Dwergie Fest 0'10!
It looked like I'd been had. I had woken up at 6:30 on a Saturday morning, picked up a photographer I’d never met, and driven all the way to the middle of Mpumalanga, aka nowhere, all in search of Dwarves. Dwergies, as they are known in Afrikaans (or pikkies more colloquially).
Myself, my wild and thrill-seeking friend Bobby and innocent, demure photographer Lisa had driven all the way to Standerton for Dwergie Fees 2010, a festival organized to celebrate and de-stigmatise the 8,000 or so South Africans afflicted with the various medical conditions that result in dwarfism.
The press material made out that there would be hoards of little people. On arrival in Standerton we see maybe 25 dwarves at a push, but mainly just scary small town South African culture for as far as the eye can see.
“Last night we had a lekker party. The midgets danced all night. They got up on the tables and everyone got drunk and I’ve had about two hours of sleep,” says Oom Theunis, who owns the Standerton Rivierpark. “When I heard that they had this festival last year in Heidelberg I contacted the organizers. I said why not bring it to Standerton. And now I see lots journalists from Johannesburg and Pretoria are here. So for us it’s about showing that Standerton is a good town, the kind of place where people should come and visit.”
If you have never been to Standerton consider yourself lucky. The fact that this is a dorp where people like Oom consider hosting a dwarf festival a great way to put their town on the map should give you some indication as to how much there is to do in Standerton. This is a place best known for massive protests due to poor service delivery. The best and worst of farm country and factory country crammed into one neat package. Two-tone shirts are still in fashion, the vast majority of the white, female population boast the infamous fountain hairdo, and every street is lined with face brick houses that represent a makeshift approximation of blissful suburbia. There are garden gnomes and kitsch fountains and cheaply customized cars in the driveway.
The festival kicked off on Saturday with a procession through town. For the many people who'd brought their customized vintage hot rods and bikes to the fest it was an opportunity to rev their engines and hoot their hooters. For tractor drivers it was an opportunity for them to participate in one of the few earthly activities in which a tractor is a welcome addition. The family of Org Smal, the legendary dwergie to whom the festival is dedicated, ride on top of a trailer, pulled by a tractor, which resembles the kind of transport one would be sent to a concentration camp in. The procession is strange, and gets wide-eyed stairs from the Standertonians. But if the masses looked suspicious it wasn’t due to any fundamental mistrust of abnormal folk. There simply weren’t enough dwarves to make the purpose of the procession evident. The locals were probably wondering why on earth a couple dozen dwergies were running rampant on hot rods and tractors down the main street. It’s nightmarish stuff.
Now about that guy I mentioned, Org Smal. To know the full story of Dwergie Fees one must understand the significance of Org.
Org Smal was a performer, and ladies' dwarf. A role model to the dwarf community, he organized the first Dwergie Fees back in 1989. There were reportedly 65,000 people at that one. For him, the festival was a way of bringing his fellow dwarves to the fore, giving them their moment to shine, telling them to be proud of what they are rather than ashamed.
An accomplished actor, some older South Africans will remember Smal for his role in the television series Arendse, while kids of the 80s will be amused to learn that Smal was the man inside the costume, and therefore by default, star of the show Zet, one of the more surreal elements of pre-democracy SABC television. You remember him, right? That rotund, fuzzy orange creature who spoke in high pitched, inane gibberish and was always getting up to some mischievous shit. He kinda looked like the retarded cousin of Alf.
Anyway, in 1996 Smal was driving in the Free State and lost control of his vehicle and so Org Smal passed on from this world.
At this year’s festival, his family has been invited to celebrate his life and his contribution to South Africa’s acceptance of dwarfism. There are a whole bunch of them, instantly recognizable because they are wearing shirts with Org’s face and the slogan “klein maar dink groot” [small, but think big]) on the back.
I speak to Org’s brother, Pompies Smal, who misses his brother:
“Org was like a special tool. He could always get into those hard to reach places. We used to send him under the car to fix things. He had a great sense of mischief and a great sense of humor. And jirre, he was strong. He could take out any of us in a fight, and he was really good at rugby--his small stature allowed him to sidestep his opponents. And he was like a lucky charm. He always brought the ladies. He got into wrestling and I would follow him around the country, watching him perform. He would give me free tickets for the shows, and I never struggled to get a date to go with me.”
Throughout the day we encounter various dwarves. They are all normal.
We meet Lawrence Smuts, a musician and entertainer. If you look him up on YouTube you will find him doing the leeuloop with the Blue Bulls Babes. Later on he will be playing guitar and singing. Smuts is at Dwergie Fees with his lady Yolandi, who is of so-called normal size. I ask what attracted her to Lawrence.
“Nothing at first,” she says. “When he started to talk to me I was surprised to find that he was very arrogant." Women are sometimes attracted to arrogant men, I mention. “Ja, I suppose so,” she admits.
Are there any issues when it comes to having a relationship with a dwarf?
“Just that people look at us differently. But we are a normal couple.”
“Only my arms and legs are small”, Smuts is eager to point out, “everything else is in full proportion.” Thanks for the information, Lawrence Smuts. Moving on.
We meet Stefan, from Pretoria. He is an IT specialist, a metalhead, and pretty big for a dwarf. He could probably take me in a fight, which admittedly is not saying much.
“The best part of this is getting to travel to Standerton, which I definitely think is the most exciting place in South Africa,” he deadpans. I ask him if he feels that people treat him differently.
“Ja, but you know, even for me it’s weird seeing little people. At first I’m always like what the fuck? And then I remember, "Oh yes, I’m little too." You should have been backstage at the pageant last night. It was a party. I met the guy who won and we hit it off straight away. We looked at each other and because we’re both small there’s and instant connection”. What does Stefan think of the festival?
“Its OK, but there aren’t enough of us, you know? It just seems like an excuse for a party. And next time they'd better have it in Pretoria. I’m not coming all the way here again.”
We meet two sisters and a friend with forms of dwarfism clearly more rare and serious than most. They have legs that are not only tiny, but immobile, and so they're wheel-chair bound. The lady who does most of the talking, and her sister, both suffer from a condition called Lorain disease, a rare form of pituitary dwarfism that relates to idiopathic infantilism, whatever that means. The lady is talkative and not at all self-pitying, but she does have a lot to say about her treatment, and the treatment of South African disabled people in general. She works as an archivist in a library for the municipality in Bloemfontein. She is very vocal about what she says is South Africa’s reluctance to confront and deal with disability. She feels that the disabled should be guaranteed employment, as many are not working. She also feels that the people she works with don’t have a concept of her condition and the impact it makes on her ablility to live a normal life.
“Sometimes they will ask me to get something at the top of the shelf”, she laughs. What’s worse is the other extreme, people assuming that she can’t do anything.
“I’m married, I drive a car, and that’s why I’m here. I want to spread the message that people like me can do anything.” Except the shelf thing.
We meet the two winners of the Dwergie Fees children’s pageant that took place the night before, who are eight and nine. One's a girl, shy, not entirely sure why everyone keeps hassling her. The other is a boy, confident. When we ask to take his picure he says, “Sure. For a hundred bucks.” Normal kids.
We also encounter various non-dwarves. They are not normal at all.
There is the young man who is downing gallons of brandy and fell out the back of a bakkie during the procession, then simply got up and dusted himself off with blood and bruises over his body. There is a stall where a man is selling something he calls "moffie toffie" [gay toffee]. There are people wearing those godawful bright blue shock wigs. There are people who have the kind of facial features one can only have as a result of an unforked family tree. There are people proudly wearing De La Rey t-shirts. There is an abysmal singing competition. Some guy tells us that he is an arm-wrestling champion, before flexing his muscles and then prancing off to perform Elvis covers on the main stage. There are people langarm dancing.
We had come to Standerton looking for freaks and we were not disappointed. But they weren’t dwarves. The freaks were locals of Standerton and journalists from the big city and festival-loving carnies and rubbernecking fetishists. They were farmers and nurses and priests and rugby players. And they were us.
PHOTOS BY LISA KING