Reflections on the luxury of life interrupted
If Wellington teaches me the importance of asking, it is Tina who teaches me that the best way to do it is from behind a camera. It’s Sunday morning and we are headed to the Methodist Church in Langa, the oldest black township in Cape Town. I’m nervous in not knowing what to expect even though I know exactly what to expect – it’s Sunday morning church, the same in its difference all over the world. But it’s a township; it’s a black community; we will stand out as so different in our whiteness; it will be obvious who we are, and begs the question, what are we doing here?
We are taking photographs. Well, Tina is. She’s working on a photographic essay project, and as a result, is able to elicit not only stories but portraits from people all over the country in her quest to understand a little bit about South Africa.
Sarah and I are along for the ride to learn about a different circle of life, so far removed from what I know in Cape Town, though only a 10-minute drive from my house – and closer than Kloof to Long.
We are met by Mama Nomangesi Pephetta who escorts us into the church and introduces us around. “It’s quite a long service, you know. You can leave when you want, but best to do so when everyone is standing and singing. We’ll finish with communion around 1 or 1:30.” I look my watch and note it is 10:30. A long service indeed.
But as the singing begins and the huge body of members stand, the time passes quickly. Led by the pastor and the choir from the front, we move; we sway; we celebrate and praise as one.
I’m no longer uncomfortable and find it easy to sing along with the melodies and understand the collective worship even though I have no idea what the iXhosa words I am mouthing mean. It matters not – no one is looking; no one cares. It’s Sunday morning and we are here for a higher purpose – much as Mandela was when he delivered a speech in the same setting years ago.
About mid-way through the service, Mama Lilahloane Tsoanyane, who has generously been sitting with us, indicates maybe it is a good time to depart, and sets us up with Mama Pephetta’s niece, Amanda. “She is happy to take you around Langa, and then you can come back at the end of the service?”
We agree, eager to get a sense of the larger community and in the process, get a sense of Amanda who stays with her Aunt in Langa on weekends while enrolled in the University of the Western Cape.
Studying politics and public administration, Amanda talks passionately about returning to her home region and working in the Municipality to improve the living conditions of her people living in the Eastern Cape. She exhibits nothing but strength and grace with highly held shoulders, an air of wonderful confidence, and … the most astounding red shoes! As she talks (we ask) she guides us down paved and gravel streets, past neighborhoods of houses with gardens, apartment buildings with dirt lots, and shacks in various conditions.
“Let’s not go down that road – that’s a bit of a dodgy area,” she says nonchalantly, redirecting us back to the center of town. “That area over there is more coloured,” she points in the opposite direction.
“Anyone can live anywhere now, but after apartheid, you know, people don’t mix much. It’s different at university. There you have blacks, coloureds, whites – everyone hangs out together. We are all just …..students.”
We pass the Langa Sharpsville Memorial and stop at the Guga Sthebe Cultural Center. Stepping into a tack shop, we collect cokes for a mid-morning pick up. Though we are out of place, no one much bothers with us. People are chatting in their front yards, children play in the street, women hang laundry in the fresh air. It is a beautiful Sunday morning in Langa, in Cape Town, in South Africa. And I realize that just like the church service, life really is the same in its difference all over the world.
As we loop back to the church for the end of the service and Tina works her magic, I see the power of photography as a way to move in the different circles Wellington talked about to ask the important questions.
And that’s when the shoes sing to me from the gravel parking lot. Amanda’s red heels are one example of the rich variety of smart, tailored ankles donning platforms of color. Shoes – in all shapes, sizes, degrees of elevation as well as wear and tear – are the abstracts for the biographies of those they carry. Perhaps I have found my own lens through which to discover – and connect with – life in Cape Town in this journey of finding the familiar in unfamiliarity.