A Song in Imbali – A Photo Reflection on World Clean up Day
For Lynn Pedersen
It’s Saturday 19 September 2009 in Slangspruit, Imbali - A Rocha and DUCT’s river clean up day for a third successive year. Imbali is the Zulu word for Flower. It makes me wonder what the apartheid town planners had in mind when they chose this name. Was it the wild flowers that carpeted these mistbelt grassland hills before they vanished, for Imbali? But now wild flowers are hard to find in this mid 20th Century extension of Edendale. Imbali’s veld flowers have made way for cheerful formal flowerbeds bordered by concrete, bricks or sun baked earth, in countless minute gardens. “Slangspruit” is Afrikaans for Snake Stream. True to its name the Slangspruit winds from its source in the Edendale hills down to the Msunduzi. Its urban obstacle course is Old Imbali and the RDP and post-RDP sections of this high density area, just 15 km from Pietermaritzburg’s CBD. But one pristine patch of valley bushveld remains! And more than likely, it’s the habitat of a good few snake species, water monitors, mongooses and grassland shrews. Coucals and Wood Hoopoes make themselves heard above sweet background avian chatter in dense Karoo-thorn thicket. Children’s voices in an open field and passing cars are reminders that we are not in the Valley of a Thousand Hills but right in the heart of Imbali. Fifty metres from this emerald thicket teeming with its life sounds stands the first bridge over the Slangspruit - the meeting place for volunteers who have promised to help with our clean up. I look into the river and take two steps back. Instantly I know why any local resident would not just be late for our rendezvous, but maybe just wouldn’t come at all. Thousands of baby nappies, piles of household waste bags, builders’ rubble, old furniture, plastic containers, car tyres and every other kind of solid waste has found its way down to the river’s edge.
These are the wildest flowers of Imbali, adapting speedily to a sub-continent of negligent municipal refuse services and thriving on equally careless citizenship. I remember stopping my car during the first year’s clean up here to talk to a man who was tipping a wheelbarrow of weekly household rubbish into the Slangspruit. Where must I put my rubbish? he asked, pointing to his home just yards away. Between us and his fence lay a sprawling, public mound of refuse. I take in the extent of this invasive plastic flora and imagine its song, a kind of global dirge for rivers and veld and everything that gives life. These fatal flowers chant a message of doom to neighbouring households, playing children, passersby, to birds, snakes and water creatures all just metres away, but not one seems to hear: See our exponential urban bloom. We will contaminate, pollute and destroy every drop of goodness in your once beautiful Slangspruit. Don’t dare to burn us, or we’ll do worse. A DUCT volunteer who lives nearby arrives. We are encouraged and fill a few municipal bags of waste on the roadside. We lumber a waterlogged king size mattress out of the river onto our growing pile. No other community helpers arrive. I call out to children playing nearby and two women passing: Izikhwama zezibi ezimbili zeziplasitiki ukuba neSplash elinye: Two municipal bags of plastic rubbish for one, frozen Splash. In seconds they are here laughing, and off again. Heyi nina! Qhapelani izinyawo zenu emagilasini! Hey you folks! Watch out for your bare feet on all the glass! All around us bags are being filled as Splashes are traded from the boot of my car to smiling toddlers and teens alike. From nearby houses people watch in their yards or near their fences with halting consternation, undisguised curiosity. A blue Toyota pulls aside. Mbongeni Madlala the local councillor is driving by and spots our unlikely, happy work party. He introduces himself, offers his cell number to be involved next year and poses with us and our thirty bags of litter. Again I am encouraged. Considering the flowers of Imbali that have gone and those that remain is strangely hopeful. Coming here is not easy. I’m forced to hear the engulfing discords of modernity’s detritus on the African veld, but getting my gloved hands into the rubbish of Imbali once a year is good for me. Like thousands of other hands in ten thousand other pristine places on this day, I am making a new connection between the throw-away generation and a dying creation. As I stoop into the Slangspruit I’m reminded of the much older, deeper song of hope that needs to be on my lips when I shop or garden or go on holiday, or when I create employment or consider investments or plan for old age - as I worship - the song of a once and future hope that is certain for all who sing it and for every veld creature and flower of the world that remains wild and free.