Viva tonto, Viva Pam, Viva Kliptown, Viva Ubuntu!

Viva tonto, Viva Pam, Viva Kliptown, Viva Ubuntu!

Today I went to Kliptown with Jeannie, a skydiving friend who never knew tonto but is touched by his memory. Together, we drove through a rapidly developing Soweto, towards people and places that remain part of the fabric of my life; where what I have given continues to flow in the form of love, understanding, friendship, compassion, and memory.

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Dust to Dust

Dust to Dust

I walk to the plane with the handmade red pouch strapped to my left wrist. At boarding point, I sit with my head down. This is a solo mission. I look up once, opening my eyes to a view of our friend Raymond’s pants leg as he stands near me protectively. The embroidery reads, “Martin’s Funerals! 011-672-8104”. New sponsor. I start to crack, giggling hysterically.

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Remembering Pam: A Friend in Kliptown

Remembering Pam: A Friend in Kliptown

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.”

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Love and High-Risk Human Investments

Love and High-Risk Human Investments

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.

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Project XRW Dubai Documentary

Project XRW Dubai Documentary

A lot of very hard work and passion went into the making of this video. It tells the story of our team, a group of people who wanted to change the world through the most spectacular human flight and the most fearless outreach - and the dropzone, Skydive Dubai, that believed in our dreams enough to help make them come true.

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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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Valentine's Special Edition

Eric knows me as an anomalous American skydiver who loves Africa, teaching self-defense, studying kung fu, talking about politics, and interviewing arms dealers in remote corners of the continent. After living with me for a year, he is also in possession of important personal intelligence, like the fact that I panic when we run out of hot sauce and will rearrange my entire schedule to see old episodes of Law and Order on one of our four local TV stations. He has been my best friend during the most transformative episode of my life, but until December he had never met my parents, seen the school photos from my “awkward years,” or walked around the city where I grew up.

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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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10 Years

The longer I live in Johannesburg, the more difficult it becomes to write about what I’m experiencing. Sometime in the last two and a half years, I ceased to be an anthropologist/observer and became something else. I have now lived here for longer than I did in San Francisco, my chosen location after four enforced years in Boston’s tundra. There was a slow process of yuppification after college, like being stuck in a gooey bowl of gelatinous credit card debt, car payments, and the sweet girlie-drinks that came after work and before the latest fondue dinner craze. I was waiting for the whole mess to solidify around me when I finally got out.

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The Land of Plenty

Pam, who has let me adopt her as a surrogate mother, runs a school for about 120 children, from babies to 6 or 7 years old. The children's families live in the shacks bordering the train tracks that divide the slums from the place where a memorial is being built to commemorate the Freedom Charter signing in 1955. She has been taking care of the community's children for over 13 years, for virtually no pay, because most of the children's parents are either dead, single with multiple mouths to feed, or part of the 43 percent unemployment rate. The department of Social Welfare donates R6 (just under a dollar) per child per day for food, and that is the only funding these children benefit from. The meals they get at Pam's crèche are often the only food they'll eat during the day.

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Arid Lands

At times I was so sleep deprived I felt like I was on some strange drug, with the world moving by in slow motion like a movie montage. Elders waved canes at each other during cease-fire negotiations, assistant chiefs waved loaded assault rifles at perceived rivals, and yet another meal of goat stew and maize meal found its way to me for nourishment, day after day. Goats were ubiquitous and sometimes tasty: boiled, stewed, grilled, fried, hollowed out and stuffed with illegal AK-47 parts for shipment to Nairobi. In meetings with various people under trees and in urban, sewage-infested slum shacks, I was alternately blessed, cursed, begged, argued with, chased away, and welcomed, depending on the day.

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Being There

She was a skydiver. On Sunday, June 22nd, 2003, Elna Botha of Melville, Johannesurg, struggled to open her reserve parachute until about 100 feet above the ground. She hit the ground very hard and died on impact. Elle was one of my best friends. I was standing on the ground looking up at the sky when it happened. I saw her cut away her malfunctioning main parachute, and watched that canopy as it drifted down. When I looked back up for the standard white reserve, the sky was empty.

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Other Wars

I have stopped turning on the television news and started reading more press outside of the mainstream. Escaping incessant coverage of one war and its aftermath only leads to a gruesome kind of variety: the world is full of sideshow conflicts. Many of them rage in Africa, under the radar of international coverage or even humanitarian aid. It becomes difficult when living, as Rian Malan has written, in “a doomed city on a damned continent”, not to see the rhetoric of the Iraq war from all sides as somehow hypocritical by omission.

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A Passport at War

The teller looked down at my passport, looked up at me, and said loudly, “Well, well, well, we have an American in the bank!” She went on to inform her fellow tellers, and in the process ended up announcing to everyone there that I held an American passport. Waving it around from behind her bullet-proof glass, she yelled, “Why are you bombing Iraq?”

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