I would like you all to meet Cynthia
16.04.2009 - 17.04.2009 21 °C
I want you all to meet Cynthia
The first day I enjoy at ECCO Tours in Cape Town, I do what I have done for 13 years at Specialised Travel in London. I can’t start doing anything until suitably caffeinated so I head for the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Consternation follows. No-one makes their own cup of tea here, Cynthia, bless her, does and I am not welcome in her kitchen. Cynthia is larger than life.
Her full name is Cynthia Bulelwa Vece ( the c is pronounced with a click, the tongue “tutting” behind the front teeth) Madondile and she was born on the 1st January 1966 to her parents Yoliswa (Mum) and Zwelinzima, both born at the end of the war.
Cynthia is part of a huge majority. Of the 40 million inhabitants of the rainbow nation she is one of 90%, 38 million numerically, who are not of European white descent. She is decent and hard-working which cannot always be said for the minority of this majority. Many hang around on the street and pavements of the city, looking profoundly forlorn, often the worse for drink, slumped excruciatingly over the steps up your office or simply drowsing in the sun lying as if falling where shot when emerging from the trenches. Some have bits of cardboard explaining their predicament. Anyone visiting Waterloo station in London recently will be familiar with these folk.
But not our Cynthia. She has plenty of hungry mouths to feed, six kids to be precise and I joke that she obviously spent too much time on her back which makes her laugh uncontrollably, blushing imperceptively. Some have left home despite Cynthia’s tender years. Her first Anathi came along when she was just 15 years old and still at school, followed by Vuyokazi in 1986, both girls and, yes I did have to ask. Then her two boys, Mawushandile and Anele arrived in quick succession in April 89 and March 90 at which point she took a well-earned breather before Ncebakzi and Aphelele arrived in ’98 and ‘99. Vuyokazi made her a Grandma at the youthful age of 41, but rarely sees the mite as he dwells a thousand kilometres away in the Eastern Cape for which she shows remarkably little regret.
The two boys are about to become men. Cynthia turns down a wedding invitation in December, because Mawushandile and Anele are off to the bush with their father to become men. They will go to a camp in the bush for two to three weeks, and on the first day, a male nurse will perform a circumcision on each boy. Each performance is done with unsterilised equipment, no medication and no anaesthetic. As I write, my eyes are watering. They must not resort to any medical intervention and if they do their status as a man is severely down-graded. Once recovered from this act of barbarism, they return to their mother a man. All their belongings are dispensed with, clothes, furniture, bedding...everything and are replaced with completely new items, a cost thay can ill afford. This is their culture and Cynthia is completely relaxed about the whole process while I listen in shocked.
She lives in Khayelitsha which is a township. The word ‘township’ generally engenders fear into the soul of the inexperienced visitor to this continent. To them township infers poverty, crime and Aids, hopeless, hapless and helpless, despair and fear. To Cynthia its family, community and above all home. Same place, vastly different perspectives; one is perception the other pragmatism.
Townships were deliberately but inadvertently designed by the architects of the misery which was apartheid. The Nationalists came to power here led by D.F. Malan in 1948. By the mid-fifties the separation of the races was well underway and the hated pass laws, meaning that all black Africans had to carry passes at all times severely restricting their movements, resulted in protest with violent repercussions from an oppressive government.
The most infamous of these was the Sharpville massacre. Swathes of black housing such as the famous District Six in Cape Town were simply bull-dozed which meant that the blacks were forced to build shacks made from any old rubbish they could lay their hands on wasteland miles away from the city centres.
Here the unfortunate dark-skinned indigenous original inhabitants of this Dark Continent were banished, suddenly removed from their homes, far from their place of gainful employment, no longer endowed with education, hospitals, water, sewerage or electricity and having had their self-respect all but surgically removed. The townships grew uncontrolled and uncontrollably, the largest on the continent and the most infamous being Soweto (stands for South West Township) outside Johannesburg, housing 4.2 million officially but probably millions more in reality.
Remarkably amongst such extreme poverty lies notable distinction in the form of two Nobel Peace prize winners, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela lived in the same road in Soweto.
Cynthia isn’t going to win any major international prizes, but she will reap some of my international praise.
Cynthia’s address, should you wish to post her a letter, is Site B, Q228, Khayelitsha 7784, South Africa. I have never seen an address like that and I don’t really understand what it means. Maybe one day, I can visit Q228 and see what it is. The plot belonged to her deceased cousin and if she could be bothered to change the title deed into her name, it does have a value and could be sold. I do not inquire as to the value or how an estate agent would market it. Cynthia’s friend has just given the property an overhaul including a new zinc roof and which has improved its imperviousness. This cost Cynthia R200 which seems a bargain and would worry a Polish builder community were there one present. Apparently when windy, which is often on the Cape, dust would fill the home and cover everything with an undesirable film. Unpleasant apparently, especially at meal times.
As I come into the office, arriving in my heated car listening to the radio, Cynthia greets me cheerfully. I am all but. My breath was visible in the shower and I moan to my colleagues about how hard it is to get out of my goose-down clad bed in the morning and across the tiled floor to the solar-heated shower, before making a warming cup of English Breakfast tea on the granite-topped kitchen side. Most of the items I describe are simply pipe-dreams for Cynthia. As the rain and wind battered our home last night, she was simply hoping that her shack would still be there when first light arrives. Yet she is cheerful; life goes on.
She has so little to lose and so much to gain. We’ve done so much gaining over the last decade and as I write, the FTSE and the Dow Jones have been decimated and we have so much more to lose. While we moan and groan at the doom and gloom, I almost wonder whether Cynthia is happy with her lot and is simply grateful not to have to worry. While the world looks down with undeserved vicissitude, at her sort and her life as well as at life in general, the only way for her is up. How reassuring must that be? There’s a certain amount of Schadenfreude around. Schadenfreude maybe would be a good name for a township.
This country is basking in the world’s sporting spotlight. The jewel in the crown is 2010, the World Cup. FIFA is an organisation riddled with corruption; we all know that but no one dares declare it. The pathetic Sepp Blatter’s vision for the beautiful game is driven by his blind determination to add noughts to his Swiss bank account. How can any vision be driven by blind determination?? If only he could see what this festival could do for a country so close to emerging from its undeserved third world status. The tournament will generate hundreds of millions of Euros for FIFA and so little will actually change the lives of the 38 million Cynthias. Blatter and Platini don’t give a monkeys about Cynthia. What can I do to change that? Nothing. I have two years to cogitate.
While these sporting ubercolonels play minion tennis in their gin palaces, Cynthia’s lot remains unchanged; her future secure and certain. Nothing will change soon, certain.
Her husband Zongezile, known affectionately to his Mrs as Bra Z, which means “Old Z,” gets up to go to work at ten to four in the morning and takes two trains; they’re quite dangerous apparently to work in Stellenbosch where he toils for hours as a gardener. He doesn’t get home until around 7:30 in the evening at which point he is fed and then retires. For his troubles he is paid the princely sum of 1600 rand a month, under £100. Cynthia rises at the relatively respectable 5:45 and prepares her kids for school. The school is within the confines of the township and they walk there and back while Mum heads off on a one hour Golden Arrow bus, notorious for their poor driving standards and dubious reliability with a singular determination to knock me and my colleagues up a brew. I can’t ask what she earns, but it can’t be a lot more that Bra Z.
Her largest expenditure in Q228 is food. They treat themselves to meat every Sunday, chicken maybe. Fruit and vegetables are simply too expensive. The rest of the week is spent eating rice or potatoes and mealy meal mixed with sour milk which sounds revolting. Number 2 on the expenditure list is transport; around 300 rand a month between them. Finally energy. Electricity costs her a whopping 10 rand a month, around 60p and 90 rand on gas for her primer stove, just over a fiver. That’s it, there’s nothing spare after that. You can do the sums yourself. Cynthia has 97p a day to spend to fill each of six stomachs. Deserved of praise indeed and something which no one I know could possibly achieve. If you lose that little income here, there is no support from the State at all, nothing, not a cent.
While the parents take the pittance, the children return to the shack, Cynthia’s term not mine, to an empty home. What would your kids do if they came back to an empty home in England? Well, they’d empty the fridge, spend hours on the internet downloading music illegally on to their i-pods and then spend hours on their mobile phones to mates organising endless social engagements which will land up costing me a fortune. This recipe isn’t on Cynthia’s menu of life. Her kids come back from school and do their homework. This is the easiest option. Everything else is so onerous; we cannot begin to understand the implications. The toilets are 15 minutes walk from Q228. Can you imagine what it must be like to have had a horrid curry and suffer the consequences when your nearest loo is a mile away? Cynthia also alludes to the standard of cleanliness of the toilets which is frankly beyond shitty. Imagine being poorly to the stomach, having to walk 15 minutes with the associated cramps, to have to confront concentration camp style latrines and repeat the process over and over. An ensuite bathroom or even flushing toilets in your own abode are literally a mile away.
There is no running water anywhere near and sometimes she has to go to the standpipe six or seven times just to get enough to do a wash. It’s cold and if they want to wash themselves, a kettle has to be boiled, using valuable kilojoules. There are communal showers but no-one uses them. I ask her what she would like to have the most and the answer is a washing machine. The issue is that the nearest piped water is so far away that she could have a dozen of Boschs’ best, but without water they’re about as useful as a hydro project in the Kalahari. When they get home from school, Mum is still at work so her kids have to wash their school shirts and smalls themselves. I don’t know anyone’s eight year olds who would even know how to do that. They have homework to do but before that, they may be required to clean and sweep the shack. The luxury is a telly and then can watch movies as a treat.
One of Cynthia’s friends has sadly passed away. He was born in the Eastern Cape, 11 hours away overland. She’s heading off on Friday night and the mode of transport is the dreaded minibus taxi. Cynthia will come to work all day on Friday, and then spend all night in a death-trap in order to bid farewell to an old friend before returning to work via the same ghastly route. The sense of community is clearly immensely strong; they’re incredible but to me the impervious equality obviously brings these people closer together. Adversity has brought them to care for each other and they all look out for their friends and neighbours. Similar circumstances in England drive communities to greed, crime and jealousy. There is a lesson here that we could so desperately learn at home and I vow to bring all my visitors to see a township. The funeral oddly enough isn’t for another week so I enquire as to whether the victim is actually deceased yet or not. Cynthia laughs; it’s a lovely infectious laugh bless her, and she just exclaims, “Oh David.” In times of death of a friend, she is willing to travel half way across the country for to say farewell and her humour is still intact. I think she is the one of the most resilient ladies whose path I have ever crossed. I ask about the deceased and how he is going to get there. It seems that he’s sharing the taxi with everyone else. Not in it mind you, he’s in a trailer and is going to enjoy fumes but no views. We had a vision of the coffin on a couple of tiddly wheels whizzing down the N2. As it is, he’s in the trailer with the entire luggage. Let’s pray that they do a little better than the infamous T5 at Heathrow and don’t lose anything on the way. The funeral will take place on the Saturday after and all-night drive and on Sunday they’ll take the long road back to the Cape. They’ll be a spare seat coming back though. How I’d love to fill it and be a fly on the wall in the funeral funbus.
Cynthia, the ambassador from the townships. She deserves so much more.