Waiting for God

2011-09-10 15:04

God seems to have moved on from ­Carnarvon – a town born in the 1800s from a Christian mission.
 
“Don’t stay longer than three days,” a resident warns, not sticking around to explain.

Residents’ hearty greetings may fool the unobservant visitor but their bloodshot eyes belie a ­hopeless existence – one where booze is the remedy of choice. As the church bell sounds the Kwagga tavern is already attracting its first customers. For many, Sundays are for binge ­drinking.

Every bar, tavern, ­shebeen and drinking joint is frequented by revellers who end up slurring and swaggering through the streets in broad daylight.

Maxie*, a resident, explains it’s no coincidence. Nor is it evidence of decades of decay.

The problem is, in fact, as recent as the big showcase the country hosted last year: the Soccer World Cup. During the soccer spectacle, she says, all drinking holes were given permission to stay open until late at night and, for the first time, to be open on Sundays. After that there was no going back to earlier liquor licensing laws.

“Nobody cares or polices this. Nobody hears us or listens to us,” she says.

No work, no pay
Men gather on a corner early on a weekday morning waiting for piece jobs – maybe some gardening that can earn them around R300 in a good month.

The previous afternoon they were around the corner, taking huge gulps from bottles, hiding them under their jackets as a police van drove by. As soon as the van disappeared they quickly finished their “medicine”. This morning, job offers are scarce.

“Sometimes you get nothing for a whole week. And we get paid ­below the breadline,” Henry ­Hermanus says.

Don’t ask about drinking – they just smile shyly.

Daleen Pienaar walks by and joins in: “Joblessness is a real problem here. Only certain people get jobs. If you don’t support the ANC you don’t get work. Our young kids leave here and go to the Cape slums to find work. They suffer here.”

A kilometre away, in the Skema – a poor suburb – Auntie Martha ­Olivier and her daughter-in-law, Troy, are chatting in their yard.

Things can get quite rough here, other residents have warned.

Says Auntie Martha, who was born and bred in Carnarvon: ­“Alcohol is really a problem. It was never like this before. You cannot live here. Children nowadays take the old people’s grants as soon as they are paid. They abuse the old people for money.”

Troy chips in: “Here the battle (to survive) continues.”

Ask about “seebries” (sea-breeze) – a potent red wine – and she half-smiles, waving the question off with her hand.

“No, it is not made here, they bring it in. There, from Vredendal’s side. No, it is not new. It is world­renowned. Through him (seebries), people die.”

Auntie Martha points to the graveyard at the edge of town. “Ja, we had seven funerals last week. Now this week again.”

‘The biggest evil’
Beer is fast becoming the drink of choice, brewed in “almost every second house”, Maxie says.

“They add all sorts of things to the mix, a mishmash of things. White dulcis in little bottles. It is the biggest evil here. People go to the hospital complaining of stomach ache, weird feelings in their arms, palpitations.

“Sundays are bad in this town. When you walk around at five o’clock on a Sunday afternoon ­people are stumbling around drunk. Old people and children are so ­neglected. Nobody looks after them,” says Maxie.

“Many young mums are still drunk when they give birth at the hospital. When the babies are born you can see their little ears are very low on their faces,” she says, referring to foetal alcohol syndrome.

“Later on you see they have ­psychological and physical disabilities.”

Payday is the worst – and today is payday. “It is a nightmare here as people drink all their money out.”

Domestic violence and sexual abuse inevitably follow.

Hope against hope
What about the development of the Square Kilometre Array?

“What is that going to help? If it is put up there, what is going to happen then? It is only going to stand there and it is nothing people will see to bring change.
“Yes, they are fixing the road to Vosburg,” says Maxie.

It’s a lifeline as it will be the shortest direct route from the northern provinces to the West Coast’s holiday jewels for Gautengers. But, Maxie says, fixing the road has brought new problems such as prostitution.

“It is so worrying. Girls as young as 12 years are prostituted. There are intelligent kids walking around here but they are neglected. There is no decent entertainment here, no work.”

It is these youngsters who have fallen into the trap, and not just that of alcohol. The feared drug, tik, has long left its mark.

While this arid land is not suited to growing dagga, somehow smugglers have extended their tentacles to this isolated Karoo dorp and Maxie says smoking dagga is a daily pastime for schoolchildren. ­Cocaine, pills and many other drugs have made their way here.

The new pastor in town starts up a conversation across the street from the Kwagga tavern, where he has been trying to get to the soul of Carnarvon. After six months, though, locals still view him with scepticism.

“What are you telling them? You’re not from here,” a woman scolds him.

He hastily explains that he’s just saying things the way he “sees it”. As she moves on the pastor, as ­locals call him, says he still struggles to understand Carnarvon’s dark side. He has also identified prostitution as a major problem – especially among girls.

A young boy was raped this year, picked out from the streets by an 18-year-old pupil high on drugs and alcohol.

He says: “They cannot get rid of the dop system. Most people here abuse alcohol. I had a church service and the people sitting there were still drunk.

“There,” – he points first to the Kwagga bar and then to a dilapidated historical building that used to be the old prison.

“They can sit and cry on each other’s shoulders about all their hardships, ‘I didn’t eat last night’, and drink away their troubles.”

*Name has been changed

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