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.)



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