Words: Travis Lyle (photos: as per credit)
Once upon a time, back in 2015 when our offices were still in the old Bijou building in Obs, Cape Town, our small year-round office team often heard screams from the street outside. They would often be coming from a seemingly crazy homeless lady, who was damn fierce, sometimes drunk and very vocal in her battles with other humans. We were wary of her; she was dressed in rags and was clearly an extremely angry person. But then, you couldn’t blame her: living on the street in cold, rain, baking heat and summer winds, living hand to mouth and day to day is a rough place to be. At night, boozy assholes from a nightclub across the road would accost her. Prowling weirdos would drive by and shout at her, or try their luck – so she developed that fierce defense out of necessity. It was no way for a person to live, but she had no choice. She was homeless and living rough.
Over time, our team introduced themselves and we got to know her name. We would offer her a cup of tea, and she would sometimes, despite her pride, accept these and other gestures of assistance. Over a year period, she slowly moved from sleeping across the road to the relative shelter of the doorstep at the bottom of our stairway. As time passed and she realised that we were genuinely trying to help her without any ulterior motives, she warmed to us and opened up. An artist that moved into one of the studios in the Bijou – Chris Denovan – also asked her permission to paint her portrait, the results of which you see here on this page.
She began to tell us her story. And it was one hell of a story. She had been through hell, and was still living it.
Eventually, after more than a year and many discussions among our team about how we could help without placing her under any pressure or obligation to do or be anything other than she wanted, she offered to help us in our office and yard with some small tasks. She did this of her own volition, explaining that she wanted start the journey of earning a little money and so reclaim some measure of her own self-worth and pride. She chose to risk trusting people again, and we welcomed her in. We offered her the option of using our yard’s bathroom – our office didn’t have a shower – but initially because we had a fierce watchdog in our yard, this didn’t go well. But after a while even Max the dog took a liking to her, and she made the transition to regularly using our yard’s facilities. She started getting more involved: at volunteer days, with odd jobs around the office, and by greeting us warmly each day outside our door. At this point, she was still sleeping outside, but her means had changed: people she had met coming & going in and out of our offices had donated clothes and bedding, and occasionally she would take herself along to a local shelter to sleep when the heaviest winter rains came down.
By 2016, the fierce homeless lady had become a member of our family; at any event we were busy with, she lent a hand and got stuck in. She started asking us about what exactly it was that we did, in Cape Town at events like Streetopia and also out in the desert for those ‘weeks when you disappear’. We showed her some photos and videos: she was blown away, and she told us that she wanted to experience this thing called AfrikaBurn, because the people that she had met passing through our doors were good people who treated her with respect. Soon enough, we agreed to assist her with a halfway house where she could get on her feet. She offered to help us with office work, filing, admin, packing and sorting gear. Next, she asked for help in drafting her CV – and as she explained her past to us, and the work she’d done in the past in Johannesburg and elsewhere, so we got a clearer picture of the hell she’d lived through. In late 2016, after roughly two years of her increasingly becoming involved in our office and activities, she stepped up to do a course in office admin and computer training in order to take up a position on our team. Soon after this, she asked if she could join us in the desert, where she went on to help out in our event operations centre.
Her first experience of Tankwa Town blew her mind, completely. She informed us that she’d never met or experienced people treating her as an equal and with respect like she has when amongst our community. There were tears, of joy and gratitude, on both sides.
Her name is Nokubonga Vusani, and she is now our Office Manager, earning a regular salary. If & when you come to our offices in Salt River, she’s the first person you’ll meet – and you’ll be greeted warmly by her, every time. If you’re lucky – like many of our team have been – she’ll also teach you some isiXhosa while she chuckles at your clumsy pronunciation. She’s an asset to our team and organisation, and she’s become a member of our AfrikaBurn family: as an integral member of our year-round staff, and also as a member of our community, heading up camp Soberland, which she’s become involved with as she’s charted a course for a life lived better and without the booze that once held her down and dulled the pain of living rough. She’s also become part of the team that volunteers its time to distribute Blessing Bags, an initiative that collects & distributes bags containing basic necessities to homeless f0lks in Cape Town – basically, paying it forward to those who find themselves in a situation that’s she’s personally familiar with.
For the past year, Bongi has been staying at a halfway home which has provided a stable space where she’s been able to connect with others who’ve trod a similar path. As she’s grown into her new life, so she’s now set her sights on becoming a homeowner and taking her life and independence forward into a brighter future. And that’s where where she is now: taking the next steps to rise above the serious challenges she’s faced.
Siyabulela, Bongi – thank you for being a member of our family, we love you!
If you’re a sober member of our community, or you’re in recovery, and you’re looking to connect with folks like you this year in Tankwa Town, you’re invited to contact Bongi about Soberland, the camp she’s spearheading.
Contact her on [email protected]