7.0 – Sweet welcome to Sweet Home Farm

Shannon and Mark, two wonderful people working with an illegal settlement at Cape Flats Philippi called Sweet Home Farm, organized a tour and a workshop at their project ground – that is a home to 17 000 cape-townians living in this illegal settlement. We met at one of the local houses, which was the home of a community activist who lives there and has been working with Shannon already for quite some time. There were about 10 of us who came from either the city bowl or from the Finnish delegation and the idea was that each of us get a pair – someone from the village to show us around and for us to share a conversation while we tour the Sweet Home Farm. First there were only few of us but the brave ones kept rolling in and in the end we decided to tour in pairs  – so two from out, two from within. The idea was for us to talk about the daily life together with our hosts and with the ones we visited with their lead. And not only talk about the day to day struggle but to learn from each other – learn how they could help us and maybe we them as well.

We started the tour by visiting the house owner’s nearby neighbours. We walked into dark huts with smiling people and at first we mostly met housewives and young unemployed women. We talked about employment with them and heard about Mr. Peter, a local farm owner who employs bunch of the people from the village. Working days are 12 hours long and salary is, well as one would expect, but still in comparison to some of the stories to come quite okay. Maybe in no way fair but, like said, compared to others. I paid attention to the fact that these people were mostly cooking with gas, coal or alcohol based solutions. Not to mention they were used inside the huts. Most of them still had an electric meter running on the wall. So electricity was there but used to appliances that only work with electricity. Needless to say the huts, the shacks, the shanties were modest – tin or plastic as a roof, cardboard or carpet as a floor, cardboard or paper as isolation. Any window or door the houses had, where scavenged from wastelands and just forced to fit the house. Through the village there were a few bigger gravel roads. They were big enough to fit one car driving through which of course you didn’t see any on these roads. Any kind of grey and black water ran down in the shallow ditches on both sides of the road. Garbage is a serious issue, blue bags are the ones that get collected from a container, every now and then, but for example nobody could say if there was anybody to take care of the street cleaning. We talked with a housewife who moved to Sweet Home Farm from West Cape and since she came here with no paperwork she and her two weeks old baby received no government support.

We talked about the electricity distribution with our hosts and went to see a local kiosk booth owner who sells the electricity which, as many other contracts in RSA, is a prepaid deal. Electricity comes from the formal source right up to the borders of the informal settlement and inside of it gets divided informally again. This I think goes for other formal resources and services too. They are delivered to the border of the village and after that it’s the ‘let them figure it out’ -mentality. We also met a local goat farmer who used to work for the city planning department but got canned already in the mid 00’s and has been living off of his goats ever since. One goat sold covers his living expenses almost for a quarter of a year. After this we visited a local resident who had built his hut with a friend with whom he still shared the place. The hut was about the size of two single beds, other end having a bed with no sheets or pillow. The other side had the door open inside and in that one square meter of empty space this fellow had a tiny stool he was sitting on. He told us that he scavenged scrap metal from the dump yard on the other side of the big road. He was tearing a part a small old electric motor – with his fingers. His fingers were bloody and with the help of a broken scissor blade he was squatting on the stool and telling us how this task takes him about a day and a half or two days. With those separated metals he can probably make about 3 euros. I was looking at him, he had stereotypy, that hut, that stool and those clothes – and I kept thinking in my head that this guy should be my boss. He’s the one I should be working for. We left him to his work, me thinking I should send him some tools at least to do that and at the same time thinking that the tools I’d send him would probably – in price – take him a months work to buy. We moved onwards.

I asked to see the local barbershop since those spots are usually places for people to hang out. Maybe we could get to talk with some other local entrepreneurs. We walked in to container. It was painted white and had a mirror on one side and benches for waiting on the other. There was a young girl getting her hair done while we waltzed in and sat down on the bench. We had a talk with the shop owner who was from DR Congo. He told us that he wanted to upscale the place so he bought the container to have the barbershop in. Bruce, my mate from outside who is a professor at CPUT, asked him what would he do if he suddenly got 10 000 Rands – 1000 euros to his hand. The gentleman told us that he would expand the business and would buy another container next to this one, and have separate men’s and women’s sides to the shop – he had plans, clearly. He told us that business should expand and scale up to make more money to him and his business partner. While we were talking the one customer, that younger girl had joined us at the benches and just jumped in to the discussion by saying that it would make more sense to expand but to another area of business that would support the shop but also with another area of business lure in more new and other kinds of customers. She suggested that in the other container there could be an art gallery and locally made clothes to sell, and our host even added to the new scheme by saying that the container could be put on top of this container to make it more fancy. My god – I could already see it, a hub in there in the middle of Sweet Home Farm with music playing, hairs styled, people shopping for new outlook and checking out local art. How much would there actually be purchase power for these things? Well at least I saw quite few kiosks, barbershops and oddly placed screaming red branded Vodacom booth. And also, how much of art and clothes and such creative things are produced in this village? Just about when we were about to leave the owner of the place asked me, when will he see the results of what we were doing there. I could only answer – I’m just a student here to get to know you, so thank you for your time. I heard this question actually from at least two other people we met as well.

On our walk out from the barbershop I asked about the health-care, where is the closest local clinic ans so on, to which the hosts just replied far far away but they had a local healer almost next door, a sangoma. Sangoma is a traditional healer that is well respected in their communities. You have to study for years to become one, as long as it would take to study to be a licensed doctor in western cultures, and you don’t choose to become one, it chooses you in a dream. We went to her house, asked respectfully to enter and got to know that she was also the local fashion designer and seamstress that the young girl at the barbershop was talking about. She had a folder full of pictures of her traditional mixed with modern creations. She got her fabrics from a market and had a huge sewing machine in her small shack. She told us, that she doesn’t design them per say – they just come to her in her dreams. We finished our walk there and headed back to the villages and villagers community center to have a short workshop. We had some lunch, homemade burgers and some healthy good juice to wash it down, courtesy of our hosts.

In the space there were four tables and chairs around for people to group already. We had all the pairs from the walks and other local people coming in as well. They were told that no matter if they were there for the walks they should come by and see what we were up to. The workshop was organized so that there were equal amount of locals and visitors for each set of tasks. The tasks were discussions around certain questions posed to group. The first one was that what was surprising in the meeting of the day, the collaboration we had had between locals and visitors – so what had we learned or observed? I started by saying that how amazed I was that even though the village is called informal or illegal settlement, how it still had a functioning connections to the outside infrastructure. The roads led there, the electricity came to the gates, the garbage got collected from a certain point – so basically some of the infrastructure is outside it is served to the border of this settlement and within it’s their own way to structure how these resources are used. So in that sense it’s not fully informal nor illegal – the village is catered but then left to be self-served within. Instead of calling it informal, maybe it could be called unfamiliar. although in the governments legal perspective it is fully illegal and that’s why the infrastructure isn’t fully present. After every discussion, in a style of World Cafe, some of the people stayed at the table and some mingled to the next tables so we had good exchange of ideas from table to table too – I moved one table to my left. The next question posed to the groups was a follow-up to the first one and asked us to discuss how could we then, in our own lives or professions, use that one big surprise and realisation we had during the day. In our group we talked about how the people at the community could maybe figure out a way to use these loose ends of the served infrastructure to their advantage. I also started to think that whenever there is that that much left up to the people to work with it. In that, probably from the city side “good enough” service they at the same time agree to give the rest of the decision power to the people on local level. This isn’t, what we normally think to be good, but I suspect it could be turned into one. Again it was time to move and I took another one to the left – which somehow left me at the table being the only one from outside the community.

As a final question, and to me the most important one, was that what did we feel were the similarities we shared among each other, in what ways were we the same people from outside and inside the community. People took an immediate stance at the table and pointed out all the ways our lives and worlds weren’t similar. I felt a bit intimidated in the beginning but understood that since I was the only outsider at the table, and from Finland – the similarities were no way easy to see. We talked about day to day struggles they have and I kept it quiet. One interesting thing that a local construction worker did was that he referred to the people from the community as people from far away to the mountain and people outside, so rich people, as people close to the mountain, Table mountain that is. When we were at RLabs in Bridgetown, someone said the same thing, that the mountains must look very different at close range than from there, further away. I started to think that even though the lives we lived were undeniably very different, we all belong into a community. They belong to the community they live in and I here, up in the north, to my own community. I tried to compare myself in my own community to be at the same level of socio-economic class as in their community a kiosk keeper could be. It had at that moment like an almost innate feeling. The definition of what a community and belonging to it means as an universal concept. The issue in that context is that these several different communities and worlds coexist but somewhat stay separate. They share the same space but very separately and resources but with different rules. I was thinking of the analogue of people close to the mountains looking at them and people further at the Cape Flats looking at the same mountains but in doing so their views never match. People close by stay their backs turned towards the people that live further away. Still we reached to the conclusion that one thing that is really similar in all of us was that we all do belong to a community, no matter how different they are. Maybe the next step from this realization would be where are the possible connection points and how could we enhance them. Another thing that kept coming up in this and other discussions in the workshop too was skills, that everyone needed skills to survive in this world. People from the community talked about someone going there and teaching them skills that they can use to manage in a long run, rather than coming and giving something that they use in a day. We then compared the skills that we had among the group at the table and talked how they were different. I tried to explain that the skills I have acquired in my life are the kind I thought would help me in my society. I asked if they felt they needed skill that will help them in their own community – like building skills, or something that would help them in the outside community and got an reply that they need both. I agree. Skills and whatever comes from those is for sure one of the ways to binds us in our different worlds. From this realization I started to think back again to the RLabs workshop where we came to the conclusion that much of bringing people together has to come from a needed reason, like managing together the resources different people share: city, infrastructure, economy, culture and so on.

I was amazed how open and understanding the people at the Sweet Home Farms were. They were for sure more open to understand what I had to say from my perspective that I could have been without getting a glimpse of their reality. Then again, I guess it is more often they step into our reality than we to theirs. After the workshop we had a group discussion and from that I saw that many of the tables had the same kind of discussion about skills. At first I felt awkward when some of the people asked when will they see the results of our project but I don’t think it was because they were expecting something as hand-outs. I felt like they were just tired of empty promises from people coming by and vanishing off. Making any kind of promise to the people there would really require a long commitment, like I know Shannon has made. It’s not an easy task to face that, to understand that the development is slow and so are the possible fruits of ones efforts. Them and us, us and them, but never us versus them or the other way around – hopefully. There are so many people living in that village, from so many places that apparently in any other context they wouldn’t coexist in such harmony. There is for sure potential here among these 17 000 people inhabiting this field in the cross section of roads on the Flats facing the mountains. They’re entrepreneurs, hard workers, caring mothers and community-loyal neighbours. We thanked one another for a nice day and our hosts for being generous in spending their time with us. And then we drove off, close to the mountains. But I still keep thinking of that fellow, in his hut dismantling and recycling things with his bare fingers. Hopefully I get to work for him, it would be an honour.

Links:

Sweet Home Farms @ Google Maps

Shannon Royden Turner’s Ted x Cape Town talk: Redefining assets

Sangoma (wikipedia)

Blog post from the RLabs Talkoot!