Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Shacking Up in the Slum - Pt. I of III

If I went home today, I would have to tell you that my fellowship has been a failure, as amazing as it has been. Maybe “incomplete” is a fairer evaluation. I think I am getting a pretty good handle on the tools – sustainable or not – to fight poverty. But in terms of my other goal – to understand poverty – I score a big incomplete. What good is understanding the instruments available if you don’t have a grasp of the problem?

I want to know what it’s like to be poor, and the countless interviews and endless readings I’ve done only get me halfway. The best way to close the gap, I think, is to live with the poor, but this far I’ve found this very difficult to arrange. Our social circles generally don’t overlap, and language is a considerable barrier.

That’s why it was very fortunate that I met Patricia (pictured), who I met when we stopped for drinks at a shebeen (an unlicensed neighborhood drinking establishment). I remembered from our conversation that her mother had passed away and she had an empty room. So, on Thursday, in the pouring rain, I walked to her front door, full of trepidation. God I was nervous. This was the first time I’d invited myself over to someone’s house since my best friend in middle school. Okay, high school. She wasn’t there. I went to Nessie’s shebeen across the street, where we had hung out the day before, and found her there. She agreed to my offer of 70 rand a night, which is what a hostel would’ve cost me. For the next three days I got to live with the locals, doing pretty much what they did. Doing my laundry, bathing the "South African way" (bucket of water and washcloth), sharing meals, and drinking…a lot.

After putting my bags up at Patricia’s (whose real name is Nomthandazo, or Thandi for short), I joined them back at Nessie’s for some Hansa, the beer of choice for Motsoaledi, the slum I was in. A little later Siphiwe, the tour guide from the day before and local resident, took me to three of his favorite bars. It was the beginning of a friendship. At the bars I found instant celebrity. I was introduced to all of Siphiwe’s good friends, and it seemed like there wasn’t a minute when less than two people were trying to talk to me at once. Giving the incumbent pool shark a run for his money didn’t hurt my reputation either. Siphiwe, I noticed, didn’t drink the entire night.

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