Thursday, June 08, 2006

Rest in Peace, Winnie Jonas


Hello to everyone out there! As promised, I would like to share the real reason why I spent the past ten days in Knysna, besides the Pink Loerie (see previous email). It was my second time visiting Knysna, and also the second funeral that I attended: last time I was at the funeral of Beatty's last sister (of seven), Jennifer, but on Saturday I attended the funeral of Beatty's mother, Winnie Jonas. The last time that I saw Winnie, she was laying in bed, weak from her several trips back and forth to the hospital because of insulin shock and diabetes. As I said goodbye to her, she grabbed my hand and said, "I love you. God bless you." I had only known Winnie for one month, and it was really only after her death, when I returned for her funeral, that I realized what an amazing woman she was. As one cousin said, this was going to be "The funeral of the year" because WInnie was such a community leader, was a mother to everyone especially to the local street children. During the week, there were services everynight (yes I returned to the township at night and actually did feel safe in their neighborhood) where people would talk about her, ranging from youth who considered her a mother to her fellow ANC (Mandela's African National Congress) women. It was only after this week that I am beginning to see how her individual life story's hardships and triumphs reflect a larger story of South Africa.

Born into an apartheid system, a system where the white minority ruled over the black and colored majority, her dark color skin already determined where she would live and how she would be treated even before her first words were spoken. She grew up in a township near The Heads (the most beautiful part of the city, on the water with crashing waves into mountains). Since the whites wanted this land for themselves, and could just steal it, they did: they bulldozed the township, sending thousands to Nekkies, the township at the top of a steep 6 km hill, the township now where Beatty lives and where MadAboutArt is. When Winnie protested this and other unjust practice, she like thousands of other men and women of color, were arrested and thrown in jail for a few days. At the age of 15, she began working for a wealthy family in town as the house servant (cooking cleaning raising the children). Sometimes she would stay for months at a time at the house, her children still in the township at the top of the hill. But when she started the community soup kitchen, she would come home more often, sometimes walking up the hill twice in one day just to cook the soup and feed the hungry street children. She helped start the community art center, and ensured that her house was always friendly to children. She was loved by everyone. After working for this family for 32 years, and breastfeeding their children, her boss died and left in his will his house to Winnie. Unfortunately, his second wife sold the house and everything, leaving Winnie with only about $150 for her 32 years of work.

But things got better when democracy came and she could vote. Yes, she still lives in the township but for her the freedom to go wherever she wanted was a huge improvement.
Still, there were problems, hardships, and heartaches, most notably from my experience with her and her family: HIV. Living in a country with the highest number of infected people, living in the township with amongst the highest rates of infection, Winnie too, like millions of others, was affected by HIV. She buried three children to AIDS. I noticed a red ribbon on her church dress, a big step in a place with a huge stigma around HIV. Her last living daughter, who is also HIV positive, has now become one of my dear friends here in South Africa for so many reasons, and has been in almost every email update: Beatty (who I now call Mookie, her nickname).

Her funeral was in many ways a celebration of her life. Hundreds of people came to honor her and the work she did in the community. When I saw her body, I sat in the corner, holding back tears until a woman came beside me, put her hand on mine, and said that it's better to let it out than hold it in, and then to be strong for Beatty. I did start crying, out of sadness that this amazing woman had left the world, out of worry of how Beatty was going to face the challenge of being the one in charge now, and especially out of awe and humility at being included, welcomed, and embraced into this community. It's not that I feel sorry for them, it's more than I could not help but think of how unfair and unjust the world can be, and how even though when I come to Nekkies I have seen first-hand death, hunger and disease...thaty still it is such a privilege to be there.

At the funeral service itself, as the men covered her casket with dirt, the women broke into song and dance (the stereotypes are true, their singing is ridiculously beautiful and spiritual for me). It was an amazing experience for me, and I actually got pushed close into the dancing with my video camera- a moment that filmmakers dream of.

For me, what was amazing about the past week, as Beatty prepared for her mother's funeral, was just becoming part of the community. As each day passed, when I picked up her grandfather or ate African food (they were really surprised by this) or just sat around talking with people, I felt less like a guest and more like a good family friend. It was such so amazing to be included in Beatty's life like this, and I do feel that I was able to offer good support- one night I actually brought the much coveted KFC to Beatty at a time when she was really depressed because some members of her family were saying that the house was now theirs, not Beatty's, and that they were going to ask a cousin to come stay- the very same cousin that raped her when she was 13. I sat with her on her bed and we talked, eating biscuits with her year and a half yeard old adorable daughter and her five year old nephew she is now taking care of.

The next day I went with Beatty to get her HIV medication (ARV's) from the hospital in town. I have gone once before and sat out in the car, but this time she asked if I would come in with her (it's a place where people's confidentiality is guarded). As we waited to see the doctor, Beatty started talking with the woman beside her, who was telling me in English about the sideffects of the ARVs. Beatty, who is now on her third month and gets them for free bc she makes less than $500 per month, was telling her that this is normal, and that it would almost be over. She comforted her, told her she has known of her status since 1997 (she was 15 years old) and that positive things can come from it. She shared that her own daughter is negative and that this woman too could have a second child and, if she took the pills, ensure the child would be negative as well. All of this took place in English, which meant that they were actively choosing to let me listen to their conversation, since they could speak their native Xhosa instead (and did at other times also while I sat there). Despite the fact that Beatty has gone through a lot, that she put her eldest sister and mother in the ground within one month, here she was, giving advice and strength to an HIV positive woman like herself. I knew then, that Winnie's spirit and strength have been passed on to my friend Beatty, and I am humbled to be able to experience and to film that.

Well, as usual there is so much more to say, but the bottom line is that the past week was a really good, albeit sad, one for me- to not just be a filmmaker there but to be a supportive friend. I asked Beatty is she's ever had a white friend her age before and she said no. When I asked what she thought, she said, "It is awesome, especially when you stayed in the township." Half-way through my time here in South Africa, I could not have put it better myself- Awesome.

Love to all!