A Travellerspoint blog

March 2008

Pride, Power, Privilege

Atlantic Ocean - March 5 to March 21, 2008


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In the days that intervened between Cape Town and Barcelona, I decided to take a workshop being offered aboard ship. I can’t give away all the secrets we learned about the “Theater of the Oppressor,” but I can say that it was an interesting series. Co-facilitated by C., A., B., and N. – all from Onboard Life - they did a great job of walking 25 of us through a series of exercises designed to stimulate thoughts and feelings about what it is to be human within the constructs that we place upon ourselves and one another. Some of the exercises were taken from the pages of actors’ improv and others wouldn’t seem out of place in a therapist’s office. However, PPP was neither about acting nor about therapy. It was a chance to get real with ourselves and each other, and I think for many of us, myself included, it struck at the core of our identities and being.

The first night we did a lot of “ice breakers,” an activity that I usually loathe, but I really wanted to divest myself of some of the baggage that I brought with me to the overall TSS experience so I went along with it. We did some role plays about the concept of power, allowing us to physically flesh out a sense of what it means, who has it, who doesn’t, ways of getting it, etc. At the end of the night we broke into small sessions where we were permitted to reveal personal things about ourselves – the kinds of things usually kept secret from others for reasons ranging from shame and guilt to various forms of fear. For some it was truly an emotional experience. The things I revealed – like the fact that I have fibroid tumors – weren’t necessarily shameful or things to which I feel emotionally attached, but they did qualify as things I wouldn’t normally say to anyone other than close friends. For that reason, I almost felt like I had “cheated,” because some of the things said were really intense. However, that night I laid awake for a long time as an ancient memory came to me … something that had happened in my childhood that I hadn’t thought about in years. I was surprised that this little nugget had been unearthed, though I hadn’t consciously buried it. The more I thought about it, the more I became aware of how much of an impact it’s had on me and how much of my behavior and reactions stem from that event from so long ago.

During the next session, which came some days later, we went from examining power to talking about privilege. Again, we did a series of activities designed to get us thinking about the role that privilege plays in our lives – the moments that we have it and the moments that we don’t and how that impacts us. The outcome, again, was very powerful. Unlike the first night, I easily fell asleep but I had very intense dreams. I had also noticed that the dynamic between the participants had shifted between our first meeting and the second. I think we all realized that each of us has been through a lot in this life time – that you can’t live life and escape all the hurts and anger and pain, no matter your age, race, gender, religion, financial status, etc. But the workshop isn’t about feeling sorry for yourself or dwelling in the past. It’s about making conscious choices and making connections by letting down one’s guard.
Before PPP I fancied myself well aware of the walls I’ve built up in order to survive this trip, but I wasn’t aware of how high I had made them nor how thick. Nor had I thought about how the foundation of that wall had really been built during that long siege in San Francisco and my return to the D.

After each PPP session I felt refreshed, as if by punching a few holes in those walls I’d given myself more room to breathe and made more space for people to enter my world. I also felt more freedom to visit the others in their worlds, and as hokey as it sounds, I felt like maybe it is all one world – neither mine nor yours. I began to feel an empathy for some of the students with whom I had had a difficult time prior to the workshop. (I will admit that in a couple of instances, the result was the opposite – I had less empathy for some people). But I really appreciated being able to interact with everyone on a new, level playing field, and writing this some weeks later, it’s stuck.

During the third and final PPP session, we put it all together, exploring all of the concepts by looking at real world examples taken from our own personal experiences. I told them about an incident in San Francisco where I had been riding a crowded bus when I saw two youths blatantly harassing a third one. It was clear that they were threatening him, both physically and emotionally, but not one of us passengers did anything. We all sat there mute, blind and deaf as this kid was punched, kicked and forced to give up his watch. I remember feeling hot all over as it happened, yet frozen stiff in my seat. At one point, I made eye contact with the victim and his expression clearly begged for help but in the same moment one of the attackers leered at me so I turned and faced the window. I remember the extreme guilt I felt the rest of that night, alone in my apartment in San Francisco, refusing to answer whenever I asked myself why I had done nothing. The fact that nobody else had helped only made it worse.

We heard all kinds of stories that night from the Middle Eastern student scarred from being taunted by schoolmates as a child to the story of an Australian woman who debated picking up a bleeding aboriginal from the streets only to encounter a racist medical professional who suggested, “You could pick these people up your whole life.” We spent a lot of time reconstructing that event to show how it could have played differently. It was an intense night. We ended by telling each other what we had come to admire about one another. And once more, my mind and heart were released from their cages.

PPP was definitely one of the best experiences I’ve had on the ship and on the voyage. I wouldn’t say it changed my life, but it did have a meaningful impact on me. For the first time since I’ve been with this group of people, I felt connected. It’s a good feeling.

Posted by mpho3 10:30 Comments (0)

Old World (Cape Verde)

Atlantic Ocean / Cape Verde - March 5 to March 15, 2008

sunny 82 °F
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Clearly the voyage has gotten ahead of me – at least from the standpoint of “salty ruminations.” Perhaps, therefore, it makes sense to rotate my gaze backwards at the risk of turning into a pillar of salt. Regardless of the outcome, I do so with no regrets.

First stop, Cape Verde aka Cabo Verde. We arrived there from Cape Town, an eleven-day journey that proved to be our longest stint at sea and the undoing of many bright minds. In addition to having lost a faculty member who threw in the towel and disembarked permanently on the first day in South Africa, a number of the students and staff began to show signs of wear and tear. The days at sea were one thing but the clash between academic pursuits and extracurricular ones became a battle royale. In between mixers, dances, cultural shows, performances, workshops, global scholar (i.e. guest scholar) lectures, the students began to feel crushed between the rock of entertainment and the hard place of course mid-terms in the form of presentations and papers. The faculty was just as pressed to produce exams; assign group projects and presentations; and turn in grades. In the LRC, I was unable to escape the stress which took many different forms – students close to or actually in tears because they had waited too long to begin their research, technology failures, student employees who needed micromanaging, a holdings inventory that seemed to be taking much longer than necessary, and other things.

But eventually, on March 15, we made it to the Cape Verdean islands, Cape Verde being a very different animal than the Seychelles. Whereas Seychelles is a bit of a paradise, Cape Verde is what happens when paradise begins to get lost. São Vicente, the island where we landed, reminded me a bit of Isla del Sol, ironically near the Cape Verde islands, except it is a rock in the middle of an Atlantic Ocean nowhere, a place where planes land to refuel. In a way, my characterization is unfair. Isla del Sol truly is just a rock with a landing strip and filling stations. São Vicente is peopled with pleasant folk - about a quarter of the people are African, from Senegal and other places and there’s a nearly negligible amount of Caucasians on the island - but I couldn’t shake the feeling of weary sadness, a sadness that is the basis of Cape Verde’s most famous musical style, the mournful songs of longing aka as fado or the Cape Verdean blues.

I was sad because São Vicente is dry as a bone – we were told by a tour guide that he hasn’t seen rain since 1984. I hadn’t imagined a place so brown. Once upon a time it used to rain on the island, and it was green. But that was then. Now they import all their vegetables and fruit from the next nearest island. It made me sad because I felt the absence of a future for those who live there. There’s not much to do except procreate and indulge in social problems. Two thirds of the population are under the age of 30 and less than 10 percent of are over 60. One of the sites we visited in Mindelo, the capital, was littered with used condoms and our tour guide told us that most people there have large families, and almost half the births there are illegitimate His grandfather had 47 children, his father had 24. He joked that the “energy” lessens with the generations – he himself, a young man in his early 20s, doesn’t have any children. Yet. In the center of town there’s a sculpture – a monument really – of an eagle with its wings spread. It’s meant to symbolize the first plane that landed on the island. I heard that the locals say that if a virgin walks underneath the statue, it will take flight. Despite the parade of women of all ages – pre-teen and up – the eagle remains.

Nearby is another monument of interest – a replica of Lisboa’s Torre de Belem, a five-story, fortified lighthouse on the Tagus. The influence of Cape Verde’s former status as a former Portuguese colony was evident everywhere. The citizenry is mostly Creole – a mix European with Blacks from the days of slavery. I bought very little of the currency – the Cape Verdean escudo - and was hoping that maybe they’d use the old Portuguese escudos that I remember from before the advent of the Euro, but they have their own currency, which like the Seychelle rupee is a soft currency. We were encouraged to pay for things in Euros or U.S. dollars. Other than lunch, I didn’t buy a thing. As is typical of such locales, everything is imported and thus expensive.

I think life there is probably difficult. I didn’t see anyone starving or in the streets, but the unemployment rate is tremendous and many of the buildings are in poor condition - crumbling, roofless, or otherwise unstable. Fish sells for three euros or less per kilogram, but meat is 11 euros per kilo. Feeding a family of 5 (the average household size) or more is probably a mean feat. The pace of life is slow and laid back, but it seemed monotonous as well.

For me, lunch was nice – I had creole-style amberjack fish which came with sides of baked yucca (or possibly cassava root), yam, sweet potato, russet potatoes and beets. The mixture went down well with a capharina and a beer, and I enjoyed my company that day – N. (a professor), G. (the Director of the LRC), and her friend and our newly added global scholar, Guatemala’s Minister of Education. After lunch, N. and I went in one direction and the other two women went in another. I was happy to stumble upon a killer band playing in a little Internet café/bar. Unfortunately, the place had already become a haven for a horde of (drunken) TSS students looking to stay out of the sun. I neglected to wear sunscreen that day and found myself looking particularly ashy for the next few. N. and I strolled around a bit, peeking into some of the shops and businesses. As for local products, many people were peddling homemade trinkets but nothing that spoke to me. I didn’t speak to many people either. Most speak Criulo, a Creole dialect, but Portuguese is the official language.

I didn’t get to practice either one very much because we had to board the ship by eight p.m. since our visit was only for one day to break up the monotony. In the interest of being frugal, I decided to eat dinner on the ship, which meant returning to the ship early. Once there, I saw no point in going back out. I’d had my fill of Cape Verde. When I listen to Cesaria Evora, I now know where she's coming from, both figuratively and literally.

Posted by mpho3 07:29 Archived in Cape Verde Comments (0)

Hairbrained

Cape Town, South Africa - March 3 - 4, 2008

sunny 82 °F

The next day I had planned to call my dad to say goodbye but not surprisingly, I overslept. With the remaining hours I had planned to buy some groceries for the long haul to Cape Verde, buy at least one pair of pants and another shirt since I don’t have the right clothes and we’re having a wedding on the ship, get my hair cut, and exchange some money for euros. Right. Since I didn’t leave the ship until 10 am and we had to be back on board by 4pm, it seemed like I had a lot of time, but I didn’t. I decided to start w/ the hair.

My hair had become totally unmanageable, though my dad liked the way I was wearing it – when it was combed. I found a salon in the mall, and made an appointment and then went shopping in the interim. I hate to keep repeating the same pattern from port to port, but I couldn’t find a damn thing that I liked and that fit me and that was affordable. I am so angry with myself for not having my clothes here. It’s so dumb that I’ve suffered the same problem from port to port and now we’re heading toward the expensive ones. The hour went by quickly, so I gave up and returned to the salon figuring that at least with a hair cut I’d feel better about my appearance. Of course that didn’t work out the way I wanted either.

The stylist’s assistant – a black woman with short hair – took one look at me and said, “I would kill for your hair. I love it. I can’t believe you are cutting it.” Incredulously, as I openly coveted her short ‘do, I said, “You’re joking, right?” She kept muttering how much she loved it. I asked her what she would do with it if it were hers. She said she’s “put chemicals in it,” which made me laugh a little. I told her I didn’t want to start relaxing it again, which she couldn’t understand. Then I asked her what she thought about braiding and she told me she could take me to a township because they didn’t do braiding in that salon, but of course I had no time. I asked the other stylists what they thought and they were all of varying opinion. One wanted to cut it, but the rest said to keep it.

You know how once something wants what you have, it becomes more valuable to you even if you were ready to discard it? I let myself get talked into keeping it. Instead of a cut, I had them wash it – because I never feel like it’s clean on the ship since the water pressure in this second cabin of mine is pretty low – and deep condition it because it has been exceedingly dry since Thailand. On a whim, I asked her to blow comb it and we were all stunned to see how long it really is – about six inches as opposed to three inches when I come it without a hair dryer and two inches when I don’t comb it at all.

The end result became another problem to solve. It was so long that once it was dry it was just a big puff of hair. Not really an afro, but more like a dandelion when it’s gone to seed. I could possibly have carried it off except it was quite windy that day, and I knew that any sense of style would be magically erased once I left the mall to walk to the ship. She suggested using a flat iron or a hot comb on it, but I’d had it. As it was, the entire process had taken two hours – 20 minutes to wash and condition, the rest of the time to comb it because it’s so thick. This was a serious dilemma. I decided braids were the only solution, and I knew of a couple students on the ship who could do it, but the difficulty was how to get from point A to B. I had to find a hat or scarf, and I had to do it quickly because time was really getting away from me. I’ll have you know it took me another 40 minutes to find a (*%$@* hat.

I was so aggravated with myself and whole hair affair. You can’t imagine how I looked until that point. When I left the salon, the best they could do was comb it back, and I looked like Michael Jackson, but as I rushed madly from store to store, it got worse and worse, from Whacko Jacko to Planet of the Apes, and I was paranoid about running into students. The funny thing is that I did see at least three, but quite honestly, but none registered even a flash of recognition.

Anyway, I finally found a beanie and once that was on, I was good to go. Except by then I was out of time. I had accomplished nothing on my list, including the haircut! I did manage to change some rands to euros but the process took me past the 4pm deadline, and when I dashed back to the ship, I was officially the 9th to last person to return to the ship out of all the staff, students, and crew.

Once on the ship, I was good to go. I hid out in my beanie and then just before dinner decided to make use of hat head to see if I could tame my hair into some sort of shape other than horror story. I did manage to get it into a Jimi Hendrix style afro and dared myself to do it, but I couldn't go through with it because I knew that my real plan was to find A., a student with amazing braiding talent. I went to dinner in my cap, which caused a few stares - people wondered why I was wearing a winter cap in 85 degree weather, but nobody asked. I found A. and negotiated a price. She agreed to braid my hair that night if I would agree to let her do laundry on my account. Done. She came by my room later that night and created a genuine work of art that would have made Doris proud, and I was sad I hadn't had it done before leaving my dad. It took three hous, but the time gave us a chance to talk, and it was cool to hang out with a student for that long, one on one. Afterward, she brought three bags of laundry to my room and wanted to bring me more, but I told her no. At $5 a bag, that was $15. She said next time she'll have to negotiate better, but I told her that she can have a repeat customer if she doesn't get greedy. Plus, given that this was her best work yet, I would be a walking advertisement for her. She's a business woman at heart, so she understood, so we were both pleased.

I've had compliments from everybody except for F., the Romanian purser who is known for her directness. She took one look at me and with total disgust intoned in a low growl, "What have you done to your hair?" Under other circumstances, I might have been offended, but I enjoyed her distaste and the way she expressed it so fully. Everybody else has been giddy about it. Even the Captain admired it and later warned me to stay out of the sun so that my scalp doesn't burn. As per usual, I was flattered that he spoke to me. Thus it was rather amusing when he caught me out on the deck, directly in the sun. At first he waved as he was passing by me, but then he paused and came out on the landing. The sun was insanely bright so that we were both squinting, and he asked, "Didn't I tell you to stay out of the sun?" Meekly, I nodded as the light bulb went off in my head. I took the long sleeve shirt I'd placed on the back of the chair and wrapped it around my head, bedouin style. "How do I look?" I asked. He smiled at me as if smiling at a naughty child. "It's good," he said. "You look cute." He left. I turned to catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I looked like a retard, but it was kind of cute.

Posted by mpho3 12:17 Archived in South Africa Comments (0)

Excursions

Cape Town, South Africa - Feburary 26 - March 4, 2008

sunny 84 °F
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The next couple of days were innocuously good. My dad and I slept in and then made our way back to the port because it was the easiest place to be – great people watching due to all the shops and variety of restaurants. During the week we would eat some pretty tasty Chinese, Indian, Belgian, and Cape Malay food. The weather was fantastic, each day sunnier and warmer than the preceding one. Last time I was in Cape Town – almost exactly two years ago and hence the same time of year – the weather was SF winter-like, i.e. foggy, a bit chilly, with some light drizzle. My dad took Sip and I to Table Mountain last year but it was too fogged in to really see the view.

This time I left Dad to sleep in one morning, and I climbed Table Mountain with N., C., and T. Now I had been there before, so I knew it to be a rocky mountain. I had also heard people use the word “climbing,” in reference to it, but in my mind, I was thinking about the road that wraps around Twin Peaks or Bernal Hill in SF. Uhh, not quite. Again, perhaps this was a function of the profuse drinking from the night before, but Table Mountain is a mountain, and climbing it was intense – probably one of the most intense things I’ve ever done. It wasn’t climbing as in pick axes, harnesses, etc. Instead was more like clambering up and over gigantic step like stones of varying shapes and sizes, as if we’d been miniaturized and left to stumble up a steep slope. Apparently it takes the average person about 2 to 2 and a half hours to complete the ascent, which I would describe as treacherous. C. had done it in an hour and a half before, and I wanted to get back to my dad, so we purposely hauled ass. N and T. lagged behind us, though not by much – maybe 15 to 20 minutes. It was really freakin’ intense but cool, and I felt like a bad ass because after the first third, C. and I began passing people whom we hadn’t seen at the beginning, meaning that they’d started before us. We had been warned to be on the lookout for muggers, but since we were unofficially paired off, we felt safe, plus I really believed that one we passed a certain distance that it was unlikely that somebody would be so desperate to commit crime that they’d put themselves through what we were doing. My two big fears were that I would hit a point where I just couldn’t finish, and I’d be stuck or that we’d see a cobra, since some fellows coming down the mountain warned us about one “just around the bend.” Fortunately we never came across it, and even better, C. and I managed to hit our mark – one and one half hours. I was psyched although my feet were in agony.

Later in the week, Dad and I went to see the Gauteng Choristers, crowed as the nation's best during competition in 2006. Earlier this year, they toured Europe performing "Porgy ‘n Bess," making them the first South African choir to perform an opera in Europe. For the show we attended, they played at a beautiful outdoor venue located on the lawns of the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. The show itself was a bit disappointing because the 60-member (30 women, 30 men), all Black choir only sang one song unaccompanied. The rest of the show was a showcase for several other regional artists from pop singers to jazz artists. In other words, the headliners became back up singers, which was disappointing, especially because the mix of artists was too far flung. Overall, I'd give the show a B-. I think my dad gave it something lower. The real entertainment came from a durnk White woman who approached me and my father after we'd been bickering for a few moments. We were seated on a bench in the rear of the venue. Because we'd had a little squabble, we were sitting far apart on the bench, each facing slightly to the opposite direction. The woman made a beeline for my dad and was bold enough to put her hands on his knees as she told him: "You have such a serious look on your face that one could easily believe that you're not enjoying yourself, and yet I know that you are." Both of us were so taken aback that we shifted in our seats, mirroring astonishment to one another. My dad quickly deflected by asking if she was enjoying herself, and she surprised us further by confessing that she was not enjoying the show: "In fact, I'm leaving. I'm leaving because it's clear that there's no place for White people in this country any more. We're not wanted. I'm going to New Zealand where there are more sheep than people." After that announcement she turned on her heel and walked away, weaving a little bit and telling us to enjoy the evening.

My father and I didn't talk about it right away. At least five minutes passed before I said to him, "Why do you attract that kind of thing? You're a magnet for weirdos," and he retorted, "It's not me, it's you." We both chuckled a little bit at ourselves and fell silent again, lost in our thoughts and avoiding the music. Just as I realized I really wasn't listening to the music at all, the interloper made another beeline straight to my dad. This time he asked her why she had said what she'd said. She told him that things are taking an ugly turn in the country, and she's sick of fighting. That South Africa is getting dangerously close to a downward spiral echoes my dad's own thoughts and beliefs. But he asked her why she doesn't stay and fight. She explained that she had fought her whole life and her mother before her had fought and that now she's 48 and she's tired. She ended up coming and going a few more times, even bringing a friend with her - an Indian woman a few years younger than myself who owns a South African wine bar in New York called Xiu Xiu and who was home for a visit. The White woman told my dad that he has a great face and that she could stare at it all day. This was deja vu for me because the hostess at the hotel restaurant, a Cape Malay woman, also appeared smitten whenever David and I went down for dinner. What can I say except that it runs in the family.

The other adventure I had away from Dad was my first visit to Robbin Island, where Nelson Mandela and scores of others had been imprisoned during the Apartheid years. L., a Human Rights attorney who is teaching International Relations onboard the ship, had invited me so we took a 45-minute ferry ride and joined a tour that was led by a former prisoner. The island itself is rather non-descript – a bit eerie now that it’s home only to penguins and jackrabbits and an empty prison. We saw Mandela’s actual cell and learned about daily life in the prison. The part I found most interesting was that in the early days, the prisoners were given daily rations based on race. The whites and coloureds received more and better food than the “bantu” or black Africans, but all of the prisoners were political ones, who where there because of their efforts to change the racist, segregationist policies of their society. The prisoners actually banded together – via hunger strikes and other means – to get the prison authorities to standardize their meals, regardless of race.

Afterward we met my Dad at Den Anker, a Belgian restaurant, where he and L. ate Kingklip, which is a type of fish, and I at springbok, which is a type of gazelle. We had some fine Belgian beer and then drank a champagne toast to Doris – the fourth anniversary of her passing. When it was time to go, all three of us seemed of like happy mind, though that was our last night together. Dad went back to the hotel, but I stayed at the ship since he had to catch a train early the next morning.

I fully intended to go straight to bed, but I was too wound up, so I ended up going out again with a group of people from the ship. I was hungry again, so I ate a burger at some fast food joint that we don’t have in the United States and then we went to a pub called Mitchell’s. When last call came, some of us took a cab to the Mercury Bar, which reminded me a bit of Kimos in San Francisco or maybe the old Eight Ball in Ann Arbor. I was quickly befriended by a few different people there – two white women and one guy who looked Italian perhaps. They were not together, but all of them wanted to buy me drinks. I did not partake of too many, but I enjoyed the attention. We didn’t stay long and then it was back to ship one last time.

Posted by mpho3 11:34 Archived in South Africa Comments (0)

Who We Are

Cape Town, South Africa - February 26, 2008

sunny 83 °F
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Now I am truly behind in my account of things that have transpired, but I will do my best to pick up the thread. Shortly after passing through the Aguahas Strait, we made it to Cape Town’s beautiful Victoria Harbor. That was February 26. Victoria Harbor, from a bird’s eye view, is part upscale Fisherman’s Wharf, part European village or New England fishing village. Up close it’s a melting pot of tourists and locals of all races, ethnicities, colors and creeds – and we were the belle of the ball.

The first thing I did off the ship was have “brunch” with A. at a sushi place. While it wasn’t the best sushi I’ve ever had, it was a sheer delight after the many days of eating on the ship. Afterwards, I purchased a telephone card from the Post Office and called the hotel where my dad would be staying. It turned out he had also just arrived, following a 22-hr. overnight train trip. He showered and then took the hotel shuttle to Jetty 2 on the waterfront for our reunion.

During the interim, I got to talking with the port authorities, including fielding one marriage proposal that I turned down. The authorities were typical of almost everyone I met in terms of being extremely curious about who I was and very very open. I would expect that this was a universal experience for those of us on the ship as it seemed to draw an extraordinary amount of attention compared to our previous ports. This was no doubt helped by the location as well as a press conference that was held aboard the ship on the first day of our arrival.

Meanwhile, my dad looked great. I brought him onboard for a tour of our “floating bathtub,” as he had jokingly referred to it, and he was truly impressed. Meeting with some of the folks on the ship got him really excited about the work being done here, and I hope that he will consider contributing or participating in some way down the road. EVERYBODY raved about him – staff and students – and I think he enjoyed his encounters with people as the days progressed.

For the most part, we stayed at the hotel though it seemed like I needed to return to the ship for one thing or another on a daily basis. That said, the first day I introduced my dad to some of the faculty and then R., F., myself and my dad went to a Mexican restaurant on the waterfront, where we could eat outside and enjoy some beers. R. and my dad had a lot in common, and it was fun to listen to them talk about African politics, history and diplomacy. As R. put it, there is nothing in his background (a White guy from Idaho) that should have suggested he’d become an “Africanist” and nothing in my dad’s background that should have suggested he’d wind up in the U.S. for so many years. Several students and staff came and went during our many hours of holding court. Eventually – we’re talking about 6 or 7 beers later - I left R. and my dad in the hands of the ship’s First Purser so I could accompany K. on an outing as I had promised.

The excursion was to a local bar, to catch some flavor away from the port. I got into an interesting conversation with a white woman from Johannesburg. She seemed about my age, though I didn’t ask. Early in the conversation she asked me about my background, and I gave her the whole spiel. She concluded that I am African.

The interesting thing about this is that earlier in the day, when I was carrying on with the Port Authorities, all of whom were Black, I’d had the same conversation with unexpected results. The man who I took as their supervisor because he was a bit older, asked me “what are your origins?” I told him I’m American, and I said that specifically out of laziness and the boredom of having to hear myself repeat my lineage as I’d already done umpteen times that day. But when I’m in Africa, I look African but my speech and the way I carry myself suggest that I am other, which in truth is what it all boils down to. Throughout my stay, I found that if I said I was American, most people would remain confused but would leave it at that despite continuing to glance at me sideways. Some, however, like this supervisor fellow, would push onward. In his case, this meant following up with, “where is your father from?” Note the emphasis on the patriarchal side of things. I admitted that my dad is from S. Africa, and he asked again, “where?” I told him “Witbank, northwest of Jo’burg,” adding that my mother was from Tanzania. Immediately he announced to the others, “You see, she is AFRICAN.” Then he turned to me and asked why I had lied! Laughing, I tried to extricate myself by telling him that I didn’t lie. I was born in the United States, so I am American. The younger guy, who eventually asked for my hand, tried to mollify his boss by explaining on my behalf, “She is African American.” Because this is a trigger for me, I felt my head swivel decisively in his direction, but I caught myself because I’d brought this all on myself. Yet it wasn’t that I was denying an African heritage because all my old friends know that first and foremost, I identify myself as African – not African American. African American connotes Black American, which is a culture that I cannot and do not claim because simply put, it is not mine. I didn’t need to address all that because the boss picked it up. Emphatically, he lectured all in earshot, though I think his lesson was directly intended for me. “She is not American. She is African. She is African because her father is African.” I piped in, “so was my mother,” but he shook his head, saying that for him it doesn’t matter. It’s the father’s blood that matters. Personally, I take exception to that, but it is what it is and in the long run, he was right. I am African and that was the take away of the conversation.

Which leads me back to the encounter with the White woman at the bar who, after hearing my story, pronounced me easily as African, with none of the grilling that had happened on the wharf. I was grateful that we quickly dispensed with the issue of identification, but keep in mind that I’d already had several beers with Dad to which I’d added another at this new bar before the woman in question offered to buy me a scotch and water – which was what she was drinking. She was in the midst of the transaction when all the friendliness slipped away from between us. All I remember is we were talking about global issues, particularly, the troubles of the African continent, and then I said something like, “… but still, I don’t understand what makes one person pick up a machete and start hacking another to death.” The next words out of her mouth rankled me, but I will never know how or why. When I said I will never understand people hacking each other with machetes, she replied, “You’re not African. There’s nothing African about you.” Now, I don’t know why it struck me the way it did. Maybe because, as I’ve already said, it’s my strongest and first identity? Maybe her tone of voice? Maybe because she’s White and what does she know? Maybe because there is a sense in which it’s true? Maybe because my blood alcohol level had reached the point where I was itching for a fight? Perhaps all or none of the above – regardless, I got boiling mad. I grabbed my freshly poured scotch, downing it in one fell swoop. Then I pulled out my business card and told her to read my name back to me – first, middle, and last. When she was finished I said, “Don’t tell me who’s African enough,” and I walked out to grab a cab.

It wasn’t until the next day, when I reviewed the situation, that I realized that my reaction was … well … reactionary. It’s not the first time, nor will it be the last, I’m sure, but in this case I really wondered – and still do – what set me off. Because the words themselves are harmless. In fact, she may even have meant it as a compliment – i.e. because I can’t see myself hacking up my neighbors over tribe, that I’m not really African, the same way, by my own token (pun intended) that I’m not really African American. I really don’t know, but I felt a little bad that I didn’t stick around to let that play out further, although the mood I was in might not have been conducive to a fruitful dialogue. Nonetheless, this “incident” became the iconic framework around this trip to South Africa.

Posted by mpho3 11:30 Archived in South Africa Comments (0)

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