The Bayanda Route

12 12 2010

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.

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Riempi

18 09 2010

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.





Train to the End of the Earth

23 02 2010

The train lurches forward on the track with considerable effort, in great contrast to the scene unfolding  just out of arm’s reach beneath its windows.  The view into and across False Bay shimmers with the blazing sun, my first glimpse of the Cape’s beautiful white beaches.  The tracks hug the coastline for the last quarter of its route, maybe 20 km., and affords a bird’s eye view of the chiseled pools of tide water, dangerously but magnificently-perched restaurants, and beach games of cricket or rugby.

The journey south along the Cape would be worth it for this alone, but my trip today offers more.  First it is a chance to get out of the city and expand my view of South Africa.  Not that I’ve really gone so far, but I’ve broken the geographical constraints of the Jammie shuttle to school and experienced some of the freedom I desire.  Furthermore, I get to experience the dreaded, infamous, much maligned train—“Ride it, and you will surely die!”

The main purpose of my trip is to visit the penguins at Boulder Beach.  Simon’s Town is home to the only penguin species that breeds in Africa (one of two species that breed outside of Antarctica).  Much smaller than the photogenic Emperor Penguin, there must have been 400-500 inside the park.  They socialize in couples and stay monogamous.  For more on penguins and other cute animals, check out this reactionary website.

The best part of the visit was the beach where you can swim with the penguins.  A unique experience of which I wasn’t able to partake, unfortunately, due to my poor choice of attire.  I did manage to get into their kitchen, take a beer from the ‘fridge, and hang out on their sofa.  I’ve got the pictures to prove it.

Back on the train, the air rushes in the window and pleasantly past my face while Xhosa clicks in one ear.  Squeezed between a large Xhosa mama and the wall, my knees touch with those of the man in the facing seat.  Three teenage boys behind his right shoulder hold onto handrails and stare through the open train doors to salute the setting sun as the train pounds its way toward twilight.  I close my eyes, appreciating the soft breeze and for the first time, feel like I’m in Africa.