My friend and co-conspirator Andrew Breunig has provided the theme for our first photo challenge: to photograph someone “directly participating in their means of production.” The account I have submitted documents mourning and celebration in Letlhakaneng, acts inexorably linked to production.
New Stand, Letlhakaneng, North West Province. South Africa.
20. April 2013.
A couple of weeks ago I was wandering around in a part of Letlhakaneng called New Stand. Most of the residents there live without electricity, in corrugated iron houses with concrete floors or industrial carpet laid over bare earth. A small crowd had gathered one such house on the edge of the bush. They had a tent set up, but there was no music: a funeral. I had intended to call on a friend at another house, but the people inside called me, offering me a chair and a plate of food. I did not know the name of the person who called me or the name of the family, but to refuse would have been rude, and so I entered.
We had been sitting together for a while, eating and chatting quietly, when the hearse arrived. A young man – perhaps the uncle or brother of the deceased child – bore the coffin, no bigger than a briefcase. The family followed the coffin into the small two-roomed house, the young mother wailing and crying. I stood outside, a bit relieved there was no more room inside. I felt awkward to be intruding on what was obviously a small family affair.
After a few songs, the ceremony was over. People filed out of the house and milled quietly about the yard. “Thabo,” the woman who called me inside said, “We’re finished. We go home now.”
I exited the yard, feeling a little sick and as unsure about role as I did when I entered. The day had grown too late for me to call on my friend. I started for home. Along the way, I passed another gathering. They, too, called me inside. The general feeling at this gathering, however, was more lighthearted: they were preparing for a child’s birthday party the following day. One group of women kneading dough and forming it into the delightful scones that are always served at such celebrations, while another group arranged the balls of dough on a metal tray, two meters by one, to go into the oven.
The oven was a homemade affair: a rectangle of cement bricks laid out on the ground, covered with a piece of corrugated iron. The women would rake coals from the fire into the bricks, lay the tray of scones directly atop the coals, and rake more coals on the corrugated iron lid. After twenty minutes or so, the scones would be ready to come out.
I passed the next hour drinking beer and warming my hands around the fire with the madalas. The gogos scolded me for drinking beer; I laughed and told them was Stoney.* The tut-tutted and gave me more scones, right out of the fire. I left with a pocket full of those scones, warm against the chill of an autumn evening.
*Madala is a Zulu word meaning “grandfather,” but is also a term of respect for older men; likewise gogo is a Zulu word meaning “grandmother,” but is used to address any elderly woman. Stoney is a type of ginger-flavored soft drink.