Tuesday, November 13, 2007

can't figure it out

Today I’ve had a nice tour of Cape Town. I haven’t really walked any streets yet, but I’ve seen many parts of the city through a car window and been introduced to a number of people from outside the car window. It’s an interesting city, with sections of town that appear quite different from each other. The scenery is mostly all stunning of course.

Also today I stepped into the eastern edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Though I saw the Atlantic when I was in Cape Coast, Ghana, I never made it down to the beach there to actually feel it. The ocean water here was cold but not unbearable even for my cold-avoiding self, though cold enough that I wasn’t tempted to run back for my swimming costume (that’s what they’re called here) so I could jump in. Sometime in the next couple weeks, whether here or later in Durban, I’ll get to check out the supposedly much warmer waters of the Indian Ocean, that ocean we Americans barely remember exists.

As I mentioned, it’s beautiful here. It’s a different kind of beauty from the other places I’ve visited on the continent, which have mostly all been stunning but in a plethora of different ways. I think I feel different coming here after three months in other parts of Africa than I would if I’d just arrived here on holiday (it’s beginning to seem odd to use the word “vacation”…holiday is quite a pleasant word). I think it’s also different being here to work rather than to holiday (um, I’m not sure you’re supposed to use that word that way, but, hey, I’m in Africa; I should experiment, or something). This place is a beach town. Parts of it even have a Mediterranean appearance (I say that with a superb level of authority, of course, based on all the years I’ve spent idling away along the Mediterranean). It seems like a place for vacationing, in spite of the obvious work being done by the employees in the maritime industry I’m realizing know nothing about.

All that said, I can now say that there’s something in my response to this place that I can’t identify. After all my talk about not categorizing people and places because it can be so detrimental or limiting, I find myself trying to figure out what category to fit this place into, at least to fit it into long enough to help me figure out what nags me. It’s still Africa, but it does feel vastly different from most of the other places I’ve lived during the past three months.

When I consider whether I will ever live on this continent and if so where (which, by the way, I’m not feeling called to do in a long-term way in the immediate future…but maybe someday…and maybe a sooner someday than I currently expect…anything’s possible at the moment), it seems that Kampala and even the rural parts of Uganda, for example, felt more comfortable to me than Cape Town does. And I think it’s because somehow the category-driven part of my head says that if I were going to move somewhere like Africa, I would want to live in a place that was obviously different from what I’m used to because then I would anticipate the uncomfortable things I’d run into but also maybe because part of the attraction of living outside America would be living outside America. Here, it seems like it would be easy to live a life that almost allows to you avoid really living in Africa. And then I’m not even sure what I mean by that. This is the first place I’ve landed and wanted to say to it, “Don’t become too much like the West! Don’t lose your unique beauty!” I might have thought that in Joburg, too, but I didn’t end up seeing a whole lot of Joburg, and maybe it helps that my early days there included a visit to the informal settlements in Soweto. But, then I wonder why I think all these things. Is it because this Cape Town Africa doesn’t fit so neatly into the categories that persist in my head--even after these months of category breaking--of what Africa is supposed to look and sound and feel like?

This continent is vast and varied, complex and contradictory. It should not be expected to be homogeneous. It’s so easy to try to fit all of this place under one umbrella description: things that are true about Africa. And, certainly, there are some general characteristics that hold true throughout, but one must leave room for all the things that aren’t the same from place to place. And perhaps that’s what’s nagging me as I stand between Cape
Town’s sea and its big mountain enjoying the view.

Also of note is a sense gleaned from conversations during these two and half weeks of South Africa that racial issues are complex here these days. You can feel that things are still being worked out here. In other places I’ve been, while there are certainly white Africans in them, the majority of the white people I saw were still expats. Here the majority are South African, many of whom have families that have been here longer than my family has been in America. I would never call myself anything other than American, and I’m not regularly asked how long my family has been in America. Yet, here I find myself asking my white hosts such questions in an effort to figure out what’s going on here.

I am almost more aware of my skin color here than I’ve been during other parts of this trip when I’ve been the only white person for what appears to be miles, like when I was in downtown Nairobi visiting some alumni from Africa University. Here I wonder what assumptions are connected to me even though I’ve not been a direct part of the history of this place. Even in Zimbabwe, I didn’t encounter this sense of racial difficulty. The everyday Zimbabweans I encountered seemed much more concerned about economic crises than anything race related.

When a driver was picking me up from the b&b I stayed in my last two nights in Joburg, the host’s elderly aunt accidentally left the house door open when she came out to collect the key. The family’s large, black and potentially-mean dog came running out toward Patrick, the driver, and me. However, the dog bypassed me and instantly ran up to the driver. The aunt apologized profusely and told us all to stand still until the dog calmed down. There was never any clear danger, but, then, I wasn’t the one with a big dog bounding toward me. Later on the way to the airport, Patrick, a very nice, pleasant man, commented, “Did you notice that the dog came to me? It’s been trained to see color!” I asked how that made him feel. I’m not sure he answered my question, but he did note that there’s a hard history between black people and dogs here. He doesn’t especially like dogs because they’ve been used for some bad things.

And so it goes. It seems almost nothing is simple here. But, maybe that’s true everywhere.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In reading your article I could not help but wonder if the dog went after your driver instead of you was because you had been around the house for a couple of days. The dog knew your scent and knew you posed no threat. Maybe instead of going after the driver it was not because the dog had been trained to color but had been trained to recognize strangers. I don't doubt that this man has experienced some hard things in life because of his color but maybe this time it was really about being a stranger to a mean dog who was trying to protect his family. Just a thought. -Mom-