Thursday, March 09, 2006

Hello from South Africa!

Hello to everyone from South Africa!

If you're getting this mass email then you probably received my
Mechina emails also. Don't worry, things with Mechina are continuing
beautifully while I am away (indeed, I'm applying for another grant
this week!), but in the next eight months my mind and body are also in
South Africa, so enjoy these emails, my thoughts, and of course write
me back! You can also check out photos at

You'll have to forgive my first email as it will ramble a bit and go
on small tangents, but stick with me. It seems pretty important to
first say a few of things about what I heard about South Africa before
I came. First, and foremost, I heard about its beauty. But what I
also always heard was that the crime was very bad, and that I should
be very very careful. Indeed, many of my friends who came a few years
ago had computers and cameras stolen from their homes. You also
cannot talk about South Africa without talking about the racism here.
In many ways, I knew that this would be a very challenging experience
for me, especially to see the poverty and racism, but I was excited to
at least be facing it with a videocamera in hand. Perhaps
appropriately, as I landed after my 24 hour trip to Cape Town, with
the beautiful ocean on one side and Table Mountain on another, the man
sitting next to me warned me, "Beware of black people here. They're
not like black people where you're from. They're barbarians."
Welcome to South Africa, I thought.

And yet, besides that first horrific comment, I have actually been
surprised by how life here feels so similar to life at home. (It is
crucial that I repeat again and again that I have only been here for
two weeks and haven't seen much at all besides the town I am living in
now). This is my third time on the African continent (following Kenya
and Morocco) and interestingly enough, I feel the least culture shock
here. Let me explain my situation and where I am currently living
before I get into that too much…I have a point to make I promise…

I'm here in South Africa for eight months on a Lewis Hine Documentary
Fellowship from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.
There are two other fellows in Southern Africa and each one of us is
placed with an organization. Mine is called the 10 Million Memory
Project. The idea behind the project is that in order to live with
and deal with HIV/AIDS, treatment alone is not enough. Yes, it is
important for the body, but for the mind, soul, and spirit, there must
also be more psycho-social support. In actuality, what that has come
to mean is called "memory work" in which parents create things like
memory boxes to physically pass on their stories to their children.
In some cases, memory work also ensures that anti-virals and other
medications are taken on time, etc. Thus, the boxes also serve as a
way for the parent and child to communicate with each other.

But what I am filming is a new (about three years old) form of memory
work called "Hero Books." Rather than focusing on the parents, Hero
Books are created by children. During facilitated (what's cool is
that these can be both caregivers and also other children) workshops
(about 17, 1-hour sessions), the child creates her own book. There
are several different chapters that are included, from "My Family
Road," "My community," and then where more of the meat happens: "A
Problem that often gets the better of me," "A Shining Moment when I
overcame the problem," "Tricks and Tactics to overcome the problem,"
and finally, "The Hero, Me!" Each child narrates and illustrates her
own book, eventually realizing that they too can be heroes, empowered
to overcome, or at least co-exist with, the issues they face. The
issues from the books I've read range from abuse, missing a parent who
has passed away, and fighting stigma surrounding HIV. Again not all
of the children have HIV/AIDS themselves, but they all live in
townships and so are affected in some way or another by it or by other
social problems of living in extremely poor conditions.

I'm living with the head of the Hero Books Campaign, Jonathan Morgan.
Though his postal city reads Cape Town, in actually he lives with his
family (his wife Kyoko and two adorable children Masego and Taiji), in
Clovelly which is a small suburb about 45 minutes away from the center
of Cape Town. In my adjustment period, we have decided that I am
going to live with his family (they have a guest room and kitchen) for
now. From my window is a beautiful mountain, and my fifteen minute
walk to town passes by wetlands and a beautiful, beautiful beach with
the Indian Ocean ("they" say it's warmer than the Atlantic but it was
pretty frigid to me when I went in for the first time yesterday).
Walking around the town feels no different than walking around a small
beach town of North Carolina (except I would say the South African
accent is cuter).

That is the three paragraph version of basically what I will be doing
here. But it's really still too early to tell. I haven't seen any of
the children myself yet, and have only driven through a township. I
will go in about one week to a township where Hero Books originated
for about three weeks to film, and from there I'm sure will have many
more personal stories to tell.

Until then, this is my email of why South Africa has not been much of
a culture shock. (The first email is always the hardest because I
have to give background stories when I'd rather share my own personal
stories which I think are also more interesting to read, so stick with
me). Yes, I did walk around the first three days scared, waiting to
be mugged at any corner, fearing any poor person that I saw on the
streets, most of them black men. After a one-day trip to Cape Town
central where I really could feel I had to be more aware of my
belongings, I realized that though it's always important to be
cautious, that in Clovelly I actually don't have to do much more than
I would have done anyways while traveling or even walking in Durham at
night. Why was I feeling safer when I was expecting to fear for my
belongings everyday, I wondered?

And then on one walk back from town I had a small realization that I
think will be a major theme/comparison of my time here. Yes, South
Africa is still recovering from apartheid, which ended only last
decade. Yes, because of the high rates of unemployment people are
much more likely to break into people's homes (though Jonathan's house
has never been broken into, but he has had gas stolen from his car
last night). Yes, there are obvious examples of racism here. BUT,
though I was expecting this to be a huge shock, it hasn't been yet.
One very important reason is that I am living in a small suburban
bubble (though still it's not excluded from crime and muggings mostly
at night). But another, perhaps more profound reason, is that, being
a white person in the US—though institutionalized racism was four
decades rather than one decade ago—I too have been bombarded with
racist beliefs in the US. Now, most of those have not been outwardly
racist remarks from people like that man on the airplane, but I have
been taught to fear the black man- let's face it, most of us have
whether we like it or not, whether we are conscious of it or not.
Perhaps that's the reason why it doesn't feel all that weird to be on
guard when a poor-looking black man passes me on the street here in
South Africa- I would have been just as guarded in Durham, NC.

It feels quite vulnerable to be writing this on a mass email, but I
can't help but share my true thoughts and feelings. I of course
welcome your comments. But when I hear about the mass poverty of
townships, in many ways I could not help but think of New Orleans,
both when I lived there for two months over the summer and after
Katrina. Now, of course there are big differences, but I suppose what
is challenging thus far about South Africa, now that my initial four
day settling in period is over, is how normal it feels. Why, I have
to ask myself, have I entered a well-known racist country and still
feel no culture shock? I can't help but think perhaps my own American
culture too is not all that different….

So, I'd love to hear your thoughts to this email! I know that there
will be HUGE differences when I actually go to the townships, but I
wanted to make sure that I put my thoughts down in an email before I
head out for that next challenge. If you've read up until this point,
thank you- I know my email jumped around a bit, but I think after this
one they will make a lot more cohesive sense.


At 3:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Alot for the great post

Lurrenzinc is the fastest growing African social network with thousands of beautiful African Women, African girls, and African men.


Post a Comment

<< Home