Likely innacurate philosophizing about poverty.

I spent the afternoon visiting the neighboring informal settlement of Arcadia North, or Thembisa.  I discovered that just over the ridge, out of view from my shack, is the salt pan that dominates the geography of the Northern Areas.  I knew it had to be over there somewhere, but I had no idea it was so close.  It opens up in front of you like the first notes of a symphony.  Well, a dirty symphony, I guess, but it’s striking, nonetheless.

I initiated a game with several of the area boys where we shoved a bottle into a dirt mound and then tried to break it by throwing a rock from a distance.  I nailed the first one and then proceeded to miss on every throw thereafter.

When the game ended (there were no more bottles), I announced that I was headed back home.  One of the bolder boys stopped me to ask for one rand.  Eventually, I told him I wouldn’t come back to play if I had to pay for it.  My mind churns until I reach philosophical babbling:

Many kids in the area (outside of those in my community who know me), ask me for money after interacting with me a bit.  I wonder, along with several contemporary authors, whether giving does more harm than good.  Has development aid created a culture of dependency?  Does charity skew the way these children see the world?   When did they get the idea that they should ask white people for money?  White = wealth.  Black = something less than.  It’s a harmful psychological and sociological construct.  More importantly, from my point of view, it becomes a profound obstruction against authentic relationship.  Levels and roles are introduced.  “The other” is potential provider, reinforcing a patriarchal hierarchy.  Always us and them, them and me, Africans and Westerners/Whites.  It defeats, before it has begun, a chance for relationship on equal footing, independent and interdependent, each bringing our own wealth, skills, and faults.  In a sense, this expectation robs the world of greater good, ubuntu, philos.

The blame certainly lies not at the feet of this brave child with the strong arm.  It lies with the system of dependency created and reinforced over time, from colonization to ill-planned and executed development aid.

Is the answer to simply stop giving?  Sometimes I think it is.  How many problems could have been avoided in Africa by shunning Western money?   Yet, it can’t be that simple.  It doesn’t feel quite right.  Somewhere, there must be room for compassion and caritas.

I sketch vague equations in my journal:

If lack of resources is one of the major building blocks of poverty, why can more resources not simply be added to the mix

P = X – Y

Where P = poverty, X = life with freedom of opportunity, etc., and Y = resources

Why can’t we just add “Y”?

X= P + Y

Clearly, there are a multitude of problems with this oversimplified caluclation.  One is that a life of opportunity is more than just resources.  But it also neglects to take into account that poverty becomes a mindset, larger than its economic predecessors.  If resources are only given as charity, the poverty mindset is unaffected.  It involves psychological, emotional, and mental scars.  It is intractable.

Though I currently live with a dearth of resources, I can’t pretend yet to understand poverty.  I am trying.  Poverty is like a roaring river of doubt, rejection, crime, inaccessible education, unemployment, disease, hunger…that first step across must be a personal choice.

How can this step be facilitated, made more likely?  What can the compassionate among us do to truly help?  How can one inspire a vision in another, light a fire, make a person believe in themselves, gives hope that the future could be different?


A Day in the Life of Doing Nothing

Although it pains me to work on the Sabbath, I’ve decided to use today to finish my assignment: do nothing.  I realize that writing in my journal is immediately a breach of protocol, but I’ve decided to allow myself this one vice, in order to remember and reflect on the experience.


Pleasant time to think, staring out doorway at sheets drying on the line, green with orange flowers, flapping in the wind.  Hypnotic almost.  The noise they make sounds like the crackling of fire.  A larger, beige sheet seems to chase from behind.

I lift my coffee cup to my lips hundreds of times, only to rediscover that it is, indeed, empty.

I count the words on a book page, but won’t allow myself to read them—that would be cheating.

The sheets eventually disappear before my eyes (I don’t even notice, initially), and are replaced by the tiny shorts and socks of children.  They dance like they have little legs inside them.


There are 648 holes in each section of orange plastic construction fencing surrounding our yard.

My stomach begins to growl (but no food to eat).

I cheat and begin to make lists.  Can’t bear to let productive thoughts go to waste!


Cheat again.  Cell phone game: Super Jewel Quest


Begin to play with toes, pick dirt from fingernails.

It occurs to me that “doing nothing” is a contradiction of terms, impossible in its very makeup.  Making it an assignment gives me the psychological license to go forward….

Similarities to Eat, Pray, Love?

I haven’t read the book, but from what I understand, her idea is to learn to relax, enjoy your life, and be happy without the pressure of success, western ideas of movement, efficiency, etc.  My hypothesis is that inaction is a prison of poverty, difficult to overcome.  Doing nothing is not the same as Doing whatever you want to do.  If those bewitched by the demon Poverty could float above and take a long-term perspective, I don’t think that nothing is what they would want to be doing.

My persistent criticism of the lifestyle here so far has been: Why don’t you do something productive?!?  Not quite that easy, I don’t think.  Rejection breeds apathy.  Apathy is a drug.  Doing nothing breeds doing nothing.

Positive Nothing v. Negative Nothing

Nothing as space to do what pleases you.

Nothing as dark blob that overcomes all of what you might have wanted to do.


I begin to notice small things, like how the drape billows up in the wind and catches on the exposed splinters of the door, or how a bubble letter E is sketched on one of the ceiling boards.

The day begins with an opening of the mind—as we rarely give ourselves unfettered time to think—and end with a closing and eventual shrinking of the mind in malaise.


Themba stops by and I tell him of my plans to sit here all day.  His demeanor suggested, “it’s your funeral.”  He prefers to go to his parent’s and do nothing in front of the TV.  White noise…

Reflection on nature of poverty:

Those who have most to cry for are those with no voice.

Actively dis-empowering

Don’t have resources to obtain resources


Thinking of all the things I could be doing.

More coffee

Try to imagine if this were my life, with no way out.  Would seem like a world of walls.  But then I realize the folly of my abstract wanderings.  If this were my life, I wouldn’t be who I am today.  I wouldn’t have had the same opportunities for education, experience, upward mobility and progress, mind-opening.  I would be an utterly different person.

Social Anthropology.  Immersing self in a community to better understand the culture, the way they understand life, the earth, God, community, etc.  A window through which we better understand those things ourselves.


A thrilling one-act play starring the kids next door with slinkies wrapped around their faces.


Cloud gazing.  Becomes like those 3D pictures that you can’t see unless you cross your eyes.  I had never been able to do it before.

The theological parallels of the New South Africa—“semper reformandi.”  “Already, but not yet.”  A country that has technically changed, constantly changing, moving, shifting, striving, hustling, seeking to live out the ultimate change of reconciliation and justice.

What if they walls were filled with my books, my laptop set up for internet access, my photos on the wall and I enjoyed a semblance of privacy.  Would all we well?  Would I be home?  Missing ingredients: Relationships and Vocation.


Tent revival music drifts in from afar.


Greg, from next door stops by to ask for a cigarette.  Tells me he is tired, will take a nap.  I ask him if he slept badly last night.  “No, man.  Fine.  But I want to sleep now.”

How does one attain self-discipline?  What motivates?  Must you be driven by another, or at least by another person’s example?  Culture of malaise is hard to break.

Second cup of coffee


Brief walk to corner and back

Thoughts of sitting on a plane watching movies, snug in a blanket with ginger ale coming my way…

Hunger becoming more pronounced.

Body becomes accustomed to not moving—like its in the imprint on one of those Swedish mattresses.


So far still resisting tapping the remainder of the Ship Sherry.


Manawabis visits.  Seems weary.

I continue list-making as the wind ceases.


The sun goes down and my “fast” from activity is finished.  Not a moment too soon…

My Assignment for this Week: Do Nothing

Those of you with difficult, stressful or labor-intensive jobs are probably muttering to yourselves about my good luck.  In the words of the irascible Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend.”

I am aching for some activity.  I went so far as requesting further responsibilities from my internship supervisor, but he denied my appeal.  Instead, he offered me a task, or a bit of an anti-task: do nothing at all.

If my purpose for living in an informal settlement is to understand poverty and the lifestyle it involves, then I need to learn what it is to be idle.

I am learning that one of the effects of poverty is a lack of activity.  Unemployment and lack of opportunity, combined with defeat after defeat creates an atmosphere of despondency.

One of the most unrelenting obstacles is my own hyperactivity.  My western mindset measures success by doing.  I hate wasting time; I have a need to be active, to accomplish something.  Stages of my life that have involved uninterrupted periods of time have been very challenging for my psyche.  I tend to set arbitrary goals to get through them: Build a bookcase or take a French class.

Last week, I finished two books to pass the dead time.  This week, I abandon the activities to immerse myself in my surroundings.

My supervisor has warned me that you can feel your mind shrinking.

Long Walk to Freedom

Major disclaimer to these reflections: In no way am I attempting to compare myself to Nelson Mandela and in no way do I consider my life in Riemvasmaak like a prison.

Nevertheless, I have compiled some of Madiba’s reflections on his life in various South African prisons in an attempt to draw the parallel between poverty and prison and to portray some of the daily undertakings of life in a township.

“Life…was hard.  They had no heat, no toilet, no running water” (494).

“to survive in prison, one must develop ways to take satisfaction in one’s daily life” (488-89).

“From the first, I tried to read books about South Africa, or by South African authors” (492).

The Mandela Workout: “stationary running in my cell for 45 minutes, 100 fingertip push-ups, 200 sit-ups, 50 deep knee bends” (491).

“Prison was a kind of crucible that tested a man’s character.  Some men…showed trued mettle, while others revealed themselves as less than they had appeared to be” (455).

The marginalized “…must first liberate themselves from a sense of psychological inferiority” (486).

My dream project: “a garden was one of the few things in prison that one could control” (489).


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.


On the mountain, he was like a springbok, quickly darting ahead of other hikers and bouncing to the top.  On the descent, the shoes came off and he stopped to make jokes and/or playfully insulted everyone we passed.  He’s the type of guy who gets away with saying anything he wants because he is so eminently personable and charismatic.  He’s the perfect guy to show me Khayelitsha, not least of which because he wrote a book about it.

When I first moved to Cape Town, a former housemate described a book he had bought at the airport when he arrived.  “Khayelitsha,” he said, “It’s about a white South African who moved to the largest township in Cape Town.  I was instantly enthralled.  Two weeks later, my head was filled with the stories of his experience and my spirit was buoyed by the idea that it was possible to break the extant color lines and transcend the barriers between the two distinct worlds of South Africa.  So I did what anyone would do, I stalked the author.

I had a few minutes before a Thursday evening class, and I felt a peculiar inflection in my stomach as I pressed “Call” on my phone.  I chastised myself for my timidity.  “What is wrong with you?”  A dropped call, a series of text messages, and a few days later, I’m riding in the car toward Table Mountain with Steven and a Scotsman named Ray.  After setting the Table in the morning, we were headed to Khayelitsha that afternoon.

A book is a powerful thing.  Steven’s story of his friends in Khayelitsha is no different than if I were to write one of mine.  But reading about Steven’s friends in a book transforms real people into mythological characters.  Visiting Khaye was like visiting Narnia.  My imagination had turned everyone into celebrities.  I had a recurring desire to  ask for autographs.

Yet, the initial celebrity awe was only a tiny part of the experience.  As we walked the dusty streets and alleyways past metallic shacks, I felt liberation at the annihilation of cultural safety zone of Cape Town.  As we sopped up meat sauce with white bread, shared liters of Coke and beer at the shebeens, and met the families of some of our new friends, I was overcome by acceptance and community—community that quickly transcended the superfluities of normal day-to-day interactions.

Steven’s friends were quick to become our friends.  They shook our hands, gave us hugs, bought us beer.  One gave me a bottle of wine from his house to take home with me (turning western etiquette on its head).  My phone is loaded  with new phone numbers.  Occasionally, strangers even approached with questions or just to shake my hand.  The banana vendor at the fruit market gave us a bunch to welcome us to the town.  A random guy purchased us beer.

Playing pool in a shebeen barely large enough to hold the table and hot enough to fry meat, I am overwhelmingly hopeful.  Compared to the shopping malls of the southern suburbs and the clubs of Long Street, this is a deep, satisfying, life-giving breath.

photo courtesy of

I am prone to romanticize, especially regarding this type of context.  The level of poverty cannot be exaggerated, and I am sure that I was shielded from the depths of it by the nature of my time there.  The shacks were precariously built, some teetering at the edge of destruction.  The fruit market was constructed completely of palettes.  Most homes were without toilets.  The informal economy thrived.  But it is instructive to note that I didn’t sense poverty.  The only thing greater than the destitution was the determination of individuals, through their community to rise above it.  In much of my previous experience, the poorer the people in material wealth, the greater their net wealth and consequently, their kindness to others.  It makes the words of Jesus ring true, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  I have much to learn about community.