Riemvasmaak, more commonly known as “Riempi,” is an informal settlement technically known as Extension 27.

An Informal Settlement is a track of land that is owned by someone other than the people who live there.  This usually takes the form of  “shacks,” but what tenants reasonably prefer to call homes.   These homes are thrown together from any and all of the available materials.  The trade has formalized slightly in the modern age, with businesses selling pre-fabricated shacks of wood and metal.  Construction is simpler if only for the lack of plumbing and electrical wiring.

Material for shacks comes from the hustle of the streets.  Plywood originates from boxing used to ship auto parts from Germany.  Palettes used for walls and fencing are bought from factories for a modest price.  Cardboard can be picked up behind local businesses.  Roofs are of two types: sturdy, cement and asbestos, and various thicknesses of corrugated metal.

If necessity is the mother of invention, the Nobel Prize committee could do worse than seeking its next beneficiary from the land of informal settlements.  Innovation and ingenuity are the rule.  Picking a random point and taking a 360 degree view would reveal a world of innovation: mattress box springs for fencing, old tires used in ways you couldn’t imagine.  In fact, shantytowns are the new architectural trend for green, efficient designs in the western world.

A private corporation named Urban Foundations owns the land on which Riemvasmaak was hurriedly situated.  The driving motivation of the committee is to gain the title deeds to the land and acquire brick and mortar housing.  The committee members have no doubt this will happen, and will happen soon.  They work with an organization called Informal Settlement Network, which supports them in their organizing. “We are the most powerful informal settlement in Port Elizabeth,” the Chairman of the Committee declares. Truly, Riemvasmaak is the most politically active community I have ever lived in.  In a nod to revolutionary predecessors, the members of the committee refer to each other as “my leader” and, less frequently, “comrade.” They work tirelessly, often meeting several times a day to discuss urgent community matters.  “Our shoes are wearing thin,” one of the committee members expresses.

Riemvasmaak is a “mixed” township, meaning it contains people from different ethnicities.  With the exception of one non-South African (and myself), this effectively means there are both Xhosa and Coloured.  This is remarkably uncommon.  The legacy of apartheid is still alive in the spatial dynamics of sub/urban residential areas, which functionally means that Xhosa live in black townships, Coloured live in coloured townships, and whites live somewhere completely different.  Riempi prides itself on breaking those barriers and is conscious of the image they project.  The Committee reflects the overall demographic, 7 Coloured and 3 Black members.  Before a recent protest march, the Chairman (Coloured) noticed that all the signs had been written in English and Afrikaans.  He instructed Thabiso to make a few signs in Xhosa to accurately represent the people.  The languages themselves are merging, Thabiso explains.  “Here in the Eastern Cape, the Xhosa guys and the Coloured guys are mixing the languages.”

One man, “Pastor,” as they call him, owns a truck, but no one else in the community has an automobile.  “Our shoes are our cars,” Andre explains.

Dusty, rocky paths are the salient feature of Riemvasmaak.  The rocks present formidable obstacles to walking around at night, yet are convenient ammunition against the mangy, malnourished dogs that tend to block passage.  Metal wires are strewn about at every conceivable location and angle to dry laundry and to provide  protection against intruders who likely wouldn’t expect a wire at neck level as they’re running from the house.

Visibility at night is limited to the full moon and the glow from steep floodlights up the hill in neighboring “formal” townships.


My new home

I spent yesterday afternoon meeting with the Community Committee of Riemvasmaak, my new neighborhood in Port Elizabeth.  It is a four year old informal settlement, meaning that the occupants lack title and deed to the land, but are working diligently to receive it.   The name, Riemvasmaak, means “to tighten your belt,” signifying a knack for survival that one can immediately see in each member of the committee.

As I sat on a couch at the home of the man they call “Pastor,” enjoying pineapple Fanta (tastes like a lifesaver), I laughed jovially with everyone else as the committee considered my situation in a combination of Afrikaans, Xhosa, and English.  Everyone I met was the epitome of caring and supportive; they seem as excited to have me in their community as I am to be there.

After subtle twists and turns of conversations and gestures, I was informed that I would be staying “under,” which apparently meant down the hill on the far side of the community.  (Far is relative, there are only about 1500 people in Riemvasmaak; it’s probably a 5 minute walk).  A young man entered the room and introduced himself as Thabiso, my new housemate.

Thabiso built the shack himself.  It consists of one room, wallpapered with old newspaper, very convenient if you can’t sleep at night.  The floor was a sturdy plastic and supported two pieces of furniture, a full-size (?) bed and a small couch.  There are two outhouses with a unique, minimalist twist: three walls and no roof.  Water is from a tap a few minutes down the road.

I officially move in to my new digs this afternoon.  My current emotions are the standard ones: excited and apprehensive, just like anyone making a move to a new living situation with new people and new challenges.

More will follow, but probably very slowly, as I’ll be lacking electricity, much less internet access.  Thanks for your thoughts and prayers…