June 4, 2001
Noodkamp, shantytown outside of Wellington, Western Cape, South Africa
As I watch the sun slowly bow its head behind the rugged roofs, another gust of penetrating breeze makes me shiver. Who thought it would be so chilly in Africa of all places?! I still didn’t quite become used to June being the middle of winter. There was not enough time, though, to think about the weather. I was there to record an oral history interview with someone who lived though the painful past of this colorful nation, so deeply torn apart and now awaiting brighter future.
Her name is Elsie Magoda. She lives in a squatter camp outside of Wellington about 45 minutes east from Cape Town. I wanted to know more and that’s why I wanted to do the interview, yet I doubted my ability to connect. Aren’t I as distant as can be? When people here look at me, do they see me as a voyeuristic tourist? A descendant of European colonizers? A member of the formerly privileged class? An ignorant intruder into their daily struggle? Only one way to find out…
Mrs. Magoda was standing in front of her wooden shack. She greeted me warmly and invited me in. I trod inside carefully not to step in a muddy puddle or become entangled in a line of laundry hanging above. The walls of the shack, or hokkie as she called it, were covered with sheets bearing images of red tomatoes, the kind wrapped around cans of concentrate, here serving as wallpaper. As I was setting up my recording equipment, I asked her to state the place of our conversation. “Noodkamp,” she said. “That means ‘the poor place.’”
When I asked the first question, she unexpectedly placed the microphone right next to her mouth, seriously focused on her role of an interviewee. Worried that the noise of breathing would record, I suggested that I should hold the mic for her at a greater distance. That was the first time we both laughed simultaneously and spontaneously, discovering the magic power of this simplest yet universally understood communication tool.
I kept thinking what an incredible coincidence in time and space our meeting was. Six years after the end of the apartheid I witnessed the transition that started equally full of promise as the one in my own corner of the world where communism fell only a few years earlier. After all, both regions awaited the same from their newly won freedom: for the new reality to live up to its ideals of protecting human dignity and providing economic prosperity.
As I probe deeper into Mrs. Magoda’s biography, she is honest about everything: her childhood in Malawi; work at a fruit packaging plant in Paarl for 862 rands a month; how her husband abandoned her with six kids; how her son was killed in a car accident; how teenage gangsters once raided her hokkie; how AIDS is a crippling problem in the community; how she does not have enough money to buy her kids shoes to walk to school in Wellington. When I ask about her life under the apartheid when she worked as a white family’s servant, her face grimaces, “This apartheid – I grew up with it in my brain and ‘till now I say to God: God, help my sons so they mustn’t grow up like me.”
By the end of the day we are friends. As we are sipping coffee together we feel the bond that has just so naturally united us, so dfferent yet in many ways alike: each in our own way hopeful about the future where governments do not discriminate and oppress but protect, and where all people have an opportunity simply to live free… In some inexplicable way this humble place felt like home and I was having the best cup of coffee in my life.As I was leaving, I let the recorder run for a few seconds outside the hospitable hokkie to catch the ambiance of the surrounding darkness. So calm and quiet… I closed my eyes and thought I heard a distant song rising in the coolness of the night… Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika – God bless Africa