I came to learn how to build a cob wall; instead I learned the story of my life before I even stepped onto the building site.
It was day 18 at the Freedom Square shack replacement building site in Bloemfontein, but my first day on the premises. The walls of Lientjie’s new house were already about three quarters completed. The first one and a half meters from the floor up was made of compounded tyres and solid cob packed firmly into and onto a reinforced metal grid. From this solid section of wall up toward the beams, the building team has started to experiment with decorative wall building techniques such as inserting colored glass bottles in patterns into the cob and carving edgings onto the walls. The total effect is of a mud wall inserted with an array of miniature skylights. It was still early morning and the sun spilled through the little skylights in mesmerizing colour.
So how does one build a cob wall? In an ideal world it would be with a rigorously tested cob mix of course. However, in this part of Freedom Square location life is hardly ideal. Here lives the abject economic disadvantaged and marginalized, those whose only option is to make do with what they have. Even the earth lacks succor and consists of 70% clay. The Qala Phelang Tala building team, as change agent and mentor, has therefore devised a method of ensuring an optimal cob mix, by mixing in a ratio of dry horse dung and fine sand.
By now each member of the regular building team has established their niche. While Ellen Maphalane and Tiisettso Chobokoane were making bottle bricks, Abraham Nkotywa was layering the wall with cob mix and finished bottle bricks. Mokoena Maphalane carried buckets of clay, horse dung, sand and water to the mixing area and all stomped the cob mix together. Tiisetso two year old niece, Pimelo, was following suit and industriously heaving water back and forth in her small porridge bowl. Anita was decorating the cob walls with her carvings while Oretile, the little boy from across the street, was avidly watching her every move. He was totally engrossed by Anita’s unique skill and the beautiful wall art that she was creating.
Tiisetso showing the Occupational Therapy students the finer art of refining details on the wall.
Each member of this seemingly ragamuffin building team has his/her own story of hardship and grief, adversity and woe. Abraham is 62 and has suffered from cancer, interspersed with periods of remission, throughout is life. His four children all passed away young, two as babies and two during toddlerhood. His wife also passed away of cancer. Two years ago, during a particularly robust bout of full blown cancer, he prepared himself for dying and bequeathed his house to his brother. Abraham survived the cancer, but found himself homeless upon finally being released from the hospital. He now lives in a tiny, battered shack at the back of his brother’s house, the house that once belonged to Abraham and that he had given to his brother. Abraham used to be a builder and his natural skill is evident in the perfect symmetry of the wall that he is busy building, his bare hands the only tools of his trade.
Mokoena is only 28, but was born with a heart defect. He suffered a stroke at 26 and is now partially impaired on the left side of his body. Mokoena, physically supported by his mother, Ellen, walks 5km every morning from their shack on the other side of Freedom Square location to the building site. For Mokoena life has gained new meaning since he started participating in the building activities. He spent his childhood on the periphery of normal youthful activity. As a result of his weak heart, he could never participate in games and sports with his friends and school mates. Now he is in the thick of things, actively contributing hard labour toward building a house for a fellow community member, while at the same time learning the skills that will enable him to one day built his own house for himself and his mother.
Waldo and Hugo joining building activities in the school holidays; here Mokoena and Abram show them the ‘seretse jive’ (mud dance).
Abraham and Mokoena both came to be a part of the Qala Phelang Tala building mentorship programme as a result of being out-patients at the University of the Free State’s Occupational Therapy clinic in Rocklands location. Their presence is testimony to the effort and dedication of Heidi Morgan and Bronwyn Kemp to reintroduce their patients back into their communities as fully functional members, able to contribute towards and participate in living a full life.
As for the humble story of my life – well, I was standing in the doorway of Lientjie’s existing shack dwelling and hesitantly introduced myself to the three adolescents inside. They courteously reciprocated and introduced themselves as Thembeke (18), Lonkululeko (16) and Kenneth (15) and invited me in. We chatted tentatively for a while and I asked about the beads they were wearing. It turns out that they are a trio of aspiring sangomas. The calling from the ancestors runs in their family and each one of their lives is currently a conundrum of figuring out how to heed their calling, appease the ancestors, while still having a normal adolescent life and attend to school and studies. After about an hour or so Kenneth produced a small, vibrantly patterned bag and benevolently offered to throw the bones for me. I cautiously obliged. He asked me to blow three times into the bag. A short ritual ensued of shaking the bag, repeating my name and singing softly. He emptied the little bag on the floor in front of me.
The Freedom Square Shack Replacement crew on site, day 18.
I could not help but be transfixed by the contents that now lay scattered at my feet. Among the bones, shells, beads and trinkets lay four large steel nails. The first thing I noticed was that they all lay with their sharp ends facing away from me. I remember thinking: “that must be a good thing!”. According to my trio of hosts, this was indeed the case. It meant that there are no people in my life who actively wished me harm. As for the rest of the story told by the bones – all I am prepared to say is that it cut disconcertingly close to the bone. However, I somehow doubt that I will consent to having the bones thrown for me again. The prospect of those nails potentially facing me with their sharp ends next time is too dreadful to contemplate. Quit while ahead, me thinks…
Contributed by Amanda de Gouveia on behalf of QPT. Photos courtesy of QPT. Please visit their Facebook page for more photos of the day.
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Amanda de Gouveia has been a research assistant at the Centre for Development Support at the University of the Free State since 2010, where she has mostly been involved in research projects on social development and local economic development. This has refined a unique repertoire of research skills, both qualitative and quantitative. She has also Masters degree in Research Psychology.