Every Saturday morning on the streets around Soweto’s giant cemeteries, the heart-breaking impact of AIDS on South Africa becomes visible.
Countless processions of the dead fill the streets. Inside some of the overcrowded graveyards, space beneath thesoil is running out.
In Soweto and across South Africa, no other killer comes close to HIV/Aids. Related illnesses claim an estimated 1,000 lives every day.
The singing and dancing was so intense it made my chest vibrate. In a moment of silence the priest asked me;
when a child is born does it inherit the sins of its parents?
Avalon Cemetery is one of the largest graveyards in South Africa. It was opened in 1972, during the height of apartheid, as a graveyard exclusively for blacks. More than 300,000 people are buried on its 430 acres, the graves less than two feet apart. This year 2010 the cemetery is expected to be at capacity, largely because of AIDS deaths. In Africa, death tends to be the most important rite of passage. AIDS victims who don’t live long enough to marry are left with a funeral as their only major ceremony. Families will do whatever is necessary to ensure a comfortable journey for their loved ones into the world of ancestors. The dead are often called on by the living for guidance and inspiration. Funerals that attract 500 people or more are common. The mourners are not necessarily close friends or relatives. They are often friends of friends, and sometimes people the deceased might have met once or perhaps not at all.In return for their efforts to mourn the dead, the living believe they will be similarly blessed with a large crowd at their funerals.The standard for huge funerals was set in the 1970s and 1980s, during the height of the anti-apartheid struggle. Thousands of students boycotted school, adopted the slogan “liberation before education” and took to the streets in protest. They inevitably clashed with police, and the death toll grew each week.The funerals for the victims became one of the most powerful expressions of defiance against the apartheid government. More than 10,000 people, some dressed in military fatigues and armed with wooden rifles, would flock to a cemetery to demonstrate their solidarity in the struggle. When there were not enough buses to drive them to the cemetery, the protesters stopped motorists and forced the drivers to give them a lift. By the end of the day, the funerals often generated new victims of the struggle to be buried the next week. The moment I took this picture, 150 funerals were proceeding at the same time, from horizon to horizon.
In South Africa, death is perceived as the beginning of a person’s deeper relationship with all of creation, the complementing of life and the beginning of the communication between the visible and the invisible worlds. The goal of life is to become an ancestor after death. This is why every person who dies must be given a “correct” funeral, supported by a number of religious ceremonies. If this is not done, the dead person may become a wandering ghost, unable to “live” properly after death and therefore a danger to those who remain alive. It might be argued that “proper” death rites are more a guarantee of protection for the living than to secure a safe passage for the dying. There is ambivalence about attitudes to the recent dead, which fluctuate between love and respect on the one hand and dread and despair on the other, particularly because it is believed that the dead have power over the living. Many African peoples have a custom of removing a dead body through a hole in the wall of a house, and not through the door. The reason for this seems to be that this will make it difficult (or even impossible) for the dead person to remember the way back to the living, as the hole in the wall is immediately closed. Sometimes the corpse is removed feet first, symbolically pointing away from the former place of residence. A zigzag path may be taken to the burial site, or thorns strewn along the way, or a barrier erected at the grave itself because the dead are also believed to strengthen the living. Many people believe that death is the loss of a soul, or souls. Although there is recognition of the difference between the physical person that is buried and the nonphysical person who lives on, this must not be confused with a Western dualism that separates “physical” from “spiritual.” When a person dies, there is not some “part” of that person that lives on—it is the whole person who continues to live in the spirit world, receiving a new body identical to the earthly body, but with enhanced powers to move about as an ancestor.
Hi, I just got back from China, unfortunately very little time for photography, but got a few shots to add to my series.
© Edward van Herk
When young South Africans in the ghetto neighborhoods of Soweto talk about surfing, they aren’t interested in going to the beach and riding the waves on a board. In Soweto, the latest craze among thrill-seeking young men is train surfing, in which they climb on top of moving commuter trains and duck the overpasses and power lines while maintaining a cocky stance, or hang from the sides of trains while swaying back and forth; a particularly brave handful even climb under the trains and cling to their undercarriage while in motion. While some young men surf trains to avoid capture after stealing valuables from passengers, most do it for the sheer thrill, emboldened by alcohol or marijuana and eager to impress girls. While train surfing may be popular, it’s also illegal and extremely dangerous, and when security officers working on Soweto’s commuter lines went on strike for a week, three teenagers died in train surfing incidents.
Picture: Kerio Lorot. Traditional dancers from Pokot dance together with Tegla Loroupe - President of The Tegla Loroupe peace foundation.
Last week I met up with Kerio Lorot in Nairobi. In 2007 I held a fundraiser to provide Kerio a camera which succeeded due to the generous help of a number of people. How is he doing? Well I visited Kerio’s place, he is married and has twins (7 month old girls). He did recieve his diploma in communication at the Kenya Institue of Mass Communication and he is following evening classes at St. Paul’s university to earn a degree. He volunteers for the Tegla Loroupe peace foundation. Although Kerio still struggles to make ends meet in order to support his family and follow university classes which aren’t cheap, he understands the key to the future is education and therefore I have good hope for his future. What can make us all very happy is that 70% of his present income is generated through the camera we made available to him. During the tribal riots he made money selling photographs to newspapers but mostly he works at weddings. With 3 to 4 weddings a month he can support his family and save what is left for the university tuition. Unfortunatley his lens broke so I took it back with me to have it fixed. Great to see how photography really makes a diference in Kerio’s life.