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Continents apart

I have many things to say, and I wonder, do I put it into my journal, share it on my blog, write it down, or type it up? I know from past trips that if I don’t “give it a place,” as we say in Dutch, it may demand one later on. So here begins a series of blog entries sketching my impressions of the last three weeks.

This is a great adventure I am on. I realize this when I explain what I am doing in South Africa, and I watch my listeners’ eyes grow wide. “What about your family?” the women ask. “You’re in a good place,” the men say. My family is fine; and yes I am.

In fact, my husband just left a week ago, after visiting me for four days. We stuffed as much food and wine into the days and ourselves as we could manage. This country, the wines, the generosity of the people, the natural beauty, the warmth of temperature and personalities—all are so exceptional.

I play with the Afrikaans, photographing signs that seem to say what we all think.:

The interviews for my research yield surprising answers, which is good, since I’m supposed to be creating knowledge. So if we already knew this stuff, it wouldn’t be new. People say things, and I think, is that true? Is it true that the African concept of wealth is that it is limited, finite? This implies that when someone has more, then someone else has less, pays a price for the affluence of the other. This contrasts the Western notion of wealth as infinite, out there for the taking.

What is true is the fact that people feel betrayed by the current government. The ANC celebrated its 100th anniversary in mid January and the country was not pleased with images of these men drinking champagne in one hand and lifting the raised fist in the other. They have spent too much money on themselves, and broken too many promises made during the campaigns.

In my research I’m wondering what happens when youth are given a place at the table in a deeply divided society? More and more societies are becoming deeply divided; think of our own—so would creating listening spaces for young people blur the dividing lines?

Define the divisions: racial, religious, socio-economic, educational. So we have blacks, and within that category there are ANC and PAC and Christians and Muslims. Then there are the so-called coloureds and Indians, a society that places education for their children at the top of a long list of priorities—these are also divided between Christian and Muslims, and along other lines. The whites, who are the English and Afrikaners. But the old faultlines of township people and non-township no longer apply as the “Black Diamonds,” or newly wealthy black members of society, now send their children to better schools. So are the schools where divisions are made and unmade?

I’m thinking that communities may be defined by the stories told. I’m thinking we would save ourselves a lot of trouble if we looked at individuals, instead of groups.

Today I read about a man called Power. He runs the local carwash. Yesterday my gas station attendant said, “Hi, I’m Clever.” I almost responded, “So am I,” when I caught sight of his name tag. After I tipped him R5 (50 euro cents) for filling up the car with petrol and checking the oil and water, I called out, “Thanks, Clever!” just because I’ve always wanted to put those two words together that way.

My talks grow in me. I interview professors at universities, students of all the above categories and all ages and all studies, people working at NGOs, scholars, researchers, taxi drivers, and neighbors.

Words bounce around my brain and I hardly know where to put them down. So I listen, and listen some more. What is not being said? Which question? This country is in transition, that’s for sure.

The Afrikaans says it all, embedded in the language itself is a description of the biggest trading partner, or new best friend of this South Africa: The way to say, “How are you my brother, you’re my mate” is Howzit my bru? You’re my China.

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