Sometimes alcohol can bring out the best in people. It happened on Sunday when we took a walk and happened on a packed Shebeen glued to the Pirates v Supersport match.
The instant our family entered the scene, the whole place stood still for a moment to take in the unusual scene of two blonde girls entering with their parents and a friend.
Two patrons immediately came forward with Orlando Pirates’ misery of being a goal down having been quickly forgotten. It was clear that they had enjoyed a few quarts that afternoon but what they said seemed incredibly profound for the interior of a Shebeen.
“Seeing you here makes me believe that God is alive,” said the first gentleman. The second then starting quoting Mandela’s closing Rivonia Trial speech. “This is the ideal for which Mandela was prepared to die for,” he said while gesticulating at our family.
And in that out of place setting of a white family going for a walk around the shack lands of Mamelodi, it seemed like much more than just a walk.
On the whole we feel extremely cared for and safe here in Mamelodi: we are cautious and careful and try and avoid risky situations and the community has been taking excellent care of us.
There is however a horrible undercurrent that not only potentially threatens our safety but also that of all our kind, gentle hard working neighbours: a vicious drug called Nyaope. Nyaope is a blend of heroin, marijuana, rat poison, anti retroviral drugs and bleach. It is the hard drug of choice among Mamelodi youth. Young men hanging around on street corners with bloodshot eyes after their latest fix or awaiting the next are unfortunately a common sight. These are the people Leah is afraid of for our sake and for her own sake. When these youths want their next fix they don’t care if a passerby is black, white, rich or poor: anyone is a target for a fix will set them back as little as R30 and most people have a phone on them that can be stolen and sold to cover the amount.
Mamelodi police say 75% of crimes in the area are substance abuse related. A sad state of affairs for honest, hard working residents.
Yesterday a good friend of ours, Rudi von Staden, came to visit. Here follows an extremely profound extract from an email he wrote following the visit:
What was amazing to me is that it felt so ordinary to just be there, and perhaps that is what made it spiritual. We were not trying to do give, or do, or uplift. We were only there to be, and we could relate as fellow humans. I think God exists in the space between people who are open to one another. Too often the door is closed from our side. Perhaps by always focusing on social upliftment, we are maintaining our aloofness. In seeing how people relate to one another in the township, and how warmly we were received when we had nothing to offer, I realized that true poverty is relational rather than economic. Before we come with anything, we have to first come with nothing.”
Last night Leah asked us if we wanted to join her for church. The children were already in bed as we had decided to catch the bus to school this morning, so Julian stayed with the kids and I joined Leah. Leah gave me one look and said: you can’t go dressed like that: where is your skirt and you need a ‘kopdoek’ (scarf covering my head and hair). I made a quick plan with a headpiece, borrowed a skirt from Leah and off we set, walking through the dark township alleys to get to church.
The area in Mamelodi where we are staying has no street lights but there are a couple of massive flood lights on high poles like one has at cricket or major sporting stadiums that light up the area when they are on. In typical inefficient local government style, I often see these lights on during the day (when they have no effect) and off at night. Last night the lights were off and that combined with the lack of electricity in the community results in dark alley ways lit only by the night light and the many many communal fires along the way. The ‘better off’ have little wood fires that several people huddle around but others stand around fires burning anything they can lay their hands on: plastic, old couch cushions, boxes etc.
There is quite a vibe as you walk along the streets, people returning home from work, others buying and selling snacks, lots of spaza shops cashing in on ‘rush hour’ trade, and people talking, walking and going about their business: a far cry from the deserted streets in the predominantly white Pretoria upper class suburbs.
The church was housed in a shack which looked exactly like all the surrounding shacks from the outside but was painted a beautiful pastel blue inside, had four rows of blue benches inside, three candles lit and a calendar from the ‘head office’ church and smelled of freshly burned incense. About 12 people (11 ladies and one man) came along to the service which was all in Sotho with a small part translated into Afrikaans for my benefit. It was a lovely and surreal way to spend a Wednesday evening.
There was much excitement in the Hewitt household on Sunday morning when we bundled the children into our car and set off for Mamelodi to go drop off all our ‘stuff’ for the month (mattresses, clothes, paraffin lantern, buckets etc). Upon arrival we could immediately sense the jovial atmosphere that had infiltrated the township on this post pay day weekend. We were pleasantly surprised to see the effort Leah and our landlord had made with our shack: some rat sized holes between the floor and the walls had been cemented up and the shack had been given a quick lick of paint and the floors a polish. We unpacked, headed back to our other home, left the car behind and caught a taxi back to Mamelodi.
Here are some of the highs of the first 48 hours in our new home for the month:
- The warm welcome the community gave us and the steady stream of people who came to say hi
- Sitting around a communal fire at night with a melting pot of cultures represented: the Ndebele, Xitonga, Xhosa, Pedi, Sotho, Afrikaans and English.
- Experiencing the beat and rhythm of weekend township life with loud kwaito beats competing with Sunday gospel music and coal fires announcing the imminent arrival of supper and another cold winters night
- The entire Putco bus singing gospel songs together on the way to work at 6:30 this morning
- Children blissfully unaware of class and colour barriers: making friends, learning to cartwheel, chasing each other around with joy and abandon
- The good Samaritan lady who saw me standing on the side of the road yesterday waiting for a taxi after fetching the children from school and offered me a lift, initially just down the road but upon hearing our story to our shack doorstep (her first time in Mamelodi)
- Having conversations with people we would never have conversed with before like Sipho from Mica
- Appreciating just how good a spaghetti meal with a basic tomato, leek, celery and onion sauce tasted after a day of oats for breakfast and a single potato for lunch
And some of the lows:
- Experiencing a bone aching cold on the first night. Being way under-dressed for the bitter cold in bed and worrying about the children freezing
- Water condensing on the shack roof while you sleep and drip drip dripping cold drops on sleeping bodies
- Rats. Hundreds of them. Luckily none in our shack but scurrying outside as soon as the sun sets
- Alcohol. Too much of it. Post pay day celebration turned inebriation. Luckily not in any way aggressive
- Adjusting to living in such small space with children.
- Frayed nerves in over tired children. Not knowing how to discipline effectively when tiredness turns to rudeness and fighting and there is no space for timeout, no TV or books for quiet time