and character.

It is a Xhosa tradition to lie a rock on the grave of someone at whose funeral you were absent.  I searched with great care for an appropriate rock to lie on the marble surface, intent on appropriately symbolizing my tribute.  I said a prayer at the graveside, imagining his final hours in the police station and the sacrifice and integrity he displayed.

At a fuel stop, we secured directions to Biko’s home while the man expressed gratitude for us visiting a man “we are very proud of.”  The directions were spot on (“go straight straight straight until you see a tree…”) and we found ourselves in front of a house with a large monument in the front yard.  At Bayanda’s suggestion, we asked a young girl standing on the porch if we would be allowed to take photos of the house and the monument.  She went inside to ask her mother and came back to tell us to come inside.

Inside, four men sat on couches watching the Springboks play rugby, flanked by an older woman who asked us to have a seat.  The only chairs in the room were ornate and polished, far too nice for me to place my dirty butt.  I said so, and

Ntsiki Biko in front of an exhibit about her late husband

the woman remarked that they were just for the museum, which was usually open, but since it was the time when the “boys went to the mountain” (i.e. became men, more on this later), the family was using the house.  My eyes widened and I repeated, “The family?”  The woman nodded and replied, “I’m the wife.”

I had anticipated a quick photo and then a quick dinner, maybe a pizza.  Instead, I am having a conversation with Steve Biko’s wife in the home where Steve Biko lived.  Where he was banned so many years ago.  Where he probably wrote many of the articles I had just read in the book.

The Springboks won their match.