Reflections on the luxury of life interrupted
We met Wellington on our way to Cassis one day. In the hot summer sun, he claims shade under the jacaranda for his workshop. While the car guards (mostly black immigrants) and BMW drivers (mostly wealthy whites) wage silent war on one another in a continual dance of parking and perception misunderstandings, Wellington quietly focuses on his craft, occasionally looking up to greet passersby in search of a cappuccino. Passersby like us. The first time we see him, we are struck by his cards: entrepreneurism capitalizing on creative impulse.
Wellington makes cards and sells them to the folks who frequent the Kildare Circle area in the wealthy Newlands suburb of Cape Town. Without calling attention to himself, he simply displays the ones he has finished in a cardboard box. Drawn to them, and drawn to Wellington, we study the different designs and collect several to take home – each uniquely constructed from thin pieces of wire shaped into figures interspersed with delicate beads. Chuck goes for the rhino, thinking of Niles, and I choose the giraffe and elephant. The rest we select are Christmas cards, reflecting the season.
“I am originally from Zimbabwe,” Wellington shares when we ask. “I used to work elsewhere, but making things is much better for my mind. It makes me happy. It keeps me healthy.” He speaks with a thick, articulate accent. A thank you, a wave, a ‘see you again’ and the cards are on their way to relatives in America.
Over the months as our visits to Cassis become increasingly regular and as our graciousness with the car guards become increasingly reciprocated, we seek out Wellington to say hello, to pick up a birthday card, an anniversary greeting, a quick note to write a thank you to friends for dinner last night. In these exchanges, we feel we have come to know him a bit – though we don’t really know Wellington at all. It’s just something about his work and his gift and who he is that is compelling.
So I resolve to discover more of Wellington’s story. On a Monday afternoon while driving through the neighborhood, I park, greet the car guard and go looking for him. For the next hour I listen and learn not only more about Wellington, but also important lessons about life and living in Cape Town as I catch brief glimpses of a world to which I seem to have little access – though it haunts my every moment here in South Africa. It is a world of poverty and inequality based on race playing out on a stage left by hundreds of years unjust laws solidified in the final act of apartheid. And though often not seen with eyes of understanding by those who live comfortably with opportunity, it weighs equally on all those who now reside here separately together.
“Life is Good,” says Wellington, pointing to the familiar icon on his shirt. “This is what I try to say in my cards. I focus on the good things and share those good things through my art. When you are surrounded by so much negativity, you must find inspiration from inside to keep from being broken down.”
Coming to South Africa in 1994 to watch the election of Nelson Mandela, Wellington stayed and worked as a street cleaner, car guard and restaurant worker before selling boerwors on the street in summer and umbrellas on the corner in the wet Cape winters. “But I wanted to invest in business; I wanted to invest in my business,” he says which is what led him to making cards full time. “No matter who you are, you have friends who have birthdays in all seasons. ”
I notice we are being noticed by those who walk by and those who work in the parking lot. We must look slightly out of place with me, pencil and notebook, sitting on the curb next to his chair writing down things he has to say that go beyond my questions. “Life puts us into different ‘circles’ caused by society and you can feel like there is nothing going on in the circle you are in. We must be able to break these circles, and others help us get out. Even when you are stuck in one circle, you can see the hope that is in others.” As he goes on to explain the things that inspire him – the Mountain, the people, soccer – I find myself thinking about others who use inspiration, hard work and a little help from friends to break from one circle into another. I consider how their movement contributes to both overlapping circles – leaving a door ajar in one; introducing something new to the other.
I buy another set of cards and tell Wellington that I will be back to learn more so I can share his work and his story with others. As I walk back to my car, I leave with much more than the cards. Wellington has left the door into his circle slightly ajar for me. To open it wider and see with less clouded eyes, I now realize I simply need to be willing to look – and ask the questions as they come.