Back in the house, Themba sits underneath a headline that reads, The World’s Most Famous Escape Artist and tells me about his plans for a family. His “future wife,” Disa, has given him a 10-month-old daughter named Liefie. He refers to Disa as “Future” to distinguish from “Beyoncé,” “Gorgeous,” and his many other girlfriends. Bewildered, I ask him about this paradox. He grins mischievously and explains “it’s just how we do things.” Later, he tells me the story of one of his friends who “doesn’t like girls.” I was eager to hear about his peer group’s acceptance of this individual and the level of community tolerance, but before I could ask any questions, Themba elaborated. “He stays with the same girl all the time.”
Nevertheless, he confides to me, “The most important thing for me is to be able to take care of my family. It hurts me that I can’t take care of them.”
There is a photo of his daughter on his cell phone, which features the ring tone “I wanna’ be a billionaire, so frikkin’ bad.” Most people in Riempi can’t afford airtime, but everyone has a cell phone, anyway. The phone companies allow free text messages that read, “Please Call Me.” To send it, you simply enter a short code before the appropriate phone number. If you’re cagey, there is room for a message of 10 characters alongside the “Please Call Me.”
My friend, Andre, has saved every number he has in his phonebook with the code in front, meaning this is the sole function for which he uses the phone. Themba and his girlfriend have a ritual communication each day before she goes to work. She sends a PCM with a message that reads: t.ilu.d. Decoded, it means, Themba, I love you, Disa. These messages usually come at about 4:30 in the morning, as she prepares for work. Awakened one morning, I ask him why he bothers to respond when he’s fast asleep. He explains stoically that if he doesn’t send the same message, she interprets it as a lack of love. Occasionally, he neglects to change the message before sending me a PCM, in effect telling me that he loves me.
He visits the girl’s mother a couple of days a week when she is not working, but cannot stay too long, otherwise he will incite her parent’s ire. When Liefie was born, Themba’s parents had to visit hers to pay a damage fee for the pregnancy. Now, he has to wait until he can earn enough money to present a “labola,” the traditional Xhosa dowry, in order to marry her.
Themba and I have initiated plans to expand the shack to make room for a spaza shop (the equivalent of a corner store). Buying paraffin and peanuts in bulk, one can sell for a modest profit. In a few years, he reasons, there may be enough for his labola.
The first step in any construction project in the townships, whether it is a playground or a garden, is to build a fence for security. “50 and Eminem are working together,” Themba exclaims with amusement and, I sense, a touch of pride, as we work on mending the fence around the house. We use “umka,” a local bush with thorns as long and thick as a pinky finger to protect the grapefruit sized stones around the bottom. The orange plastic construction fencing previously surrounded an exposed water pipe before Themba “borrowed” it for his house.
Port Elizabeth is known as “The Windy City,” and gale force gusts are a feature of life in Riempi. People strike peculiar figures walking at forty-five degree angles, clinging to fence posts to avoid being swept away by squalls. Dogs curl into themselves for warmth, while diminutive sparrows stumble around looking drunk, struggling to make progress against the headwind. The wind pelts people with sand and grit, covering you with dust as you walk.
Plastic bags, candy wrappers, and children’s homework circle into the air in a funnel before being pinned and held against fences by the wind.
Hansie, the chairman of the community board, often visits when the weather is bad or when he is trying to avoid his wife. I’m not sure which brings him today, but I am always glad to see him. He is a brilliant storyteller, naturally charismatic and animated. His sense of humor buoys and accentuates every story, while his voice runs the entire scale of inflection, often accompanied by outrageous sound effects. He looks in his mid-forties, which would place him squarely in the middle of the freedom struggle. Though he prefers ghost stories, he will pontificate on anything. Today, the topic is reconciliation.
“You don’t know how hard it is for me to talk to a white person,” he begins. “You can never erase that memory.” He studies me from under a headline on our newspapered wall that announces, It’s a New Ballgame. “You are the first white man I’ve ever met that says, ‘Yes, I will live in an informal settlement with you people.” I enjoy his monologues and urge him on by asking obvious questions. His story weaves through his childhood in the Great Karoo Desert (“I once had a baboon as a pet. He bit me and I killed him,” he brags) to his time in prison before he concludes, “There are so many things we’re missing by not living together.”
It is a calm night as Hansie heads toward home, and I hear a commotion three shacks down from ours that I first took to be a violent scuffle. After some time, I feared it had gotten out of hand so I ventured out of my shack to investigate. When I got right up next to the shack, my cheek resting on the cold metal and my heart palpitating, I realized that I was listening to the ecstatic, fervent prayer of a charismatic house church.
Mornings are filled with the sound of voices calling to one another between shacks. They sing-song back and forth, some voices near and amplified, others further afield and muted. Themba’s is a deep baritone, dominant among the others. To me it sounds like birds singing, communicating between trees. Shacks are built so close and life uncertain, I reason, it is a natural beginning to each day.
I like to sit outside in the mornings to sip my Nescafe out of the reach of Themba’s radio. This morning, I face the sun while my neighbor croons over her washing. It is the old standard, “Count your many blessings, see what God has done…” Her voice hangs crisply in the calm morning air. It drifts up and up, above the orange construction fencing, over my house, and eventually, into the “bush” behind, filled with plastic bags, soggy pairs of tennis shoes and an armory of old tires well-situated for the next riot. Fifty meters on is Arcadia North, the next informal settlement to receive brick homes from the government. “Blessings” fades out as Themba opens the door onto the yard and Tupac’s “Until the End of Time” fades in from the ever present radio.
To his right, the spaza shop remains half-built, a wooden frame erected to the right side of our door and held together by pebbles and mud.
The scorching sun hinders movement while the smell of dagga (marijuana) wafts through the air. My neighbor, Zola stops by to rest, drawn to the last remaining shadow in a steadily decreasing area close to the shack. Behind him, a young boy, shirtless in the sun, pushes around an old tire with two short planks of wood pushed into the hollow core.
Zola wears a striped shirt, alternating stripes of dark and light red. The collar is turned up and it is ripped on one sleeve. He leans backward on the stump he uses for a chair, affecting a kind of self-cooling system by lifting his shirt and holding it between his shoulder blades and the wall to reveal a thin, muscular back. Light blue jeans taper off at incongruous black dress shoes, worse for wear and losing flakes of leather. The end of a “Black Label” lanyard hangs out of his back pocket. Dark eyes with yellowed whites rest on sunken cheeks above a scraggly goatee. A grey beanie with a single white stripe bunches up at the top of his head. I have never seen Zola without the beanie. During a blistering afternoon recently, he called to me from across the road, laughing, “Why is it so cold today?”
He worked as a fork lift operator for eight years before losing his job in 2008. He estimates the unemployment rate in Riempi at 70%, in line with most analysis of South African townships. Despite his long job search and struggles, today at least, he sounds determined and positive. “It is not only me suffering. I ate this morning. I should be grateful.”
My conversations with Zola often veer into sermonettes. He reveals a staunch faith that teeters between fatalistic and realistic, punctuating statements with “If I’m not supposed to die today…” and “It is God that gives you life.”
Gaba’s Spaza Shop is one of the few places of commercial activity in Riempi. The energy is a welcome distraction and I enjoy visiting Phillip, the elder statesman of the family. Philip is a former Golden Boot rugby star, a devout Baptist, and punctuates his conversation with laughter. A visit always lightens my mood, his chuckle reminding me of Dr. Hibbert from The Simpsons.
As I exchange pleasantries with Philip, a young boy of about eight years old steps up onto a blue milk crate, dirt filling its crevices. “One Chicago please,” he says, the black sweater of his school uniform baking in the afternoon sun. Philip passes the discount cigarette through the burglar bars protecting the Spaza window, holding it between his thumb and forefinger until the child will answer his question, “How was school today?” “Fine,” he mumbles reluctantly, prompting Phillip to release the booty. The boy marches off, crunching pebbles beneath his dusty shoes.
I need airtime for my cell phone, which is a bit like putting together a puzzle. It comes in pre-packaged amounts, so you must piece together the right combination of disparate cash denominations to get nearest to your sum without going over. It turns out that I am R4 short of the voucher I need. Phillip amazes me by telling me to take the voucher and he will cover the rest. Embarrassed at the prospect, I began to search my pockets earnestly for forgotten coins. When I happen upon a R5 coin, I hand it to Philip, visibly relieved. He replies, “You don’t want to be blessed this morning, hey?” followed by his chortle.
I walk back home pondering the prospect, battling the wind while stepping over crushed bottles and soiled diapers. A fire has destroyed another shack—the second this week—leaving only a charred, black footprint. Gaunt goats wander through yards in search of grass while ravenous dogs prowl for scraps. A tiny Xhosa girl blows kisses to me as I pass her house.
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