Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Retrospective journals from The Eastern Cape, South Africa

Umtata Adventure Begins - 2001

“Molo, Unjani?” Good day, how are you? Followed by a warm African double handshake. I am living in a city of about 95,000 black Xhosa people, 3000 dark people of mixed blood and a couple of thousand whites. The wide, ill-formed side walks, are covered with small stalls minded by women wearing a head scarf. The scarf denotes a married Xhosa woman. The stalls mostly consist of an upturned cardboard box, with the women seated on a rudimentary stool. The majority of the stalls sell a mixture of fruit and vegetables, usually purchased from a local supermarket. There are approximately one thousand hawker’s stalls in this small city. A few of the hawkers have been on the streets for up to twenty years. Their daily takings are extremely meagre and they will often travel many kilometres on foot or taxi, every day to get to their place of trade.

This photo is of the 2001 Umtata Hawkers Association Executive

The taxi’s are miss named in New Zealand terms. They are operated more like a cross between a micro bus and a shuttle. Toyota HiAce vans and covered utes (‘bakkies’) of various makes, sit at ranks around the city with predestined routes, not leaving until they are filled. Filled means generally 16 to 18 people squeezed into every corner and often with large loads of goods on rudimentary roof racks. They will stop to let people off and pick up replacements along their route. There are literally thousands of these vehicles with their front wheels barely touching the road because of the excess weight towards the rear. They race each other at dangerous speeds along the roads because they need many passengers a day to make a living. In the first six months of this year over 30 people had lost their lives in the taxi wars which saw taxi drivers ridding ‘their’ route of other taxi drivers who were persistently seen to be encroaching on another’s territory. In the shoot outs passengers are, of course, frequently also injured. Much negotiation has meant that the wars have diminished greatly in intensity over the past month and some arrests have even been made.

Taxis at a taxi rank, waiting for passengers

Many of the taxis will travel quite large distances into the vast rural areas surrounding the city. Here millions of people live, mostly in the beautiful round mud huts or rondavels with thatched roofs.

The roads, off the magnificent N2 highway, into these areas are generally very rough, lacking both sound original construction or maintenance. All along the dusty roads are people walking.

The women will almost invariably be carrying some thing on their head. This may be a huge bundle of firewood collected from the ever diminishing and infrequent wood-lots to containers of water (often 10 L or larger) to sacks of mealies (corn) flour. One of the containers that caught my attention was a new looking back-pack, but it was carried on the head with its shoulder straps hanging down!

A bucket of water. Many older women suffer neck

problems after years of carrying very heavy loads.

The many people I have met have, without exception, been warm and friendly. They have also been happy to be photographed and of course always appreciated the fact that I would endeavour to get them copies of their ‘card’, as they call the printed photo. Their gentleness and warmth belie the very difficult existence they live. Most live without running water in their small hut. There is very little electrical reticulation in these rural areas and sanitation is poor (by 2008 these conditions have very nearly been alleviated). Income may be child allowance for those with young children or a small pension for the retired. Small plots of mealies are dotted amongst the huts and provide some of the simple food they exist on. With unemployment running at close to 95% in many of these areas there is virtually no trading and at present little hope of work.

That is the challenge I have been presented with in coming here as a volunteer business advisor to the Umtata Business Service Centre. The photo shows one small woodworking business that, being a some-time furniture maker myself, particularly held my interest. The workshop is a standard mud hut. But how can one develop businesses in a place that has so many people with no cash and little to trade by way of barter? The obvious resource is people and unused land and we are currently working on an ambitious project that may provide some hope and income to these wonderful people. (That proved a 'too-hopeful' early prediction.)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Arrival in Umtata (now Mthatha) June 10, 2001

I was on a my way to South Africa to take up a two year contract working as a volunteer under New Zealand’s Volunteer Service Abroad programme. My base was to be Mthatha – then known as Umtata, the former capital of the “Independent State of Transkei”. Following its release from this charade, in 1994, when the ANC (African National Congress party) swept to power in South Africa, it became a somewhat neglected rural town. It was amalgamated into the new province of the Eastern Cape. The capital, Bisho, of the neighbouring ‘independent’ homeland , Ciskei, became the new provinces’ capital and the spelling recently reverted to the Xhosa spelling of Bhisho.

The photo below is a beach at East London (eMonti).

I managed to arrive in East London rather than Mthatha and was picked up by the acting director of the Umtata Business Service Centre, Victor Cimi, the next day. Victor was a knowledgeable and thoughtful guide and mentor over the next two years. On the 220 km ride north we covered many topics of conversation and I, as well, was given a great introduction to the countryside.

It was interesting to note some of the historical boundaries that we crossed - from South Africa to Ciskei (one of the earlier homelands, which were a cornerstone of the appalling apartheid policies of the Afrikaans government) back in to white SA (when the land was seen as being more fertile and valuable), back into Ciskei, back into SA, into Transkei (another homeland, both of those homelands, since 1994, being part of the new Eastern Cape province) at the Kei river. A black South African historically travelling the distance we did that day would have had to present a passport at each border crossing.

The photo below is of "Rondavels" - houses of the local people. They are beautiful. Made from mud blocks, plastered and usually painted in special patterns and with an exquisitely hatched roof.

The countryside is rolling hills, lightly treed in parts and with many areas in rough pasture. Also plentiful are the wonderful Aloe Ferrox.

Black South Africans mind very small stalls along the highway selling a small selection of fruit and vege that they buy off the Africaan farmers. They may also be renting a shack on the farmer’s land or living in a shack on a piece of communally owned land. A large bag of tomatoes and a couple of small pineapples could be had for 7 Rand, about $2.

What really struck me was the dry, brown veld. I left a cold wet winter in New Zealand and arrived to a reasonably warm, very dry South African winter. I was later to experience the very wet, hot summer, often with frequent electrical storms. More of that later.

About 21 kms from Umtata we passed through the village of Qunu, an early home township of Nelson Mandela. Qunu covers quite an area with the beautiful looking Rondavels – round, thatch roofed huts - dotted along the hills. Near the southern boundary of Qunu is Nelson Mandela’s ‘presidential house’ (shown above). A quite large house built on land given him by the people of Qunu on which to build a new home when he became president in 1994. He did not want a palace and the main feature of the architecture is that the house largely consists of a replica of the space he occupied as a prisoner on Robbens Island off Cape Town.

Driving through Qunu coincided with the end of the school day which meant that the side of the highway was a lined with school children walking home, all dressed in uniform. It was easy to see why the road toll is so high, run-down-pedestrians being one of the major contributors to the dreadful statistic. The apparently large number of people walking on the side of the road was to be seen as almost insignificant by the time we reached Umtata.

There the sidewalks were covered with people, standing talking or simply standing, sitting or minding a stall of fruit and vege – mostly, I understood, bought from a local supermarket - or a stall of other goods, sometimes new, sometimes second hand.

Two years in Mthatha, Eastern Cape, South Africa

Several of the following posts have been adapted from newsletters I sent back to friends in New Zealand during my two years in Mthatha. Others I have written with the benefit of a little hindsight and ongoing research into the history of Southern Africa and the people that inhabit it.

I will be posting a lot of photos. I hold large electronic files of most of them. All my photography in South Africa was on film but I have been scanning (using a Plustek OpticFilm 7200i that can do very high definition recordings) and all of the photos are available from me in large file format should someone want any. You may use something from these postings so long as I am recognized as the photographer and copyright holder.

I am very happy to have people comment on my postings where it means we build a better understanding of this beautiful part of the world. I would really appreciate it if others can add (positively) to my word and visual pictures.

The first posts are, of course, at the bottom of this heap!


Sunday, August 31, 2008

amaXhosa country through an umlungu's eyes

I spent two years in Mthatha or Umtata as it was when I arrived there in mid 2001. I left mid 2003. I was working with the Umtata Business Service Centre. I had a camera (film) and quite a passion for taking photos and ended up with hundreds if not thousands of shots and lots of words I had written in reports suggesting ideas for development. I intend to share some of both over the next few months. Mthatha has changed very little since I left from what I read and see so I thought maybe my photos were still worth publishing online. I had and still have a love for the place and wish it could become better known and loved by more people around the world as well as in South Africa. It does provide some nasty statistics but also deserves having its praises sung, its beauty, struggles, people and history talked about. I would welcome comment from others, especially locals, to bring another perspective and up-to-date news.

I hope to provide a little link for those interested in 'Mandela country'. One of the spurs for me to begin this is the blog that I discoverd by Jesse Zink: Jesse, an Episcopalian missionary working at the Itipini medical clinic in Mthatha, South Africa writes long, interesting posts with great photos. Unlike me, he is also managing to learn and use the local language - isiXhosa. A beautiful soft sounding language with 'clicks' - sounds made by the placement of the tongue in particular spots agains the wall/roof of the mouth. I will probably also post some material I have on Lesotho (as Jesse has done) as I too visited the "Kingdom in the Sky" for a week. All of this will take some time as all my photos from that time are all on negative film. . .