As noted in a previous post, Nelson Mandela International Day was July 18, and people all over the world – especially South Africa – were encouraged to spend at least 67 minutes in service to community. In this spirit, the University of Pretoria organized a group cleanup event on Saturday in the township of Mamelodi. We were excited to be a part of it.
The morning started early. We woke at 5:15 to eat, walk Indie and get to campus by 6:45, when the buses were scheduled to depart for Mamelodi. Like university/student events everywhere, things were running a bit behind. By 7:15, though, we were on our way.
We were definitely the only Americans in the group, which numbered about 100, but the group was otherwise fairly diverse. Disappointingly, though, I was one of only three white men.
The ride itself was slightly longer than expected. I’ve been studying maps of Pretoria in anticipation of driving around the city (no car yet…thanks Bank of America!), and I thought Mamelodi was a bit closer to town. The distance further underscored the disparity of the apartheid system that forced most blacks to live so far away from employment, decent education and equality with their fellow South Africans. Mamelodi remains part of that dark legacy.
When we did arrive, we saw the familiar sights of township life: impossibly tiny, one-room houses of corrugated tin; minibus taxis idling bonnet-to-boot, waiting to ferry local residents to jobs in the suburbs or CBD; cinder block shops and shebeens with hand-painted signs declaring their names and touting their wares.
Our bus pulled into the University of Pretoria Mamelodi Campus and we soon found our way to the Arena building, where there was to be an address by UP’s vice chancellor. We were joined there by members of the Mamelodi community, the woman who represents Mamelodi in the Tshwane city council and several dozen school children (“learners”) from the township. Following the address, which outlined Mandela Day and our role in it (recycling!), we were split into groups to receive our cleanup assignments.
Jenny and I – and our new friend, Isolde, a lecturer in the UP law school – found our way into Group E. Also in our group was a quintet (or more) of young, enthusiastic UP students wearing Tuks Football jackets. They proclaimed their arrival by dancing and chanting, “We…are here! We, we are here!” It was to become a familiar cadence.
Group E was tasked with picking up glass. OK, we thought, easy enough. We each took a large plastic bag and a pair of Smurf-blue rubber gloves and followed the herd into the community to begin our 67 minutes.
But, oh, what did we find?
Yes, there was plenty of glass in the vacant lot across the street and adjacent to the entrance of the tin-roofed township. But there was so much more: plastic bags filled with rotten food; unspooled coils of rusty wire; single, lonely, mangled shoes; used, disposable diapers; dead rats; what appeared to be the skull and assorted bones of a dead dog; both mandibles of what was likely a dead donkey; the hide and fleece of a dead sheep; and all manner of things not meant to be so close to a community, to a school, to a child.
Don’t misunderstand: this vacant lot was not a sanctioned dump, per se. It was simply a place that collected the remnants of people’s lives, lives that are more difficult than can easily be imagined.
The smell of the place was…not as awful as you might think. It was an assault on the olfactory, to be sure, but it wasn’t the full-on landfill smell you might expect. Again, the place wasn’t a landfill. I suppose the best way to describe the smell is as a combination of many smells. There was the putrid smell of rotting food. There was the dank smell of decomposition. There was the charred smell of recently burned grass. And there was the dusty smell of the dry, red soil that was, by now, tinting our shoes and covering our faces.
The fully intact, green and brown beer bottles were easy to handle and bag. We quickly learned, though, that most of the glass to be recovered and recycled lay in the form of shards – broken bottles, shattered plates, etc. Our 67 minutes was spent avoiding lacerations and other hazards inherent in walking on, picking up and carrying broken glass.
(If our mothers haven’t completely freaked out by this point, this little nugget will put them over the edge: While overturning a pile of brush to uncover more bottles, I found a used hypodermic needle. It was capped and no needle was protruding, but it gave me a bit of a start.)
Jenny and I each filled two bags with glass, or at least as full as possible given that the shards easily made holes in the plastic and compromised its strength. Then, before we knew it, our 67 minutes was up and we were walking back to the Arena. The Tuks Football quintet continued with chants of, “We…are done! We, we are done!” and “We…are walking! We, we are walking!”
Following a brief performance by the UP Chorale, the group we saw at the sociology conference, we boarded the buses and headed for home.
I didn’t know how to feel.
On the one hand, we did right by the spirit of Mandela Day: we volunteered in service of our (new) community, we cleaned up a blighted area in an impoverished neighborhood and we raised awareness about recycling. On the other hand, we showed up in this community for an hour, made what is probably just a small dent in the overall appearance of the area and demonstrated that “recycling” requires an army of people with special gloves and individual assignments.
So, did we make a difference?
I was conflicted until we saw the news. SABC TV News ran stories in multiple languages about the UP cleanup day in Mamelodi. One of the managers of the guesthouse even said she saw Jenny on TV, though we must have missed that bit. She seemed happy that we were part of the effort.
Later, our housekeeper (and Indie’s buddy) Maria told me that she thought what we did in Mamelodi was “a great thing.” She saw the news report, too, and felt like we showed the community that people care enough about them to come and help. We also showed, she thought, that it is possible to keep the community clean, and to recycle. It was really nice to hear.
At the end of the day, both literally and proverbially, it seems to have been 67 minutes well spent.