Today is Nelson Mandela’s birthday and in South Africa Madiba has asked us to volunteer our time doing something for the community. I went with some friends to Blikkiesdorp (“Tin Can Town”) which is a township, or slum about 30 minutes from Cape Town.
When I arrived I was immediately drawn towards a small wooden wall that ran along the length of a shack facing the central square. This turned out to be the home of Chevon and Lionel Kleansmith; Chevon was standing there with her infant daughter and invited me inside to sit in the shade and chat. Her limited English only emphasized the wisdom of her worldview as she answered my questions about her values. (“Listening is worth more”). She asked me why I made street art and when I mentioned hope and dignity she lit up immediately saying that this was the name of the 1-month old in her arms: Hope.
At that moment her sister-in-law and mother-in-law strode through the doorway, having driven up in their own car clad in designer handbags and sunglasses. We were introduced and then I continued the conversation asking Chevon why she had named her daughter Hope. Her sister-in-law Melody interrupted and stated that they were upset by Chevon’s pregnancy because the family lived in such poverty. “It’s a crime to bring another life into this place.” Her English was impeccable. Cybil, the mother-in-law silently nodded her agreement to all of this. Chevon was deeply humiliated by the disappointment in her that these two so forthrightly expressed to me – a guest in her home. Eventually these two left and I told Chevon that I felt God had given me a blessing for her. She agreed to let me paint the words.
Her older children and many others helped me complete the piece. One very small girl about 2 years old stroked my hair as I knelt, evidently doing her best to soothe me. Henry (pictured here) was the biggest help shaking cans and holding stencils and doing quite a bit of dancing. As we were finishing up, Melody returned and got out of the car. Chevon was inside and Melody just stood there staring at the piece with her mouth sort of scrunched up to the side. For about three full minutes she stared. With no small resolution in her step she approached me and said, “I know that you wrote this for Chevon, but you know – God has written it to me. I haven’t been completely honest with you or my family. Truthfully, when I see that my brother is blessed with children, I am shaken by envy. It is for this reason that I ignore Hope.” She turned around and went inside.
When it came time to leave I went inside and said goodbye to everyone. Chevon and Melody both followed me to the door covered in small children, laughing and teasing me and saying farewell.
Posted July 18th, 2012