A Circle of Frustration, Honesty, Commitment and Tears By Daniela Cohen

A Circle of Frustration, Honesty, Commitment and Tears
By Daniela Cohen

Published on Sat, Jan 10 2009 by Daniela Cohen

Briget and I en route to the farm gate.

At 5:55 a.m. on Tuesday morning, I find myself walking with Briget to the farm gate. Amazwi has just relocated its newsroom to Acornhoek, and it’s the first day of our new routine. It’s a great move for the newspaper. Being based in the community we are supposed to be serving will allow the Villager to build up a strong presence, help us to make connections with the locals, enable residents to find us easily and the journalists to do fieldwork whenever they need to.? On the other hand, it means commuting to work when it’s still dark outside. We walk briskly, aiming to get there just before 6:15a.m., the time we believe the bus arrives. The cold helps me to wake up. Once in the street outside the farm, we stand and wait. Ten minutes go by, fifteen, twenty. Shivering, I shift my weight from side to side. Finally, I hear a loud rumbling along the road. The bus drives up, barely missing us where we stand. We climb on, and after some confusion, end up getting off at Plaza, a shopping complex near the newsroom, and taking another bus the rest of the way.

View of Acornhoek

Nothing is open. Not even the street vendors have begun to set up their stalls. We make our way to Anjo’s Chicken & Car Wash, open the back door of the room behind it, and enter the space that is now our office. The desks are in disarray, chaos left over from the installment of the burglar bars yesterday afternoon. We wouldn’t be able to leave the computers in here without security. We wipe the dust off the surfaces. There will soon be more.

Lydia in the newsroom.

I take off my jacket, toque and gloves. By the end of the day, the sun will be burning, and I will change my takkies (sneakers or track shoes) for the sandals I have brought with me in a plastic bag, strip down to my tank top. I extricate the smallest tupperware container from amongst my supplies, and spread some jam on my bread. More than anything, I wish for a hot cup of coffee, but we don’t yet have a kettle. I can smell the steaming brew, almost taste it. I try to put the image out of my mind.

Front view of the office.

Outside, nothing stirs. The dusty ground rests beneath the thatch structure covered by colored cloths that makes up Anjo’s chicken restaurant. An entrepreneur in Acornhoek, he has generously donated his former storage room to Amazwi. Space here is expensive and hard to come by, and without Anjo’s help, it would be nearly impossible for us to have a base within the community. His car wash is to the left. Tied to two wooden poles outside the front door, black netting full of holes flaps in the breeze. Rubbish festers outside the back entrance and in the ditch out the front. Caring for the environment doesn’t seem to have taken effect here. During the day, you can see the life of the village in motion. People walking down the street! Cars vrooming by! Now and then, the deafening noise of the train whooshing past! Life in all its color and vibrancy around us. A stark contrast to the silent bush of the farm!

View of Anjo's.

The journalists arrive at 7:30a.m., our new official start time. Today, Briget is going to lead a photo project – telling a story through images, she explains. Blank faces stare back at her. They need to choose a theme and take at least 50 pictures. She gives them two hours to complete the assignment. After they leave, we ponder the lack of enthusiasm displayed. I feel Briget’s pain: photography is her passion, but the journalists don’t seem to appreciate her efforts to help them gain experience with the craft.

Bongi reading the latest issue of the Villager with Cosi behind her.

When they return, we push our chairs into a circle, an arrangement fostering connection, openness.

“How did it go?” Briget asks with a smile.

Silence. They slouch in their seats. Finally, they explain that people do not want to be photographed, and are rude when they ask. That’s the spoken grievance. The unspoken is more complex; it hangs heavy in the dusty air.

“What’s going on?” Briget asks.

Editorial meeting.

The circle houses frustration, honesty, commitment, tears. When we ask how we could work better as a team, the issue of Thandi and Linky still not speaking four months after their argument over a ‘stolen’ pen comes up. As if on cue, they both start to talk about what the other has been doing wrong, at the same time refusing to acknowledge the other’s presence with even a turn of the head. The rest of us take turns prompting them to direct their comments to each other, and finally, they are speaking, or rather, hurling accusations at each other. The point they are most vehement about is that things are fine as they are; they see no need for them to talk to one another.

“But it’s hurting you, it’s hurting all of us,” we insist.

“It’s not hurting me. It’s fine. I’m happy,” Linky declares, tears rolling down her cheeks. I look over at Thandi beside me. Her arms are folded tightly across her body, her face is like a stone wall. I can see the tears welling up in her eyes as well.

No matter what any of us say, they won’t budge. The idea of apologizing for hurting each other’s feelings rather than for a specific action one person is guilty of does not appease them. In desperation, Lou grabs a box of pens and empties it onto the floor.

“There!” We all laugh with a sense of hopeful relief. Linky and Thandi don’t seem amused. “Now, let’s all pick up these pens together.”

An act of reconciliation in which Thandi refuses to participate. I throw a pen directly at her feet. “Uh uh,” she says with a short laugh. She gets up and crosses to the other side of the room, to her desk. Then she comes back. As she walks, I throw another pen down by her feet. This time she picks it up. She sticks it into the box with the others, upside down.

It’s only the tip of the iceberg. Another advantage of the move was supposed to be the journalists’ significantly reduced commute. Instead of spending hours travelling to and from the farm, they can now simply take a short taxi ride to work. Minibus “taxis,” vans that pack in passengers and pay no heed to pedestrians on the road, are the main form of transportation for most black South Africans. Unfortunately, paying for taxis instead of the bus every day will put a dent in our already limited budget, an expense which Maggie had not counted on. But because the bus route does not coincide with the journalists’ route to the office, there is no choice, so Maggie has reluctantly given Cosi, Linky and Lydia taxi money for their commute. However, Thandi and Bongi live closer to the office, and she expects them to walk. She has clocked it in her car – 2.6km – and believes it should be about 20 minutes on foot. They say it’s about 40 minutes. In fairness to Thandi and Bongi, Briget, Lou and I decide to test out the distance ourselves. The next day, while the journalists are out taking the photos they weren’t able to get before, we walk to Thandi’s house and back, my feet burning in the heat. I walk twice as fast in Vancouver. But now we keep the African pace - somewhere between a saunter and a standstill. Walking quickly is a cultural anomaly in the area, and expecting Thandi and Bongi to go at our pace can only be seen as delusional. We walk on along the dusty road. Finally arriving back at Anjo’s, we note the time – 30 minutes.

Lou's five-star lunch-avocado and hot sauce!

That afternoon, Maggie appears at the office. Thandi brings up the subject of taxis.

“I walked further to my job in Chicago,” Maggie said.

We can’t help but compare. When we had talked with Maggie earlier, Lou, Briget and I agreed that we’d also walked just as far to work and back.

“I’m not comfortable with this,” Thandi tells Maggie, “It makes me feel like you don’t care about us. I’m being sacrificed because of the money.”

Maggie is quiet for a few moments, considering. “I’m willing to meet you halfway,” she responds, “I’ll pay for the taxi one way, and you can choose whether you want to walk to work or back.”

Thandi doesn’t budge. “I’m not comfortable with that,” she repeats. “I can’t walk; it’s too far.”

That night, Thandi calls. We spend half an hour talking it through. I can hear her crying. I try to emphasize that we do care about her, that this is no reflection on her value. At the same time, I’m thinking, We may have all walked to work in North America, but does that mean they have to? Is what’s fair for one person right for another? She doesn’t come to work the next day. Or the day after.

The following Monday, Thandi appears, stone-faced and silent. The journalists work in two groups to discuss their descriptions of Acornhoek, the “postcards” they had been working on the week before. When asked questions, Thandi just grunts! We go on a ten-minute stroll down the street to gather more descriptive details. Thandi walks fast ahead of us. I catch up with her. She tells me she’s too angry to focus. She wants to leave. No amount of persuasion can convince her otherwise.

Maggie, Lou, Briget and I had already discussed the situation. We had all agreed that Thandi is an adult and needs to make a choice: commit to being with Amazwi in spite of what else is happening in her life or give it up. We lament what the latter decision would mean – a waste of incredible potential, a loss of community. I try to imagine the newsroom without Thandi and feel only a dull ache. I want so badly for her to thrive, but know the choice cannot be mine to make.

The atmosphere in the newsroom is charged with tension for the rest of the day. At 2:30 pm, Briget and I say goodbye to the journalists and make our way down the street to wait for the bus back to the farm. After a while, we spot the journalists on the other side of the road. We wave at them. We wait. They’ll join us at any moment. We keep waiting. Surely it can’t take them that long to get over here? We look again. They are standing in place, waiting for us to come to them. It calls up the different worlds we live in, the different places we come from. Us on the farm with wireless internet and hot showers, our Western mentality of productive efficiency. Them in Acornhoek with pit toilets, a long walk to fetch water, bucket baths, time unfolding in the leisurely way of a rural village, no sense of needing to rush.

Minutes pass. Cars zoom by in the narrow gap between us and the journalists. As we stare at each other across the road, we realize that each group is waiting for the other to move. My eyes meet Briget’s. The next time we spot a gap in the traffic, we cross the street.

Photo Credit: All Photos courtesy of Lou Manzo


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