Category: Kliptown, Soweto

Remembering Pam: A Friend in Kliptown

Last week I returned from South Africa, where we raised a record R11,000 for charity at the annual Johannesburg Skydiving Club and Raise the Sky tonto Boogie. The boogie is a rocking skydiving party, and for me also a time to celebrate my late partner, Eric “tonto” Stephenson. For the last seven years, I have driven into Soweto after the boogie to deliver skydivers’ donations of food and clothing to the Pastoral Centre Pre-school and Creche in Kliptown, a haven for vulnerable children. This special place was founded by Pam Mfaxa, who protected and nurtured the next generation of her community with the force of a warrior and the conviction of a saint. Pam passed away in January, suddenly and too early, but her legacy, like Eric’s, lives on. This year I made the familiar drive just the same. Alone in my car, I realized how strange it felt to be carrying on this work, these rituals, when the people who anchored them for so long are both gone. The sadness made me ask, what is more powerful than loss? What actually soothes loneliness? Turns out for me, it’s gratitude. For love. For deep and real friendship. For the way both of these extraordinary people changed my life and continue to inspire good. In gratitude and memory, here is the story of how I met Pam, and the very first time I went to Kliptown.


1393150_10151831565454613_1743989356_nKliptown, Soweto. February 2002.

Less than two months after I had packed up everything I owned and moved from San Francisco to South Africa, I was waiting to eat lunch at a community building in the middle of a slum. I was determined to build a meaningful life, one shaped outside the predictable forces of my Harvard cohort. I had recently started skydiving, which gave me the courage to make other jumps: as far away as possible from the vortex of startups, parties, after-work martinis, and hung-over brunches.

A group of us had just toured Kliptown’s Freedom Charter Square informal settlement, learning about how families subsisted in shacks with no electricity or running water, marking out territory by placing locks on the port-o-loos and fighting for access at the outdoor taps. Unemployment was high; HIV rates were high; the post-apartheid dream was deferred; privacy was non-existent.

As the name implied, this is where the Freedom Charter was officially adopted in 1955, the document that first enshrined the core ideals of a non-racial South Africa. “The People Shall Govern!” it declared, and “There Shall Be Houses, Security, and Comfort!” In this utopian vision that supposedly kicked off with the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and his subsequent election to the presidency in 1994, “Slums shall be demolished, and new suburbs built where all have transport, roads, lighting, playing fields, crèches and social centres.”

So there we were, taking in the stench of untreated sewage and bearing witness to the piles of garbage that constituted the playing fields, a walking cliché of foreign white do-gooders engaging in ghetto voyeurism with young black men as guides.1395942_10151831565259613_25412023_n

At lunch, the men talked a lot about the importance of women, but none were actually present at the table. I got up on the pretense of finding a bathroom and didn’t have to go far before I heard laughter bursting from a tiny, cramped kitchen. There they were, the women. Chopping vegetables. Preparing food for us.

Pam and I found each other the moment I stuck my head into that overcrowded kitchen. With authority, she denied my offer to help with the meal, but something about my privileged indignation at the gender imbalance at lunch made her laugh. “African men don’t do much, but they do talk,” she chuckled. “If you really want to see this community in action, come back and stay the night. You are welcome at my place.”

I made my way back to the lunch table, looking around at our group: mostly white North American women in their 20’s; a guy with very white socks from Minnesota who had studied anthropology and, five months after arrival in South Africa, was throwing around township slang in a way that made him look even more ridiculous than the socks, if that was possible; and our cool “feminist” shepherds seemingly ignorant of their own ironies. I counted myself among the hypocrites, though I couldn’t pinpoint (or didn’t think through) exactly why.

Months later, once I had settled in to some kind of routine, I boarded a shared taxi from downtown Johannesburg to take Pam up on her offer.

Kliptown, June 2002.

I spent my first Youth Day in South Africa in and around the shacks of Kliptown.

Hector_pietersonJune 16th, 2002 was Youth Day for the politically conscious and Father’s Day for everyone else. Youth Day commemorates the beginning of the 1976 Soweto student uprisings against “Bantu Education”, a segregated system with Afrikaans (the language of the ruling National Party) as the required medium of instruction in the township. Riot police fired tear gas followed by live rounds, and a lethal bullet struck thirteen-year-old Hector Pieterson. Fellow student Mbuyisa Makhubo picked up his limp body and carried him from the scene, running alongside his wailing sister. More than 400 people were reported dead during the uprisings, but photographer Sam Nzima captured this moment on film. The image, widely distributed in the international news, marked a turning point in the world’s understanding of the regime’s brutality.

I was seeking refuge with people who wouldn’t ignore history in favor of a trip to the mall. I was excited to spend time with Pam. My new friend had chosen a life dedicated to the youth of a country she had adopted – a country I was trying to call home.

Pam came from rural Swaziland to South Africa in the 80’s and lived through apartheid, transition, Mandela’s presidency, and more intimate trials than I could ever know. She stayed in one of the only concrete structures in town, where she graciously allowed me to sleep on the floor in the common area with her children, Zoleka and Nomaswazi (nicknamed Gogo). On Saturday we visited people in shacks of varying size and quality, talking about everything from child abuse to hand-crank telephones.

154824_459525554612_7947341_n One tiny shack had the ten residents’ laundry hanging out to dry in front. A large woman came charging out, ranting at the top of her lungs. She was drunk, her huge breasts sagging under a loose shirt. The stale smell of home-brewed beer lingered as she yelled about her troubles—no money, no food, too many children.

“God may come to others, but He doesn’t have time for me! He doesn’t have time!” she moaned.

Shaking her head, Pam said, “Eish, wena. It is your responsibility to make the first move, especially when it comes to God.”

Like a jilted lover, the woman scowled and would have none of it.

“You see? This is what we still struggle with,” said a woman standing nearby. “We finally have our freedom and she spends it on beer. Her children will be hungry tonight.”

The kids ran around me, giggling and taking turns jumping up to be held.

Saturday night was black, with a sliver of moon blurring through the haze of township smoke. With a group from the youth center, I set out into the damp darkness of a different Kliptown. We walked carefully on the dirt paths, narrow and flanked by barbed wire in places, stopping to talk with huddles of people gathered around tin buckets filled with glowing coals.

The groups warming their hands and smoking pungent-smelling joints were mostly men – men who as young boys choked under apartheid and the tyranny of Bantu Education designed to keep them servile and who spent their adolescence without access to basic rights, education, or meaningful work.

It was the textures and smells of that night combined with the joyful children of the day that woke me up inside. My inner revolutionary had been dozing a bit in the suburban comfort of Melville where I had found a place to live, and Pretoria, where I had found a mentor and an internship at a think tank.

Few whites see Kliptown in the dark; they would say it’s far too dangerous, and they may be right. Spend the day and take sunny images of smiling kids to impress your family and friends with your “African experience”. Spend a winter night and share your humanity in the bitter cold. It becomes impossible not to challenge the status quo.

Sunday dawned clear and freezing, heralded loudly by an overzealous rooster right outside Pam’s house. The kids from the youth center were running excitedly to the old Battery Center. The bare cement room was now a makeshift theatre with “United We Stand” and a picture of Hector Pieterson painted on the wall. Performers of all ages hammed it up for the audience, all people from the community. The kids did gumboot dancing, recited poetry, and sang about the new struggle: HIV/AIDS.

HIV was a mental sledgehammer: freedom was won by the previous generation, but life itself was hanging in the balance for this one.

I felt that my life was hanging in the balance, too.


Love and High-Risk Human Investments

photo 3Silindile is 13 years old now. Every year of her life feels like a gift, proof that despite some inevitable loss and darkness, life and goodness and hope can (must) triumph.

This morning I went to the annual meeting to discuss Silindi’s progress as her sponsor, along with two other trustees, at the St. Vincent School for the Deaf. For the first time in years (perhaps ever), there was no crisis looming. I did not find myself rushing to the hospital, visiting a social worker, or sleuthing out the location of a shack in a new part of Soweto. Today things were calm, and I reflected.

“Crisis” is the mode that has defined much of my relationship to this little girl: keep her alive. Pray that she hasn’t been abused. Contain the panic that she isn’t learning to read fast enough. Try to get her mother to engage more, or differently. Wrestle with the guilt that for selfish reasons, I’m not here to check in every week like I used 1

I first met Silindile when she was attending the Pastoral Centre Preschool and Creche in Kliptown, Soweto. I was on the board and trying to find sponsorship for the most needy children. Those who live in the Freedom Charter Square informal settlement sleep in crowded shacks without heat, electricity, or running water. Children have lost parents to AIDS, alcoholism, and the kind of poverty that breaks spirits and families. Imagine, then, what it means for a kid to make the list of those who are the worst off.

The late Pam Mfaxa, the principal of the crèche and one of my closest friends, first brought her to my attention. The staff thought she might be developmentally disabled because she was often unresponsive and had behavioral issues. The way she looked then, you could see right away that whoever was taking care of her was also struggling.

Because she didn’t react when called, the first question was whether she might have problems with her hearing. I tried to build trust, visiting often, and soon she would run out to greet me when she saw my car pull up. I went to meet her mother, a young woman from rural KwaZulu Natal who spoke almost no English and whose second child had been treated for malnutrition. I had a few meetings and arranged to take the family to a specialized Wits University clinic so that Silindile could have her hearing tested. The test results showed that she is profoundly deaf in both ears.

Sometime around this part of the journey, I abandoned my principle that I wasn’t going to get involved with individuals when it came to charity. Living in a place full of need, I had adopted this basic framework to stay sane: because I couldn’t help everyone, I would direct my resources to organizations that helped many.

Silindile was barely four years old, but she reached through my defenses. She latched on and wouldn’t let go. I later learned about attachment disorders possibly caused by her mother’s post-traumatic stress, and I don’t want to be naïve or overly simplistic in describing what happened. Regardless, it changed my life. Smiling, holding my hand, hugging me, and giving me a sign name before she had any formal use of language, I couldn’t turn away from the feeling of being called by this innocent soul, and I no longer cared about frameworks.

So I took up the challenge and went to battle. I walked into the St. Vincent School for the Deaf in the affluent Johannesburg suburb of Rosebank and insisted that they take her in. The alternatives were not places I would send my own daughter. At the time St. Vincent had a boarding facility (now closed), and the school had classes through 12th grade. I saw a future for her there, a sense of security, and a place where her mother would be supported as the hearing parent of a deaf child. There was no room for the coming year, I was told – and no funding for a disadvantaged child. No matter.

The following year she was enrolled. I bought Silindi’s mom her first alarm clock to help her get her daughter ready for the school bus every day. I pleaded with the driver to wait when she still wasn’t there on time. It was a delicate dance. I didn’t want to play the white savior or to alienate Silindile’s mother, yet sometimes both seemed inevitable. I questioned my own motivations frequently.

There were critics, including a minister I deeply respected, who called me out on perpetuating a broken system by sending one kid to a good school while failing to lobby for systematic change that could help many others. I never denied the validity of this argument, but I also couldn’t deny the feeling that I was compelled to do something. Instead of making it an intellectual debate, I just… did.

On the evening of her first day of school, I got a call from St. Vincent’s. Silindi had missed the bus home and was left behind. A staff member had put her to sleep but they couldn’t keep her overnight and were worried for her to wake up among strangers. In a panic, I drove to the school and a somewhat hilarious scene ensued. It was dark, the doors were locked, and it’s a school for the deaf.

See the crazy white lady throw rocks at the window! See the crazy white lady jump up and down waving frantically! See someone finally come to the door, and watch as the crazy white lady dissolves into tears, feeling like a failure, scared for a little girl who isn’t hers, scared she can never make this work. See the crazy white lady enfold the little girl in her arms and carry her to the car with a rubber sheet in case the little girl wets the bed. See the conversation as she explains to her white South African partner that she has brought home a small black child from the township who is now sleeping in the guest bedroom, and that he has to hide in the morning in case she gets scared of him when she wakes up.

Eric peeked into the room that night and stood there for a while, watching a vulnerable fellow human being sleep. When he turned around, something had come over his face – a fierce softness. He was not, generally speaking, a soft man, at least on the outside. He had been to war, exchanged gunfire while working as a bodyguard, and once legendarily gnawed through a man’s collarbone to win a fight. He had only stopped carrying his Beretta everywhere when we started to date.

It is only now that I fully understand how important what happened that night 208081_7039769612_1861_nwas, and how it helped define what love feels like to me. We had argued about the way I went over the top sometimes with my work and volunteering. When it came right down to it, though, in that moment, he didn’t just tolerate my compulsion to act. He cared just as much as I did, in his own way. He was in.

When I got a full scholarship to attend graduate school at Princeton, we established a trust for Silindile because I wanted to more formally fundraise and make sure there was a structure for her continuing education. Eric stayed in South Africa to be present for his own daughters (he was older than me and had been married before). The distance strained our relationship.

We wrote long letters wrestling with how we could make it all work, and how to support his kids while also having at least one of our own. Maybe supporting Silindile seemed like a less complicated form of nurturing that we could do together. We fought, with each other and for each other. His voice on the telephone was my alarm clock almost every morning and he told me I was beautiful even when I hadn’t slept more than four hours in two days.

And then, he died.

He made a small human error on a high-performance parachute landing, and he was gone.

See the crazy white lady get the call on a Sunday morning. See her crumble to the floor and pound it until her fist swells. See her pull it together for the family, for her dead life partner. Life, interrupted. Life, gone from the dead lover behind mortuary glass. Love, suspended, a formless, directionless emotion with nowhere to go.

About a month later, I waited for a phone call from a Johannesburg radio station, Highveld Stereo. I thought I was doing an interview about Silindile in the context of charitable giving during the holidays. I was a wreck but I was trying hard to put one foot in front of the other. Once I was on the line, I got blindsided. One of our friends had written a letter to the station. Granting a Christmas Wish as part of an annual tradition, a representative from the multinational Aon told me that the company would pay for Silindile’s schooling until she graduated, in Eric’s memory. I found myself sobbing openly, my vulnerability pouring out through the radios of people driving to work that morning.

photo 2The supportive network I tried to build for Silindile and her mom and brother became part of my life and healing in ways I could never have anticipated. Some of the St. Vincent’s teachers and staff are like part of my family. Skydivers and friends all over the world donated to the trust. Everyone who touched Silindile’s life holds a piece of my personal history that sometimes feels slippery and often distant, especially in the life I’ve built in the US. I never realized as I was working for her future that I was also constructing a virtual village of my own.

Becoming a professional skydiver hasn’t distanced me from death. On the contrary, I have continued to bear witness to small human errors that take my friends away. The trade off is that skydiving pulled me out of my darkest grief through the physical act of opening my parachute in freefall, over and over and over again, saving my own life. Sometimes, when I fly, I feel that Eric is alongside. For the most part, these “visits” are short now. I had to stop holding on in some ways in order to survive, and to make space for change. But the love that we shared for Silindile remains and grows.

Supporting her brings me back. Back to Joburg. Back to the power of transformative love and high-risk investments in other human beings. A little girl whose growth was stunted from poverty is now, finally, within the height and weight range for her age group. I believe that she will someday leave school with a fighting chance to lead a life of peace and independence. There are still issues of housing and safety as she enters her teenage years, and I am still afraid of something terrible happening because I couldn’t prevent it. But that’s life, and I choose it every day.

Home is Where the House Is

So these politicians had the same vision I did: and in theirs, as in mine, the people who live there now are nowhere to be found. Over a hundred million rand (about 15 million US dollars) has been poured into the new Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication. The open field where the charter was originally signed, where kids used to play soccer and people used to dump their garbage, has been paved over. A new taxi rank building and a museum have been erected, and the street hawkers are being herded into stalls at the new indoor market and mall. Office space has been built and is now ready for occupation by “corporate NGOs” that have no roots in the neighborhood but like the idea of a flashy address in the township.

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Kliptown in Crisis

Pam got up, quickly handing off the bowl of vegetables to her daughter. I followed her towards the gate. A missing child’s body had been found by the train tracks nearby and she said we needed to go and find out what was going on. We were among the first to arrive at a short footpath through long grass from the tracks to the shacks below. Pam and another, older woman spoke briefly, and then they told me to go and look to see if it was a body in the grass. I walked a few steps towards a clump of high weeds, and saw a small hand. I took another step and made out the shape of a small body lying there, a blue piece of clothing, a plastic bag on the face. I retreated. It was a crime scene, and the body was evidence. I have never seen such a young victim, abandoned like a sack of garbage on the edge of an overcrowded slum. I kept thinking evidence: it’s evidence.

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