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.

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THIS IS ME : A FAMILY HAIR TRADITION


This is Me:

Between my Aunt Masi’s legs. I have been nagging her all week, all day and all night to “please, please plait my hair” . She finally is now.  There’s something comforting about being trapped between her ample thighs and the sound her thin silver bangles make as she twists and turns my hair into submission with wool. I try to focus on that and on the conversation, her frequent hearty belly laughter which she seems to draw from the very core of her stomach. I enjoy the sound of her voice and the easy conversation which floats fluidly through her finger tips, I enjoy the punctuation marks she makes as she chews her gum.  I can feel her breathing and in between twists I hear the inner movements of her belly. The sweet smell of her sweat hovers over my nose. The warm rays of  sunshine pierce into each and every pore on my skin and hers. I feel hot. clammy, dizzy. I am tired of sitting in this position. My buttocks are growing cold, numb and my shoulders involuntarily  reach up to my ears in an effort to shield them from a wave of terror.  Everything is beginning to sound loud like blaring disco music, a collection of sounds gather around my ear lobes like buzzing bees to honey as she chats, laughs, and inflates her chewing gum with hot air , snapping the bubbles flat with her short razor-sharp teeth. I want it all to stop. I am regretting my decision now. I forget how sensitive my scalp is, and how roughly she  seems to de-tangle my steel wool like hair. This is as close to a nightmare  one  can get in broad day light. She calls my hair “skirrrpot” a colloquial reference to the iron scrubs used to scour burnt food from pots. That is how tough my hair can be. I can feel the pull of each strand of hair as she separates it into parts and it feels as if she’s drawing blood from a  rock hard skull, my neck sinks into my chest with each touch. This is a conundrum. I can’t even look at myself in the mirror – I don’t know how I will look, I don’t know how far she is. I am about to pee on myself. Now I truly wish I never asked. Why did I even think this would be a good idea for Masibeso to do my hair, I know how she is: tough, no toilet breaks, no going to look at the mirror. You have to sit down until she’s done with you. Then you have to cover your head until the next day. Oh my god, this is never going to end I tell myself swallowing hard to suppress an urgent pressing need to just stand up and run and never look back.  “Are you finished?” I ask sheepishly wincing from the pain and bracing myself for a sharp retort made louder by my tight grip on her legs. “Haaiman poppy man, how will I finish when you keep running away? sit tight and don’t move” She says trapping me even deeper into her triangle  with her heavy long legs“ Relax your shoulders and bend your head”. I try to imagine what my head looks like from her vantage point. “But it’s painful” I manage to say in a whimper. It’s a routine we are both familiar with  by now. I know my aunt dislikes plaiting my hair because I am afraid of a hair comb and I cry at the mere suggestion of possible physical pain. Plaiting my hair is not a walk in the park. But if I see someone’s hair done I am relentless in my pestering. “Bona! ” She finally shouts at me “It’s the last time I do your hair, how many times have you been pestering me… o batlang mara Hhe?”  She would say. I will start to cry. Because  it hurts and I know I will want her to do my hair again despite the pain and  the gnawing fear hat I had finally ruined any future possibility that she would do my hair again. She’s the best and the only one who can do hair in the family, in fact there’s a long waiting list.   But I just don’t know how to stomach the pain.  “Don’t worry, we’ll be finished just now” she says,  her voice softening, her way of silencing my now loud cries. We both know how the story ends: I will be the happiest child in the world after my hair is done.  Perhaps I will walk like I am stepping on sleeping snakes for a day or two but after that, the war waged with me between her thighs is always worth it. She too will be rewarded. I see the proud twinkle in her eye when she looks at me and says  “See how beautiful you are, cecece! “.  I think of my aunt now that I myself have grown up to be an aunt to an increasing list of nieces and nephews some of whom I am yet to meet. I may not be the best hair braider in the family but I  do work with words. So it gives me great pleasure to introduce my niece, Buhle Zulu, who is our guest blogger in the second installment of a series of hair stories.  This is her short  hair piece:

 HAIR IS HAIR by Buhle  ZuLu

Historically hair  represents different things for women across the African continent. For Ethiopians hair was worn as a crowning glory in elaborate, elegant styles when a woman was about to marry, much like the ubiquitous tiara. Ethiopian Traditional Wedding HairKenyans traditionally wore their hair in protective styles using oils and clay to style it. maasai4 Pride was the common denominator in all these hairdressing traditions; hair represented a source of pride for  women.  Morden Kenyan Masai Hair Style

 I used to like the fact that hair represents pride and is defined by some as a woman’s crown.  But after I learnt that the above was a social construct as well as a western influence my opinion changed. Hair became a political issue for me when long flowing hair and light skin became the standards by which a woman’s beauty was measured.  Relaxers and lye were introduced to deter women of colour from appreciating their natural hair textures and features.
As a child who used to get my hair  relaxed all the time, I have come to find that what ever  I do to my hair, the truth of who I am grows back underneath all the relaxed hair without fail. So I started  to accept my hair as it is. I have found that natural oils; mixing mayonnaise with eggs and using less heat has been the best way  of taking care of my hair.
The biggest challenge with maintaining natural hair has been a lack of knowledge and information. So I got a little help from the world-wide web or the internet as there was little information on ways to take care of it or  to determine which hairstyles would best suit my hair texture.  During this process I also discovered that it is possible for one person to have two or more different hair textures  :(.
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The notion that black hair is hard to manage  is  subjective and  it  does not mean that women who prefer weaves to natural hair are less African. I do however applaud those who have taken the time to acquire in-depth knowledge about the healthiest way to take care of natural hair. Maintaining natural hair is relatively cheap or affordable and can cost me up to a 150 ZAR.  The greatest triumph in my natural hair journey was watching my  hair grow towards the sky as if it was trying to be close to God. The healthier it was, the more it glowed. I keep my hair mostly natural and I also enjoy wearing it in braids.
 Buhle Zulu is reading law at the University of Cape Town, she’s also a  performing Artist and vlogger. You can follow her many hairstyles on her Facebook Profile.
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 WHAT’S NEWS TO YOU?  LESSONS FROM A 13 YEAR OLD JOURNALIST

 

Keeping notes
Keeping notes

This month on September 11 I marked 13 years as a journalist. So I thought I should dedicate this week’s blog post to an activity that has dominated my life for the past 13 years. Of course, it’s a long story.

IN THE BEGINNING: WHAT AM I?

I had many dreams and aspirations before I decided on a path to become a journalist. In fact I wanted to be a great many things. I had dreams of becoming a cartoonist: working as an animator for Walt Disney, I also dreamed of being a dancer, a singer, maybe even an actress. Everyone in my family had at some point stood silently near the bathroom watching me talk to myself on the mirror while trying out different facial expressions. They would watch me practice over and over at the mirror, talking in a language even I didn’t  understand until I mastered the art of crying and laughing on the spot.  During those times I took on different characters, a broken-hearted lover, maybe some kind of a star, a teacher, maybe a university professor at an academic institution of high repute, a writer, a mother and so on. At some point I tried competing for the Miss South Africa Title. Alas.

 A  WHOLE WORLD IN MY HEAD

The list was (still is) endless. One of the options I considered to my mother’s chagrin, was joining the army. I thought then than it would be the easiest way for me to acquire a driver’s licence at no cost to my parents. I wanted to learn how to be disciplined because I had a short attention span and would find myself wondering to foreign lands in the middle of tasks, while washing dishes  for example, studying or trying to pay attention during Math class. I was intrigued by the story of numbers .  By suggesting I join the army  I hoped I would reign in the dreamer in me, and become more like my father who is disciplined, hardworking and always on time. As my mother and I poured over alternatives for my future career while lying on her bed, looking dreamily into the ceiling like lovers planning a future together, the word journalism surfaced. My mother acted as my career guide and told me:” you like to talk; to write, you are very curious, you enjoy reading, finding information and you want to travel, so journalism would be perfect for you. Plus you enjoy asking questions and you can be on TV  too if you want to”. It had never occurred to me that I could be a journalist. I was more than a  little overwhelmed with the number of things I could do or be for rest of my life, and at 17 the world seemed to contain an infinite amount of possibilities. But when my mother mentioned journalism I thought this would be a good career choice. It seemed the best way to contain all my aspirations. So I enrolled at the best institution for practical journalism at the time and here I am today.

WHAT IS JOURNALISM ABOUT?: AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH

An online definition of a journalist reads as follows:
A person who writes for newspaper or magazines or prepares news to be broadcast on radio and television. Synonyms include: a reporter, correspondent, newsman, newswoman, newspaperman, columnist, writer, commentator, reviewer, blogger, investigative journalist, photojournalist, war correspondent, lobby correspondent, editor, sub-editor, copy editor, paparazzo, pressman, legman, wireman and the list continues.” 

I think that’s the  best definition. Even journalism professors  struggle to define who or what is a  journalist. So to keep it simple we will go with the above description. My entry into journalism was a very frightening event for me. I was never sure of myself at all. I was always scared and intimidated by fellow students and later colleagues who always seemed more intelligent, knowledgeable and more  experienced  than I was. My favourite subjects included History, Business Economics and Politics. History because it was fascinating,  it put current events into context, Business  Economics because it made sense to me (I understood the basic principle of supply and demand.) Politics because our third year Politics lecturer Ashwin Desai was so passionate about his subject he brought the world into our lecture room and made what we were studying real and tangible. Writing essays, however, was my worst fear. I really could not imagine how I ended up studying journalism after all. A profession which at its core involved copious amounts of writing. I remember I once broke out in hives while writing an essay during an exam because I was so nervous. It took me 13 years to gain control over my nervous condition. Even today I have to work up the courage to start writing or  even to speak  when I am live on Television and or  Radio. Each time  I write, it feels as though I am writing for the first time.

 TOO MANY QUESTIONS…

While studying journalism I learnt that the point of being a journalist, at least as far as I understood it was to ask questions. Who (did) What, Where, When, How and Why. And after you have answered all those questions ask the most important one of all: why should anyone care?
Imagine then my surprise when I discovered years into the profession that: asking questions, the very reason for my existence as a journalist was the worst thing one could do in this profession! I finally discovered that while I was taught/learned to be a journalist, someone who asks questions, in order to give context to current affairs. No one cared about the history of why things are the way they are or why people behave the way they do. In the real world journalists were merely reporters. People who merely presented you with the most basic answers to the five questions. A reporter for me was similar to a minute-taker at meeting,  someone who takes minutes of a meeting. It’s a great skills to take great notes, but it’s not journalism. The more you questioned the status quo the more you were ignored, or became less popular with the officials. To get ahead in the profession you had to choose sides and not the middle ground as I was taught. Journalism had become a cross between public relations and reportage. More over in many cases as a general reporter even if you wanted to give context to your work there was never the time to. Newsroom were so that you had to jump from one story to another, and sometimes even do multiple stories a day. Which were ultimately identical to your competitors. Journalists or reporters were often recruited into high level communication positions in government and business so that, journalist often just  copied and pasted  text from  press-releases without question as if it were their own original writing. Spokespeople who were once journalist were even harder nuts to crack.

I always refused to be called a reporter, always thinking in my heart that I was a journalist not a parrot. But the industry dictated otherwise. Each Media house has an agenda, is politically affiliated to a number of people in powerful positions and the merit of the story was always weighed on these factors. The higher up you go – the more compromises you had to make. At the end of the day, you didn’t want to bite the hand that feeds you so to speak, even if the chain of command is as far as the distance between Johannesburg, South Africa and Timbuktu, Mali.

BEYOND THE QUESTIONS: ETHICAL JOURNALISM

So when I finally decided to work independently as a journalist I discovered an even darker side of journalism which I would not have believed existed,  had it not  happen to me. I was on more than one occasion offered an exclusive story that could potentially put me in the league of award-winning journalists. “All you need to do is just put your by-line (name) to the story. You don’t have to do anything I will write the story for you” He said. I was incredulous, and looked at him laughing because I seriously thought he was joking. “How do you think journalists get leaked documents? Do you think all those famous investigative journalist you read about, write their own stories? “he continued realizing that I had no clue. “ Do you think they just stumble on documents?” This is how they do it he said. You just let me write the story and all you have to do is add your name to it.” He pleaded. I refused his offer and suddenly felt relieved. Until that moment I had never doubted the integrity of journalists – I being one them of  course.   I understood that some days are better than others, as some stories are better than others, but never had it occurred to me that journalists or reporters could participate in ghost writing, pass –off articles or stories they had no hand in writing and pretend it was their own hard work.

I always admired journalists who won awards, because I understand the amount of time and effort that goes into writing a great story. It has been my daily struggle for the past 13 years and each year I hope to write better than the last. I had up until that moment no idea what’s so ever, that journalists were capable of that, more  people I had looked up to. For the first time in my life I was proud of myself – proud that even though I had never won an award or been acknowledged for my work by any organization or editor in the country, all the work I had done as a journalist had been my own original work. I was not winning someone’ else’  award. And if I were to ever win anything, it would be  based on my own original work. The man in question  eventually refused to grant me an interview, but in the end, I was able to write the story without his help, I had to think of other ways of finding information, I had to depend on my own eyes and ears, and finally I had to trust myself. I finally had to ask myself how much do I want to win anything, and is it worth it and is that why I was a  journalist in the first place. There is a cost to everything.

A THIN LINE: OUTSIDERS LOOKING IN:

Perhaps I was inspired by the movie starring Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts called the Pelican Brief. Where the journalist (Denzel Washington) worked in collaboration with an economics student – an informant (Julia Roberts) to write a story which uncovered corruption within the american judicial system. It was  dangerous but it’s the story that caught me, the potential power in being a journalist, that you can change history, or someone’s life.  Perhaps I thought I could travel around the world, go places I would not otherwise have access to and meet people who would pass me by the next day. A word of caution: not everyone who says they are journalist is actually a journalist. Perhaps I got into this profession for the wrong reasons, but I stayed for the right ones. I believed in justice, in the right to know, in providing people with information that could change their lives, help people tell their own stories, uncover the hidden side of things – how they work or don’t work. In fact truth be told, I approached this profession naively, thinking that everyone had the best intentions at heart. So what have I learnt? That all those years spent in the mirror have helped me to keep a straight face in the face of danger – even when I  was shaking inside.  Words are numbers. And numbers are words. So If I love words it means I love numbers too!!! The more I write the more I realize that it’s a mathematical equation. It is ultimate all about numbers which are words.  I could tap into any career imaginable just by writing about it. I am in the right profession. But here’s a fun list of things I learnt in the past 13 years of being *flinch * a reporter – journalist:

 

13 LESSONS FROM A 13 YEAR OLD JOURNALIST:
1. Information is key: read money.
2. Spokespeople/Media liaisons/ Public relations personnel are information gatekeepers. In other words they are trained to manage information: their purpose in life is to feed you only the information they want you to know. They are trained to stop you from asking probing questions or from finding out information they want to hide.
3. Politicians are trained to be creative with the truth – and only tell the truth (leak information) when it serves their interests
4. There’s an infinitive number of ways to obtaining information. Officials ideally should be the last the last point of contact.
5. It’s the “invisible” people, that you don’t pay attention to who can give you amazing stories – which are true – family and friends, the homeless, etc.
6. Everyone has an agenda. Including your editor, your organization, you, every one.
7. Ultimately journalism – is about storytelling – the stuff that Novelists do without having to back it up with proof.
8. Asking (critical/simple) questions can be a career limiting exercise ( Choose carefully who you work for)
9. Sometimes people don’t want to know the truth. The truth is not always convenient. So your great expose can be conveniently ignored.
10. There are many truths.
11. Journalism is fun ( choose wisely who you work for)
12. You can go to most things   and places for free. ( if you don’t mind doing PR read marketing and public relations)
13. Acting is a great skill to have as a journalist (use at own risk)

 

A sneak preview to my upcoming project…

 

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A Personal Assignment: Nothing is Black or White in Africa

Ouma Setee and Ouma Tillie Celebrated a 100 Years on Earth this week.
Ouma Setee and Ouma Tillie Celebrated a 100 Years on Earth this week.

Sweetheart I am so sorry to have kept you waiting for so long. See I had some unfinished new business to take care of. Matters of the heart run deep and often pull you unawares back to a place you thought you’d moved away from, made peace with,let go and closed  the door. You see, the personal and the professional coincided last week. And instead of rushing through it so that I can get it over and done with. This time I have chosen to take my time or as much time as I need to be here in this moment. Absorb as much as I can in order to move on from here without looking back. I tend to rush through things, being in a rush and never having anytime to do anything (properly) is a core element of my profession as a journalist.  So since  we’ll be turning a page together, I thought I should fill you in on what’s been going on – so that I can always be fully present when ever I am,  with you.  So this dear one  is a wide glance back in time in order for me to move  forward. I no longer wish to be  entangled in the past though the past is always present. Ironically this unfinished business of mine is about just that, the past and learning to be patient, particularly with myself. In some ways I feel a little bit like the late Wits prof. Emeritus and Paleanthropologist Phillip Tobias, except I am not excavating fossils but human emotions, feelings, hearts from  living beings. To find truths long-buried with the hope of  contributing to an understanding of where we are and where we are going.  Everything in its own time.

So here’s the story baby. I’ll try to keep it short (people everywhere want it short). In the last week of my recent job I was  assigned to a story I instinctively hesitated  to take on. In fact had I known how close it was to my own story I would have immediately refused to do it. But I didn’t know so I accepted the assignment and here we are. Together again unexpectedly.

START FROM THE BEGINNING: A COLOUR PIECE

Okay so I was to meet these two ladies. Both celebrating a 100 years on earth this year in Eldorado Park a township in one of Johannesburg’s South Western Townships – known by the acronym – SOWETO. They said it would make for a great story.”Nice colour piece” nothing at all to do with politics. “Do you want to do it or should I let someone else do it?” asked my grey-haired editor with a hint of a smile in his eyes. I wasn’t sure  what to say or quite how to do it.” Eldorado park is a historically “coloured” residential area.  It was classified as coloured after the introduction of Apartheid laws in 1949. Apartheid was an Afrikaner  political ideology of “separate but equal living” based on the fact that all non-white/non-European people were far less developed and therefore inferior to the white people. Apartheid emphasized difference as a tool to legislate human relationships, behavior and interaction in the country.  So in 1949 they introduced the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act which prohibited marriage between white people and black people including non-white people. It was followed by the Immorality Act of 1950 which prohibited adultery between white people and non-white people, followed by the Population Registration Act which required every South African  to be racially classified  this was followed by the Group Areas act of 1950 which forced separation between  races through the creation of residential areas designated for different racial groups, white, black, coloured, Indian, Chinese  etc. My ancestors come from one of the first racially mixed communities in Johannesburg – Kliptown. It used to be a  “white farm” but there all races lived next door to each other, they were chinese merchants, white farmers, black people , coloured people everyone was living together.  The there ‘s river next to it. Kliprivier.  When the group areas act law was  implemented  the government started a massive re-construction campaign, a physical manifestation of legislation.  Eldorado Park is one of those areas built for people who were racially mixed: not black or white or Indian or any other racial group. These were the people who were said to better than black people on the superiority scale  but not good enough to be white – people who were a combination of both black and white.

I read the word Kliptown and dread came over me. What is it about Kliptown that keeps popping back into my life over and over and over again. ” You’re sending me back to Kliptown” I heard myself whispering under my breath loudly while reading the letter to the editor. I was relieved he didn’t ask what I meant by that because that would have been a whole other story. The story itself sounded simple enough yet I was immediately overwhelmed. How could I tell this story in two minutes? I said I’ll do it.  He smiled and said  “do it  for TV Radio and Online”.  I summoned the  courage to see my mentor, Angie. She has climbed mountains and I admire her work and respect her meticulous attention to detail which can exhaust anyone on a tight deadline. She said ” I’ll give you five minutes for a radio piece” – a relief for me. “I would like lots of Natural sound. Use a timeline from the beginning of world war one, world war two, the 1920s the beginning apartheid in 1942 and so on”. I looked at her incredulous thinking of the amount of work that involved. Seriously? Yes, she said. Get some archives she added then moved on to answer the phone – we waved goodbye. I was on my own, but the timeline suggestion was  the structure  I needed to order my thoughts and it was also a great way of obtaining an aerial view of just how long a 100 years looks like. It’s as if for a long time nothing happened in the world – people and the world lay dormant, quietly sleeping until one day everyone was woken up by some mysterious force calling them to take action, do something, make their dreams a reality. Then people woke up frantically and started doing things, inventing this and that, fighting, loving, creating my world in 2014 even I couldn’t keep up. The 20th century is Amazing! I knew that I had to meet them first, speak to them before I could think about what  event on history’s timeline would encapsulate their story or which archives I would use to visually tell the story. I was nervous. I had never spoken to someone who is a 100 years old let alone two of them in one room – what life changing wisdom would they share? What questions do you ask someone at that age. Would the ladies want to talk to me?.  ” Ouma  Tillie (pictured on the right) can speak but Ouma Settie (pictured on the left) doesn’t speak anymore and is mostly bedridden. Also Ouma Tillie can’t hear in one ear so you have to be loud when you address her” Said Sally Harris,’ Ouma Setties’ youngest daughter. I needed all the help I can get.

TWIN-SOULS: NEVER CHANGE

Ouma Tillie and Ouma Setie were born in 1914 in South Africa, in the month of May three weeks apart. Ouma Tillie, short, light-skinned and vibrant is the eldest of the two friends. She was born in the free-state province located on the flat boundless plains in the heart of South Africa. Tillie and Settie met in Kliptown, in 1932 in their early 20s. At a time when they still enjoyed going to clubs and dancing the night away. “We could go out and walk at night in the olden days during the day and night and nothing would happen to us, during the day and night. These days you can’t walk during the day or night without something happening” She says repeating walking day and night over and over. This is one of the reasons she offers, life was better in the olden days compared to these days. Tillie is hesitant to make comparisons when asked the big question: how has the life changed. Sometimes I got the impression that she’s made a decision to avoid talking about anything unpleasant in her life. “I’m happy, I’m always happy, I am grateful to God” She says while reflectively rubbing both her legs with both arms in a swinging forward and backward movement. It’s something I’ve observed my own mother do in conversation especially when the subject matter was of an uncertain nature. But it’s also cold and she’s old “I depend only on God, he is my father, my mother, my everything – every day when I wake up I know its God. He teaches me everything, I am learning everyday” She said her pitch cracking into a soothing swooshing sound of an old record player or tape, the cracks in her throat broke through her windpipe into a clear childlike voice which sounded like an echo trapped in a place where time begins. I am blown away by her response, I could ask a million questions and it would all boil down to one thing – God – so I asked him for help in my heart. “my life has always been good,” she says in Afrikaans, a language created by Dutch settlers who arrived in South Africa in 1652. Afrikaans sparked the 1976 Student Uprising in SOWETO in which young white South African policemen and soldiers opened fire at multitudes of unarmed school children protesting against the Apartheid government’s intention to institute Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in all public schools.  This historic event took place a year after Television was introduced in South Africa. The state had until then resisted introducing Television because it deemed it “evil”.  The world woke up to Apartheid South Africa;   through the iconic black and white image of two screaming black school children dressed in uniform – a girl and a boy-  running while the  limp body of a dead primary school boy called Hector Peterson dangled in their arms. Despite all these historical facts, Afrikaans remains the third most widely spoken language in South African households according to the South African Census results of 2011, after isiXhosa and IsiZulu who are at two and one respectively.
In fact Tillie tells stories in Afrikaans, sings Christian hymns in IsiZulu, Sesotho and IsiXhosa and English. Sometimes when she speaks her language is saturated like a fading image and all of the country’s 11 official languages blend in her mouth producing a sound I can only describe as tongues. A language used by many born-again Christians to pray to God. At least I can understand what she is saying. When no one is looking Ouma Settie, tall, dark, regal with with sharp darting eyes leans in closely and Ouma Tillie whispers everything to her. Ouma Settie can talk when she wants to.

WHEN TWO WORLDS COLLIDE: SHIFTS HAPPEN

This assignment has been a challenge, the more I tried to do it the more I felt like I was losing something valuable. It was draining emotionally, but I tried to celebrate life. Throughout the week I was in a strange mood which I couldn’t explain by the sighting of the location of the moon. the office was louder and noisier than I ever imagined. Eventually I resorted to making noise myself which generated a lot of laughter in the office. That seemed to temporarily ease the tension which was becoming heavy like a wet fur coat, my shoulders were freezing under its drench. What is going on? I kept asking myself. Going out to the field and listening to other people stories was a welcome tonic to the a sadness that kept flirting with me surprising me a the most inappropriate time. More over this particular story ‘Celebrating centurions in Eldorado Park” was talking to me.  I am not going to Kliptown I told myself I am going on a story in Eldorado park. The two might be close to each other but they are different.I had to push myself to do it. When I finally did, on Saturday night, I went on twitter to relax. And found I had a new follower who tweeted “J please get in touch with me urgently” Zakhele Zulu. It could only mean one thing. So I tweeted my number back and ten minutes later he called. Your grandmother Omkhulu passed away last week, its her funeral tomorrow, we were looking all over for you. Are you Ok? Yes I was okay I had just been working. “Are you coming?” He asked “You know I don’t like funerals” I said. Ok. He replied in a tone that said to me, no one likes funerals but someone has got to do it. I didn’t know how to feel. I called my mother to let her know. She already knew. “Are you going to the funeral?” She said in voice which pleaded, instructed, assumed I would go. I said I would think about it. In truth there was nothing to think about. I had to go.

SO THIS IS WHAT ALL THIS WAS ABOUT.

So I went home to number 7224 Thabethe Street, Phefeni, Orlando West Soweto. The first address I had to memorize and know before going to school. There were three things I had to remember before going to school for the first time. My name, date of birth and home address. The house hadn’t changed since it was first built by the apartheid government in 1942. The same gate from my childhood is there. I can still hear the sound of it opening and closing sometimes. I can still hear my grandmother shouting at to make sure I close the gate each time I came back from somewhere. It had a distinct sound. I could hear it opening from my room on quiet days. The white tent pitched on the front of the house, reminded me of pictures I had seen of my mother’s wedding to my father. Dressed in an elegant white chiffon two piece Suit, with a white sun hat and a healthy Angela Davis Afro peeping on the side- she looked to me like a model who has just stepped out of Vogue magazine or a plane from Paris France. She looked so beautiful. I found people sitting and chatting outside, My uncles Zack, Sipho and Velaphi standing in the middle of the street facing the house. The women sat under the trees in the front garden, some under a tent, I was looking for a familiar face. I asked my maternal grandmother, the only one remaining, to tell me about Kliptown. “My grandmother owned a house there, near the railway line. We used to go there during all our school holidays to visit Umkhulu Nogogo Umpiyakhe Mtshali. We had everything we needed because we were the land owner’s children. It was nice. I asked her more questions and decided to do what I do best. Record Everything and everyone in the family and finally tell the story of the Zulu Brand. ” I’m not black I’m african. My my mother is Zulu Sotho, Coloured”. I am a part of every race.

Can you imagine?