Connections Across Continents

INDVOLU: A Phoenix Rising from the Ashes

Experiences that connect us across continents can take unexpected turns. A community group from South Africa and a theatre troupe from Central America came together this November creating a connection that touched each of them profoundly and took on new meaning as tragedy struck.

Wings of the Butterfly staff and actresses from Costa Rica brought their moving performance of Labyrinth of the Butterfly to Cape Town and to women activists attending the world forum of AWID, an international women’s rights organization. The show tells the stories of courageous and creative women, ignored or abused by history. Through their lives, they have generated processes of change and metamorphosis that multiply in a type of butterfly effect, overcoming the barriers of power to promote new ways of thinking and relating with one other and the world.

From AWID, the group took the show to a community centre located in the heart of Monwabisi Park, a sprawling township on the outskirts of Cape Town. Those of us who went to the performance there were deeply impressed not only by how the production spoke to the lives of the audience but by the Indlovu Centre, its members and its many programs.

Indlovu is a dynamic and ground-breaking community effort developed and managed by residents and founded on principles of justice, solidarity and environmental sustainability. Begun in 2005 with a small pre-school program called a creche, it grew to “ a thriving and bustling cluster of public buildings that include(d) a clinic, a soup kitchen, a youth centre, a training centre for Montessori educators, organic food gardens, a public laundry facility, a guest house…” With support from the Shaster Foundation, programs for women, elders, youth and the general community have strengthened people’s skills, leadership capacities and ecological understanding and provided them with direct experience in environmentally sound building practices. Community volunteers built the Indlovu structures themselves in collaboration with local architects using an innovative and inexpensive sandbag construction process. International solidarity has also provided support to the Indlovu Project, ranging from students and professors of the US based Worcester Polytechnic Institute to volunteers from Australia and Europe and now to Latin American artists and educators.

On November 17th, the Indlovu centre was the locale for the Labyrinth of the Butterfly performance. As a strong cool wind blew against the centre’s windows, inside the buzz of community women filled the room with warmth and energy. Smiling children scrambled onto laps and empty chairs looking for a good place to perch so they wouldn’t miss anything. Amidst the excitement, the Costa Rican theatre troupe began the story of Rosa Parks, an African-American leader who challenged the US version of apartheid in the 1950s. Maria Suarez, author of the book upon which the play is based, interpreted their words from Spanish into English. The troupe portrayed how Rosa refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man as was demanded at that time. Her action and those of countless others helped spark a national social movement against racism. A single chair served as the symbolic prop for the scene.

Afterwards, the audience of women shared how the story resonated in their own lives. Buyiswa, a community leader even impersonated the bus driver, shouting ‘get up’ to the audience in Spanish, surprising everyone with her perfect pronunciation. ‘Levantese,” she yelled in a strong voice, reinterpreting the word’s meaning from one of submission to a call for collective action. The crowd joined in and the room echoed with a heartfelt roar. People were then invited to sit in Rosa’s chair to tell their own stories directly to her as she sat opposite them. Vuyo, a community activist and talented doll maker, quickly took the chair to tell her own story of struggle and loss against the background of South African apartheid. These testimonies of unsung courage created a bond of inspiration and solidarity among everyone present. The audience response reminded me once again of how art can tap places of profound meaning in people and generate a unique sense of community and common purpose.

In saying good-bye, the Central Americans presented Rosa’s chair to Indlovu for their continuing efforts to encourage women’s voice, leadership and action, giving them a place of honor from which to tell their own stories. Vuyo, on behalf of the community, gave the woman who portrayed Rosa a festively dressed Xhosa doll she had made out of recyclable materials. Unbeknownst to the community, the African-Costa Rican actress had suffered from painful racism like Rosa and had long wanted to visit the lands of her ancestors. This had been her first trip to Africa and this community the first place where she could truly interact with people. As she thanked the members of the Indlovu Project and saluted their work, she held the doll close, tears quietly slid down her cheeks, sparkling in the afternoon light.

Tragically, 13 days later, “at midnight on Sunday 30th November 2008 a fire swept through the Indlovu buildings and reduced them to ashes.” As the fire spread, Buyiswa ran from house to house, warning people and shouting ‘levantese’ to lift women’s spirits and call them to action. Twenty-six neighbors lost their dwellings and all their possessions, yet miraculously no one was seriously injured. While devastated by the overwhelming loss, the community is already rising again. Pre-fab buildings have been provided temporarily for the clinic and creche, the soup kitchen is back in operation, and planning for new construction has started. With donations, solidarity and volunteer support, Indlovu will rise anew like the proverbial phoenix, as one community organizer explained, tempered and made stronger by this tragedy. Wings of the Butterfly is now working to raise funds for the effort as are others who were at the performance. Just Associates and the Petateras are joining in, as both have sponsored the premieres of the show in Costa Rica and Cape Town.

Connections continue and expand. To raise funds for reconstruction and community programs, more dolls will be made but with an added dimension inspired by Rosa and Wings of the Butterfly. Each doll, says Vuyo, will carry with it the name of a community woman and her story, stories that will eventually be gathered together in a book to honor their lives and struggles. Resonances deepen. The butterfly effect takes on new meaning.

Based on personal observation and communication with Indlovu staff and Maria Suarez;
For more information: www.shaster.org.za; www.alasdemariposa.org; www.justassociates.org, www.petateras.org