Coconuts and Pomegranates

Okay, time for a little book review.

So for class we read this book called Coconut by Kopano Matlwa.  It’s a two part book that tells the story of two girls in South Africa trying to come to terms with their black selves, traditions and cultures in a country that’s experiencing increasing globalization and westernization.  In the first part, a little girl named Ofilwe is struggling to get back to her African culture when her family is growing more and more apart from it and into the economic empowerment of post-apartheid South Africa.  Her dad even tells her brother Tshepo, that he should be going to school to be an accountant, make a living for himself and not in African literature as he wants.  Some people in the States may relate to this, but Matlwa is has a deeper meaning in writing this:  traditional African values are very non-materialistic, and yet there’s this new notion that Tshepo should be doing something that will make him and his future family rich.  He shouldn’t be pursuing something that should be enriching his mind, only for the sake of learning and the sake of being in touch with his African roots, according to his dad.  His mom supports his pursuits, but she is also prey to the materialism.  Her focus is on making her family look good, making sure her house is clean, that she has the latest cosmetics, etc.  Meanwhile, Olfilwe tries to get her dad to talk to her about the past, and he seems to brush her off when she tries to talk with them in their native tongue when English is growing more and more common. 

And then in part two, there’s Fiks.  She’s a young girl who we see grow up into the becomings of a black girl pursuing white affluence.  She has a box full of cosmetics and she reads glamour magazines because she feels that black is inferior.  It’s kin to dirt, she says.  She spends her days working at the Silver Spoon—a play on words for her career and personal pursuits into “the good life,” which she can never aspire to reach the full potential of.  Her self-makeover project to be the best she can be, the “whitest” she can be is manifested in what she calls Project Infinity.  There’s a certain economic and sociologic theme at work here.  Sociologic because she’s a black girl trying to be white.  Through the internal dialogue the reader can see how pompous she is and how good of a person she thinks she is in serving white customers.  Economic because, though she lives out in the townships, she’s trying to overcome that lifestyle and rise into a new social class, I think.  While Tshepo does it through academics (the American way, eh?), Fiks does it through hard work and thinking that the harder she works, the more noticed she will be by her white boss and get ahead in the Silver Spoon life (I suppose that’s also the American work ethic).  She often calls out fakers, when she is the biggest faker of them all.  In the end, though, the same man she met on her way to work which sought to only reinforce her notions of posteriority, also unravels those same feelings.  When she finally talks to this man, hears his story and his genuineness, we see Filks suddenly be pulled back out of this dream she has of leaving behind her black culture and trying to be something she can never be. 

There’s a lot of irony at play in the novel, and I’ve only covered the basics here.  But for me, personally, it really struck a chord with me when I realized something, and it set me off on yet another path of philosophizing, reasoning and coming to terms with myself, which is what I would like to try to explain here.  As I’ve said before yesterday, I find myself to be much more European than American.  Everytime I travel, I come back to the States, and I detest doing so.  I’ve finally made the decision that, when the time comes, I’ll move to Europe for my career and leave behind my American nominal identity.  But that’s where I catch myself:  can I ever really leave it behind?  I’ll always be the American in Europe, because I was born American.  Yes, maybe by blood and by geography, I’m American, but mentally I’m more European.  So which takes predominance?  I feel like Filks, who is trying to shed her past that she can’t hide from, in  exchange for another that’s entirely not her own.  If she or I really, truly think in her or my heart of hearts that I was born in the wrong society and seek to correct it, is that justified?  I won’t begin to justify it in terms of purity.  I’m not pure American any more than I’d be pure European, despite my Irish and German heritages.  I can learn who I am and who I want to be and try to reconcile the two, but at times I feel that I just don’t believe in the American dream anymore.  Is that wrong of me, or am I just coming to terms with reality and seeing beyond that piece of propaganda that attracts people here?  I told my friend about my plans to move, and she actually tried to dissuade me from it.  Lately I’ve been thinking of that Mark Twain quote, “love my country always, love my government when it deserves it.”  Maybe it’s the political scientist in me, but I tend to equate a government with a country.  A good government means a good country, right?  I mean, sure a country can have a terrible government but have a lively culture and people, but I don’t usually look that far into it.  I’m caught between the Filks in me who wants to leave this place for another, and the Ofilwe in me who has a desire to learn about her past when nobody else around her seems to care about it.  Maybe in the book, and in myself, there’s some overlap and fine lines between the two.

I know, I know. This is basically just a rant and me getting my thoughts down so I can sort them out, but any writing should have some sort of conclusion, right?  I can conclude that, as much as I may detest America, I don’t have to live with it, but I can’t bash it either.  I would be just as hypocritical as Filks.  If I’m supposed to follow my dreams and my heart, and that just so happens to lead me 2,500 miles away, does that suffice for the American dream though I’m not within its geographical borders?  I just feel that I fit in more there.  Sure, I could find someone else who is a multilingualist here like me, but my chances of such are much easier in Europe, and people there are much more enthusiastic to be polyglots.  Unlike Filks or Olfilwe’s dad, I’m not going there entirely to fulfill my financial needs.  While my career may lead me there, I’m also going because I genuinely want to, so I can’t be accused of following that route, I reason.  I’ll always remember where I came from, because that’ll always be a part of my identity.  Ryan Freer—former American citizen.  When I was in South Africa and I’d go out somewhere where I didn’t feel entirely secure, I would put on a false English accent to disguise myself.  In hindsight, it was foolish because South Africans probably like Americans more than they do British, I didn’t feel myself and a small part of me was ashamed for it.  That’s an experience I still can’t shake, and it’s something I’ll have to reconcile in the future.  If I have to go somewhere and completely disguise who I am, is that a place I want to be?  There are so many things that are conflicting in my head and my heart here.  Against a background of natural nationalism (definition pending), at the foreground there’s a dialogue of false identity.  As Thoreau once said, “beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”

Apartheid Feelings

It feels strange being separated from the entire country–world–I was a part of for an entire month.  I mean, while it didn’t exactly give me the same euphoric sense that I’d had after I got back from Europe, it reminded me how much I love to travel.  How much I love being in an entirely different culture apart from my own.   It solidified in my mind that eventually I’m not going to live in America, and that I’m far more European than I thought.  I feel like perhaps I’ve already talked about this, but the point of a diary is to talk about what’s on your mind, yeah?  It dawned on me one night (heh, see what I did there?) that I’ve always been much more European:  the way I act, dress, eat and even how frugal I can be.  For the most part, I just never felt that I’ve fit in into traditional and stereotypical American culture.  I fount soccer-football far more entertaining than hockey or American football-football.  

Adjusting to the climate coming back to the states has been especially difficult.  For some reason, going to Africa I didn’t have any problems.  The jet lag caused me more trouble than the change in air pressure or whatever other phenomenon.  But coming back, I’ve had a few nose bleeds and all I got to say is that I hope they stop within the next few days, because after the third one they’re really starting to become an inconvenience.

I took the day off yesterday to just sit back, unwind and relax.  I mean, it was a Sunday after all so I supposed my return was well timed.  Today I started getting back to my school work: my real life of being an academic.  But I’m going to hone in my time management skills and try to balance relaxing and school work; I suppose I should try to have a real summer relaxing experience because after December and moving on to having a grownup life, I won’t get the chance to be young forever….

People ask me if I’ll go back to Africa, and people I met told me they hope I return.  While I don’t know if I will, I still think of them from time to time, and especially the two bracelets I bought reminds me of two distinct people from my trip.  It’s these people that, to me, are exemplary of the African spirit.  Despite all the things that whites have done to the continent, maybe it’s all a front, but there are people who are genuinely happy to show you their culture, their lives and talk to you like you’re an old friend.  I genuinely appreciate that; I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t.  

I feel like part of this is just the remnants of the “honeymoon” phase of travel, but I’ve always genuinely loved to travel, I’ve always meeting people entirely different from myself, people who make me realize that though America prides itself on being the melting pot, there are other countries that welcome other cultures, learn from them and are more than happy to host them.  I feel like in America, other cultures just kind of blend and mix and we sort of bypass the appreciation part of it.  Like, we adapt because we have to because we accept it as commonplace.  For example, having Spanish so common here, it’s a result of an influx of Mexicans, but I would say that there are few places where Mexican culture is genuinely appreciated in the average American society.  I hope that makes sense.  It does in my head.  As a writer, I’m doing my best to explain myself.  So many times to people talk and talking becomes shouting and nobody is listening.  If even one person can just shut everyone else up, maybe as an American society, we’ll start getting somewhere…

Koisan & Last Day

Today, we visited a Koisan (not sure on the spelling) village, or at least a rendition of one.  Overall the trip itself was not long enough and I feel that it could have been more interactive or informative.  The Koisan are the indigenous peoples that first inhabited the are thousands of years ago.  They lived off the land, learned to track animals and be hunters and gatherers.  I supposed they would be comparable to Native Americans here in the states.  Our guide was a Koisan, which seems impressive, and indeed it is to talk to them about their heritage, but you can also find many descendants of the Koisan people.  The neatest part of the trip was when we learned about the different languages of the area, even up to Zimbabwe.  Xhosa, like many other languages of the region, use the clicks in place of X, Q and sometimes K.  So if you read something that has a “!” in front of a letter, it is a click sound, and there are about 7 different types of clicks.  I’ve found that some of it depends on dialect/accents of the person also.  Nonetheless, it was nice to be familiar with the language we’ve been hearing for the past 3 weeks.  That said, I wish we could have had the chance to learn a bit of Xhosa or even Zulu before we left for the trip.  While mostly everyone speaks English at some level here, it would have been nice to have that connection with people.  There is something new to be learned every day, even if you’re not looking to learn.  Today I learned a new appreciation for people who can live off the land.  That’s what’s always impressed me about the African way of life:  how they can use everything nature has to offer and still recycle it.  Like when the Koisan would kill an animal for dinner, they would use the meat for nourishment, the hide for clothing, and even the bones for teething toys for children; through their gnawing children would extract the calcium.  It’s always amazed me how they come to learn these facts of nature.  Like, who was the first person to smoke a plant and realize, “hey, this stuff cures me of my sickness!”  Oh, did I mention they would use ostrich eggs as water canteens?  And people think Africans are the primitive ones.

My entire perception of Africa has changed.  Yes, it has its troubles.  No, it’s not filled with saints.  But it’s still not the place you think it is.  It’s filled with people who love their culture and love to encounter others’.  Everyone has a story to tell, and that’s universal; everyone has a story to tell, white or black.  Today I was walking down the street and I said hello to someone, and we ended up having a 5-10 minute conversation about where he grew up and his hobbies (we were talking about the beach and how he wishes he knew how to surf).  The people are so candid, but maybe some of that is culture shock.  I took (rather, was given) a flyer today about someone named Dr. Tina, an inyanga, or herbalist, a medicine man if you’re familiar.  The flyer said he could cure anything from loss of spouse, stopping a divorce, earn success in the lotto or horse races, get a job and even “male enhancement.”  I kid you not.  I don’t think it needs any further explanation.

Our last dinner out was at a place called Gold, with “opulent African cuisine.”  It was a set menu of dishes from across the continent, and from time to time, dancers and performers would come out to do traditional drumming, dancing and the like.  One pulled me to dance and I took it in stride.  I suddenly got lost in a flurry of euphoria, African culture immersion, and at the end everyone was clapping.  One person told me I was “a good dancer,” and coming from an African, I take that as a true compliment.  I’m going to miss mealie pap, cooked squash, and Black Label beer.  I’m going to miss the sweet Coke (made with real sugar) and waking up to the sight of a mountain view every morning.  Of course, there are things I will not miss, but as I told someone today, I want to go but I don’t want to leave.  Part of it is due to returning America, a trip in itself, and with it jet lag.  Part of it is not having the things I can get here, like certain brands and foods.  But yet I know I may feel all these “honeymoon” emotions because I’ve been exposed to touristy things, and shown only the best of what Africa has to offer.  Miles away, people are living/struggling day to day.  People smile because they’re holding back tears.  People are nice because I’m a “rich” American.  But I’ve been exposed to the best of what Africa has to offer, and that’s all I need. 

I can’t believe I’ve been here a month.  I’ve missed a lot in the news, and have a lot of catching up to do.  It’s been a long time since I’ve had a vacation, and I think I’ve had my fill.  I’m excited to spend a few hours in Amsterdam and back in Europe, my future home someday.  That much is decided.  I feel like I could write more, but there’s too much to put down on word.  The rest I keep locked away in my mind with the bunch of other nonsense too.  It’s about 6pm and we leave for the airport in an hour.  Maybe it’s a good thing that goodbyes aren’t bittersweet.  I just can’t believe that a whole world exists inside the same world that we’re all from.  I’m happy to have met people I’ll never see again and learn from them.  I’ve learned so much more than I’ve taught others, I think, but it goes both ways.  For a study abroad, service learning trip, I think I’ve got my fill of learning about service.  It was strange not going to church on Sundays for a month, but nonetheless, I’ve met a host of people who are so devout in their faith, hopefully that makes up for it.  I pray for Africa, the people I’ve met, and the future of all other 6 billion people on this planet I’ll never meet.

 

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ImageSome wine tasting on the second to last day before leaving SA.  Some of the best wine I’ve ever had.

 

 

Last Days

I’m in the last week of my stay in South Africa, and there’s not much else to do but relax in Cape Town and count down the days until I can access free Wi-Fi almost anywhere I go again.  That’s the one thing I hope I don’t take for granted when I get back to the States.  Don’t get me wrong:  I’m still detesting going back, but it’s the subtle things in life.  These next few days are going to be spent just going around town, enjoying a few nights out on the town and trying not to buy anything else. 

Last night we went to a jazz club, and I was very excited.  It was nice to get dressed up again, but it was even nicer to finally hear some local jazz and hear the differences in flavor between Cape Town jazz, New Orleans jazz, Brooklyn jazz, etc.  It’s a lot more mellow, but at the same time, melodic.  I noticed some riffs and motifs in certain songs that sounded familiar, but couldn’t quite place my ear on where they came from.  While we all lounged, I had some samoosas–not quite sure how to describe them, but they’re like tiny pizza bite-tortillas and have a spicy meat inside.  It was a nice appetizer.  I enjoyed a glass of Amarula as well: it’s like Bailey’s, but made from the African marula fruit.  The jazz here usually includes a djembe alongside the classic jazz drumset and cymbals.  It was very nice and I wouldn’t mind doing it again.

The lack of planned activities in the past few days is the reason for this short entry, but tomorrow we’re going to visit the Koisan indigenous peoples; they were some of the first settlers of the Cape Town area, so I should have more to say after that.  Until then, shap as they say here.

No visit to South Africa is complete without a view from the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town.  It’s the newest 7 natural wonders of the world.  It was eroded by glaciers and was once an island in the sea where Cape Town is now.Image

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Conversations

I’d like to take some time just to record some of the conversations I’ve had with people the past few days.  Though they’ve been few and far between, it’s the quality of them that astounds me. 

One of them stands out in particular, and it occurred yesterday on Monday.  I went to the market with a friend where we stopped to talk to these two ladies working.  My friend had met them a few days prior and this was my first time meeting them.  After some warming up to them, I realized that they, seemingly normal people, have stories to tell.  I was mostly astounded at how easily they were willing to talk with us, and how eloquently they spoke with us.  I’ve found that, as I’ve mentioned, in South Africa you’ll find people who can speak English conversationally, and you can find people that can have intellectual conversations with you.  It’s these people that I find I can speak easier with.  We talked about family, life in Cape Town (one lady was originally from District 6, and moved back in 1996.  She is one of the few to do so, as property rights/land reform in South African is often a long and arduous process in the courts), politics and technology.  In that order.  I was surprised to learn that the Black Power movement I’ve been studying has little impact/relevance in today’s society, but that is slowly to change as Mthelele’s party, the Democratic Alliance, picks up steam.  Mthelele is Steve Biko’s wido, and the DA is largely influenced by his philosophies.  I learned that after 1994 and affirmative action programs began, they encounter the same problem here that we have in the United States.  Their employment ration is 1:2:7.  That is, for every white person, there has to be two black, and for every two blacks there has to be seven Indians employed.  The other girl I talked to, Aisha, was applying for a job, and after having finished her schooling, was competing with a girl who was still doing her studies.  The latter girl got the position and told Aisha that she could just employ 2-3 other people to help her with the position and get experience.  So the company can say they’ve hired 3 people as opposed to 1, whereas you can have one person who does the job excellently, or three people who do it just as well as the average person; further, then you have multiple people working the same job, the pay is spread more thin between them and the company is worse off than hiring the one person!  In the end, the affirmative action programs stem from post-apartheid racial empowerment/inclusion policies.  It was a real eye-opener for me to see how programs look on paper and how I may have been impressed with it had I read about it in the paper, and seeing its actual effects from talking with people.

I’ve learned that the Black Consciousness movement doesn’t apply to just blacks.  The term “black” is used to describe anyone who’s been oppressed and seeks liberation; it includes anyone who can identify with “the struggle.”  Therefore, the BC movement can apply to Indians just as much as it can to coloreds and blacks.  Although these terms aren’t used anymore legally, they’re used socially and as a way of identifying oneself.  Whether these are vestiges and deep seeded cognitions of apartheid, I’m not quite sure. 

Robben Island

Today, our entire visit to South Africa, studying apartheid, post-apartheid, the townships and the effects of it all culminated in our visit to Robben—Dutch for “seal”—Island, a former military base, but of course widely known for Nelson Mandela’s home (if you could call it that) for 18 of the 27 years he was a political prisoner.  For some reason, as eerie, symbolic, and meaningful as the Island was, it didn’t seem to have the great, overwhelming effect that I’d thought it would have.  Perhaps part of it was due to the gloomy weather, the lack of food in my stomach which diverted my focus on pretty much anything, or perhaps most likely, the realization that Mandela, as great as a man as he was and is, seems to be over rated. 

Now, if I said that to the average South African, I might be in a heap of trouble.  They see him in the same way we perceive George Washington, and I think that’s fair; I won’t knock their leader.  However what I want to say is what I said in a previous post: Mandela was the end product of apartheid.  Yes, he went to jail for creating the militant wing of the ANC, the MK, against apartheid.  Yes, his incarceration was terrible, and he used his charisma as a political leader to better the conditions of other prisoners at the Island.  All this aside, it was Oliver Tambo, Steven Biko and others who led the movement during the most important years of apartheid.  Whites knew the system was unsustainable, that eventually it would collapse.  It was going to collapse eventually, with or without Mandela.  In a cheerful yet ravenous rant from a cab driver as we talked about Mandela, he told us how he fought alone, defeated the system and gave Mandela a Herculean persona.  When we disagreed, he told us we “[didn’t] know our South African history.”  I wonder if the average South African knows that Mandela reluctantly accepted the position as the first democratically elected president.

While many came on the ferry with us to the Island, I couldn’t help but feel that most were neglectful of the fact that there were many others just like Mandela who were imprisoned at the Island.  Our tour guide, a former political prisoner, is just one person.  Yet they all came, as the tour guide even acknowledged, to see the one single cell that housed Mandela.  The Island also became known as the University.  Through Mandela’s insistence, prisoners were able to study and even get degrees from the Island through reading and studying books in fields of political science, economics and the like.  These were men who had little formal education and were in jail.  Surely someone somewhere saw a connection between the two and decided to remedy it.  Not only that, Mandela realized that eventually these would be people who would lead the country someday, and if they were not educated in these essential fields, the country would be doomed to failure. 

I noticed that our tour guide had the same eyes as Mandela, a result of working in the lime mines I presume, but I forgot to ask.  The mines were one of few sources of work for the prisoners.  In the Summer (our winter), the sun was so bright that it would shine off of the lime and workers would have to squint.  This froze their faces in a perpetual look with burnt tear ducts, eyelashes and eyebrows.  Yet they can still smile, and that’s what I find most amazing about their stories.

Going Back to Go Forward

Our second and final day at the Rehoboth Center today was one of amazement and wonder.  We shared the afternoon with two survivors of the apartheid, John Brandt and Myrtle Christian.  I wish I would have taken notes like I had planned to, because there are so many stories and quotes from them I could used to exemplify their struggles, but then again, maybe there’s a certain poetic irony in remembering what they said, and what anyone this entire trip has said, from memory (and it helps keep my wit and keenness about me). 

Myrtle was a local union leader for a garment factory for women, and I don’t recall John’s role politically, if any, but he was forcibly removed from District 6 and has worked in recreating the memories of D6.  He said a couple noteworthy things today, one of which, when I asked how he feels when people come to South Africa and focus their studies on apartheid when South Africa’s unofficial motto is to move forward, he said we have to go back.  History is history.  We have to go back to learn from it, leave behind the bad memories that apartheid brings, but extract the good.  This is how we learn from the past, forgetting what happened but remembering the lesson.  This is how we recreate District 6.  He said that he does not want to, nor would he live in a reconstructed District 6 because it could not compare to the one that was.  The memories and learning from the past is so much more beneficial than rebuilding a brick and mortar city that was once his home.  “We must go back to move forward,” he said. 

Myrtle has been fighting for human dignity since she was 14, both in the local community and when she was old enough to get a job and organize the workers.  It was incredible that this woman of 84, and even John whose age I don’t recall, are so keen; so learned and intellectual that they can have a conversation with you so frankly about such a horrific past.  “You were nothing.  Absolutely nothing…whites treated their dogs better than you [in reference to non-whites]” she told us.  Whites were afraid to even rub skin with blacks and coloreds for the fear that it would rub off on them.  This kind of paranoia is intrinsic in some whites today, though thankfully, personally I have not seen it (maybe because I am white, I get looks behind my back, I don’t know). 

She cried twice throughout the two hours we were together, once as she recounted the story of Modderdam (sic) as a shantytown of 400 shacks that was home to 800 people, was mercilessly bulldozed as the whites who were operating the machines laughed as they did so. “That was the most horrible part,” she sobbed.  She and the community cooked 4-5 drums of soup to feed to the children as parents indignantly sat on the pavement as every single piece of furniture, silverware and possession was mowed down and crushed.  “My back was breaking, but I didn’t mind…we were there from 7 in the morning to 9 o clock that night.”  Today in discussing Steven Biko and African culture, we talked about how the African culture is so intrinsically emotional, how it puts emotion before rationality and can even reconcile the two in certain situations.  It was interesting to see how Myrtle, a colored woman, could be so emotional, and apologizing for being so when she has every right to be so after decades of recounting the story.  That is what apartheid did to people.  Some are forgiving and have moved on, others have not.  The second time she cried was when she recalled the day Mandela (“I know he’s called Madela, but I call him Madiba” (Madiba is Mandela’s tribal name and is a sign of respect) was freed.  “After 27 years being locked up, he had no hate in his heart…that is why people love Madiba,” harkening back to Mandela’s political and symbolic emergence as a freed prisoner.  Though he was at first reluctant to become president, he was also ready to get to work reconciling the country, a process which has made great strides in 20 years, but South Africa still has a long way to go to being completely reconciled, if ever.  It’s been almost 50 years in the U.S. since the black civil rights movement, and every day you can still see the remnants of the past today.