Real Life Story: Born on the Wrong Side of the Tracks

Leonie Joubert paints a picture of Malaykamp, the section of De Aar rife with poverty and alcoholism. It is here where she looked into the lives of children affected by poor nutrition and excessive alcohol consumption.

The De Aar Railways

©Eric Miller
The railway lines that once oxygenated De Aar's economy are quieter these days, since the maintenance of the rolling stock was moved to other, bigger rail centres.

There is a ditch on the outskirts of an unlikely little dorp (town) right in the middle of the platteland (countryside). And this story starts here, on a day in April in 2011, when the changing season has angled the sun low but has not yet stripped it of its heat. To be fair, it is not so much a ditch, now, as an underpass, though it may have started as little more than a scar in the ground.

Today it dips beneath the railway lines that travel down from Johannesburg and slice their way through De Aar, before snaking off towards the Cape. The tracks cross the plain, which is dotted with occasional hillocks of rubbed-down dolerite, footprints left over from the Jurassic, and which tiptoe across the grass and messy scrubland left brittle and flaxen in the shadow of summer.

An occasional broad, flat rocky tabletop breaks the line of sight with its steep shoulders angled horizontally as they have been chiselled out by the sharp edge of the wind and rain over millions of years.

The glinting steel arteries that oxygenated De Aar’s economy for decades still run through the town, but their chugging locomotives do not stop as often as before to feed the town the lifeblood they once did. Instead, they disappear off into that distant fissure where the edge of the escarpment meets the sapless expanse of blanched sky, taking their cargoes to more favoured destinations.

There is a local story about this underpass, a myth perhaps, which goes something like this: while it was being built, a shepherd wandered past the construction site one day. He paused to consider the earthworks that were hacking an impressive gully into the town’s rocky hide to sink a two-storey deep thoroughfare that would allow traffic heading north-east on the R48 to pass beneath the broad band of tracks and continue on to Philipstown and eventually Bloemfontein.

Sceptical, maybe even slightly bemused, the man nodded to an engineer at the construction site. ‘This is going to flood when it rains,’ he said, probably imagining he was stating the obvious. After all, the Khoi San – likely ancestors of this minder of sheep – captured the character of the ageing escarpment with the brevity of a simple word, kuru, meaning ‘dry’. For indeed it is. Here, in the middle of the Nama-Karoo, the rain gauges in De Aar do not collect much more than a cupful of rainwater a year.

The spartan rain, when it comes in late summer, does so unpredictably, often bracketing the long, skin-cracking spells of drought. Most of the rivers here get whittled down to nothing by the heat of summer. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ the engineer countered. ‘It’s built to specification.’ You can imagine the shepherd pausing here, maybe staring thoughtfully out across the platteland. ‘Ja, maybe,’ he mulled, ‘but it doesn’t rain to specification here.’ And so, construction continued.

The underpass had its reinforced walls thrown up on either side of it, and was capped off with a cement ceiling, broad as a rail carriage is long, which the trains now rumble over each day. Whether or not the shepherd even existed is beside the point.

Because the received wisdom is confirmed year after year – it may not rain here often, but when it does, it does so in deluges, and the surrounding town’s streets and storm water drains pour their run-off down into the underpass, cutting off the business district from the other side of town. This feat of engineering has inadvertently become a gateway between the business end of De Aar and the place where the other half lives.

Welcome to Malaykamp

Less than a kilometre out from under the rails, Wentworth Street hooks off the R48 and runs pin-straight into the ‘coloured’ part of town. First, there is a cluster of suburban-looking normality – each house with its bespoken design, individualised facades speaking of the choice that comes with a bit of affluence.

There is the odd flash-looking sedan pulling into a driveway. The road heads out past an undeveloped street block – just bare ground, hemmed by asphalt paving – then passes the odd church, before slipping into the field of minute blocky homes, which typify the production-line clusters that were thrown up in poor townships post-1994.

The occasional satellite dish or varied paint job separates one house from the mundanity of the next, but otherwise the dirt pavements and barefoot children remind you that, block by township block, the road is sinking deeper into paucity. Somewhere in the midst of all of this, a few shops appear: two cafés on the left, Pakistani shopkeepers deadpan behind the grill-enclosed counters. Next door, the Pup [sic] with No Name, a starkly face-bricked block with a sign above the entrance: ‘Warskuwing.

No! Weapons; people under 18 years’ next to a ‘No entry’ sign where the red-angled slash cuts through the hand-painted silhouette of a pregnant woman. An ageing Toyota Corolla glides past all of this, its fire-engine red carapace faded after years of pummelling by the Karoo sun.

It cruises slowly on through the township, past a wall, as long as a football field, with a hand-painted panel warning that real men do not rape. The next panel throws out the face of a political leader, his identity all but lost in the crudeness of the portrait’s rendering. It is the run-up to the local government elections and political parties have hoisted their crisp billboards into the otherwise moth-eaten skyline.

The Reverend Douwe Ganzevoort, dominee (minister) at the local Uniting Reformed Church in the coloured part of town (there are other congregations of the same church in the white and black parts of town, but they do not mix), points in the direction of one municipal ward: Leeuwenshof. This is another poor area, he says, suggesting that there is more to come.

Next ward, Skaars van alles: just like the people living here, this neighbourhood lives with a ‘shortage of everything’. The car swings into the road’s languid left-hook and passes beneath a Roman Catholic church, whose deadpan facade towers above the neighbourhood like some kind of self-appointed sentry. The houses here begin to slump beneath the weight of fatigue; the occasional rust-brick shell bulges around the midriff, threatening to collapse out onto the dirt pavement.

Some houses slough rows of bricks just above ground level, like teeth corroded along the gum line by too much sugar. Shoehorned in between the brick homes is the occasional zinc-sheet room.

Then there are the bread tins, prefabricated zinc blocks with windows and doors, thrown up hurriedly ahead of the elections with the promise of bricks-and-mortar replacements that are supposed to come later. These zinc huisies (small houses) are terrible, says Ganzevoort: blisteringly hot in summer; ice, ice cold in winter.

The dominee turns his car off the road and pulls up alongside a wilting brick house that has somehow managed to hold onto its roof even though one endwall and parts of two sidewalls have melted away, spilling the house’s lounge out into the rubble-rough carpet of dirt and dust outside. This is the last building on the block and, in some respects, the heart of the ‘hood’.

‘Welcome to Malaykamp,’ says Ganzevoort wryly, his Dutch accent adding a sing-song inflection to the colloquial Afrikaans that everyone uses to refer to this area, a place the street sign calls Malay Camp. This building is one of the local shebeens.

But it does not look like the kind of establishment that has counters for clientele to lean against, or fridges, or cash registers, or even cash. It does not even look like an establishment. It is just a place to cast some shade over an otherwise dusty rubble-scape where people can gather and throw back their five-litre flagons of take-away port or, worse still, a DIY brousel, a home brew made of brown sugar, yeast, maybe some fruit for flavouring, and battery acid.

A Booze-weary, Hungover Spectacle

©Eric Miller
Patrons of a Malaykamp shebeen gather outside.

It is 11 a.m. on a Saturday near Easter and the sun smoulders at its post in the sky, driving loose clusters of people – men, women, teenagers, the occasional child – to squat in whatever patch of shade they can scavenge amongst the building debris and tin-can houses.

A row of women sits inside the shebeen, perched along a bench running the length of the broken room’s inside-outside wall, hiding in the shade, a few toddlers tottering about at their feet. A sagging cable strung between two awkwardly leaning metal poles is a reminder that people live here, too: a rag-to-a-bull red sweater, pegged upside down, arms rigid and held high as if at gunpoint, reaching for the ground; off-white leggings; a plain cotton dress; square brown flowers on a tablecloth.

All hanging still, prayer flags waiting for a passing breeze to animate their empty folds. Overhead, contrails spread a silent wake behind invisible planes gliding by, tracing a line immeasurable fathoms up which follows the same route of the locomotives, jumping from Jo’burg to Cape Town and forgetting everything else in between.

The trains, the planes, the weather, the world, everything seems to pass this forlorn little dust bowl by. ‘Do you smell that? That’s the brousel they make here.’ Again, Ganzevoort’s words are heavily inflected by Dutch, even after more than twenty years in De Aar

. There is a sweetish, acrid something hanging in the air, most likely coming off the milky beige liquid being sipped here and there from the amputated lower half of two-litre Coke bottles. It is a low-budget high – rand for rand, it is going to get you smashed faster and cheaper than spirits or wine.

But the stuff is toxic. ‘I’ve met people who are treated for epilepsy, but they are not epileptic,’ Ganzevoort says. ‘They just drink this brew and get sick but the symptoms are the same.

They fall down and get, what is it, die skuim op hulle monde en (they would foam at the mouth) the symptoms are the same but the treatment is not working and it’s simply because of the poison that they are drinking.’ Even the pigs here are alcoholics. They clean up after the home brewing is done.

‘You can see the pigs walking in that way.’ Ganzevoort’s chuckle is hollow with disbelief, his hand weaving in the air to mimic the swaying amble of a drunken swine. Malaykamp has become something of a spectacle.

The town rose to notoriety a few years back when research showed it has amongst the highest recorded rates of foetal alcohol syndrome in the world. So when the press or missionaries or researchers pass through, this is where they come, to the heart of De Aar’s darkness, to a place that is booze-weary and hungover on poverty.

The Wheel of Misfortune

A battle-scarred face appears at Ganzevoort’s open car window. ‘Gee vir my ’n twee rand so ek vir my ’n stukkie brood kan koop. Dominee, ek is honger.’ (‘Give me two rand so I can buy some bread. Dominee, I am hungry.’) The front of the man’s Arrive Alive T-shirt has been torn away, its frayed edges framing a triangle of chest, from nipples to navel.

There is an outline of a dollar sign etched into the skin which pulls lean over his right pectoral; the left sleeve of the T-shirt is splattered with old blood. Ganzevoort shakes his head. Bedraggled, still holding to a cautious optimism, the stranger begins working another angle on the preacher man.

‘Dominee, gee vir my ’n twee rand, gee vir my ’n brood, dis vir my kind.’ (‘Dominee, give me two rand, give me bread, it is for my child.’) ‘Hoe oud is jou kind?’ (‘How old is your child?’) ‘Hy is drie.’ (‘He is three.’) The dominee’s not buying it. If your child is hungry, he says, bring him over to the Malay Camp Children Ministries in neighbouring Nonzwakazi township. ‘Daar kry hy ’n bad, hy kry sy tande geborsel, hy kry kos en hy kry klere. Hoor wat ek sê, Mandag tot Vrydag, elke dag.

En as jy van ander kinders weet. Dis gratis. Ons vra niks nie. So julle is baie welkom.’ ( ‘He will get a bath there, he will get his teeth cleaned, he will get food and clothes. Listen to what I say, Monday to Friday, each day. And if you know of other children. It is free. We do not ask for anything. So you are most welcome.’) The man, his face almost comic book in how battered it is, figures he has lost this round and saunters back to a huddle of similarly mauled friends who are all pressed up into the sliver of shade cut by one of the tin shacks.

As the wheels of Ganzevoort’s car begin to grind over the dirt, three teenage boys dash alongside gleefully. They are fresh-faced, their glowing skins not yet sliced through with the scars of street brawls or the tribal branding of gang tattoos. One face cracks into a delighted grin, flashing a chipped front tooth. Proud of his affiliations, delighted with his foray into adulthood, he hoists a half-empty flagon of port into the air, his gait sloshing its contents into a black-purple froth as he lopes along, throwing gang signs excitedly at the car.

Eventually the car outpaces them, and they trot to a lazy standstill. These kids are not going anywhere. They are stuck here, at the bottom end of Wentworth Street, De Aar’s own descent into hell. Whether the people of Malaykamp find themselves washed up here by the randomness of birth or circumstance, they are swept up into a hurtling turmoil which Viljoen calls the wheel of misfortune: tuberculosis (TB), HIV/AIDS, malnutrition and substance abuse.

Each feeds into the momentum of the other, spinning a person’s life out of control. Malnutrition leaves your immune system weaker in the face of an HIV invasion or, eventually, full-blown symptoms; HIV rips down the body’s defences against TB; substance abuse leads to risky behaviour that will increase the chances of you getting exposed to the virus, and might well lead to you spending more of the household budget down at the local shebeen rather than at the fruit and vegetable seller, adding to your poor nutrition.

Round and round and round. ‘You’ll find all these issues present in the same cluster of individuals, the very poor, the poorly educated mothers, the single-parent families. If alcohol abuse is rife, in an individual, that sets the wheel spinning faster for the child’s sake and for the mother’s sake. I mean, their chance of making old bones is just not going to be there,’ says Viljoen.

These are lives lived in a constant and perpetual state of high risk. ‘If you can intervene – if, for instance, you can stop a mother drinking alcohol as much during pregnancy – then you’re going to slow that wheel of misfortune down. It’s going to have peripheral effects in that the child will be slightly better nourished, slightly better off. Obviously you can intervene in any of the other things.

If you can intervene in nutrition, if you can intervene in HIV treatment with antiretrovirals, if you can treat the TB, then all of those things will make the child better off. That’s my philosophy about it,’ Viljoen concludes.

Before the Day Gives Out

©Eric Miller
Malaykamp, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in De Aar.

A a while later a white bakkie (pickup) creeps into the open ground, which earlier that day had simmered with chemical joviality. The sky, a vacuum of benevolent powder blue before, is filling up with cumulus clouds that have been battered into deepening shades of greys and aching purples. Solid as a geological formation, they rumble determinedly towards the west in pursuit of the retreating sun, looking as though they might flank the parched town.

A handful of men issue forth from the bakkie’s rear, their yellow T-shirts uniforming them into allegiance with a political party whose electioneering placards they are strapping up onto lamp posts around town. There is time for them to tie down one or two more before the storm closes in and the day gives out.

Their aluminium ladder tilts against an electricity pole that feeds a cable down to a nearby building – part sloughing brick, part zinc sheeting, 100% shebeen – which is beginning to wake up with the approaching evening. Two of the guys clamber up the ladder to nail the face of their local councillor-hopeful up on the post. Across the squalid township, the glowing faces of local politicians beam down promises of jobs, social grants, service delivery, a better life. The fretting wind hustles its way between the shacks and shebeens, hounded by a wall of galloping rain in the distance.

The offcuts of plastic bottles – the top halves of the two-litre and five-litre bottles discarded by this morning’s brew drinkers – tumble-weed their way across the rubbly ground with a mess of dead grass and food wrappers. Four kids – most likely pre-teens, but it is hard to tell from their height – watch all of this impassively from the doorway of the building which now has some R & B tune bumping and grinding out from its gloomy interior.

The smallest of them sways into a saucy hip-rhythm, right hand grasping his crotch theatrically. The others seem unmoved by the approaching night’s party or a gaggle of teenage girls who, cheeks bulging with lollipops, shriek their way into the doorway of the shebeen ahead of the rough weather. Angling its rays horizontally, the day’s setting sun tints the underbelly of the storm with veins of bloody orange. Lightning darts from cloud to cloud, igniting the zinc shacks with an iridescent silver.

For a while it looks as though the storm will also pass this forgotten town by. But just then the first pregnant drops of rain begin to splatter messily into the dust, coming faster and with mounting intent, until the heavens positively open. Beneath the welcome torrent, Malaykamp hunches its shoulders against the weather. Dusty roads settle, puddles swell into muddy oceans.

Trickles of water gather with others to form rivulets, which run together into streams that flood off into the streets and storm water drains. Not far from here the underpass on the R48 begins filling up, threatening to cut off the people of Malaykamp from the rest of De Aar. But it is night-time now, and people have got better things to do than fret about getting into town. It is Saturday night. It is time to party.

By Leonie Joubert