Freedom, Not At The Cost Of Others!

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America is a great country, there’s no doubt about that. There’s abundance here, and the feeling of ‘Coming to America’ has not escaped me in my everyday move. Things are advanced—I tried to watch TV the other day, and just gave up on the idea: everything has become smart—smart phone, smart car, smart TV, smart house… But this is at the cost of some of America’s citizens, the rest of the world, and most importantly, our precious earth. I see abundance in the big cities I’m visiting. I am currently sitting at the historical site of Washington DC, between Capitol Hill and the Washington Memorial, and what I see is tourists of course, but also Americans jogging, doing yoga on the capital’s sprawling lawns, and generally living life with reckless abandon. Instead of having feelings of splendour wash over me, I am filled with contempt for the cost at which this ‘paragon of freedom and equality’ comes.

I was so very happy when South Africa introduced the law that plastic bags at supermarkets would be for sale, for a small amount. No matter the amount, people have taken to brining their shopping bags to pick up their groceries. I have no idea—and it escapes me constantly—why in the U.S. they would still give you plastic bags for free, and even double them for even the smallest package. This is one of the most dangerous material to the earth—it is not biodegradable—and to the animals who could eat it, suffocate on it, or get trapped in its handles (think of herbivores accidentally eating plastic; or the ecology of the ocean with plastic in it). I truly am dismayed by the free plastic bags in supermarket, in 2014, in, of all places, the U.S. of A.

It’s not only plastic bags; when you buy a sandwich or these overrated bagels, they come wrapped in foil. Foil?! Of all the material you can use you choose foil. It is even more dangerous than plastic, and mind you most people don’t even reuse it. In our house when we rarely use foil we reuse it until it is in tatters. It is that kind of material. This is also in recognising that it is one of the most toxic material to the earth. While at it, all the fast food joints, from the lower scale McDonalds/KFC/Burger King to the upscale healthy food outlets like Wholefoods/Trader’s Joe dispense unreasonable amounts of serviettes/napkins—no one would use those in one sitting. For most people, instead of returning them or receiving half of the batch dispensed to them for their one salad, they throw them in the bin?! It’s truly unbelievable!

Wangechi_Mutu_1295815950_0I see some of my more health conscious and green friends use jars and bottle jugs as glasses in their homes. I would absolutely do that at the rate everything is bottled in the supermarkets here. We ordered Mexican food and chocolate mousse, and the latter came in a glass bottle with a tin lid; like one of those valuable Consol bottles with metallic ring lids that our mothers kept and reused for decades. I imagine people eat their dessert and throw these away. Such waste! It is at this point that I wish to talk about African people and recycling. As our friend from TV once proclaimed: we’ve been having it! We are not hearing of reusing our plastic bags and bottle jars just today; in fact that was the order of life. These days we make it seems like recycling is for the educated elite with capacity to think critically of the consequences of their consumption to the planet. No ways man, recycling is not a luxury but a necessity. And boy did we know about necessity growing up under apartheid and colonialism.

When I grew up we used plastic bags from supermarkets to carry books to school. They suited and lived up to that function, and when they were worn out my grandmother would collect them and crochet plastic carpets for the house or veranda. In the village I grew up in you would be hard-pressed to find plastic littered on the ground. It was a commodity with many uses, and if found, could be utilised. I remember we used to buy homemade juice and mashwangshwangs—chillies or barbeque flavoured Nik Naks knock-offs—on our way back from school to enjoy on the long road home. The woman who sold these from her house would give you discount if you brought your own plastic or container to put juice or mashwangshwang. This meant if you saw these lying around your neighbourhood, you would pick them up and save them for later. I suppose this explain my high intolerance to littering even today.

We would reuse the tin that all tinned stuff—baked bins, pilchards, cling peaches, cream, condensed milk, etc—came packaged in. We would take the tin and vigorously frisk it over a brick until the tin is hot. This way the rim on top would be released neatly without leaving any sharpness on the top, making it a metal cup. We would then use this tin as storage for toothbrushes, crayons, and other small miscellaneous things around the house. We would also use it to scoop rice, sugar, or mealie-mealie. Tins of refreshments, like soda, would be used to adorn our wire cars as colourful wheels carefully constructed and linked to the steering wheel, turning and swerving with scientific precision.

The parts of America I have been to are living in abundance. A very reckless one that is costing the rest of the world, some of its citizens, and unfortunately the earth. How much does it take to meet the demands of every fast food restaurant’s serviettes, glass jars, plastic bags, foil, and containers for the ever growing pre-packaged foods? How much does it take to fuel the cars of those who have given up on the idea of walking anywhere because they are exercising their right to live their ‘best’ life in the best country in the world? How best is a country when it’s not conscious of its dying members who are hidden from the family album which America displays to the rest of the world? How good is the country when its perceived strength is at the cost of other civilisations bombed for their resources so that Americans can own toilets that flush themselves, subway stations that are lit 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, wifi on public transport, and mary-go-rounds that go round and round even when there’s only one person on their seat?

I’m now talking carbon footprint per person here, in New York, and everywhere in this country. I am appalled by the ratio of excess to consciousness. In the chase to make more money so we can afford bigger, shinier things, and holidays on ‘unspoilt’ islands we tend to forget that we only have one earth, and we will most certainly lose against nature no matter our wits or courage. I’m not saying countries should not have wifi in their public transport for example. I am saying the infrastructure can serve its people, but without knowledge these people will abuse instead of use those resources. America needs more education on consciously thinking of the planet. It needs to humble itself before nature and curb the power mongering. At this rate the infrastructure promises to collapse because the supply cannot meet the demand. What happens next? Another country with oil gets invaded…

I found this image fitting for my experience in the American supermarkets: there's just way too much colour, and my grandmother can't recognise anything on those shelves. Everything promises convenience,; ready in five minutes; just add water; or the best 'tastes just like the real thing'. Um, why not give me the real thing then?

I found this image fitting for my experience in American supermarkets: there’s just way too much colour, and my grandmother can’t recognise anything on those shelves. Everything promises convenience: ready in five minutes; just add water; or the best – ‘tastes just like the real thing’. Um, why not give me the real thing then?

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I got put onto this Brooklyn-based artist from Kenya, Wangechi Mutu, and I am absolutely taken by her art. The opening, middle, and this last piece in this post are by her. Do google her and check more of her work out. I also used her work in the third post down from this one – ‘The Pillars That Rise’.

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Staying True to My Heart

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Greetings from Amsterdam on this fantastic sunny day. I’m in a fabulous mood. First I must apologise for being so quiet over the last week. I have been brewing something exciting for the past three months, and last week it reached its execution period, where I had to wait until this morning to find out if the plan is green-lighted. So without wasting any time, here it goes: I’m going to be living in the United States for three months from the 1st of August!! These are most fulfilling and exciting news to me and my work. It has been a trying time for me emotionally, so a quest into the unknown is the exact literal, literary and symbolic journey I need.

I can confidently and safely tell you now that my PhD research on South African poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile has been approved by my department of literature at the University of Cape Town to take the form of a literary biography. For my own creative exploration and indulgence, I am also shooting a documentary that will accompany the final book project. He lived in New York for 15 years between 1960 and 1975, and I am going to live in New York for 2 months from the 1st August to chart his literary journey, interview his contemporaries—I’m looking for one particular Pharoah Sanders; universe please align—and talk to members of his family and friends in the 3rd month.

New York SubwayThis work is at the very centre of my heart, and anchors me day and night when all seems to be destabilised. Planning for this trip has been a most sacred journey as everything I have sought has been met with a resounding YES! everyone I have spoken to has been so open-minded as to see the value of this project, and even though I have never been to the U.S., I have seen New York, Chicago, San Francisco—places I will visit over the 3 months there—with my third eye. The kindness and generosity of my American interlocutors has left me feeling at ease about entering this new phase of my research and life journey.

I believe in more work and less talk, I believe in letting my work speak for itself, and I believe that plans for great work are like an intricate process of birth. I will only speak about the birth once the baby is strong, stealthy, and able to take their position in the world. So for now I’m content to share these plans with you. There are very exciting things and people I’m meeting with, but I would not want to talk about them before I have in fact met with them and engaged with their wonderful minds. Work first, then enjoyment of its fruits later. The power of the mind will now function to create something out of nothing, and this will find its time to be shared here.

As you might or might not know, whilst interviewing Kgositsile and his contemporaries—I’ve thus far interviewed Mongane Serote, Lefifi Tladi, Muxe Nkondo, Tsitsi Jaji, Stephane Roboolin—I have been shooting a documentary. This has been a true blessing in my life, and I’d like to thank my best friend Mafadi Mpuru who has been so generous as to donate a full professional television crew for these purposes. I will continue with the work of shooting a documentary in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, and once again this is made possible by the generous spirit of a friend who owns an Amsterdam production rental company.

So those are my news. New York here I come in 15 days. I received my visa this morning, for a whopping 10 years!! The Americans are generous for such a paranoid country. Well good for me because this will be my first time there, but certainly not my last. This is my life work, and I will continue to invest my time here in (re)writing our beautiful literary history. If I don’t thank my husband for his gentleness and generosity then I will be doing a great injustice unto self first. Reinier has been, and continues to be a rock. All his connections are making this come true, and without him I would be found wanting. My family’s support has let me know: a pride of lions without a leader can be defeated by a limping buffalo (directly translated from Sepedi proverb).

I will say, last but not least, when you do what you love a world of possibilities opens up and the essential things of your heart’s desire become attainable. If your dreams do not scare you it means you have not fully explored your true potential and thrust. Nothing of value can come out of comfort; we must leave, as we have left our parents’ house, that which makes our growth graph stagnant, and pursue that which makes our hearts race, guided by faith, courage, hope, and passion. There is no greater fulfilment than to create something from nothing, to live with a clear vision that propels you forward in your everyday life. Productivity equals growth, and vision equals purpose. Without productivity, vision, and purpose, our growth is stifled…

KK

Our very first meeting in 2012. I was not nervous. But I spoke a lot, which probably means I was nervous 🙂

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Ntate Lefifi Tladi has been most inspiring to engage with. He was part of Medu Arts Ensemble in the 1980s in Botswana, together with Keorapetse Kgositsile, Thami Mnyele, and Dumile Feni. His house is a living and breathing music, literary, and visual arts library. He is a writer, musician, visual artist (he made a Sistine chapel-like ceiling in his house), and performer.

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Prof. Muxe Nkondo lifted the veil off this whole research. He is a literary scholar par excellence, and helped me reveal the core intentions of this study. I am forever indebted to him.

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Ntate Mongane Serote is a living literary legend. He is also the CEO of both Jo’burg theatre and Freedom Park. He was Keorapetse Kgositsile’s student of Creative Writing in the U.S. in the early 1970s, and they lived together like gypsies, travelling to jazz concerts all over the country (U.S.)

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This man is full of humility and brilliance. Dynamites do indeed come in small packages…

South Africanah: 67 minutes of silence

ImageI finished reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent offering Americanah, last night, and I have to congratulate her on a stellar achievement. I have written in a previous post preceding this one about role models, and whilst showering, after I had posted it, I thought I should have made mention of this young woman. She makes me believe that I can write. She infects power in words, and her words move people such as myself to action in different corners of the world. She is a creator, and she speaks with a voice that resonates with all our strife and joys.

I think I will have a series of posts on the book since it is so multi-layered; but for today I want to mull over Adichie’s consideration of race in the New World and in Nigeria. In her novel Adichie’s main character Ife says she didn’t know she was black until she moved from Nigeria to the U.S. There race is rooted in historical processes that were dehumanizing, and regressive, and has consequently contaminated the future: this pathology infects everyday interaction between all races: Hispanic, Mexicans, Africans, Jews (yes, being Jew is a race in the U.S.), and Caucasians, and has created a tragic hierarchy where the Caucasian is at the top, automatically, and the black—any descendant of Africa—is at the very bottom; shaped by the most devastating holocaust called slavery.

In Americanah being a black woman means if you want to get ahead in the workplace you have to straighten your hair—with a gruelling chapter on the effects of those chemicals on one’s scalp—and wear makeup that rarely considers darker skin shades: the foundations and lipsticks in pink salmony colours that would make most dark skinned women look famished and sickly. Being black also means overlooking those so-called ‘nude’ underwear, bra straps, and even bandages, because the ‘nude’ colours weren’t created with our shade of dark in mind. The examination of this pathology goes on and on, and creates a common thread in the narrative, linking a sumptuous love story.

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When Ife goes to Nigeria, she stops writing a successful blog about race, which was a lucrative avenue in the U.S. She stops writing a blog about race because she has stopped being black in her home country. I’m truly happy for Ife, and relived to hear that Nigeria is not torn by the same historical processes of white domination and black dehumanization, unlike my beloved South Africa. I couldn’t help but see myself in Ife, living in two hemispheres, a first world and a third world. The only difference of course is that indeed, one feels black when one is in Europe. Just two days ago we had a braai with a guy who fascinatingly exoticised me—“you’re from Africa?”, “do they have that in Africa?”, “Uhuru? Wow, that is a truly African name”—yes, to some Africa is still a country, being black in Europe might mean you survived a civil war, and having nappy hair makes you an object of curiosity.

Then like Ife I go back to South Africa, Africa, the black continent where, as in the novel, “you’ve never seen so much black people”, and amusingly experience similar inscriptions of blackness by the white imagination. You switch on the television, which I’ve since stopped doing, and all you see are black people who are exoticised, typecast in their majority, vilified, and even dehumanised (through apartheid style black executions such as Marikana massacres). The advertising agencies have black people dancing Tin-Tin-in-Congo style—emphasizing more the name and image of the product in sing-song rhetoric than the actual tag line of the product; because of course black people are incapable of cerebral activity, as the colonisers have concluded. You switch to a magazine that targets a white audience, read here most of them on the shelf, you get adverts in heavily considered muted colours, minimal with just a stylish leather hand bag as a focus, and the tag line reads—Brandish handbags, “the hide to seek”. How very cerebral is that!

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In South Africa, unlike Ife’s Nigeria, our nude underwear and band-aid still cannot be camouflaged by my skin. The plastic straps on the bra that are supposed to make it look strapless looks disgustingly haphazard—tacky and last minute. Some work environments just cannot stomach your afro or those dreadlocks that you try to tame by decorating with beads. Your English voice, as you speak so much about Ife, may be laughed at for not sounding proper and educated. In fact the manner in which you speak English may be a deciding factor of whether you get ahead in life. So much of our customs and tradition have become the laughing stock, and are derided in air conditioned and kitch restaurants for the petit bourgeois—“so he has to pay a bride price? Huh? How many wedding guests are you actually gonna have?”, or “you’re paying for your siblings’ school fees? That is so unfair!”, or “there’s something about your humility that is so African”—slaps in the face parading as compliments.

ImageSo Ife, on this here birthday of our hero Mandela, I just thought I take the mandatory 67 minutes to write this post to you, and to let you know that you might have experienced racism and racial tension in the New World, but were relived to return home to normality, but some of us don’t have that luxury. We enter airport customs at home and that’s where the trauma starts. The native is indeed eternally in a nervous condition. One might get gunned down for being black in a white neighbourhood. That is the truth in America. But guess what Ife; that is the truth in South Africa too. One’s merits may be questioned for getting a job as a black person in America—was it because of affirmative action?—guess what, that is also the truth of South Africa. So on this here tata’s birthday, we shall dance Tin-Tin-in-Congo style, and chant democratic rhetoric while the proverbial magic carpet gets swept from right under our poor black feet.