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.



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.