Forcing Drama on a Story

KEVIN ROCKED ON MULTIPLE FRONTS: he put together a nonlinear narrative with a voice and style that escaped the deadened earnestness of so much travel writing, and he had a solid structure in place from the beginning.

The main issue with this draft, therefore, wasn’t on the structural level or on the larger “about” level (“what’s this piece trying to be?”) or even on the voice level (“writer voice” or academic voice): instead, it was something that plagues so many writers in first drafts: forced drama.

In this first draft, Kevin is using the wind as a frame. These sections are below in bold. This is a unique idea, and it’s great in setting a preliminary structure for the piece, but it’s melodramatic. It quite literally tries to create a sweeping epic sense for the piece when actually, this is a story about the everyday, and it’s goal is not to overdramatize these people’s experiences: not to sensationalize the tragedy or heroism of their lives.

There are also places I’ve highlighted in bold where Kevin is spelling the themes out for the reader in a way that actually makes reading less interesting. We as readers don’t need to be told these things and are swept up far more completely in the story if they’re left out. We can discern them ourselves. The decisions the writer makes, the details and scenes he/she includes, convey them. They might act as scaffolding in a first draft, but should get taken down as the piece progresses.

Here’s Kevin’s first draft. Check out the final piece, Day to day in Riempi: Life in a South African township, for comparison.

Mornings and evenings there is a respite. The wind is placid, slumbering like a horrific beast you fear to awake, the calm before the proverbial storm. People strike peculiar figures walking at forty-five degree angles, clinging to fence posts to avoid being swept away by unnaturally strong gusts. Dogs curl into themselves for warmth, while a diminutive sparrow stumbles past looking drunk as he struggles to make progress against the headwind. The wind inexorably carries the smells and sounds of township life.

It is a Monday, and the wind today blows a pale stranger into town. My year in South Africa has left me with a nagging feeling that I have something. I am like a baseball player who trains for the big game and shows up at the ballpark to find he must sit the bench. Today it changes. In an effort to better understand poverty and reconciliation in the New South Africa, I am moving to an informal settlement in the Eastern Cape.

The house is 3.2 x 3.7 meters. I’m not Rainman, I know this because it is spray painted in large red numbers on a dusty piece of scrap metal that is perched above the double swinging window at the front of the shack. On each side, old addresses from previous government administrations have been marked and forgotten by the (Housing Department). The current address, RVO 337, is hardly distinguishable from multiple previous dispensations. This is a classic “shack”: walls and silver roof and rust from edge to edge. A single, wooden door to the right of the windows allows a manageable space for entry before wedging stuck between the laminate floor and plywood ceiling.

If you were to google “shack life,” eventually you would come upon a book called “Shack Chic” which is a photographic spread detailing the creativity of shack dwellers in their interior decorating. Themba isn’t a fashionista, but his home displays a degree of class.

Inside, a full-size bed, complete with decorative duvet and pillow covers, dominates the room. the wallpaper features newspaper from 2008, horizontally plastered for ease of reading. I recently christened a crossword puzzle by filling in the word, “engine.” A “busy” wall on its own, the only additional adornments are three framed photos of 50 Cent. Underneath one, and on a worn, but still very comfortable sofa sits Thabiso. With his diffusive yet goofy smile, the only obvious resemblance he has to his hero is a gold tooth, and a stab from a fight over a girl.

My new roommate grins at me through a vortex of flies that circulates heat from the center of the room, displaying a missing front right tooth. A tattoo of the name “Eminem” adorns his left bicep. There are artificial diamond earrings in each ear. I discover that he loves WWE “Raw” and the soap opera, “Generations,” which has hooked me as well. A paraffin lamp sits on the bedside table next to a small, battery-powered radio plays around the clock, even when he’s not there. He believes that it gives him good dreams.

The ring tone on his phone is “I wanna be a billionaire, so frikkin bad.” If he were a wrestler on his beloved WWE, it would be the theme song played as he entered the arena to the cheers of his rabid fans.

RVO 337 is not your average bachelor pad. Form mirrors function, the shack being largely a place of transience. Thabiso has been “commuting” for two years from this shack in Riemvasmaak to his parent’s house in neighboring Izinyoka for food, clothing, and bathing. Amenities are limited to a basin inside for bathing, and a recently acquired “primer” stove, with which I’ve nearly set the house on fire each morning.

The toilet, which is outside in the dirt yard, consists of three walls and a shelf above a bucket. There is no roof, which makes it ideal for stargazing, but an unpopular spot during storms. I consistently bash my forehead against the two-by-four bracing the door.

As we talk, Themba considers each sentence and repeats his phrases slowly. “I am ready. (Pause). I am ready.” Themba honors me by bestowing upon me a Xhosa name, Elethu. He explained that it forms a piece of his full name, Thabisolethu, symbolizing that we are brothers. The literal meaning is “our hope.”

If the rumors are true, God is a gardener. And he carries a giant leaf blower. The wind billows and rolls and dances in the streets. It pushes the feet of my neighbors and conjures the image of an ancient tower surrounded and submersed in a multitude of languages.

Riemvasmaak, is a four-year-old informal settlement technically known as Extension 29. The name, Riemvasmaak, means “to tighten your belt,” signifying a knack for survival that becomes evident in a brief survey of the surroundings. It is affectionately known to residents as “Riempi.”

Dusty, rocky paths are the salient feature of Riemvasmaak. The rocks present formidable obstacles to walking around at night, yet are convenient ammunition against the mangy, malnourished dogs that tend to block passage. During particularly strong rains, the paths turn to whitewater,. Metal wires are strewn about at every conceivable location and angle to dry laundry and to provide protection against intruders who likely wouldn’t expect a wire at neck level as they’re running from the house. Visibility at night is limited to the full moon and the glow from steep floodlights up the hill in neighboring “formal” townships.

There is no running water. Riemvasmaak has seven outdoor taps scattered through the community, available to everyone. The water is clean and potable. Jugs of water for cooking, bathing, washing up (and any other imaginable need) are stored on the counter next to a plastic basin. Except for the initial effort of retrieving water and the end result of dumping the water outside, they function very nearly like a sink in Glendale, Illinois.

Most homes, like Themba’s, don’t have electricity yet some families, with an employed adult connect to the electrical supply of nearby homes in formal settlements. One family I know has run electric wiring up and over three rows of shacks, a tarred road, and down again to link into the electricity of a brick house in the nearby township of Kleinskool. On any given road, you are likely to see tangles of wiring at your feet crossing intersections, connecting homes and collecting dust.

Riemvasmaak is a “mixed” township, meaning it contains people from different ethnicities. With the exception of one non-South African (and myself), this effectively means there are both Xhosa and Coloured. This is remarkably uncommon. The legacy of apartheid is still alive in the spatial dynamics of sub/urban residential areas, which functionally means that Xhosa live in black townships, Coloured live in coloured townships, and whites live somewhere completely different. Riempi prides itself on breaking those barriers and is conscious of the image they project. Before a recent protest march, the leader noticed that all the signs had been written in English and Afrikaans. He instructed Thabiso to make a few signs in Xhosa to accurately represent the people. The languages themselves are becoming one, Thabiso explains. “Here in the Eastern Cape, the Xhosa guys and the Coloured guys are mixing their vocabulary.”

Plastic bags, candy wrappers, and children’s homework circle into the air in a funnel before being pinned and held against fences by the wind. Church yards are adorned like Christmas trees. A frequent visitor, riding shrilly on the back of the wind, is the sound of children, screaming, crying, playing. The children are an ever-present symbol of the emphasis on relationships and community.

Martha exemplifies the township emphasis on family. She lives at the end of a row that includes two of her three sisters. Between the three of them, they have 5 children ranging from 4 to 6 months. They float between the three homes, children and cats in tow.

Martha explains,“We decided to move to an informal settlement so that we’d appreciate a brick house when we got one. When I look at that house, I’ll say, ‘that’s my house—and I’ll appreciate it.” Describing her approach to parenting, she intones an old maxim, “Bend a tree while it’s young.”

Whereas Thabiso’s toilet facilities lack a door and a roof, Martha’s toilet, perched between the her house and her sister’s, has the numerals “33” left over from it’s previous life. I ask whether I can have my mail sent here. Though it is quite clear that the postal service doesn’t come anywhere near Riemvasmaak.

Most people in Riempi have cell phones to communicate with their families, but often can’t afford airtime (which functions pay-as-you-go, like a debit card), but everyone seems to have a cell phone, anyway. The phone companies have a function whereby you can send an SMS that reads, “Please Call Me” to any other phone for free. You simply enter a short code before the appropriate phone number. If you’re cagey, there is room for a message of about 10 characters alongside the “Please Call Me.” My friend, Andre, has saved every number he has in his phonebook with the code in front, meaning this is the sole function for which he uses the phone. Thabiso and his girlfriend have a ritual communication each day before she goes to work. She sends a PCM with a message that reads: t.iluvu.d. Decoded, it means, Thabiso, I love you, Disa.

Back in the house, Themba sits underneath a headline that reads, The World’s Most Famous Escape Artist or Twice as Lucky with Yfm Twins or Make 2008 Great and tells me about his own plans for a family. He has a 10-month-old daughter with Disa, whom he refers to as “my future wife” or “future” for short. This is to distinguish from his many other girlfriends. Asked about this paradox, he grins shyly and explains “it’s just how we do things.” He tells me the story of one of his friends who “doesn’t like girls.” I was eager to hear about his peer group’s acceptance of this individual and the level of community tolerance, but before I could ask any questions, Themba elaborated. “He stays with the same girl all the time.” Apparently, this friend’s particularity lies in quantity of women, not in whether he liked them at all.

Later, he confides to me, “the most important thing for me is to be able to take care of my family. It hurts me that I can’t take care of them.”

He sees the girl’s mother a couple of days a week when she is not working, but cannot stay too long, otherwise he will incite her parent’s ire. When Liefie was born, Thabiso’s parents had to visit hers to pay a fee for the pregnancy. Now, he has to wait until he can earn enough money to present a “labola,” the traditional Xhosa dowry, in order to marry her.

The walls of my shack heaves and billows. I feel like one of the three little pigs cowering inside from the Big Bad Wolf. Or perhaps it is the view from minutes later, inside that huffing, puffing, and blowing stomach. Shacks rattle and shake as if they’re alive and today the wind carries the noise of hammer striking board and spade scraping stone.

The “shacks” of the informal settlement (which tenants reasonably prefer to call homes) are thrown together from any and all of the available materials. The trade has formalized slightly in the modern age, with businesses selling pre-fabricated shacks of wood and metal. Construction is simpler if only for the lack of plumbing and electrical wiring.

Material for shacks comes from the hustle of the streets. If necessity is the mother of invention, the Nobel Prize committee could do worse than seeking its next beneficiary from the land of informal settlements. Innovation and ingenuity are the rule. Picking a random point and taking a 360 degree view would reveal a world of innovation: mattress box springs for fencing, old tires used in ways you couldn’t imagine. In fact, a quick google search will teach you that shantytowns are the new architectural trend for green, efficient designs in the western world.

Township denizens are entrepreneurial at heart. The ordinary individual has extraordinary dreams and Thabiso is no exception. We have made plans are now in the works to expand Thabiso’s shack to make room for a spaza shop (the equivalent of a corner store). Buying paraffin and chocolate peanuts in bulk, one can sell for a modest profit. In a few years, there may be enough for his labolo. He has decided the name will be “Thabiso and Elethu’s Spaza Shop”.

The first step in any construction project, whether it is a playground or a garden, is to build a fence. “50 and Eminem are working together,” Themba exclaims with amusement and, I sense, a touch of pride, as we work on mending the fence around the house. We use “umka,” a local bush with thorns as long and thick as a pinky finger to protect the grapefruit-sized stones around the bottom. The orange plastic construction fencing previously surrounded a water main, before Themba “borrowed” it for his house.

The wind blows gently today. With apologies to the band Scorpion, I imagine that it may be the wind of change. Fifty percent of South Africans never socialize with someone of another race. Twenty-five percent don’t even see anyone of a different race.

Hansie, the chair of the community board, visits to assess my level of adjustment. He is a brilliant storyteller, naturally charismatic and animated. His sense of humor buoys and accentuates every story, while his voice runs the entire scale of inflection accompanied by outrageous sound effects. He looks in his mid-forties, which would place him squarely in the middle of the freedom struggle. Though he prefers ghost stories, he will pontificate on anything. Today, the topic is reconciliation.

“You don’t know how hard it is for me to talk to a white person,” he begins. “You can never erase that memory.” He studies me from under a headline on our newspapered wall that announces, It’s a New Ballgame. “You are the first white man I’ve ever met that says, ‘Yes, I will live in an informal settlement with you people.” I enjoy his monologues and urge him on by asking obvious questions. His story weaves through his childhood in the Karoo to his time in prison before he concludes, “There are so many things we’re missing by not living together.”

When I ask Themba about change in South Africa, he ponders the question and responds from a perspective I had never considered. “Now you see white beggars.” Whereas While black economic empowerment has been notoriously slow and difficult, Themba latches onto the moving image of whites beginning to experience some of the struggles that he is more accustomed to seeing in the non-European community.

Finally, the wind stops and a peaceful silence reigns.

I sit on the stump next to the house as “Count your many blessings, see what God has done…” drifts to me from my neighbor. The sound is pristine, the acoustics driven by the calm. Eventually, the song will make it’s way into the “bush” behind my house, filled with plastic bags, decrepit pairs of shoes and all imaginable debris. Fifty meters on is Arcadia North, the next informal settlement to get brick homes from the government. “Blessings” fades out as Themba opens the door onto the yard. Tupac’s “Until the End of Time” fades in from the radio, as if there were an invisible, sublime DJ.

While I initially entered the township to explore poverty and reconciliation, my experience has brought me to the themes of hope and survival, community and family.

The spaza shop remains half-built, a wooden frame erected to the right side of our door and held by the earth by pebbles and mud.

We’ve started a garden behind it, one week of work in tilling and loosening the dirt.

“Are you poor?” I asked Hansie one day. “Poor?” he responded. “I’m not poor. I eat. I have a place to sleep.”

My neighbor, Zola stops by to echo the sentiment as a tiny, shirtless boy passes behind him, pushing around an old tire with two short planks of wood thrust into the hollow core. Zola’s dark eyes and yellowed whites look down upon sunken check and a scraggly goatee. A white and grey beanie bunches up at the top of his head.

He was a fork life operator for eight years before losing his job in 2008. Yet, when I ask about it, he replies, “It is not only me suffering. I ate this morning; I should be grateful.”

From here, Arcadia North looks stunning, reflecting and deflecting the sun’s scorching rays like a prize fighter parrying blows. From this vantage point, it is a beautiful quilt work of color and light, a testament to the creativity and knack for survival of those throughout history that face life through a sheet of tin. It gives me hope.

Maybe they’d like it to know that their community looks beautiful from the outside. I still have to convince taxi drivers I’m not delusional when I tell them I stay in Riempi. I still hear questions like, “Are you lost?” as I walk between communities. Yet, each time I go to fetch water, A little Xhosa girl blows kisses to me as I pass her house…

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