M’e MaAnna is so old, nobody knows her age, and she is fierce with the will to live, the will to create something beautiful, the will to persevere despite persecution, hardship, and hunger. When I took this picture of her in 1993, she was still building and re-building her shrine. Every morning and evening, she sang and danced alone, praying like a cantor around a shrine to her ancestors and to the Pope and St. Francis. People said she was mad. People said she was a witch. Children threw dead birds and rats into her garden. Several times people set her house on fire, her house being one tiny lean-to constructed of branches and sheets of masonite, with a corrugated tin roof held in place with old tires.
She ignored these insults. She crossed her arms and shouldered on. Every day she went foraging for weeds to eat, she tended her tiny garden, she searched the rubbish pit at the university for scraps of food. And every day, she tended her shrine, using bottle caps, shards of tea cups, bicycle spokes, scraps of cardboard, and plastic bags to create assemblages. (Click on the picture to see it larger if you like.) She built mounds of earth, she wove designs in the mud, she crafted a place of worship. People would walk past her and spit on her shrine, the ultimate insult. And she would cross her arms and lift her chin and ask her ancestors to stand by her. It appears they have done so.
In her youth she worked as a house maid in South Africa. She speaks a little Afrikaans, but no English. I often visited her, in 92 and 93. She always asked where I came from, and I would say, “The USA.”
“Ah,” she would say, “is that in the Transvaal?”
“No,” I said many times, in my childlike Sesotho. “It is across the sea, across the big water.”
“Is the water bigger than the Senqu River?” she would ask.
“Yes, bigger than that.”
“I cannot see it,” she would say.
The last I heard, she is still alive. She’s another person I very much hope to see again on this trip. I have two presents for her: a bar of Pears soap and a silk scarf to wrap around her head. But maybe she will weave it into her shrine.