The Farmer

Words by Leonie Joubert, Photography by Sydelle Willow Smith

Passengers exiting the lunchtime train from town surge down the footbridge that straddles the railway lines at Khayelitsha Station and past James Chembe’s stall. When they reach the small market at the bottom of the concrete ramp, this jostling mass of people dissolves between stands of DVDs, plastic jewellery, sunglasses and cellphone accessories. One stand has pockets of citrus hanging from the structure’s metal frame like bulbs studded around a dressing room mirror. In the distance, there is an ancient caravan, white, with irregular blue hand-painted signage announcing “MONDI Restaurant”, with the outline of a teacup and some food piled on a plate. “Stomach,” says a woman from behind her table of goods. Piles of soggy offal, their pleated white folds as alien as sea coral, sit like partly deflated soccer balls along the front of her table, next to the pinkly moist lobes of lung and unrecognisable tubes of something the colour of fat. James’s stall, a collapsible temporary store-front, sits nearby on upended crates piled with bushels of crispy rapeseed, covo and broccoli leaves bound together at the stem with purple twine. “Five rand each,” he says, through an easy, snaggletoothed grin. 

Malawian by birth, James, who looks as though he is in his mid-50s, moved to Cape Town after living in Zimbabwe for years. South, south, that’s the way everyone goes. But once he has put his last child through school, he’ll head back home, he says. Although trained as a carpenter and bricklayer, it is much more lucrative to run a stall here at the station. And these fresh leaves, well, they give him the edge, because you can’t find them in the local supermarket. That’s why he’s been up since before sunrise, to travel out to the farmlands in Philippi, 10km back in the direction of town.

“Take the train from town through Site C, through Site B. The stop next is Khayelitsha Station,” he’d beamed earlier, describing where he’d be. “That’s where you’ll find me, at Khayelitsha station.”

Another pulse of homebound passengers beats past his stand. None of them stop to buy his fare, but he’s not worried. He’ll sell most of his stock by the end of the day. Rush hour is still coming.

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