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.





Packing list for move:

1 tattered, red and white blanket

2 pairs of shoes

2 of every other essential article of clothing

1 jacket

1 winter hat

1 puzzle of Africa

The house is 3.2 x 3.7 meters.  I know this not because I am Rainman, but because it is spray painted in large red numbers on a dusty piece of scrap metal that is perched above the double swinging window at the front of the shack.  On each side, old addresses from previous government administrations have been marked and forgotten by the (Housing Department).  The current address, RVO 337, is hardly distinguishable from the multiple previous manifestations.  This is a classic “shack,” walls and roof of silver and rust from edge to edge.  A single, wooden door to the right of the windows allows a manageable space for entry before wedging stuck between the laminate floor and plywood ceiling.

Inside, the room is dominated by a full-size bed, complete with decorative duvet and pillow covers.  In case of insomnia, the wallpaper features newspaper from 2008, horizontally plastered for ease of reading.  Last night, I christened a crossword puzzle by filling in the word, “engine.”  A fairly “busy” wall, the only additional adornment are three poster/photos of 50 Cent.  Underneath one, on a worn, but still very comfortable loveseat sits Thabiso.  With his diffusive yet goofy smile, the only obvious resemblance he has to his hero is a gold tooth, and a stab from a fight over a girl.  A paraffin lamp sits on the bedside table while a battery-powered radio dictates in Xhosa.

It is not your average bachelor pad, but a largely resembles a place of transience, as Thabiso has been “commuting” for two years from this shack in Riemvasmaak to his parent’s house in Izinyoka for food, clothing, and bathing.  I make fun of him for being a “mama’s boy,” while some in the community call him bederft. Nevertheless, there is a bucket outside for a toilet and a basin inside for bathing.

We spent the afternoon I first moved in sitting on the couch, and getting acquainted while putting together a puzzle of the continent.  He honored me by bestowing upon me a Xhosa name, Elethu.  He explained that his reasons: first, it forms a piece of his full name, Thabisolethu, symbolizing that we were brothers; second, the literal meeting is “our hope,” which he said is what I symbolized to the community.  “I am the first one of my family to go overseas,” he grinned.  “I have an American living in my home!”

Thabiso has been unemployed since 2008.  He says this with no emotion. He estimates that Riemvasmaak experiences 65% unemployment.  This is no scientific study, but accurately captures the depth of the issue in South Africa.

There is a photo of his daughter on his cell phone, which turns itself on and off of it’s own volition.  He sees the girl’s mother a couple of days a week when she is not working, but cannot stay too long, otherwise he will incite her parent’s ire.  When Liefie was born, Thabiso’s parents had to visit hers to pay a fee for the pregnancy.  Now, he has to wait until he can earn enough money to present a “labola” in order to marry her.  He usually refers to her as “my future wife.”  Her brother is frightened of him.  “He won’t look me in the eye,” he explains.

Most people in Riempi can’t afford airtime (which functions pay-as-you-go, like a debit card), but everyone seems to have a cell phone, anyway.  The phone companies have a function whereby you can send an SMS that reads, “Please Call Me” to any other phone for free.  You simply enter a short code before the appropriate phone number.  If you’re cagey, there is room for a message of about 6 characters alongside the “Please Call Me.”  My friend, Andre,  has saved every number he has in his phonebook with the code in front, meaning this is the sole function for which he uses the phone.  Thabiso and his girlfriend have a ritual communication each day before she goes to work.  She sends a PCM with a message that reads: t.ilu.d.  Decoded, it means: Thabiso, I love you, Disa.

Most township denizens are entrepreneurial at heart.  The ordinary individual has extraordinary dreams of buying low and selling high.  Thabiso is no exception.  Plans are now in the works to expand Thabiso’s shack to make room for a spaza shop (the equivalent of a corner store).  Buying paraffin and peanuts in bulk, one can sell for a modest profit.  In a few years, there may be enough for his labola.  He has decided the name will be “Thabiso and Elethu’s Spaza Shop”