Not a witch

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.

About Kendall

Undoing white supremacy and capitalism, one photograph at a time.
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15 Responses to Not a witch

  1. Jett Brooks says:

    Kendall, that “portrait” is absolutely gorgeous!

  2. Darlene Olivo says:

    What a story! You manage to take the reader exactly into that scene. Makes me so sad to know she’s so ill-treated. Blessings on you and her.

  3. Ann says:

    Your writing, far from being sentimental, always touches my heart.
    I pray you will see M’e MaAnna.
    Have a safe journey, dear Kendall, may the angels be with you all along your way.
    Go and come back “be’shalom”, in peace.

  4. Elli says:

    what an amazing shrine she has built. She’s no witch, she’s an artist!

    I do hope you get to see her again.

    • Kendall says:

      That’s what I always said, Elli, but I couldn’t find a word for “artist” that she or anyone else in her community understood. She would answer, “My heart tells me to do this.” She was as impervious to praise as to criticism. It was clear that what she made was between her and the beyond, and what anybody else thought of it was irrelevant.

  5. Just more rubbish, but bravo anyway. We could all do with a few more inspired lunatics who stick defiantly to their guns. Now just get on your way Kendall, and take your own gun with you.

    • Kendall says:

      “Between my finger and my thumb
      The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.”
      –Seamus Heaney.
      That’s the only kind of gun I’ve ever wanted to handle, and my aim is undependable, but practiced.

  6. chaiselongue says:

    M’e MaAnna sounds like a wonderful strong woman, she reminds me of my grandmother in her refusal to conform to others’ ideas and expectations. I hope you see her during your trip. Bon voyage! I’m looking forward to the whole story.

  7. David Swoyer says:

    We all want to be witches. For good or evil, we all want to be witches. To extend our powers beyond those we have in this world. A wish to be special. To be special so we could change what we cannot in our present condition.

    I have a friend – an African art dealer – whose recent unpublished article on personal shrines I have had the privilege to read. From his descriptions of shrines in Africa and the Caribbean and South Florida and Louisiana, I came to realize that the broken pottery, the pieces of cloth, the painted scraps of wood were lines in a visual life poem created for the stability of the maker. An anchor of art maintained against a world in which little else was in the artist’s control. The shrine housed their spirit in so many ways. It was a daily outlet for their intensity. It was a symbol of their continued presence to the community whether the community wanted to see this manifestation or not (“not” was the usual response.) It was the focus of their power.

    The photographs that illustrate his article are of shrines that are wonderfully diverse accretions of tiny shreds and bits that had other lives as things. Now before the camera we see the unique assemblages piled into monumental memory-ials that have given these worthless and insignificant items new and larger spirits filled with symbol and meaning. So as different and personal as all the shrines are, they are all the same in purpose. They protect a life. And maintain that life in time and place. A life that shines out from the humble structure.

    We all build shrines in one way or another. The scraps of our daily lives, our achievements and relationships, our beliefs are bound together with the spiritual fluid we exude. Our works can be defined as powerful art or be defined by the duty of the everyday. We wear our shrines as ourselves the decades we are given. If we could know that – have that perspective – we could see that we already are special and we have powers we have never employed but should use, the shrines that are our lives would be filled with meaning and power that not even being a witch would improve.

    You are about to leave tomorrow to add another shard to your shrine. From the short time and the infinitely long time I have known you, I am sure you will fill that scrap, as you seem to have filled all your other bits, with your spirit, your intensity, your power, your beauty.

    Make the trip in love.

    • Kendall says:

      Dave, this comment is a treasure. This is what blogging can be, at its best. More heads than one. Comments that take the post beyond where the originator left it. “An anchor of art maintained against a world in which little else was in the artist’s control.” Yes. “We wear our shrines as ourselves the decades we are given.” Yes. Thank you.

  8. Pat Hathaway says:

    Marvelous, touching portrait of a woman. I hope you’ll get to see her, and her shrine. Travel safely, Kendall. I’ll be thinking of you, and your journey.

  9. Keith says:

    There is something in the human spirit that needs adversity for it is our ability to overcome adversity that builds self-esteem. This woman you describe faces levels of adversity that seem raw and real to me. But even the adversity that the priviledged absurdly contrive is real to them and serves the same purpose. These (true) stories of yours really make me think; and whether my thinking makes sense in a scientific way seems to matter less than the fact that I am thinking. As you intimated above, if there is any value at all in blogging it lies in its capacity to open doors and let in some light. Bravo!

  10. leiflife says:

    Thank you for providing us with marvelous examples of your reason for the journey. In this way we accompany you. We see with you and through your eyes. Perhaps we can pray with you as you continue to build your shrine of words and photographs.

  11. Kim Sharp says:

    Since when is witch a bad title? Though not a witch herself she is a woman of courage,ability and independence. I admire her. Thank you Kendall.

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