Tuesday June 4, 2013 9:11pm South Africa
I am in Africa. That was the only thought I can remember having once the lights dim in the KLM aircraft, the seat belt signs went back on and the lights of Cape Town, South Africa began to appear less as deeply grounded celestial bodies and more as the buzzing cityscape they proudly illuminate. I am in Africa. I didnt know how to prepare myself mentally for this trip, particularly given the highly institutionalized, violent and pervasive racism that characterized the apartheid years, with its legacy dripping into the young ‘post-apartheid’ period. After the intense experience with racism and ignorance that confronted me in Ecuador, I had to learn the harsh yet necessary lesson about the direct impact I can have on a new environment and that which the new environment can have on me. I decided for this trip that no matter what I was perceived as (black, ‘colored’, Canadian, expert, idiot..whatever) I wouldn’t own that identity as my own but keep it as a reminder of its construction and the systems which both create and maintain it.
Right.So the plane landed about half an hour late so Johan Lewin (pronounced Yo-han), my supervisor and the CEO of the Seeland Development Trust, the organization Im here working for, had a bit of a wait in the airport. Once I got off the plane the first things i thought were: 1) wow, this airport is absolutely beautiful 2) Myself and one other gentleman were the only ‘black’ people on the flight and 3)it is freezing (the actual temperature was 11 degrees celsius). As I approached the customs officer, he asked me what i was here for, I said tourism and he smiled and said go ahead sister. I wasnt expected such an informal greeting and it partially caught me off guard but mainly it reminded me of a truth behind what he had said. Once I came out the secure part of the airport I saw Johan holding up a beautiful sign with my name written on it. I approached him, smiling and greetiing him and he looked incredible confused. I remembered I didnt sent him a picture of myself and with my name, folks often expect a white french woman, I think he was processing who I was. Id probably be doing the same if i hadnt googled the life out of Seeland.
I went and picked up my new phone chip and we were off for a two hour drive to Saint Helenas Bay. Johan and I immediately hit it off. He’s a funny, well learned man, passionate about community and excited about big ideas. We talked during the ride about foreign aid, informal education, violence, race, renewable energy, ourselves and families and he tried to teach me the geography of the communities I would soon familiarize myself with. By the time I got the the Benjamin’s (the family consisting of a grandmother, mother and 12 year old granddaughter, of which i would be living with) it was already 2am and i was exhausted. I went to sleep, knowing Id have until 2:30pm before I had to be up and about for a meeting Johan mentioned I needed to attend.
The Rise of the Sun
They thought i was in an a coma. (lol) It was 1:30pm and Mrs. Benjamin had made several unsuccessful attempts at waking me up to no avail. They called Johan who was finally able to speak loud enough to uproot my slumber. I didnt realize how exhausted I was but Ill tell you that sleep did wonders for me. I had my first “uhh” moment when I went to use the shower and there was no shower only two taps and a stopper for the drain. I figured Id be having a bucket bath but when I looked around there was nothing to do that with either. I asked Mrs. Benjamin how I use the bath and she responded “like you use any bathroom” haha. She plugged the tub, put on the hot water and left. It was no big deal to figure out how to use it but it was once again another reminder that no matter how at home i feel, im not and things will be different, and I will have to learn to navigate, problem solve and go with the flow as a part of my everyday.
My room here is perfect. I always said as long as i have a garbage and a bed side table, Im good to go. I thought the unheated indoors would get to me but the coziness of this room makes the cold less of an issue. Its fairly small, though it fits a double bed a small table and a shelving unit. Its in the back of the house next to Mrs. Benjamin’s daughters room and the bathroom.
The Big Surprise
Johan came for me shortly after breakfast, which was two eggs and toast, and we left for the church with Mrs. Banjamin. Upon arrival at the building Johan pointed out a sign which read “Welcome to Saint Helena’s Bay Anique!!”. I was so surprised and excited. What an amazing way to welcome me into their community!! It turns out the 3:00pm community meeting was actually a surprise welcome party for me. The organization “Here to Serve” which is a community outreach health service, founded by Mrs. Benjamin herself, sang a few gospel songs. A children group played the recorder, another sang and danced and a group of young boys did a gumboot performance. I was overwhelmed by the absolute amazing, incredible talent of the women singing and the children performances. Clearly Africa created “cool”. I mean by the time the chiildren were done performing I was wishing to have a percentage of the talent they displayed, seemingly effortlessly. If i had forgotten where I was, those performances would have thrown me back into reality. I laughed and clapped and remained in awe of the privilege of being here and having this beautiiful concert orchestrated to welcome me. It was all too much, at one point I thought i was going to cry. Words cannot do it justice.
The Town Tour
After the concert, Johan took me on a tour of important landmarks in the community. We went to the port first. I met a man named Baart there who spoke to us about the issues fisher men are facing. The main fish, Snoek, is a huge source of income for the fishing industry here. The issue is, according to Baart, the fisher men are unable to sell fish directly to the public and instead have to sell it to middle men or fish processing plants. He says in doing so they sometimes have to sell their fish for R7 when those who sell it to directly to the public can make up to R1000 a fish (8-9 South African Rand is about $1 USD). He says that he had been working the past 25 years at changing this but because fisher men have not been communicating, nothing has been able to change. I learned that each boat leaves early morning and follows a particular school of fish. Some schools will bit the bait earlier than other schools. The one that bites earliest allows that boat to collect their catch and head back to the port earlier which allows them to sell their fish to buyers first charging apx $25, whereas the boat with the fish that bite late into the day can only sell their catch for $7. He said that because of the Blacks in power, colored people were not able to get good quotas. He continued with some other comments about Blacks and it became clear to me that it was the “blacks” in which he found fault in for issues facing him as a “colored fisherman” .
After spending a little time at the port, Johan took me to visit a group of women who were sewing up the fishing nets on the side of the dock. He said rain or shine those women would be there sewing up any broken nets. Johan explained to me that though he may not agree with any of the things the fishing industry does, its important because it creates a lot of jobs around it which support more than just the fishermen.
We continued our tour a visit of what Johan calls “Miami Beach”. It is a gated community where foreign palm plants are brought in and the homes look like large Greek inspired mansions, surrounding a beautiful beach which is difficult to access for those who dont live behind the gate. This community represents a stark contrast to Laingville township and the homes resided by residents who had grown up in the area. The houses are owned by white South Africans and foreigners. Johan mentioned that he doesn’t mind the wealth, or the alien plants brought in nor the landscape created there but it bothers him that they are owned by only white people. I, for the most part just listened and tried to take in what I was witnessing and what Johan was sharing with me. Within that same community a new spa hotel was constructed, which Johan mentioned had been incredibly unsuccessful. He said those who have money to stay there are tired of the luxury, they want to live on the ground and experience the lifestyle of the people. He shared a dream that he would love for Seeland to have its own eco-hotel that worked together with the wind turbines, where community members could become engaged in tourism and share dance, stories, and performances to visitors. This reminded me of the ecco-lodge, La Cosinga, in Costa Rica and some of the challenges they were having there, in which tourist preferred the luxurious hotel to the more sustainable eco-lodge. Is tourism an answer? Do the benefits of the chimney less industries really outweigh their short comings? what will happen to Laingsville and Saint Helenas Bay once all the Snoek have been caught? I’m posing these questions but Im not actively thinking about them. Right now my priority is to learn, listen, stay healthy and contribute the absolute best way I can.