I arrived in Cape town on the 13th September unaware it was winter. I had to find my own way from the airport because our cars were not due to arrive for another month. I can understand why people don’t see South Africa as a part of Africa because by the look of Cape town you could be in any European city. With its skyscrapers and tarmac roads it seems too developed.
But this is Africa and this is where my journey begins. For the next 200 days I will be living with 12 people I don’t know. Apart from our online attempts at conversation and planning we are complete strangers. It was a challenging decision to be a part of the team. Six months away from home, no salary but an opportunity to see a continent which I love very much. Everyone I spoke to (bar one who is a mother and understands the pressures of being a single parent) thinks its a journey of a lifetime and one they wish they could take. So here I am after consulting with my children and significant other. I am the only Black African woman on the team and also the oldest. Its a young group the youngest being 21.
The home we are staying in is called the Prince Lodge. A beautiful space with adequate space for team meetings and bedrooms you can retreat into for privacy. We are 9 in Cape town we will be joined by another 3. We will stay in Cape town a month as we begin our projects and wait for the arrival of 3 Mahindra Scorpios which are coming from India.
Our local partner is called Africa Unite and they have connected us to organisations in the city we will work with. The first meeting I accompany Akram to meet Mandisi Siso a theatre practitioner and activist. He is very energetic and committed to his community in the township of Khayalitsha. My first impresssions of Cape town are the cold weather, the absence of people in the town centre and the fact that shops close so early. So different from Kampala where the city comes to alive at night, hundreds of people walking and shopping.
In South Africa, August is Women’s month so we will focus on the woman in all of our creative collaborations. We successfully manage to record a song, paint a wall mural at the Rainbow Arts Organisation in Delft another township of the city and launch our journey with a theatrical collaboration with Makukanye Art Room. I run a workshop with young men from the Beth Uriel Home for boys and men in Salt River a suburb of the city. The theme is Love and we discuss what love is to them, how they express it, what they need from the people they love and how they behave when they are hurt. Its a revelation as they speak on the pressure they feel as young men to act macho and interestingly for me they are also afraid to speak up, much like the women I facilitate in personal development. So it seems to me this is a structural societal issue and not just one based in gender alone.
There is a repressed vibration in this place. Even though apartheid is no more the infrastucture of the city still keeps people separate. The roads were build to separate communities. I don’t see many black folks in the city centre and if they are there, they are homeless. You don’t see street vendors and we are constantly told to keep ourselves safe as robbery is a common occurrence. One evening after returning from the township of Delft which takes about 35 minutes, members of the team are threatened by a robber who produces a knife. Helene a compassionate 23 year old woman is able to reason with him and after a short conversation he moves on. The craziness of the situation is that he attempts to rob them in the busy bus park. There were hundreds of people making their way home. Hundreds of witnesses, his desperation was that bad. Black people don’t look well here there is something that happens to the skin with the absence of sunlight. The cold makes one’s body tight. I’ve been told in the summer it gets too hot and you wish for the cold again. Or maybe the appearance of the people is due to the diet. Because we are on a limited budget when we work in the townships we eat local fast food which consists of Fatcook (fried bread with either chips, burger or liver) or barbaque meat or chicken feet. I haven’t had the opportunity to eat Pap or its accompliments. The air is dry and it reminds me of the air that circulates in planes. Our biggest frustration right now is the weather. We are delayed in completing the mural due to rain.
There is a stark contrast in living conditions. In the city centre, homes are large with bay windows which let in plenty of light. In the township houses are build from iron sheets, wood and concrete. have no inside toilets. In the morning people will carry their buckets to the toilets which line the street. This blows my mind as I wouldn’t want my community to know when I’m taking a shit. Its so public. Slowly theses shacks are being replaced with concrete homes with inside toilets but the progress is slow. There is a water ban here and after I hear about the fountains that are running in the affluent parts of the city and how in the townships they are not even getting their 50 litres of water per household I deliberately take a bath. I suppose its my way of challenging the injustice of the unfair water distribution. But I don’t do it again because the guilt is just too overwhelming.
However, I do love the murals in the city, they are vast and beautiful but unlike Johannesburg are illegal and organisations like BAS Arts have to get permission from the municipality to paint them. After our launch event we are ready to move on. We’ve been told to check out Johannesburg because there are more businesses there who could sponsor us. We have a handful of sponsors but we need more. This is a very expensive project with all the logistics, feeding and housing 12 artists for 200 days. Many people have called us crazy. Why do it if all the finances are not in place? I suppose we are are crazy group of people who have a dream to make the world a better place through art and adventure.
Unfortunately the cars are late clearing customs which means we have to stay longer but we have no money for rent. Our beautiful landlady Elka agrees to sponsor us in exchange for work done in the house. We agree because our only currency can’t be money, there has to be another way to live. We are all such idealists. Eventually we go to pick up our cars and hit the road to Joburg. I’m so relieved I was getting restless. We now have a gruelling 1500 km drive to Johannesburg and its our first time on the South African highway.
We arrive in Joburg after a 2 day sojourn. The Indian team members are constantly referring to the fact that accommodation and food are so expensive here. In India you can get a room for $2, we haven’t been able to find that anywhere. We stay in Colesburg for the night and meet a dog called Rusty who wants me to play fetch with him but cowers when I reach for the stick he lays at my feet. He’s smart but afraid. He’s beaten I think and I reflect on the nature of abuse and how it can make us submissive, even in the face of injustice. The Black and Coloured people of South Africa are still fighting for their right to fair treatment. Whether its the land reforms or the freeing of students imprisoned during the fees must fall riots, their fight continues. We will stay in Johannesburg for 3 nights. The team has gone out to explore the city but I’ve remained home to write.