Returning to Itipini

Before ordination, I worked for a couple of years as a young adult missionary of the Episcopal Church in a shantytown community outside Mthatha, South Africa. The community was called Itipini, a word that literally means “at the dump,” which is an appropriate name for a community that grew up on the site of a municipal garbage dump. (Hence the name of my book about this community, Grace at the Garbage Dump.)

Here’s what Itipini looked like in December 2007. (The community stretched a significant distance in both directions.)IMG_3395

In 2012, after a complicated dispute, the municipality razed Itipini to the ground, displacing the scores and scores of families who lived there. (I wrote about that dispute when it happened in a series of two posts.)

I recently returned to Itipini for the first time since its destruction and took a picture from the identical location as the one in 2008.IMG_2043

Unless you knew what you were looking for, you would not have any idea that this was once a place where people were born, lived, and died. You can see the ruins of the pre-school and clinic in which I used to work. Perhaps the most prominent feature in the landscape is the palm tree, which stood next to the playground and which we watered every day with our mop bucket water. It would now tower over the playground—if the playground were still there.

I spent a lot of my time in Mthatha tracking down former residents of Itipini to find out what had happened to them. There is now what could be called an “Itipini diaspora” scattered around town and encountering these old friends in their new lives brought out a complex combination of emotions.

I’ll have more to say about those visits in future posts—as well as more on the series of events that led up to the razing of Itipini—but for now I am struck by how easily and how quickly a whole community can be wiped out—out of the landscape, out of our consciousness, out of our memories. No one wants to live on an old garbage dump. But when people begin to, it becomes a home for them. Destroying that home has not done a single thing to address any of the issues that underlay the decision to live in a place like Itipini. But by wiping it off the map, it has become that much easier to forget that these people even exist.

There is lots of debate in the church about what mission means and how we “do” it. But perhaps the first task of mission is simply to stand with our sisters and brothers when they say, “We exist. We are here. Do not forget us.”

The hard job of being a white male

When I lived in South Africa, I was often confounded by the role of men in Itipini, the shantytown community I worked in: unemployed, uneducated, with little prospects for the future, they seemed to be more of a burden on the community than an aid. Four and a half years ago, I wrote:

On my drive in to Itipini, I see a few young men pushing carts into town, hoping to make a few rand (for beer) that way. They are only 18 or 20 and I wonder how they would reply if they were asked – as I was at that age – “where do you see yourself in 10 years?” I realize future-thinking is a luxury of the financially secure but it is hard for me to see how the path they are on is a positive one. They have little education and few employable skills. Having something to look forward to, I’ve realized, is a great gift. What do they have?

Women keep on keepin’ on it seems. As men spiral into nothingness, women still keep the household running by whatever means they can. In so doing, they are building up their own skills and their own reservoir of power. Men don’t realize it now but they’re going to look up some day and realize any social status they once had has completely dissipated.

These thoughts were greatly expanded and developed into a chapter in my book, Grace at the Garbage Dump. I’ve also thought about these issues of masculinity in relation to Alaska Natives.

After the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado in July, I read this interesting blog post: “What’s Wrong with White Men?”

Why is no one asking what’s wrong with White Men in the United States?

With the newest mass shooting in Aurora, CO captivating the nation, it seems someone should ask the question.  After all, if we had a pattern of Women walking into public places, heavily armed, and killing everyone possible, you can guarantee the headlines would read, “What’s wrong with American Women!?”

Now, after the shooting in Newtown, the same things are being raised, this time in the New York Times:

I come from a small town near Fort Worth, Texas. In this region, like many others across the United States, young men are having a very hard time of it. When I consider how all of the people I knew there are faring, including my own family members, the women have come out considerably better than the men. While many of the women were pregnant in high school and have struggled with abusive relationships, financial hardships and addictions, they’ve often found ways to make their lives work, at least provisionally, and to live with their children if not provide for them in more substantial ways.

The same cannot be said for many young men in the region, who are often absent fathers of multiple children by multiple women, unemployed or underemployed, sullen and full of rage. While every woman in my family has done O.K. in the end, every man on one side of my family except for my grandfather has spent time in jail, abused drugs or alcohol, suffered from acute depression, or all of the above. Furthermore, pervasive methamphetamine use, alcoholism, physical and psychological abuse and severe depression have swept not only my hometown and my region but large segments of the United States. If this pattern is not familiar to you personally, I am certain it is the lived experience of someone you know.

So perhaps it’s time for a serious conversation about white masculinity in the United States of the twenty-first century, especially lower-class white masculinity. What role can the church play in this conversation? What is the vision of masculinity (of personhood) presented in the Bible? Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” (John 10:10) How can we ensure this fullness of life for those who are losing out on the way the world is structured?

Stepping away

Back in May, I wrote two posts about the razing of Itipini, the shantytown community in South Africa that I used to work in (and which I wrote a book about.)

I haven’t been good about keeping this blog updated with news from Itipini, in part because the destruction of Itipini filled me with such mixed emotion, I barely knew how to begin writing about it.

But some things have become clear in the intervening months. African Medical Mission, the NGO that ran the Itipini Community Project, has announced that it is ending its work there and beginning the process of winding down its work. Jenny McConnachie, the Episcopal missionary who worked in Itipini, is stepping away from the work.

I managed to get my thoughts in order to write about that for the Episcopal News Service:

There is a sense in the church, at times, that the era of long-term overseas mission is behind us; that people who devoted their lives to the church around the world belong only to the history books. We speak now primarily of short-term trips and companion diocese relationships. These are important elements of the church’s role in God’s mission.

At the same time, however, Jenny—and the other long-term missionaries like her around the world—embody our church’s commitment to taking our role in the global body of Christ. Their work with our sisters and brothers around the world is a concrete step towards realizing the unity for which Jesus prayed among his followers. People like Jenny—who shun the spotlight and never imagine their work has any significance beyond its local context—are some of the most important representatives of the Episcopal Church around the world. Their long-term commitments allow them to develop deep relationships and accomplish much.

You can read the whole thing here.

More Itipini news

Karen in Mthatha has two new posts about what life is like now that Itipini has been demolished.

She writes about how increased government attention to Itipini in recent months has had a tragic downside:

It seems that finally having the attention of the municipality, though, has come with a price. However, being on the radar meant that when the incident in Waterfall happened, the police and municipality pounced. Itipini, to the municipal government, was always the problem that they just never dealt with. Now they’re dealing with it, but in way that completely disregards the humanity of people at Itipini. The way they’re handing it is dehumanizing, destructive, and utterly reckless.

She also has pictures of where people have resettled and how difficult life is there.

Update from Itipini

Karen in South Africa has an update on how life carries on in Itipini, despite its demolition last week.

A normal number of people came to the clinic, we had prayers on the veranda, people came for food, and there were people hanging out on the bench outside the clinic all day, chattering and laughing.

For more background on Itipini, you can read the first two chapters of my book about the community for free on Amazon.

When the only tool you have is a hammer… (Part II)

…every problem begins to look like a nail.

This is the second of two posts looking at why the Itipini community—the shantytown community where I worked for two years—was bulldozed last week. Read the first post if you haven’t already.

There’s one aspect of life in Itipini I left out of the earlier post and that has to do with young men. For a variety of reasons (all of which I discuss at length in my book), young men are problematic actors in society: unemployed, uneducated, and prone to violence and crime. (Those are some harsh generalizations, I know: read the book to learn more.) In fact, when I worked in Itipini it sometimes seemed like young men existed to father children (but not rear them), get drunk, and commit crimes. One of the roles of community leaders in Itipini was to keep a lid on the young men: send them back to the rural areas, try to find them work, or whatever would keep them out of trouble.

That’s some background to the news that in recent weeks and months, tension in Itipini has increased. It’s hard to know exactly why this was happening. Perhaps one or two of the community leaders had moved out and the precarious balance that kept the community on an even keel was disrupted. Perhaps too many new people had moved into the community who didn’t understand the mores of the place. Perhaps young men were proving unable to control. I don’t have any special insight here. You can read Karen’s posts for more on what has been happening.

One result of this is that the municipal government actually made an effort to respond to the needs of people in Itipini. I almost didn’t believe it when I heard it. They came in and registered people for the government housing. It’s hard to see just what this would do, of course, given that many of these people already were on the wait list and there doesn’t seem to be any plans to build new homes. But at least Itipini was on the map.

Despite this intervention, the even keel of the community was so disrupted that people in Waterfall began to get upset and accused people (read: young men) in Itipini of stealing from them. Not long ago, some young men from Itipini killed a woman who lives near Waterfall. The police got involved, though in South Africa this is not always a great thing. (That meant the newspaper covered it.) In any event, it was all too much for folks in Waterfall. They began agitating even more and pretty soon there were notices posted in Itipini that the city was going to clear the squatters and they had to move out. Where? That hardly seemed to matter. The line of thinking seemed to be that if Itipini was gone, the problem would be no more. There’s no thought taken for the number of problems it would create, like where everyone in Itipini would live.

(Here it is time for a little aside: if I were a reporter in Mthatha interested in the demolition of Itipini, I’d be asking this question: who ordered the demolition? This clearly became a feud between Waterfall and Itipini. Since Waterfall is an actual neighbourhood of Mthatha, it has political representation in municipal government, something that Itipini, for all intents and purposes, lacks. [Remember: everyone wishes Itipini wasn’t there.] When it comes down to it, Waterfall is more powerful than Itipini. Its [justifiable] complaints about safety trump any considerations about what will happen now that Itipini has been destroyed. I imagine there is someone higher up the political food chain in Mthatha who took this opportunity to get rid of Itipini, something the city didn’t want anyway, and satisfy folks in Waterfall. In any community, the folks who drive bulldozers are always taking orders from someone else.)

Back to those posters in Itipini. People felt free to ignore them because similar threats have been made in the past but nothing ever happened. But not this time. On Thursday morning, the bulldozers showed up. Apparently, people were not given time to remove their possessions from their homes. They simply had to do their best from the crumpled remains, even as (so I have been told) the tin that made up their walls was bundled up to be sold for scrap.

Now, lots of people are living in a Rotary Hall in another nearby neighbourhood. Many others are, I imagine, living with friends and relatives in other parts of Mthatha, swelling the capacity of already overwhelmed homes. There’s word that the government just wants to send all these folks back “home,” i.e. to their rural village. But many have not been there in years and have little connection there, yet alone a place to live.

And that brings me to the title of this series of posts. There are a lot of difficult, complex factors that combine to produce the urban poverty that results in a place like Itipini. Resolving these problems is not simply a matter of demolishing Itipini and declaring the problem solved. (It is not at all clear, for instance, that demolishing Itipini will reduce crime in Waterfall. Young men will still be young men.) Doing away with places like Itipini—which we all long for—means a better school system, jobs for people who are educated, and so on and so forth. None of those things are easy of course. But it seems like folks in Mthatha’s government got the idea that demolition was all that was needed. So they took blunt instruments—the bulldozer—to complex issues. The result? Devastation.

The people who lived in Itipini are, well, people. True, in Mthatha and the rest of the world they are often essentially invisible; everyone does their best to forget they exist. But they are people, with hopes and dreams and imperfections and foibles just like the rest of us. The basic premise of my book about Itipini is that these are people whose story deserves to be told, just like anyone else. What they definitely do not deserve is to have their homes destroyed as if they are meaningless, forgotten people. Yet that is exactly what has happened.

When the only tool you have is a hammer… (Part I)

…every problem begins to look like a nail.

That saying has been rolling around my head these past few days as I process the news that Itipini—the shantytown community on a garbage dump in South Africa where I worked for two years—has been bulldozed. Why did this happen? In this post and the next, I’m going to offer my best answer to that question. But, first, some background.

First of all, no one wants to live on a garbage dump. That should be an indisputable fact. People live in a place like Itipini because there is no other option: there are no opportunities in their rural village so they move to an urban area like Mthatha to look for some kind of work in the informal economy: fruit stand, pushing grocery carts, etc. Some seem to be doing well enough—a dollar or two a day seems not bad in comparison to rural poverty—that they “put down roots,” improving their shacks enough that it begins to feel something like a home. They have children here. The children may know the name of the village their parents came from and say that they too are “from” that village but for all intents and purposes the family is now resident in Mthatha. It isn’t a great life by any means but it is one that has some predictability to it.

The thing is, the city government doesn’t like a community like Itipini very much. It makes city leaders look bad when the first thing you see driving into Mthatha is a tumble-down cluster of shacks on a hill. So the city leaders adopt an age-old approach: ignore Itipini. When I worked in Itipini, it was all but impossible to get a social worker, a police officer, or a municipal politician to care about Itipini. I remember a woman who had her shack burned down by a drunk young man who accused her of being a witch: neither the fire department nor the police department ever did a single thing about it.

They’re helped in this by the social opprobrium attached to residents of Itipini. Remember, when you say, “I live in Itipini,” you’re saying, “I live at the dump.” Because Itipini is ignored, it’s a place where crime can flourish: the only time the police ever came to Itipini is when they were hunting for an escaped prisoner. So folks in Itipini compensate by a de facto community governance system that keeps a lid on violence and lets people live as best they can. In my limited understanding, it’s not unlike what happens in housing projects in the U.S.: informal governance for an informal community.

Meanwhile, the post-apartheid government has made strides toward building housing for people who live in places like Itipini. These are the neighbourhoods of what I have heard called “Mandela mansions”—what we in the U.S. would call “the projects.” There are three such neighbourhoods in Mthatha and one is often called “Waterfall” because it is close to a dam on the Mthatha River. The housing is often quite good—cinder block, running water nearby, a patch of ground that can support a garden. It looks like this.

But there are numerous problems with these neighbourhoods. First, there simply aren’t enough. Many people who once lived in Itipini have been moved to these new neighbourhoods but many people remain on never-ending waiting lists. Second, these neighbourhoods are on the edge of town (that’s where the open land is). But to work in Mthatha’s informal economy you have to be in the city centre. That can mean a bus fare of a dollar or two each way into town just to keep making that dollar or two a day you were making before. In that situation, it can seem sensible to stay in a place like Itipini, within walking distance of town. Third, the growth of these new neighbourhoods has not been accompanied by a similar expansion of government services. If you need a clinic, a school, a police station, whatever, you have to trek a very long way. The Itipini clinic made the decision to continue to treat people who had once lived in Itipini but had since been moved away. That includes people from Waterfall.

All of this is some context for the events of recent weeks. It helps explain why Itipini is called an “informal settlement”: the government has an “informal” relationship with the people and would prefer they didn’t exist. Itipini detracts from the idea that the government is making progress with its neighbourhoods of Mandela mansions. Technically, the people of Itipini are squatters on municipal land. But since there is really no other place for them to go, the government looks the other way and lets them alone.

The existence of a place like Itipini is a testament to the fact that South Africa’s socio-economic problems are complicated and not easily soluble. For every person that is moved out of Itipini, another person from the rural areas comes to Mthatha looking for work and winds up in Itipini. People in Itipini can’t simply be “sent home” to their rural village because Mthatha is their home. Unless there is economic opportunity in these new neighbourhoods—or jobs in the formal economy—people will continue to want to live close to where the action is.

The situation as I’ve described it is not unique to Itipini, of course. There are one or two other informal settlements in Mthatha (none built on garbage dumps and none quite as large) and there are hundreds more around the country, all created by similar dynamics that cannot simply be solved by building lots of new housing—though lots of new housing would definitely help.

So that’s the context… in the next post, I’ll think about how this context informs the events of the past few weeks and months.

UPDATE: The second post in this series has been posted.


Last Thursday, the shantytown community in South Africa in which I used to work—the place I wrote a book about—was demolished.

You can read an account from one of my successors, Karen.

There are many factors at work here, many complicated, and I’m still trying to untangle all of them. For now, though, consider this picture I took in 2007.

Now consider this picture of the same place Karen took the other day.

Have a look at this image of a woman I knew well when I worked in Itipini.

Look at this one taken by Karen of the same woman with all her belongings.

Whatever the reasons, whatever the intent, whatever the plan, the impact of this move is absolutely devastating. It is a man-made disaster.

Please pray for the residents of Itipini. Details to follow as I track them down.

UPDATE: My two part (part one and part two) account of some of the background to this is now online. For more background on Itipini, you can read the first two chapters of my book on Itipini for free on Amazon.