The Bloem Diaries – Part 1: Race and the city

In August 2017, I started my post-doctoral fellowship in the city of Bloemfontein, South Africa. A year prior, I visited the city and the campus because I did not want to go to a place not knowing what to expect. Once I found out what to expect, I decided to go anyway.

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In a place characterized by division, stark racism, violence and conservatism, I found amazing stories of progressive thought, friendship and courage. Stories of ‘locals’, stories of migrants, stories of people crossing boundaries that are much less rigid than one might assume at first sight. I found these stories because, even though I was told not to leave campus, for it would not be safe, I decided to go out every once in a while.

To protect the anonymity of protagonists, many of these stories have a fictional component, but they are rooted in the reality of a city that, as soon as you leave it, seems like a surreal mirage that only exists in your imagination.

Little Ethiopia

The city centre becomes busy on Saturday. All of a sudden, Bloemfontein looks like any other African city, the hustling and bustling of shops, people crossing the street where ever they please, people shopping and chatting on the street. Most shops in town are run by the Ethiopian or “Habesha” community. The language mix in the shops is fascinating. Shop keepers employ a mix of Habeshas and South Africans and mutual learning takes place constantly. The shop keepers speak Amharic, English and have a basic command of Sesotho, while their staff, largely fluent in Sesotho and English, will speak Amharic with the customers they identify as Ethiopian. There is no fear of making mistakes, South African staff will happily throw in the odd Amharic word (qonjo, salamnew, tinish, kamis, chama…).

Most foreigners or even white South Africans (if they ever set foot in these stores, which, based on how staff reacted to my presence, seems improbable) are likely oblivious to this complex mix of languages and cultures, as they will perceive all people in the shop as belonging to the same group: black people. There was no hostility towards me in the city centre. Indeed, my very presence there seemed to indicate that I was somehow weird, not South African, a different kind of “other” than the one people react to negatively in this context.

Alamnesh wants to buy a dress for church. She tries on several, all pink. She does not like anything with too many complications, she prefers simple designs without lace or buttons. The dress has to be long. “I short” she complains every time she tries on a dress that inevitably ends up being way too long for her. She also needs shoes. And eyeliner. And lip balm. But the transparent one, not the one with colour. I suspect that all this is for church. There is considerable excitement about going to church tomorrow. I agreed to drive them to mass, they normally cannot go there as it is out of town and starts at 6am. We leave without buying a dress but she has another one at home. Later on, they will tell me again that I don’t have to take them to church, that it is fine, no big deal, I can just sleep in the morning. But I know that all the preparations being made are based on the assumption that I will be there tomorrow morning.

Yonatan owns the clothes store. He speaks Amharic, English and Sesotho (main use case: yelling at his staff). One of his employees in particular is eager to speak in Amharic, although she knows barely more than a few words. To work at one of the shops in town, Alamnesh needs to learn English. Maybe in a few months she will also know some Sesotho. It is not language mastery in the sense we understand it in interpreting, rather, what is happening is rapport-building through language, similar to what we find in anthropology. The language is mastered enough to make the interlocutor trust you, to show them “I am similar to you, I respect you, I am interested in your way of being, in who you are, you can trust me.”

Learning a language is a way of acknowledging each others’ humanity. Nothing more but nothing less.

The two girls in the shoe shop laugh when they see me. Then exchange a few words in a language I cannot understand before looking at me again. “Whitey” one of them says in my direction, laughing. Whitey. Blunt like that. They do not even try to sugar coat the fact that I am wearing the wrong skin colour for the occasion. But she does not say it in a demeaning way, rather, she says it in an encouraging way, in a ‘we are surprised but happy to see you here’ kind of way. I laugh with them and reply “Yes, apparently. Nothing I can do to change that, can I?” They laugh. “No, true, you can’t. But it is good. Welcome.”

Hair is cut, shaved and braided on the sidewalk, in broad daylight, next to small stalls where women sell goat (or sheep?) heads and feet in transparent plastic bags. I have never seen this kind of open air hair dressing in a large town, it somehow makes the city centre look poorer and more miserable. The strands of hair and extensions on the sidewalk give the street a somewhat sinister look. My brain creates associations with piles of human hair seen on photos taken in a different context decades ago – a context I have spent more time than usual thinking about since I arrived in Bloemfontein.

One of the shops has hired a DJ. He stands at the entrance with his mixing table, over-saturated loudspeakers blasting Hip Hop beats onto the sidewalk. A man who looks both drunk and homeless dances to the music as if his life depended on it. Like the loudspeakers, he is having a blast. Some passers-by laugh and enjoy the spectacle, others ignore the guy as if he was the most normal thing in their world. The DJ looks at me, pleadingly, as if wanting to apologize that I have to witness this. And yet,this is what I came to see. Just life on a Saturday morning.

“Do you like this city?” Alamnesh asks me. I want to say no. I think of the strands of hair on the sidewalk, the goat (sheep?) heads being sold in transparent plastic bags, without skin but with teeth, the three keys, two remote controls and one access card that separates my room from my office, the constant reminders that people are out to rob and rape you, that it is not safe. But I do not want to discourage her, after all, she has to live here and is likely to give birth to a child in this town. “It’s okay, I think I will get used to it.” My reply is half affirmation, half resolution. “Me no like it” she says, looking determined.

Yet, for about two hours this Saturday, Bloemfontein became just a normal African city.

I was able to forget about the guy writing his PhD about the positive aspects of fascism in Europe.

I was able to forget about the girl who explained to me that it is not possible for students of different races to share the same apartment because the black men do not respect “their” women, so they will just walk in and out of a black girl’s room whenever they please and white parents do not want their daughters to be ‘exposed’ to that (i. e. raped).

I was able to forget that a professor had told me that last year during the racial violence at the University of the Free State (#ShimlaPark), white parents came to campus with their pick-up trucks, armed with baseball bats, ready to beat up black students. That residence managers had to hide terrified undergrads in different campus buildings.

I was able to forget about the three white post-graduate students who gave a theatrical presentation on how black students perceived these incidents on campus last year, well-meaning and yet totally oblivious of their own positionality in all of this. Whitesplaining should be a word in this country.

And yet, research on identity among local students also reveals a darker, self-deprecating side. When no one else listens, students will say things like “I am ashamed of my skin colour. I am ashamed of being white.” I wonder how much of the white anger is due to this deep feeling of inadequacy, this not knowing how to “be” in this “New South Africa” and where else to be if not here. If 1970 was a place, I suspect quite a few white South Africans would want to emigrate there.

It all comes back when we reach the mall. All of a sudden 15 muscular young white men in shorts walk into the mall and start singing. I am legitimately scared for a second (anything sung by 15 males in shorts sounds like a war song), before realizing that it is probably just a bachelor party. The tension messes with your brain here. Everything looks threatening when you are constantly told to be scared.

As we walk down the aisles and look at shop windows, I decide to follow up on our earlier conversation. “So, Alamnesh, you do not like this city?” She smiles “I do like it.”

The mall is a safe place.

Men on a Plane – Development Sector Edition

I recently watched Paula Stone William’s Ted talk, which I can warmly recommend:

In it, Paula describes how her life has changed since she transitioned from male to female. She starts with an anecdote about a man refusing to let her sit in her assigned seat on a plane.

This anecdote struck a nerve with me, and probably with any other woman who frequently travels for work. Day after day we experience countless small humiliations. We intuitively know that a man would not have these experiences, but we don’t fully understand why.

I recently returned from a short work trip to a country where frankly not many people would go for tourism. Most international travelers go there on mission for their national government, a UN agency, development NGOs or humanitarian organizations. I was travelling as a consultant for one of these organizations.

The flight back, one of the rare connections with the possibility of an onwards flight to Geneva, turned out to be a genuine ‘Who is Who’ of the Swiss development sector: SECO, the SDC, and many major Swiss development NGOs were represented on the medium sized plane. You might wonder how I know this…

There is a reason I choose the aisle seat when I travel for work. I like to get up regularly without bothering anyone. This was a very early morning flight so my hope was that I would spend most of it asleep. Apparently my fellow travellers had other plans. The gentleman sitting next to me, a Swiss national in his 40s (let’s call him ‘Jacques’), had a friend or colleague on the same flight, whose seat was a few rows behind. Given that he was “stuck” in the middle seat, his friend, also a Swiss national but probably in his late 30s (let’s call him ‘Bernard’), eventually decided to stand in the aisle, just next to my seat, for a lengthy chat.

Bernard also seized this opportunity to introduce Jacques to another guy (let’s call him ‘Thomas’), who was sitting directly in front of me and promptly stood up as well, turning around. Thomas was German, in his late 40s. The three men formed a rather close triangle around me and started talking about work. It turns out Jacques was from SECO, Bernard from the SDC and Thomas was country director for a major Swiss NGO.

Bernard, Jacques and Thomas had me surrounded. They talked loudly, directly over my head. It was blatantly obvious that I was trying to sleep – while I was initially listening to their conversation with my eyes closed, I eventually opened my eyes, making it o-b-v-i-o-u-s that they had just woken me up. They never even flinched. They exchanged contacts, tips about where best to go hiking in some of the countries they had been, discussed people they might know in common. They even tried to draw another guy into the conversation “So, do you also work in the development sector?”

As Bernard was travelling back home with his family, his kid eventually joined the conversation, contributing to it mainly by repeatedly pushing my chair and bumping into my leg.

At no point in their conversation did it occur to these gentlemen that I was trying to sleep, that they were invading my space and being extremely inconsiderate to another human being. What was even more obvious: at no point did it occur to them that they could have tried their networking catchphrase (“So, do you also work in the development sector?”) on me and that, unlike the guy sitting next to them, I would actually have been able to answer it.

For twenty minutes, these three men were talking over my head, completely oblivious to my existence. They had created a circle of equals that was literally and figuratively placed above the head of a young woman. Men networking with men. Guys exchanging notes on guy stuff to do in remote regions of the planet (outdoors activities and extreme sports, obviously, it is always about sports). Since they never bothered to question their assumption that I was probably just a student or some kind of volunteer travelling back home, they remained unaware of the fact that I am currently studying the communication practices of the Swiss development sector and that I was furiously taking mental notes. Anthropologists call it direct observation – it is what you do when you are not a participant-observer. That is usually difficult because most human beings acknowledge the existence of another person that is situated in their immediate physical environment… I realized I had inadvertently made a methodological breakthrough: Being a young woman  provides you with an invisibility cloak – who would have known?

Initially, I was angry at myself for remaining silent. Yet, in the face of such an obvious lack of consideration from people whose path I might cross in a professional context one day, I simply did not know what to say. “I am trying to sleep” seemed such a stupidly obvious thing to say to people who supposedly earn their income by being attentive to the needs of others.

After having to ask for permission to cross the aisle four or five times, the flight attendant finally lost it and asked the two gentlemen blocking her path to kindly sit down. They were visibly unhappy, promptly made faces at each other and joked about her being bossy. This was a young woman whose job actually involves telling passengers what to do on a plane.

Had she been a male flight attendant, these men would have complied without so much as a frown. Had I been a male passenger, they would have never dared talk directly over my head and invade my personal space as much as they did.

How do I know this? It is one of the things you learn when you grow up as a woman. By the time you are an adult you have internalized it, by the time you are a few years into your professional life, you have normalized it.

On ne naît pas femme, on le devient.

When road rage meets street art

Every time I am stuck in traffic in Nairobi I make a mental note to finally write this blog post. Some might consider traffic jams a waste of time, but in Kenya it is always an interesting opportunity to observe a bit of multimodality and intersemiotic translation in action. The road speaks to those able to listen….

In 2010 my car was nearly forced off the road on the highway from Nairobi to Nakuru. In order to avoid pot holes, a huge heavy duty truck heading towards us from the opposite direction was using the middle of the highway rather than sticking to its lane. On the wind deflector, just above the windshield, the truck’s name was written in bold, colorful capital letters:

MORENO OCAMPO

Moreno Ocampo was at the time the Chief Prosecutor at the ICC, where quite a number of Kenyan politicians were being tried for their involvement in the 2007/2008 post-electoral violence. Ethnic clashes following a controversial electoral result killed over 1000 people and left up to 600’000 internally displaced. Politicians on all sides were seen as actively inciting hatred and violence. While Moreno Ocampo, the man, was thus doing his best to instill fear among the Kenyan political elite, Moreno Ocampo, the truck, was busy scaring the hell out of the common folk on the highway. The mental image  Kenyans associated with a person was thereby successfully conveyed through a different medium altogether. I would argue that this qualifies as an example of intersemiotic translation. The massive size of the truck is an integral part of the message. Multimodality, ladies and gentlemen!

From late 2008 one would also see more and more Matatus (mini buses) and buses proudly carrying the name or even the picture of newly elected president Barack Obama. I am happy to note that he is still a go-to source for vehicle embellishment, the Donald does not seem to have quite the same appeal for Nairobians.

Obviously, Barack Obama’s ancestry makes him a favourite (pronounce: ‘favo-right’) choice for Kenya’s drivers. Yet, ironically, Obama’s father was a Luo, while the transport industry in Nairobi is firmly in the hands of Kikuyus, their arch-rivals in the national political arena. In order to become a national symbol, it seems that one must thus succeed abroad. The image of Obama’s success, or so Matatu drivers seem to hope, will translate (aha!) into prosperity for them and their business.

Popular topics for vehicle decoration include sports teams (mostly English Premier Leage and NBA), as well as fashion labels (who doesn’t want to ride in a Versace, Gucci, Armani bus?), superheroes and famous musicians or actors. Even the inside of a bus might be decorated with at least some attempt at communicating something resembling an original idea:

Matatu3
Image source: https://code.kaytouch.biz/wifi-kwa-mathree/

Unless Jesus is involved, the message conveyed is never that serious (“Real men love Jesus”, remember!). It is meant to inspire both respect and laughter. On the surface it seems like nothing is taboo, at least not sex or drugs. A particularly congenial instance of visual communication can be seen currently on quite a number of Buses and Matatus in Nairobi. Their elaborate decoration includes images of Bob Marley with a blunt, and portions of his lyrics that explicitly reference weed consumption. These references are duly interspersed with the following logo:

noweed

Translated simply: “Sisi? Weed? Hapana. LOOOOL”

Speaking of mixed messages and lack of seriousness, Nairobi’s streets also offer plenty of opportunities to get “offended” to anyone attempting to take these things at face value. Let’s be clear, things that would be truly offensive to Nairobians, such as references to atheism or comments about acting Kenyan politicians are off-limits. Now, whether the Mainas, Mwangis and Kamaus driving the Matatus would show the same restraint if, say, a Luo president was elected remains to be seen… I am not even going to go into that because I love life.

One of the crasser images I spotted on a vehicle this week was a juxtaposition of a photo of a starving black child (you know exactly what kind of image I mean…) and a photo of a chubby African guy eating from a plate filled with a huge portion of meat. The title of the composition was “Africa”. Speak of a successful translation of words into images…

You cannot help but agree that the message being transferred using just two images is an accurate description of the reality we live in. Many academics would complain if they were given less than 6000 words for a paper aiming to convey exactly the same.

Oh yeah, let’s also not forget that in the Man Eat Man Society we live in, Ben Laden and Bill Gates are friends…

Matatu1
Image source: http://www.afroautos.com/customized-improvised/can-the-kenyan-matatu-industry-be-a-tourist-attraction/

 

*For those of you who wish to read more about this and see some photos that I never quite find an opportunity to take myself: