Tuesday, April 13, 2010
It is the biggest day of their lives: white dresses, an iced cake, weeks of careful preparation for the big day – and the solemn “I do” before the congregation.
No... not a wedding. This is Confirmation Sunday.
We were in Lotus River, a poor “coloured” community of Cape Town (why do the worst areas always have such beguiling names?). The morning service was filled with family and friends, whose highlight was the opportunity to take communion together with “their” confirmation candidate. This is then followed by the afternoon Confirmation Tea, complete with photographs, prayers and speeches.
For many of these 16 year olds, this is their coming of age ceremony. By the time they are 21 they have already faced the crisis of finding work, been in debt, dealt with drugs, alcohol, and petty crime, had children, perhaps got married, and seen all the other challenges of adult life that this impoverished community throws at young people.
So I went to Confirmation tea with families in the council flats. These are three story cement blocks, where people live (literally) on top of each other. The walls have graffiti of local interest: one wall proclaimed support for Everton FC, while another claimed territory for a local gang. There is scuffed playpark equipment populated with clambering children, and ‘pimped-up’ 20 year old cars that are the status symbols of the young men hanging around the edges of the cement park.
The first home had a make-shift shelter attached to the front wall. This is probably used as a “shebeen” - selling liquour to the neighbourhood for extra income - because the granny has to care for the four toddlers that her children had produced. Sunday afternoon turned this into a tea venue. We sat around the walls, while the main table held the confirmation cake. The princess of the day sat behind the table, while each of the guests lined up to have photographs taken with her. The church leader then arrived to lead the family in a prayer, after which the table was declared “open” and tea was served. The table was loaded with doughnuts (called koeksusters in this community), potato crisps, sweets, small cakes thickly iced with bright colours, and bright red or green cooldrink.
After what we considered a respectful time of visiting, my wife Jenny and I excused ourselves and made our way upstairs to the next home. We passed doorways that spilled loud music, tripped over bicycles on the landing, and finally emerged on the top of the flight of concrete stairs and knocked on the door. It was opened by a total stranger who invited us in. We discovered that she was the “neighbour from downstairs” who had come to help for the occasion. I walked into a lounge just large enough for a table covered with the requisite chips/sweets/cakes/cooldrink and confirmation cake. There was a two-seater sofa, and one other chair. Jenny and I squeezed onto the single chair while the grandmother, her friend, and the white-clad confirmee sat on the other two seats.
And all conversation dried up. We all struggled to find common ground. The 16 year old was too tongue-tied in the presence of older adults, the granny remained painfully silent, and her friend tried to hold the show together by recounting her work as a domestic worker in the upmarket suburb of Pinelands. Jenny and I drank a cooldrink, ate some chips and took a photograph. I then prayed with the three of them, and wished them well before making my escape. It was dreadfully sad – the evident grinding poverty of the grandmother, contrasted by her desire to “do the right thing” for her granddaughter.
As we left we bumped into the mother of the 16 year old, who was coming up the stairs. She is probably in her early thirties, care-worn by her life.... and pregnant. All I could do was wish her God’s blessing.