I am absolutely exhausted. This is the most tired I’ve been since I slept off all that flying-across-the-world exhaustion nearly a month ago. Granted, yesterday was a packed day—I went to an art museum in the morning, OccupyDurban and the BAT Centre (an art community) in the afternoon, made dinner with friends, and then went out to see an amazing Mozambican band called 340 mL play at a hipster mecca called Unit 11.
It’s been a strange two weeks of making new friends, settling into something of a routine, actually trying to do archive work regularly, and remembering how to be a historian while also trying to appreciate the new spaces I’m inhabiting. Last week, my dear friend Erin Fourie came down to visit and take me back with her to Pietermaritzburg for the weekend. We sat and chatted along the Durban Bluff, then went back to PMB for old time’s sake. It’s absolutely surreal to see Erin here in South Africa—she is the closest friend I made from my time back in 2004, and we’ve stayed in pretty constant contact since; but what makes it even stranger is the fact that she is now a genuine television celebrity, having placed in the Top Ten on South Africa’s “Idol” music program. I accompanied her to a show at an Octoberfest out in the Natal Midlands, and it was interesting to watch how people approach her with a sense of awe/ownership/incredulity, saying things like, “You’re our Erin from KZN!” “We’re so proud of you!” “I can’t believe I saw you on TV!” It looks like the experience is dizzying for Erin too, and one that is rendered more confusing by the still impersonal nature of being a TV face—people feel an intimacy with you, and you don’t know them one bit. Spending time in Pietermaritzburg and the Midlands really brought home for me how far away 2004 is. I’m no longer twenty, living away from California for the first time, and trying to understand the world in new ways; instead I’m twenty-seven, a bit more experienced, and perhaps cynical, but also personally miles away from so many of these places that felt so formative. I’m now older, working on a doctorate, and really in a different space, although that fundamental sense of disorientation and displacement, of very self-conscious life-growth, is similar.
Thursday it will have been one month since I left the U.S. It sure as hell doesn’t feel like a month is coming up. How did that happen so fast? Part of me still feels the quiet fear of the audacity of it all—who am I to move 8,000 miles away and think I can do this? Another part of me is feeling the ending of the ‘honeymoon’ period; it no longer feels like I’m on a vacation—rather, I’m adjusting to the idea of ‘living’ here, and trying out the spaces I’m inhabiting. Theorist Sarah Ahmed, as usual, puts it better than I do in her book Queer Phenomenology:
“Familiarity is what is, as it were, given, and which in being given ‘gives’ the body the capacity to be oriented in this way or in that. The question of orientation becomes, then, a question not only about how we ‘find our way’ but how we come to ‘feel at home.’ …Each time I move, I stretch myself out, trying this door, looking here, looking there. In stretching myself out, moving homes for me is coming to inhabit spaces, coming to embody them, where my body and the rooms in which it gathers—sitting, sleeping, writing, acting as it does, in this room and that room—cease to be distinct. It takes time, but this work of inhabitance does take place. It is a process of becoming intimate with where one is: an intimacy that feels like inhabiting a secret room that is concealed from the view of others…”
It is impossible for me to feel all this and not think of it when I do my research. How do settlers inhabit spaces? How do they justify them? How do they interpret, what are their ‘orientation devices,’ their ‘homing beacons’ that they set up to allow them to fill this new space with a bodily familiarity? Likewise, how do Indian migrants do this? How do African peoples push back against this, create their own spaces to inhabit, and conceive of themselves and others? Welcome to what goes through my mind most days.
I can’t help thinking about this when I walk around Glenwood, the relatively affluent subsection of Durban where Howard College is located, and where I reside. Glenwood, like much of middle and upper class South Africa, is a maze of beautiful, well-situated homes marked by wall after wall, dog after dog, guard after guard, electric fence after fence. I can’t help but think of the communities in Octavia Butler’s Earthseed series; as the civic enforcement has become privatized and ultimately nonfucnctional, people start retreating behind huge walls, arming themselves, and living lives of mutual suspicion and distrust, with gross inequality being accepted in its own ways.
South Africa is a land besieged, entrenched, walled, and afraid. There is much to love—so much to love—about this country, but it would be a lie to say that people do not live with a quiet undercurrent of fear in the background. Cars are stolen, acquaintances are mugged or beaten, someone has been violently assaulted—these things constantly whisper around you. I feel it pushing around me, the collective fears of a society rampant with violence and threats of violence, and I too feel the fear that Alan Paton spoke of sixty years ago:
“We do not know, we do not know. We shall live from day to day, and put more locks on the doors, and get a fine fierce dog when the fine fierce bitch next door has pups, and hold on to our handbags more tenaciously; and the beauty of the trees by night, and the raptures of lovers under the stars, these things we shall forego. We shall forego the coming home drunken through the midnight streets, and the evening walk over the star-lit veld. We shall be careful, and knock this off our lives, and knock that off our lives, and hedge ourselves about with safety and precaution. And our lives will shrink, but they shall be the lives of superior beings; and we shall live with fear, but at least it will not be a fear of the unknown.”
I do not know the answer, or if there is one. There are no easy answers here, and my schemas of race and class and gender work best in contemporary America or nineteenth century British Empire, and I’m endeavoring to be as humble as possible in recognizing that I do not have any clue of what I’m understanding here. Funnily enough, living in Illinois gave me ample practice of this—inhabiting a space where all the markers were slightly shifted, yet seemed familiar. Where racial comments, or dynamics of space or language were just a little off what I’d been used to, and I had to recognize that Southern California was not Central Illinois—this is a fraction of what I’m trying to understand as I walk the streets of South Africa, afraid, quizzical, not fully comprehending.
Apartheid is over in many ways, and it is still with us in social arrangements, in the guarded stares, in the black maids for white children, in the former/current servant’s quarters, in the whispers and asides and unspoken sentences. Race and class and gender dance and weave and tie and untie and collide and shatter in new ways every day, and nowhere was that more apparent than in observing Occupy Durban yesterday.
I went with Mark, a Canadian graduate student, and Jenn, a researcher from Boston. We took a taxi to the city hall, and walked up to see about fifteen very earnest people with countless signs decrying corporate greed, expressing solidarity, Ubuntu (the pan-Nguni concept for ‘humanity’ and a key concept in Desmond Tutu’s own theology), and protesting oppression. By and large, nine-tenths of the group consisted of middle class white South Africans earnest in v-necks, keffiyehs, skate shoes, and aviators. There were about three or four Indians and Coloured people, and never more than one or two black Africans present.
I didn’t know how to process. I didn’t really know what to say. I felt a lot of things at once: painfully aware of the class representation at the event (especially including North Americans who can fly in and offer critiques or blog about them later…), and the very minimal attendance on one level. It’s not that South Africans don’t care about or aren’t affected by staggering inequality—google Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, and the 2009 Service Workers’ Strike for starters—but I wonder if the structure of the movement (or whatever it is) does not translate well or legibly at all when transported en masse to places like South Africa. In the U.S., masses of newly disenfranchised groups of middle class people are making this movement happen—perhaps because most of us at home identify as ‘middle class’ to the point of nearly making it meaningless except for a powerful identity marker. Here, I don’t’ know how similar that is, and I don’t’ think I have any business saying I’m “part of the 99%” when I’ve been able to afford (through university grants, jobs, and parental assistance) to spend nine months flying out and doing research here. I also am keenly aware of the discomfort evinced by my claiming to speak for anyone while here. In short, the whole thing is complex, and I’m hopeful for OWS and the like in the states, and hope that any nascent movement here in KZN, especially in Durban begin by broad consensus building/alliance building work with other groups already fundamentally challenging South Africa’s own systemic inequalities.
There’s a lot more to say, but I’m absolutely wiped. So I will simply end with this: I went for a run today, and it was necessary. The morning’s sermon at church was about entrusting Jesus with our anxieties and not holding on to them (Philippians 4:1-8, I’m only focusing on a part of the message), and I struggle with that about every freaking minute, so I felt a good three mile run would be a good way to think/pray/and listen to dance music (three of my favourite things). It also helped me run against the contours of this new place, learning new streets, and ‘finding my way.’ I passed a professor from Howard College’s history department, and was about two-thirds of the way home, when I spotted monkeys down the street. They hopped and quietly hooted as they crossed the road.
Then they started to follow me. Still making their creepy quiet monkey noises.
For half a block.
As Rihanna trilled in my ear about regretfully shooting a man, I was. Being. Semi-chased. By. Monkeys.
Finally, they stopped on a fence, looked back at me, and quietly made their weird monkey sounds as Rihanna and I ran back home, more than a little freaked out.
This week will be nonstop archive work. Do not be jealous. Okay, a little bit.
Thanks as always.
Current Location: South Africa, Durban
How am I feeling?:: exhausted