Monday, April 18, 2011

Faeries and Feathers

Jestine Geldenhys, Gerhard van Zyl and Alexia
27, 28 and 2

Godmother. The word conjures up a myriad of images – images of faeries, princesses and princes, dazzling gowns and royal balls. Thinking of it makes me want to prance around with a makeshift wand shouting Bippity-Boppity-Boo! And yet, one image that the word godmother doesn't conjure up is a picture of a jobless 23 year old, recently returned from Korea. And yet, that is what I am – godmother to a wonderful little princess – golden ringlets, blue eyes and all.

Pink blurs fill my camera screen as I try to capture shots of the little monkey running around.
"Alexia," Jestine shouts with a frustration that suggests this isn't the first time she's had to use her shouting voice today. "This is going to be difficult," she announces, and I have to agree. Alexia is in no mood for holding still.
"Sit here," she announces, climbing over rocks and running through the grass.
"Apparently she wants you to sit there," I say as we all move towards her chosen spot. Gerhard spots the bench and we all head that way, Alexia in tow, to try and get a nice family shot. Huh-uh, not according to Alexia, who won't allow her mother to sit beside her.
Daddy's little girl, I think to myself.

I remember when I first heard that Gerhard was going to be a dad. It came as a bit of a shock to me. For some reason, I could never picture him as a father. Perhaps it was the bouncer-pose that he acquired at work, perhaps it was that he seemed like a bit of a child himself in his off hours – bouncing around doing flick-flacks and giving off excesses of energy. But when I see him with Alexia, I wonder why I ever thought that he wouldn't make a good dad. As he picks her up on his shoulders and bounces her around in his typical fashion, I can see that Gerhard was made to be a father.

At 27 years old, I don't think Jestine ever imagined that she would be where she is today – a mother living in a small town, working a part-time job. But she has taken it all in her stride. I can tell just by looking at her playing with Alexia that motherhood comes naturally – she knows just how to make her little girl smile and laugh, knows just how to cheer her up and how to make her listen. Always prepared with a positive outlook on life and advice on any situation, it should come as no surprise that she has become my go-to girl in Grahamstown.

As Alexia wanders around the gardens from the purple bougainvilleas, to the bamboo shoots, to the ponds scattered around, Gerhard and Jestine take a few moments to themselves, stealing kisses and furtive glances at each other. After four years together, they are just as in love as they ever were, and it's moments like these that prove it.

As I wander through the gardens, snapping away with my camera, I remember why it is that I love taking photos. I love capturing moments that act as glimpses into lives – the love, the fun, the joy and the pain – and I think I managed to capture them all in the lives of Gerhard and his family – from the loving moments that he shares with Jestine, to Jestine's playfulness with Alexia and to Gerhard's love for his little girl.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Silence = Violence

Wendy Tshazibana

It's 5:30 in the morning and I don't want to be awake. I don't want to be awake and I don't want to be here. Why oh why did I offer to do this? At least I am not alone. Hundreds of people are filing through the door to the Great Hall, all of them stifling yawns and shuffling their feet. No one wants to be here, but we all know that we have to. It's not that anyone is forcing us (though I think Larissa may have threatened early deaths to anyone who wasn't interested). Well, that's not entirely true. The government is forcing us. The legal system is forcing us. The fact that there were 72,500 rapes last year is forcing us to be here at this god-awful hour. There is no one holding us to our promise but ourselves.

I remember the first time that I took part in the silent protest four years ago. There were 80 of us standing in Larissa's office at 7am, our bellies full of a hurried breakfast and our wills strong, waiting for our mouths to be taped shut. We were the first to fast in solidarity with the one out of nine women who speak out about their rapes, and in solidarity the other eight women who don't. Today there are 1500 students, all wearing the shocking purple stamped with the slogan that has become so familiar, that brings out so many emotions: "Silence = Violence".

"Find someone interesting," Larissa said last night. I look around the hall filled with students, filled with women all preparing to tape their mouths shut and wonder how on earth I am going to single out one interesting women. I am not used to judging a book by its cover, and that is essentially what she wants me to do. How am I supposed to choose when each of these women has their own story, their own reason for taking part in the protest. Though there are a number of women proudly wearing the "Rape Survivor" shirts, proud to be one in the nine, I know that there are more rape survivors out there who can't bring themselves to wear the label, who can't confront what has happened to them. I don't blame them. If I were a rape survivor, I don't know if I could handle the response from the student population. I don't think I could face the comments that I have heard before as a protester, comments like: "If I raped you now, you couldn't scream".

The women are lining up to have their mouths tapes shut now, and I still haven't found anyone. I look at each of the women coming out of the lines, the black tape covering their lips, hiding their emotions. I watch as hugs are shared, as tears are wiped away while someone sings Pink's "Dear Mr President" in the background. And then I see her. She's standing on her own, waiting for someone or something, not quite knowing what to do. She can't tell me, but I can tell that she is feeling awkward and uncomfortable, unsure where to go. There is something that pulls me towards her.
"Hi," I say, my voice sounding over-loud and over-confident in the silence that echos around us.
"This is going to sound strange, but would you mind if I followed you today?"
I hold up my camera as an explanation, and her eyes widen for a second before she nods uncertainly. I tell her how I've been tasked with following someone all day, from the morning march to their lectures and tutorials, to the final march and the breaking of the silence at 7pm.
"Are you sure it's okay," I ask, suddenly realising how creepy I must seem.
She nods again, tries to speak and then remembers the tape that prevents speech. I hand her my notebook and she introduces herself that way.
"I'm Wendy."

From the Great Hall, I follow Wendy through the march, keeping an eye on her, capturing the start of her emotional journey. I almost lose her in the crowd after the group photos are taken, but she finds me and we walk together to her first lecture, isiXhosa. I take a seat next to her as the lecturer walks into the room, and I prepare to start taking photos of her listening intently, taking notes, being a diligent student. Suddenly she grabs the notebook in front of me and hastily writes - "I don't think taking photos in lectures is a good idea." Crap. I look around me at the students who are all trying hard to concentrate and ignore my obvious presence (my pasty skin was a dead giveaway that I was an outsider to the class), occasionally glaring at me and my camera. I also notice the glances that I am getting from the lecturer, daring glances that seem to say: "Just try it." Okay, so lectures are out of the question. There were still other things to be done.

After getting to know Wendy better during her breaks between lectures, learning about her life and trying to qualm her fears about the fasting aspect of the protest (having fasted once a year since I was 10 years old, I had a few pieces of advice that seemed to make her feel better), taking photos of her writing notes in the quad and studying in the library, we meet up at 12:30 in the library quad for the die in.

The die in is a symbolic hour of lying completely still and silent to represent the thousands of women who are murdered because of their sex or gender. Women lie at angles to each other, lie alongside their friends, hold hands regardless of sexual orientation, and men in solidarity lie spread out amongst them, the minority by far but still making their presence known. As the siren goes off telling people to put away their cellphones and stop tweeting about the event, complete silence falls over the quad and people close their eyes to make the message all the more meaningful - they became nothing more than bodies littering the quad where people usually spend their afternoons relaxing. As they lie there, Larissa and others make speeches reminding everyone why they are there and why this kind of process is still necessary. Stories are told - stories about horrendous rapes by people in power - and resolve is strengthened.

At the end of the day, I meet up with Wendy once more to start preparing for the final march to the cathedral where the fast will be broken. Water and candles are passed out amongst the exhausted protesters and signs start coming out - signs expressing frustration at the current state of the country, signs asking questions that raise eyebrows and signs that showed that these women (and men) were not going to be quiet any longer. As the group starts to make their way down the steps of the administration, through the Drosdy Arch and onto the street, people stop and stare, people start taking their own photos, people start noticing. As I follow Wendy through the crowd her gait, which had seemed so dejected, so tired towards the end of the day, starts quickening. So close to the finish line, she starts to perk back up and remember why it was that she was doing this.

As I follow the 1500 protesters down the road, a sense of pride rises within me. It's like watching a baby grow up. I was there at the start - I was one of the 80 and, four years later I am one of the 1500. And I'm not silent - I never will be again.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Bradford, Yorkshire

My childhood was filled with music, whether it was listening to it and singing along (much to everyone's annoyance) from the backseat of the car or trying to drown it out as it drifted through the wall that separated my room from my older sister's. I have fond memories of music, and one of the first songs that I remember singing along to was Smokie's Living Next Door to Alice. As I grew older, my music tastes started to change a little, and I started getting more used to the kind of music that drifted in from Cherie's room, but there was always a special place in my heart for Alice, and to this day, when the song comes on the radio I will turn it up and belt it out along with the band. Yet, when Grant suggested that my birthday present should be going to the Smokie concert with him and his brother, I was more than a little dubious. Sure, I loved Alice and a couple of the other songs that I had heard by the band, but I was hardly an expert on their music, and only knew one or two songs overall. I decided that this time, I would rather pay my own way than have it as my birthday present - that way, if I didn't enjoy it quite as much as the boys (who are HUGE Smokie fans), it wouldn't be as much of a disappointment as it would have been had this been my birthday present from my loving boyfriend.

There is nothing quite like a live concert. I have been to a couple in my time - from Westlife, Enrique and Avril Lavigne in my younger years, to the Parlotones, Seether and Just Jinger during my university years and culminating in my Mika experience in Seoul last year. The vibe that a live concert gives off is energetic and infectious, so much so that regardless of which band you are seeing, whether you like their music or not, you end up loving it purely because of the atmosphere. As we got into the car to start the roadtrip to Port Elizabeth (where the concert would be happening) and we started blasting some of the classic Smokie tunes, I started getting a little excited, and the excitement only mounted as we arrived at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Sports Centre and found our practically perfect seats (second row from the front, just about in the middle). As the warm-up artist came on, I started singing along to his pretty good Elvis covers, and the excitement inside me reached its full potential as the band came onto the stage (though the full potential of my excitement for Smokie was nowhere close to Shaun's, who started screaming rather loudly in my ear).

"Baie dankie," Mike Craft shouted in his thick British accent, having completed their first song of the night, an unfamiliar one for me. "They keep saying that to us," he explained. "Buy-a-donkey. So now we have tons of them back stage! We don't know what to do with them!"
A giggle spread through the hall, the audience chuckling to themselves and cheering as the next song started. Considering that none of the band members are spring chickens, the energy and enthusiasm that emanated from them was astounding. Each band member posed in turn for the photographers standing in the front, snapping away furiously and trying to get the best angles. Each member's personality shone through as the leadman jumped onto the raised platform and started hitting the drums; the drummer started leaping up and waving his hands or swaying a lighter back and forth; and the bassist (the only original member of the band) started swaying his hips and swinging his silver hair from side to side.

The band were not the type to sit back and ignore the audience, acting as though they were in a league of their own as so many artists tend to do. When someone got up to go to get a drink, the lead singer would ask what they were getting; if someone came back from the bathroom, he would ask if it was good. Embarrassing as it must have been for the people involved, it added to the entertainment for the rest. This, I thought to myself, is what bands should be like. There should be none of this separatism, none of this holier-than-thou rubbish that artists today think that they are entitled to. This is something that Smokie seems to understand - music should be for the people. It is the people who will buy your albums, and you should take note of them and appreciate them. Treat your audience like old friends rather than strangers and you are sure to get further than if you act like they are the devil incarnate.

The show came to a quick close with all of my favourites (or all the songs that I know of anyway) being played including Mexican Girl, Needles and Pins, Don't Play Your Rock n Roll and, of course, Living Next Door to Alice. By the end of the show, people were dancing in the aisles and in the section in front of the stage and the band were wandering past grabbing hands and high-fiving left, right and centre.

As the band left the stage for the final time (after being called back for an encore) Grant, Shaun and I made our way to the bar to get a final round of drinks and avoid the rush for the parking lot.
"What did you think," I asked Shaun. His ticket to the concert was his birthday present from Grant, and I wanted to make sure that he had enjoyed it.
"The best concert I've ever been to," he announced without hesitation. I was quite surprised. Shaun had been to a lot of big concerts.
"Better than Billy Joel?"
He nodded.
"Better than Elton John?"
He nodded emphatically.
"Best concert I've ever been to," he repeated as he stared at the stage as though willing them to come back on just for him.