The Heartbreaking Unfairness of Poverty

Dear all

I met Nyebho during rehearsals for a theatre play in Grahamstown (now Makhanda), in 2000. I was the live musician for the play. The director picked on Nyebho, or should I say, there was difficulty between them. What I sensed was that he possessed almost an uncontrollable urge to express. He could do without the director.

I walked up to him. I asked him if he loved to improvise. His whole face lit up and he said, yes! So I suggested to him that the two of us go to a spot out of town, where you could see as far as the Amatole mountains, and we improvise there, as two South Africans, one black, one white. And this we did. Every now and then (I was based there at the time).

During these rolling improvisations, his small but muscled body convulsed with dramatic expression, with speech in English and Xhosa, his native language. He would go into mime, dance, singing. I used these precious moments to probe him, the life he’d lived, the thoughts of his mind, of his culture. Nyebho was no urbanite. He was “raw” Xhosa. He was no black person in the First World who “qualified” to live an operate in a white environment. With him, you dealt with another culture, another human energy still rooted in Africa, in tradition, customs, and poverty.

Poverty. Nyebho at the time gained a lot of training and experience being  employed in theatre productions, connected to the local university and the National Arts Festival. But after some years, he grew impatient. He wanted to develop theatre in and for his community. He started saying no to production offers, poor as he was. He had no job. He had family, community. And he qualified as a sangoma (spiritual healer) which gave him some standing. Like so many, many in South Africa, he lived from day to day, often going to bed hungry (the power of hunger, he used to say, is the worst).

Our friendship grew. I only saw him when visiting Grahamstown during my travels. I started to “employ” him in performances of my own. We did crazy things – in theatre, on the streets, still going back to our “spot” overlooking the Amatole to continue our conversation as two divided South Africans. He never begged me for money. But I paid him to perform, and would never part without giving him something so he can eat for the next day or two.

Effort upon effort he put in to get a regular income as an independent artist, relying on community work. Performances at church, schools. Projects in collaboration with the local councilor and so on. I helped him with some paperwork, being a reference for recommendations, meeting with interested parties, having long conversations by phone as he reported the latest. Always positive, he was.

But there was a dark side too. When things did not work out, as they often did, he would slump into a depression, prone to drinking if he had the cash for it. And smoking marijuana. Sometimes he got very ill, living in a dilapidated one bedroom house of his mother, at the edge of Rhini, Grahamstown’s vast township. In the early years, she still lived with him, but later moved to Port Elizabeth. He was alone. Also, he had a relationship with a young women called Zama. They had two children. The first died when a pot of boiling porridge fell from their stove on top of him while they were outside. The second is now a teenager in Port Elizabeth. The relationship with Zama soured and she left him. He was cast out by her and her family. He had to hear this over and over again: he was weak man, an artist with no money.

After a decade or more of efforts and schemes and excited plans leading nowhere, he was looking to find a better life in Port Elizabeth, a port city with oceans of surrounding poverty. But at least his family was there and more opportunity. It was only over the last year that the reports from him showed positive solidity. He now even had a sort of  office in their local councilor’s building as he worked with her on youth projects and performing more regularly at celebrations and schools.

On top of this euphoria, he met a young woman and fell instantly in love. Nyebho’s craving to be socially respected edged him on to promise to marry this woman. He got me on the phone with her mother who introduced herself quite confidently as “the mother in law.” The wedding date was set for January, when I and Joke and Mira would be able to attend. He also managed to save up some money to buy a motorcycle. Two weeks ago, I borrowed him an amount so he can go ahead and buy it (he was dreaming of his own transport for so many years).

But in all of this good news, there was a snag. A big one. A widespread African tradition is the payment of “lobola” by the prospective husband to the bride’s family. In its original form there were no hard an fast rules and could even be waived if the families agreed on it. The woman was to build a house for the newly wed couple and the family who educated her needed to be compensated for that. They would also lose an economic asset by parting with their daughter. And then the man needed to show he was serious about having her, and so on. Western culture brought measurements and more sharp definitions. Good meaning white people started introducing set “prices” for lobola and stricter rules. Eventually, as traditional contexts weakened and poverty increased, lobola was more and more abused and regarded as a money-making opportunity.

Now, Nyebho mentioned this lobola thing a few times in our last conversations. He had to pay. I did not prod him on the matter and he did not ask me for money. He did ask me however for the contact number of one of his theatre erstwhile employers and I presumed he would have looked out for help from him.

I will never know all that transpired around this issue, whether the number I gave him still worked, or if he did make contact but did not get any help, what the families negotiated, what promises he made to them and what the expected amount was – which can run into thousands of dollars. I sent him the contact number Sunday a week ago. On the Monday afternoon, his sister call me. “Nyebho has passed away. This morning he hanged himself.”

The shock went deep into my heart. People, as we all, do pass away. Death mostly come in its time. And my heart cries and move on. But Nyebho’s death feels impossible, like it just should not be! I am filled with such a storm of feelings. Feelings about having lost a friend, a true one; feelings about the deep difficulties relating as a privileged white human to a poor and more “raw” traditional African one; feelings of anger for why he and his genius had to suffer so much just to survive in this world; feelings of guilt – could I not have been there more for him during these times? At least to talk with him, like we did so often, about the tension between tradition and the creative life? Feelings of pain for our country and its crazy economic divides, that still runs largely along a black-white divide; and feelings of desperation for a world where these divides are only intensifying.

Nyebho: caught between his need for social recognition and the economic realities of being a poor artist; caught between still being dependent on his family for a home and the fact that the last home where he could live independently were sold; caught between an overcrowded township and the opportunities it offered; caught between love and money. They say that disappointment is much more dangerous for a depressed person when things go well. Add to that too much drink and a resulting anxiety attack mixed up with the sense of worthlessness stamped on him for much of his life and you have a recipe for disaster.

And a disaster it is: for his family, his expectant bride, his community, and for all of us who knew his person and his gift, his heroic insistence on sharing his gift with and empowering his own community.

It’s a disaster for me. I lost a friend. When friendship cuts through so many divides, you taste a human core that defies all our petty compartments and hateful assumptions. My tears for Nyebho draws me deeper into the soils of the Beloved Country. I feel helpless. And at the same time I want to cry out more loudly that WE CAN DO BETTER THAN THIS. Losing a friend, and a tenuous link to another whole part of the human family, melts all cynical individualism. Without the noise of endless rationalizations, your heart just wells up with this one sense that THIS IS NOT FAIR.

I have actually no more words. May his death, just as his life, always be a marker to me, showing up the privileges I have, reminding me of the full circle of the human condition. And may I, with all my shortcomings and limitations, bring my tiny bit to contribute to the healing of it all.

Francois (HA!Man)

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the house where Nyebho grew up and eventually lived by himself crazy acts.. here in Grahamstown’s Box Theatre in an improvisation with oranges
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Nyebho the spiritual leader with a singing ensemble in front of the shack he built for himself once, where the pot fell and killed his firstborn
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he was very upset about this vandalized school, a colossal waste of resources through politics that failed the community the township near Port Elizabeth where he last lived
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Nyebho taking a photo of his son, leading a marching band. Now the prospects for this troubled boy look particularly bad I have lost a friend

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