Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Quick Update from the Ground

Conditions for living at Rotary Hall are uncomfortable to say the least. There are a couple hundred people in this small hall and everyone sleeps on the hardwood floor. Some did manage to bring their foam mattresses, but most just sleep on top of a blanket. During the day, all of the bedrolls are folded up along the wall to make space for walking, eating, bathing, etc. There aren’t any clothes lines, so people wash their clothes and lay them out on the blacktop parking lot next door to dry. There are 4 toilets and it’s not clear how often (or if) they are serviced by anyone. People have their life of belongings, mostly outside because there’s barely enough room inside for everyone to sleep. There is no privacy whatsoever and when people drink or smoke, it’s directly in front of kids. Also, when there is drinking and smoking, men start fighting and there’s nowhere to walk away to.

Jenny is working like a hound dog at the municipality to get housing as quickly as possible, but quickly for the municipality could still be awhile.  

The project is running normally and we’re even bringing the preschoolers down from Rotary in the mornings so that they can use their regular classroom space. 

The yard at Rotary Hall

Inside the hall. Note all of the bedrolls lining the walls. 

Serving up some lunch.

Thobeka Kiliva and her son, Nkosivumili.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


In recent events, I have become hyper-aware of outside perceptions of Itipini. I found out early on that when I say “I work at Itipini” to someone in Mthatha, the response that usually comes out of their mouth is “Aren’t you afraid?” Itipini is viewed as the hub of crime and violence where desperate people do whatever they please. To some extent, this is true. The people of Itipini are ignored by their government and fellow citizens and left to their own devices. So, yes, it is a perfect breeding ground for crime and some people take advantage of that. Where people get the picture wrong is when they say that all people from Itipini are criminals and thugs, which is simply not true. A former YASCer, Jesse Zink, summed up some of this (much more eloquently than I can) in his blog.

So people in Mthatha hold this view of Itipini as the one place in town that you would never want to be. Trying to get a police man or social worker to come down to Itipini is like pulling teeth. And yet, somehow in the last few months, we had achieved getting a city counselor down there, policemen down there, a social worker coming regularly, people from the Home Affairs office coming to conduct interviews for IDs, and handfuls of people from other municipal departments. Somehow, with the upsurge of violence in recent months, it seemed like the government might actually be starting to pay attention and, even more, CARE about what was happening there. It seemed like everyone – the counselor, the social workers, the Social Development department, and the Home Affairs department – were going to pitch in to get housing and IDs for everyone. It seemed like they were all going to pitch in to help people get off of the dump.

It seems that finally having the attention of the municipality, though, has come with a price. However, being on the radar meant that when the incident in Waterfall happened, the police and municipality pounced. Itipini, to the municipal government, was always the problem that they just never dealt with. Now they’re dealing with it, but in way that completely disregards the humanity of people at Itipini. The way they’re handing it is dehumanizing, destructive, and utterly reckless. The community was demolished with little aforethought as to where people would go or what they would do. That, however, didn’t seem to be the concern of many people; the exception being one man from Disaster Management who told me he spoke against the demolition at a meeting (on grounds of not having a place big enough to keep everyone) but was overruled by all other parties present. Has this stereotype of people who live in Itipini become so engrained that they are not seen as people anymore? When does smoke start preceding fire instead of following it?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

And the Show Goes On...

It’s strange how things that seem to be broken find a way of coming back around. After a few days of upheaval and chaos, the project was back into full swing today as if nothing ever happened. A normal number of people came to the clinic, we had prayers on the veranda, people came for food, and there were people hanging out on the bench outside the clinic all day, chattering and laughing. It was almost surreal. But then as I think about it, I don’t know why I didn’t expect it. As I stated before, people here have a resiliency like I have never witnessed anywhere else. When hard times come, they just push forward and carry on. This is a trait I admire deeply and wish I had a little more of. I have to admit to myself that I have grown up having a fairly comfortable life and, because of that, my definition of “hard times” and the way I handle them are vastly different than the way people here define and handle them. It makes me think of all of the times in my life I have heard people in America complaining/ranting about the most seemingly insignificant things (How dare they put half-and-half in my coffee when I asked for skim milk!) and thought, “Are you really letting this ruin your day?”  Now I’m embarrassed because I feel like I’m on the other side of that. Some of the things that I see as being a big deal may not be viewed as such by others. Not that the demolition wasn’t a big deal for all involved – it was. But maybe the way I reacted was a bit more intensely than others did and more than was even warented. I felt like this was surely the end of the project and it happened on my watch. But, nay – the show goes on. For the time being, the project continues to truck along like usual. Thinking about this today has made me aware that more than once this year, I have probably unknowingly complained about something that someone else has thought was an incredibly ridiculous thing to complain about. Maybe something like asking for my own cup that I wouldn’t share seemed like an incredibly spoiled thing. It makes me wonder if we might all be a little less dramatic about all the going-ons of our lives if we lived with a little less material possession. What kind of deeper appreciation for life might prevail if we all experienced a bit of scarcity of necessities every once in a while. 

Friday, May 11, 2012


Yesterday, Itipini was demolished.

A notice was issued a few weeks ago when the incident with the woman who lived near Waterfall occurred stating that people should vacate Itipini. No one really took this with any seriousness because there have been statements like this made in the past and nothing has ever happened. Not only that, but taking the threat seriously or not, the people that live in Itipini, by and large, don’t have anywhere else to go. Hence why they are living in a shack on top of a dump. It seems, though, that maybe we should have headed this warning a little bit more. How we should have done that, I’m not so sure. We’ve been working like mad to get people IDs and to get housing forms filled out and turned in for everyone possible. Once out of our hands, though, those papers go into the hands of the municipality who, like most government agencies, take a fair amount of time to process. In the meantime, the same municipality has now made homeless all of those that still lived in Itipini. This is all done, of course, under the guise of doing what is “best” for these people – getting them off of the dump and out of an area prone to crime. While this may have been their long-term goal (and certainly ours as well), wires got crossed and some policemen (whom I suspect are holding a grudge for an officer that was killed a year or two ago in the area) foraged ahead with the demolition part of the plan prematurely. Now everyone has been evacuated to the Rotary Hall turned into a disaster shelter and it has created a whole new mess of problems. Not only is the hall not big enough to house that many people, but, as I said before, there is no place to cook. So instead of having to feed around 90 people, that number has just jumped to several hundred that need to be fed all of their meals every day. I’ve been assured that they will all be allowed to stay there and be provided for until they can be put into government houses. This, I think, is a lot of lip service. I think that they will grant houses quickly (which could means weeks or months) to those who are eligible and for those that don’t have IDs and are thus, ineligible, I think they kick them out to their rural homes. These homes, keep in mind, are places of origin in most cases and not their homes. Their homes, where they have lived for 20+ years, were in Itipini. Their friends and family are all here in Mthatha. Their work and livelihood are here in Mthatha. And, if it’s hard to make a living in the city where there are at least odd jobs to work, making a living in the rural area – especially if you are coming from somewhere else and starting with nothing – might be damn near impossible.

People were digging in the rubble for their belongings that they couldn't get out in time

People were piling their things around the project to wait for a truck to take them to Rotary Hall.

Brother and sister (their names are escaping me right now) with what used to be their shack behind them.

Nonzuzo Fokisi waits with her things for the truck

View of Itipini from 2007
The same view today.

As for what it’s like on the ground, I don’t have so many words on this subject and the ones I do have seem inadequate in describing the kind of loss I’m witnessing and feeling. Talking about this politically and in terms of ideal social improvement seems incredibly distant when faced with the people of this community. The municipality can is playing chess but these people are not pawns – they are PEOPLE. And this was their home. I find what the municipality is doing to be deeply unfair even if their road is paved with good intentions. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

I am Not a Stone

Sister Dorothy, who is our other nurse in the clinic besides Jenny, is an absolutely outstanding woman. She has a personality that was hard for me to understand at first, but that opened up to me the more I started to understand her and the Xhosa culture better. My favorite part about being around Sister Dorothy is that she has endless little sayings and phrases for every occasion. Some of them are pretty cheesy and ridiculous like saying, “I’m back from the moon,” every time she comes back from her lunch break or saying, “Those people are selfish. They sell fish.”  Every once in a while though, she just drops these little profound bits of wisdom, like she did today. We were talking about all of the stuff happening at Itipini and brainstorming what our way forward would be. I was lamenting a bit about how terrible and unfair the whole situation was and she said, “These things happen to us, not to stones,” meaning that we experience hardship because we are human. To forgo those hardships (and thus, also the joys) would be to deny our humanity and be no better than a stone. In that light, things are left to be what they are and we have no option but to just accept what joy and sorrow each day might bring as it comes. We must live one day at a time and be grateful that we are not stones. That thought has really helped me today to rise above the hardship of it all and be thankful that, for today, we are alive. I am thankful that we are human.

Sister Dorothy (right) with patient Koliswa Qinisile and her son, Anenceba

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Vigilante Justice

Recently, I’ve been reminded of a movie I watched in the states just before coming here. It is called “Super” and I wasn’t much of a fan. It was really graphic and cynical and just a bit too violent for my taste.  The basic premise is about a guy who decides he wants to become superhero and fight crime. The problem? He’s just a dude in a costume with a skewed view of reality and morality. He does things like beat people up with a pipe wrench because he deems their acts as wrong. The movie is an interesting approach on why classic superhero plots don’t work in real life and how messy this business of “justice” is because it relies upon human interpretation. But let’s take a step back from Hollywood and talk about South Africa.

I talked in my previous post about the incident with the woman that was killed in her home between Itipini and Waterfall. When that happened, people in Waterfall were naturally upset. They tried to get the police involved, but no one in Itipini was talking for fear of retribution. They, after all, have little to no protection in a place like Itipini from thugs like this. Thus, there was an ultimatum issued over the radio and in the newspaper (issued by whom, I’m still not sure) that everyone should clear out of Itipini within 10 days. The proposal was almost laughable. If these people had anywhere else to go, why would they live in a shack on top of a dump? So nothing changed and no one left.

This is the point when some people in Waterfall were not satisfied with the way the justice system was working, I presume. On Tuesday, when they knew the clinic was closed because of "Workers Day," a group of thugs from Waterfall came and burnt down 8 shacks. Two of these shacks were old abandon ones, but several of them housed multiple families. These threatened that they were going to keep coming until all of the shacks were burnt. The police came and got involved and arrested 30 people, but ended up only holding something like 3 for questioning. Will this solve anything? I’d like to say I have faith in the competency of the justice system and the police in Mthatha, but the truth is that their job is very hard because getting information and witnesses is damn near impossible.  In this part of town, people don’t talk to the police because, like was mentioned above, they don’t have any protection from the people they would be informing on. Thus, vigilante justice becomes a dominant theme here. People take matters into their own hands and make their own “justice” when they feel it isn’t being served. But whose shacks did they burn down on Tuesday? Not the shacks of any of the men involved in the murder. No, they burnt down the shacks of families and old men that had nothing to do with it. It seems to me that this entire incident had actually very little to do with avenging this woman’s death, even if that was what sparked the fire. To me, this entire scenario just seems like more mis-aimed aggression and frustration on the part of young men. The Daily Dispatch ran an article this morning about the whole incident, saying that a “township war” was “raging” between the two communities. But I found that rather dramatic and misleading. There’s not a “war” between Itipini and Waterfall. Many of the people who live in Waterfall once lived in Itipini. Lots of people from Waterfall come to the clinic for treatment, send their kids to our preschool, or are given help with school fees (and free tutoring) for their high school students. No, there’s not a “war.” There is a group of thugs here and a group of thugs there that are butting heads and everyone else is getting caught in the cross-fire.

 So people have fled. In Ngangalizwe, about 90 Itipini residents have taken shelter in the Rotary Hall which has been declared a disaster shelter for them for the time being. The municipality disaster unit is taking them one meal a day and we are taking them bread and another meal since there is nowhere to cook. People are sleeping on wooden floors, but at least they have a roof over their heads for now. I guess the real question is how long the municipality is going to let them stay there and if they will come back to Itipini and rebuild or what. I don’t know. I guess the best we can do is keep providing our service and take one day at a time.

Inside the Rotary  Hall where people are staying. 

Thanks for tuning in.