In a time when we are bombarded with data, I find myself scarily numb to the numbers of dead – 34 Marikana, 67 Sharpeville, 185 Christchurch, 5,000 Ebola. Even in Johannesburg where the constant flow of funerals saddens my soul, I still find myself relatively numb. But recently I found myself confronted with visuals that made me feel these numbers in the pit of my stomach.
Last week I re-visited the Regina Mundi in Soweto. At the rear of the church is a set of unsigned stairs leading to a small upper area, where a photographic exhibition has been on display for a while. One of the photographs by Jurgen Shadeberg is of the 1960 Sharpville funeral, where rows of dug graves and trucks loaded with coffins, and two rows of people await for life to be returned to the earth. As I stood and absorbed this picture, I recalled moments where I stood by an empty grave about to be filled, and the amount of people that person touched during their life. Then I multiplied this by each and every grave in this picture, and of course after a few minutes was completely overwhelmed by the numbers.
A few weeks ago I was in Christchurch, where people were still struggling to cope with the 2010/2011 earthquakes, in which they lost a large portion of their city, and 185 people. An installation by Pete Majende of 185 different chairs, each representing a different person – armchairs, desk chairs, café chairs, garden chairs, wheelchairs, and the one that bought tears to my eyes as a mother of 2 little ones, a baby capsule. I stood and tried to imagine each and every unique human being sitting in each chair, but was overwhelmed. Then I tried to imagine 5,000 of these chairs in West Africa…
That same day, I walked with a group along the river from New Brighton to Christchurch, for a whitebait migration event. I was told that over 8,000 houses along the river were being demolished to create a no-building zone due to instabilities. People talked of understanding the reasons but frustrations with the processes, and the figure seemed huge to me, but didn’t seem impossibly big. Then as I walked along the river, around 15km, I contemplated each place where a house used to stand, often with front fence or hedge still in place, or the houses that were boarded up and about to be demolished, I started to comprehend the sheer scale of loss of 8,000 homes, 8,000 families displaced, schools, works, transport, neighbours.
The numbers are still flowing past me, but every now and then I stop and imagine the family, the friends, and the life, of each and every number, each person sitting in a chair, knowing that one day I will be one of those numbers.