Who would have thought such sweltering heat would have given birth to a fresh new t-shirt company! It's hot here, intolerably so. Worse, much worse, is the humidity. It weighs down upon one to such a degree that all the ceiling and standing fans in the apartment and office have shared sense of inadequacy. Yet this sticky Hades is home to great creativity, particularly in the area of design. Some years ago, when I first started out on my own, similarly unbearable summer conditions gave me the idea for my company name - Swelter. Somewhere along the line, I thought it would be great for a t-shirt brand. Mid last year, that brand saw the light of day and is now being worn by quite a few people (bless them!) from around the world. Today's the day I start to share with you some of the Swelter designs and the stories behind them (hey, and if there aren't any, I'll make them up. You might want to help me along there.) Right now, I have no energy, I'm in the mood for a chat, and I keep filling up my glass with water. Pray for rain!

Sunday, 20 May 2007


I'd heard the sound of banging from the apartment beneath us a little earlier and got up to investigate. I always use my cats as a gauge. If they seem unsettled, then something's up. Our brightest cat had appeared a little twitchy but then seemed to calm down. I stumbled sleepy-eyed back to bed. An hour later, the gunshots went off. Five of them. Blam, blam, blam, blam, blam right outside our window. Or so it seemed.

We overlook the estuary of the Umgeni River and across the water is what we affectionately term as Bollywood - a motley group of restaurants, take-aways, marquees and an occasional fun fair patronised mainly by partying Indians. On Fridays and Saturdays, bhangra music fills the air and we eventually fall asleep to the rhythmic thump of the bass or to excited announcements over the microphone. It takes some getting used to, but we love it. A grassy verge goes down to the river and the celebrations spread out across its width and depth. What goes on between the dancing and the cars that rock in the shadows, we're not sure, but guns have been fired in the past.

A few years back, in the middle of Diwali (a major Hindu festival known as 'Festival of the Lights'), a bullet came through my lounge window
and lodged itself in the wall behind a painting about twelve metres away. It was late on a Saturday night, I had just returned home from visiting friends quite far away in Drummond, and, single a the time, I was lying on the bed reading the early edition of the Sunday newspaper. Explosions abounded, since fireworks are a major feature of Diwali and go off all over the city (and especially across the river) for nights on end. The sound of gunfire slipped innocuously amongst the constant banging of the fireworks. But what sounded like a metal tray clanging noisily to the ground had been running into the lounge to see what the cats had knocked over. One of my beautiful Arab trays with an ornamental inlay, perhaps. Instead I saw a large bullet hole in my window, shards of glass strewn right across the lounge, and a whole through the magnificent painting of Mombasa, my birthplace, that my late mother had painted many years before.

The painting sat above the couch where I would sit for much of the day, either working or reading, and all the time being inspired by the magnificent view. It was a 9 mm bullet that could have come from across the river, from the small park below me or been a drive-by shooting, possibly from the bridge that takes the freeway over the river. This I never ascertained, and trying to get the police to my apartment was a whole other story.

Which brings me back to the recent gunshots that rang out so loudly in the quiet of the early morning. Three ten to be precise. My partner and I lay rigid for a few seconds, listening for screams, screeching tyres, fast-receding footsteps, anything that would give us an idea of what the scenario was and where it was taking place before calling the
cops. Nothing, just painfully loud quiet. We peaked out various windows, looked down onto the road and the communal garden below and there was no sign of life or death. Eventually we went back to bed, pulling the sheet up high over the old t-shirts we wear to bed. Mine was one from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, a much-needed replacement for my original MoMa, San Francisco shirt. Both of them black, with simple type. Firm favourites for years but, as with all t-shirts, they eventually transform into beloved sleepshirts until being designated a pitiful life as an artist's painting rag or being released from this world altogether and entering the ominous blackness of a bin bag.

As for the source of the gunshots, we have no idea. However, we did receive a circular soon afterwards about stepping up the security of this complex. And yesterday, we bumped into the previous supervisor of this luxury apartment complex and he told us that the apartment immediately below us had recently been completely cleaned out whilst the owner and his family were away. And this despite his alarm system, two security guards on the premises, security booms and gates that close overnight at the main entrance. Which made me wonder about the noises I had heard in the early hours of the morning, the ones before the sound of five gunshots.

Of course, this is a very tame tale in the light of what goes on in this country. It's not a touch on the story I heard last week about the
attack on a family in Kloof, where I often work, where ten assailants broke into a decent family home in the middle of the night armed with guns, axes and knives and set about destroying everything in site, stabbing any family members who awoke or stumbled dazed from sleep into the middle of the mayhem. Or the story I heard before that, where a couple woke up to intruders, the husband was shot dead and the wife ... well, I leave that one to your imagination. And the one where the husband, thrilled by how his home team was playing in the Cricket World Cup, stood up to cheer then heard a noise coming from upstairs, went up to investigate and died after he took a gunshot to the head and to the chest.

These are stories told by people I know about people they know. I, too, have been forced to look down the barrel of a gun (down three at a time whilst flat on my back on a badly lit road, and once when I walked into an armed robbery). It may seem inappropriate to talk about t-shirts in the light of such serious issues, but it is my aim to be both realistic and positive, and I believe that sending out frequent positive messages, whether on t-shirts, posters, graffitied walls, wherever, will eventually make a difference.

To turn violent crime around involves, in the most holistic sense, getting the criminals to respect life. And in order to do that, they first have to respect themselves. I am sure there are many ways to do that. On my part, I write, I create images, and I design t-shirts. I want to use those skills to do something good, however big or small that may be. I will be launching a new website and t-shirt collection with that in mind. Just give me a couple of months, please. I'll keep you posted.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear your responses - from your favourite old t-shirts/sleepshirts to shirts you've created to turn things around, or tees that have made you think. We live in an amazing world and we can all make a difference. Cheers for now.


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