When I met Nicole a few months ago, I remember wondering: what exactly, is her “thing”… Is she a prostitute, a homeless, a drug-addict, a crazy woman that had just escaped from psychiatric hospital? With her numerous tattoos, her bony silhouette and her white skin marked by life, I felt she could be a little of all of these.
I have been thinking for a while what I could capture of her very special beauty. Since I met her I have been both attracted to the idea of getting to know her story and also a little bit scared of what I would learn. She is a unique woman, living in the street. Meeting her the first time, you can only be struck by what can appear as a thousand paradoxes. She is proud without being aggressive, she is kind without being hypocrite, and she has this sensual aura that is exaggerated by her very short dresses – so short that sometimes you can glimpse the curved meeting of her pert little ass cheeks, disappearing into her underwear. At the same time – in her ways, her facial expressions and her wide smile – she seems perversely, like a little girlchild lost in a world too wild for her.
And yet, Nicole is also intimidating, without being conscious of it. Her life and attitude; her struggle and her air of innocence, stand as a testimony of both strength and vulnerability. For so many months she kept her mystery from me. Until, a few days ago on a very windy day (and I apologize already for the quality of the sound in the video), I spent one day with her. We start at the place she has been sleeping for the past three weeks, an unusual uninterrupted time for her and her two “protectors”, Mike and Jonty. She calls them her street family: they eat “meals” together, sharing whatever food they can get, they act as her bodyguards and she tends to their wounds or ailments. On one of our visits, we found Nicole washing Michael’s feet, before they went to bed. She referred to this as her Jesus manoeuvre, and for a second I saw her as a prophetess, bathing the feet of her disciples.
Nicole is smart, young, educated and full of ideas. She is warm and talkative. Why then, is she homeless? Before spending my day with her, I talked to a woman working at Honey Bun on Lower Main Road. She told me that she and other people had sent Nicole to rehab for a couple of months, but that she had gone back to the street and her “bad habits” straight away. “When people don’t want to be helped, you can’t do anything”, she said with a sigh. After that, I talked to a friend of mine, who tells me Nicole has many different versions of her personal history. And that nobody knows which to believe in.
I don’t want to discredit Nicole and the testimony she gave me. But I prefer to warn you: we will never know the exact truth. In case it wasn’t clear enough, this is not the point of the portraits we make. If I was looking for truth, I would do mathematics or physics. But I definitely wouldn’t pay interest to people. Because people’s words are their own perception, their own interpretation of the world, and are entirely driven by subjectivity. As Picasso says, “everything you can imagine is real”. So, for me, what Nicole says is real. Not because it has been verified by facts, dates and numbers. But simply because she says it.
She once asked me, after a long story about her researching the existence of mermaids in Obz public library: “Do you know why Albert Einstein could never tie his shoelaces?” I said I did not. “He always got distracted… you know? Because imagination is more powerful than reality.” And that was that.
In her words, I find a different kind of truth: I find beauty, I find poetry.
Nicole was born on the 13 th of January 1986, in Johannesburg. The day before her tenth birthday, her dad abandoned her and her mother. She has never had a strong connection to the maternal figure. From a young age, Nicole had to be independent, finding her way through studies and jobs. She could never rely on a supportive family structure, only on herself. She believes she never had time to be a real kid and to enjoy that innocence. This is maybe the reason why she will always stay a little girl inside. If the little girl inside didn’t have right to exist at a normal time, living in the street is, for her, a kind of freedom where she can finally express herself. As she says: “A lot of people sink into street life and find it more and more difficult to escape.” I thought it was, as Mike had told me, because of that ever deepening hole. But, she continued, “because of the freedom, the freedom of doing whatever you want to do. You can wakeup at whatever time, and you don’t have any obligations towards anyone. If you don’t want to do something, you just don’t have to. It is a free life and this place [the street] is a very good place to experience it”.
Is Nicole actually happy living here? With total freedom and lack of obligations? Was it the best place she could have found for her little girl, to explore and live out adventures and meet new people?
It is, obviously, a very hard place to live. But it has “its goods and its bads.”
Her path to the streets started in Johannesburg, when she decided to look for her biological father. He had changed his name and surname, which didn’t help. Because her search was leading to nowhere in Joburg, she went to Cape Town. And then, by coincidence she says, she finally met him. She knew, not only because they looked alike, but also because she could recognize herself in him – “in the good and the bad habits,” she laughs. “Even if he hadn’t been here to see me growing up, I knew it was him. He was very cool.”
But he was re-married and had three kids, three boys. Nicole says her stepmother never accepted her in the family as a bigger sister because, as she was the only woman in the house, she felt dispossessed of her husband. Nicole was independent at the time, but it was still too much strain for her father. She left to the UK to work. There, she rode horses and organized riding tours around the countryside. The tour would end in a chocolate factory, her favorite part.
After two years, her visa expired and she came back to Cape Town. In the meantime, her father was divorced and had been diagnosed with cancer. He died just before Nicole returned. Everything was left to his three sons and ex-wife.
When he died, Nicole lost her last protection. Soon, her savings ran away in rent and food, as she struggled to find work again. That is how, she says, she ended up living in the street.
In the beginning, it was very hostile terrain for her. She knew no one and nothing of such basic survival. Alone on the street, she couldn’t sleep at night. She met a lot of “wrong friends” and that was when she first encountered tic. Tic is a drug that keeps you awake, she says. So if you are scared of being mugged or raped at night, it is the best remedy to absorb. And that is what she did, for the first two weeks of her stay in the street. She never slept and almost died of it. She had crazy hallucinations. She began to see humans as if they were made with sticks. Eventually, she was admitted to hospital.
When she got back to the street, she was stronger, and more aware. She knew who to avoid. But this episode ruined her reputation in Obz. She was said to be a prostitute, a criminal, a thief… These definitions were the same that came to my mind, the first time I saw her. I felt guilty, hearing that.
But then, she met her bodyguards and brothers in arms. Now, they can’t live without one another. And when they are not here, she feels insecure again and that is when she takes tic. To stay awake, aware and ready to protect herself or to flee. But for her, it is not an addiction. It is not part of the problem, it is rather a solution. For a couple of months, she was sent to a farm were she was living a healthy life, and working on the land everyday. But she had to leave when she heard that Mike was back from prison [she says he was imprisoned for three months because police found an empty bag of drugs next to him]. She wouldn’t abandon her dearest friend, who is also, we came to understand, her partner and lover. If ever she finds her way out of the street, there is no doubt she will move with both of her protectors.
One day, at the beginning of her street life adventures, a lady told her that she always had to walk in the light. Nicole never knew if she was talking about the daylight or about the light of the mind – a way of being positive, always.
Nicole is the most positive person I have met recently. She is a bright spirit, a little girl in a woman’s body. She is as naive and innocent as new borns can be. Following her in her “scurrell” – a way of begging without being invasive – I witnessed kindness and respect in every interaction she has. She doesn’t expect people to give her money for nothing, so she collects and makes all manner of little trinkets, which she hopes to give in exchange. She will never stop smiling, even when people say bad things to her. For she is not willing to let an inch of her life being eaten by any type of negative feeling, anger or sadness.
Strangely, life doesn’t appear as a struggle for her, even though her fate entirely relies on the good, or bad, intentions of her fellow citizens.
Like the little geranium she sold to me, she is this exquisite little creature that found her way through life, that remains rooted to the street soil she sleeps on, but that is constantly feeding herself from sun, wind and freedom.
In her past life Nicole was Mc Magniloquence : listen to her rap !