LOVE STORIES: FOR YOUR EARS ONLY

I have considered a number of titles for this post. I have thought endlessly about using other people’s words to attract your attention. I thought maybe a play on So Long  A letter (1981) a title of the only book published by Miriam Ba, paired with, because I love pairs, Junot Diaz’s  This is how you lose her (2012), replacing lose with love of course, would be a perfect dish commenting on how we relate to each other and ourselves as men and women.  How do we love? Where do we even begin the conversation when she doesn’t know what love looks like and he doesn’t know what love feels like?

So Long, A letter: This is how you Love her

I thought I could use my own personal experience which this blog has been about for the  past five years. I wanted to use Zadie Smith’s eloquence  to finally  reveal myself to myself at the same time as I reveal this self to you. I thought I could re-use her words which she said in a conversation about what makes any fiction writer good; honesty: lying to tell the truth. But I wasn’t sure I could actually do that with without reproducing the contents of my daily journal – raw as it is, to you.  Still I don’t want to be that honest with you, and pretending that I am is also dishonest because honestly what is the truth really? Who knows this truth if I don’t?

Honesty: Lying to tell the truth

Truth led me to think about knowledge and if what we know is always truthful?  Are our experiences without fault? Or does it depend from which and with what perspective we are looking at something, someone or an event?  How about the imagination? The stories we invent? If we can write real events and call them fiction, what then  is non-fiction? So staying with Zadie Smith I thought perhaps I could go with a single headline this time with no pairings: Complete Knowledge is Impossible. I thought perhaps we can  agree that this is as close to the truth as we shall ever get, since and you will excuse the repetition here, more knowledge is always possible but what we know is never complete. But then of course I had to think about why it is I am writing to you now. As I dug deeper, the words of Sufi Master  Rumi, began to haunt me begging me to repeat them out loud to you, to be, here’s that word again, honest, because he wrote what I often feel:  ‘Everyday this pain, either you’re numb or you don’t understand love. I write out my love story. You see the writing, but you don’t read it’

 Complete Knowledge is Impossible

When I find myself each week deep in the ocean, diving in, searching for words, letters and phrases overwhelmed with picking just the right one so that you and the person next to you can read me and perhaps find some resonance. I can’t help but wonder if it is all worth it. Not because no one is reading, but because maybe I think this one particular person who matters to me is not.  Junot Diaz said something which I agree with; you write to explain and describe your world to yourself but always with the hope that someone will join you in your journey.

Write Now

In this way writing has been my hope for another tomorrow. Perhaps I have not always sat studiously at the desk adding words diligently together to form that perfect phrase or paint a perfect picture, but in every moment of every day, I write. When I walk I’m writing, when dancing or talking I am writing. Everything I do is about writing, can I write about this? How can I tell a story about washing a car? Making tea? Being so drunk. Or sweeping the driveway. Every object I touch is a story, when I am washing dishes each plate is a character, women having a bath, a party of five, all the kitchen utensils are constantly having conversations about stories I must write.

Those Sweet Words  

Recently I was reminded of one the most moving prose-poems I have ever read The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer (1999), which comprises of a series of questions which I have tried to answer by fully living them. I’ve looked like a fool for love, for my dream and the adventure of being alive. Until I arrived at the very beginning. A place where I am no longer defined by what I have or what I do.

In the Invitation

And so despite being a woman  of many, many, words, it has been my experience that some of the best and most defining moments in my life have occurred without too many of them.  The most poignant and beautiful memories have remained undocumented, unrecorded, unwritten, unsaid, pictured or televised. They have not been described, analysed or scrutinized. There is no evidence. No proof. No paper trail, no data to measure their validity, value or worth.

For Me 

Since the day  I  heard the words which described the  shape of my heart, I have been rendered utterly speechles, not  because I was unwilling to speak. But   because I was simply unable to express in words the joy  I felt inside, because I didn’t know that I didn’t know what real joy feels like. I drove myself crazy analysing facts and being rational.  Trying to describe and explain infinity.  I now understand what everyone who has ever said follow your heart  actually meant.

Nothing Works Until You Do

I have sat in silence alone with myself and have learnt to love the company I keep when nothing is happening. When I’m listening, I can  accept and enjoy life for what it is, in that very moment not what it pretends to be. In this way all my words have been reduced to one. For your ears only.

until soon.

 

 

 

 

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KINDRED: A BOOK I WISH I NEVER READ

It’s been three weeks since I read, Kindred. A fictional-memoir of 19th century slavery by African-American science fiction writer, Octavia Butler (1947-2006). The book was a gift given to me by a good friend in celebration of our 12 year transatlantic friendship. I had read online articles about Butler and her pioneering work as one of the first female African American science fiction writers before, but had never read her work, that is until three weeks ago.  Although science fiction has never been my preferred choice of reading material, I was excited to read her after being introduced to American-Nigerian writer Nnedi Okarafor Who Fears Death (2010), The Book of Phoenix (2015) and many more books which left me feeling empowered, somewhat invincible and literally panting for more.

“In order to rise from its own ashes, a phoenix first must burn”.  Octavia Butler

So that when my friend presented me with Kindred (1979), I was expecting to be lifted into even greater heights of fantasy and super-normal abilities. I excitedly texted my friend letting him know that I was reading it, his response was rather sobering;  “ You’re in for a long and disturbing night.”  Although his response suprised me a little, I did not think much of his warning fooling myself into thinking that once I’ve read one book about slavery I’d read them all.

“Beware: Ignorance protects itself. Ignorance promotes suspicion.  Suspicion engenders fear.  Fear quails, irrational and blind. Or fear looms, defiant and closed. Blind, closed, suspicious, afraid. Ignorance protects itself, and protected it grows.” Octavia Butler

It’s been three weeks since I read, Kindred, and even as I write this I am still searching for the right words to relate the experience.  It’s been three weeks since I have been trying to make sense of time, this time, my time, our times. It’s been three weeks and I’m still trying to figure out exactly who and what I was before I read this book. Before I opened its pages and emerged on the on the other side, drenched, soaking wet from the muddy river,  pulling myself heavily  out of the water, my feet sinking into it’s slippery banks  in the middle of  nowhere, called to save a boy’s life through mouth to mouth recitation.  Yes, I became the protagonist Dana Franklin (26) the writer who is pulled involuntarily through time and space from her cosy 1976 California home which she shares with her white husband, Kevin Franklin who is also a writer. She arrives in 1917 antebellum south,  time-travelling back to a time of slavery in order to save her distant white relative Rufus Weylin, the son of a plantation and slave owner until he  grows up to father a  daughter, Hagar, who is Dana’s ancestor.

Death and the fear of Death connects her to her ancestors

She is forced to repeatedly return to this world where she is conspicuous in every way  from the way she dresses and behaves. Although she first meets Rufus as a young and insecure boy, he grows up to become as cruel as his slave master father. He also becomes obsessed with Dana whom he claims is the only person he can speak to or who understands him. Though he claims to love her, he none the less enslaves her and attempts to rape her, to possess her, to  control her, to keep her from leaving him.  Dana is forced to somehow maintain her identity as a strong, intelligent, free black woman in a world where women and all black people are completely subservient and owned by cruel ignorant white men.  The only way for her to return home from this life of slavery is when she is literally faced with death.

“All that you touch you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change. Octavia Butler

The book left me reeling. Chills ran down my spine with each turn of the page. I was, like the protagonist afflicted by nausea and dizziness which preceded Dana’s time travelling episodes. I was dumbfounded by the book. It is not so much the gratuitous description of violence and the ways in which slaves were oppressed, it is not so much the back-breaking hard work from dusk till dawn which got to me. No. It was something much worse, more insidious and overpowering, intoxicating like too much wine in the middle of a blazing hot afternoon, a sinking, helpless feeling.  Here I could taste, feel, the experience of being a slave. Of being no different to an animal.  A cow, which is forced to work the fields, produce offspring  who are sold for profit, being milked and sucked everyday and every night.  An animal which is  loved much like one would love an ox that is good for business. A commodity, an investment that brings home the cheese. That is traded whenever it has lost its value. Some-thing which is discarded or maimed at will, used, abused, caressed, stroked, kissed, smothered, suffocated. An animal with rights to nothing and no one. It was as if I was reading about slavery for the first time in my life and like Dana who is the narrator of the story, had only  understood it, superficially, intellectually.

“Books had not taught her why so many slaves accepted their condition, nor had books defined the kind of bravery possible in the humiliating situation of being owned” (Page 277)

I texted my friend the next day, after the book left me almost comatose. All I could say was: “My God! Such relentless torture! Enough to make me grateful for whatever pain I have experienced in my own life. A breath-taking, detailed account of human cruelty in all its imaginable forms, the most despicable of which is the one often described as love. I am dumbfounded”

The book is incomparable to anything I have read to this day in its depth. A visceral account of suffering, resilience and cruelty beyond what is psychologically reasonable for any human to endure without succumbing to utter madness.  It brought to mind James Baldwin’s words which echoed repeatedly in the recesses of my mind “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive or who had ever been alive”

It’s been three weeks since I read, Kindred. A book I wish I never read. For I am now forever, changed.

 

 

THE AFRO: WHAT CAN YOU DO WITH YOUR HAIR?

I was just reluctantly pulling out from the softest kiss, still relishing the sweet-tasting impression of our lips dancing together when he asked a question that snapped me out of my reverie “What can you do with your hair?”

I looked back at him as he moved off the bed to adjust the air conditioning in the room and I immediately felt the weight of the world return to my shoulders. I sighed. This question always comes up each time I’m wearing my hair without braids. Anything I want, I thought without answering.  I wanted to ask why he’s asking me this question before I  give him an answer but his answer could annoy me. So not wanting to spoil the moment, I changed the subject to something more pleasant, tea?

Yet I’ve been asked this question a million times before by all kinds of people.

Women Ask: is that your real hair? What have you done to your hair? If they are the hair stylist; why don’t you relax/blow your hair (a chemical process which makes the hair softer, straighter and easier to comb and or plait or braid/run your fingers through it) if they are “woke” or activists they don’t associate with people who do not have visible Afros or locks. Therefore if you are wearing braids/weave/wig you are dismissed as fake.

Men Ask: What can you do with your hair? Why do you wear your hair natural? Why don’t you put braids on? Why aren’t you natural? Are you going out like this? Take these things out! or if they are “woke” – why don’t you lock it?

These questions and statements are often made irrespective of the person’s race.  Despite consistent negative comments or innocent questions regarding why I wear my hair the way I do, I have chosen not to debate the issue any longer. But I have also been shocked to discover that this is the one question that has been, a silent deal breaker for me.  I know it’s the end when someone asks about my hair like it should look different. As we all know people like what they like, think what they think and sometimes any explanation to the contrary is futile.

Why should everything be a struggle? A fight. Can’t we just be? Do you like me or my hair?

So this week as I faced the mirror once again to undo the thin long braids I have been wearing since March I had to fight the urge to simply cut the braids off along with all my hair and start again. Because over the past four months my Afro-virgin hair (un-processed) had grown in and around the braid and had become so intertwined with the synthetic hair – it was like trying to separate salt from sugar.  At the end of 2012 I cut off my locks because they had also grown in between the braids and I did not have the patience to extricate the fake from the real so I cut it all off, until I was completely bald. The bald hairstyle while acceptable in South Africa, drew even more curious looks from men and women in Senegal “etes tu un moine femme?” are you a female monk? Why don’t you wear earrings? Lipstick, something? Are you a man or a woman? You look like  Mandela, another said at the supermarket. You look like me said another, a brother from another mother.

It’s different when someone close to you says it.

Since then I have committed to growing my hair and have had to resist cutting it every year which is why I often wear braids, first to allow it to grow and second so that I have something other than my hair to cut when I need a change. And with braids I don’t need a comb.

Determined to do the impossible I put on my favourite movie on repeat and tackled each braid until my hair was free of all of them and the morning sun sent light beams through my window. I went into the shower to wash and detangle it and that’s when I realized, what it is about the Afro/African hair which makes people so worked up about it. Including myself:

It clings-tight.

In its natural state African hair clings to everything. A fact which,  necessitated the pencil test in South Africa to help government officials determine which race you belonged to during Apartheid, if your skin was not a clear enough indication.  If they stuck a pencil into your hair and it stayed stuck,you were classified as  Black. And if the pencil fell easily from your hair you’d be classified as Coloured. The latter being a more desired classification as it promised a slightly better life (opportunities) to those reserved for black-Africans.

It’s not what it seems

The black spiral coils are so tight they are often deceiving, which is why one day you can comb your hair out have a huge big afro or a straight looking do  and then next moment your hair can be so short it’ll look like you’ve had a haircut, you can mold it into any shape you desire. Basically…

You can do anything you want with it.

You can make it curly, straight, short and long, you can lock it, iron it or braid it. Any hair style imaginable is possible with African hair.  The naturally tight spiral coils mean it can endure so much more, it is pliable, it can stretch so much further and can also allow for an infinite amount of diverse hairstyles. At its best it stands tall and firm.

When the winds blow, it is not moved!

I think the Afro is a wonderful metaphor for Africans too. Strong and versatile. Incubators of ideas, knowledge and mysteries. Stubborn yet soft inside. While we may look friendly and outgoing or loud we are also very private and inward looking people. Once we’ve grabbed on to an idea (good or bad) we cling-tight to it, making it grow bigger and larger for better or  for worse.

So while there is almost nothing I can’t do with my hair, I also know that not everything I do  with it is beneficial.

Either way, it is my choice to make.

IF A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS, WHY WRITE?

When I first saw this picture of the AU Commission chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma sitting next to her former husband and current South African President  Jacob Zuma and his Deputy Cyril Ramaphosa at an event commemorating women’s day, I immediately assumed, like you, that they were sleeping. The image brought to mind a sometime popular song by South African Kawaito singer Kabelo – “It’s my house” in which the artist raps about overcoming obstacles and negative public opinion. But the lyrics which were more relevant to the scene above are found in the chorus of the song in which the singer says “As long ngisaphefumula ngohlala ngivutha, esami les’khundla, balele, balele bengisabavusa, It’s my house, kuKwamila ungadlaleli la” –   Which in English means; As as long as I am still breathing I’ll stay hot/burning, the position is mine/ they’re sleeping, they’re sleeping/I’m waking them up, it’s my house, don’t play here.” With this in mind I could only conclude:

Dlamini-Zuma for President!

Simply because she was the only one who was, according to the picture, awake. I thought this despite the photographer Neo Ntsoma’s caption “In God we trust Amen” which gave a context, however poetic, to what was actually happening in the moment the picture was taken.  I chose to ignore the fact that though the pair looked like they were deep in REM sleep, they had in fact just closed their eyes in prayer.   Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a woman who has always displayed an above average level of political poise, used that opportunity when the nation and her former husbands’ eyes were closed in prayer to look at him, in a way that only a woman-scorned can understand.  A poignant moment: evoking a keen sense of sadness and regret.

Not just for her, but for the entire nation.

This picture which was preceded by one in which three women stood in front of the President while he delivered his closing remarks following the recent Local Government Elections, holding placards asking him and the nation to remember his rape accuser who now lives in exile served to confirm once again, that the President along with his political party do not care about  women in this country. It framed the Zeitgeist of South Africa. This picture of the president and his deputy sleeping while the AU commissioner looked on, was widely shared across all social media platforms bringing to life the words  Nobel prize winner for literature John Steinbeck when he said “ If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen.”  But Steinbeck whose work explored themes around justice and fate especially as it applied to the downtrodden or everyman protagonists did not end there he added in the same quote “And here I make a rule, a great and interesting story is about everyone or it will never last”

After-all, the personal is political.

I have often wondered what the former South African minister of Health, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, and the 15th member of the African National Congress National Executive Committee (ANC-NEC), current chair of the African Union Commission, thought about her former husband and comrades public statements which he has uttered since his rape trial in 2006 to date. Because despite all of it, despite everything, she is still, as we see in the picture right there beside him. Perhaps not as his wife but as a comrade and political ally. What must have been going through her mind? The picture lends itself to a thousand interpretations, given the negative press surrounding both Nkosazana Dlamin- Zuma in her capacity as the leader of the African Union and President Zuma as the often embarrassing leader of both party and government. She never said a word.

Weak Leadership

On this day Dlamini-Zuma articulated perhaps for the first time, something everyone already knew. South Africas’ reputation in the continent and beyond had suffered because of weak leadership. Some praised her for accurately reading the writing on the wall while she too stands accused of the same failure by a number of disgruntled AU observers. It would seem that she and President Zuma are two sides of the same coin. But is that a fair observation? Perhaps she and the current US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton share a lot more in common as partners to powerful men. They both made concessions and compromises both personal and political based on a promise of greater power and world domination.  Both share similar views on the political economy as  illustrated in their choice of colours in their dress this week, black and gold, the colour scheme for Anarcho-Capitalism (anti-government capitalists – privatize everything). Or maybe that was just a simple coincidence.

The Politics of Perception

Regardless, as women we can only empathize. We have watched  both women face public humiliation and ridicule as their husbands paraded their weaknesses for all to see. They both remained silent. Their eyes were fixed then as they are now, on the grand prize – to be the first female presidents of their respective countries. A silence which demonstrates one thing; you don’t rise to that level of power and influence in politics by speaking truth to power. You rise by remaining silent. By bidding your time, by being complicit, by rolling with the punches of indiscretion, the lies and the many betrayals. You stay. You rise by saying yes to everything you’re against. By listening to your man and turning your back on you, a woman, you rationalize that pain is for the moment, but glory is forever, you rise by sacrificing pieces of yourself every day, with a single goal in mind; that a time will come when it’ll be your turn to say “check mate.”And when that day comes you  might find,  like the current South Africa Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega, that you have been played.  Perhaps it is the ultimate display of uncoditional love, after all she too is not perfect.

Yes, a picture is worth a thousand words, but a few can change its story.

 

 

 

THE VOTE: GET RICH OR DIE TRYING

Perhaps it would take re-visiting Brazilian educationalist Paulo’s Freire’s book “The Pedagogy of Oppressed” to decipher the current post-local government election mood in South Africa.  Perhaps we might be best advised to also take 25 or more  steps back in order to fully understand the implications of the country’s first democratic elections on 27th of April 1994.

I am suggesting that we revisit Freire’s ideas on Education, Freedom and Love because I think they can help those of us who are still confused by current events or those of us who are trying to find meaning in what seems to be a shameless scramble for wards and seats to understand, what all this means for freedom in South Africa.

Freedom: As promised by the results of the first democratic elections in which black South Africans and women voted for the first time.

Before we are swallowed up by the details of party-politics and the possibilities of all their vibrant personalities; who will take which metro or ward by how many seats, or who will form a coalition with who to share power where. I think it might be useful for the sake of sanity to remember why this is happening by answering a question which brought us all here today in the first place, the question of freedom: Are we free?

If the answer to this question is yes, then we are witnessing the results of the very freedom our parents voted for in 1994. A functional (ning) constitutional democracy which includes amongst its tenants the right to choose a political party-personality which best serves the needs and interests of our time.

 

An efficient, professional government which delivers services with German precision, communicates regularly in a professional manner preferably using the dominant syntax, a government which resolves problems timeously and not on African time, a government which is accountable.  In short; a government which is run like a business.  Looked at from this perspective then it is not surprising that the Democratic Alliance is now the majority party in more than one Metro in South Africa.

The so called “Clever Blacks” or the educated black South African middle class (also known as tax payers) want their  ROI (Return On Investment) too and who can blame them?

Those too ashamed  to be so brazen by giving their vote to a progressive, center-left – center right “white” political party  have given their vote to the Economic Freedom Fighters ( in other words those who are fighting Economic Freedom) which is a more radical or reactionary  break-away arm of the African National Congress

At the end of the day, despite the politics of history, if we say we are free now, today. Then we  should be free enough to accept Mmusi Maimane and his professional cohort to govern the country in the same organized, efficient, and focused fashion with which the party’s ancestors implemented the Apartheid governing system.

If the blue pill is too bitter to swallow we must brace ourselves for the rollercoaster ride with which the red pill in the person of  Julius Malema and his Fighters will take us on or we still have the option to remain with the tried and tested devil you know wearing; Green, Black and Yellow.

If the answer to the question: are we free is, no. Then it is here that Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed becomes a relevant explainer to what is happening. In the book Freire speaks of the oppresseds’ “fear of freedom”  which might lead them to desire the role of the oppressor or further bind them to their oppressed state. This “fear” perfumed the negotiations to end Apartheid otherwise known as the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) in the early 90’s. A fear whose grip led to the introduction of the controversial sunset clauses by the ANC in the person of former president Thabo Mbeki as a  compromise to reach a peaceful transition into democracy. Compromises  which  many still believe resulted in the (black-oppressed) majority agreeing to a 20 percent  share of the country’s wealth while the (white-oppressor) minority held on to the 80 percent.

Freire went on to note that the basic elements of the relationship between oppressor and oppressed is prescription. “Every prescription represents the imposition of one individual’s choice upon another, transforming the consciousness of the person prescribed to into one that conforms with the prescriber’s consciousness. Thus, the behaviour of the oppressed is a prescribed behaviour, following as it does the guidelines of the oppressor”

Given that the majority of the black elite have been educated  in western thought and ways of doing things in many but not all ways they have taken the oppressors prescriptions and in the role of the oppressor have also become prescriptive in their behaviour. Despite the fact that as a liberating party they came into power with  “good” revolutionary intentions they have slowly become indistinguishable from their  former oppressors to such an extent that the majority of poor South Africans, particularly those who lived under Apartheid now prefer to vote for the “enemy” otherwise known as the DA our very own “Mrs Delivery” instead of voting for the ANC.

The ANC and the black elite have adopted the same attitudes as the oppressors – they too as beneficiaries of a situation of oppression have come to a place where they,”cannot perceive that if  having (possessing material wealth/freedom) is a condition of Being (a human being) then it is a necessary condition for all women and men. They do not perceive their monopoly of having more as a privilege which dehumanizes others and themselves. They cannot see that, in the egoistic pursuit of having as a possessing class, they suffocate in their own possessions and no longer are they merely have. For them having more is an inalienable right, a right they acquired through their own “effort” with their “courage to take risks” and if others do not have more it is because they are incompetent and lazy and worst of all it is their unjustifiable ingratitude towards the “generous gestures” of the dominant class (liberation movement). Precisely because they are “ungrateful” and “envious” the oppressed are regarded as enemies who must be watched”

These attitudes are no longer the sole purvey of the former white masters. They are the dominant ideology of the black middle class who want to enjoy the  the same benefits,  privileges and rewards enjoyed by their former masters if not more and this is often, as it was in the past, at the expense of the still poor majority of black South Africans. The black elite have joined the ranks of the white minority and as a result they too have become disqualified as leaders of the struggle for freedom.  Because as Freire states “the oppressor who himself is dehumanized because he dehumanizes others is unable to lead the struggle for freedom”

The black elites inability to lead the struggle is illustrated in the often violent and  intolerant ways in which the ruling party has dealt with criticism or opposition to its policy decisions and actions from the silent protest against rape at the Independent Electoral Centre while the President gave his speech after the Local government elections in Pretoria last week to the Arms-deal saga.

For those still committed to the  cause of love, liberation and freedom, assuming we are not yet Uhuru; They will do well to reflect on Freire’s words when he advised that in the process of creating a world where there is no oppressor or the oppressed, the oppressed “must realize that they are fighting not merely for freedom from hunger, but for freedom to create and to construct, to wonder to venture. Such freedom requires that the individual be active and responsible, not a slave or a well-fed cog in the machine. It is not enough that men are not slaves; if social conditions further the existence of automatons, the result will not be the love of life, but love of death” As encapsulated in the dominant maxim of our times; get rich or die trying.

A solution to all this is of course  is a  radical change in the the current patriachal- hierachical system of governance to a more direct democracy such as that seen in Switzerland. Because while in most democracies, including ours, the people are considered to be the notional top of the hierarchy over the head of state, in reality, people’s power is restricted to voting in elections.

So the question becomes: are we ready for freedom?