Another day

Another day passed, void of sunshine and movement, I lie strewn across the carpet, my belly feeling lumpy and unkind. With the twilight comes a promise of those Sunday afternoon blues. The residue of a dozen coffees cling to the sides of the cup on the table, a half-read book discarded aimlessly across its surface. Sometimes it is impossible to live in the style of living, the clichéd poetic attributes of a life well-lived. Who knows what is meant by “well”. Do they simply mean not sickly? Surely it means more than the way I have spent this minute, minutely wrapped in my own sad presence, wishing for someone to come and save me from myself.

It been weeks since your phonecall; how many I do not readily know. Time for me blurs in a whirlwind of hours, many taken up feeling lost in a timeless forest of hopeless longing. Those hours you were with me; annulled, passed over, forgotten. Not me; I hold onto those moments with you, remembered on 4am mornings. I let them toss me about, like a ship off its anchor. I think of the space between your chin and the top of my head and how vast it seemed in that first moment when you leaned over to tease. I think of your triumphant pose on the top of those steps that now seem to transpose themselves into a mountain that I could never climb; and you, the pinnacle on the top of a moment that I can never, ever have again.

I think that I miss you and then I have to remember that there is no “you” to miss, because you were never more than one regrettable afternoon, mere hours of something light and airy. You were a room in someone else’s house, with a view of an ocean, crisp curtains at the window, with a blue door that closed me out. That salty, sea air I remember of that day was someone else’s perfume, crushed against your neck. Nothing of you was for me. I only miss how good it felt, to be in that room, looking out onto those crashing waves and breathing in that clean, ocean air. I mere hopeful fantasy of what could have been, if only you had believed as much as I did.

The Story of a White Liberal

I have just had my ideas about myself and my identity altered and alienated by Christopher Hope’s “My Mother’s Lovers”. Quite frankly, his truths are rather bitter and I want to resist them. But my mantra for life has always been to be truthful to myself and to not be afraid to confront anything and everything that can contribute to that thing that happens to all of us – growth. So his book has really spoken to me because he does just that; he confronts and explores what it means to be a White, liberal South African.

I have often dismissed the idea that I benefitted from Apartheid, simply because I had no active role to play within it. I have felt soothed by the active role I now believe I play in being a white liberal; bound to a dream to do something good with my life. I refuse to downplay the extent of my privilege, but attribute it not to a government whose sole aim was to create the perfect life for a minority, but to my own family and my own talents. You would have to know and understand the life I have lived in order to assess whether there is any truth in that. We were poor and white and I attended the same schools as poor blacks, ate cheap stews because we had no money, wore hand-me-downs and battled the demons that children of alcoholics do. In a nutshell, I struggled as much as I see some people around me struggle.

I believe that the fact that today I attend a privileged university and drive a car has nothing to do with Apartheid and everything to do with the small gifts that shaped my life along the way. I have a strong and determined mother and a brain which got me bursaries. But perhaps what really got me this far is that there is no place for poor whites in the new South Africa. Perhaps it was the understanding that I cannot count on government to fulfil my life needs, but that I need to provide for myself. We, being the whites, don’t get a level of service to which we are accustomed. So, if we want good health care, good schooling and a nice house, we need to emerge unscathed from poverty and provide all it is that we feel we have the right to.

Yet, as I write this, I can feel the hypercriticism, the unalterable lies in my story. Christopher Hope taught me that. He said that there is no such thing as a white liberal. Although we want to feel attuned to fellow South Africans, and we feel bad that they live in a world worse than we can imagine, we don’t ever want to be them; the poor, the lost and the different. We want the same freedom as them, we pray for them the same prayers that they pray for themselves, but we are happier in suburban bliss than we are in the rot of the informal settlements. The most we do is look on, sadly shaking our heads at the atrocities that confront other people, and deny all allegations of the part we played in creating them.

The central character in “My Mother’s Lovers” is a man who has spent his whole life running from South Africa and the colour-blind mother who neglected him as a child and then did everything in her power to bring him back. Having been brought up by someone who saw Africa as one country, who lived out her life in the company of every colour, creed and nationality of man, who is loved by everyone and loves no one, one could consider him to have grown up the ultimate liberal. Yet he rejects the idea of belonging to South Africa. He has a best friend who grows up in his household, who he considers his brother, but who is black. This friendship shows him how different he is to this African man, how his dreams are not the dreams of those freedom fighters, and that his thoughts will never be those of his friend. His childhood separates and divides him from South Africa, until he no longer believes in home.

Eventually, the character becomes a gardener for his own home, living in the back yard in a very basic way. He takes on the life that his mother’s previous gardener had left behind. Perhaps the message is that in order to truly be liberated, and in this way liberal, one has to confront and accept the life that many in South Africa already live. Yet, this burdensome life, which seems to overflow with death, as much as the community toilets overflow with the excretions, is not something which any white person wants to confront. Even within the life that the character eventually chooses, there is something safe and humble within. It is a private life, a simple one, which he can hide from the rest of the world. It is life with little thought, but it is a life which he embraces when it all becomes too much.

I long too for that simple life, where I don’t have to prove myself to anyone, not even to myself. I would like a life in service to others, but not devoted to any one government, or any one deity, but a life devoted to acquiring those things that are simply, but harmoniously crucial for life; a space that is my own. 

My Jane Austen Childhood

I have attempted to shirk the trappings of poverty for as long as I can remember. I have despaired at the cheap soaps, no-name brands and thinning sheets of my childhood. I grew up devoid of proper table manners and even less social etiquette. I seem to have spent my whole childhood prostrate on the couch, dirty feet tucked beneath me, a book cradled on my lap; a lifeline if ever there was one.

Yet I have always found stability between the four walls of my room, within the messy bookshelves and grimy crevasses that made home a contented place to be. It has always been a quiet home, humble without the lavishness that money brings. It is ordinary, colourless and safe. There is a dubious Englishness to its bland wooden surfaces and empty larder. I like the fact that it is untidy and somewhat grubby at the edges. It was all I ever needed.

My mother’s tuneless singing, her very British way of cooking and her endless rants about work and science and the death of morality brings a smile to my face, even while she can annoy me like no other. A precarious balancing act of a relationship, ours, yet it is filled with respect and the occasional joke. We share the same sense of humour, talent for creativity and love of wooden furniture. We bump heads about everything but books. We both love children.

These bookshelves heave under the weight of carelessly strewn books. Mine was a Jane Austen childhood of innocent romance, conservatism and un-awakened posterity in family. We hiked the majestic mountains of the Drakensburg, shivering in our flimsy tents on cold, April days. We overloaded the creaking old wreck of a car for trips to grandparents, a cringe-worthy roadtrip of shuddering jalopies and mattresses flapping in the wind. But I saw South Africa, as no plane passenger could.

School was a bike ride away on cold winter mornings and humid summer afternoons. But it was simple going, painless and happy. Easy to excel in everything, deemed the teachers’ pet, triumphed and trumpeted – sports, academics, cultural activities, but not boys, no, not boys. I seemed to always have a crush on the wrong boy; maybe because there weren’t that many to choose from. My mom tried to shelter me from the worst of it, but there is never going back once mistakes are made. One bad influence, one preppy school girl dreaming of big-city life, and your whole masquerade can come crashing down.

Yet a certain kind of innocence remained. It sheltered behind strict curfews, long-term relationships and gossip. My town was great for people who kept their noses clean, who rode motorbikes and went fishing on weekends. But those dreaming of the bright lights felt stifled by the lack of anonymity. Since the big-city life has become my reality, I have found a nostalgic satisfaction in the life I lived as a child. I relish in my memories of being the small-town tomboy; a clichéd world of tree branches, brothers’ cast-off bikes and forts. Perhaps we were poor, but I never felt it in the same way I could’ve. It was only outside the tree-enmeshed wonderland that I realise how rich I have always been.

The Deaths behind Live Aid

Starting with Rian Malan’s “My Traitor’s Heart”, I have become a really big fan of books written by journalists. They tell the story behind the story, which is useful to anyone who has an interest in the truth about incidences in history. I have recently been immersed to a fantastically funny and candid autobiography by a BBC journalist called Michael Buerk. The book “The Road Taken” gives a very moving account of the broadcast that changed the face of Africa and resulted in a one of the greatest concerts of all time, Live Aid.

Photo taken by Mohamed Amin while in Ethiopia with Michael Buerk (1984)

Michael Buerk and his crew got permission to enter the Northern regions of Ethiopia in October 1984. The region had been devastated by a famine which the world had not before noticed or cared about. The footage taken of their days there was enough to mobilise millions in a way never before experienced. Two reports went out on the 24 and 25 October showing the real extent of the misery effecting hundreds of thousands of Ethiopia’s famine victims.

“The two reports fused the sympathy of the First World to the urgent needs of the Third World in a way that has never before happened and has never happened since. They raised the curtain of cynicism and selfishness that divides the rich of the earth from the poor. People were moved enough to believe they could do something for others in distress; tens of millions all over the planet went out and did it”.

Watching the footage was a man known as Bob Geldof, lead singer of the Irish rock band The Boomtown Rats in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Buerk refers to him as a “scruffy, foul-mouthed Irish rock musician in the middle of a career crisis”. But later he says, “He was and is a man of extraordinary sensitivity, intelligence and drive”. It was Bob Geldof who initially conceived of encouraging musicians and bands to come together for the Ethiopian cause. He founded the charity supergroup, Band Aid, who released the single, “Do they know it’s Christmas?” which became the biggest selling single in UK singles chart history* and raised substantial amounts of money for the famine victims of Ethiopia. It was also Geldof and Midge Ure, frontman of Ultravox, who organised the Live Aid concert in order to raise further relief funds.

Bob Geldof at Live Aid

Live Aid was held on the 13 July 1985 in multiple venues across the world, notably in Wembley Stadium in London, England, and John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is estimated that over 2 billion people watched the concert from over 60 countries. Artists included massive names like Elton John, The Who, David Bowie, Sting, Black Sabbath, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins and Led Zeppelin. It is estimated that over £150 million was raised as a result of the concerts. Geldof received massive reward and fame after the concerts and was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and granted an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II.

So what did Live Aid really represent? Buerk prefers to remain neutral on the issue although he does so for professional reasons, stating his preference to remain being seen as an impartial journalist. But you cannot help but be moved by his description of his encounter with the Ethiopia of 1984-5.

“I was upset and disturbed by everything I had seen and worried that I would never be able to convey what it was really like to be there. It is one thing to see it with your own eyes, to touch and be touch, to smell the shit, the staleness of despair and the sticky sweetness of the corpses, to have people trying to give you their dying child, to feel, so strong, the sense of personal inadequacy of being a useless spectator of a massive tragedy.”

Yet, he managed to do it well enough that, for many years (decades) after his footage was aired, a culture of giving, of using one’s power and fame to do good, commenced.

Hell on Earth

However, controversy lies at the heart of every good action. One controversy in the case of Live Aid was the claim that some of the relief funding landed up in the hands of the dictator at the time, Mengistu Haile Mariam and his army. The irony, of course, is that Mengistu was instrumental in creating what was referred to as “the closest thing to hell on earth”. The famine itself was not of his making, of course, but the extent of its misery was attributed to his draconian reign. Of course, the West was not free of fault either; some states were aware of the famine, but refused to do anything for Ethiopia because of its ruler. This is problematic and amounts to punishing a child due to the faults of its father (can we as South African’s not take heed too?).

In recent times, since becoming a politically observant individual in Africa, I have heard speak of this problem with aid. For example, in the current case, the misery of drought and famine has not been miraculously cured by the events of 1985. In fact, news reports show that Ethiopia continues to be in crisis. My own understanding of the matter of food and famine is that there is certainly enough food in the world to go around, but that African dictatorships and poor governance are denying people access to this food. The food relief was only a temporary measure, but certainly missed the mark. Ongoing war and corruption are the real threat to the people of Africa. Some say that giving aid to these countries increases the reliance of Africa on the West and fails to make the difference where it matters.

Live Aid concert 13 July 1985

Nonetheless, even though I was only a few months old when Live Aid was broadcast for the entire world to see, and made such a remarkable impact on the nature of aid, I can still appreciate the extent of its success. I just have to look to my backyard to see how the culture of using one’s talents to heal the wrongs of the world has settled quite nicely into the fabric of society. Bands continue to take up their instruments in the name of charity. In my old home town of Grahamstown, just about every gig that was played by local bands was in the name of one or another cause. In Cape Town over this period, there has been a succession of charity gigs in the name of various orphanages, animal shelters and other social organisations. It certainly says great things about musicians and leaves a lasting and happy mark on South Africa.

 

*To be superseded by Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” in 1997

I am an African

Have you read the speech by Thabo Mbeki on the day that the Constitution was adopted in South Africa? It is called “I am an African” and I regret that I could not have understood the magnitude of the occasion at the time (1996). Fourteen years have passed and I understand most of it. So many aspects of it stand for what I believe and what I value.

I am unashamedly South Africa, with all its hypocrisies. His speech, despite what came after, reinforces my pride. So I am particularly drawn to the part that states,

“The [C]onstitution, whose adoption we celebrate, constitutes an unequivocal statement that we refuse to accept that our Africanness shall be defined by our race, colour, gender or historical origins.”

I was also affected by another part of the speech which relates to my post about Model Africa.

“I am an African. I am born of the peoples of the continent of Africa. The pain of the violent conflict that the peoples of Liberia, Somalia, the Sudan, Burundi and Algeria is a pain I also bear. The dismal shame of poverty, suffering and human degradation of my continent is a blight that we share. The blight on our happiness that derives from this and from our drift to the periphery of the ordering of human affairs leaves us in a persistent shadow of despair. This is a savage road to which nobody should be condemned.”

How far have we come? As much as I love Africa and South Africa, I despair. I don’t understand the politics at the heart of it, but I understand the history. I suffer from what is known as white-guilt.

“Today, as a country, we keep an audible silence about these ancestors of the generations that live, fearful to admit the horror of a former deed, seeking to obliterate from our memories a cruel occurrence which, in its remembering, should teach us not and never to be inhuman again.”

If I can ask  one thing of you, it would be this: don’t hide behind the idea that you were not part of it. Know your history, see the place of your ancestors in its stories, do not be ashamed by what you see, but do not perpetuate it.

Then turn around, with all the despair of your new-found knowledge, and seek light in the darkness. Be an African again by opening your eyes to what was, and what is, and what you can be.

Model Africa

Today, while reading John le Carré’s A Constant Gardener, I came across a passage which inspired me. He describes the women of Southern Sudan:

“They are Dinka tall – six feet is not exceptional. They have the stately African stride that is the impossible dream of every fashionable catwalk.”

According to Wikipedia, there are 1.5 Million Dinka, or Muonyjang (singular) or Jieng (plural) as they are known in their native tongues. Along with the Tutsi of Rwanda, they are believed to be the tallest people in Africa.

 

Alek Wek: Sudanese-born model and humanitarian

 

The reference to catwalks in the above quote is what has stayed with me. As far as I can tell, there is one famous Dinka on the catwalk today, Alek Wek. Not only is she of striking beauty, with big, pouting lips and gazelle-like ebony legs, she is also a human rights activist, a missionary for AIDs, a Doctors without Borders ambassador and is raising awareness regarding the plight of refugees, having been one herself.

Our “natural assets” extend beyond the diamonds in our soils, the rainforests at our heart and the plains of our countless magnificent beasts. Our assets are our people. We have beauty enough in Africa for everyone in the world. We have people of more beauty than any other race; whose emaciated frames walk with pride the catwalks of Africa, through vast sandscapes, the scent of heat, fire and death in their nostrils.

The story of The Constant Gardner continues.

“The women, they’re the only hope for Africa, man….The women make the homes, the men make the wars. The whole of Africa, that’s one big gender fight, man. Only the women do God’s work around here.”

The mass rape of over 300 women, men and children in the “Democratic” Republic of the Congo, at the beginning of August this year, brings to the fore how little we value our Africa.

When will we take heed of our stupidity, when we will stop plundering our assets. When will we realise that we cannot advance, develop and grow with a continent full of broken people. Can we not understand that we hurt ourselves by hurting each other.

When will the destruction of our souls cease?