Bigotry – an intolerance towards those who hold different opinions from oneself.
I was beginning to lament the pedestrian nature of my life in Johannesburg. Or more accurately I was beginning to lament the fact that for the most part, I have to use the most reliable public transport system in the world to move around Johannesburg, because I cannot realistically afford to buy my own car, or pay for a maxi taxi or cabs at my current monthly salary of about two-thousand rands a month on average, maybe three or four if I’m lucky from doing odd jobs for friends here and there. I was beginning to miss that life, the comfortable, predictable life I used to live before, six years ago. Before I tempted fate and pursued a dream. An adventure of a lifetime. I was beginning to miss a good steady salary, a comfortable house, with my own bed, a fridge full of the food I want to eat, a cupboard to hang my clothes, a place to put my belongings, my books, pictures, a beautiful vase of fragrant flowers, and candles. I was beginning to miss having that comfortable car, with well cushioned seats and a surround sound system that helped me glide through life as if in a music video of my own making. I was beginning to miss a clean environment, of not having to navigate, sewage, coagulated blood, food, spit and only God knows what else in mounds and mounds of rubbish, rotting meat, food and flying rats at street corners in my mainstay Birkenstock sandals a friend gifted me with years ago, when I realized – during my search for that beautiful man, tall, thin and super refined – that I would not have known him had I continued with my life encased in a bubble of privilege. I realized that I would have never stopped on my way to catch yet another minibus taxi in new-town to speak to him, to listen to him tell me his story, which was as fascinating as it was bizarre. We met on three different occasions. I wondered about his dress. Until one day we bumped into each other again as if by divine appointment. I had just finished my last interview for the whirlwind which was the ill-fated Dance Umbrella and my spirit was very low. He beamed when he saw me, hello friend! He said, stay a moment. I stood thinking I have nowhere to go, now where to rush to. I asked him where he was from. The Democratic Republic of Congo, he said. Oh no I thought to myself, what it is about this country that keeps following me! I asked to take a picture of him in French, and he said no. Too dangerous my friend. I was weary and didn’t probe– so out of nowhere he looked straight into my eyes, in the middle of new town junction, on a busy Sunday afternoon.
Time stopped, for a moment:
“I am one of Mabutu-Sese Seko’s nephews. Yeah. Believe me, I’m telling you the truth. We used to live a privileged life. Everything we could ever want or need was at our finger-tips. We lived in a large compound and my father was a high ranking officer in Mabutu’s government. For a long time in my life I did not know what a shop looked like inside, or what the streets looked like. We were super protected and lived well until of course things went sour. After Mabutu’s regime collapsed we all had to scatter, flee, because even today, we’re are still being hunted won , you see, that’s why I didn’t want you to take my picture. Because I don’t know what you will do to it or who will see it and next thing, Boom, I’ll be gone. Spies are here. You don’t know what they look like because they are all living here among us, and one day you will see someone dead on the street. No report, not police inquiry, they’ll be just dead. You’re lucky to be South African. You’re lucky to live in this country because here you can say whatever you like about your president, and nothing happens to you. Not in other African countries and most certainly not in the DRC, there you say one wrong thing, look the wrong way and you’re gone, dead. I have a friend here somewhere, a journalist from the DRC who wrote a story exposing hundreds of murders currently taking place. It was a story where at least 400 people were killed in skirmishes, but the government officially quoted a small figure like 43, so my friend wrote that this was not true. And soon as his story was published, they were already hunting him down. His friends who knew about this hid him in a huge rubbish bin, and covered him in it, until he was able to negotiate a safe passage to South Africa through East Africa, Tanzania. I cannot tell you my real name or reveal myself, but maybe we can arrange a meeting with this journalist and we can tell the story of what is really happening in the Congo. Maybe you can write about this in one of your stories, and maybe you also have to use a different name”
By this time I was transfixed in a haze of disbelief.
So I asked him: why are you telling me this? What’s the point of writing about violence in the Congo, when it’s only going to put your life and possibly mine in danger? It is worth it? I had heard too many of these stories before, there were too many of them. What could I possibly do? How long have people been dying in the DRC? Gosh I couldn’t even get the simplest things in my own life right? I had given up on telling the story of the DRC years I go. Why did it keep coming back? I had no interest in fame or even fortune. I was drained by self-righteous humans (including myself) who pretended to know what’s best for others.
He looked at me and sighed for a bit as if searching for an answer somewhere in the sky:
“I think maybe if you write about it, if you allow us to tell you the stories, and expose the truth, maybe they will be afraid a little, maybe they will think twice before killing, maybe they will never stop, but maybe they will be afraid to just do it so blatantly with impunity and reduce the number of people they kill. Maybe it’ll save a life somewhere. Maybe they will stop for a bit. Because now it’s too much, they are just killing, killing, killing and we need to stop them somehow. They need to know that someone knows what they are doing. That someone is watching.”
Then he told me that when I’m ready we’ll meet again. He wished me well with my career, and hoped that I succeed in everything I do. And we bid each other farewell. I didn’t know it’ll be for the last time.
I went looking for him today. And over the weekend, all over Newtown.
A man who was so visible and conspicuous, had vanished off the face of the earth. I had an opportunity to make right on his request. I didn’t have his number. Then I realized, how fleeting this life is. Then I realized how grateful I am to have risked everything that is material, in order to be able to one day- look at another human with love and respect without knowing their history, and for no other reason than momentary companionship. To listen to a story, because I can and because it’s important for them to be heard. Not because I want to make money or there is something in it for me. He asked me to be his friend for a moment and I don’t think I would have taken the time to be, if I were still encased in my own sense of self -importance.
It is not education that teaches you how to love. Education only re-enforces all the stereotypes we have about each other. Education even in impassioned speeches by young Students still maintains that “we are better” because we read books and get marked. Because we can write essays. We know what GDP stands for. Because we spend our days excavating knowledge from people we assume are unfortunately too ignorant, because they didn’t have money to go to school. Because they are helpless, because they can’t think. So we use them, for our theses, our Masters and PHD’s, our “research” and use their knowledge as our own. Even though Malema can stand triumphant with his black gown, he’s not a better human being for it. Because it’s not education that cleans the streets. Or hugs you when you are lonely or sad. Or picks you up when you trip and fall. It’s people. Human beings. A degree is just that, a degree of knowledge. You now know a little more about something, it’s certainly not everything there is to know, and most certainly you’re not the better for it. Why should I earn 10,000 rand for typing out someone’s story? And they only earn an honorarium of 1.500? How is that fair? Senegal has the largest number young people with Master’s degrees I have ever encountered in my limited years of travel. They are not the better for it. The country isn’t better for it. Because it is those with education at the highest levels of government, business and society in general, who know better than everyone who (want) maintain the status quo, it is they who are the gatekeepers of power and influence. It is they who don’t see human beings. It is they who create intricate systems of exploitation and oppression. It is they who always want more than others. Because they deserve more. Because they went to school. Centuries of education have only reinforced inequality in our global modern societies. They have not improved our collective life experience. They have only reproduced, different forms of slavery or exploitation – different words, same thing. Because living in an equal society means they have to give up something, they have to use public transport, cut back of their luxuries, it means everyone will have access to the same knowledge and information if they want it. There’s no incentive for equity or justice for the wealthy. Because it means they’ll have to share it. Only the wealthy stand to lose in an equal and just society – not the poor.
So for all these reasons
I am happy, for this life I now lead, not because it’s nice to be made to wait, to walk through rubbish, or be treated like a commodity or a virtual slave in the highway of life. Of course like everyone else, I would love to live in comfort. To have all my needs taken care of. To not worry about what I’m going to eat, what I’m going to wear, or where I’m going to sleep tonight. Or if I’ll be kicked out yet again, by some well -meaning friend. No. no one in their right minds want’s to live a life like that. Just Like I’m sure, the old man from the DRC didn’t imagine in the safety of a luxurious compound in Kinshasa that he’d one day end up in Johannesburg, assuming different disguises, selling cigarettes and sweets at street corners. Because even then, in the comfort of despotism and security, his education, could not save him. I’m happy because this experience is continuing to teach me about the true value of life, about who and what is important. Education is essentially information and like money it is a just a tool. True knowledge is everywhere, in people, in their lived lives and experiences. Not in theories we dream up about them or their lives.
So maybe if we treat people as people. If we treat humans as we would like to be treated ourselves, with respect. In spite of our education and also because of it, maybe then we can all make it. Maybe I’ll make it. Maybe you will make it too.
Child of the song, sing don’t cry
With song and dance we defied death
The heavens are blue because they are empty
Beware my brother of park benches
Is the last thing a fighter must do.
By Mongane Wally Serote, 1975, New York, City. Exile
Pictured: EFF leader Julius Malema triumphant after receiving his BA degree at the University of South Africa. Picture credit:www.dispatchlive.co.za