City Press journalists nominated for 2010 Mondi Shanduka Awards.

2010-03-25 14:18

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

IT’S dusk and the cops are ­pulling out of town after another day of dispersing people outside the Central Methodist Church in the centre of Joburg. The judges and lawyers (the church is right next door to the Southern Gauteng High Court) and shop owners, who want to be rid of the pavement people, are heading home to the suburbs.
The hunter instinct takes over and the church’s residents come out to forage for food or anything useful in the bins and on the pavements. Danger lurks, because the city is serious about the clean-up.

6.30pm
Like every night in the lives of the 3?500 refugees who call the church home, survival mode has kicked in.
The rush to fill their empty stomachs causes a throng at the church’s entrance, where women cook and sell hot food. Women with crying babies strapped to their backs push forward to get what is left of the evening’s pap and steak. The smell of the cooking pap creates the ambience of a warm African restaurant. It’s anything but.
A penniless Wilson Gambu glances at the sparkling flames jumping around the now golden-brown steak. He takes a deep breath, followed by a soft gulp. He hasn’t got a cent to his name and knows that this is the closest he will get to a meal this evening.
Beauty Motombo, a full-figured Zimbabwean woman, rushes past him with a tray of vetkoek balanced on her head. She pushes the crowd aside with her hips, folding her red and white dress tightly around her.
It is survival of the fittest and Motombo is at the top of her game as she has worked out how to stay ahead. Men with worn-out shoes and winter jackets gather around her to buy her fresh, oily speciality.
With darkness creeping in, most of the refugees are making their way into the five-storey church building to find a comfortable spot to sleep. Mother Nature has been kind to them tonight. Her biting chills and howling winds have abated. It’s a ­relief to those who will end up with the staircase as their makeshift bed.
The smell that lurks behind the church doors hits us like a punch. It’s a combination of smelly feet, damp blankets, paraffin, body odour, mould forming on the ceiling and ­cigarette smoke?– all contributing to the fumes of hot, pure filth that infiltrate the air.
But the sight of 29-year-old Evans Kuntondo is refreshing and unexpected. He is a contrast to the other men. Dark, clean shaven, he smells good and completes his African-American image with a Lacoste jacket and Timberland boots. He is our guide for the night.

7.30pm
We gingerly make our way to the second floor through a maze of people already sleeping on the stairs. With an unflappable Colgate smile, ­Kutondo tells us the story of the church’s latest travails.
The Ray of Hope community has been marked by misfortunes. Last week 344 refugees were locked up at Johannesburg Central Police Station and were charged with loitering, public indecency and public disorder.
“They were doing their job. Johannesburg is the biggest and richest city in Africa; we are seeking refuge next to the city’s high court,” he says resignedly.
Kutondo is chairperson of social welfare in the community and he gets rid of the “bad elements” from the church, he tells us.
“We have a database of everyone who comes here. We listen to their stories, but most importantly we do a skills audit to see what value they can bring to our community,” he ­explains.
His job makes him one of Bishop Paul Verryn’s right-hand men. ­Kutondo usually gets only about five hours’ sleep, as he spends most of his time behind a computer recording the latest events at the church.

About 9pm
The second floor welcomes us with the sweet sound of a hymn. “God we are talking to you, do you hear us?” sings the congregation.
A church service has begun and the hundreds of women and children who use the hall as a sleeping place toss and turn, trying to sleep during the praying.
The pastor begs them to keep still and warns that God will not heed their prayers. The buzz continues and his voice slowly fades away.
We meet nurse Machivei Muzenda. She runs a clinic at the church with the help of an old friend. Her eyes are red and sagging. Today was a quiet day at the clinic. Unlike most of the other 50 qualified Zimbabwean nurses from the church, she hasn’t found a job at one of the local ­hospitals and volunteered to assist the bishop.
She has six patients suffering from tuberculosis or who are in the final stages of Aids.
“I devoted my life to taking care of people and I’m happy to be of assistance to the church,” she says.
The night before we meet her she delivered a healthy baby girl, her 16th delivery since arriving at the church in March last year. “Those are the joys of my job. But unfortunately some die here because the ambulances don’t come when we call them,” says Muzenda.
We go back into the maze, which has become even tighter as more and more bodies cram in for the night.

About 11pm
The church is much quieter. We make our way up another floor. It’s colder now and people curl up tighter. The lights are out and we use the light from Kuntondo’s cellphone to make our way around. The residents cough, sneeze, snore and complain under their breaths about our ­intrusion.

About 1am
Pritchard Street outside the church is almost quiet. A group of guys huddle around a fire, sharing stories. They discuss the metro police who were targeting the area outside the high court earlier in the day.
“They came back to arrest us,” concludes Trust Ndaba. “They want to scare us.” It worked. Not a soul lies on the pavement tonight.
By the light of a small lamp, Alpha Zhou is hard at work balancing his books. A teacher from Zimbabwe, Zhou runs a school of 500 students and a day-care centre inside the church. His books are not adding up this month. Some of the students have not been paying the monthly fee of R150.
“I’ll have to call their parents to sort this out; I can’t afford such a shortfall,” he says, shaking his head.
Besides this, Zhou is proud of his students and the school will be celebrating its first anniversary this month. “It’s going to be a big celebration. The students have raised the funds themselves. I am proud of them,” says a glowing Zhou.
He arrived at the church in 2006 and worked in the office of the bishop as an administration officer by night and a construction worker by day.
“I saw the need for a day-care centre and that was my first project before starting the school. The bishop has truly blessed me and I am proud to say that 15 of my students have qualified to write entrance exams for Cambridge University,” says the proud principal.

3am
We find a draughty spot by the exit and listen to the chorus of snores. There is movement to and from the bathroom. But besides that, the church is asleep.

5am
Two hours later the morning smell kicks us in the stomach – so many people crowded so close together means there is little space for the air to circulate.
Another day has begun, and the concrete jungle will soon be a buzz of activity with danger lurking everywhere.
Watson Mupita, the head of security, must now prepare his troops. With his yellow torch neatly held together with brown tape, he pierces their sleepy eyes with the blinding light as he wakes them.
For some the day will be dedicated to improving their sewing skills. ­Others will be joining Professor ­William Kondowe in the computer lab for basic computer skills classes.
The nerds will gather on the third floor to prepare for the upcoming chess championships. Those who can still swing their hips have a date on the second floor for a bit of dancing.
For the rest, it’s another episode of Surviving Jozi.
But this morning Watson’s wake- up call is not well received. The refugees are annoyed by our presence and the constant clicking of Dudu’s camera. We are ordered to leave before they break our camera. We scramble down the stairs from the third floor, trampling on heads and frozen feet.

6.30am
We are out of there.
SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

IT’S dusk and the cops are ­pulling out of town after another day of dispersing people outside the Central Methodist Church in the centre of Joburg. The judges and lawyers (the church is right next door to the Southern Gauteng High Court) and shop owners, who want to be rid of the pavement people, are heading home to the suburbs.
The hunter instinct takes over and the church’s residents come out to forage for food or anything useful in the bins and on the pavements. Danger lurks, because the city is serious about the clean-up.

6.30pm
Like every night in the lives of the 3?500 refugees who call the church home, survival mode has kicked in.
The rush to fill their empty stomachs causes a throng at the church’s entrance, where women cook and sell hot food. Women with crying babies strapped to their backs push forward to get what is left of the evening’s pap and steak. The smell of the cooking pap creates the ambience of a warm African restaurant. It’s anything but.
A penniless Wilson Gambu glances at the sparkling flames jumping around the now golden-brown steak. He takes a deep breath, followed by a soft gulp. He hasn’t got a cent to his name and knows that this is the closest he will get to a meal this evening.
Beauty Motombo, a full-figured Zimbabwean woman, rushes past him with a tray of vetkoek balanced on her head. She pushes the crowd aside with her hips, folding her red and white dress tightly around her.
It is survival of the fittest and Motombo is at the top of her game as she has worked out how to stay ahead. Men with worn-out shoes and winter jackets gather around her to buy her fresh, oily speciality.
With darkness creeping in, most of the refugees are making their way into the five-storey church building to find a comfortable spot to sleep. Mother Nature has been kind to them tonight. Her biting chills and howling winds have abated. It’s a ­relief to those who will end up with the staircase as their makeshift bed.
The smell that lurks behind the church doors hits us like a punch. It’s a combination of smelly feet, damp blankets, paraffin, body odour, mould forming on the ceiling and ­cigarette smoke?– all contributing to the fumes of hot, pure filth that infiltrate the air.
But the sight of 29-year-old Evans Kuntondo is refreshing and unexpected. He is a contrast to the other men. Dark, clean shaven, he smells good and completes his African-American image with a Lacoste jacket and Timberland boots. He is our guide for the night.

7.30pm
We gingerly make our way to the second floor through a maze of people already sleeping on the stairs. With an unflappable Colgate smile, ­Kutondo tells us the story of the church’s latest travails.
The Ray of Hope community has been marked by misfortunes. Last week 344 refugees were locked up at Johannesburg Central Police Station and were charged with loitering, public indecency and public disorder.
“They were doing their job. Johannesburg is the biggest and richest city in Africa; we are seeking refuge next to the city’s high court,” he says resignedly.
Kutondo is chairperson of social welfare in the community and he gets rid of the “bad elements” from the church, he tells us.
“We have a database of everyone who comes here. We listen to their stories, but most importantly we do a skills audit to see what value they can bring to our community,” he ­explains.
His job makes him one of Bishop Paul Verryn’s right-hand men. ­Kutondo usually gets only about five hours’ sleep, as he spends most of his time behind a computer recording the latest events at the church.

About 9pm
The second floor welcomes us with the sweet sound of a hymn. “God we are talking to you, do you hear us?” sings the congregation.
A church service has begun and the hundreds of women and children who use the hall as a sleeping place toss and turn, trying to sleep during the praying.
The pastor begs them to keep still and warns that God will not heed their prayers. The buzz continues and his voice slowly fades away.
We meet nurse Machivei Muzenda. She runs a clinic at the church with the help of an old friend. Her eyes are red and sagging. Today was a quiet day at the clinic. Unlike most of the other 50 qualified Zimbabwean nurses from the church, she hasn’t found a job at one of the local ­hospitals and volunteered to assist the bishop.
She has six patients suffering from tuberculosis or who are in the final stages of Aids.
“I devoted my life to taking care of people and I’m happy to be of assistance to the church,” she says.
The night before we meet her she delivered a healthy baby girl, her 16th delivery since arriving at the church in March last year. “Those are the joys of my job. But unfortunately some die here because the ambulances don’t come when we call them,” says Muzenda.
We go back into the maze, which has become even tighter as more and more bodies cram in for the night.

About 11pm
The church is much quieter. We make our way up another floor. It’s colder now and people curl up tighter. The lights are out and we use the light from Kuntondo’s cellphone to make our way around. The residents cough, sneeze, snore and complain under their breaths about our ­intrusion.

About 1am
Pritchard Street outside the church is almost quiet. A group of guys huddle around a fire, sharing stories. They discuss the metro police who were targeting the area outside the high court earlier in the day.
“They came back to arrest us,” concludes Trust Ndaba. “They want to scare us.” It worked. Not a soul lies on the pavement tonight.
By the light of a small lamp, Alpha Zhou is hard at work balancing his books. A teacher from Zimbabwe, Zhou runs a school of 500 students and a day-care centre inside the church. His books are not adding up this month. Some of the students have not been paying the monthly fee of R150.
“I’ll have to call their parents to sort this out; I can’t afford such a shortfall,” he says, shaking his head.
Besides this, Zhou is proud of his students and the school will be celebrating its first anniversary this month. “It’s going to be a big celebration. The students have raised the funds themselves. I am proud of them,” says a glowing Zhou.
He arrived at the church in 2006 and worked in the office of the bishop as an administration officer by night and a construction worker by day.
“I saw the need for a day-care centre and that was my first project before starting the school. The bishop has truly blessed me and I am proud to say that 15 of my students have qualified to write entrance exams for Cambridge University,” says the proud principal.

3am
We find a draughty spot by the exit and listen to the chorus of snores. There is movement to and from the bathroom. But besides that, the church is asleep.

5am

Two hours later the morning smell kicks us in the stomach – so many people crowded so close together means there is little space for the air to circulate.

Another day has begun, and the concrete jungle will soon be a buzz of activity with danger lurking everywhere.
Watson Mupita, the head of security, must now prepare his troops. With his yellow torch neatly held together with brown tape, he pierces their sleepy eyes with the blinding light as he wakes them.

For some the day will be dedicated to improving their sewing skills. ­Others will be joining Professor ­William Kondowe in the computer lab for basic computer skills classes.

The nerds will gather on the third floor to prepare for the upcoming chess championships. Those who can still swing their hips have a date on the second floor for a bit of dancing.

For the rest, it’s another episode of Surviving Jozi.

But this morning Watson’s wake- up call is not well received. The refugees are annoyed by our presence and the constant clicking of Dudu’s camera. We are ordered to leave before they break our camera. We scramble down the stairs from the third floor, trampling on heads and frozen feet.

6.30am
We are out of there.
 

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