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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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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