25 August 2023

Where I Live

Categories: Featured, Life
low clouds featured

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

– Leonard Cohen –

Recently I saw on a WhatsApp chat that someone in the next suburb just down the road was fundraising by cooking rotis and butter chicken and vegetable curry. I signed on straight away! Friday night was damp and cold as we arrived to collect our food. I got out the car and this lovely rich smell of curry was everywhere, a lady called out to me from a balcony to say she would bring my order down to the car, she was just that minute making the rotis so they would be crisp and fresh. There we sat, looking up at the mountain, on our left a small apartment block that has seen better days and straight ahead a beautiful luxurious house. We sit and chat, sniffing the air like the Bisto kids and then as dusk fell, we hear the call of the muezzin. Yes, I thought, this is where I live.

Kalk bay home

In my neighbourhood there are homeless people who sleep on the mountain above us and there are some who sleep in the small public gardens that are close to where we are. I am, I think not unlike many middle-class people who have a home to live in and food security and who find it painful to really think about what it must be like to live on the street. And I suppose my neighbourhood might not be that different from other neighbourhoods in that some people want with all their hearts for the homeless to simply not be there, to not be this visible presence, this reminder of the failure of our society. To not be the death’s head at the feast? So where possible the homeless are chivied along, pushed away and in the way of how it is now, we tussle and argue, sometimes in very ugly ways and with ugly words among ourselves about THEM: the homeless. And this is where I live.

Fish hoek mountain homes

This morning I watched a Bryde’s whale swim across the bay! Always a happy thing to see a whale and we don’t see a Bryde’s whale often. It was dipping in and out of the water, blowing every so often as it went. Seeing a whale always feels like a visitation from another dimension. And yes, this is where I live.

My bit of the world is where the word “apartheid“ was coined. We were driving up the west coast. Beautiful beaches and just across the bay we could see Robben Island clearly in the bright sun. I am old enough to remember the worst of those dark years. How we came to the very brink of some sort of civil war in the week leading up to the very first democratic election but somehow, somehow, we stumbled into peace. I certainly lived there! And now thirty years on, here we are and not out of the woods yet …tell the truth I think we are still looking for the woods! We are struggling with the electricity supply, the land issue has not been addressed. And this is where I live.

But here’s the thing…within the framework of apartheid I grew up as white. That meant my schooling was free, my schoolbooks were free. I could go to university. I could choose any profession, any job. My black compatriots, comprising 80% of the population, had to pay for schooling, buy textbooks, the very education system in black schools was geared towards creating manual labourers and so they were excluded from skilled labour and supervisory positions. And to make it worse I now know I lived that already compromised life under false pretences. My dad was by the standards set by apartheid legislation not white. So, neither was I. Had he been found out our lives would have imploded. That was where I lived.

Gimme hope Jo’anna
Hope Jo’anna
Hope before the morning comes
– Eddy Grant – (struggle song)

And now here I still am. Often I cringe at the bad things that happen. But a country like a person struggles to overcome past trauma, past conditioning. And here I am where we all too often assume the worst about ourselves but where we are also blessedly able to laugh at ourselves. Here I am now where because of my age I am called mama by all and sundry. And where despite every negative thing, just about every day I am overcome by the courage and resilience of my countrymen, by how ready strangers are to smile and chat. And overcome by the extraordinary fact that against all odds we have got this far when in the eighties fear had become despair and so endemic that I had given up hope that I would live to see change.

You must believe this you must believe this
There are better days before us
And a burning bridge behind us
– Patric van Blerk, Fransua Roos – (struggle song)

So this is where I live. It is beautiful. And it is ugly. There is generosity of spirit and there are those who refuse to acknowledge the wrongs of the past and others who refuse to admit to the wrongs of the present. All too often there is pain in living here. But this is where I live and this is the only place where my language lives and even more often it is a great joy to say this, this is where I live.

Elke dag beloof ’n nuwe hawe:
Telkens is daar vaste grond in sig
In oggendlig.
Elke aand word elke droom begrawe
Maar dan , een more, keer die stemme terug:
Sien ek, met die oe omhoog gerig,
’N visioen, ’n vergesig
’N sterrebrug!
’N land van lig!
– Koos du Plessis –

Each day brings promise of safe harbour
And a sight of solid ground
In morning light.
Every night the dream is buried
But then, one day, the voices do return
And I see, with eyes raised on high
A vision, a view afar
A bridge of stars!
A land of light!
Translation Di McDougall


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