Gardening in the Townships, Part Two: Gugulethu

The second stop was another medical clinic, this time in the black township of Gugulethu. The contrast is stark. The housing consists of small square shacks made of a combination of boards, sheet metal, and basically anything that can be made to serve as a wall covering. There are gaps in the walls clearly visible from a moving car. The roofs are flat and equally random in quality. There is little in the way of uniformity of paint, with graffiti the more common theme. These structures look to be single room, and are crammed together so tightly that under different circumstances could be reminiscent of the camping at a music festival—except thousands of families call this home, and things like plumbing are not part of the arrangement. Crime and poverty are the dominant theme. This clinic was in a gated compound with a guard shack at the entrance. Here the mission was to regain territory lost to the grass and add more plantings to a flower garden at the clinic entrance. We descended on the plot of ground and went on the attack.

A pitchfork had been temporarily set aside, and I was starting to try to make some headway with root removal. A man who announced that he was a patient there indicated that he wanted to work. He proceeded to commandeer the pitchfork and started digging in. I could tell that he had the right idea and fell into a rhythm with him. As he loosened roots, I attempted to remove the loose ones. We were making good progress, but he clearly had some issues. He was speaking a mix of English and what I believe was Afrikaans and kept going on about “his child” and with some agitation wanting someone to bring the child there. He repeatedly announced that he was a patient there. He also told me that his name was Patrique and he had been diagnosed with HIV almost twenty years ago. Others kept reassuring him and tried to keep him calm. After this had gone on for about twenty minutes he finally got so upset that they led him away. I later found out that the clinic people had never seen him before. When the guards took him to the gate he apparently demanded to be paid for his work. We will never know if any of his story was true. The only thing that was clear was his sighting of a chance to exchange work for labor—unfortunately in the midst of a group of volunteers.

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