Thursday, July 14, 2016

Black life: walking, waiting and mobility

I leave for work at about 6:30am every morning. Everyday, without fail, I will see black people walking somewhere or waiting for a bus or taxi. On my route, I don’t see any white people doing the same. All the white people are in their cars or jogging or walking their dogs (although this has become the work of the gardener as I’m seeing many black men walking dogs at strange hours the same way I see black women pushing prams with white babies). 

This observation isn’t really revolutionary because anyone who lives in the suburbs knows these dynamics (I drive through Emmerentia, Greenside, Parktown, Saxonwold, Houghton, Norwood and sometimes through Melville): in the morning, we see the black people arrive to clean white people’s houses and offices; and in the evening we see the exodus when they return to their homes in townships and far off places where the black majority lives. I’m becoming impatient with this form of mobility because it highlights how very little has changed in terms of how labour is organised as well as the spatial divide in a democratic state that desperately seeks to be post-apartheid.

I drove a friend to Rivonia a while ago and I used Rivonia Road to get home. It was rush hour with the usual slow traffic. The slow pace gave me the opportunity to look around and I was struck by the long lines of black people queuing waiting for taxis and buses. There was something shocking about seeing that many people on the side of the road. Waiting patiently and moving slowly to fill an empty taxi. There was nothing new about it but perhaps for the first time I looked at the image through a lens that is more critical of South Africa and it’s promise of “a better life for all”.

This kind of movement—black people moving in and out or suburban areas— is obvious to everyone and a firm part of what it means to live in an unequal society. I grew up being a part of the same pattern. My sister and I walked to school when we didn’t have money for the bus. This meant we left home at 6am in order to get to school at 7am. We would be part of the morning traffic of black bodies making their way into the affluent suburbs or the jobs in town.
Not just a South African problem.
The image of throngs of black people queuing and waiting also reminds me of my childhood. Home Affairs (which always felt like the one place where I never saw white people), Frere Hospital and the pension office in the part of East London known as esiGinqgini was an everyday occurrence. The identity of the institutions was built around the idea of waiting for service because there’s nowhere else that offers the same service. And perhaps this is the rub: the lack of options one has when they are poor means they have to wait for a service because they don’t have another option. This is why I’m always dumbfounded when I’m at the bank or the shops and people begin huffing and puffing if there are a few people in front and a few tills are operating. The impatience comes as a result of knowing that one can go elsewhere to get a better service. If one has more options they have different expectations for a service.

What kind of psyche does one develop if they spend most of their day in limbo?
Waiting or walking for hours in order to get something done?

 I recently taught the film Yesterday where this very idea is considered. Yesterday lives in Rooihoek; a typical rural village in KwaZulu Natal. She is uneducated, her husband is a miner in Johannesburg and she has contracted HIV from him. She realises she isn’t well and decides to walk to the nearest clinic. The film begins with her walking through a barren landscape with her young daughter. We don’t know where they are walking to but there’s a sense that they’ve been walking for a long time. Yesterday does this trip more than once with her daughter (who is about 6 years old but not in school). The walk to the clinic means that Yesterday gets to the clinic too late and each time she does not see the doctor. There’s no appointment that’s been made; it’s first come, first serve. It’s only after her new friend offers to look after her daughter and pays for a taxi that Yesterday is able to arrive at the clinic early enough to see the doctor and she is finally diagnosed with HIV. The film is about Yesterday’s journey with sickness; the road and walking become a motif for the journey. Even though the film is about Yesterday, it also offers some perspective into the lives of people whose psyche is governed by the idea of waiting. You are constantly at someone else’s mercy when you are in waiting. Waiting means a sense of helplessness.

While driving through the Eastern Cape recently I was struck by home many people were always walking along the highway. Presumably walking from one village to another. There were also people waiting on the side of the road waiting for a benevolent drive to take them to the next town. Watching these people made me realise that most black and poor people spend a lot of time walking or waiting. Walking because they don’t have a car of their own. Walking instead of getting on a taxi because you can save more money. Walking because taxis are not allowed in most affluent areas (I think there are bi-laws restricting this; especially in places like the Southern suburbs in Cape Town). I found myself thinking of a train system and how different the Eastern Cape would be if there was a train system connecting key areas in the province.

Of course the danger of writing about black people is that I'm providing a narrow narrative of group of people with complex experiences: the danger of the single story. This is just an observation. Perhaps someone can offer another perspective about black people's lives, but for now, these are my observations.

Friday, July 1, 2016

The invention of women

I'm reading Prof Oyeronke Oyewumi's book The invention of women: making an African sense of Western Gender Discourses after watching the conversation she had with Prof Zine Magubane at Rhodes University last month. I haven't finished the book. In fact, I'm still reading the first chapter and I'm rethinking so many things. I have a bad habit of reading more than one book concurrently. In the past few weeks I've been dipping in and out of Toni Morrison's Mercy and the collection of her essays (which I'm finding very difficult to grasp)I just finished Buchi Emecheta's Second-Class citizen (which just about broke my heart) and The diary of Maria Tholo (a collection of Maria Tholo's diary entries during 1976 collected by Carol Hermer), and now I have added Oyewumi's book. 

This repertoire of titles is not random. I'm quite intent on reading work by black women and work that reflects the experiences of black women. In a world that doesn't affirm or center the existence of women who look like me I find I still have to do the homework myself with the help of conversations with friends and mothers. In a world that refuses to hear and accept that whiteness is still the norm and white, male representation is so dominant, it becomes even harder to explain why my homework is so important: to me and for me. It's a way I can put myself together and remind myself I am not crazy. I also find that apart from conversations with my black girlfriends, I do not have spaces that regularly affirm my existence in a positive way. I don’t know what these spaces would look like. I find myself thinking about my mother’s experience with umanyano: a weekly meeting affirming her beliefs but also a hurtful space when she didn’t abide by the rules. I also find I’m thinking a lot about my experiences in the black Methodist church which built a strong group identity in comparison to my school experience which was an assimilationist project rather than affirmation for the black girl.

So in the midst of this internal work and life that I am doing I stumble upon the revamped version of Women24: This was followed by a garbled Facebook post: 

I don’t know what I was expecting. In fact, I had no expectations at all just a silent hope that when Women24 says it’s revamping the website, the website will reflect some—not all—of the experiences and questions I have as a black woman. But instead Women24 created another platform dominated by middle class, white women with smatterings of black women in order to tick the diversity box. No complexity. I understand Women24 for what it is: it’s about consumption and recreating a particular kind of white, heteronormative womanhood.

Of course I should quit complaining: why not look a little closer on the internet. I know there are other websites such as Crunkfeminist and Jezebel. Is there anything Afrocentric? If there isn’t what would it look like? An African City comes to mind: a mimicry of white womanhood by black women. There’s a plural experience of what it means to be a black woman. I’m not looking for a mirror image of myself and my friends when I go onto the internet but I’m constantly surprised by how absent our experiences are.

So I took to google and searched "African feminist blog" and this is what I found:

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Remembering the code of black life

“Sithi masizodibanisa amehlo. Akuhlanga lungehliyo. Kunje kuzo zonke izizwe. Tutwini.”

I’ve heard these words many times; as though they were a litany or a poem. These are the words I heard every time I went to umthandazo, a prayer meeting, held at a home when a family member has died. These meetings were largely organised through the church. We would go after church on a Sunday or iGuildas —ulutsha, the youth—would go during the week. Thursday was reserved for uManyano. If the person who passed away was a member of uManyano, Thursday also meant kuxhonywa ibhatyi: a ritual that involves taking the manyano uniform and hanging it up in the home until the funeral. This would be a symbol and reminder to anyone who visits the home that the mother of the home was umama webhatyi, a church mother.

Recently these memories have been creeping up on me slowly, reminding me of the patterns and rituals I’ve been involved with which gave me meaning as a child and teenager. More importantly, they’ve been occupying my mind as a reminder of tangible examples of black life. I’ve only ever witnessed imithandazo and ukuxhonywa kwebhatyi in black communities. These rituals as well as most coming-of-age rituals amongst all cultures and communities are rooted in a code. Some could call it a discourse, a way of being. This code encompasses the language that is used in certain spaces, the dress code, the behaviours and the practices involved in a ritual. These differ for every family and every community, every class and every race, but they exist.

A few months ago one of my colleague’s father-in-law passed away. This was not the first time a colleague had had a bereavement in the family. Usually an email was sent around asking that we “carry so-and-so in your prayers and thoughts as they grieve the loss of so-and-so in their family”. Perhaps colleagues who were better acquainted with the bereaved would send flowers and cards. However, when one of the seSotho teacher’s father-in-law passed away the perfunctory email was followed by an email from Ma'Dlamini* (the isiZulu teacher) suggesting that we visit sis’Vuyi’s* family on Thursday afternoon. The email was addressed to all the black teachers in the school. No-one asked why we were going. There was an understanding silence amongst us that we were going to umthandazo.

On the day of umthandazo I questioned my dress code more than usual: should I wear a skirt? Should I hear a doek? What would be expected of me at sis’Vuyi’s house? Upon arrival at sis’Vuyi’s house, my fears of being inappropriately dressed were allayed when sis'Vuyi appeared in a knee-length (meaning short) shweshwe dress; sans doek. As the makoti of the home this is a surprise given the rules that govern makotis and what they wear. We were ushered into the home and greeted by the family. Before long Ma’Dlamini belted out a familiar verse from a seSotho hymn. Everyone joined in. This was followed by a prayer and only after the prayer did we explain the obvious. The family nodded knowingly throughout the explanation which went something like: we are Vuyi’s colleagues and we felt it was important to visit the family and show that we are in solidarity with her as the family prepares for the funeral. Ma’Dlamini went on to introduce each of us and explain that even though we worked among white people in a white world “Ubuntu bethu” determined that we maintain the culture of ukukhunga: visit and pray with a family during their loss. We performed a ritual that was familiar and valued by everyone in the room.

Since the ritual in sis'Vuyi’s home I’ve been thinking about the rituals I participate in while living in Johannesburg. Visiting sis’Vuyi’s home was the first time since I left home in 2006 that I had been to umthandazo. I was reminded of the multiple codes I have access to, many of which have very little resemblance with the code I used growing up. It led me to consider: if my mother had passed away what code would my sister's and I use to make meaning of the rituals assumed to be part of a funeral? Would my colleagues hold umthandazo? Would we have a Thursday prayer meeting and display her manyano uniform as she has always insisted my sisters and I should do? Would we bury my mother here in Johannesburg or back in the Eastern Cape where she spent most of her life?

I find more and more I’ve been thinking about the shift in how I understand the world since I left home. This is probably just a case of nostalgia. There’s been an obvious change in how my shift into a more middle-class lifestyle has meant different ways of being. Even when I have been in black communities I’ve been excused from certain ways of being because people know I am educated, I live in Johannesburg which means I am exempt from certain expectations. The rules are more relaxed for me and those like me. Perhaps the relaxed rules also have something to do with being geographically removed from the community I was part of as a child. I watch with envy how some friends seem to have maintained the seamless relationship with where they grew up. But I also have a community of young, black professionals who deal with the schism in values when one goes home because they are the first graduate in the family or the one who had a better education than the poorer cousins who remain poor in the township.

This is nothing new: it sounds like another case of double consciousness where identity is contested because that's the nature of growing black in a white supremacist world. But is this the way it ought to be? If I were in another country I would expect all these emotions. But I am in Africa but I question my identity as though I were in another country that makes my difference obvious. Perhaps my nostalgia is irrelevant because identity is supposed to be complex and questioned.

*Not their real names