The Spirit of IY

A skinny figure in an orange vest and straw trilby hurries towards me, hand outstretched.

‘Lenny’s my name, guiding’s my game. English? What’s your team? Mine’s Liverpool. ‘Scuse me a minute.’ He gabbles into his mobile, hunching his shoulder to hold it in the crook of his neck while high-fiving a passing posse of teenage boys. An elderly mama trundles a pram piled with fruit along the bank of the sluggish, jackal-yellow river. She tosses Lenny a mango which he fields with a flourish, the scent of the ripe flesh briefly competing with his aftershave.

Realising an answer isn’t expected, I concentrate on keeping pace with him as he strides up the main street of Imizamo Yethu, a township which straggles the fringes of popular Hout Bay resort outside Cape Town.

Lenny relays fragments of the township’s history in short bursts, between more phone calls and shouted greetings: to toothless Josh, rattling open the grille on the eponymous tavern; to the two guys fixing side panels on their rust-and-scarlet Nissan Bluebird with duct tape; to the hairdresser, smoking at the door of her salon and to the smiling goddess who sashays from its gloomy interior, newly- coiled braids gleaming in the sun.

‘IY’, as it’s known locally, like many of South Africa’s ‘informal settlements’ is being gradually improved. About one third of the dwellings are now brick, but the majority of the roughly 34,000 townspeople who moved here in the late 1980s, mainly from Transkei, Eastern Cape, still live in basic shacks built from plywood and flattened oil drums, with ill-fitting, corrugated tin roofs. Seen from the air, those roofs form a sparkling silver lake; up close they’re a metaphor for the tarnished state of post-apartheid politics. Amongst the satellite dishes, which sprout like tree fungi, laundry flutters defiantly against a searing sky: few here have access to running water and twenty families share one toilet.

We reach the kindergarten where the children fizz and giggle, eager to perform. Though the words are in Xhosa, there’s no mistaking the tune or actions of Frère Jacques. No sooner has the last ding, dang, dong rung out than Lenny—football coach, drugs counsellor and project worker, as I’ve discovered during our walkabout—is rushing me off again. He wants to show me a photo of him shaking hands with former Irish President, Mary McAleese. (An Irish benefactor has invested a lot of money in the township’s refurbishment and Lenny was one of the committee who visited Dublin).

The photo is in his office, a room at the back of the community church, where a service is underway. I demur but Lenny marches through, so I tiptoe apologetically in his wake. There’s no time to linger among the hollered ‘hallelujahs’ and fervent ‘Amens’; I must pay due homage to Lenny’s moment of glory.

It’s a small enough courtesy to extend to this man whose spirit embodies that of his township. Imizamo Yethu translates as Our Combined Efforts.

© Moira Ashley
This article was published in the Telegraph, February 2019.
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