Kenya Referendum

The predawn call to prayer rings out from a mosque near my hotel and I realize that I’m up far too early. The long and haunting notes drift through Nairobi like a gentle snow that vanishes before it hits the ground. I reach for my watch on a nightstand, inadvertently knocking over a stack of books and an uncapped bottle of water. I hear the slow, chugging sounds of liquid spilling onto the floor and do nothing to stop it. 5:05. I stare into the shadows of a sleeping city and take stock in the silence that will not last long.

I feel nervous as I pack my cameras. After four weeks of leave, I feel rusty and certain that I’ll forget some critical piece of equipment. I attempt mental checklists, which, after 24 hours in transit and five hours of sleep, prove useless. It takes me twenty minutes to feel confident enough to leave my room.

Over breakfast, three TV sets blare separate, nonstop newscasts regarding today’s constitutional referendum. Throughout the country, millions of Kenyans are set to vote on whether to reform the existing constitution, which has been left in place since the British colonial period. The vote marks the first time in history that Kenyans will have a say in the fundamental legal principals of their country. The call for reform is expected to pass by a significant majority. Some are concerned, however, that ongoing intertribal tensions and holdover animosity from Kenya’s devastating post-election violence in 2007 could turn today’s vote ugly.

The United States government updated its travel warning for Kenya, urging Americans to avoid unnecessary travel to the country during the referendum period. United Nations staff is under restricted movement as are the staffs of many international NGOs. It’s a cautious game of wait and see. It is clear by the television broadcasts that Kenyans are just as concerned as internationals. Kenya Television airs nearly three uninterrupted minutes of smiling, laughing politicians set to “It’s a Wonderful World,” by Loius Armstrong. The piece, and its intended message, speaks volumes to me.

Thus far, there have been no major reports of fraud, irregularities or violence. I spent the day shooting at polling stations in areas throughout Nairobi and was impressed with the level of organization and professionalism at the centers. Lines moved quickly and I witnessed very few administrative hangups. As we move closer to the announcement of full results, I hope that cool heads will prevail.

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Nancy “Maradona” Majola

nancy

This post is part of a series of profiles that Nick Fitzhugh (www.redfitz.com) and I did as part of a documentary series on soccer in Johannesburg’s Alexandra Township. The mini documentary series chronicles the role of soccer in the lives of five Alexandra residents. Multimedia versions of this work are forthcoming in the New York Times and National Geographic Channel International.

Text and snap by me. Enjoy!

In the shadows of a windowless room, 17-year-old Nancy Majola sits between the television and a space heater. The heater’s few functioning coils glow a promising orange in an affront to their minimal effect. Like most homes in Alexandra Township, this battered, concrete structure has no heat, its interior colder than the brisk air outside. Despite the chill, Nancy dons mesh soccer shorts that form part of her year-round attire. She peers out from under a Bafana Bafana cap to watch Japanese players challenge Cameroon in a World Cup match underway a few miles from here, in central Johannesburg. As she studies the moves of the world’s greatest players, her frigid surroundings are evidently far from mind.

For Nancy, the bustling streets of Alexandra Township form a sprawling pitch upon which she builds her dreams. “One day I will play for Banyana Banyana,” she says, referring to South Africa’s national female team. Her eyes dart frequently to the TV where the ongoing match seduces her attention. “I am a good player and a confident person,” she says with benevolent certainty. The assertion of her talent is confirmed by her nickname, “Maradona,” in honor of legendary Argentine midfielder Diego Maradona. “The people here call me that because of my style, the way I handle my ball,” she explains with a reticent smile. “Someday I hope to play exactly as he played.”

Enroute to a local field, Nancy and two friends kick a soccer ball between tin shacks that now define this overcrowded township. Loitering men with questionable intentions break from dice games to watch them pass. Despite evident discomfort, the girls remain focused on the ball, cracking jokes and moving at a clip. “I am not afraid in Alex,” Nancy says in a defiant tone. “I am used to it.” The men leering in her direction are likely among the 75 percent of unemployed people here. Such staggering rates contribute to the prevalence of crime and substance abuse. “A lot of people are being hurt by the street life, from drugs and alcohol,” Nancy remarks.

She believes that soccer gives her discipline, structure and keeps negative influences at bay. When she is not in school, soccer and its related activities consume a surprising amount of her time. “I just play soccer always,” she says. “If I’m not playing in organized matches, I’m playing in the street. If I cannot play in the street, I go for roadwork [jogging] to raise my fitness.” Her dedication paid off this year when she became the highest goal scorer in the “Under 17” league. “I just keep gaining practice and experience,” she says. “I’ll work as hard as I have to be the best.”

In the shadows of a windowless room, 17-year-old Nancy Majola sits between the television and a space heater. The heater’s few functioning coils glow a promising orange in an affront to their minimal effect. Like most homes in Alexandra Township, this battered, concrete structure has no heat, its interior colder than the brisk air outside. Despite the chill, Nancy dons mesh soccer shorts that form part of her year-round attire. She peers out from under a Bafana Bafana cap to watch Japanese players challenge Cameroon in a World Cup match underway a few miles from here, in central Johannesburg. As she studies the moves of the world’s greatest players, her frigid surroundings are evidently far from mind.

For Nancy, the bustling streets of Alexandra Township form a sprawling pitch upon which she builds her dreams. “One day I will play for Banyana Banyana,” she says, referring to South Africa’s national female team. Her eyes dart frequently to the TV where the ongoing match seduces her attention. “I am a good player and a confident person,” she says with benevolent certainty. The assertion of her talent is confirmed by her nickname, “Maradona,” in honor of legendary Argentine midfielder Diego Maradona. “The people here call me that because of my style, the way I handle my ball,” she explains with a reticent smile. “Someday I hope to play exactly as he played.”

Enroute to a local field, Nancy and two friends kick a soccer ball between tin shacks that now define this overcrowded township. Loitering men with questionable intentions break from dice games to watch them pass. Despite evident discomfort, the girls remain focused on the ball, cracking jokes and moving at a clip. “I am not afraid in Alex,” Nancy says in a defiant tone. “I am used to it.” The men leering in her direction are likely among the 75 percent of unemployed people here. Such staggering rates contribute to the prevalence of crime and substance abuse. “A lot of people are being hurt by the street life, from drugs and alcohol,” Nancy remarks.

She believes that soccer gives her discipline, structure and keeps negative influences at bay. When she is not in school, soccer and its related activities consume a surprising amount of her time. “I just play soccer always,” she says. “If I’m not playing in organized matches, I’m playing in the street. If I cannot play in the street, I go for roadwork [jogging] to raise my fitness.” Her dedication paid off this year when she became the highest goal scorer in the “Under 17” league. “I just keep gaining practice and experience,” she says. “I’ll work as hard as I have to be the best.”

Issac “Shakes” Kungwane

Shakes for Blog

This post is part of a series of profiles that Nick Fitzhugh (www.redfitz.com) and I did as part of a documentary series on soccer in Johannesburg’s Alexandra Township. The mini documentary series chronicles the role of soccer in the lives of five Alexandra residents. Multimedia versions of this work are forthcoming in the New York Times and National Geographic Channel International.

Text and snap by me. Enjoy!

Issac “Shakes” Kungwane lumbers down 11th avenue, pausing momentarily to light a menthol Cravin A. His thick fingers form a cup around the flame, shielding it from the winds of this bitter South African winter. Horns blare from taxi vans that careen through Alexandra’s frighteningly narrow streets. “Watch these cars,” Shakes warns. “In Alexandra they don’t stop, they just drive through you.” His body, short and squat, begins to shake in a fit of raspy, sardonic laughter. In his wake, throngs of children dribble soccer balls between passing cars, shouting and teasing one another in Zulu language. “This is what we did as kids in Alex [andra],” says the 40-year-old. “Everyone played soccer. In the street, in the stadium, everywhere.”

Unlike many in this impoverished, crime-infested township, Shakes rode his talent to higher levels. “I was fortunate that I was talented enough to play professional football,” he says inside a small shop where he worked as a boy. He leans against metal bars that form a cage around the clerks, a common feature of businesses in greater Johannesburg. “When I was growing up you either worked, committed crimes or played sports,” he says. With his mind set on the latter, a mix of talent and determination earned him a sixteen-year professional career. During his years on top, he suited up for an array of prominent South African teams including the famous Kaizer Chiefs of Johannesburg. The large number of people who greet him on the street illustrates the scope of his notoriety. “Playing in front of crowds of 70 or 80 thousand was an amazing experience,” he says with a nostalgic smile. “I used to love it when the crowd would yell, ‘SSSSHHHHAAAAAKKKKEEES!’”

While professional soccer delivered Shakes from the hazards of Alexandra, its related lifestyle had an intoxicating effect. “What we did then was look flashy, buy nice cars, get all the women you want, and drink… We thought we were better than everyone else,” he explains. While he recalls those days with evident nostalgia, his tone is tempered by regretful hindsight. “After football there is nothing you can do because you relied on it…no one taught us life skills like saving money,” he says. While his own sensibility allowed him to remain financially afloat in retirement, many of his former teammates were not so lucky. “Guys that I know that were super stars, better than me, are struggling to make ends meet,” he says. “It’s so sad. 70 or 80 thousand people watch you every week and when you retire, you die as a pauper.”

While Shakes hung up his jersey in 2002, he remains involved with professional football as a radio and broadcast analyst. “I just talk a lot and criticize,” he says with a mischievous smile that suits him. “I’m the crazy one on the show and I’m really enjoying myself.”

Jacob “Babes” Bopape

Babes for Blog

Below is the first of a series of profiles that Nick Fitzhugh (www.redfitz.com) and I did as part of a documentary series on soccer in Johannesburg’s Alexandra Township. The mini documentary series chronicles the role of soccer in the lives of five Alexandra residents. Multimedia versions of this work are forthcoming in the New York Times and National Geographic Channel International.

This first post is written by Nick, with a snap my yours truly. Enjoy.

“Call me Babes. Those who know me call me Babes.”

I get the sense that everyone knows Babes. Sixty-nine years old, born in Alexandra township in Johannesburg, South Africa, Babes lives there to this day. A cross between James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman, his deep raspy voice full of vibrato and passion seems equally fit for the big screen and inspires both attention and obedience. Babes it is.

His crimson Honda Ballade putters outside the gate to his sister’s house with whom we’re staying and we ease in. June is winter in South Africa and it’s cold. Babes is wrapped from head to toe in multiple layers of thick wool. Well worn fleece gloves insulate his fingers from the ice cold steering wheel and a cotton hat is pulled over his balding head at a slight angle.

As we enter Alexandra (Alex), the streets increasingly swell with people moving around our car like water around rocks in a river. Intimately familiar with his environment, Babes makes his way easily. Most of the streets were paved recently––one of many development efforts aimed at improving the desolate conditions in the township. But every year, particularly after immigration laws were relaxed, more and more foreigners from neighboring countries pack themselves into Alex. One room shacks, their corrugated metal roofs held down with stones, fill a majority of the township. Population density is intense. 1.5 million people, Babes says, somehow eek out life together within four square kilometers. Yet there is an unmistakable sense of vibrancy and life in Alex.

Out of the car now, Babes maintains a running near-monologue interrupted every other minute by quick visits with friends he bumps into. School is out of session and kids fill the streets. They are rarely without a soccer ball.

“Football in Alex was and is a way of life.” His emphasis makes life sound impossible without it.

“I was one of the first players to come out of Alexandra to play professional football. But my heart bleeds when I see youngsters who do not have anything that they can do in their lives to make themselves better people. I wish attention could be paid to the youth of this country to unearth these rough diamonds that I’m seeing every day in my life.”

The shocks squeak their complaints as we get back into the car which sags noticeably under our weight. Babes carefully maneuvers back down off the sidewalk where all cars park in Alex. Vendors also crowd the sidewalks, selling street food and hawking flags, jerseys and vuvuzelas (plastic horns). World Cup fervor is everywhere in South Africa.

“You know, it takes me down memory lane. I had a friend who was very notorious in Alexandra. He passed on just before the birth of my son in 1968. But seven years back, in 1961, when we were footballers we talked about soccer and how the system was oppressing us and I remember categorically saying to him, ‘Wouldn’t it be the crowning glory if we were to host the World Cup in South Africa?’ This brings back all those memories, may his soul rest in peace.”

Who speaks like this?! This is a man, I realize, who speaks the written word.

“I always believed that God was going to give us our freedom. It was a prophesy that we should have a united Africa. That is why today we have the World Cup on our doorstep. We are experiencing it. We are feeling it. Sometimes I shed a tear because I never thought it would happen in my lifetime.”

Babes is silent. I imagine him lost in thoughts of the past and wonder what he’s thinking but am sure he will soon share it. Instead he astounds me, now as ever, with his gracious, unwavering dedication to us and our film.

“There is someone I want you guys to meet. There is a girl off of tenth avenue that we could see,” he says. “The youngsters call her Maradona. She is a very good footballer. Plays for the under seventeen girls national team.”

“Wow! Thank you, Babes. Should we call to set something up with her?”

“No, no. We’ll just pounce, like a tiger. It is the African way. It is the best way.”

Match by Firelight

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A group of men huddle closely around a roaring fire in Alexandra Township. June evenings are punishingly cold here and the fire provides temporary relief. They laugh and tease one another as they wait for the Ghana-Germany match to commence. The smell of ganja wafts heavily from the group and explains at least some of their jovial spirit.

With many in this impoverished township without electricity or access to television, this group rigged a small TV to a power source in a corner store. They cheer boisterously for Ghana, the only African team remaining in the World Cup. They pass around a four-foot “vuvuzela,” a traditional South African noise maker that has defined fan support during this World Cup.

The group invite us to join them but we’re hurriedly collecting nighttime B-roll and need to move on.

I’ve been astounded by the kind and inviting spirit we’ve encountered in Alexandra. From outside, one expects that making it in and out of the townships with all gear in tow would be impossible. While my anecdotal experiences cannot refute South Africa’s staggering crime stats, I do believe that the numbers and their related discussion unfairly color the situation here.

One thing that has occurred to me, is that a large percentage of South Africa’s notorious carjackings, armed robberies and muggings occur in wealthy neighborhoods. According to some Alexandra residents, far fewer incidents of robbery occur there than in wealthier suburbs. “The criminals in Alex have a bit of a code,” says Tabia Bohali, a near lifelong Alex resident. “They steal from the wealthy, not from the impoverished people in their own communities.” The criminal element makes stolen goods available to the Alex population at rates they can afford. This, in turn, generates community support and protection from police.

It’s a leap, but I wonder at times if we’re not safer in Alex than we would be in a wealthy, adjacent suburb like Sandton. With pervasive fear of the townships among many white South Africans and most foreign visitors, I wonder if the criminal elements there give a pass to those willing to enter. Probably rosy-eyed, but I’d like to believe it.

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Bafana Bafana’s Glorious Exit

Some shots from a World Cup fan park near Alexandra township. While South Africa’s Bafana Bafana team did not score enough goals to advance to the Round of 16, they played a hell of a game against France. I thought it was quite hilarious that Nicolas Sarkozy called an executive meeting to address the World Cup “disaster.”

The vibe in this fan park was amazing, even after Bafana Bafana came up short. E72S1082E72S1080_MG_1526_MG_1506E72S1060E72S1127

Gearing Up for the Referendum

Sweat cascades down hundreds of determined faces. It’s only 9 am but the temperature approaches 100 degrees. Police sirens ring out over car horns and speaker systems that blare nationalist slogans in English and Arabic. A man in his twenties leads a group of primary school students in chants related to southern Sudan’s upcoming independence referendum. “Yes, yes to separation,” he shouts. The phrase comes back to him in phonetic mispronunciation as his young audience attempts to sound out s-e-p-a-r-a-t-i-o-n. The kids wave southern flags and beam with excitement.

“We will never surrender,” a woman on a truck-bed chants through a microphone. A crowd of older participants echoes her words. Older men lean on one another, wiping sweat from their brows. Years of war and suffering as a result of the south’s quest for independence adds gravity to their words. They chant for their fallen comrades and lost loved ones. They chant for a struggle that consumed and defined their lives.

Six months out from southern Sudan’s scheduled independence referendum, the citizens here are gearing up. “It is so important that we start to raise awareness about the referendum so that we do not experience the same problems we had with the elections,” says David Diing, an organizer of today’s march and a member of the group Youth for Separation. He’s referring to Sudan’s recent presidential, parliamentary and gubernatorial elections that took place throughout the country in April. Despite having been largely peaceful, the elections were marred by logistical and administrative challenges, allegations of rigging and widespread claims of harassment and intimidation.

“We cannot afford to have the same confusion during the referendum that we had in the elections,” Diing adds. He explains that Youth for Separation is a coalition of civil society and community-based organizations that is committed to southern independence and advocates that position to the population. While the majority of southerners favor separation from the north, some elements of the community find unity attractive.

“We want everyone to see that we are in support of southern independence and we want to encourage the government to form the referendum commission so that we’re prepared for the vote in January,” says Diing. To date, the Government of Southern Sudan, an interim governing body in the south created by a 2005 peace deal, has yet to form the essential commission that will handle issues related to the referendum. To date, significant political difference with the north, such as the demarcation of the border, remain unresolved. “It is important that all of us start doing our own parts now so that the referendum is able to take place on its scheduled date,” Diing adds.

It is clear that the referendum will be a truly momentous event in world history. The struggle for self-rule in southern Sudan spanned three decades and cost more than two million lives. It left this massive country in a state of utter ruin. If the motion for independence passes, I can only begin to imagine the outpouring of emotion that will gripe this long embattled land. I feel very grateful for the opportunity to witness this period of history.
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