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MDA_200815-01 – Kosmos, Tshwane. Thys is preparing mieliepap for the animals. “I couldn’t live more happily.” ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Thys is preparing mieliepap for the animals. “I couldn’t live more happily.” ©Manash Das.

A few hundred dogs barking, the grunt of pigs and the squeaky screech of marmoset monkeys welcome the visitors of an unusual settlement north of Tshwane (formerly Pretoria), the South African capital city. Kosmos, a Boer community was created almost twenty years ago by local handyman Ian Jansen van Vuuren and now houses about seventy dwellers and a wide range of country animals.

“In Kosmos, everyone lends a helping hand to the other”, explained Ian. In the ‘90s, he settled in a patch of veld, a word describing the South African open field in Afrikaans. Ian is one of the descendants of the European colons who first set foot in Southern Africa in the 1600s.

When Ian first established Kosmos, his home was a double-decker bus which embodied the dream of self sustainability and independence. When his children and grandchildren joined him, a few free-spirited people followed their example. The settlement soon turned into a small town in the outskirts of the big city.

With time, Kosmos welcomed homeless and retired people. Ian started managing the residents’ pensions, using their small but fundamental income to buy necessities such as food and medicines. The community grew stronger when the animal shelter was built, giving everyone a purpose and attracting donations from animal lovers.

Today, the residents of Kosmos are organized in a self-sustainable micro-society, where each plays their part for the communal good. They embody the Afrikaans concept of helpmekaar, mutual aid; some looking after the animals or the shared borehole, some cleaning and washing, some preparing food, others building or repairing the facilities of the village.

“All I can do is work with cast iron, but I have someone who cleans and cooks for me”, explained Rudolph, who is in charge of the communal boiler for hot water. His basset hound is an inseparable friend, who keeps company to him and his neighbors. Rudolph is affected by epilepsy, but medical treatments don’t concern him. “When I feel a bit bad, I just go to my house and let it pass. When an attack gets worse, our benefactor, Ian, looks after me,” he concluded.

Thys, another denizen, is preparing mieliepap to feed the animals. “I used to work in Kempton Park, at the airport. When the contract ended, I had to make another plan and I found myself here.” Cooking is his job in this unique time bank. “I couldn’t live more happily,” he reflected.

At the center of the settlement, several enclosures host the canine population of the Paws Love Animal Shelter. The community of Kosmos feeds and looks after the rescued animals, waiting for a family to adopt them.

A brick house at the entrance of the animal shelter has become a makeshift bakery, where some ladies prepare trademark eet-sum-mor, rusks, scones, shortbread and many other boer treats. Boxes of fresh eggs pile up on one of the shelves: “our chickens produce enough to sustain us and to sell,” explained one of the ladies.

The village also has an outdoor area, with a swimming pool and games for the children, which the residents built or brought in across the years. 

At lunchtime, everyone gathers inside the canteen to receive their ration of food. Some of them just finished a tiring shift, while others are ill or disabled.

“We try to accommodate all those in need,” said Ian. He found Paul, a disabled senior, begging in the street and took him under his wing. “Ian took me with his bakkie [pickup] and brought me here, where everyone looks after me,” affirmed Paul. Other residents were abandoned at Kosmos by their families. Among them, 59-years-old Denise joined the community after a serious injury in a motorbike accident.

“I used to be a stripper,” said Denise. “I performed with a snake around my neck and scared troublemakers away with my reptile. I was part of a biker gang, the ‘Black Widows’!” Her youth days are long gone. In their place are the scars and permanent chills resulting from a life on edge. The other dwellers are like a new family to her, as a consequence of many years living together. “I see my blood sisters sometime, but because of Covid I haven’t met anyone in the last few months.”

The less fortunate inhabitants of Kosmos move around in a wheelchair, while Piet (40) cannot leave the room where his oxygen mask is plugged. In the place of a nurse, he has a whole adoptive family to give him treatment and keep him company.

“I wish I could assist more people,” said Ian with a sense of regret, “but this is the most that we can do.” The past few months have been especially hard for the increasing homeless population of Tshwane. “During the lockdown we cannot take anyone in, but the requests are ever-growing,” he said. “I get calls from desperate people every day.”

With the rise of poverty, abuse is becoming a constant feature across the capital city's destitute neighborhoods. “Women came to us to escape from their abusive husbands, and all I could do was to give them some money and send them to the police station. But I know the police won’t do enough to help them,” continued Ian.

Many women and children live in Kosmos, where they are protected by a caring community. Elsewhere, the most vulnerable are everyday victims of atrocious abuse and complicity. 

In fact, while gender-based violence has become a priority challenge for the South African government many spheres of society underestimate the entity and seriousness of the social ill. Law enforcement agents often turn a blind eye to rape and femicide in their communities, leaving no option for most women but to endure abuse. Gender-based violence escalated during the pandemic, pushing President Cyril Ramaphosa to define it as “another pandemic that is raging in our country – the killing of women and children by the men of our country”.

With thousands of Covid-19 cases daily, South Africa has not yet removed its lockdown regulations, six months into a state of disaster. This paralysis, however, has not had any direct effects on the residents of Kosmos. They don’t need to wear masks or apply social distancing, since the community hardly receives any visitors. However, the sense of solitude is on the rise, as most of them have lost any contacts with the outside world since March.

That’s why a small but dedicated group of philanthropists took up the initiative to support Kosmos, as well as other communities across Pretoria. They bring clothes and food every Saturday and cook for the residents on special occasions. One of them, an amateur hunter, often shares buckets of game meat to prepare the traditional potjiekos stew.

“When the pandemic started, we realized how tough this would have been but we also understood how lucky we are,” explained Giovanni Maiorana, who owns a restaurant nearby. “We took the responsibility to assist those who are less fortunate. By doing so we also understood so much about ourselves.”

Like Kosmos, several communities and caravan camps in Northern Pretoria are home to thousands of unemployed and elderly residents. Their stories, not often told, describe a transition from colonial conquest and oppression to democratization. They were ideologically opposed to the totalitarian apartheid regime, people like Ian, Rudolph, Denise, and many others are once more marginalized by a democratic political order, which inherited much of  the corruption and social ills of the same apartheid regime it replaced. 

Ian’s wit and capability to create such an elaborate microcosm is best described by the Afrikaans expression 'n boer maak 'n plan (a Boer makes a plan). Descendant of the Huguenot fugitives who left the Netherlands over 400 years ago, the Boers spread across Southern Africa during the gold rush and learned to survive through hardship in a foreign land. The pioneering attitude of the Boer people allowed many of them to resist in these trying times, without losing hope. “You have to laugh it all out,” smirked Denise.

On leaving Kosmos, volunteer Eddie Germena concluded, “Meeting this community in such a remote place has taught us how important it is to help each other and be creative, especially in a moment like this. It is a lesson which will change our lives.”

 

Kosmos, Tshwane. Denise, 59, used to be a stripper and a biker. “I performed with a snake around my neck.” ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Denise, 59, used to be a stripper and a biker. “I performed with a snake around my neck.” ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Everybody gets a ration of food at the communal canteen. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Everybody gets a ration of food at the communal canteen. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Ian Jansen van Vuuren built Kosmos with his own hands. In the settlement, everyone looks up to him. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Ian Jansen van Vuuren built Kosmos with his own hands. In the settlement, everyone looks up to him. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Rudolph is boiling water with his geyser. The hot water circulates through showers and taps in the community. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Rudolph is boiling water with his geyser. The hot water circulates through showers and taps in the community. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Every Saturday, some volunteers bring food parcels and cook for the residents of Kosmos. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Every Saturday, some volunteers bring food parcels and cook for the residents of Kosmos. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Paul used to beg on the street. The people of Kosmos found him and welcomed him in their odd family. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Paul used to beg on the street. The people of Kosmos found him and welcomed him in their odd family. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Ian’s children and grandchildren live with him in the settlement, which started with his double-decker bus. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Ian’s children and grandchildren live with him in the settlement, which started with his double-decker bus. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. The resident’s chores include cleaning and washing, which everyone is assigned in rotation. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. The resident’s chores include cleaning and washing, which everyone is assigned in rotation. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Many of the dwellers were abandoned by their families and now live on their own. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Many of the dwellers were abandoned by their families and now live on their own. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Disabled men and women contribute with their pensions to the sustenance of the community. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Disabled men and women contribute with their pensions to the sustenance of the community. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Shared toilets and a septic tank guarantee hygiene and are washed regularly. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Shared toilets and a septic tank guarantee hygiene and are washed regularly. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. The young and the old enjoy a moment or rest and leave their troubles behind. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. The young and the old enjoy a moment or rest and leave their troubles behind. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Animal lovers are at ease at the Paws Love Animal Shelter, where dogs are safe and looked after. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Hundreds of dogs populate the Paws Love Animal Shelter waiting for a family to adopt them. ©Manash Das. 
Kosmos, Tshwane. Hundreds of dogs populate the Paws Love Animal Shelter waiting for a family to adopt them. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Hundreds of dogs populate the Paws Love Animal Shelter waiting for a family to adopt them. ©Manash Das. 
Kosmos, Tshwane. Some of the residents are in charge of feeding the dogs, cleaning them and making them play. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Some of the residents are in charge of feeding the dogs, cleaning them and making them play. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Paul (40) needs his oxygen mask to fight a pulmonary disease. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Paul (40) needs his oxygen mask to fight a pulmonary disease. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Lunchtime can be a social moment or an opportunity to catch one’s breath after a morning of work. ©Alessandro Parodi.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Lunchtime can be a social moment or an opportunity to catch one’s breath after a morning of work. ©Alessandro Parodi.

 

Alessandro Parodi is a Johannesburg-based reporter with a passion for cultural studies and urban ethnography. He is a regular contributor to the Italian-South African weekly publication La Voce del Sudafrica and the travel magazine Nomad Africa. (Twitter: @apnews360)

Manash Das is a freelance photojournalist based in South Africa and India. His work mainly focuses on humanitarian issues, conflicts, and daily life. (Twitter: @manashdasorg)

 

 

Hundreds of thousands of informal dwellers in Johannesburg are at high risk in the African epicenter of Covid-19. South Africa’s most populated city, Johannesburg, accounts for over 60,000 infections, with numbers on the rise.

Hostel squatters face an incredible hazard, resulting from the combination of dire health conditions, looming criminality, and overpopulation.

In the city center, the surroundings of the Jeppe Hostel are a crime hotspot, which locals prudently avoid. About 10 thousand male residents occupy the run-down complex, which has barely undergone any maintenance since the 1950s. Among informal workers such as trash collectors and queue marshals mingle petty criminals and – rumor has it – dangerous murderers.

A delicate equilibrium of power maintains the peace inside the hostel, under the leadership of Nduna (chief) Manyathela Mvelase.

“Since they banned gatherings of more than 50 people, I can no longer speak to everyone at once,” points out Nduna Mvelase. “I and my staff are no longer in control of what’s going on and we are becoming more concerned.”

Inside the hostel, the Nduna is an undisputed leader. The residents acknowledge his authority, having chosen him for his strength and capability to maintain order. But the pandemic could loosen his grip on his people, whom he hasn’t addressed in months and who are starting to feel the heat of an increasing social crisis.

“Some people died in a fight a few days ago,” Nduna Mvelase said. “Others were taken away when they tested positive”.

Life isn’t easier inside the Madala Hostel of Alexandra, where an estimated 10 thousand people overcrowd the complex. Kitchens and bathrooms are shared and brake fluid puddles the entrance to the dorms. The fifth floor was destroyed by a fire in 2013 and was never rebuilt. Most inhabitants never leave the hostel, but the many taxi drivers could bring the virus inside its walls, dreading an unstoppable spread.

“Let Covid come,” laughs ‘doctor’ Dladla lighting a smuggled cigarette on a kitchen flame. “I’m not afraid. If this virus hits us, we will deal with it. Like we deal with everything.”

Young Nokwanda (12) is fetching water for the mother at a communal tap nearby. “I haven’t been in school since I came from our home village in Kwa-Zulu Natal, two years ago,” she admits, “and I hardly leave the hostel. My friends are my neighbours, I play with them when I’m not busy with home chores.”

The hostel families try to avoid most contacts with the outside world. They avoid taxi drivers, who transport up to 20 passengers in one ride on their overloaded minibuses thus making themselves unaware carriers of a sneaky ill. They also shy away from the outside world and point at the ‘intruders’ uttering “Corona!”.

Health activist Charles Mphepho explains why their concerns are more than justified: “We are so afraid that the peak will go up and people will pass away. Things in the hostel are worse, people are not wearing masks and there is no social distancing. The behavior of the people is totally out of control.”

Mphepho lives in the Nobuhle Hostel in Alexandra. He, too, fears for his future: “My contract with the Gauteng Province ends next week. There are no more funds. All I can do now is to try and spread awareness with my neighbors, tell everyone to wear masks.”

Most informal workers who live in the Nobuhle Hostel have lost their source of income. Mkhuliseni Mtshali used to earn his daily bread as a trash collector, and could never make provision for a rainy day. “I was making some small money before,” he says, “but since lockdown I have been stuck here. I hope to start again soon, but I’m also scared of covid.”

A third complex in Alexandra hosts a community of women. At the Alexandra Ladies’ Hostel, some women have taken a stand to help others.

“Our running water comes through tanks built in 1972, it’s unhealthy and they drip like a waterfall every night,” complains Violet Mfobo, the chairperson of the hostel resident’s committee. “Nobody cares for us. We always go to the highway and toyi-toyi [protest]. This time we must go to the highway and pray.”

Lebo Ramabele, who works for the non-profit organization Friends for Life, is scared for the safety of the girls affected by HIV and for their access to healthcare. She tries to look after the vulnerable adolescents and young adults, but the pandemic overshadowed her usual optimism.

In the Jabulani Hostel of Soweto, the oldest residents still have memory of the fratricide violence which smeared the anti-apartheid movement with bloodshed and crime in the ‘90s. At Jabulani and other hostels of the township, south of the city center, the denial of a lurking tragedy is only as accentuated as the incidence of other deadly diseases and social ills, which cost tens of lives in the past few months.

“Six people lost their life in a shooting two weeks ago. Another resident just committed suicide,” mourns Sehluko Dladla, operation manager at the Jabulani Hostel and right hand of Nduna Mbekiseni ‘mamba’ Vilakazi. “We are working with the government to make this a better place, but some are taking advantage of Covid-19 to grab land and commit crimes. People also became more violent. We are tired of this.”

As the pandemic limbo accentuates poverty and purposelessness, the people’s morale is at its lowest. A young adult committed suicide two weeks after becoming a father, leaving his family in grief and disarray. “We don’t even have money for his funeral,” says one of the brothers. “The insurance won’t pay us out because he killed himself.”

Not far from the Jabulani Hostel, another community awaits the resumption of normal life. It’s the Merafe Hostel, where the municipality employed some residents to run a maintenance program. While their duty keeps them going, their marginalization and the state of their housing continue to worsen, at a time when unemployment in South Africa has passed 30%.

Both adults and the youth feel abandoned. “My children go out to play and I only see them in the evening,” confesses Hlengiwe Sibiya. “I can’t tell them to avoid the other children, but I’m scared for their safety. The other people at the hostel don’t understand how dangerous this virus is.”

Mjananda’s life is hardened by the addiction to nyaope. “I want out, but I need money for rehab. I wash cars and sometimes I’m forced to steal, but that’s only enough to buy another dose. The pandemic? It only makes things worse.”

Like Mjananda, many addicts received care and a helping hand from the volunteers of the Musawamaswazi Community Organization. They come to the hostel to receive support and stay away from ‘bad companies’. “We all have a past in jail,” comments Mjananda. “We belong to different gangs but we all live together.” His gang is called 26. A tattoo marks his allegiance to the fraternity, which he joined during his time behind bars. “I was convicted of murder, but I was innocent. Somebody stole my gun and set me up. Eventually I came out clean, but I had also taken on this drug addiction.”

An informal crèche safeguards the children of the hostel and orphans. The elderly matron Thandi Mgaga is doing all she can to teach them about social distancing and health measures, but the underlying state of her home makes it difficult for her to comply with these measures. “I was promised an RDP [subsidy] house about ten years ago,” she complains.

Even in such trying times, some people do not lose hope. The children of the Sgkihsiwe Production keep practicing inside Nobuhle Hostel, awaiting better days. Like them, guitarist Philani Mtembu uses his music to chase away the blues: “I am a maskandi artist. I can cheer up others with my guitar and love songs,” he says and smiles away.

 

MDA_20200630_01 – Alexandra, Johannesburg. Inside a communal room at the Madala Hostel. ©Manash Das.
Alexandra, Johannesburg. Inside a communal room at the Madala Hostel. ©Manash Das.
MDA_20200630_02 – Alexandra, Johannesburg. Nokwanda (12) hasn’t been in school for two years.  All her friends live inside the Madala Hostel. ©Manash Das.
Alexandra, Johannesburg. Nokwanda (12) hasn’t been in school for two years. All her friends live inside the Madala Hostel. ©Manash Das.

 

MDA_20200630_03 – Alexandra, Johannesburg. Residents of the Nobuhle Hostel during a police raid. ©Manash Das.
Alexandra, Johannesburg. Residents of the Nobuhle Hostel during a police raid. ©Manash Das.

 

MDA_20200630_05 – Soweto, Johannesburg. Nyaope is a low grade concoction of heroin, cannabis and antiretroviral products. ©Manash Das.
Soweto, Johannesburg. Nyaope is a low grade concoction of heroin, cannabis and antiretroviral products. ©Manash Das.

 

MDA_20200630_06 – Soweto, Johannesburg. Nyaope addiction creates a community of drugs, from which it’s impossible to evade. ©Manash Das.
Soweto, Johannesburg. Nyaope addiction creates a community of drugs, from which it’s impossible to evade. ©Manash Das.

 

MDA_20200630_07 – Alexandra, Johannesburg. Bongomusa Mdletshe (58) is  using a gas stove to fight the cold in the cement kitchen of the hostel. ©Manash Das.
Alexandra, Johannesburg. Bongomusa Mdletshe (58) is using a gas stove to fight the cold in the cement kitchen of the hostel. ©Manash Das.

 

MDA_20200630_08 – Soweto, Johannesburg. Doris (59) and Isac (65) Mdletshe are scared for the wellbeing of their children. ©Manash Das.
Soweto, Johannesburg. Doris (59) and Isac (65) Mdletshe are scared for the wellbeing of their children. ©Manash Das.

 

MDA_20200630_09 – Soweto, Johannesburg. An informal crèche houses the children of the Merafe Hostel. ©Manash Das.
Soweto, Johannesburg. An informal crèche houses the children of the Merafe Hostel. ©Manash Das.

 

MDA_20200630_10 – Soweto, Johannesburg. The aerial view of the Jabulani Hostel, which once used to be home to the mining immigrant force. ©Manash Das.
Soweto, Johannesburg. The aerial view of the Jabulani Hostel, which once used to be home to the mining immigrant force. ©Manash Das.

 

MDA_20200630_12 – Alexandra, Johannesburg. Long and dark corridors connect the sections of the hostels. ©Manash Das.
Alexandra, Johannesburg. Long and dark corridors connect the sections of the hostels. ©Manash Das.

 

MDA_20200630_14 – Jeppestown, Johannesburg. Food shops and butchers allow residents to be self sufficient. ©Manash Das.
Jeppestown, Johannesburg. Food shops and butchers allow residents to be self sufficient. ©Manash Das.

 

XPA_20200630_01 – Soweto, Johannesburg. A woman hanging her laundry in the hostel’s backyard. ©Alessandro Parodi.
Soweto, Johannesburg. A woman hanging her laundry in the hostel’s backyard. ©Alessandro Parodi.

 

Alessandro Parodi is a Johannesburg-based reporter with a passion for cultural studies and urban ethnography. He is a regular contributor to the Italian-South African weekly publication La Voce del Sudafrica and the travel magazine Nomad Africa. (Twitter: @apnews360)

Manash Das is a freelance photojournalist based in South Africa and India. His work mainly focuses on humanitarian issues, conflicts, and daily life. (Twitter: @manashdasorg)

 

Children play in the sea at Nungwi Beach on the island of Zanzibar. (Gulshan Khan/via AFP)
Children play in the sea while a woman looks on at Nungwi Beach on the island of Zanzibar. (Gulshan Khan/via AFP)

In Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous islands off the coast of Tanzania, very few women know how to swim. Some of this is cultural: Zanzibar remains a deeply conservative religious society where the mainly Muslim population expects women to dress modestly, precluding them from wearing revealing swimwear. This also reinforces cultural biases that insist women only occupy themselves with domestic tasks and child-rearing.

 

Empowerment

To push back against this stigma, Siti Haji started her own swim classes for young Muslim women. Gathering in the clear waters of the Indian Ocean, Haji teaches the girls how to float, swim against the current, and manage their breathing. She and her team have taught about 5,000 women how to keep afloat in the water, and she hopes to teach more, both for their own empowerment and to dispel some of the patriarchal attitudes that keep them out of the sea.

Haji’s work builds on the efforts of the Panje Project, an organization formed in 2011, initially to assist the youth of the northern Zanzibari village of Nungwi with educational development. It soon began to teach young women how to swim and providing them with burkinis—full-length swimsuits—to make it easy for them to get into the water without compromising their religious and cultural beliefs.

 

A profile feature on Senegalese combat sports stars in the Jeune Afrique weekly demonstrates how the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) has grown from a predominantly European and American affair into a world-class phenomenon. African athletes in sports such as boxing and wrestling have entered the fray and are gaining a large following.

As the name suggests, MMA is a combat sport that pits two fighters against each other who may use techniques from boxing, judo, jujitsu, karate, kickboxing, and other disciplines to defeat their opponent.

 

Promoters are increasingly turning to African countries to discover new talent

 

Grappling is a common element within MMA, which makes it a natural fit for competitors coming from a tradition of Senegalese wrestling, which involves grappling and sparring. It has become one of the country’s most popular sports, and its stars enjoy a celebrity status similar to that of professional football players.

Senegalese wrestling champion Yakhya “Yekini” Diop (left), photographed during his last fight, on July 24, 2016, in Demba Diop Stadium in Dakar. (Seyllou Seyllou/AFP)
Senegalese wrestling champion Yakhya “Yékini” Diop (left), photographed during his last fight, on July 24, 2016, in Demba Diop Stadium in Dakar. (Seyllou Seyllou/AFP)

As traditional wrestling, known as “laamb” in Wolof, gains more mainstream exposure through its growing connection with MMA, the opportunities become more lucrative and more high-profile. Promoters are increasingly turning to African countries to open up new markets and discover new talent. Two African athletes who have already made a name for themselves on the MMA circuit are Israel Adesanya from Nigeria and Francis Ngannou from Cameroon.

 

LGBTQ Uganda
Members of the LGBTQ community take part in a Transgender Day of Remembrance vigil to pay tribute to victims of hate crimes in Kampala, Uganda, on November 23, 2019.

In mid-March, the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) suspended all resettlements of refugees and displaced peoples due to COVID-19, leaving thousands stranded in countries that were only supposed to be throughways to their final destination.

For many, the added months aren’t too much of a burden, having spent years waiting for their resettlement applications to be processed after waiting long stretches in refugee camps. But in Kenya, hundreds of LGBTQ refugees fleeing homophobic persecution from neighboring Uganda are now stuck in a torturous limbo, under a constant threat of being deported or unable to support themselves as they wait for flights to resume.

 

It's a holdover from British colonial-era laws reinforced by homegrown evangelical Christian movements 

 

Homosexuality is still considered a criminal offense in both Kenya and Uganda, a holdover from British colonial-era laws reinforced by homegrown evangelical Christian movements. While LGBTQ people face police harassment and the threat of imprisonment in Kenya, it pales in comparison to the aggressive homophobia that characterizes Ugandan political and civil life.

Lydia Boyd, an anthropologists studying Ugandan attitudes towards homosexuality, has observed that the animosity is characterized by a belief that non-hetero sexual identities are an imposition by Western influences, at odds with Ugandan culture and familial bonds that are central to social networks. In recent months, LGBTQ activists have faced threats of violence, one being murdered in his own home, while others have been arrested on suspicion of homosexuality alone.

Rumors began to spread in late 2019 that Uganda was looking to reintroduce an anti-homosexuality bill from 2013, whose original draft included the death penalty for violators but was changed to life imprisonment. Though it was passed by President Yoweri Museveni, it was ultimately overturned by the constitutional court over legal technicalities, following months of international condemnation.

 

“We are afraid of the virus, but we are more afraid of being forgotten by our government”. This is how Elroy (38), an unemployed South African, reacts to the announced delay of the special grants promised to the unemployed and to the needy to face the COVID-19 pandemic. We are in Eldorado Park, a township in the southwest of Johannesburg.

It’s been over two months since the first COVID-19 case was diagnosed in South Africa. In sixty-five days, the country experienced the most dramatic shock of its democratic history, as the population had to adapt to some of the world’s hardest measures, meant to hinder the spread of the virus. The southern African powerhouse began a nationwide lockdown on March 26. A month later, the medical emergency has been overshadowed by social and economical factors. The population’s discontent is on the rise and welfare is compromised, despite the government’s R500 billion (US$27 billion) rescue package.

South Africa has responded to pressure from the international community to take immediate preventative measures since the beginning of March. The country plays an important geopolitical role as part of the G20 and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) assemblies, while its current position of leadership of the African Union makes it a key trendsetter on the continent. The country’s international role gave it the incentives to impose strict regulations, yet, because of the critical social disparity within the country, these same policies are rapidly undermining the livelihood of citizens and residents.

 

Curfew and Prohibition

Crucially, the relief measures introduced and prohibitionist regulations enforced by Minister Bheki Cele’s police force—including the ban on alcohol and tobacco products—backfired in overpopulated urban areas where informal and illicit activities are embedded in the job market and hard to control. “You can find anything you want, if you know where to look,” explains Simone, a spaza (convenience) shop owner in Eldorado Park. “Our business has taken a knock because of the restrictions on sales, while people can buy alcohol and cigarettes on the streets.”

 

The lockdown has exposed existing poverty, crime and drug addiction.

 

In Simone’s neighborhood, the lockdown has exposed existing poverty, crime, and drug addiction. A feeding scheme managed by a local benefactor guarantees everyone a full meal every Thursday. “We are blessed to have support from our friends from outside the township,” admits the scheme founder, Ingrid (57). “The Colored person is South Africa’s love child, with no political backing. They must consider our community too.”

Ingrid’s neighbour is called Cliffton, but everybody in the block knows him as Bob. Today is his 18th birthday. He has been addicted to Mandrax since the age of ten and he doesn’t mind the lockdown. “I can still find my drugs”, he explains; “it’s just a bit of a walk to go and get them.”

 

Sex Workers Are Stranded

In the city center, sex workers are starving victims of police brutality and social stigma. “When I leave my house to buy groceries, the cops harass me or even chase after me” complains Odelle, a Nigerian trans-gender.

 

“I have to do humiliating things for food and shelter.”

 

Amyra, a young sex worker from Zimbabwe, confirms: “before COVID-19, the police would stop me on the street and confiscate my condoms. Now they shoot rubber bullets at me if they find me walking on the street.” Her life has taken a gloomy turn in the last month: “I was a prostitute in a club in Hillbrow, in the city center,” she explains. “I slept and worked there, to send money to my family. As soon as they heard of the lockdown in the club, they closed business and sent everyone away. I was given two days notice to leave. I found a place in a squatter camp, where I have become the sex slave of waste pickers and beggars. I have to do humiliating things for food and shelter.”

Lebo (31) cannot hide her agitation when talking about her family in Lesotho. “My mother and father died, forcing me to look for a job in South Africa. I became a sex worker to support my orphan sisters, but now I can’t even feed myself. I had no customers in weeks, I don’t know how to pay my rents and I can’t leave my siblings to themselves.”

Odelle, Amyra and Lebo are members of the association Sisonke, a network of sex workers led by the national non-profit SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce). SWEAT spokesperson Megan Lessing expresses a growing concern for the condition of over 160,000 sex workers in South Africa. “For many years, we advocated for the legalization of sex work. Today, the lives of almost a million dependents are at stake, as their profession is not recognized and is highly demonized.”

 

The Voice of the Migrants

Millions of foreign residents in South Africa have no right to the relief measures allocated by the government. “There are social development organizations who are giving out hampers to those with a South African ID,” says Sabonjel (21), a resident of Itireleng in Pretoria. “My family doesn’t get anything from them, because we are from Zimbabwe. I cannot even go back home to Zimbabwe, as the borders are closed. I’m really stuck between death and life, and don’t know what to do.”

“Some NGOs came to our township and they asked us to make a big queue,” adds Gracious (22). “We had to make two separate queues, one for foreign nationals and one for South Africans. Before the food parcels could reach us, they were already finished.”

 

The bulk of the immigrant force of South Africa, however, is stuck in the limbo of a growing humanitarian conundrum.

 

Some Southern African migrants managed to repatriate with the help of malaicha traffickers, others drove home before the borders were shut. The bulk of the immigrant force of South Africa, however, is stuck in the limbo of a growing humanitarian conundrum. Linely (37) is losing her hope to return home in Malawi. “My house burned down and I lost everything,” she explains on the verge of tears. “I was able to save my passport which was partially burnt, but now all my savings are up in smoke because of this crisis, and I cannot apply for another one.”

 

One Pandemic, Many Diseases

Hospitals and clinics are congested with patients showing COVID-19 symptoms. Meanwhile, the incidence of other deadly diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis is falling off the radar, while patients struggle to get the medical attention they need.

Phumlani (19) was born with HIV in the ravaged township of Alexandra, in the shade of the skyscrapers of the business district of Sandton. He was recently diagnosed with tuberculosis and commenced treatment three months ago. “His cure should last six months,” explains his sister Thokozo (23), “but with no food in his stomach he can’t take the medications and he’s feeling really sick. The doctors say he should extend the treatment to nine months.”

Thokozo walks a few miles to the clinic, with a newborn baby on her back, to pick up the brother’s medicines. “I no longer have transport money,” she bemoans, “and taxis only operate in the morning these days. I am afraid of nyaope addicts, who steal ARVs to make their drugs.”

 

“In the shanty town, we use communal taps and shared toilets. There is no way we can keep distance from others and stay healthy.”

 

Disabled children and orphans in Alexandra are experiencing a painful stalemate. Sesethu (19) is intellectually disabled and cannot talk. Her mother Lumka (54) and sisters help her complete her school work on a smartphone, while taking turns to collect her monthly grant of R1,700 (less than US$100).

They live in a small tin shack, where social distance is an unrealistic concept. Lumka is scared for her family’s health: “In the shanty town, we use communal taps and shared toilets. There is no way we can keep distance from others and stay healthy.”

 

A Progressive Reopening

On April 23, President Ramaphosa introduced a relaxation on the lockdown measures. Starting May 1, South Africa initiated a necessary restoration of business, in contrast with the escalating incidence of the COVID-19 epidemic in the country.

Many citizens and residents are uncomfortably faced with the option to starve or brave the growing risk of exposure to the virus.

As poverty and unemployment increase social instability in Johannesburg, remittances to neighboring countries such as Lesotho, Zimbabwe, and Malawi shrink, anticipating a grave humanitarian crisis in the region.

While the standstill endures, the people of Johannesburg grow apart and suspicion rises. The wake of the pandemic will shape the future of Southern Africa for years to come.

 

 

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Alexandra, Johannesburg. Orphaned children can only rely on the charity of passers-by. (©Alessandro Parodi)

 

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Eldorado Park, Johannesburg. The army patrols the streets to enforce level 4 restrictions. (© Alessandro Parodi)

 

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Itireleng, Pretoria. Eritta (24) came to South Africa from Malawi in 2015. “We are human, and we share the same space in this world as everyone else does,” she says. (© Manash Das)

 

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Diepsloot, Johannesburg. Hasani (54) is a construction worker from Mozambique. Since he lost his job, the tin walls of his shack are closing in. (© Manash Das)

 

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Pretoria West, Gauteng. The food crisis hardens. The parcels are too few to feed millions who live under the threshold of poverty. (© Manash Das)

 

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Itireleng, Pretoria. “I can starve myself, but I can’t see my two children die of hunger,” says Sabonjel (21). “I’m begging for food from people.” (© Manash Das)

 

 

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Diepsloot, Johannesburg. Abandonment and fear fuel unrest in one of the poorest neighborhoods in South Africa. (© Manash Das)

 

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Itireleng, Pretoria. Only a few torn pages are left of Linely’s (37) passport: “My husband left me and my house burned down.” (© Manash Das)

 

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Diepsloot, Johannesburg. Social distancing is but a mirage in the overpopulated outskirts of the South African metropolis. (© Manash Das)

 

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Diepsloot, Johannesburg. The informal settlement is an endless labyrinth of tin. (© Manash Das)

 

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Alexandra, Johannesburg. The queue to Alex Mall. People walk for several kilometers to reach the shops. (© Manash Das)
transgender
Berea, Johannesburg. Beverly (25) lives in a squatter camp. “I became a sex worker to make money and go back to Zimbabwe, but I don’t know if I will ever make it,” she says. (© Manash Das)
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Alexandra, Johannesburg. Social distancing and hygiene measures are enforced at the entrance to a shopping center. (© Manash Das)

 

 

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Eldorado Park, Johannesburg. Rigid controls are enforced at the entrance to the police station. (© Manash Das)

 

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Itireleng, Pretoria. Masks and food are among the essential items on sale at a spaza shop. (© Manash Das)

 

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Eldorado Park, Johannesburg. “All we have left is hope,” say Elroy (38) and Walter (30). “We didn’t receive our grant this month and can’t even buy bread.” (© Manash Das)

 

Alessandro Parodi is a Johannesburg-based reporter with a passion for cultural studies and urban ethnography. He is a regular contributor to the Italian-South African weekly publication La Voce del Sudafrica and the travel magazine Nomad Africa. (Twitter: @apnews360)

Manash Das is a freelance photojournalist based in South Africa and India. His work mainly focuses on humanitarian issues, conflicts, and daily life. (Twitter: @manashdasorg)

 

São Tomé and Príncipe, a tiny archipelago off the Atlantic coast of Central Africa with tropical rainforests and white beaches, has come to rely on tourism as a primary source of revenue. Before the cruise ships and charter flights stopped coming due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s image as a pristine vacation destination was tarnished by a study published in the scientific journal Acta Médica Portuguesa exposing a persistent and widespread problem of alcoholism.  

 

Much of the alcohol is contaminated with heavy metals.

 

Based on a study with 2,064 participants by Isabel de Santiago, a Portuguese researcher born in São Tomé in 1971, 52 percent of men and 48 percent of women aged between twelve and thirty regularly consume alcohol. Furthermore, much of the alcohol is contaminated with heavy metals, posing health risks to not only those who drink but also infants, as consumption of alcohol while pregnant is common, according to de Santiago.

The publication of the study caused a furor in São Tomé and Príncipe, with even the government accusing de Santiago of deliberately working to damage the country’s reputation and demanding that she apologize.

 

Sao Tome e Principe's president Evaristo do Espirito Santo Carvalho (2R) arrives at the extraordinary summit of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) in Libreville, on December 18, 2019. The extraordinary summit, announced with only a few weeks' notice, aims at beefing up the 11-nation Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) secretariat to create a more powerful commission, similar to that of the AU or European Union. Only four ECCAS heads of state were present -- presidents Idriss Deby Itno of Chad; Faustin-Archange Touadera of the Central African Republic; Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo; and Evaristo Carvalho of Sao Tome and Principe. Steeve Jordan / AFP
President Evaristo Carvalho of São Tomé and Príncipe is welcomed at the extraordinary summit of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) in Libreville on December 18, 2019.

 

The Root of the Problem

Alcohol abuse on the islands can be attributed to a variety of factors, but all of them trace back to a common theme: poverty. Making and selling sugarcane spirits or palm wines is a reliable and steady source of income, where around half of the nation’s 200,000 citizens live on less than $2.17 per day.

As one of the last African countries to confirm the presence of COVID-19, the government of São Tomé and Príncipe has instituted various restrictions to mitigate the spread of the virus, including the suspension of all travel for residents between the islands. With all businesses forced to operate under the same hours, the economic squeeze imposed on residents is likely to compel even more people to make wine or distill spirits as a way to supplement their income, making the fight to eliminate alcoholism even more difficult.

 

A young girl with albinism in Malawi
A Malawian girl with albinism, sitting in her home on April 17, 2015.

 

Albinism is a group of inherited genetic disorders that occur in people of all ethnicities, but it is more prevalent in Africa than elsewhere in the world. People who are born with it produce very little or no melanin, the pigment that determines the color of one’s skin, hair, and eyes. Melanin also plays a role in the development of optic nerves, so people with albinism have vision problems.

In many African countries, albinism is misunderstood and couched in myth and superstition. People with albinism are among the most vulnerable groups in Africa, and now the COVID-19 pandemic is putting them at even higher risk. Conspiracy theories are being shared on social media platforms blaming the community for the virus.

In Malawi, superstitions about people with albinism persist, for example, that it is contagious, or that they’re cursed, or that they will bring bad luck. As a result, Malawians with albinism, a community of some 10,000 people in a population of 20 million, have long suffered discrimination, physical violence, and even murder.

A few extremist witch doctors believe their body parts have magical properties, making them the victims of brutal attacks.

The Association of Persons with Albinism in Malawi (APAM) has documented the murder of twenty-five people with albinism since 2014, and a further thirteen who are still missing. Thousands live in fear of being abducted and killed. When neighboring Tanzania moved to protect this community in 2015, it led to a rise in the number of attacks against people with albinism in Malawi.

 

Scapegoats

Malawi is preparing for a presidential election rerun in early July, after the constitutional court annulled last year’s results over irregularities. “There is an [increased] threat of abductions and killings of persons with albinism ahead of the fresh presidential election,” says Ian Simbota, president of APAM. “And now we are hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

As of May 4, Malawi had reported forty-one confirmed cases of COVID-19 and three deaths from the disease.

Simbota says in such an atmosphere of political tension and stress about the disease, attacks against albinos will increase, as they are wrongly blamed for the virus. This is one of many myths circulating about the virus that the Thomson Reuters Foundation has warned against. The World Health Organization describes it as an “infodemic” that could put people living in remote and rural areas at greater risk of being infected.

 

“Persons with albinism are among the poorest in the country.”

 

Other  Vulnerable Communities

Maria Jose Torres, United Nations resident coordinator for Malawi, spoke at the launch of the national COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan on April 8 in the capital Lilongwe. “Through our support towards the implementation of this plan, we will be fulfilling our primary role of protecting the lives of vulnerable people in Malawi during this disaster,” she said. “This should include persons living with disabilities or chronic illnesses, persons with albinism, single-headed households, remote villages, LGBTI persons, persons living with HIV/AIDS, the elderly, refugees and those living in extreme poverty.

 

UN official Malawi
Ikponwosa Ero, a Nigerian lawyer and UN independent expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism, addressing a press conference at the end of an official visit to Malawi on April 29, 2016.

 

Those likely at most risk from COVID-19 are Malawians who have HIV/AIDS. Some 9.2 percent of the adult population of Malawi are HIV-positive, one of the highest infection rates in the world. An estimated 1 million Malawians live with HIV, and some 13,000 Malawians died from AIDS-related causes in 2018. Currently, about 89 percent of the Malawians who are HIV-positive are able to suppress the virus with antiviral medication. International programs such as the US government’s PEPFAR program help to fund this treatment.

Yet, it is such programs that are at the center of the controversy surrounding Malawi’s response to COVID-19. Civil society organizations have criticized the government for a lack of transparency and accountability regarding the use of taxes and donor funds in the name of COVID-19. 

Simbota worries that money meant to help people with albinism and other marginalized communities will be misappropriated. He wonders why, when the government says it is working with vulnerable people, it has not approached APAM. “The government is just taking advantage of COVID-19 to squander funds from our taxes and donations,” he says. “Look at the way this so-called cabinet committee on COVID-19 is sharing money among themselves.

“Persons with albinism are among the poorest in the country, but most of the time they are sidelined when it comes to accessing Malawi's Social Cash Transfer Programme or loans.”


MacDonald Nyirenda is a social entrepreneur, activist, and writer based in Malawi. 

 

Sahrawi refugee children welcome the new UN envoy for the disputed territory of Western Sahara to the Aousserd camp for Sahrawi refugees on the outskirts of Tindouf on October 18, 2017.  RYAD KRAMDI / AFP
Sahrawi refugee children welcome the new UN envoy for the disputed territory of Western Sahara to Aousserd refugee camp in Tindouf, Algeria. (Ryad Kramdi/AFP)

 

Sahrawi children living in refugee camps in southwest Algeria’s will benefit from a recent $452,000 contribution by the French government. The money will be used to support a school feeding program that provides for more than 40,000 children, run by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). The goal of the program is to encourage refugee children to stay in school by guaranteeing a mid-morning snack.

 

Harsh Conditions

Refugees have been living in this collection of camps located in Algeria’s Tindouf province since 1975, having fled conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front during the Western Sahara War. It is one of the longest-standing refugee crises in the world.

Given the harsh conditions of the Sahara Desert, refugees here have come to rely almost entirely on the WFP and the UN refugee agency UNHCR for food. As of December 31, 2018, the UNHCR estimated that 90,000 Sahrawi refugees lived in the five camps in Tindouf.

On April 24, seventeen people were killed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Virunga National Park, thirteen of them park rangers and employees. Three other rangers were seriously injured. In a statement, the park said it could confirm the perpetrators of the attack were rebels of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).

 

FDLR rebels have been active in this part of the DRC since the end of the Rwandan genocide.

 

The attack is one of the worst suffered in the park, which spans 7 769 square kilometers in the east of the country, along the borders of Rwanda and Uganda. Virunga has seen much conflict, and there has always been competition for the park’s rich natural resources. FDLR rebels have been active in this part of the DRC since the end of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, attacking ethnic Tutsis in the DRC and sometimes launching cross-border raids into Rwanda.

 

A picture taken on July 17, 2016 shows trucks carrying people and being part of the Congolese army convoy which drives through the national park of Virunga. The convoy, established by the Congolese Army on early 2016, aims to insure security in face of a wave of civilian kidnappings between the villages of Kiwanja and Kanyabayonga, in the southeastern part of the province of North Kivu. Eduardo Soteras / AFP
An army convoy traveling through Virunga National Park. (Eduardo Soteras / AFP)

 

Long-Standing Tensions

Lingering resentment over Rwanda’s involvement in the Second Congo War (1998–2003) has spoiled relations between the two nations, but diplomatic overtures between DRC president Félix Tshisekedi and Rwandan president Paul Kagame have sought to set political divisions aside and boost regional integration and private investments. However, the recent arrest of Tshisekedi’s chief of staff Vital Kamerhe, who helped to initiate the rapprochement between the two leaders, could potentially jeopardize these efforts. 

 

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