Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Soweto Impressions, Kliptown Dreams, Beyond Poverty, First Sleepless Night, a Place of God, and Feeding the Village

DISCLAIMER: Upon beginning my written commentary on this blog for the first time, I heavily weighed the meaning, content, and direction this medium of communication ought to take. I realize it is being viewed by, what I hope is, hundreds of people and its material being—because of the nature of the details I have disclosed—judged both for journalistic ability, accuracy, and Western bias. My prerogative for this blog, after careful consideration, is to offer the reader an unbiased, unfiltered, unapologetic view of the thoughts, fears, emotions, and impressions that are formed inside my every fiber during this trip. Please understand that my philosophies are constantly evolving and the multi-dimensional view from my gaze indeed subjective; this blog is not an infallible encyclopedia of facts and figures. Instead, it is a crude documentary of what I’ve done and the way it’s affected me—as seen with my eyes, told in my words, laced with my personal descriptions. I apologize in advance if this blog has, in the past, offended anyone by misrepresenting people or inaccurately reporting facts, but this is not an immaculate authority or news piece; indeed, this collection of work includes opinion and editorializing actively working in tandem with empirical observation, reality, and highest above all, truth. And on a lighter note, as I try to vomit this information out as fast as technically possible, some grammar and spelling mistakes will inevitable accumulate. It should also be noted that very rarely do I proof-read my blog—a consequence of very little computer access, computer charging capabilities, electricity, and a lack of time in general—ultimately resulting in what may be constituted by some as run-on sentences and minor structural mistakes, a problem I leave your common sense to remedy. With that said, your comments, criticisms, and most of all, support—Lysexy, phoenixx, Rana, my parents, KKlingle, Mahoney, SoldaderaSenorita, and the OLPC Corps and Core team—and continued following are not only encouraged, but mandated for this writing to reach its literary potential and these two months to affect us a people.

Kliptown, Day 3, Sunday Afternoon, Calm Before the Storm

I am awoken this morning by the loud, raspy sounding voice of a man a couple yards away preaching to the people in a make-shift church; he sounds more like the Devil than a man of God.

We arrived into Jo’burg Thursday night to a spitting rain, a light wind, and world of difference. We were greeted by Xolani Madondo, who is the brother of Thulani Madondo, the noble young Director of the Kliptown Youth Program (KYP), the NGO we will work with for the next two months. Xolani also brought his friend and a member of the KYP, Daniel, to the airport to meet us, and, after withdrawing RAND (the South African currency), we jumped into a taxi full of men on our way to Kliptown, the oldest district of the Soweto (SOuth WEstern TOwnship) township, a place we, at that point, were not experienced enough to commit to calling home.

Driving through the vast and bustling metropolis that is Jo’burg was in stark contrast to the sleepy and underdeveloped village-town of Kigali. The highway stretched across the city like an overprotective octopus and the sprawling stamps of industrialization imprinted the city like birthmarks, from the giant Coca-cola billboards, to the chains of commercial warehouses and department stores, to the everlasting brand of neo-conservatism that can only be found in the twinkle in Ronald McDonald’s eye. And even out of this uniformity and structure, individual bush fires burned on the hills like fireflies.

Watching first the signs ‘Orlando’, ‘Soweto’, ‘Pimville’, and then ‘Kliptown’ disappear from my periphery and into the onyx night behind me, I found my body, half an hour after getting into that taxi, bouncing up and down as the vehicle tried to dodge pothole after pothole in an area that looked like a man-filled garbage heap. We had arrived. And I was no longer an outsider; this was my home too.

Only a few people were visible: all black, all poor, all walking somewhere with someone, keeping to them selves, not causing trouble. Watching out of the window, I saw a blaze out of the corner of my eye; it was a fire, with people huddled around to catch a heat wave. It is winter in South Africa, and it is cold. People wear warm clothes like winter jackets, wool hats, and mits, most of which are by now won and torn after being donated by American, Canadian, or European NGO’s long ago.

We arrived at the house of our host, Nomsa, shortly after and were pleasantly surprised to find it very large and inviting, a house bigger than Western middle class standards, both in furnishings and property size. We felt safe that night and decided we would indeed inhabit this home for the duration of our stay in South Africa.

Kliptown is a slum. The standard of living of the people is beyond poverty. Visually, looking at the squatter camp from above while crossing a bridge, you see tin shacks—very rarely brick or wood, sometimes adorned with flowers, other times drying clothes—piled one next to each other like a frayed puzzle with reis or large rocks atop the tin roof to keep from blowing away. On the ground and in the community, you walk through narrow passageways filled with rotting food scraps, piles of garbage, and streams of brown water, surrounded by shacks and shacks that extend north, west, east, and south, some covered with cheap aluminum barbed wires, but most adorned with small children playing, crying, running around, washing clothes, pushing a wheel barrow, or kicking around a decrepit soccer ball. The sounds are filled of laughter, shouting, and rarely, car exhaust. The people, although probably not happy to live in such an impoverished state, are a proud and dignified group living day to day in a maze of tin.

Xolani, who likes to go by X, explained to us that Kliptown has no electricity and, for a community of more than 45, 000 people, only has several water pumps and some three or four dozen portable bathrooms, which, according to X, are the only aspect of basic necessity that is ever attended to in Kliptown. Even so, X said, the only change that occurs is the company that administers sanitation in the community, not the service that is provided. The hardworking people of Kliptown live on sometimes only one meal per day, sleep on the floor, and have to support upwards of ten people in an area smaller than an average room by Western standards. The outhouses are changed only every decade, and those who have some expendable income—a small majority of the 40% of people employed in Kliptown—rely on an experienced local electricity thief to dig a hole under ground extending electrical wires from the power transformers to a plug within each ‘home’, and most people buy propane stoves to cook what little food they can afford to buy.

But across the train tracks, conveniently separating the local poor from the shopping and historical center that attracts some thousands of tourists every year, sits a developed slab of land whose yield of profits the people from across the vertical divide will never see. X and other locals congregating around the KYP all tell me how much they resent the erection of the multi-million dollar tourist center, known as Freedom Square, which includes a museum that holds the Freedom Charter, a document signed in 1955 that is integral to the anti-apartheid movement started by the African National Congress (ANC), a shopping district, and a Holiday Inn.

“This is how the government develops Kliptown,” the locals angrily and sarcastically proclaim. And this is also how the people of a poor slum steal electricity from a system which so selectively builds divisions among it’s own people, only a fraction of whom can afford to live on the other side of the tracks in the newly subsidized condominiums because thy have steady employment.

Adults are amazed at the color of my skin; children ecstatically amused.

“Do you know how to wash dishes like she does,” asks one patronizing 17-year-old as he passes me and Sopimwe, a local helping my host mother do dishes, outside this morning.

“Yeah, and I know how to cook, too,” I say in my defense making certain not err on the side of defiance.

“Then show me, prove it,” he continues to mock me as I refuse to appease him and he changes the subject to the local porridge, asking me if I’d ever had it.

Nearer to KYP, another man asks me to take a picture with him because I am a white girl and he wants to hang our picture on the wall.

“Do you have a camera,” I ask, knowing full well the negative answer before the words fly out of my mouth.

“No, we are beyond poverty here,” he says to me, his English not only good but articulate, his demeanor suspicious. He goes on to tell me that this is no environment for children to grow up, that this is not a home. “The man that brought water here, we though he was good,” he says, “until the pipes he installed to irrigate the water and reuse it ended up to be too small.” I want to continue talking to him about how neglected the ghetto is, but Thulani warns him in Zulu that he isn’t to talk to us without first consulting with him; my premonitions were correct. After Thulani leaves, the straggler comes back, this time with questions for me.

“Are you with a left-wing group or affiliated with the government?”

“No,” I say, “I’m just a writer,” as I dart my eyes away from him in hopes of dashing his curiosity. He disappears.

We woke up early Friday morning to go to KYP, our NGO and the afterschool program located in the heart of the Kliptown community, acting as a multi-dimensional lifeline to so many of it’s members. Enclosed in a colorfully painted brick semi-circle, KYP is a large space that is made of three or four concrete and wood structures that are made to act as a dance hall, a formal and informal office, (the latter of which is where the server and main computer are stored) and a storage area where children receive donated clothes every Friday, the casual day when members (as young as three and as old as 20) rehearse both traditional and untraditional dance routines. The nucleus of the space is divided into concrete and earth platforms, consisting of one basketball hoop, two soccer nets, and ample space for horseplay. But it’s as if every other sport ceases to exist in the daily regimen of South African and African youth; basketballs and courts are used for one thing and one thing only: soccer. The KYP field is brimming with soccer balls and future all-star athletes.

When we first walked in Friday morning, there were about a hundred frenzied toddlers running around at the daycare loosely affiliated with KYP on the other side of the fence. Anastasia and I, the other Ukrainian girl on my team, dove into the mass of children as if they were a pool a top which we would float; instead, they were more like venom-less vultures who swarmed us into submission. Captivated as much by our skin as we were by their happiness, the kids, both boys and girls, huddled around us and took us from place to place while Anastasia taught them duck-duck-goose and I showed them a reflection of themselves on my digital camera. The children, even as young as three, were very disciplined and well-behaved, all following directions and listening to their elders, a group predominately made of older women who tirelessly work for free and give their time to raise a conscientious and loved youth. We observed the kindergarteners consume a lunch of porridge and kids of up to 50 take a simultaneous nap on the floor underneath a wool mat before the afternoon sun shone at least 100 bright faces into the KYP gate.

These were the majority of the KYP members, aged 5-18, who chose, because of the consistent sense of community and security, to come back to the project that gives then clothing, a hearty meal of rice and beef (in some cases their only meal of the day) everyday, tutoring in science and math, and an opportunity to excel, to make friendships, and to feel a sense of belonging. As the evening progresses, the children all disperse to partake in their individual activities; some were playing soccer, others talking and laughing, and most others rehearsing their dance sequences, which, to my pleasant surprise, for the older kids, consisted of a choreographed number to a series of house and techno music.

The camaraderie was, for the most part, unrivaled. Absorbing the various goings on occurring around me like a dry sponge in the presence of water, I intuitively noticed a teenager who seemed to be a dance instructor, about 13, whip a younger boy—who was not slapping his rubber boots either hard or fast enough to produce the desired tone for the dance—in the face with a stick. The teenager saw the boy’s face begin to crumble and the tears being to swell in his eyes, but he remained undaunted, unflinching, menacingly stone-cold—until he caught me watching him. He quickly moved to another area of the dance troupe while I made my way to the injured boy whose face was now in his lap, along with a river of tears, on a nearby curb. I put my arm around his and held his cheek to mine as I fought back the waterfall of my own physical emotion and realized yet again how universal and unforgiving pain and suffering really is. As he began to control his sobbing and I my anger for the older boy, we both crutched our selves unto the other. Wiping his tears away with grimy fingers and consequently producing muddy tears that slowly streamed down his face in agony, he looked at me as if to say thank-you, and, after a forcibly contrived hug from me, he got up and left. When I watched his dance number a few minutes afterwards, our eyes remained locked and our bond impenetrable; I haven’t seen him since and don’t exactly remember what he looks like. The incident, although not high in severity and commonplace all over the world, gave me a footing from which to understand that a majority of the crimes in Kliptown, and on this planet, are done to our own people, whether they be black, white, male, female, or simply human.

After each of the age groups and sexes performed their respective dance numbers for us during a welcome ceremony and as the night began to descend on the blue sky and pushed the sun away, Thulani brought out a big bag of white Reebok sneakers that were donated by a member of the Boston Celtics after one his children was brought by Peter Johanssen, a teacher at Meadowbrook elementary school in Boston, to Kliptown as part of a yearly tour. This particular Celtic remains unnamed. In fact, much of the funding that KYP receives comes from private individuals with ties to the Boston area whose hearts have been warmed and uplifted by the miraculous work they see being done at KYP. Aside from the electricity—which has been rerouted illegally to light KYP, surely in an act of God—all the new wood structures, internet connection, and of course, the laptops, have been made possible by philanthropic contribution. As Thulani distributed some dozen sneakers to the most committed members of KYP—soccer leaders, dedicated tutors, dance instructors, and altruistic group leaders—an eager, not envious, crowd of more than 100 happy faces watched and clapped with glee while the campfire smoke—or the energy of the selfless goodwill encircling us—watered our eyes. And after an evening prayer, they all were gone; after all, it is not wise to walk around in Kliptown late at night.

As the children ran around, behind, and in front of us in an effort to scurry home before blackness hit, John, an atheist man and my group member, somehow managed to articulate something we had all felt yet couldn’t verbalize.

“If God’s work is done, it is not in a church,” he said in an uncharacteristically tender tone. “This is a place of God.”

That night, Friday night, a female KYP member, Supimwe, slept with Darion and I in a queen size bed; it would be the first out of two very long weekend nights for me and my team, as, in the celebratory spirit and a communal mindset, we bought enough food to feed at least 15 people, some of whom were adults not belonging to KYP, and overspent our budget. They stayed late into the night and forbade my body and mind to rest. Thulani told us the day before that no KYP child will ever beg for anything from us and that, despite the conditions in which they live, they are, from infancy, taught, if not by their parents, then by Thulani, that dignity is the soul of a people and pride is the vehicle to achieve that underlying principle of man. Perhaps this is why it was so offensive when, after multiple discussions with Nomsa—hereafter referred to as “Momsa” after being cleverly coined as such by John—about sleepless nights and empty wallets, X was embarrassed and offended when she told him, Sunday night, that there was just not enough food for him and his boys, who, mind you, had been chaperoning us around throughout the, thus far, short duration of our stay in Kliptown. Although the situation is now resolved and a rift has not been sown, our relationship with our NGO could have begun to debilitate had issues of food, monetary responsibility, and communal sharing not been discussed at length.

Momsa’s house has no electricity. We sleep on the bed she forfeit to sleep on the floor. We excrete ourselves in the outhouse, light our curiosity—books, movies, baths—by paraffin lamps, and wash ourselves with cold water heated warm on the propane stove, the same way we prepare meals. We pay Momsa’s female friends—older women who have no job, but skills—to handwash our clothes in the hopes that our 100 rand somehow benefit the community in which we live and have come to not only appreciate, but care for and respect.

Speaking to some of the local female members and employees of KYP about the sanitation and living conditions in Kliptown, they told me that despite the ANC government’s ministry of Waste Management sending a waste truck to pick up the tons of garbage dropped off in an allocated area each day, the locals are careless and choose to throw their garbage in any stream, corner, or cranny they can find. The litter is so vast that is certainly translates into perilous health concerns for children and the elderly; some parts of Kliptown literally are, complete with filthy pigs, a human wasteland. Whether or not this local complacency that acts to the detriment of the sanitation in Kliptown is an angry retaliation at a system which has—despite the end of apartheid and the simultaneous election of the ANC to the Presidency in 1994—neglected, stunted, and enslaved a very African people for nearly 350 years since the coming of the Dutch to the Cape of Good Hope in the 1600’s, or simply a tired, lazy routine of a hopeless people, aesthetically, Kliptown is not a pretty place and it is easy to justify racist stereotypes at first glance.

When asked how the 60% of the community that is unemployed find money to buy food, the answers very varying. Some clean houses or wash clothes, others sell traditional jewelry or vegetables in Freedom Square, while still others do not work—simply because they refuse to or because they are tired of looking for work in what is still a very segregated and racist country—and either collect unemployment or continue to have children to so they can receive child support.

Proud and respectful, most of the people who inhabit this dense community are not complaining; rather, after informally talking with then, they admit to having come to accept the neglected state in which Kliptown now finds it self in.

“Nothing ever changes,” says a man whose name I don’t remember. “But we at least expect the area to be electrified.”

Wednesday Morning, Before Day 2 of Teacher Training at Lilydale

Indeed, in Gauteng, the area that encompasses Pretoria, Soweto, (comprised of millions of people in which Kliptown manages to carve a black hole) and the surrounding suburbs, the lights that fill the star-struck sky seem curiously to ignore the 50,000 people Kliptown in it holds.

But X remains optimistic.

“We can’t expect the government (the ANC) to enact change in the 15 years of its history,” X said, perhaps indirectly explaining why South Africans awarded Jacob Zuma, a charismatic, eccentric Zulu the ANC Presidency in large numbers this May. “I still have hope things will change.”

On Saturday we went to a soccer tournament with the Kliptown boys. They won both first and second place and it was a shining moment for the poorest team on the field, the mental recognition far outweighing the material reward—soccer balls, jersey’s, ect.—although pride comes in many forms, especially for males. The boys sang Afrikaans—one of the eleven official languages in South Africa (English, Zulu, and Afrikaans)—and Zulu songs all the way home. When the bus dropped us back off in Kliptown, the team walked a little taller into the KYP—past the mud puddles, (so as not to tarnish their cleats) sitting infants, and barbed wire—as the entire mass of youngsters within KYP took notice and applauded the winners.

Yesterday we had teacher training at Lilydale and today we have the same. Will write more on that tomorrow, as well as give a brief history lesson based on ‘Long Walk to Freedom.’

I have not yet been to Jo’burg, save the taxi ride into Kliptown the day of our arrival, but heading to the soccer game, we passed Pretoria and witnessed the affluence and luxury in which a minority of Africans and the majority of whites live; the social and economic inequality offers a glimpse into 1950’s apartheid whilst simultaneously providing a semblance of opportunity.

Finally, in terms of security, I have never felt safer. I am more at ease here than some parts of Boston. Although trouble can easily be found for those in search of it, we’ve been following the rules and staying home at night. I do not fear when biology strikes and I have to go to the outhouse to relieve myself. The nights are quiet and peaceful, the days bring us warm welcomes from the locals, and the KYP members who act as our chaperones have only our best interests at heart. The community here, as I’ve said, is a dignified and communal place. Unlike other Westerners, or whites, we do not come to praise their toil and trouble before we leave to our plush existence at night. No, we live here—and for that, we are granted security and a reciprocated respect. No longer will I be ‘Sleepless in Soweto.’

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