The COVID19 Diaries: Kickin’ it old school

Something happens to me the moment I think about high school, suddenly there are 90’s R&B songs playing in the background and I feel the need to put on a pair of baggy jeans and crouch low for the camera while moving my hands in front of my face with a menacing look in my eyes. Yeah, I’m a G. Wait no, actually I’m not even sure what a “G” is, or that I have the clothing or co-ordination to pull off those moves. “G” or not though, there is something fun about remembering high school- the angst, the drama, the hairbrained things you got up to with your friends. I’d be lying if I said I remembered all of it, it was almost two decades ago and most days I can’t even remember how many Easter eggs I’ve eaten (don’t judge- we’re in an apocalypse and I need Easter eggs as a matter of survival). In fact, I’d be lying if I said I thought about high school that often, but recently a Facebook friend started gathering the troops for a reunion and it has got me thinking about those awkward, strange and stupidly fun years. Will you stay with me a while for a trip down memory lane?

When people start a conversation with me about children, which happens at an alarming frequency, I am prone to ask, “Have you met a 13-year-old girl? Is there anything more terrifying?”. There isn’t enough wine in the world for me to find out, trust me. But of course, there is something more terrifying, it’s many 13-year-old girls grouped together. Throw in a roughly equal number of boys, struggling to find the right way to be cool, or how to style their hair and you’ll have the disastrous mix of teenage angst that usually kick starts high school. Part of me wants to say that I started high school like a new born deer, all gangly, with limbs that never seemed to be co-ordinated with each other, but that would only be true if you could also imagine that deer with something that could be an afro, but never quite lived up to it’s potential. My goodness, it’s almost embarrassing to think about what a weirdo I was at that age, luckily I’ve now grown up and had many years to cultivate and encourage that oddity so that I am now a fully-fledged, card carrying member of the weirdo club, but back then I was just a young girl who thought she could change the world by having her ears pierced twice (can someone say super cool rebel?). Things I did know at that age were my times tables and that I would never drink alcohol (EVER), sadly neither of those proclamations hold true today, although those times tables did come in handy for many a drinking game, so I’m convinced not all hope is lost.

Now my school was nothing like the American movies had promised it would be, there were no jocks, cheerleaders, nerds or drama geeks. The only stereotype that did fit where the token representation of black people at my school. That there were no jocks or cheerleaders is hardly surprising, schools such as mine, which even post-apartheid, were termed “Indian Schools”, usually placed little or no emphasis on sports or athletics. Nope, schools were there to push us towards becoming doctors, engineers or lawyers and wilfully shame those who didn’t. I actually remember two classes, Guidance and PE, being cancelled in lieu of more maths lessons, because what young minds and bodies needed was evidently less guidance and physical activity, and more maths. No wonder so many Indian men in their 30s have a specific body type that’s sort of between, “I’ve just had a baby and I’m trying to lose the weight” and “Will you come to my baby shower next weekend?”. I can’t blame my school or teachers though, education has always been considered the great leveller, the one thing to right many wrongs of our past, anything extra curricular was for you to find out about when you finally start hanging out with white people. I almost fell out of my chair when someone told me rowing was a sport at university, white people were funny like that. I get the focus in those “Indian schools” and while I’m grateful for my education, I wonder if perhaps there wasn’t another way to nourish the potential within us apart from rote learning and the encouragement into cookie cutter jobs. But what do I know, I cant even raise my tomato plants right.

I suppose even though the American movie stereotypes didn’t fit, it didn’t exactly stop us from creating our own groups and dysfunctional units. There probably were nerds, but I don’t feel like any of them were shamed for being academically inclined, in fact they were probably put on a pedestal, and walked around haloed and revered. Doing well academically was also almost always a marker for who would be head boy or head girl, the king and queen of all the prefects in the land, but sometimes even this norm was challenged and few who didn’t top the grade would be selected. Of course, there were the prefects, that subset of our group there to preserve law and order and to keep the rest of us unruly beasts in line. That I wasn’t elected a prefect crushed my vulnerable teenage spirit in a way that I can’t fully explain- my loud mouthed, bossiness made me believe I was meant for leadership (or at the very least shouting at people). So, I ditched my school tie (talk about rage against the machine) and decided on a course of action that hurt me more than it did my school. Blinded with the arrogance of youth, I didn’t understand that then. Let’s see, who else can I lump together to form a disastrously inaccurate single story? Oh, I know, there were the quiet girls. I must tell you, I so wanted into this group, but they seemed to only exist in pairs, and they were painfully shy, always hiding behind beautiful hankies and giggling to themselves at jokes I’d never know. I guess I always wanted to be a quiet girl, the girl who never made trouble, the girl who knew how to plait her hair, the girl who did the right thing. But I just couldn’t fit all of my stupid opinions into the mould, I could never be the quiet girl, not then or now.

Come to think of it, I don’t think I knew who I was in high school. I barely know who I am now, but there are parts of me that haven’t changed much from that annoying, loudmouth girl always asking questions and getting herself in trouble. I want to say that I’m a bit softer around the edges (and while that’s certainly true physically) my thoughts, beliefs and ideals have become sharper and more focused with time. In other words, I still pick fights, but just not with everyone. Funny how people go out into the world to “find” themselves, when sometimes all you need to do is to remember who you are. If I think about it, parts of me that I love were shaped during those crazy high school years, some parts I’d rather not remember but we don’t get to cherry-pick the lessons life hands us. What we do get to chose is what we do with those lessons.

The COVID-19 Diaries: It’s The End of The World As We Know It

I feel like I need to preface this blog with a note explaining that I am a massive zombie movie fan. I love the gore, the predictability and the dystopian view of the world gone to the hands of flesh-eating creatures for reasons that I cannot explain. It is neither normal nor healthy, this proclivity to find entertainment in such avenues, but I shall not chase my tail in the exploration of all the weird things that entertain me. Anyway, you can imagine that when I first heard news about the Cornona virus, my immediate thought was, “There it is, the rise of the zombies”. I can’t say that I was particularly alarmed by that thought either, everyone who knows me, knows that if we were in a zombie movie, I’d either be the person who died during the opening credits or the stupid person who decided to keep a zombie as pet, and ended up being eaten by it.  Trust me, I’ve given it a lot of thought, so I’ve already accepted my fate. But I am sort of attached to my mortality and I don’t think I am quite ready to give it up for the zombie apocalypse (besides I’ve  already imagined myself as one of those women who still rock a bikini when they’re sixty, so I still have a few years to go and to work on that bikini body). Zombies aside though, what if this isn’t the end of the world as much as it is the end of the world, as we know it?

Two important things shaped my thinking that perhaps we’re gearing for a new world, one is that I beat Husband at a PlayStation game (mainly by screaming “Stop hitting me” and pressing every button on the controller) and the second is that Husband beat me at Scrabble (by getting a 42 score for the word “sexy”). I mean, in what universe is Husband better at Scrabble than I am? Yes, I’m still nursing my ego over it. In all seriousness though, what if the times really are changing? What if this new version of normal allows us to not only challenge our existing preconceptions, but the opportunity to reinvent who we are and what we do? What if I really am some sort of legendary gamer and what if Husband has had the talent to be a wordsmith all along? Okay, it’s a stretch on the gamer front, but what if this time of isolation and spending more time with ourselves actually shows us a greater deal of who we are and who we could be? What if in this world, where we’re preoccupied with restrictions, there is an opportunity to ask, “What if?” What if this is exactly the opportunity we’ve been waiting for to remove the restrictions that bind us?

Just consider the new way in which many of us are now forced to work. I marvel every day at both the resilience of people and at how resistant we are to change. We are fascinating creatures, both in our ability to compel ourselves and others forward, and in our ability to get in our own way. I wonder if post three weeks of lockdown, or even further beyond that, if we’ll look at remote work and wonder why we didn’t adopt such practices sooner. I am not of the belief that technology can entirely remove the need for human contact, I would never want to work or live in that world, especially because the people side of my job is the most interesting. It’s interesting how we now have no option but to trust each other, trust that things will get done even though we can’t look over anyone’s shoulder anymore. You have to find it intriguing though, that many of us will actually thrive while working remotely and I can’t help but wonder what the new “normal” at the office is going to be. One thing I will say about working remotely though, it’s almost like having a long-distance relationship- if you have built a strong foundation of trust and respect, you’ll probably whether the difficult days much easier than if you didn’t. Also it’s sort of the relationship that only makes sense if both parties have committed to making it work. When we come out the other side of this, will different things matter to us both professionally and personally? Man, I hope so. I hope we start to challenge what is is that we want and who it is that we are. One thing though, not my zombie movies- self-reflection and growth don’t you dare steal my movies from me. You know what’s the most exciting thing about the time we’re in right now? That we have the power to shape tomorrow. What if we didn’t waste that opportunity?

The COVID-19 Diaries: Dear White People

Okay, I get it, I do. I have two dogs and Husband and I often go for a run on the road to blow off steam or to remind ourselves of how unfit we are, so I get that not being able to leave your home to do those things is frustrating. It’s frustrating to be told what you can and cannot do. It is frustrating to have your freedom of movement revoked by the government. I’m definitely not saying that this is a ‘walk in the park’-okay sorry, stupid analogy. It’s hard, yes. But come on, get a hold of yourself. I mean seriously now, get a grip. And if you want to complain, put things into perspective first, not only because this is a small sacrifice to make for all South Africans, but also it would be wise to remember the very crappy things your forefathers did to people of colour in this country. Trust me, those restrictions were far more heinous than you having to deal with your dog digging up your garden. Hand to heart, the black government is not out to get you. Also, I think that if you took a moment to channel that energy spent complaining into something more fruitful, say reading up on our country’s history, you’d come out the other side of this a better South African.

In case you don’t remember, life was cruel and unjust for people of colour during the dark days of apartheid. It may be day two of the lockdown, but it’s also a week after we celebrated an important day in our history, Human Rights Day. Just the fact that we have a public holiday to celebrate our human rights should be telling in itself, we weren’t always a country that respected human rights. In fact, scratch that, the gross violation of human rights and the right to dignity can’t be labelled under the gentle tones of disrespect. The system of apartheid was far more purposeful and merciless than disrespect. I wondered on the 21st of March whether others saw the irony in facing the day by trying to restrict their movement. Was it not in Sharpeville that protesters fought, shed blood and died, to fight against the Pass Laws set in place to restrict their movement as black people?  But it is callous of me to compare the restrictions we faced both prior to, and during the lockdown, to that faced by people of colour during the apartheid. These restrictions are far too gentle and just, the severity of them pale in comparison.

Of course the apartheid regime did more than restrict movement, this was a regime that constructed clever and cunning ways to dehumanise people of colour- forced removals, making it illegal for families to live together or own land, the raids, the insanity of Bantu education, torture and perhaps the kind release of death if you were unlucky to be imprisoned. I wonder if luck had a face then, and if it was white. There are volumes written about those atrocities, so I won’t belabour the point. Let’s just focus on one particular element of the apartheid’s cruelty, the Pass Laws. Not only did people of colour have to carry around these passbooks, the Dompas (a name fit for people who are ignorant, no better than an animal and less predictable at best), they’d also have to keep it up to date, and were always at the mercy of their Baas who could at any point refuse to update the pass. Imagine that, just on a whim, maybe because you didn’t like the look of one of your workers, you could simply deny him the right to live, basically. Could the black man take you to the police or go to court? Of course not, there was another noose around his neck in the form of a law that prevented him from doing so. On the off chance that he could get an audience with the police, his Baas would probably be commended for setting a good example. Hundreds of thousands of black people were imprisoned yearly when caught without a pass or when their pass was not up to date, many of whom where never seen again. Families were destroyed, men lost their ability to provide for their families- without a pass, it was impossible to work. Children would go hungry, many would starve, their bodies weakened and primed for death when an illness set in. Life in a one room shack was hard, but you could still live through hard. Life without a pass was impossible. A piece of paper worth so many lives, a piece of paper with the power to destroy.

Maybe you’re reading this and wondering what difference it makes now, so many years later. Maybe you don’t like the guilt I’m laying at your feet. Maybe you know people of colour who never experienced these horrors. I would say to you then that those you know are the lucky few, you know the ones who are like you, like me. We are the haves. What of those who fall into the majority of our country, what of those for whom liberation has not brought real freedom? What of those who cannot get work, not because of a law but because of the unconscious bias that propagates the white competence myth? What of those who due to the structural legacies of our passed are still confined, are still restricted?  I can tell you this much, they’re not complaining about not being able to walk their dogs. And maybe, just maybe you should get to know some of them before you do.

The COVID-19 Diaries: Day One of The Lockdown

I have always prided myself on being calm under pressure and being fairly level-headed when facing ambiguity, but if the Corona Virus has taught me anything, it’s that I am not half as “good” as I thought I was. I faced the thought of working remotely somewhat smugly, which did nothing apart from send a message to the gods of humility to take me down a notch, and believe you me, they did. I’d start off the day feeling absolutely pumped, ready for the challenges of remote working and social distancing (picture Rocky at the bottom of those steps with Eye of the Tiger in the background) and then Wham!, out of nowhere, my network connection drops. Still energized and beguiled by hope, I’d reset my router, make a cup of tea and pray to the indifferent gods of connectivity. From there it’s slippery slope to fighting with a call center agent who not only fails to solve my problem, but worsens it by remotely disconnecting me for five hours, and to me seeking solace in the Danish cookies I promised myself I’d stop eating. And if the gods didn’t think I was adequately broken that day, they saw fit to bring me a day that followed where my water was cut off. Each time I opened a tap, the only thing it seemed to release was my grip on my sanity (yes it was a loose hold to start with). So yeah, I’m a mess. Its like I’ve completely forgotten how to exist in the grey, in the middle, that all that is left is for me to exist in the extremes. I’m either brimming with positivity and helping others navigate this turbulent time, or I’m upset because I don’t have enough Easter eggs to see me through the apocalypse. I want to say that I’m falling apart but it’s not that, it’s more that I’m keeping myself together rather inconsistently.

Take today for instance. I wouldn’t say that I woke up ready to take on the world today, but I did wake up to a feeling of hope and gratitude. I was grateful to have the luxury of space, food and company that I loved (most of the time). There was a distinct stillness in the air that seemed to suggest that everything would be okay, we’d all be okay as we started this 21 day lockdown. Fundamentally, I believe that we, as South Africans, will emerge- we must emerge-stronger from this and I am grateful for our president and for his show of exemplary leadership when he addressed us earlier this week. Hearing the words, “Nkosi sikelel iAfrika” reminded me of the strength and beauty of our country and our people, and I knew that we find our way. I know that still. But reading about the first reported deaths related to COVID19 in our country left me cold. I don’t think I’ve ever understood that expression before today. For a few minutes all I wanted to do was cry, it did not matter that I was about to go into a meeting, it didn’t matter that the meeting was actually something important to me. I wanted to take that moment and feel the pain and sadness that those deaths evoked. I wanted to find a release for the mixed bag of emotions flowing through me daily. But I did not. I willed away the unwanted, unshed tears, I forced the thoughts of two lives cut short and I put on a happy face. And maybe this is part of the problem, maybe this is why I can only hold myself together inconsistently. Maybe it’s because all I’m doing is pretending.

Here’s what I know. I know that I am scared. I am scared that my grandmother won’t see her 90th birthday later this year. I am scared that people I love and care about will lose their jobs. I am scared that amidst all of this I am not around my family. I am scared because there are so many relationships that I had hoped time would mend one day, but that I’m coming to realize that may never happen. I am scared that I won’t be enough when people count on me. I am scared about the way we treat each other; I am scared that our divisions will play themselves out in technicolor, tearing us further apart. I fear my vulnerability, my fragility. I am scared and I guess, a lot of us are. I hope that if nothing else brings us together, it is our fear and the acknowledgement that we are all scared. Whether it’s your own hunger or that of your family’s fueling your fear, or whether it’s the restrictions on your movement, or whether you’re concerned about that nagging sore throat that won’t go away, we are in this together. Whether we hate or love each other, or if we find ourselves somewhere in-between, we are in this together. Maybe over and above all my fears, I am scared that we may miss this opportunity to truly connect and see our shared humanity. Perhaps, this fear, like most things that are difficult to bear, is beautiful lesson. A lesson in fragility, vulnerability and a lesson in the shared human experience.

For the LPGs (Lotus Park Gangsters)

Trust the LPG’s (Lotus Park Gangsters) to get upset about me excluding them from my ‘Spingo blog.  Well, I hope this makes up for it. For you, Desan, thanks for setting me straight and reminding me to write about Lotus Park as well.

When I think about Lotus Park, I immediately want to tell the story about how a dead body was found in our school’s swimming pool. There’s so many juicy bits in that one sentence alone, I’m not sure what’s more shocking – that my school had a swimming pool or that there was a dead body in it. That I can’t remember whether the story about the dead body is true or not does nothing to dampen my enthusiasm about the story either. But I guess that would be far from starting the story at the beginning, so perhaps some context would go a long way here.

While it wasn’t often that the pool contained a dead body, just the fact that my primary school, Kamalinee Primary, had a swimming pool was something to behold. For a substantial part of my primary school years, the apartheid was well and truly underway, and although me schooling in an Indian area would mean that we had access to basics like furniture and toilets, it was something else that we had both an impressive library and a swimming pool. Now a charou that can, and likes to read is not uncommon, but a charou that swims, well let’s just say that’s an exception. Sure, we’d lug a pot of breyani to the beach and walk on the sand wearing our jeans, a few daring ones might brave the shallows but by and large, swimmers we were not. Please read that last bit with an undertone of smugness, my family is a family of very proud swimmers. The idea of pool in an Indian school was both mesmerising and impossibly posh, I felt posh going to Kamalinee because of that pool alone. Of course, what wasn’t that posh was that many of the students who came to my school faced the dehumanising effects of poverty daily and as much as I loved that pool, I always thought it was a bit unnecessary in the great scheme of things. Something that the teachers organised at the school that I loved though, was a feeding scheme of sorts where potato sandwiches would be made and wrapped in paper and placed outside the library for anyone to collect so they could have something for lunch. Now, being a kid, there was nothing worse than a potato sandwich for lunch and my mother somehow thought that I had the appetite of a rugby player so my lunch pack consisted of four slices of bread, chips, a chocolate and a juice box (yes for a six year old). Needless to say there was absolutely no reason for me to take one of those wrapped potato sandwiches when they presented themselves. And of course, that’s exactly why I did. Flip, that sandwich was probably the best potato sandwich I’ve ever eaten, nothing like an illicit meal to make you appreciate the simple things in life. It probably was not worth the lashing I got from my mother afterwards and the years of guilt I’ve carried with me but, no one said I was a smart child (although it does seem apparent that I was a hungry one).

I suppose there were loads of things we weren’t good at at Kamalinee Primary, but it amused me to no end that our school did not churn out an abundance strong swimmers. Wait, scratch that, some of the “swimmers” we churned out where the kind that needed to be rescued whenever they ventured into the deep end of the pool. Our pool was only a meter deep so that meant one could easily get away with being a “swimmer” by walking through the water and throwing your arms about. You weren’t fast but you sure didn’t drown. I wonder if that’s why the pool was prime ground for the storage of a dead body. It’s quite clever really, it sort of reminds me of all the Indian aunties who never turn on their ovens, choosing instead to use it as cupboard space. I mean whoever chucked that body in the pool probably thought “this is a good use for this space” and did it to save us the embarrassment of having to be rescued during inter-school swimming galas. It is also possible that the dead body in the pool story was made up one winter when the pool turned a decidedly unappealing shade of pond scum green, and if it is, well that just goes to show that we could use a pool to spark our imaginations if not better our swimming abilities. Kudos to the Kamalinee Primary students on that one, perhaps we were better than we realised at certain things.

It’s hard for me to think of Lotus Park and not think of my school, a school that I’m convinced was one of the best in that area. I loved that school. Sure it was the place where my sister started to disown me (imagine being violently shook by the shoulders and a threatening voice saying “Don’t call me Akka”) but at least I would be able to convince my mother to buy Asterix comics for the school library, something I’m convinced is one of the biggest accomplishments in my life. I am biased to say that we had incredible teachers (my mother was one of them, and yes, I’m still working through it with my therapist) and that they always seemed to want the best for us, they pushed us, they shouted at us but most importantly, they created a foundation like no other. You’ll also understand that I say, with complete love in my heart, that I think they were a bunch of sadists. Hear me out, here. I mean I just took a look at my primary school concert pictures and remembered the sheer horror of those strangely choreographed dances, the costumes that didn’t fit the way they were supposed to, and worse still, the ones that fell apart in public. Why was it that most of our pageant/concert clothes were put together by nothing more than safety pins and hope? Remember the duck dance of ’90? Of course, we were cute in our yellow crepe paper outfits and we had a little hip shaking dance to go with it, but let’s just take a step back and examine the mechanics of the thing. Crepe paper on a good day is only slightly more substantial than a politician’s promise in election year, but couple that with a windy day, squirming children and you’ve got outfits that are able to spontaneously destruct. Thank goodness none of us had boobies then, and that that number saw the great crepe paper ban.  I honestly think that whenever there was an opportunity to dress us up oddly, the teachers would jump to it, be it at concerts, school sports or at the min debs ball. Okay, that last one was totally on my mother, apparently she thought it was in fashion to dress your kid like the bride of Frankenstein.

Dead bodies in swimming pools, stolen potato sandwiches and clothing malfunctions aside, Lotus Park is also a place that reminds me of my late uncle, Juggie. It’s where he lived the last few years of his short life and when I think that I am older now than he ever was, it’s hard not to get emotional. Both Juggie and Lotus Park were a huge part of my childhood and sometimes when I think of my uncle, I’d like to think he would have grown old in that house in Lotus Park. That house where we would run around the living room singing “Beans kota sapa dingo”, where I learnt the reason why “stinkbombs” where named as such, and where I have the dent in my right shin from. My uncle wasn’t the youngest of his siblings but his crazy personality, his enthusiasm for life and that he could always get others (read his nieces and nephews) to do his chores for him, made me feel like he was. Maybe a part of my uncle will always be in Lotus Park, maybe it’s with that small part of me that was a child there.

This is ‘Spingo, Marms

I can’t quite recall what I was saying but the person I was talking to said, “That’s because you’re a ‘Spingo stekkie,” and strangely enough, instead of me thinking he had had a stroke, hearing him say those words cemented our friendship. There’s something to be said about shared meaning, about the ease of which that is known to both parties that makes for easy dialogue and communication but, of course, I can’t start a blog about ’Spingo and ramble on to deeper things and musings about how shared meaning comes about. No, no, I must, as with all stories, start at the beginning.

That the Durban International Airport was housed in Isipingo sort of made me feel like all roads lead to Isipingo

First some clarification for the uneducated reader. ‘Spingo is actually a town called Isipingo found in Kwa-Zulu Natal, but the only time you’d refer to it as such is if you were taking to a white person, or if you grew up somewhere fancier and were trying to act like a white person (and no, growing up in Umhlatuzana does not make you fancy). I’m pretty sure I’m making it too fancy by my reckless apostrophe before the “s” and that I’m going to lose street cred by constantly referring to it as Isipingo, but you’ll forgive me.  Right, where was I? Yes, the great town of Isipingo.  That the Durban International Airport was housed in Isipingo sort of made me feel like all roads lead to Isipingo, you could always find a road sign pointing you home. Man, were we proud of our proximity to the airport. Not only could anyone coming to Isipingo easily find us (all roads lead to ‘spingo remember?), but we also had a restaurant in the airport. Yes, one entire restaurant. Hey, don’t judge, we only went to that airport restaurant for the non-important occasions, for birthdays and dates we’d usually brave the drive to Toti to marvel at the white people. It was only testament to our wiliness and ingenuity that we used the airport not only as a means of travel, but also as a way to give direction, provide entertainment and sustenance.

According to me, there were three parts to Isipingo- they were easy to identify because they started with the word “Isipingo”- Isipingo Beach, Isipingo Rail and Isipingo Hills.  Isipingo Rail was named as such because to live there meant you “lived on the wrong side of the tracks”, trust me I spent a good few years learning how to make mud cakes and ride my pink BMX there, it was rough, proper ghetto. Not only was “The Rails” a buzzing commercial hub that warranted a KFC and later a Chicken Licken, it was also home to The Isipingo Temple. I’ve seen many temples around the world, and I can say with all honesty, that none compare to the Isipingo Temple. Every year, around Easter, Hindus from all parts of Durban would make a pilgrimage to the temple. I was always a bit of strange child with an overactive imagination, and my relationship with organised religion, is and always has been, complicated. Despite that, I enjoyed my first experience at this temple. Well at least I did, at first. It was an unusual treat to walk beside my grandfather; the ground was warm beneath my bare feet and I had the special honour of carrying the camphor, which we would pause to throw into the flames as we circled the temple. The smell of camphor in my hands and the pleasure of having my grandfather all to myself seemed too good to be true. And it was, because as we completed the last circle around the temple it would seem as though we descended into the last circle of hell. I want to say that I saw a chicken flying over the temple roof in a graceful arc, but there was nothing graceful about the mad squawking and the hysteria that ensued and that’s saying nothing about how the chicken reacted. I also want to say that I was upset because this constituted violence towards animals, but in truth, I was more savage then, and I was more concerned about a wasted opportunity to eat that chicken.  I became convinced that the “Chicken Temple” was a satanic temple and that one day I too would be captured for Voodoo magic rituals (do Satanists do Voodoo rituals?). To make it worse, everyone from all over Durban came to this temple and this is how they saw the ‘Spingo members, no wonder everyone thought we were shambies.

Isipingo Beach was a place where you could lose your life, quite literally. Being an “Indian area” during the time of The Group Areas Act, the government decided that if the brown people wanted to get in the water, then we could also brave the sharks (do sharks like spicy food?). And, if the sharks didn’t get you, there was always the notorious “Beach Boys” to deal with. To be clear, I have no idea what it meant to be a “Beach Boy”, who these boys were or how the title was even bestowed upon a worthy subject, but I was told that they were fierce and fearsome. These guys were sort of like the Loch Ness of ‘Spingo for me, there would always be claims of sightings, some people would even have grainy photographic evidence, but they would always remain elusive, creatures never to be caught in broad daylight.  Isipingo Beach was also home to “Daddy’s” Supermarket and the most epic bakery next door, many a birthday would be graced by a cake from there. It was Isipingo Beach where I first ventured into the water, where I caught my first fish (a stick floating in a polystyrene cup) and where as children, the only thing wilder than our imaginations were ourselves.

Man, did I think I was fancy living in Isipingo Hills. I grew up watching Beverly Hills 90210, and even though I didn’t understand any of it- it was screened in Afrikaans and we could get the English version if we switched on the radio while turning down the volume of our TV- I knew that those rich people lived the life. I believe it was the apartheid government’s way of making us believe Afrikaans was cool, so advanced were their methods of brainwashing that I was actually surprised and somewhat disappointed to find out Kelly, Brandon and the gang were actually Americans who spoke English. I was convinced that Isipingo Hills would be similar to Beverly Hills 90210 and the fact that our telephone numbers all started with the numbers “902” added to my confidence. When we moved to “The Hills”, I imagined that our lives would be drastically different and even though high school was sort of like a soap opera, Isipingo Hills was more Little House on the Prairie than Beverly Hills 90210. Seriously, you’d easily find a herd of cattle crossing the road or a random goat meandering around. The Hills would be the place that shaped my high school years, from walking down the street to house parties, to swimming at the public pool all year long (and trying to avoid the lifeguard’s office adorned with nudie pics), to being entertained after school at Jeena’s. Jeena’s, if it still exists, should be a historical landmark. That so many high school students met there while waiting to be fetched by their parents meant that on any given day something would happen worth talking about the next day. The remark “meet you after school at Jeena’s” could be taken in one of two ways depending on the tone. If said in anger, it’s a challenge to a fight, and probably not one you can easily escape or win. Once these words are said, in that particular way, it is usually a witness or two who will turn to their friends and say in a non-threating manner, “meet you after school at Jeena’s” as an invitation to get a ringside view of the flight. I know it sounds simple enough, but I once confused the two versions and found myself slap bang in the middle of a fight, luckily, I escaped with neither a slap nor a bang, but it was a close call.

I can hardly believe that all I’ve done is scratch the surface here. Maybe there’s a great book to be written about ‘Spingo and the members, the marms, ‘Spingo Dingos but for now, this will have to do. ‘Spingo Dingo out

Women in the workplace: Two reasons why we won’t let each other win

When I was a young girl my mother told me of how she earned less money than my father did when they both started working as teachers. I remember hearing the story and thinking that the world in the late seventies/early eighties was not only ridiculous, but also backward. It made no sense to me. My parents were the same age, got the same education and went into the same profession. The one fundamental difference between them was something they had no choice or control over, their gender. I found it hard to believe that humans could be that stupid. I admit that the idea of different pay scales based on gender as well as race fascinated and appalled me in equal measure, but I absorbed the story with a certain smugness. I was smug because I knew that the world would be a far different place once I started working. I knew that we would not make the same mistakes our parents did. Now all these years later, I’ve come to realise that our biases are far stickier than we would like to admit and that although we’ve come a long way since cavemen dragged women around by their hair, we’ve still got an awful lot more to learn and change in the name of progress. I don’t have the answers as to why women are still inadequately represented top of the corporate ladder or why patriarchy and toxic masculinity find such prevalence in our daily lives. What I do have is a few thoughts on why we, as women, don’t let each other win.

I have a two-part theory about why women struggle to, as Melinda Gates urged us to, “share power”. It’s not novel and by no means entirely my own, but it is something that we need to start thinking about. Someone said to me that women don’t need to learn about how to empower other women, that we do it already. And while that thought alone fills me with hope, I know it’s not entirely true. Just because we’ve felt the strong hand of patriarchy pushing us down every time we try to rise, just because we face the daily burden of unpaid work stifling our growth, just because we’re afraid of what it means to be a woman in this country, does not necessarily bind us to a common goal of supporting and uplifting each other. I don’t have an exhaustive list for why it is that we don’t support each other, nor do I have a theory that will apply to every woman but what I do have is thoughts around what I’ve experienced. The first part of my theory is based on scarcity and the second on sacrifice.

It’s easy to buy into the concept of scarcity if being who you are invalidates your access to the opportunities that are meant to help you.

The scarcity concept makes us believe that there a limited amount of opportunities and that when someone, a woman, rises to take one, she’s taken something away from us. It’s odd though, because sometimes we aren’t even interested in that specific opportunity, all we know is that now it’s no longer available to us. Part jealousy, part competition, we believe in the idea of win-lose, that another woman’s success means the loss of an opportunity for someone else. I link this to the dark side of competition, to the thought that there exists two teams in the world, the winners and the losers. When you think about it this way, any win that isn’t your own puts you squarely in the loser camp. Doing something “first” is also important here, you’re not winning unless you were the first to do something. Your friend starts a blog and it’s something you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t gotten around to it, is your initial reaction to support her? Or did she steal the one last spot available to bloggers all over the world? A coworker gets a promotion, she’s your age or younger but progressing quicker up the corporate ladder than you did. Are you wishing her well while secretly harbouring thoughts that seek to lessen the comparison between yourself and her? I get it, I do. For so many reasons, but also because I’ve felt that way. And to a degree, who can blame us for thinking this way? We’ve seen men win at the expense of women for centuries, at the very heart of patriarchy is win-lose thinking. And sure, we’ve created more opportunities for women to succeed but in order to be considered for those opportunities, you need to the “right” sort of woman. You know what I mean, the woman who speaks her mind, but is never loud or assertive. The one who disagrees, but never strongly. The woman who is committed to her family but whose children aren’t sick too often. Go ahead, be who you are, we tell women, as long as your hair’s not too untidy, you’re not too loud, you don’t sleep around and, of course, you know your place and don’t rock the boat too much. Is it any wonder why we believe that opportunities for success, or getting to the top of the corporate ladder are scarce? Perhaps we all understand that there are opportunities but that getting hold of one requires the sort of backflips and jumping through hoops that is both offensive and inauthentic. How about we start talking about opportunities and a lack thereof, when women are rewarded for who they are, instead of who others expect us to be? It’s easy to buy into the concept of scarcity if being who you are invalidates your access to the opportunities that are meant to help you.

We become the very ones we hated, we fought against. We do it because we’ve bought into the idea that success comes with sacrifice, we need that pound of flesh because it’s what we gave up.

The sacrifice concept is based on the principle that women must often fight their way to success, that women often have to work much harder than men do just to be considered for the same opportunities. Our burden of proof is much larger and naturally, so are our sacrifices. That we fought, clawed and pushed our way into typically male dominated environments, that we sacrificed so much to do it, is sometimes a difficult thought to let go off. We want to hold onto it because it shows our strength, our perseverance and our sheer will beyond our capabilities, because we know capability alone is not enough when you’re a woman. We tell ourselves that we were more, we did more, that’s how we rose. The struggle we faced, did more than validate us, it defined us and our views on success. So, when someone comes along whose progress along a similar path seems easier, it’s hard for us to think of all we’ve sacrificed and make room for this younger woman who probably won’t face the struggles we have. Instead of shaping a journey that is fundamentally different from the one had to embark on, we shape something very similar. We become the very ones we hated, we fought against. We do it because we’ve bought into the idea that success comes with sacrifice, we need that pound of flesh because it’s what we gave up. We do it because we’ve learnt that success is painful, that it wouldn’t be right unless it was. We do it because we believe other women, need to “earn their stripes” in much the same way that the men who held the power expected from us.

I write this for women whose futures will be shaped by all sorts of men and women, in the hope that we are brave enough to claim our power or to ask for a share of it, knowing full well that it might be more than others think we deserve.

Like I’ve written earlier, I certainly can’t speak on behalf of all women worldwide, I probably know, in equal measures, women who both fit and disprove the descriptions above. I write this for the women who challenge the concept of scarcity, who go forth and shape opportunities, who challenge the notion that opportunities are only available to those who tow the line. I write this for both the women who will understand that their struggles have prepared them to make the path easier for those that follow and for the women who use their struggles as some sort of a measuring stick to gauge success. I write this for women whose futures will be shaped by all sorts of men and women, in the hope that we are brave enough to claim our power or to ask for a share of it, knowing full well that it might be more than others think we deserve.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any entity or organisation.

Everyday Racism: The “Good Guy” aka the benevolent racist

Let’s preface this blog with a disclaimer; I love creating villains. To create a villain is to bask in the ideology that I am right and that I have been wronged. It truly is a beautiful space where absolutely no thinking occurs, and I can spend the currency of my intellect picking dirt from under my nails. Wonderful, right? So, it’s natural that it was these villains that I was drawn to when I first started thinking and writing about race. It was the guy in the two-tone shirt flying the old South African flag in his backyard. It was friend who used the “K” word. It was the woman who could voice her hate in hushed tones to me because even though I wasn’t white, I wasn’t black either. I am drawn to these overt racists for a reason; they’re easy to spot and they’re still arrogant and ignorant enough to not think about what is socially acceptable before they speak. They are the ones we love to hate because there is nothing to debate, the burden of proof falls away and we can look at them with disgust and horror from our vantage point of superiority. These are a special bread of human, no doubt. And that we take notice of them is great, we should. They should inspire anger and conversation. But I wonder about the rest of us, the everyday racists, the ones who navigate social settings carefully, the ones who know just what to say and to who. Never the villains nor the heroes, these are the everyday racists. And they’re us, all of us. They’re harder to spot because they’re good people, they are mothers, they are friends, they are you and me. Not ready to believe me yet? Let me introduce you to one character you may recognise, the “good” guy aka the benevolent racist.

What if a racist could also be a good mother, a caring friend, a charitable person?

I’ve met him. I’ve been horrified by some of the things he has said. I’ve laughed at his jokes. He’s sat across the dinner table from me. I’ve been impressed by the compassion he showed his gardener and his domestic worker. I’ve thought he was a good guy. I’ve thought he was a bad guy. I’m beginning to believe he is both. Here’s the issue we have with the “good” guy, he actually seems to be one and we like him. So, he can’t possibly be racist, right? Racists are terrible humans, they are always the villains of the story, they believe that pigmentation should serve to create masters and slaves. They are ugly, mean spirited people. But what if that wasn’t all that they were? What if that was the truth, but only a part of the truth? What if a racist could also be a good mother, a caring friend, a charitable person? What if that person you saw giving money to the beggar on the street was racist? What if the person standing next to you volunteering at the soup kitchen was racist? What if people you loved dearly, people in your family, were racist? What if you looked at yourself, examined your thoughts and actions and found bias because of race? Would you no longer be a “good” person? Would everyone stop being good people? Tough questions, I know, but it’s questions we must ask.

It’s easy to hide bias behind good intentions

I raise the point of the benevolent racist because it’s easy to hide bias behind good intentions and quite frankly, I’m frustrated by it. I’m frustrated because every time a benevolent racist is given benefit of the doubt, it is a missed opportunity to course correct. I’m frustrated that we’ve protected these benevolent racists in our social circles, in our families and at work. I’m also frustrated by people who tell me how “good” they are, or who try to prove that they “don’t see colour” when I call them out on their bias. It’s great that you’re putting your domestic worker’s kids through school, it really is, but sorry buddy, that does not automatically cure you of racism. I think it’s wonderful that you have a black friend, less wonderful when you use said friendship as some sort of a “get out of jail free card”, though. Let me clarify, I’m not saying that you’re a bad person, you’re probably not, but I am saying that you’re ignorant or worst still, you’re arrogant enough not to know you’re ignorant. But I guess what I am most frustrated about is the well-meaning racist, the good guy who can’t keep the condescension out of his voice, the guy who tells you that if people weren’t so lazy, they’d be able to make something of themselves. It’s also the same guy who believes he made it out of “poverty” by sheer will and determination alone. It’s easy to pick this guy out. He’s often the one giving well-meaning advice, oblivious to the anger or blank stares he’s getting in return. It’s that guy that really gets me angry. Maybe I just don’t like being told what to do, maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that a benevolent racist always believes he’s entitled to weigh in on a conversation that he probably understands very little about. Maybe I’m just an angry brown woman and I should learn to listen when men talk to me lest I decide to form my own opinions. Apologies for making this a male thing, be sure the “good” guy was meant to refer to both men and women alike, I guess my recent interactions with white men talking to me about race and feminism has skewed my writing a bit (read flared my temper).

If someone thinks your actions or words have something to do with race, it probably does, be sure that it’s not your job to convince them that they’re delusional

As I write this I wonder if there is a cure. Is there a cure for the “good” guy or the benevolent racist? I suppose to start thinking about a cure, one first needs to start by acknowledging the problem and I guess we all have a part to play in this cure. For me the message is clear, whether you think of yourself as “good” or not, whether you have good intentions or otherwise, outcomes and consequences matter. They matter far more than what we think of ourselves or what we wanted to achieve. So, I present to you this idea that is as startling in its simplicity as it is difficult to do, when faced with a situation where you see bias, confront it. When faced with a situation when someone calls you out on your bias, listen. When I say confront it, decide for yourself what that means, even if it is an acknowledgement to yourself about your own discomfort, it’s better than ignoring it. When I say listen, I mean, don’t defend yourself, ask the person talking to say more, maybe take some time to think about your actions. If someone thinks your actions or words have something to do with race, it probably does, be sure that it’s not your job to convince them that they’re delusional. If someone says something that makes you feel guilty about your privilege that’s on you, not them. You do not get a get out of jail free card no matter who you are or what wonderful things you’re doing with your life.

I don’t believe that we are either good or bad. We are entire beings who sometimes do good things and who sometimes don’t. We are more than the sum of those actions. But, for goodness sake, if you must insist on being the “good” guy or protecting one, then at least change your definition of what that means. A real good guy is one who is able to acknowledge his or her own bias. A real good guy knows that he will mis-step. A real good guy knows that she will get it wrong sometimes and who isn’t afraid of holding up the mirror to herself. Most importantly, a real good guy isn’t willing to hide behind being the “good” guy, he knows that won’t get us anywhere.

(Un)Happy Womens Day?

In South Africa, we celebrated Women’s Day yesterday, we sent each other messages about the strength of women, we wished other women a happy women’s day, we decorated our messages with flowers. But what did it all mean? Did we stop to have conversations about how gender bias still exists in our homes, in our thoughts and actions? Did we stop to talk about what it truly means to be female in our country and in the world we live in? I’m not sure. Part of me feels like we’ve cheapened Women’s Day somehow, like we’ve missed the plot on what we should (or rather should not) be celebrating.

When I woke up this morning post our public holiday my initial thoughts were that I was grateful for a day off but that I didn’t really understand the what the point of Women’s Day was. Sure I understand the history and the significance of the day in our country and sure I’m moved by the strength and determination of those women who marched all those years ago but if I consider my actions on Women’s Day, I’m really not sure I gave enough thought to where we are as women in our country or even beyond that. Stats SA helped to paint a fairly grim picture this morning as I read about how we’ve achieved gender parity in terms of access to education but that women are still getting left behind in terms of pay, promotions and benefits. I had to stop for minute and breathe deeply before I could accept that one in five women in South Africa have been subjected to physical violence by a partner. I remember attending a Women’s Day event and one of the speakers telling the audience that she had seen first-hand that domestic violence increased when a woman moved up the ranks in her career, threatening the traditional power dynamics that serve a patriarchal home.

So where does that leave us as South Africans? It leaves us applauding and cheering the man who talks of how “women are better/stronger/more intelligent” than men are, all the while knowing that he reigns over a home and a position that patriarchy has prepared him for.  Personally, if I never have a conversation about how “women are better” than men again, it would be too soon. That isn’t the point. The point of talking through these issues shouldn’t be some placitude about the power of a woman or how we compare against men. The concepts of “being better than”, to me, just serve the narrative of “women’s work” and “men’s work” instead of challenging the assumptions in the first place and it is immeasurably frustrating and juvenile. We celebrate and cheer, yet we’re unwilling to look deeper, into our own homes where we know that the burden of unpaid work still falls on women, a fact that will continue to stifle women until we are willing to acknowledge it and take steps towards shifting it. We want to claim progress (or maybe just the public holiday) but we don’t genuinely want to have the difficult conversations that will help us move forward. We laugh and celebrate a day off from work, yet women in our communities are being raped, more often by someone close to them and I wonder just what it is that we are celebrating. We read the stats, we are exposed to the reality almost daily and we face this reality with a sort of jaded indifference.

Last week I came across the stat that over 130 million girls were not in school worldwide and I thought of Amartya Sen’s paper, written in 1990 titled “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing”. My first taste of Sen’s writing moved me because it brought to light the severity of gender bias and unequal access to basic resources. I would read, and reread Sen’s work many times over after that. Sure, this statistic of girls not being in school wasn’t as severe as the mortality of girls in Sen’s paper, but I wondered if my assumption was valid. I wondered if it wasn’t just as severe. I wondered if robbing girls the opportunity to be educated, if that “unfreedom”, was not the same as robbing them of their lives. I think about how, closer to home, the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects and subsequent careers are still dominated by men, serving to validate the myth that men are simply naturally inclined or better at these subjects than women are, and I wonder about the lost potential. I wonder about the “missing women” in our country, those missing in male dominated industries, those missing a seat at the table where real decisions are made. Those “missing women” who carry an unequal burden in their homes, those “missing women” who have to work twice as hard to get half the recognition that a man would.

It’s enough to break your heart. Not just because women should be given the platform, not just because it is “right” to level the access to opportunity, but because it makes sense. It makes sense that we capitalise on the opportunity that an inclusive society can bring. It makes sense that every member of our community has the opportunity to live a life they chose to value. It makes sense that our women can live in a country where they are not afraid, it makes sense that the men in our country respect women enough to also be part of breaking the cycle. It also makes sense that we stop pretending this isn’t an issue, it makes sense that we are part of the solution.  If I had one ardent hope on this day post our celebration of Women’s Day, it would be that today, you start a conversation. That you start now. That you look to your friends, you look to yourself and ask how you can be part of the solution. You ask what your ideas are about what it means to be a man or women in today’s world, you ask what messages we give to young boys and girls, you ask how in your homes you chose to serve the gender biases you were raised with. It may not be a solution, but it sure will be a step towards understanding, and in that understanding there might be a hope of knowing what the answer is.

Appreciating the Double Take of Misery

The double take of misery. That’s how I want to start this blog, with gloom and drama, also I sort of like the way it sounds. The double take of misery is what I found myself doing a few minutes ago when a grainy-headache inducing screen sealed my fate by placing the word “delayed” next my flight status. Now, I know it’s not the screen’s fault, but I still found myself hurling silent insults at him. I accused him of having a bunny aerial connection, I told him no one would look at him like the other screens but most of all I willed him to be wrong, I promised to forgive all his shortcomings if he was wrong. I looked away, I pretended it wasn’t a big deal, that I hadn’t even seen the update. Then I stared at him, I turned my head sideways, I squinted my eyes, but he would not budge. He threw those angry red letters at my face as if he didn’t care. Still I couldn’t move, convinced that if I did, I’d miss the moment the world righted itself (yes, it’s dramatic I know). Finally, after realising that I was in the middle of a walkway, having a silent argument with an inanimate object, I decided to try and let it go. But first, let me get a drink.

So, here I am, sighing like my life depended on it, nursing my whiskey and writing. I’ve decided that after what feels like a week from hell, what I need is to write and beyond that to write about everything that I am grateful for. I started doing this about a year ago, forcing myself to be grateful when I was annoyed, when I had a bad day and then it became a habit almost. I started to write an appreciation log daily, no matter what kind of day I had and it actually gave me greater sense of control in a weird way. I’ll let you in on it today to preserve my sanity. Since you’re still around, here is the appreciation log of a woman who is going to make great use of this airport lounge before her flight departs:

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Don’t you love this?

I’m so excited to share this one with you, I almost didn’t write it for fear of messing it up. I saw the best road sign this morning (well not the absolute best but at least a very good one). It read “Shoulders Drop” and to assert it’s authority, it paced an exclamation mark above it’s bold lettering. I love it. I love it so much that I had to stop my car to take a picture of it. I can’t quite tell you why I am so deeply moved by this otherwise ordinary object other than to say that I was moved by it. Literally. I read it and immediately dropped my shoulders as if it had given me an instruction. The very action of dropping my shoulders in response to a road sign was so ridiculous that I started to laugh. I had been dragging my feet and “dropping” my shoulders all week and for some reason the sign made me realise how ridiculous I was being.

dav

That I’ve just spent the better part of my work week in a beautiful small town. A place where even the sight of power lines over a blushing sky can be romantic, where the mist rolling over the mountains in the mornings brings not only the cold but also a sense of wonder. I got back to my rental apartment late the other night and while stomping out of the car, moaning about the fact that outside light that did not work, something made me look up. When I did, I saw a night sky so clear, so bright, that when I stood there watching it I didn’t even feel the cold. My hands spread out beside me and I twirled with my head lifted towards the heavens. I fought the urge to grab a blanket and lay on the grass to get a better look. With the stars twinkling above me, I felt as though the world was sighing along with me, the world was saying Hey, stop being so annoying. There’s magic here and if you’re stuck in your own head you’ll never see it.

My nephew’s laugh. I have harboured this soul crushing belief that my niece and nephew are growing up without me. They are, most definitely doing that and more than anything I hate the physical distance between us. But this week, I got to see my niece hide behind her hair (when did she grow up?) and I got to hear my nephew laugh the laugh I have known throughout his life. It’s a laugh that makes me wish he’ll never grow up. It’s a laugh to bring tears to my eyes because I miss those two crazy children beyond belief and it’s a laugh that helps me store joy in the pockets of my mind. It’s a laugh to start another conversation with my sister convincing her to move back to Johannesburg, back to where I am.

nfd

I would be remiss if I didn’t appreciate the whiskey in my glass. It’s a Glen something and I must say, he’s quite a charming character.

That I started this blog with the words “The double take of misery”. It makes me feel more important than I am to have strung those words together. Maybe, years from now experts will find this piece of my writing and marvel at how astute and insightful I am. Maybe, (a more likely option) it’s all madness

Most of all, what I really appreciate, is that I can hear the first call for my flight. I’m one short flight away from home. One short flight towards Husband, towards the dogs that will ignore me before they forgive me for leaving. One short flight towards home.