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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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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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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North to Sandton, South to Soweto

I watched as crusty old defence veterans helped former MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe, Spear of the Nation)sympathizers with the finer points of dismantling an AK-47. We shot the AK-47s, AK-Ms, R5 assault rifles, Skorpion automatic pistols, light machine guns, and a variety of handguns. There was a sense of power about the whole exercise, but also a jubilant, if unspoken, celebration at the blatant crossing of boundaries that were once inviolable. At the end of the day, almost all of the cardboard targets had been reduced to a few shreds.

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Truth and Denial

It was the tangible textures and smells of the night, combined with the joyful children of the day that woke me up inside. My inner revolutionary had been sleeping in the urban comfort of Melville and Pretoria. 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 home to a hot meal. Spend the night and share your humanity in the bitter cold. It becomes dangerously impossible not to challenge the status quo.

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Seeds of Love

You can look to the left and see a world that looks a lot like Los Angeles, and then glance to the right and glimpse the grit of the transient communities just next door. Contrasts: the sparkling beauty of the coast and the dry, cool highlands of Gauteng. The wealth of the elite and the extreme poverty of the underclass. Luxurious malls and sewage-filled swimming holes. Johannesburg’s northern suburb of Sandton and the nearby township of Alexandra. Somewhere in between the squatter camps and the largely white, gated communities, I found the neighborhood where I’ve chosen to settle in. It’s called Yeoville.

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