Strange, painful, and maybe ridiculous. Those are the first words that come
to mind as I reflect on my experience of Valhalla Park. On being introduced to
Valhalla Park, our class first met upbeat members of the Civic in a well-kept library
before wandering off with our respective tour guides, mine being Fatima and
Margaret. At this point in time, I am not sure how many neighborhoods are part of
Valhalla Park or where exactly I wandered (if given a map). But I did note that we
(Matt, Jessica, myself) explored Astorland and 7 De Laan during the hour that we
walked around. The latter I believe is an informal settlement.
The first few structures that were pointed out to us were service facilities: a
baby clinic, an HIV clinic, a TB clinic, and the Civic Community Center- all in close
proximity. We also saw in one neighborhood both a Mosque and a Church. As I
walked down the street wind blew sand in my teeth. It tasted salty and I couldn’t
help but wonder what germs just got in my mouth. Margaret asked us if we would
mind if she smoked and we said no. Fatima told us that everyone was a smoker in
Valhalla Park because they were always constantly stressed. Throughout the
course of the hour, Margaret smoked at least three cigarettes. The area closest to
the library seemed the most organized with paved streets and formal looking
Next we moved into Astorland. The paved streets disappeared, as did the
formal housing. The ground was dusty and streams of water from taps often
created muddy spots. We passed outdoor toilets in groups of three made out of
metal. Fatima informed us that the community had to toi-toi for these toilets.
However, looking up close, it appeared that the toilets that were struggled for were
also defaced. There was graffiti on the toilet walls with phrases such as “Rude boy,”
referring I suppose to Rhianna’s pop hit. Flies swarmed around that area though
right next door there was also a house with a lovely community garden.
As we moved through the neighborhoods, Fatima made sure to point out
Somalianspazas versus South African spazas. I told her I had read the article and
understood. I tried to ask questions as we walked along. I asked our guides to
clarify why there seemed to be numbers on all the houses and was informed that it
indicated people’s place in line for built houses. I am not sure if I noted this
correctly but I was told that Astorland was a swatter camp with 97 shacks that has
been in existence for about 9 years, or perhaps that refers to 7 de Laan, the informal
settlement. I am a bit confused on the difference between a swatter camp and an
informal settlement since they look similar but I think that the latter has no
mandate by government to exist and so it exists unlawfully, while the swatter camp
is registered with the government. It doesn’t have better services by any means but
I suppose the residents are “legitimately” occupying land.
Part of Astorland was built in a vacant parking lot amid a park for children.
There were playbars for children to hang on and mess around and that day there
was a crowd. Walking further into the settlement, we saw more children in the
streets. We also saw many dogs. I was surprised by the shear number of children.
One of the sights that struck me the most was that of Beauvallon High School in
Astorland. We walked past a completely dilapidated and unused area of the school
and it hurt me to see an educational facility so downtrodden. Graffitied on the walls
OBSERVATIONS & REFLECTION 1
of the school: “Fock the Police We Run this Bi” and “28.” I thought about the kids I
had seen just a little bit earlier in the walk who “ganster-swagged” past me with a
stereo on one of their shoulders blasting rap music while avoiding eye contact and
smiles. I wonder what opportunities a school like this can provide for its students
and how many drop out discouraged.
Next we walked down an allyway that was filled with trash which was
necessary to get to 7 de Laan. We were informed that bulldozers cleared the trash
from that ally every week, however people kept throwing trash there even though
there were bins. The informal settlement did not look much different from what we
had seen. There were no signs on the roads though Fatima informed us at one point
that we were on Long Street, since it was the longest street in 7 de Laan. How very
different from the Long Street I usually associate with.
We moved away from 7 de Laan and started walking back to Fatima’s house.
Suddenly there were paved streets and sidewalks. There were also well-
designedhouses with artistic addresses. There were also some Christmas lights up.
This community resides in the shadow of table mountain: the world’s most
beautiful natural wonder in juxtaposition to man’s socially engineered mess.
I’m not sure why “strange”was the first word that I could come up with when
trying to describe Valhalla Park but I suspect it’s because I seek some emotional
distance from what I saw and so am content to end with: I don’t understand. This,
Valhalla Park, is a foreign concept apart from myself: my space- both emotional and
physical. I don’t understand the deprivation. I don’t understand dis-organized life
at this level. I don’t comprehend how families survive. I can’t imagine children
finding any reason to be motivated in schools. I don’t understand how people can be
strong enough to withstand hunger and violence. And then, I wonder how Fatima
and Margaret and even strangers on the street can still laugh and care about other
people and stay strong in faith.
The world seems bleak in so many ways and what gives the spirit the
courage to survive and to love and to remain human?- intact with compassion and
hope.I know that last bit is dramatic but I stand by it. Hurt, neglect, and deprivation
can desensitize the soul and numb it to living.Strange. It is just very strange-
devastating and awe-inspiringat the same time. When you are teetering on the edge
I suppose there are only two options: survive or don’t survive. The strong survive.
The women of the Civic survive. But it would be remiss to not acknowledge that
there are those that do not survive this urban environment: those who lose
themselves in drug abuse or lose their lives in gangsterism, those who succumb to
violence against strangers and lose bits of their humanity with those desperate
moves, or those who accept their poverty and give up.
I can only be thankful for the strength of the women of the Civic and how I
imagine their determination and fearless commitment to a dignified life for all must
uplift their communities. Their spirits remind me of one of my favorite quotes by
philosopher George Santayana:
“The world is not respectable; it is mortal, tormented, confused, deluded forever; but it is
shot through with beauty, with love, with glints of courage and laughter; and in these, the
spirit blooms timidly, and struggles to the light amid the thorns.”
I would subtract the word: “timidly,” replace it with “vivaciously,” and then I
believe it would be spot on.With all that is wrong with this world, thank God the strong
survive. In the midst of tormenting and chaotic conditions of poverty what a wonder that
human beings can still hope and love and strive for a better life.What a beautiful,
Profiles of Two Civic Volunteers:
Fatima is a 49 year old woman and has lived for 36 years in Valhalla Park.
She lives in a one bedroom house with a kitchen, living room, and bathroom. There
is a bungalow in the back and she built a front room in the yard to provide an
additional bedroom and also a backyard bungalow. Her house is very well kept and
she has nice dollie decorations on her furniture. There are painted faux doorframes
around her passageways and china hangs on the walls. She has lived in her home
for 21 years. Prior to moving to Valhalla Park she lived in Retreat, near Simon’s
Town on the Cape Flats until her bid for a house came up in 1976.
She has four children: two boys and two girls. She also has five
grandchildren: two boys and three girls. In her household, she cares for her
youngest son Mohammad Zane, her daughter and her granddaughter. Her elder son
is serving an 8-year sentence in jail and she also financially contributes to caring for
him by leaving money at the prison so he can purchase necessities.
Fatima is unemployed due to disability but she has been working as a Civic
research guide for students for the last seven years. She used to work in the
clothing factories doing ironing but that stopped when the clothing factory shut
down. Now she is “not allowed” to find work since the government provides her
with disability. She is not working because she is physically unfit since she has
arthritis in her spine, in the lower back. When the pain is severe she can’t use her
legs and can’t even walk to the bathroom without assistance and gets dizzy. She
cannot get government money for work though sometimes if there is a cash-only job
she will go for the work. Fatima also suffered from TB for over two years.
Though her daughter is of working age, Fatima is the only person in the home
that contributes to the household income. The main expenses include paying for
rent, water, and electricity.Her income is supplemented by renting out her back
bungalow to a woman and her two children who were displaced from their home.
She makes 350R/mt from this. She is on a disability grant, which provides her with
1170R/mt. She is also receiving child support for Mohammad Zane since he is
underage in the amount of 270R/mt. This makes for a total of 1790R/mt for a
household of four.
When I asked Fatima about how much or how often she buys food she gave a
very evasive answer. She just told us that she buys food when she can and also that
she has no time for shopping. She says sometimes she will have two pieces of bread
and porridge for dinner. Fortunately Mohammad Zane who is about nine years old
gets one meal a day at school. Sometimes she will spend 1R on a mini meal or 2R on
Fatima says that sometimes her children worry about her but she tells them
to not worry about her and to just be happy they have a mother who is concerned
about them.She seems like a very loving mother. Fatima was married for 20 years
to a husband who abused her. However, she has been divorced for the last nine
years and last year her ex-husband passed away. She finally divorced her husband
because her children had grown to an age when they were trying to interfere on her
behalf and she did not want them to get hurt. She has been taking care of her
granddaughter since her daughter became pregnant in grade 10 and dropped out of
school. She bemoans that so many young girls are having babies and calls it a
“sickness.” However, she decided to be very supportive of her daughter so that her
grandchild would enter the world into a loving family. She also tries to visit her son
who is in prison when possible, though it is very difficult and requires a day trip
since the prison is 2 hours away and she has to take minibuses. Fatima is sad
sometimes that she can’t buy Mohammad Zane Christmas presents since he is still a
Fatima says that without God she can’t do anything and is thankful to God for
Margaret is a 51 year-old woman who has lived for 31 years in Valhalla Park.
Her family used to live with her uncle but he was not very good to them and they
were finally able to move when their bid came up for a house in Valhalla Park. She
has two children, a boy and a girl and two grandchildren. Her 27 year-old daughter
has a four year old and her 30 year old son has a three year old. Neither are married
and both of her grown children live in the household, though only her daughter’s
child lives with them. They also live with Margaret’s mother who is 79 years old.
Margaret’s husband has been dead for ten years and I am not sure but it sounds like
he might have been murdered.
No one living in the household works and the family survives on Margaret’s
mother’s pension of 1170R/mt.Both Margaret’s children are looking for work. The
family also receives 270R in child support for the one child. In total this amounts to
1440R/mt for a family of five. This again pays for electricity, rent, water, and food.
However, Margaret also works informally, sometimes doing the washing for her
brother’s sister-in-law making 50R at a time.
Margaret has also been in the hospital recently for ailments such as arthritis,
high blood pressure, and gastrointestinal ulcers. Her son has also been sick and in
and out of the hospital for severe headaches. She has been taking care of her
brother for the last few months since he suffered a stroke. With lots of therapy he
can again walk, feed himself, and wash his hand.
In terms of food, the family survives on bread, tea, and water. Margaret says:
“We got nothing but sometimes we share.” Sometimes they will cook ramen noodles
with bones and generally they just eat cheap food. She says that a problem is going
to the market when people know that you have disability/pension since they will
purposefully overcharge you for food. In general, she says the family buys food
when they can. She says some people in the neighborhood have money, some don’t,
but neighbors are not very generous. Also, at this point, due to competition, stores
can no longer afford to let anyone buy on credit. Margeret told me she is excited for
one day when she has a boyfriend and she can “enjoy his wages” which really spoke
to me about how important relationships are in this environment not only for
emotional support but simply for economic reasons.
Write a journal that reflects on the ‘sense scapes’ as articulated by Ross (2010) that
resonates with your field experience in your area, and the problems of observing and
beginning to grapple with making sense of everyday life in Valhalla Park.
Ross speaks about her frustrations navigating an area with her friend. She
speaks about how the map she was constructing in her mind was “a formal and
distanced representation, modeled on street maps” while her friend’s was “an
intimate and immediate representation, modeled on social relationships.” They
could not understand each other and grew frustrated with why the other could not
follow their “logical” plan.
I had a very similar experience of misunderstandings this last trip to Valhalla
Park. Fatima and I were assigned to a portion (section 3) of the larger map of
Valhalla Park and given a smaller neighborhood map that showed the houses we
were responsible for interviewing. Immediately Fatima told me to disregard the
map we were given because we would go first to another area. She and Alex’s guide
had decided to switch one street in our area (3) for a street in their area (4) because
Alex’s guide was more familiar with the business owners on that street. Fatima took
me immediately to the middle of a block where there was a Somalianspaza shop and
told me to interview the Somalians and the owner, who was her good friend.
Before I begin, I looked down at my map and of course it was not on my map
(map 3) but on Alex’s map (map 4). Alex and I had switched one map and so I also
had this on hand. However, I had no idea where I was. I asked Fatima who kept
repeating to me: “Mariiieeee Street.” “But where?” I asked her, pointing to the map.
“Mariee Street. The Somalian shop.” “But where?...on the map,” I asked, growing a
bit frustrated. This was not even the area we were suppose to cover and I was
confused about the deal she had worked out with Alex’s guide without either of us
knowing. “Oh!” said Fatima. She asked the owner who informed her it was plot 20.
I looked again at the map. That information did not help me. “I need to find it on the
map,” I told her. Finally, Fatima decided to count houses and then came, looked at
my map, and pointed to one of the boxes. “There.”
I decided to just trust her word on this and marked the house. I really had no
other way of knowing as I could barely orient myself. Next, I interviewed the
OBSERVATIONS & REFLECTION 2
Somalian shopkeepers and the owner. It was a successful interview and I met my
criteria for that class- interview one business owner. Fatima then told me she was
going to take me across the street to another business owner she knew. She wanted
me to do in-depth interviews with everyone I met that day which made me feel quite
stressed. I had no way of organizing my data using her methods of jumping from
house to house, was not even interviewing in the area assigned to me, and could
only guess at where the houses were located. I explained that I only wanted to do
one and wanted to spend the rest of the time getting acquainted with the area where
we were going to work if that was okay. I also tried to explain to her that it was our
intention to interview someone from every house on the map. We wanted to find
out about businesses to create a yellow pages booklet but also wanted to see if we
could just learn about informal economy undertakings and how people survive
without formal sector jobs. I pulled out the map of Valhalla Park and asked her if we
could please go to Section 3 of the map. She agreed and we begin to walk to Section
3 though she told me it was a waste of time to interview every house since she
already knew where the businesses were and others did not make money. “But how
do they eat then?” I asked. She did not give me an answer.
I looked across the way and suddenly Alex and her guide appeared. Alex
seemed similarly flustered. Fatima saw Alex’s guide and came over to speak with
her. She told her that she was in the wrong area and that they were interviewing on
the wrong street. We were now in Section 3 and the guides had only agreed to
switch one street, and not the one that we were suddenly standing in the middle of.
Alex and I kept looking at our maps, trying to come to our own understanding of
exactly what our guides had agreed to. Ross comments, “the sense of disorientation
I have described here has physical, emotional and cognitive components: coming to
know a space was not the product solely of a visual relation with a landscape but an
embodied one.” I felt entirely disembodied and disoriented physically, emotionally,
and cognitively. As soon as my plan of following the simple drawing was tossed
aside, I had no idea what to do or how to fulfill my goals.
I did my best in those hours to accept that I was lost and confused. Luckily,
there was much else to see and to think about. I was so thrilled to get a glimpse into
small, entrepreneurial businesses, since these are not apparent on first sight.
Someone once gave me great advice: never assume that a community is lifeless or
without hope. Firstly, that is completely false. People live, even in the most dire of
circumstances, very normal people live and are trying to make and sustain a life for
themselves. Secondly, it would be foolish of me to “understand,” organize, and
categorize with my limited schemas something that does not belong to me. Looking
out of a bus window who would know that on the second house of Eleanor street
there is an old woman who boils peaches to make and sells her own popsicles or
that across the street from her there is a man who repackages spices in small
quantities to make a few rand a day. Who would know that the man who runs a
shebeen is a grandfather of six trying to provide for his family? I am thankful that I
have the opportunity to see this side of Valhalla Park.
Evaluate Myer’s point that field researchers need to constantly revisit and re-evaluate
the balance between selfishness and selflessness and between expression of
situatedness and respect for subjects or audiences, throughout the field experience. In
what ways have you shared and negotiated your own positionality and privacy, your
Valhalla Park partner’s, and your interviewee’s identities (positionality and privacy)?
Illustrate your reflection on these issues in the context of actual interviews.
On the first day we met, Fatima told me her entire life story. She told me how
her ex-husband abused her, how her son was in jail, the problems of tik in the
community, about her disabilities, and about how she struggled to feed and support
her family. I listened. It struck me deeply. This was a woman who understood
something about pain and perseverance. We had a connection and it came from her
willingness to expose herself honestly. She had something to give and to teach: who
she was, her struggles and the strength that she acquired with faith.
I remember that this first day I wanted so badly to give back. What could I
give? I wanted to bring groceries- but I didn’t know if that was appropriate. I
wanted to tell her who I was and about aspects of her life that also ran through
mine, but I didn’t know how to begin. I have thought a lot throughout this
experience about negotiating my privacy and positionality as a researcher with the
desire to be honest and open. My struggles with the issues Myer’s brought up had
more to do with my own privacy then the privacy of the people I was interviewing,
mostly because my research focused on unpacking business strategies and
understandings, which is not as sensitive as analyzing life stories or questions of
how one makes ends meet.
Instead, my struggle with privacy and positionality came through my
relationship with Fatima, my field guide. Throughout this process, I felt my
connection with Fatima becoming weaker and weaker, rather than stronger. This
was incredibly frustrating because it seemed as if everyone else was forming a
tighter connecting with his/her guide. We could walk in silence from one block to
another. I’m not sure how she felt but in any event, I think it was my fault due to my
inability to negotiate this balance between retaining my privacy and exposing
myself for the sake of authenticity. I am not sure if I was being selfish in holding
back “parts of my soul” from the “field of play in fieldwork.” As Myer expresses,
“one quickly learns that selfishness must give way to a sharing, an open-ended
identity enmeshed in a community” and that “there is no vantage outside the
actuality of relationships between culture … that might allow one the
epistemological privilege of somehow judging, evaluating and interpreting free of
the encumbering interests, emotions, and engagements of the ongoing relationships
themselves.” And yet, I could not bring myself to release those parts of my soul, my
own secrets into the playing field.
OBSERVATIONS & REFLECTION 3
In my own way, I understand pain intimately and hearing similar (though
also completely different) stories makes me want to talk about my experiences in
exchange. I’m not sure if that is my method of moving from the outside to the inside,
expressing empathy and showing that “I understand you” in an experiential way.
But in the format of this class, I was not sure if that was appropriate or should be
necessary. It’s not about me. And besides that, what happens when you move from
a researcher-community worker relationship to a friend-friend relationship, which
perhaps comes when the privacy barrier is broken? What stories would a more
intimate relationship elicit and would this knowledge be appropriate to report on?
Would she be telling me stories thinking that they would stop with me or would she
be telling me still cognizant that I am a researcher? What vulnerabilities could that
expose beyond the script she willingly gave me of her life history the first time we
met? As Meyer states, it is necessary to remember that research is a “triangular field
of relationships that also involves a multifaceted audience for the text”. As I identify
as a researcher, I cannot ignore that third party which I am also obligated to.
In some ways, I think I was afraid of forming a “real” relationship. I wanted
the distance between us- though that goes against my instincts as a person. I could
not be comfortable asking her more personal questions without exposing myself
and maybe to protect both of us, I avoided this circumstance all together. I am not
sure. I just know that I found myself frustrated but unable to work my way out of
feeling alienated. As a researcher, I feel there is an ethical dilemma. Is it fair to ask
someone about their pain, their deepest, darkest, most shameful secrets? Is it okay
to ask these things as an outsider and then leave and give little, if anything? I
suppose there is something cathartic about telling one’s story? Is that the gift?
When I know so much of someone’s pain and spend time thinking about
his/her dark secrets, yet I reveal nothing about myself, it is hard for me to sustain a
connection. I feel like I am being dishonest and end up retreating into myself. In
hiding myself, my own life story, I lost my ability to interact with Fatima as deeply as
I could have. I am not sure why it is so important for me to reveal myself in order to
be ‘free’ but it is, especially since she had the opportunity to reveal everything she
wanted about herself in one fell swoop. There always seemed to be a border
between us, oddly forged by our commonalities. Maybe this would have fallen away
more naturally with time. However, in six weeks when my main objective was to
interview other community members about business, I could not accomplish it.
I feel like this is the struggle of being a researcher. Am I supposed to form a
real friendship where there is mutual exchange or am I supposed to observe, listen,
and report? I am still finding that balance between selfishness and selflessness that
Myers discusses and I am still confused. To be enmeshed for months in participant-
observation (like Myers) is one thing but in this come and go situation, I found it
much more difficult to reveal an authentic self and feel comfortable in my skin as a
In the chapter we’ve read this week (Making Ends Meet), Ross reflects on the economic
realities of work and household economies, particularly their instabilities and
unpredictability, and the ways in which they operate on the short term. She unravels
the ways in which these realities interplay with local notions of respectability, shaping
individual and family lives in “the Park.” Draw on this chapter (or a particular
element of it) to interpret and reflect on the ways in which interviewees this week
spoke about their businesses and/or household realities.
My goal for this week was to unpack the business mentality behind decisions
that small business owners make in Valhalla Park. Since there are so many
businesses in my area, I decided to focus on understanding how they operate rather
than focusing on “making ends meet,” though these two questions are very related. I
wanted to understand:
1. How businesses understand their customers and their market
a. Who in the neighborhood buys from you? (demographics)
b. Did they do any marketing to acquire customers?
2. How they decide on a pricing scheme
3. Why did you decide to keep business at a certain scale vs employing others to
4. What do you see as your role in the neighborhood?
5. What is your motivation for getting into a certain business? What are your
6. What training do business owners believe would make them better
I had two in depth interviews with Uncle Charlie and with Auntie Allie. This was
most definitely a difficult day and I am not sure that I got the information that I was
looking for, though I definitely got some insight into their mentality to inform this
next week of research. I found myself frustrated by their answers and hoping for
more “thoughtful” responses, or, responses that I would be familiar with and
understand as “appropriate” answers to these types of questions. However, Ross’s
chapter on making ends meet did help me to better understand the complexities of
their economic realities and made me less frustrated than I might have been
otherwise. Something that Ross speaks of that I noticed in my interviews is an
“economy of immediacy” that “governed residents’ relationships to money, tying
them into the present tense.” Ross also mentioned that families operated on a hand-
to-mouth basis. While I noticed this in previous interviews, it was not until I
actually started asking specific questions on how families spend money and
financial planning that I realized how ingrained is this “economy of immediacy.”
My first interview was with Uncle Charlie who sells an array of spices in 1 and 2
R bags. He says that his goal is to “treat customers nicely so that they treat him
nicely.” Since not everyone had 2R to spend, Uncle Charlie decided to also have a 1R
OBSERVATIONS & REFLECTION 4
When Uncle Charlie was younger he used to work in a mine. During this time, he
saved just a bit of capital in order to start his spices business, since he knew at some
point he would no longer be working but would need an income. His motivation for
starting the business was to give him an income after he stopped formal
employment in the formal economy. His goal was to provide for his family on a daily
basis. Uncle Charlie describes his role in the neighborhood as an affordable spice
dealer. His one-liner for the yellow book was that he did not make a lot of profit,
just enough to survive, and that goods are not so expensive at his shop.
In general, this one-liner seemed to be a trendy answer among all business
owners, which made me wonder whether there was some stigma against a truly
profit-driven business model in this community. I tried to understand this through
Ross’s comments on social differentiation- perhaps business owners did not want to
advertise making money for fear of being “unneighborly and to avoid being asked
for loans.” Coming from my “business is good” perspective, and having read the
article on why South African businesses are failing in comparison to
Somolian/outsider business, their answers frustrated me. To make money is to
have capital to invest back into the community. An economy where there is money
flow vs. stagnation seems like a healthier economy. Why be proud of making “just
enough to survive”?, so much so that you choose to describe your business like that?
I wonder if business owners in VP, in some ways, are survivalist businesses by
choice, since several are not driven by wanting to make more money than is
immediately needed? Or perhaps this is judgmental on my part? Maybe they
advertise as such strategically? In my mind, the entrepreneur is always trying to
gain more. These VP entrepreneurs seem content with stability, though perhaps in
an impoverished neighborhood that is what success means or all the neighbors will
allow? I don’t think I understand this so much and I think I will have to ask more
questions next week.
I asked Uncle Charlie some general market research questions: Who in the
neighborhood buys from you? Women? Children? Who else in the neighborhood
sells spices? What makes your product unique? Why do people buy spices from
you? How much do people generally spend on spices and how much do you make
on a weekly basis?
In response to my first question, Uncle Charlie responded that every type of
person bought from him: men, women, children. I was wondering if perhaps he
could break it down a little more, for example: by percentages (though I didn’t ask
that). My goal for next week is to see if I can gain a better quantitative
understanding of business owner’s knowledge of their customers and demographics
by soliciting answers that are a bit more specific. I plan to have a piece of paper that
has 10 people and ask: Say you only had ten customers this week, of those ten, about
how many would be women? Vs children? Vs men? On an average week? Generally,
when business owners understand their customers they are able to directly market
towards them. For example, perhaps if children are buying often, they can also have
candies available for sale. Perhaps the children would then bring enough to buy
both a packet of spice and a candy. Also, how many of each spice are sold weekly? It
is good to understand inventory.
I also asked Uncle Charlie if he knew who else in the neighborhood sold spices.
He said that he is the only one and that he has been doing it for 15 years, longer than
anyone in VP. I asked what made his product unique. Fatima answered for him,
stating that while other people diluted their spices (ex: with flour), Uncle Charlie
kept his spices pure. His goal is to provide a good product and not necessarily to
My next question meant to uncover how much Uncle Charlie thought about finances
and profit. I asked him how much he made on a weekly basis. Uncle Charlie could
not answer this question. I then asked him how much he made on a daily basis. He
could not answer this question. This part was when I felt the most uncomfortable
and when I think Uncle Charlie was most frustrated with me. He explained to me:
“as soon as I make money, I spend it: on bread, eggs, milk. The grandchildren come
to me in the day and tell me they are hungry so I send them to go buy bread.”
I wanted an approximant number. I figured, even if money was being spent
during the day he must have some idea of how much he made so I asked him to
guess. To which he answered, he just didn’t know. I wonder if keeping track of how
much you make, and perhaps buying groceries in one fell swoop at the end of the
day for the next day for example, would result in more saved money? But the money
is not consistently coming in either. There is no daily average that they can report.
Though they did tell me that Sundays they bring in about 130 or 140R and that they
know this amount because on Mondays they take all that money and go buy more
spices. In general, I am very frustrated by these answers and wish Uncle Charlie had
more of an idea what he made on a weekly basis. When it comes to financial literacy,
how can you possibly manage money if you never know how much money you
I left Uncle Charlie’s house and headed over to Auntie Allie’s. Auntie Allie, who
sells iced bompies, seemed to have more of an idea of her market. Children are
mostly her customers and they buy depending on when the family has money. For
example, the week the government gives out disability grants, kids come to buy her
bompies and she will make 50 or 60 R a day. Auntie Allie has been making bompies
for 30 years. People come from the Cape Flats to buy her bompies and it seems that
her business thrives on social networks of insider knowledge vs business networks.
She does not advertise. In winter time when bompies are not as popular, Auntie
Allie switches to making toffee apples for 1R. She is 68 years old but continues to
run her business because without it she says she will sit around and get old. Her
business keeps her “young and busy.” She is not interested in “chasing money” but
wants enough for the house. She asks, “why people must starve if they can do
something with their hands?”
I asked Auntie Allie what she thought about the possibility of people coming
together to collaborate and build bigger businesses. Both her and Fatima seemed to
have very strong opinions about this. Auntie Allie claimed that it is not possible.
She says, “one will end up in the grave, the other in jail. You can’t trust anybody.”
She explained; “If I leave my shop for a minute and leave someone in charge of the
bompies, when I come back there will be no bompies and no money. I must do work
my own self.” Fatima went on to exclaim, “you can’t trust a friend even…even when
you own a spaza shop, your kids will eat your food and make you bankrupt.”
This issue of trust is something that intrigues me. In so many ways this is an
interdependent community where trust, generosity, and social relationships are
necessary for survival. Why then does so much distrust around business
relationships exist at the same time?
I pushed them further. “It must be possible to work together”, I said,
“theSomolians do it.” They explained that the Somolians have a boss. They work for
this boss as a team. “Coloured doesn’t work like this. We are stingy and won’t come
together. Selfish.” Also, competition seemed to be a problem. Auntie Allie says that
she knows that no one in her neighborhood will also try to sell bompies because
that would cause trouble. She describes her business as her livelihood and that
anyone who tried to have the same business would be taking “my piece of bread out
of my mouth, my kid’s mouth.” According to both Auntie Allie and Fatima,
collaboration or any trust that would be necessary to build a larger business was
just not possible. This made me sad. Was there any hope for a more vibrant
economy in Valhalla Park- one that went beyond survivalist strategies? Part of the
possibility comes from economies of scale and by their own opinions that seemed to
be impossible. Im not sure if asking these questions or wanting this to be a
possibility is stupid of me.
This week I became interested in two things. Financial literacy in Valhalla Park,
in terms of how and if people keep track of money and planning behind expenses
and the issue of trust as a barrier to business collaborations. I am trying to be
careful to not make immediate judgments of those I interview. As Ross states,
“Impoverishment raises the difficult question of how to plan for the future. Middle-
class people often comment on what they see as a lack of financial and future
planning in poor people’s lives…money at hand can purchase goods, soothe social
relations, connect people into networks that have future use. To characterize
people as lacking financial astuteness is to underestimate the dexterous ways in
which they do try to make ends meet.” The answers that I got to my questions on
market research and financial literacy were not what I was hoping for or expecting,
but that’s okay.
Drawing on your own experiences and on ‘Fieldwork Stories’, write a journal that
reflects on the way in which working in collaboration with your guide, and with the
Civic more generally, has shaped your research- its nature, its process, the
conversations that surround it, and the ways in which these elements shape the
knowledge produced. As your own engagement features centrally in all qualitative
research, what did these aspects of the project help you experience, reflect on, and
I appreciate that the Civic had the community support and ethos to be able to
introduce strangers from another country into the homes of people in their
community. I think that the research I conducted would have been much more
OBSERVATIONS & REFLECTION 5 (Unfinished)
difficult without Fatima’s help, maybe even impossible. I was introduced in
Afrikaans to people that she knows and that reduced the suspicion around me. Her
good community reputation and the community reputation of the Civic extended to
me as a researcher by virtue of our relationship. I was a trusted stranger and my
research accepted as worthwhile. I am not sure that I would have been able to
access this community otherwise: as an American, a privileged university student,
and a non-coloured.
The point of departure between Fatima and I was our take on business in
Valhalla Park. I was determined to find the potential of the informal economy and
business owners. I wanted to see if there was opportunity for growth, beyond
survivalist strategies. I would question people on their understanding of how much
money they acquired per week vs. spent. Fatima seemed to not understand or enjoy
my research. I’m not sure if this was just my impression or her actual feelings but
that is how I felt.
In contrast, Auntie Fadeelah seemed to be interested in my research and was
herself a fascinating study of a financially savvy individual. I interviewed her during
my final research session on both her tuck shop and the soup kitchen that she ran
with profits from the shop. This interview made me so happy because I realized 1)
that the questions I had previously been asking were not stupid questions 2) that it
is possible to keep track of expenses despite challenging financial circumstances 3)
that it is possible to build a large business, even with little initial capital. I was
hoping in my interviews with others to come across similar answers and attitudes
towards business and financial planning.