As I prepare to visit the Quilt show in South Africa, I went back over my diary 5 years ago…
I wasn't able to add photos then because the internet connection just wouldn't allow… so I decided to look at it again today.
I walked down a new road today. The road of the black person in the townships of South Africa.
I met new friends today. 3 young people who have less in life than I but who shared a small part of their community with pride. I was given a wonderful opportunity today. One rarely given to a person such as I. I share my thoughts and images with you today in the event that it creates understanding.
We’ve seen townships portrayed on the news as we sat in our safe houses. I remember the uprising of the students in Soweto.
The images of weapons, students bodies and distraught relatives beamed around the world.
I’ve seen documentaries on South Africa which made me minimally aware of the aids epidemic.
Are these the images that were in my mind when I came to South Africa? Iguess they were, however, when invited to teach here last year I made a conscious decision to come with no preconceived ideas, I did no research other than find a map of Port Elizabeth and I knew that I was in for a feast as far as quilting was concerned.
I certainly haven’t been disappointed, in fact, I leave this city of Port Elizabeth with a better understanding of this beautiful country.
My hosts Dave and Beryl offered to take me to the township to visit their maid, Florence.
Retired now for many years there is a continuous close relationship with her and her family. They built her house many years ago, and they will continue to pay her for the rest of her life.
Florence is 80 now, her hearing is poor and her body slow, but her mind is sharp and clear. When we arrived she was sitting on a stool outside the front door doing the family washing in a two huge enamel basins. Completed washing hung on the line in the sun.
Three young people, her grandchildren looked on shyly as we got out of the car.
Two of the children have lived with her since they were young after her Daughter died of aids.
The house is neat and is a little different to her neighbors because she has a garden. Dave explained that I was a visitor from Australia and that I would like to take photos of the township.
The young people decided to be our tour guides, they quietly got into the back seat of the car and began to direct us to their school, the local shops and tavern. We drove past small houses, divided by wooden fences. Some were barely shacks, some a little more substantial.
This township has been on this site for over 80 years and Florence has lived here since 1955. I was itching to get out the cine camera, it was hidden under the front mat and I had my legs firmly placed over it. But we decided to just use the ordinary camera.
There is an area in the centre of the township where it is reported that you can buy just about everything. So of course that was our destination. The children stated that they would ask permission for me to take photos.
Everyone looked at us with interest and we took the precaution of keeping the doors locked. In fact the doors lock automatically in the cars in South Africa. It’s a given. The streets were teaming with people, women with babies on their backs, old women bent double carrying huge bags. Children playing with home made toys made from wire and cans and of course unemployed youth.
The unemployment rate is around 80%. ‘Taxis’ known to us as mini busses weave dangerously through the lanes, packed to overflowing. A young man leans out the front window and shouts their destination.
We found a parking space and the children got out an and asked permission for me to photograph. “Yes, Yes” came the reply with a wide smile to accompany it. The first shop I encountered was a hairdressing-shop come cell phone repairer, housed in a bright Turquoise shipping container.
The proprietor sat outside sporting a large mexican hat. One has to give him 10 points for multi tasking.
Next was the chicken seller. She was preparing chickens for sale on a bench set out on the dirt pavement. As I photographed, the pale dead eyes of the chicken heads nestled amongst their severed feet and dared me to take their photo.
We walked on past the fruit vendors and amidst large plastic sheets laid out on the pavement sold for roofing.
We came across several elderly women selling potions for well being. White and red ochre is rock and powdered form “for circumcision” she told me…. and you can also use it on your face for beauty. I could tell that she believed in it because she had used it herself that morning. She wore multi layers of skirts, as is the custom. A colorful turban, thick woolen stockings and sheltered under a broken umbrella. Her herbs and bottles of interesting elixir displayed for all to see on the pavement. “This root it for stomach pains” This one will make you feel good. This is to burn in your house to keep bad spirits away and this one for impotence” I didn’t volunteer to try any, but smiled and thanked her and gave her money for the requested coke.
The children wanted me to venture further, but Dave was watching the car some 50 meters away. I just had him in sight and I figured that was as far as I could go.
We returned to the car and asked directions to the Red Museum, a new building constructed to celebrate the careers and identities of many influential people who originally came from the townships. We were given driving instructions by a passing pedestrian and set off. The youngsters excited. “I love museums” said the 11 year old. We drove for some time, weaving our way past pedestrians and stray dogs, the ever present taxi’s and down narrow streets. I felt as if I was in a documentary. The colorful daily life of the people displayed for all to see. “We must ask the way” our youthful tour guides said. Dave pulled over and asked a group of women coming out of a market for directions… suddenly a man motioned that we open the back door! I will guide you he said. I was a little alarmed I must say after our recent hijacking in Haiti. Never-the less, he guided us skillfully through the back lanes and we came upon a huge impressive building set right amongst the shanties.
As we parked I observed a man completing his washing and two ladies sitting in the sun chatting, their washing hanging on the fence behind them.
The doors of the museum were open, the receptionist was behind her desk, the guard leaning on the desk. “I’m glad you’re open I said”… “Oh no Mam we’re not open until September.” There had been some discussion about the open status of the museum at the quilt show, seems it was supposed to be open in january, they were running a little late but the guard and the receptionist were prepared!!! “Can we take photos?” we asked. No was the reply, not until after the opening. Just then we spied a huge quilt in the wall. “Can we photograph the quilt” “No not until after the opening.” Dave and I tried everything to get a photo. The receptionist told us that the quilt was made by a group of ladies in the township and that two of them had recently been to a big quilt show. “Yes,” said Dave in attempt to influence her, this lady taught there, in fact she even filmed your ladies. I got out the cine camera and showed her the ladies being interviewed and singing in class. But I tactics didn’t work and we left with smiles and thanks but no photo of the quilt.
That will have to wait for another occasion. We left, hoping we could find our way back to Florence's house.
“This is where the man cooks sheep heads” says the youngest of the 3 children shyly pointing to a lean-to store with an outdoor fire. Dave did a quick U turn and we ran across the road to ask permission to photograph.
The owner and his friends seemed amused but smiled and went over to the fire. I looked past the carcasses of the dead animals on the table. There were several goats heads I think. On closer inspection of the fire I noticed 4 big black pots encased in flames. They were boiling over into the fire. The shop owner opened the lid with a long ladlefor us to view the contents, dozens of stewing sheep heads. His assistant came over with a plate but fortunately, it wasn’t completely cooked yet so we escaped an interesting ordeal.
Our tour over we returned to visit a little with Florence and then left. I will never forget the experience. We drove through township after township. Shacks painted in every hue standing with dignity within their diminutive confines. The Electricity wires linking then together like a giant spider web. What a privilege.
After a walk on the beach, photographing the final sunset and dinner at a great restaurant I said my final farewell to Beryl and Dave. I had a wonderful time in their home, I felt really sad to leave.