Walking through memory

This is the main text of the story that I shared at the Michigan Institute of Technology’s recent symposium: ‘People Matter: the Human Impact of Urban Development’.

Placing stones on the memorial cairn of stones

I invite you to enter a part of a story which is dynamic and ongoing, and constantly being re-made, re-challenged and renewed. I invite you into a story in which you have to draw deeply on your own imagination and your powers of visualisation. I invite you to enter the District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa- a Museum that is both custodian and activator of a displaced community’s memory, a community known as District Six which was destroyed both materially and spiritually under Apartheid. It was destroyed as one of the many places in our country which bore testimony to the possibility of living in community, in the fullest sense of the word. Communities like it which thrived on diversity and invited difference, were not welcome under apartheid. It was destroyed because the land occupied by this diverse community – of whom many members were black and poor – was valued as prime real estate, land not meant for people who were black and poor. The community was destroyed to make way for a new white neighbourhood.

So come into the Museum. Position yourself so that you have a good vantage point, and observe or participate as you feel moved. Sit where you can have an unobstructed view of the floor map. It is a quietly authoritative centrepiece. You might see an elderly couple on their knees, tracing a path with the fingers down a street on the map, trying to locate their former home between that of neighbours. You might even see them fill in their names. It is likely to be their visit if they doing that. They might form part of that number of people who have not been able to bring themselves to confront these parts of their past. The anticipation of what they might experience in a space which has so many reminders of their traumatic past, seemed too hard and they delayed the visit for as long as they could. The woman jumps to her feet and does a little dance of joy as she locates the street where they lived; the man is quiet and pensive. You observe a group entering the Museum. They gather on the map and invite all around to join them. They are District Six ex-residents, and the stories flow freely as meet up with each other after years of separation and they serve as mementos to each other, and to each others’ stories. An interesting mix of joy and pain might evoke in you an emotion which is a hybrid of both, and new to you.

You might feel like a voyeur in something which is strangely intimate and personal at the same time as being public and inclusive – but the invitation to be a participant is clear and welcoming. Members of this group tell all who care to listen, that this is a special day in the lives of the District Six community. It is 11 February- the day that the District was declared a White Group Area under apartheid in 1966. You learn that this is the date from which the displaced community measure their demise. The group announces that a ritual is about to start and they invite all to join.

A group of smartly-clad musicians meet the group at the door and lead the animated group – which grows at every corner as people join – to a place which holds significance which you will come to understand by the end of it all. (Are you are happy that you chose to come along?) The walk is not far – less than 1km – but is unhurried and takes more than an hour as many stops and stories and requests to the band for particular songs, slow down the process. No-one seems to mind; no-one seems to hurry. Everyone stops at a pile of stones which is in the middle of what seems to be a barren landscape. A scrap of road is also visible in front of it. These two components seem to be the focus of everyone. The stones that the group has been carrying are laid one by one on the growing cairn. You learn that these are brought from the areas to which families were displaced, and signifies their connectivity to the cairn. It is meant to be an everlasting symbol ‘cast in stone.’ Each stone tells a story. Each of them provides a link to an area to which a family was displaced. You deduce that some people have done this for a number of times. Others are clearly participating for the first time. The stones are placed on the pile. Some are marked with inscriptions, others are blank.

This is a quiet moment.

A ritual of releasing 20 white pigeons take place, each one of them symbolising a year in the life of the Museum. Birds – a universal symbol of peace and love obvious to all. But pigeons in particular have a specific significance to the District Six community- but that’s another story that you will have to come back to hear about lest we detract from today’s purpose. Today’s birds symbolise a letting go of the injustices of the past and a release into the universe of the wishes and dreams for a reconstituted District Six. As the birds disappear into the sky, some reflections and lots of silence follows. The walk from the cairn is more sombre and much less upbeat. Buried memories have once again been surfaced by the immersion in the landscape both intimately familiar and strangely alien at the same time. You observe less talking as everyone experiences a moment of being lost in private thought. Arriving back at the Museum building at the end of the walk, poetry readings, songs and reflections foreground the hope and desire evident in rituals of return and the vibrant reclamation of memory through a practice which is alive and dynamic. It is clear that statues and plaques have no role to play in what has evolved here. It is the embodied practice living and changing in the people which matters most.

Little did this group know that, a mere seven months later, the practice as it had taken place on 11 February 2014 would no longer be possible. A concrete structure growing by the day, has reconfigured the landscape. Sightlines have been altered, the pedestrian pathway has been interrupted and access is severely restricted. This precious site which had been identified for protection, has been built around by the local university. A dispute about the relationship between land as property and land as relationship and right is brewing. And different perspectives about who decides on what constitutes an appropriate memorial practice are being offered.


At this point, what can I say except that the story is still unfolding? The denouement has not yet presented itself but cannot be far off. A strong recovery from the loss experienced is inevitable and sure to be empowering as it emerges from the engagement within a community that has a voice which is loud, powerful and knowledgeable- if only those who need to hear will listen.



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