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Month: July 2010

falling down, springing forward

I’ve been working almost non-stop since I got back to Toronto. The late shift suits me. I push off on my bike at around quarter past two, pedaling hard between hesitant cars and past red lights down down down. Shaw Street hills into Bellwoods and across Wellington, past condos and cops, past portly shirtless old men in socks, past couples lounging lazy in the grass, pedal pedal pedal.

All those weeks in wintry South Africa I couldn’t wait to come back to a warm summer. But I’m here now and I can’t feel the heat. Can’t feel the sun, can’t feel the stickiness, can’t feel it pressing on my skin, filling my lungs, creeping through my clothes, or trickling down my back. I can’t feel any of it.

The newsroom stays quiet on a summer Sunday eve. I try not to wander.

At the end of the night I walk though a dark, narrow alley to collect my lonesome bike. I don’t even see the shadows. Don’t see the blinking reds and greens at the intersections, don’t see the inky blackness between the full nighttime trees, hardly see other bikes and cars and people on the road. Hardly see the road. I don’t feel the darkness, don’t feel the breeze. Don’t feel the ache of my weakened thighs pushing uphill, don’t feel the moon in my belly. I don’t feel the sleeplessness that tugs on my eyes, don’t feel the exhaustion heavy on my shoulders. I’m up by five the next morning because my body doesn’t feel the time. All it feels is the past. Somewhere else, I would be waking up now. Somewhere else, this would make sense.

aweh, my ma se kind

It was the word “prawns” that first caught my attention. Stumbling sleepy somewhere around about 2 am on a frosty night in Newtown, I thought I must be hearing things. But then there it was again on their lips, praaawns. They wanted to hit another club just not that spot “with all them prawns and snakeskin pointyshoe n***as.” Heh heh heh. Instead we went to an all-night eatery across town, where tipsy patrons jumped up on the seats to lead a few rounds of Shosholoza, the day’s futbol games looping on corner TV screens. They tried to get me to sing too, but I didn’t know the words.

And so I sat and reflected on why I was back in South Africa. On prawns and makwerekweres, the origins of idle hatred, living frustrations, bodies and borders, the chasms between us, and how far one person has to be pushed before they feel the need to break their brother.

I spent the past five weeks or so traveling from one end of South Africa to the other. The N1 highway starts in Beit Bridge, where Mzansi touches Zimbabwe, and ends 1,929 km later in Cape Town, bending toward the mingling Indian and South Atlantic oceans. The N1 is where the story starts for a lot of foreign nationals in the country. They cross the Limpopo river, by bridge or bush, and the N1 is on their lips. That’s the road that will take them to Joburg, jobs, a different life. It’s also the road on their minds when they look for a way out. An escape from harassment, from threats, and from the promise of violence. The N1 goes both ways.

I was lucky enough to work on this project alongside my wildly talented friend Dominic Nahr (fresh from a Magnum Photo nomination! Yea!), and am deeply indebted to the support of the Pulitzer Center in DC. Our first Pulitzer Center blog post from the northern border is here, with more dispatches appearing here as they come. It’s worth poking around my twitter for updates too.

I still have piles of interviews, notes and audio to go through and Dom has such striking photos to share, so please do check back in. This is an important story. It’s not about spoiling any Black Star-inspired unity myth, not about simple racism or throwing blame or a jobs-and-housing cause and effect formula. It’s the most human of stories: about movement, the tugging and shoving of bodies. It’s about skeletons from the past and a crisis of poverty. It’s about being at a breaking point — just before you, or your entire world, explodes.