December 20, 2007


The word “Itipini” in Xhosa literally means “at the dump.” It’s an apt name for a community that grew up on Mthatha’s old municipal dump.

Before receiving their diplomas at graduation last week, the pre-school children had to make a little speech in English, saying their name, where they lived, and what they want to be when the grow up. Every child, of course, said, “I live at Itipini.” What they’re saying is, “I live at the dump.”

It’s not unusual for people to judge others on the basis of their address. Someone might live on the “wrong side of the tracks,” for instance, or in the “projects.” Jesus, in fact, was dismissed by one of his future Apostles for being from Nazareth (John 1:46). Conversely, there was a whole television show once whose basic premise was that people who lived in a certain zip code (90210) were necessary cool. After Friday, I’ve wondered what it would be like to say to someone that you live at the dump. Would the person who hears that judge you? Would he or she think less of you for living in a dump? Likely they would. People don’t choose to live at dumps; they live there because they have no other option. It can’t be great for your self-esteem.

Despite this, what continues to surprise me is the dignity with which people lead their lives here. Dignity is a bit of a degraded concept these days and it can be hard to use it seriously. What I mean is that the people in Itipini hold their heads high and lead their lives as best they can and as proudly as they can, even though they are surrounded by poverty and despair every single day. It’s hard for me to describe; you just have to experience it yourself.

Bob Dylan sings, “searching high, searching low / searching everyone I know / asking the cops wherever I go / have you seen dignity?” He should come to Itipini and find out.