Sweet and Sour

10 March 2010

Riding in the flatbed of a bakkie (pick-up truck), with the Director, Cinematographer and Stuntmen. Bumping over potholes, on the dark, dusty, unlit street. The hum of the truck and the wind and the village dogs in strange harmony. Lights from the film set fading in the distance as we approach base camp. Where cast and crew will eat “lunch”, at midnight.  Under a near full, orangish-yellow, South African moon.

Yes, this is why I took a sabbatical…so as not to miss these surreal moments. I feel light years away from my tiny cubicle on the 30th floor in Times Square in New York City.

We are in Tembisa township. The homes, made of tin, coils, old billboards and government plaster are strung together like colorful pearls around the neck of Johannesburg, the City of Gold. Electricity is sporadic, when available. There are outhouses, dirt floors, fire pits. Sanitation is nil. Privacy is scarce – community is paramount.

The people of Tembisa gather around to catch a glimpse of the filmmaking perched on the hill, a stage to their settlement. The children find a reason to celebrate and break into song and dance – our floodlights, their spotlights. The adults clamor for the best view and, enamored with their proximity to the action, they revel over beer, cigarettes and hearty jokes. When they tire of “action, cut, reset” the 6-year-olds tie the 1-year-olds to their backs, take an adult’s hand and walk, barefoot, on home to sleep.

At 3am the shoot wraps. We get into our foreign cars and drive to our suburbs. Wave to the security guards and enter our gated communities. Lock the doors. Turn on all the lights. Shower. Rest our heads on soft pillows and curl up in clean white sheets. Sleep.

Something about this sweet and sour juxtaposition makes me feel older, wiser, grateful, responsible. And when I return home, it will travel with me over the light years to my tiny cubicle on the 30th floor in Times Square in New York City.

Advertisements

Pure Glee

8 March 2010

The joy of a child…should you need a reminder. This is pool day at Nokuphila School.

Living the stereotype

1 March 2010

As an American in South Africa I’m often the brunt of snarky anti-American comments. I’m no novice traveler, so I’m well aware of the name Americans have made for themselves abroad…and I’ve even become accustomed to hearing these stereotypes all over the world. But I say, in all of my travels to date, with maybe only England as an exception, blatant anti-American remarks from South Africans have been the most intense.

Friends will introduce me to new friends and say “yeah, she’s a dodgy American, but she’s ok.” (Giggle giggle, nod head, roll eyes.)

Here’s a conversation starter: “So Aubrey, what do you think of South Africa? I mean, Americans don’t know anything about Africa, do they, so this must be new to you.” Ummmm….yeah….where do I even begin with that one. Usually with “Well, from the time I’ve spent in Rwanda and Egypt and Tunisia…and my business in Ghana….and my studies of African culture and economic development….”

I’m not even exaggerating. This stuff is said TO ME: “Well you’re an American so you can afford it.” (Yeah, except that it’s cheaper in New York City.) Or “Oh, you’re on the 11th floor; did you think you’d be living in the African bush when you came here?”

This was really amazing: “Oh wait, so you actually had a passport before you came here?”

Or my personal favorite: “Did you even know there were white people in South Africa?” Wow. Ummm….Yeah…..Did I mention what A MILLION COLOURS is about?

These kinds of conversations come up all the time. I do my best to show that I know a thing or two about the cultural and historical nuances of this place, and I try to disprove any comment that starts with “All Americans.” So when a friend recently said “All Americans think that because we live in Africa, we have elephants and hippos and other wild animals in our backyards,” I just laughed. I mean really. These stereotypes are just getting ridiculous. Or are they?

Well. Let me tell you something. I spent Thursday night on the film set, a location about 45 minutes from Johannesburg. Yes, it wasn’t the city – more of a rural farm area – but it was still not quite the African bush or jungle. There were baboons everywhere!  And yes, it was the “backyard” to more than a few estates.

These baboons were a hyper bunch. You could see them on the hills, maybe 30 in a group, chasing each other and shaking all the trees. You could hear them for miles – a surprisingly high-pitched squeal as opposed to a low guttural noise that might seem more fitting for a creature of their size. They went all “ape” on the set, and it had to be completely rebuilt, then they moved on to the catering. One baboon bandit made off with a huge bag of sugar. Unfortunately for him, he punctured a hole in the bag, leaving a white sugar trail the whole way back to the wood. He probably didn’t have any bit of the tasty treat left by the time he got there.

Baboons are notoriously brutal. I didn’t know that at first. Assuming they’d be cute and maybe even pose for a photo, I went walking down a path in the direction of their squeals. I was spotted by two of the special effects crew, and they immediately came running and yelling at me in Zulu. I understood “Baboons!” and got the hint. I mean, these guys blow stuff up for a living, so if they are telling me to steer clear of a baboon, I will.

Needless-to-say, I don’t have a single photo of a baboon. But I do have this story. May it keep the “Americans think we have wild animals living in our backyards” stereotype alive and well!

Nokuphila School

4 February 2010

It’s 3am. I’m not one to experience insomnia, but after just a few short hours of sleep I’m now wide awake with visions of little children dancing in my head. My mind won’t rest on account of 45 kids laughing, playing, dancing, crying, singing, yelling, hugging, jumping, painting. They are the kids from Nokuphila School where I have been volunteering three days per week…and I love them so much I can’t sleep.

Nokuphila School opened its doors three weeks ago to 45 pre-schoolers ages 3-5. It provides disadvantaged children of Tembisa an educational alternative to some of the bleak realities of this township community: crime, illiteracy, HIV and AIDS, no electricity or bathrooms in some areas, unemployment and poverty (households earring less than 800 Rand a month – approximately $115). Made possible by Love Trust, an organization funded by corporations and individuals, the  school’s model for development is based on the core expertise and educational track record of Christ Church Midrand’s independent school.

And this focus on early-childhood development is making a difference.

Just three weeks ago the children had never before experienced the structure of school: teachers, lessons, playtime, lunchtime, nap-time, music, art and sports. English was new to their Zulu, Sesotho, Xhosa and other native African tongues. As was standing in a line, getting into a circle, listening for instructions and repeating new words. But they’re like sponges, these precious kids, and today they can converse in English about each others’ names, ages, and neighborhoods. They can count to ten, say please and thank you, ask for help, and name the colors on their paint brushes. They listen, repeat and follow instructions. Perhaps most importantly, they trust their teachers and are excited to be in school – this happy and safe place where they are cared for and nurtured.

To write it, these accomplishments almost sound like nothing… Maybe if you just saw their smiles or heard their gleeful squeals or had the littlest one raise a hopeful eye and say “Teacha Aublie, see you tomorrow?” You bet I’ll be there tomorrow. I can hardly wait.

More photos here

When I first arrived, I decided to drive the route that I had planned on running – just to double check that there was a wide enough shoulder, if not a sidewalk, and confirm that it truly made the loop it appeared to on the map. It’s short – not more than 2 miles and makes a perfect loop through the wealthy, gated community estates of Sandton. Most of the estates have black guards at the entrance, black lawn workers in the yards and a generally busy atmosphere of black staff attending to the grounds. It was clear that I would be the only white person running (or doing anything, for that matter, on the street – and I’ve since, when running, never seen another white person outside of his or her car). But I figured, with such a buzz of estate staff around, it would safe to run.

Let me pause here. I mention that the estate staff are black only because it’s observable. This is not to say that black men and women do not hold C-suite and other professional positions here in South Africa, nor that they are not the wealthy owners of several of the said estates – they most certainly do and are. Since the apartheid regime came to an end, Black Economic Empowerment (essentially Affirmative Action) has been enforced in an effort to undo the oppressive set-backs that stem from years of segregated, white minority rule. When you consider that approximately 80% of South Africa’s population is non-white (Black, Coloured, Asian) the socio-economics begin to make sense, especially here in Sandton, this suburb deemed “Africa’s richest square mile.” People of European decent have had a head-start – for like a century – with the support of political, economic, and social structures to uphold their well being. Obviously, even with the enforcement of Black Economic Empowerment, the non-white majority population will need some time to catch up. Until then, I suppose non-whites will continue to fill the labor pool of domestics, grounds-keepers, residential and commercial staff and other related services. That said, this is the racial make-up surrounding the streets of my runs.

Just one more aside: Plenty of people equate South Africa with crime. While that has rapidly changed, even in the past two years, in preparation for the World Cup this June, crime has sadly been an identifying reality for this country. (INVICTUS touched upon the crime and violence that were paramount in the early 90s. A MILLION COLOURS does the same.) But, I get unnerved with generalizations, even when they’re based in truth, and had made it a priority to prove that in 2010, South Africa is just as safe as any city anywhere. However, upon arrival, when all of our local colleagues and friends took me aside to give me the “safety talk”, and one even handed me pepper spray, I decided I don’t need to single-handedly change the world’s perception about crime in South Africa…and I’ll keep my guard up just enough to be safe and not sorry.

So back to my story. If you recall, I was driving my potential running route.

I rounded a bend and saw down the road a silver car, stopped rather crookedly on the curb. As I approached the car, I noticed a man, white, casually but nicely dressed, maybe mid 30s, waving me down. His hood was not up, his fourways weren’t on and I could see no damage to the car. My initial instinct was to stop and see what he needed…poor guy, I thought, maybe he’s lost, maybe he’s out of gas and needs a lift. But as I scanned the street I realized that for the moment, there was not one other person in sight – not in a car, not walking on the sidewalks, not working estate grounds. Then my heart began pounding and a second instinct replaced the first. The cautionary words from a recent “safety talk” rang loud and clear in my head: “Don’t trust anyone here. Pink, purple, black, white – I don’t care. You don’t trust anyone.”

So I drove by. The man gave me a pleading wave right in front of my window and he and I made eye-contact. I mouthed “I’m sorry” and shook my head with an apologetic expression as if to say “you must understand why I just can’t stop to help you”.

I actually think he probably understood…and I’ll never know if he was going to hijack me. I imagine most people here, even hijackers, embrace the “don’t trust anyone” motto, regardless of any of their remaining stereotypes – racial or otherwise. But the angst I felt from casting aside my good samaritan instinct was new. One never wants to be so self-protective that she’s cold to others. But how do you know when a simple act of good samaritanship might lead to danger…in a place where crime once ruled the day? Feeling like I’m not in Kansas anymore.

Power issue

27 January 2010

There’s a power issue here in South Africa. Not a power struggle. A power outage. It’s blatant and, I assume, quite serious, even though everyone partakes in the one-off snarky comments about state-owned energy utility Eskom’s lack of energy utilities.

I met a girl whose father is the CEO of an energy utility in Zambia. When she mentioned that to a group of us, at least three people joked. “Oh yeah? Could you get him to send some electricity down to Eskom?” I wager she gets that all the time.

There are so many traffic lights (called “robots” here) that aren’t working – to the detriment of swiftly-moving traffic – that the local radio station Jacaranda called the appropriate department of roads and vehicles to report the issues. The DJs broadcast the “on-hold” music recording for 45 minutes while riffing on the lack of energy in SA. Apparently, no one ever answered the call.

There’s probably a SA rapper out there who has worked the energy crisis into his beats…maybe like “I got some never ending fire in my menthol cigs, burning longer than the Eskom lights in my Joburg digs” (if this hasn’t been done yet, I’ll gladly accept royalties).

I found entire websites and blogs devoted to Eskom jokes. Here’s one: “Eskom would like to remind its customers that it is no longer politically correct to talk about a “blackout”… These areas should now be referred to as “previously lit”…”

And another: “In SA, first there was white power, and then black power, but now there’s no power!”

I am really enthralled by South African humor – their readiness to find humor in the social structures of their past and present, and even to ridicule themselves.

Speaking of laughing at ourselves, my brother sent me this link to Louis CK on Conan O’Brien after I was beyond infuriated at my lack of South African internet for 24 hours (let’s just say power isn’t the only issue here in SA…). I certainly needed the levity. I’m trying to live like a South African while I’m here. I’ll aim to laugh it off next time.

Constitution Hill

20 January 2010

On the day we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. in the US, I spent the morning at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. My visit was apropos in light of the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement: Constitution Hill was formerly a prison, and was home to some of the worst human rights atrocities carried out over decades of South Africa’s segregation policies.

The prison dates back to 1893 and behind its iron jail bars, segregation prevailed: Whites, Coloureds and Asians, Black Africans. This jail was “home” to true criminals – murderers, rapists and thieves – but also to the non-white men and woman who dared protest the restrictions placed on their freedoms to speak and move freely (i.e., having to carry passes labeled as Coloured, Asian and Black).

Nelson Mandela was imprisoned here, twice. So was Winnie Mandela. And so was Gandhi.

My heart was heavy to hear the tour guide’s harrowing stories of bias and abuse: Separate wards for white and non-white men. A separate jail for women, divided into white and non-white sections. Separate types of food and food allowances based on race. Separate types of punishments and privileges. Overcrowding – cells made for 2 holding 4-6. Blankets washed once per year. Showers once per week. Isolation and torture tactics, sleep deprivation, beatings hooked to the wall. Strip. Strike. Shame. Hide.

A journalist photographed a tausa (strip search) from a tall building adjacent to the prison. Upon printing the photo, he was thrown into the very prison he was trying to expose…

The prison was closed in 1983.

Information from museums tends to get stored in a box in my mind labeled “history”, as in distant history, as in “this happened a long, long time ago and will never happen again” history. I almost can’t bear the truth that such dehumanizing policies and behaviors were status quo – even within my lifetime – and that in many parts of the world, human rights abuses are prevalent even now.

There’s redemption in the painful memory of Constitution Hill’s former prison complex, however. South Africa’s Constitutional Court now stands on its grounds. The bricks that were once the backbone of the prison’s Awaiting Trial Block now support the very institution where constitutional rights for ALL of South Africa’s “we the people” are upheld. The grounds have been reclaimed in the name of “dignity, freedom and equality”. The courtroom is encircled by windows representing inward and outward transparency…and so that the  Court Justices can gaze upon the remains of the prison and all of the treacherous history that it represents. May they – and we – ensure that this history never repeats itself.

Photos of the day