Friday, July 3, 2009

Kliptown the ‘Abomination’, Stagnant Lives, Systematic Eradication, Teaching the Teachers, and a Funeral

The Afternoon of Saturday, June 27

We haven’t had internet access since last Friday because our bandwidth, the amount of internet credits you must purchase in South Africa to be able to use wireless internet, expired. My group is partly assuming the responsibility of KYP running dry for the month of June about a week early because of our substantial contribution to internet use and downloads since our mid-month arrival June 18th. Thus, my preliminary prediction is that this post won’t likely see the light of blog until July 1st or 2nd, when the new monthly bandwidth kicks in—one whose space we will be careful not to suffocate. Even so, just this morning, the KYP generator—providing electricity, powered by petrol—broke, meaning no more electricity at KYP, no more interne access at KYP, no more luxury of charging my MacBook every day, and no more consistency in weekly posts. T.I.A. Also important to clear up that while some ‘homes’ in Kliptown have access to illegal electricity, contrary to my last post, the electricity at KYP has never been illegal. Rather, the nuns who temporarily donated the land KYP now sits on were paying for the electricity bill Thulani inherited when he opened KYP in 2007. Since then, though, because of the demand for the illicit electricity around the squatter camp, cables kept getting stolen and their replacement represented a draconian liability for the electricity company. And so, Kliptown continues to live in darkness, the blind leading the blind.


I type this in Momsa’s backyard immersed with writer’s block. For the past few days I’ve not wanted to write; instead I watch and think, watch and think. And read. Sometimes audacious turns of phrase dance in my mind and find uncommon partners; other times I do not think of words at all.


I am beginning to assimilate. No longer a traveler watching the ‘other,’ I too have—in some ways—become a mere object behind a lens, some unidentifiable statistic who lives in a squatter camp that others come just to visit, to gasp at, returning momentarily to their lives across the tracks, borders, or oceans that separate the haves from the have-nots.


It is mid-afternoon, but my eyes are heavy.


Life here seems to have reached a standstill. After many long days and short nights, this Kliptown reality is diffusing in, around, and through my consciousness in a way that has forever changed me, the way white milk spreads itself in a cup of dark coffee, producing something much richer and wholesome in return. With no newspapers, no television, no clock, and not even a change in the routine of the locals so as to signify a measurement of time, accomplishment, or change, it is easy to lose your mind—and your ambition—in Kliptown.


“What do people do around here,” I ask Thulani, whom Momsa secretly reveals last night goes by Sexeni, both abbreviated and appropriated from ‘success.’


“Many of them drink and do drugs,” he says as I am grudgingly reminded of the throbbing base of the disco music my eardrums have been inundated with for the past 10 days. On our way to KYP from Momsa’s each morning, we walk past this so-called discotheque, already filled with the usual suspects. Sharply greeted by the masked stench of malt liquor and sloppy arm gestures of worn-out men holding near empty bottles of beer while a young girl wearing a short skirt smiles at us, I hasten my pace and deny them a proper ‘Sawbona,’ meaning ‘Hello’ in English.


This Saturday the music sounds especially enticing. And for a large majority of people in Kliptown—most of who are young adults or curious children—soccer-less activity is both a scarce and intriguing find. Drugs and alcohol suffocate most childhoods; the gangster life presents yet another escape; And for those who are neither bandits nor drunks, the silent killer known only by its intimidating acronym—AIDS—unsparingly takes its victims like a blind thief in the night.


Early Sunday Afternoon


We’ve had a few days off from OLPC activity with more teacher training resuming Monday and Tuesday. We first went to our school Monday last week to speak to the principal, an Indian man who, with easy, crowned himself as the founder of the modern Lilydale Primary School, a school that teaches students in grades 5, 6, and 7. The school is located in Dlamini, the district of about 20,000 black inhabitants living in their own plots of privately owned land in brick, single-family homes. Although Kliptown is a community of squalor and shacks, because of the importance of the Freedom Charter—signed in Kliptown in 1955—it represents, like most other areas of historical significance, a tourist destination, while Dlamini acts more like an isolated suburbia where no white has ever stepped foot before. As we walked down the concrete streets adorned with organized rows of housing on either side of this middle to lower class Soweto neighborhood, our bodies transformed into red targets for eager schoolchildren who ran after us like we were dripping white chocolate.


After a 15-20 minute walk from Kliptown to Dlamini, we had arrived at the Lilydale Higher Primary School, the educational institution where we would speak to the principal about how best to implement the OLPC mission—one laptop for every child, in this case being one grade of children, as we only had 100 XO laptops for distribution—during our summer stay in South Africa. The principal was a heavy-set man in his 50’s with white hair, a round face, and, as I would soon find out, a self-righteous air. The school was unlike anything we had seen in Rwanda; it was more a rendition of a pubic school in Boston. Gated, clean, and separated into 5 or 6 classrooms—which together house some 300 students, 87 in the two grade 5 classes alone—in the shape of a rectangle, the school is well-funded and organized, the infrastructure secure. There even exists a computer room complete with a brand-new projector for broadcasting directions about login to students. Indeed, this, Soweto is not a rural area and the Lilydale Primary School not a financially-starved—and already somewhat computer literate—school; had our project been in rural South Africa, we would have surely arrived to a different reality. The financial stability of Lilydale and Mohammed’s—the principal’s first name—seeming commitment to the school and excitement about the XO’s—or praise for it’s revival after the end of apartheid—are factors that could easily act to further saturate the school and strengthen sustainability after the end of our deployment in August. Easier said, the apparent wealth of the school could be used, upon our successful pilot program of course, to privately purchase more XO’s for every class within the school.


We arranged with the principal that he would give his authority and backing while we met with the ten teachers at the school to introduce them to the OLPC idea and ask them to come in for training both two days before their break—Friday, June 26-July 20—and during their break, a concession the principal was hesitant to confirm the teachers would make.


Late Monday Afternoon


But, after some persuasive probing about why it’s imperative for the teachers to come in for training during the break, they agreed to do so; three of the teachers said they were willing to come in on the 29th and 30th, and the rest (about six) offered to come in on the 15th and 16 of July, a few days before the July 20th resumption of school. With the principal’s Big Brother-ly gaze hovering over their decision, the group also agreed to give us two hours on the Tuesday and Wednesday before the break last Friday, and we began training at 1 pm Tuesday.


Quiet and reserved—unlike the kids that fill the halls and fields of Lilydale during school—the teachers all arrived around 1:30 and began taking their XO’s out of the boxes. Much like the rest of humanity over the age of 12, the teachers were stumped on how to actually open the XO. Going over basics like turning the computer on and off, battery recharge, and opening and closing applications—the spine of navigating on the XO—took the longest and was the most difficult to teach. Using words like ‘hover’, ‘mouse’, and ‘scroll’, even to English-speaking teachers, was both a foreign and ineffective method. We quickly realized the patience, problem solving, and resolve necessary for learning. Because we had yet to purchase power strips, we were both please and fortunate to find the XO’s both charged and flashed with the most updated application cycle. The rest of Tuesday and the duration of Wednesday was further spent on learning the basics of operation and sampling some of the most integral—and easy to use—applications to learning: write, wikipedia, memorize, calculator, speak, and record. Although fascinated with the ‘neighborhood’ function that allowed the teachers to invite people to their activity and chat with their co-workers about how “hungry and tired they were,” and that some of them “wanted to go home,” it was apparent that without our diligent and informed instruction, the teaches would have much to learn on their own. As with the students in Rwanda, some teachers were faster and more enthusiastic learners than others. This learning curve especially played itself out today, on the 29th, when the three teachers who came—out of which one was two hours late—were all learning at a different pace. After reiterating the basics of the XO to our pupils, we had them work on two specific problems (one designed for Social Studies and the other Math) for the rest of the day. Although we made ourselves available for questions pertinent to the activity at hand, we wanted to empower the teachers with hands-on experience instead of doing the work for them. After a few moments of stillness and what I can hyperbolize to have been crickets, the teachers began following the problem-specific instructions—which were written—needed to finish the exercise. Although both exercises were completed, they were done with ample oversight and tutelage—and with varying degrees of detail, time-consumption, and success. We plan to introduce the two Science and English-centric problems tomorrow, the fourth and last official day of training with the first group of teachers. The benefit of having two groups training separately is the advantage of using the first group as a prototype to test out methods that work and don’t work, as well to try to gage the productivity of the teachers. Even so, after this first week of training, it has become apparent that this deployment will continue to be an uphill battle, conventional learning against progressive technology. Far from being an educational Cold War with two opposing ideologies, the conflict lies in trying to teach an old dog new tricks; teachers who have never used a computer, or only ever used a Windows PC, will find it very challenging to learn Sugar, let alone incorporate it into their curriculum, the ultimate goal of OLPC. Moreover, if the teacher doesn’t feel confident using the XO, it is unlikely to be introduced into class, as the teacher legitimacy as the class instructor lies in their authority. Our plan is to, after a big media blitz at the school July 20th, to train the children after hours—meanwhile giving more time for the teachers to practice on their XO’s—before we being allotting any sliver of class time to the XO.  When we are wired the rest of our funds—which were donated through OLPC—before the end of June, we plan to purchase routers and a modem to establish internet access at Lilydale, in addition to setting up the server.


We plan to travel to Durban, the Indian-majority province in South Africa, before the second batch of training July 15th and 16th.


The Indian principal smokes as he wishes in the administrative building of the school; although a part of the school students usually don’t frequent, from time to time young girls—dressed in what looks like boarding school attire—enter the building to help with tea and cookie preparation—as happened with us that first introductory day. The principal smokes anywhere he wishes as if the school is his own hookah lounge. Speaking with one of the teachers after the initial teacher workshop, he is surprised I both noticed and mentioned the audacity and callous disregard of the principal to smoke in the school, a non-smoking facility. When I ask whether the principal does what he wants because he is Indian, a menacing smile creeps across the teachers face in vindication.


“Yes,” he says, as he calls over one of the other teachers to share my revelation. “And you know he teaches grades 5’s, too, but you don’t see him training with us. Indians, they are all like that.”


That’s when I realize that racism creates angry, hypocritical recipients; it spreads from the oppressor to the victim like indiscriminate wildfire, creating a vicious, discriminatory cycle of prejudice and unforgiving memory, planting the seeds of vengeance in a newly-formed stubborn identity.


Thulani has repeatedly told me that despite a democratic republic and fervent promises of social welfare from charismatic leaders, that egalitarian mantra has not yet evolved into practical reality. Instead, he said that races are, although no longer institutionally, this time economically segregated. Generally speaking, the socioeconomic status that white, wealthy Afrikaans (the Dutch who first claimed South Africa as their bounty before the Brits flexed their muscle of empire and domination), whose language can best be described as a mixture of Dutch and English, still remain atop of the class hierarchy and are comprised of heirs to mine and diamond fortunes, as well as business and landowners. Next in South Africa’s colorfully warring lineage of wealth and social stature are the Indians, followed by the Coloureds—a mix of Indian and white, Indian and black, black and white, or anything that isn’t a racial pure breed—and then the Blacks, or Africans, the first group of people both in that country, continent, and earth—depending on which school of ‘truth’ you belong to.


“The Afrikaans think they are better than the Indians, the Indians think they’re better than the Coloureds, and everybody thinks they’re better than the blacks,” I remember X telling us during an afternoon drive from the Jo’burg currency exchange yesterday.


“So the more white people have in them, the more ammunition and justification they have to feel more elite and privileged than others,” I say, uncertain of whether or not my blunt honesty comes off as pretentious.


“Exactly,” X says. I breathe a sigh of relief. He’s told me that Africans, or maybe just South Africans, are not only non-confrontational creatures, but that they also tend to have difficulty communicating their thoughts and emotions—whether they be professional, personal, sentimental, or political. I’ve kept his words close to the inquisitive nature of my lips, but I’ve noticed that time and trust has loosened his tongue. I begin to ask more provocative questions, and X answers not only in kind, but also in elaborate detail, sowing his country’s scabbed history into a coarse fabric before my ears.


“You see those two electrical towers over there,” he asks as he points to the two white towers engulfed with a water-painted portrait of a couple, a flower, and a dry wheat bundle. “These are not in use anymore, and they are now actually used for bungee jumping, but until 1985, these towers, located in Soweto, were used solely for the benefit of white industry owners in Johannesburg, and acted as an insulting reminder of oppression to the majority of black Sowetans.”


He goes on to tell me that that year, 1985, is also the first year that Africans in Soweto were able to purchase land and formerly own their homes, effectively dealing a justified blow to the enforcement of the 1913 Land Act, “which ultimately deprived blacks of 87 percent of the territory in the land of their own birth,” Mandela writes in his autobiography. He goes on to, in that same paragraph, pit 1913 as the year Africans became not only inferior to the white man in class, but in the eyes of justice. The Land Act was the first of more than a dozen black-discriminatory legislations passed by the British, acting via the United Party, that consequently paved the way for a wholesale subversion of freedom for the African people that culminated in institutionalized apartheid under the Dutch-led Nationalist party in 1948.


Wednesday Afternoon


As we drive through the most affluent area of Soweto, named Diepcleuff—pronounced deep-kloof, after the Dutch term meaning BLANK—my eyes follow Thulani’s finger out of the car and into the suburban neighborhood as he points towards a large home in the distance.


“That’s Winnie Mandela’s house,” he says of Nelson Mandela’s second wife. “She is revered by the people because she was so political and to this day remains South Africa’s most popular and charismatic first lady. Rumor has it he divorced his first wife, I can’t remember her name, because…”


“Evelyn, the nurse,” I blurt out from the back seat.


“Yes, Evelyn,” he says, unflinchingly. “You see, people say she wasn’t involved with the anti-apartheid struggle enough, and so Mandela divorced her,” he continues to say, dividing his visual focus half to us, and half to the road ahead as we dodge car after car on our way back to Kliptown.


“But Winnie, that Winnie even got into trouble with the ANC because she was so involved; in the 70’s, she participated in a ritual at the time and hung a tire over the neck of an informant like a noose before she set it ablaze,” he explains as his voice travels further from my senses and I imagine a densely populated, 70’s-era South African street filled both with angry shouts of indignation and the melodic patriotism of traditional African songs competing with the screams of a dozen men whose faces twist like demons as their heads are engulfed in crimson flames and the pungent stench of burning rubber and human skin slowly infect the crowds as a reminder of their sins.


“Informants, what informants,” I ask as a speed bump interrupts my frenzied scanning of the pages of Mandela’s autobiography—the one I’ve managed to read only a quarter of.


“During the 70’s, when ANC solidarity and the abolition of apartheid struggle was at its peak—especially among the youth—the ANC was very cautious of government informants who posed as ANC members and leaders, some infiltrating the organization’s top ranks and even going so far as to participate in mass protests that often resulted in jail time just to prove their fraudulent allegiance to the organization they were strategizing to topple,” Thulani said as we hung on his every word like a spider from a web. “And so if an informant was ever caught, or an ANC member ever suspected, some of the most passionate practitioners of the resistance, including Winnie Mandela, would join together and burn the men alive by lighting the highly flammable tire around the neck of the informant as a spectacular lesson to those in attendance. Even today, when blacks protest, they bring tires as a symbol of their history and their anger.”


I am immediately reminded of the dozens and dozens of children huddled around a circle of burning fires every time dusk falls on Kliptown.


It was not only the men who were persecuted for their treasonous espionage in the ANC during that electrifying decade that now fills history books with images of mob-filled streets, bloody protests, and police raids; Women also burned to death by tire necklace. The Nationalists were keen to realize that women were a more malleable political tool than men because of their sexual prowess and difficulty to expose, especially as the ANC, in its evolution, was more and more striving to represent a union of all South Africans who sought unconditional freedom, including females.


In fact, Mandela’s autobiography depicts the relentlessly persistent and organized mobilization of mostly blacks, fewer Indians, even less coloreds, and some whites, to fight against the state apparatus that caged and stifled the rights of man, putting the interests of white Afrikaans above all. This defiance campaign—a term I’m using as a description of general non-compliance with the state as opposed to the 1948 Defiance Campaign, the name of a planned and executed series of peaceful protests, rallies, threats, walkouts, and strikes against segregation laws—grew in strength and numbers since it’s formal inception in 1912 until it’s institutional vindication in 1994. This ‘Long Walk To Freedom’ came first as a predominately black rights movement, then adopted nationalistic tendencies, combated communist in-fighting, suffered contention over racial inclusion into the ANC, and as Mandela hints to me, ultimately resulted in an armed resistance, the only weapon of efficacy when fighting the impenetrable war machinery of the state. As a result, South Africa is a nation of social activism and protest until this day. Strikes result most often from claims of corruption, but the commonplace wage demands and unfair working conditions also boil workers over the top.


I was told the teachers in Soweto were on strike shortly before our arrival in Jo’burg June 18th. Thulani informed me taxi drivers were airing their grievances by abstaining from work the week before, and just this week, doctors are putting down their scalpel in exchange for a remote control during their time-off. A British man residing in South Africa lamented about the inefficiency of the South African labor force at last week’s soccer tournament, and although he did not say so, I intuited he was talking about blacks.


“This week it’s the teachers, next week it’s the doctors; you never know what they’re striking for,” he began with a slight annoyed superiority in his tone before telling me that his maid was robbed at gunpoint and his wife’s jewelry stolen the day before. I could only imagine the color of the assailants and the perpetual stereotypes that linger beneath South Africa’s veil of ignorance.


Friday, Dawn


After the first teacher training at Lilydale when I managed to penetrate one the teachers trust—Bennie—by openly criticizing the principal for smoking, I continued to probe about his life and this teacher’s strike I had heard with such animosity about from the Brit a day earlier.


“I heard all the teachers in Soweto were on strike last week,” I say to his nodding face. “Why?”


“We weren’t on strike,” Bennie clarifies. “It was just a protest.”


“Was it because of corruption?”


“Yes,” he answers back, either surprised by my interest in the subject or knowledge of the precise facts. “Some of the school’s management is corrupt despite there being many administrative and managerial positions open for internal competition a few weeks back, none of the skilled teachers and professionals that applied were chosen, and for no reason at all.”


“How was it resolved?”


“To some degree, they stopped discriminating, but it will happen again. When I first started working, I only made about 500 RAND for three months.”


“And how much do you make now,” I asked, taking the chance of offending him in exchange for a relevant answer.


“About 4,000,” he answers without hesitation as I converted that number to a mere $500 American a month. “That can barely be enough for living expenses.”


“Barely,” Bennie, who divulges his membership in a union, says. “The doctors are severely underpaid, too. People criticize them for striking in such a crucial industry, but they deserve more.”


I leave the school that day at odds with my own impressions of South Africa.  Although inspired and celebratory about the perseverance of the ANC in writing a history engrained with beads of personal sacrifice that ultimately led to a liberation of the masses that continues to be practiced today, the country’s gains remain marred by unfulfilled promises, untapped potential, and unjust living conditions for so many of the party’s most ardent supporters. Yet most of them remain patiently waiting for tangible chance and refuse to betray the engine that succeeded to add the practice of apartheid to that withered history book.


More than one of those I talk to say the age-old African curse of absolute power has bestowed itself upon even the most fervent pioneers of equality.


“Some of these leaders, they just want to stay in power forever,” an ANC critic recently said to me. “It’s not about the people anymore—it’s turned selfish.”


Kliptown is a jarring example of egalitarian principles succumbing to that insatiate thirst for power. Although one of the most sophisticated and esteemed hospitals in the Eastern hemisphere is just a stone’s throw away from Kliptown, none if it’s inhabitants can afford its drop-in fee, not one school exists in the squatter camp.


The very term squatter camp is even laced with political malaise; an ‘informal settlement’ is in theory identical to a squatter camp, save for the colossal fact that squatter camps are bereft of government-subsidized refurbishment plan. Indeed, they are left to rot and decay without purpose, without assistance, without a future. It’s as if the poor are a heavy burden on South Africa and her people, even the burgeoning affluent African population, as if their savage survival is a threat to the rest of a newly civilized South Africa, as if their exists a plan, instead to emancipate them, to systematically eradicate any footprint they ever had. While health care, education, and even basic needs like electricity are shamefully invisible in Kliptown, the chain of super markers that tightly grip the commercial produce monopoly in Gauteng, ShopRite and Pick and Pay, raise their prices for the same goods in Kliptown that can be found for cheaper in Pimville or Jo’burg, meanwhile appearing to maintain a semblance of competitive practice by advertising under separate names.


“In South Africa, the rich get richer while the poor get poorer,” Pam, the plump, heartwarming woman who heads an AIDS support group and kindergarten program at KYP says to the FliP video camera I’m holding for a young Californian NGO journalist while we walk around Kliptown, voyeuristically filming it’s sorrow. “This is an abomination, it’s filthy.”


When I sense our journalistic camaraderie and his searching for words, I jump in with my own questions for the woman who says that despite her anger and disgust for the place in which she lives, she sees hope and prosperity “in ten years, when I’ll be dead.” She couldn’t be more than 55, but she complains of stomach and back pains. Admits she’s never been to a doctor, refuses to go. It’s not the money, she presses.


“Pam, are you happy with what the ANC has done since the end of apartheid?”


“To be honest with you, O,” she calls me, “no, I’m not.”


Her dream for Kliptown, she says, is real housing. No more shacks, tin, tires, rocks, filth, and pigs. She says she got involved with KYP because the NGO is instrumental in offering the majority inhabitants of Kliptown, the children, an alternative to drug and alcohol. To ask which drugs predominate the vices of the youth escapes me.


Thulani has, in the past, told me his ultimate dream is to extend KYP’s influence from an after school program to an organization that has a capacity to house it’s members, many of whom are mentally and physically abused after the heavenly KYP gates close at 6 PM daily. After that, he says, and when he is financially stable, his only plan is to get out of Kliptown—for good. And he won’t often come back, either, he admits, hoping to thwart the bitter envy by the human remnants of Kliptown for anyone who manages to get out of this onyx ghetto alive.


For there are also those who do get out, yet not breathing. According to Thulani, someone dies everyday in Kliptown. Although an inevitable check on immortality for every being alive, for the people of Kliptown, death is so common that funeral insurance—up to 40 RAND per month—is a staple in the monthly budget—for those who can afford it. The bodies of those whose families are like most in Kliptown, and don’t have money to pay for the funeral either prematurely or at the time of death, sometimes rot around living family members for an entire month before being transported to the state-sponsored morgue.


“This family, they are very lucky because they had money to pay for the funeral costs,” Thulani says early last Saturday morning as the drives us from a 31-year-old mans—his friend—funeral in Kliptown to the Pimville cemetery. Cause of death: AIDS.


“About 20% of the people in Kliptown are HIV positive,” he answers me as I read the program of the deceased, written by someone on his behalf in first person.


“…I was born to [______ and ______]. […..] I worked in [______] factory until I got sick. [……] I will be remembered by my family and friends.”


I heard about the death a few days before the Saturday funeral. Word spread like wildfire that a young man had died of AIDS; the deceiving truth is that most AIDS victims die in the winter from a slight cold. He left behind a young child whose care was now confined to his grandmother, as his mother was also terminally ill with AIDS.


“Does that mean the child has AIDS, as well,” Anastasia asked as we looked through the windows of Thulani’s car and into the boy’s glassy, unknowing eyes.


A simple, sobering “yes” was all Thulani gave.


Later the next day, being escorted by some of the KYP girls back to Momsa’s just before dark—a ritual that has eased over time as we accustom ourselves with the community—we walked by the house of a friend of mine a KYP member—who, because of the difficulty of her name, the sparse time I’ve had with her, and her striking resemblance to pop star Rhianna, will be addressed by that name—a beautiful girl whose radiant spirit shone through her eyes the day we met.


As we walked along the road parallel to where her and her family members were sitting on the steps of their home, I asked the other girls why I haven’t seen her around KYP lately.


“There’s been a death in the family,” Christina, the light-skinned—colored, in fact, according to Thulani—soft-spoken KYP accountant of 21 told me.


“Is that the same man that died of AIDS a few days ago, “ I asked, unaware of why, after the words flew carelessly out of my mouth, their void filled with an eerie silence.


“We don’t talk about AIDS here,” Thulani’s half-sister, or Lady D, as she likes to be called, said as pangs of embarrassed guilt barraged me like the blitzkrieg, answering my question in tacit nuance.


“If something happens to you, you can tell people about it if you want,” Christina added, “but here in South Africa, and even Africa, we don’t talk about other people like that. It can land you in a lot of trouble.”


Taking their comments both in stride and respect, I tapped into my courageous side.


“But everyone talks,” I spat out. “Every culture gossips.”


“Especially when they have nothing better to do,” Nelly, the sympathetic KYP cook—and natural comedian—admitted when all three of the girls realized that the real lesson lay in exploring the truth.


That conversation reverberated in my head as I watched Rhianna read the program at the funeral, an event that consisted of a very similar chronology of events to Western funerals, save for the fact that is occurred under a tarp in a clearing between the shacks.


So it was her family member. A cousin, I would later find out. As she walked with the rest of the hysterical family to the cars and buses awaiting to transport the procession to the Pimville cemetery ten minutes away, she caught my presence and we shared a hug.


At the cemetery, song battled perverse thoughts and images of death that hauntingly danced in my mind with anxiety. A small man who seemed a close friend of the victim was laughing and stumbling about during inconvenient times, singing the hymns with passion. I suspected he was drunk, numbing the all too familiar pain of losing a life to the insidious acronym.


Back at the tarp, every person in attendance douses their hands in a bucket of cold water, symbolic, I am shortly told, of a release of the memory of death and the birth of a new day, a celebration of life. As at least two hundred people line up diligently for the free meal after the funeral, a man with good English and liquored breath seeks my conversation.


“You know we’re lucky,” he begins, “that today’s funeral was one of AIDS, not gangs.”


“What do you mean,” I ask, confused.


“Those funerals can get dangerous,” he continues, as if predicting my next question. “If you are in a gang, and you die from a bullet wound, your former gang members shoot guns at your funeral and burn tires at the cemetery. It gets violent,” he warns.


I am speechless. He doesn’t mind.


“You should have brought your camera to take pictures of this,” he says with a smile on his face.


“I didn’t know if it would be appropriate,” I answer back, simultaneously surprised at his desire to have a family’s most intimate moment photographed for the preying, judging eyes of a foreign audience and regretful of having forgot my camera at Momsa’s earlier that morning. “I hope it doesn’t happen again, but if it does, I’ll bring it next time.”


“It’ll happen again,” he chillingly reassures me. “It’ll happen again soon.”















  1. Olesia,

    The highs and lows of this trip must tax your mind. It is amazing to see it all through your eyes. Though it is 70 and sunny and glorious out today all i could do was sit here and be sucked in to your experience. Keep sharing. Your words are a bridge. Keep it strong. I miss and love you!


  2. FAIL!

    I've been thinking about you. You are a bright light in a dark tunnel. I've managed to grasp your radiance and use it as an illuminating strength in the blackest of moments.

    Thank-you for being such an unrelenting presence in my mind; you have no idea how much I've learned from you.

    I'll keep writing if you keep reading.

    I love you. And have an unforgettable summer.

    Email me: