November 11, 2014

Sarah Stacke: Mothers of Manenberg

Love From Manenberg is not about gangs, poverty, or drug abuse, even though all of those things exist there. It is about how messy life is, and about the relationships photographer Sarah Stacke has made and maintains in this Cape Town suburb.  This is the second installment in an ongoing series.

A prayer meeting at Debby Lottering’s home. The group prays for each other, their families, and for Manenberg.

I became a mother in 2013, on the last day of August. Debby Lottering was pregnant with her third child, a girl, at the time. We chatted daily through WhatsApp about our lives and our pregnancies, and exchanged pictures of our growing bellies. We shared our visits to the clinic, mine informative and empowering, hers dismissive and often critical. Debby had already birthed two sons and knew the drill. Her third caesarian was scheduled months in advance; I only agreed to mine in the last minutes of morning when, after 46 hours of labor, my unborn son’s heart rate dropped and stayed down far too long.

Debby, Zipporah, Meezie, and Zobie Lottering.

Zipporah and Errol, the outcomes of our pregnancies, met in the first months of their lives while I was in Cape Town, South Africa, working on Love From Manenberg, a series I’ve been developing there since 2011. I held Zipporah, whose name means “beauty,” and gushed over her petite features while Debby gushed over Errol, whose name means “wanderer.” Debby touched his blonde hair and squeezed his legs and cheeks; it was the first time she had held a white baby.

Debby Lottering at home.

Debby, her older sister Naomi, and I acknowledge that we come from different places and have different opportunities and challenges because of that. We talk about why Manenberg is racked by poverty and gang violence and why it has remained marginalized since its first residents were relocated there from District 6, a neighborhood near Cape Town’s city center, by the apartheid government. We recognize the differentiators between us –– of nationality, class, and color –– but, because we connect on so much, have tacitly agreed not to let them be barriers. Yet with Zipporah in my arms and Errol bouncing on Debby’s lap, two new souls beginning their journeys, the implications of our varied circumstances and what they might mean for our children were profoundly before us. At the same time, the shared uncertainty of any child’s future was a poignant and weighty equalizer.

Naomi Lottering holds her then two-year-old son, Shaquille, at the ARK, a center for rehabilitation

Mothers instinctively love their children and do what they can to emotionally and physically protect them. Everybody must make choices along the way, yet simply put, the experience of making those choices is different for each of us.

Meezie and Zobie Lottering play with their Grandpa Franz.

I’m a freelance photographer and my husband, Bryan, has a corporate job. Our son Errol spends 48 hours at daycare each week while we work. We chose his daycare based on convenience and positive online reviews. When Errol has a fever, my husband or I take a day off from work. We live in a city where finding last minute childcare is a major obstacle, but we have jobs that allow us the security to stay home with Errol when necessary.

Debby, a single mom, works 50 hours a week at Pinto’s Foods. Pinto’s, a fast food restaurant, is nearly 11 miles from home and roughly an hour each way on the bus. A sister from Debby’s church looks after Zipporah while Debby is at work. Meezie, 5, spends the day at his grandfather’s. Zobie, 7, goes home after school and waits there until his mom arrives. When one of her children has a fever, Debby’s community steps in. Staying home from work is rarely an option. In a community of 70,000 people where unemployment is reported to be over 60%, Debby is rising above.

Naomi’s circumstances are constantly in flux, and often unknown by her friends and family. Shaquille, her four-year-old son, lives with his father while she chooses to live on the streets. Naomi struggles with addiction and her health; she’s living with HIV

Naomi Lottering shortly after telling me she is living with HIV.

Debby Lottering helps Zobie, her son, get ready for school.

Through Debby and Naomi, who are the foundation of Love From Manenberg, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know many women in the community. Nearly all of them grew up in Manenberg and are now raising or have raised their children there.

Lawouna has three sons in their twenties. Each son is a member of a different gang and they all live at home. Her husband, a pastor, just left her and his career to join a gang.

Pictures hang above the bunk beds in Lawouna’s sons’ room.

Charmaine has 3 boys and 3 girls. Her youngest son, Ashwin, is 19 and a member of the Hard Livings gang. He lives at home. Charmaine said to me, “I didn’t raise my child to be a gangster. But as a mother I must live with it and see what the end of the day will bring.” The one-bedroom flat she keeps with her second husband regularly sleeps 10-12 of her children and grandchildren.

Ashwin Pietersen, 19, a member of the Hard Livings gang with his mother, Charmaine (right).

The Hard Livings gang recruited Helen’s son, Alphonso, when he was 13 years old. A fellow 13-year-old gang member killed him. The man who ordered the murder has business near her home and she sees him almost every day.

When I brought Errol to Manenberg to meet Debby and her family, it was a special occasion. Errol is typically not with me when I’m working. Debby understands the inconvenience of bringing a child to work and acknowledges that the current state of Manenberg is a risky place for kids, hers included.

Like the paths of our children, the directions that Love From Manenberg has taken –– and will take –– have been unpredictable. This is a story about life, love, relationships, and the choices we make in the circumstances we have.

Text and photographs by Sarah Stacke.

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