But unlike most Mondays at MIT, my alarm rang not for a 9 a.m. class but an 8 a.m. briefing with NMMU faculty on their Missionvale campus, Development Studies students and Port Elizabeth community workers. We were preparing for a transect walk through several communities near Missionvale. The idea we were all operating on was that without understanding the social environment and historical context of the communities facing water crises on the ground, there was no way a sustainable solution could be implemented. Together with the community workers who had been through the area and the NMMU students, we began our walk through Soweto On Sea, a township outside of the Missionvale campus. We were told that whenever we wanted to approach someone we could ask them for help with translation, though most of the people there were comfortable with at least understanding English. We were also told that this was a relatively poor district and unemployment was extremely high, so though the people of the community were known for being extremely welcoming, we should still be careful of our material possessions.
As we walked through the community and asked various people if we could take pictures for our project, I was struck by their observations and their warmth, which often starkly contrasted with their destitute surroundings. Here are some of the Humans of Soweto On Sea, Brandon-Stanton-style:
The little girl had been standing by the door for quite some time with an ecstatic smile on her face, much like the one in this picture. When we approached, she ran off giggling to get her mother. Even as her mother told us about the traditional community gatherings, full of songs, dance, “plenty of meat, and African beer,” the little girl continued to smile, mesmerized by the microphone.
“I collect the plastic bottles thrown here and bring them to a woman. Sometimes she weighs them and tells me they are not enough, so she only gives me 20 Rand. Other days she may give me 30 Rand. I have to live that day with whatever she gives me.” [translated]
When we asked her for a picture, this woman ran into her house, and suddenly emerged with a broom to began to dance around the front of the house and mock-sweeping the ground.
“Hi, what’s your name?”
“My Xhosa name is ‘Noh-mah-soh-mee.’ But my English name is Princess.”
“Princess? That’s a pretty name.”
She laughs. “A pretty name? Well, thank you, my baby.”
“What are you here for? I want a new roof like that one! Please!” (jumping up and down)
“Do you see those horns on that stick? This is the traditional, sacred place in the house. If someone in the family is having problems, with their job, with their marriage, they will get up early and come and hope for a solution. When there’s a new baby, they might slaughter a goat, or for a big function they might slaughter a cow. I guess it’s pretty difficult to be vegetarian here.”
“Can I count for you?”
“You take picture of my car wash? Please? Come here, I show you. My car wash. You have to tell everyone about my car wash please! We get 45 Rand washing 2 cars per day for both of us. Please tell everyone about the car wash.”
These were a few of the many people who stopped to ask us what we were doing, who excitedly flocked to take pictures with us, or who were willing to tell us about their lives in Soweto On Sea. A couple of the community workers later told us that everyone wanted to know what we were going to help change. They called us a “beacon of hope.” It would have been really easy for them to face us with hostility for being “privileged,” for questioning what our presence there could do given that things hadn’t changed for years. But they didn’t. And they believed our presence could create that change.