Excerpt from Africa, Altered states, Ordinary miracles, Richard Dowden
‘Westerners living in Africa for the first time are always struck by its beauty and size – even the sky seems higher. And they often find themselves suddenly cracked open. They lose inhibitions, feel more alive, more themselves and they begin to understand why, until then, they had only half lived.’
I had effectively at some point in my life, embraced a nomadic lifestyle. After four months of living out of suitcases, I finally landed in Joburg. I had a place to call home there, essentially a little cottage handpicked with my favourite things and collections from my travels and different walks of life. In the last few months where the languages, sceneries and cultures that I was immersed in constantly changed, the one constant companion was a friend from my university days, who I came to view as my virtual travel buddy. This particular buddy also tended to be on the road (or in the air) as much as me. We seemed to have a lot to share – from capsule travel wardrobes to finding healthy food in remote places, and inevitably shared observations of our travels. My friend, having never been to South Africa, asked me what it was like to be back.
At first, I tried to capture snippets through pictures – like the blue of the Southern hemisphere sky which always feels like a different kind of blue to me. But then, I found, there was a lot that pictures couldn’t possibly explain. For example, it only takes fourteen minutes on the train ride from the airport to the city - a ride that would take almost an hour by car. The trains are on time, the station clean. This may seem like a banal observation and an everyday reality for some, but it is an exception and a gift in Africa. The conductor smiles and greets me, calling me ‘Sis’. I greet him back warmly. You could think that perhaps we even know each (but we don’t). Another lady sees me standing on the station with my suitcase and thinks I may be going in the wrong direction – so she approaches me and asks me, directly, loudly, if I know where I’m going. I know by now that this is not intrusive, but rather a manifestation of community, and so I tell her exactly where I’m going and even touch her arm to reassure her I am in the right place. She is reassured and satisfied and walks away. And yet through all this friendliness and sense of community, I make sure my bags are all tightly zipped, my wallet out of sight and I clutch my purse closer to me than I normally would.
And that’s the juxtaposition of Jozi. Both the first and third world cohabit side by side, to a point where the differences have (rightly or wrongly) become normal. As I am Ubered home to my pristine neighbourhood of impeccable houses with green lawns safely surrounded by electric fences, I suddenly feel the seven years that I have lived in this city wash over me.
My first stop in Joburg is actually the immigration office – some pressing matters had to be settled. They need my fingerprints – and so we do this by staining ink on my fingers and someone expertly guides my fingers to imprint them on the form. There is no discomfort in the fact that this stranger is holding my hand. I am then given some soap and am instructed to wash my hands outside. I find the tap outside, under the trees in the yard, and I transported back to my garden back home in Mauritius. Except that I am at the immigration office in Randburg.
I then call my friend, Mandy, who I tend of think of as my family in Joburg. This is something I have found with people of Indian heritage all over the world - we are friends not only with only the person, but are also immediately adopted by the person’s parents and family. In a true South African sense of community (and also just because Mandy is Mandy), Mandy took me under her wing as soon as I arrived in Joburg. A huge part of my friendship with Mandy involved her cooking me lunch every few days at work. I would find a stack of her containers at home and dutifully cook too just not to return the bowls empty. But Mandy’s love for feeding people went beyond me. On Christmas, she baked for the security guards in her apartment complex. If Mandy could feed the world, she would. And so it wasn’t a surprise when one day Mandy decided to leave her psychologist training and head up our corporate social responsibility function at work. A big part of this work was managing a mentorship programme for girls from disadvantaged backgrounds. And this was my first introduction to the other side of Joburg.
I’m a sucker for feel-good Hollywood-style benevolent acts, like the hundred-dollar bill one leaves for a waitress. In this spirit, I once paid the toll fee for the cars behind me on Christmas day in New York City’s Lincoln tunnel. The more time I spent in South Africa though, I realised that Mandy baking cupcakes for the guards was far from the Girl’s Guide’s ‘do one good turn daily’ deal. For these guards, Ferrero Rocher cupcakes was not something that they may ever be able to afford themselves and not something that they had easy access to.
The girls in Mandy’s social responsibility programme were from townships. In South Africa, townships refer to the underdeveloped racially segregated urban area. These areas were remnants from Apartheid, and had been reserved for non-whites, or the main racial classifications – black, coloured and Indians. The programme was meant to help these girls (mostly black or coloured) in all aspects of their lives, from additional tuition programmes, bursaries for their tertiary education, introductions to financial planning, time management, brand management, relationships…In short, this programme was meant to mould them into young independent educated women and leaders of colour.
I was assigned a mentee, a bright young girl named Christina. Christina was an orphan, who was raised by her grandmother. Her grades were promising – she had even topped her class in accounting. My brother was only a few years older than her, and I had been very involved in his grades and university and scholarship applications. I had more than once stepped in to give him a good lecture about buckling down to study harder than he was. So I assumed that I could guide Christina in the same way – I had in my mind, good experience of what one needs to do to get a scholarship to university.
The day I met Christina, she was quiet and smiling and responded to my questions. I asked about her brothers and sisters, and what time she got to school, what her favourite subjects were, what her dreams and goals were. And once we covered that, I found myself with little to say.
I made monumental mistakes. I texted her and found her silence to be disrespectful, only to understand that she didn’t have money for data. Once I asked her to meet me at a mall and understood only later than getting transport money was a mission. I had thought that I could just reimburse her when I saw her but getting the money to come in the first place was difficult. Once in the mall, she couldn’t find her way, and I spent time trying to explain how to find me, trying hard to mask my impatience. When she arrived, she was wonder struck and spoke in whispers – I understood that I had taken her completely out of her comfort zone.
I got a bit better with time. I visited her in her home in the township. As part of the programme, we had printed life size of posters of all the selected girls as a way to welcome them into the programme. And there in her living room, her grandmother had stuck the poster of Christina. She told me one day that ever since she got into the programme, her grandmother always wanted her in her line of sight, worried that anything would happen to Christina. Christina was her biggest hope for a better future. I also brought Christina to my apartment and cooked Mauritian food for her. She thought it was the most amazing food that she had ever eaten. My apartment was a fairly standard one, but to Christina it was utterly exquisite. I explained to her that if she got good grades, went to university and worked for our company, this would be her life in no time. It was as simple as that. I had thought then that I was being patient and giving her a sense of what was possible. I bought her books. I made a list of her grades and tracked them. I gave her many pep talks. I believed in her.
It took me a few years to understand just how disconnected I was. I knew her routine, of her waking up early to boil water, walking to school, where she did homework, what she ate for dinner, her grades, her deadlines. But I had – and have – no understanding of the generations of suffering before her, and the mountain that it was to climb to a glimmer of hope of better future, so very futile. I tried to understand her and asked her many questions. But she never really told me. Perhaps she thought that I was most likely in no position to understand. And she would have been right. I was just too different, too separate and too privileged.
But that was not how I saw myself then. In my mind, my story was that of an immigrant, grasping a scholarship overseas and fighting to fit into corporate world in a much more developed country than what I had known, and trying to cater to the wishes of my family in the way my dad used to before he died. In my first job after university, I worked at a corporate job in a professional services firm in New York, I lived on the 39th floor of a high rise overlooking the Hudson river and worked in a building in Times Square that I often spot in movies. And during those days, I used to feel to self-conscious amongst most of my colleagues, because I had never ski’ed and didn’t understand how pensions, mortgages and insurance worked at the time. I was blind to the privilege of being able to experience what I was experiencing then. And I was blind to the privilege that got me there in the first place – a home filled with books from my educated parents, free access to good education and relatively little discrimination that I had to fight along the way.
I was meant to show Christina the ropes to a better life – but I never managed to. As time went by, she didn’t feel safe to communicate her struggles and failures to me. At some point, she stopped responding to my calls and messages. I don’t know to this day where Christina is, or if she made it to university. All in all, I learnt much more from Christina than she ever learnt from me.