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

'Thank-you Jesus'

When you take the trains in Cape Town there are people who sell snacks and drinks in the stations and in the train cars. It’s almost like a chant “Fritos three for 5 rand, 2 rand each”, “Lays, 3 rand each” "Nik Naks, 1 rand each" and so on. There are a lot of people who do this, every day, all day. There are also people who ride the trains, in pairs, walking from car to car singing gospel music. What is striking about these people is that one person is blind and the other person is their guide.

My first experience with this was riding back from Simonstown, our second day in Cape Town. Two women boarded our car and started singing, in harmony, “Thank-you Jesus”. They repeated these words and sang some other lines that have escaped my memory as the moment. Like I said above, one woman was completely blind and the other her guide who held a small cup that you could drop change into.
When they started to sing they were at the opposite end of the car. I watched them walk slowly down towards us. My first thought was this:
Why are they thanking Jesus? When one of the women is completely blind and they spend their days singing and walking from one train car to the next. I couldn’t imagine thanking Jesus for that.
I should mention that at the same time I was amazed by their voices, they were beautiful. As people put change into their cup and they reached the end of our car I was still pondering my first thought, but not with anger or any other emotion I could really put my finger on. I was just wondering. Before the two women slipped through the doors onto the next car, they said “Thank-you, God bless you”

Since then, I have seen these two women a few more times and I suspect I will see them many more times before I leave. Like most other commuters, I will continue to drop change into their cup. Not because I feel guilty that I don’t have to spend my days working so hard, or because I am trying to be the cause of some change in their lives, but because their voices touched my heart and their words are still speaking to my soul.
I have a lot to be thankful for.