Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Arch Soup Kitchen

Dan and I left Cape Town a few days ago, but I want to write about my experience at the Arch Soup Kitchen at St. George's Cathedral. I have attached a link at the end of my post, if you are interested.
The soup kitchen is open from 9:00am to 1:30pm Monday to Friday. I couldn’t give you an exact figure for the amount of people who use this service on any given day or week. Mary, a volunteer who does accounting and other things for the church said one day last year she sat on the stage for four and a half hours and counted about 250 people. The majority of visitors are men, although there are quite a few women too. There are two cooks who make the soup and on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays they also make stew with rice, which is very popular. A bowl of soup sells for R .40C and if you want soup and bread then you must pay R 1. This is about 6 cents Canadian for a bowl of soup and about 14 cents for soup and bread. Stew and rice costs R 1.50 which is about 22 cents. One of the major grocery chains, SPAR often donates bread, ciabatta loaves and other nice buns along with cakes and really whatever else they might otherwise toss. When bread is donated we give it out for free. So it would cost someone R.40 for bread and soup.
If someone comes in with no money then they can wipe down a table or collect the empty bowls and plates for their food. Sweetness, a woman who has been working there for 5 years, runs a tight ship. She has the perfect mix of kindness, firmness and humour. It’s a tough job because everyone that comes in is hungry and poor, but you have to have some boundaries.

On one grey morning last week, after an early morning thunderstorm, people filed into the church hall where we were waiting with boiling hot soup and nice big pieces of bread. In a span of about 15 minutes I did a quick head count, and of those who were seated at the tables and still in line I counted around 55 people. This was a particularly cold morning and really busy, but everyone was fairly patient and very friendly. These are the same men who a month earlier I had maybe seen on the street and probably ignored as I quickly passed them, either because of an uncomfortable feeling or because I didn’t want to be asked for money. Now, in the space of a church hall, over passing out hot soup, big fresh pieces of ciabatta and pizza bread I felt something change.
There are a wonderful group of about ten men who are known as “Moffies”. They are men who dress as women and for the most part identify as women. To be clear, “Moffie” is not a derogatory term, everyone who introduced themselves or their friends to me said “this is ---- and s/he’s a moffie”. As an example, my second day Marco (also known as Natta or Mamma Moffie) came out and said to me “Holly, I am a moffie, I am mamma moffie, I have 5 children and 12 grandchildren” then he yelled into the crowd of about 50 people “Moffie’s stand up!!” and about 7 people stood up smiling, he then proceeded to introduce me to each of them. I am only sharing this with you so you can begin to understand how diverse this crowd is.

In two weeks, I only saw one fight and it was between a man and a woman. I was worried for the man. I don’t know what the fight was about, as when things get heated people tend to speak a language other than English (Zulu, Xhosa or sometimes Afrikaans). Soon after it started someone from the crowd stood up and yelled in a soft voice “don’t fight! This is a church; you can’t fight inside of a church, take it outside”.
I was always a little amazed at how quiet it seemed inside the big room filled with such a diverse crowd. This is partly due to the TV that was introduced not long ago. From about 10:00 Bones (a man who helps out, but also lives on the street – someone I got to know and really came to like) puts on a movie and from 10:00 to 1:00 people eat, sleep, talk and watch movies. Many young men would say “I’ll take my soup to go, I am going to sit in the theatre.” I guess when your reality is soup and bread everyday; you have to make light of it somehow. Many people would also come in and say "I'll have the special of the day".

There is a young boy, probably about ten or eleven who we would see on the street all of the time. He would often ask for money and then say “just buy me some bread, I’m hungry”. One day Dan and I bought him a loaf of bread and a banana. We handed it over and then crossed the street. We watched him disappear and then about thirty seconds later he returned and sold it to an older man who was also asking for money. The whole transaction took less than a thirty seconds and the boy went back to begging in the same breath as the man dropped coins in his hand. I was a little shocked. I don’t know why he would have sold the food, maybe he wasn’t that hungry, maybe he was using drugs (it is common for people to tell you not to give street kids money because they buy glue to sniff and other drugs). The man ate the banana and walked away. A few days later this boy came into the soup kitchen. I told Sweetness my story; she figured he was buying drugs. She tried to ask him how old he was but he wasn’t in the mood for talking. He bought his soup, sat down, wrapped himself in a blanket and ate his bread. As I watched him sit there watching the movie and sipping his soup I really became aware that perhaps a lot of the grown men in here were just like him, 10, 20 or 30 years ago. I have no idea what his story is, I can only imagine, but I do know that he is likely in for a hard life; you can already see it on his face.

One other thing I want to tell you about is how my relationship changed with these people outside of the space of the soup kitchen. For example, one day Dan and I were sitting in the garden (a really nice area next to the church where people sit and eat lunch or stroll though) and there were a group of moffies dancing and singing and walking through. Most people looked uncomfortable and often stepped away as they passed them. They were wrapped in their blankets and some were still eating soup. As they walked passed us one recognized me and rushed over. I introduced Dan to them and they were excited that I was married and told him he was a lucky guy and then they said we must enjoy this beautiful day and they were off, singing and dancing. I tell you this because I was one of those people who would back away and hope that the group of men wouldn’t notice me. I too, was uncomfortable. That all changed the minute I walked in the door and served my first bowl of soup. It is really amazing. I wish I had more time to spend there as I have a great deal more to learn.

One of my favourite moments was on my last day. It was Friday so people were a little jazzed up and quite a few men were quite a bit drunk. One man was on his second bowl of soup and after I took his money out of his hands and set the soup in front of him he became very serious, looked at the soup, looked at the man next to him, looked at me and said “This soup gave me TB”. He then picked up his soup and walked away.

Now, I realize the reality of that isn’t funny, in any way, but I did laugh to myself. I couldn’t help it. I guess it was one of those ‘you had to be there’ moments.


Saturday, June 5, 2010

out of Cape Town for a few days

Holly and I are leaving Cape Town in just a few hours. We spent the past number of days driving east down along the Indian ocean, through coastal towns that have been manicured for tourists and past townships of corrugated iron shacks on the fringes of each of them. The physical beauty of the country is stunning around each turn of the road. We were either driving on the edge of rugged mountain slopes hugging the inside to avoid getting too close to a drop down to the ocean, or we were passing fruit and wine farms in the valley of mountains passing into a semi-dessert past dried-up ponds and flocks of ostriches.

We traveled at just the right time in South Africa: the slowest time for tourists all year. This worked out perfectly for us because we could find places to stay for under half their usual price, allowing us to spend two nights in sea-front guest houses. The first night we were in a two-story self-catering cottage made for 4-6 people with upper and lower decks facing the ocean. On the second night we stayed in a penthouse suite with a wrap-around deck, full glass walls and sliding doors, and a view east that provided an incredible view of the sunrise from our bed. I can’t imagine what this place would cost during peak season, but we paid much less than we could pay for any hotel room in Canada.

Our last night was spent in a small town called Montagu which is known for its dried fruit and wine vineyards. This town was really out in the mountains, and interesting enough had the same feel as some of the small towns in northern Ontario. We stayed at a guesthouse with its own brewery and walked the vacant streets at 8 o’clock at night. We did find, however, that there was a pool competition going on at Uncle Sam’s Pub, a place whose decor and customers reminded us of the Arlington hotel in Maynooth. The crowd ranged from 18-60 yrs old, and people moved slowly with their cigarettes and beer as they navigated from one person to the next while waiting their turn at the pool competition.

Later in the night we had a locally brewed beer with the owners of our guest house who told us their stories of how they came from Cape Town to Montagu. Hearing people’s personal stories of life in South Africa has been one of my favourite things to do here, as they all reveal something different about the country. This couple told us about dealing with the gangs and corrupt police as they ran a restaurant in Muizenburg, a popular surfing spot. They also spent three months working for a game reserve in the Northern Cape, but they had to quit that job because they couldn’t deal with the racism of their boss. They were now in Montagu trying to get into the tourist industry there. I am sure they will do well, as it was the one Holly and I picked after touring several other places to stay.

We have many more stories to tell from our road trip, but we will share them later, maybe in person.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

St. George's Cathedral

Last Sunday, Dan and I decided to attend the ‘EvenSong’ at St. George’s Cathedral. First, I want to give you a bit of history of the Cathedral. It was designed at the turn of the 19th century and its official name is the ‘Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr in Cape Town.’ Now it is commonly known St. George’s Cathedral or the ‘People’s Cathedral’. The latter name is used because it was one of the few places of worship that was open to all people of all races during apartheid. Archbishop Desmond Tutu presided at the Cathedral and made it a focus of opposition to the apartheid government. It is also an HIV and AIDS friendly space and has many outreach programmes including some that work with people infected and affected with the virus/disease.

Ok, enough history. The evening song time was interesting, but not as upbeat as we thought it would be. I particularly liked how the prayers were said in a chant-like way. It was a very ceremonious evening, which was a different experience for both of us. We were given a church leaflet about upcoming events and important dates. This was how we found out about Desmond Tutu’s book launch. There was a notice that caught my eye. It was asking for people to make and bring a sandwich to feed the hungry. There was also a small pamphlet about the second store at the Church. I made a mental note to go on Monday. Turns out the store is closed Mondays, so I had to wait.

I will say that second hand stores are one of my favourite places to shop – I especially love Church run second hand stores.

This small store is nothing short of a gem, filled with tiny treasures and dusty old books. I ended up buying a pair of ancient knitting needles and speaking to the old woman working about knitting for quite some time. I also came across an amazing book – “All the answers to your child’s questions” Unfortunately the book is much too big for me to lug home. Before I left, I asked her about the sandwich program and how I could get involved. She asked whether I meant helping in the Soup Kitchen or with the after service sandwiches. I said that I would be more interested in the soup kitchen (I didn’t intend on going to the services). She immediately called a woman named Mary, who came right over. Mary took me right inside and asked if I would be interested in helping out for an hour right away and then coming back the next day as they would be short two people. I agreed. This was how I started working at the soup kitchen at St. George’s Cathedral. Unfortunately, until just last week, I didn’t realize they had a soup kitchen at the cathedral, but luckily I am able to volunteer there for the next two weeks.

I will write some stories about the soup kitchen later, I am still figuring out how to tell about my experiences there. I could write a short book, but I will spare you from reading pages and pages. I will sort out my thoughts and post something soon.

Travelling Third Class

I have wanted to share a bit about travelling by public transport for some time now. We have many options here; we can take the train, city buses, a hired private taxi or a regular taxi, which is also known as 'third class'. Dan and I both have been travelling by third class since our first week here. This form of transportation is cheap (5 rand, or about 80 cents for us to get into the city), often too loud and to be honest, quite scary. I love it.

These taxis are small buses that have a capacity to carry about 16 passengers. More often they carry upwards of 20, depending on how much the passengers feel like squeezing together. They drive unnecessarily fast and too often instead of slowing down when the car ahead brakes, they create a new lane and drive on the far left side of the road, or down the middle of the two lanes, creating three lanes. They are usually pumping out pop music like Lady Gaga or other music like Akon and believe it or not, Justin Beiber (or Jason Bieber as radio hosts refer to him here). The driver focuses on driving while his partner yells out the window “Cape Town” or “Wynberg” (these are the only two destinations we need to know from where we live). Often the mate (as this person was known in Ghana) will be dancing and singing along to the music while yelling out his destination to people on the street. The mates have incredible skills for whistling and shuffling people in and out of the taxis. It seems to me they share the same accent, a mate accent, if you will. When they yell “Cape Town” it’s more like “Cap Tooown”. They often refer to younger women as “lady” and older women as “Ma” and men as “dude”.

One of my favourite instances of this was last week. I was waiting to cross the street and a taxi was driving past. It slowed down the mate yelled “Hey lady! Where you goin, Wynberg?” I shook my head no and he said “Where you goin?” I replied “across the street” He said “oh well, then, please, do cross”

Often these taxis are adorned with many stickers on the inside. I would love to find out where they buy them, but I think maybe they aren’t meant for me to own, but to enjoy in this specific context. I will share with you now some of the funnier and often confusing ones that I have come across (this does mean that I have taken notes while in the taxis. I am still figuring out how much of a nerd that makes me)
¥ “Pay with a smile and I’ll drive with a smile”
¥ “To know me does not mean you don’t have to pay”
¥ “Stop the spread of TB, open the windows!”
¥ “I like traditional women better because they cook like their mothers, modern women drink like their fathers”
¥ “I like your lovely perm, but not on my windows”
¥ “Dear passengers, one rotten potato spoils the rest, because of one late passenger I cannot speed and kill the rest!”
¥ “Please don’t rush me, if your late I’m on time”
I suspect I will keep adding to this list in the next two weeks. I forgot to mention that often it will be written on the side of the bus how many passengers the vehicle can carry. The other day I was in a taxi that read "The capacity for this bus is 16 passengers" The owners had changed the 6 into a 9 with a thick black marker. There was also a crate that was being used as a seat. Like I said, upwards of 20 passengers is more realistic. The stickers about speeding are a bit misleading as every taxi I have been in has driven much too fast. I just try not to get stuck on the back corner. I figure if anything were to go wrong my chances of getting out unharmed are better in the middle of the taxi than in the back.

With Metrorail train services on strike these taxis have been working over time, trying to get as many people as once where they need to go. It is quite amazing really and has become one of the things I look forward to in the morning. Even though, as I said before, they can be quite terrifying, they make for an entertaining journey to work in the morning.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

.on the street.

There are lots of things to see and experience on the streets of Cape Town. In the central city, or the ‘City Bowl’ as it is referred to, there are Public Safety Officials on every corner. These are men and women who have been employed through the ‘Central City Improvement District’ – I’m not exactly sure the extent of this program, but I think it has come about in light of the World Cup. These security officials spend their days walking around, keeping the streets safer, responding to complaints and keeping beggars away from tourists and shop fronts. It is no surprise that there are people asking for money and food; the economic inequality in this country (and especially in this city) is stunning.

An incident I experienced a few days ago has not yet left my mind, so I thought I would share it. I was meeting Dan for lunch and was waiting outside his office when a lady approached me. She didn’t look that old to me – maybe my age. I should mention that the area where Dan works is very popular, lots of restaurants, cafes and the Green market square (a market full of vendors selling their art from all over Africa). It’s a beautiful bustling part of town, with cobble stone roads and a huge ancient church nearby. Anyways, she comes up to me with a cup and she’s shaking it. I have no change. I look at her and say “I’m sorry, I don’t have any change” she responds “I’m not asking you for money, just please, can you buy me something to eat – I came from the hospital and I’m pregnant and since seven o’clock this morning I have not had anything to eat”. Before I could respond a man in a black suit has stepped between us and has told her that I already said no so she should leave me alone. I have seen him before and I suspect he is a private security guard, maybe hired by one of the cafes nearby. She immediately starts yelling at him (in a language I don’t understand) and then he kicks her in the foot and tells her to go. She pushes him and then makes a run for it, stops a few metres away, turns around and starts screaming at him again. He doesn’t seem to think much of this, and continues to tell her to get lost and then goes back to his post. I am standing there, watching but not watching this whole thing take place. I suspect the confrontations between people asking for money/ food and the security patrol people are always tense and that this wasn’t an unusual occurrence.

I feel uncomfortable with the whole thing. He really didn’t need to kick her and she probably didn’t need to scream at him. I probably should have given her some money or bought her some food and maybe the whole thing could have been avoided. I don’t know.

When someone approaches you they almost always say “Can I just ask you something? I’m not asking for money, but please could you just buy me something to eat”. It amazes me. It is a difficult situation. One the one hand I feel I could definitely afford to buy someone a pie (a small pie crust with meat or veg filling or whatever) but I can’t afford to buy everyone who asks me. It does get tiring being approached and it gets tiring feeling really shitty when you tell someone that you are sorry but you can’t buy them something to eat. People are poor, homeless and hungry and it is overwhelming. I feel especially overwhelmed and flabbergasted today because I had six people ask me for money and food today. I told each of them that I was sorry but I couldn’t give them any money or buy them any food. It’s a terrible feeling, but probably not as terrible as going hungry.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Life at the LRC

I thought I would write a little about what I am doing day-to-day at the LRC. For the past two weeks I have been working with another intern to organize documentation and articles for the Khomani San case. Very briefly (very very briefly) the Khomani San are a community who was dispossessed of their land during the 60’s due to racially-discriminatory rule under apartheid. They made a claim for the restitution of their land, which covers a large area of the Kalahari in South Africa, in the mid 90’s and it was settled by 1999. The claim was extremely political – the Khomani San are considered to be ‘the first people on earth’, and are often characterized by their incredible, traditional hunting techniques and the unique clicking sounds in their language. After the claim settled they didn’t receive the institutional support that they needed to manage their land and resources, and as a result their social situation deteriorated quite badly. After over 10 years since the first settlement, the case is coming back to the courts to try to get more support from the government to manage the resources and assist these people who have suffered from severe discrimination and oppression throughout the past century. So my job right now is to collect and manage all the documentation/reports/emails that have to do with the Khomani San over the past decade. Most of the research has already been done, except everything is so disorganized no one knows how to find anything. Of course, they need a clear package to bring to the court.

I am enjoying my work, and working through the case is fascinating for me. There are so many issues and institutions involved – from the South African Human Rights Commission to Mail and Gardian - and the politics of identity and ‘indigeneity’ between the ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ Khomani San are at play. Its fascinating to see how all these issues are worked out and written into a single, cohesive court document. The case is also very sad, of course.

I take the train everyday to work – I leave here at 8, travel four stops to Cape Town, walk down a few streets and watch the vendors get their sales items together and set up shop for the day. I often buy a coffee on the way and am at work by 8:30. My day is intellectually stimulating (okay, my task of organizing and renaming flies and files of documents is actually very mundane and boring, but it’s interesting material). I meet up with Holly in the evening, sometimes we go browse book stores, take a shared taxi to the coast, or buy a drink downtown. We then come home, make dinner together, hangout in our sweet room, and go to sleep to start it all over again. It’s a good deal all around.

The Old Biscuit Mill Neighbourhood Market- a world of its own

On Saturday morning Dan and I made our way to a morning market we had been hearing a lot about. We took the train a few stops and then walked from the Salt River stop. The walk to the market was interesting. This area was pretty run-down. A lot of buildings were boarded up and it had a different feel to it.

Our first indication that we were close to the market was a big group of white people. (I should mention that the crowd at the market was 99.9% white people) We followed them into the area known as the "The Old Biscuit Mill Neighbourhood Market" We were quite surprised at what we found. This was no ordinary farmers market. You could find just about any organically grown, speciality artisan food you dreamed of. You could also drink champagne with your grilled mushroom kebabs or have a pint of beer as you browsed the tables of cupcakes and acai berry drinks. We felt weird about it. I am conflicted because I am naturally drawn to such environments. I love farmers markets, a lot. Everything was really beautiful and colourful. It was evident that people put so much work into the food and vegetables they were selling.

This post isn't meant to be judgemental or completely critical of the market, or of the people sipping their morning coffees and champagne (Dan and I enjoyed a coffee as we walked around). I think for us, it was just a bit shocking and I think it's a good representation of the economic divide that exists in Cape Town and the rest of South Africa. It's tricky business, trying to come to terms with the realities you see everyday while still enjoying yourself as you would anywhere else.

Tables where you can sit and enjoy your meal yummy bread
organic veggies and nuts for sale
mushroom kebabs
The entrance to the market