Ag in Africa

31 October, 2006

Biege food

Filed under: johannesburg — Ag @ 11:01 pm

biege food - yak

Another assumption shattered.

I had thought that only in the UK would we consider it ok to serve that foul Beige Food at “corporate” events. (By “corporate” I don’t mean anywhere that’s got a decent events budget, obviously, cos I haven’t worked in an organisation that makes money for donkeys.) But here I am, thousands of miles away, and it’s the same biege unidentifiable shit-in-a-tray. The slight difference here is that they genuinely seem to like it. Yak-Weird.


23 October, 2006

More guns than giggles

Filed under: Guns, johannesburg, Peace — Ag @ 11:03 pm

The idea of this blog was to mix the funny and less funny stuff up. Sorry but giggles have been a bit thin on the ground recently, so here’s another shocker.

Tonight I went to a screening of a film called American Gun (with free food and wine and all nice stuff like that). The screening was organised by an NGO called Gun Free South Africa – you do have to admire the ambition. The film was ok, but more potent was one of the people who spoke briefly before the film. She was blond, slim, say 40ish, middle class looking – you wouldn’t remark on her in a Joburg shopping mall. She told, very briefly, in just maybe two minutes, how she had lost three members of her family to guns. All of the circumstances were innocuous, but the one I remember best was her son. He was out in one of the beauty areas around Joburg with a friend. They went out messing around in the countryside, so his friend’s father gave them his gun “in case”. (I guess it’s worth remembering this is Africa, not Wiltshire, and I suppose it’s possible you could happen upon a dangerous beast.) Being teenage boys, they messed around with the gun, and her son accidentally got shot and killed. She made a point of how tiny the bullet was, and I could envisage holding this tiny little metal tube-shaped-thing between my finger and thumb and marvelling at how such a tiny thing could kill her child.

The thing about peace is that it’s such a simple and powerful concept. Or emotion or truism or Thing. And when I got it (which was only about 6 months ago) it was as strong and undeniable as my experience of love. It is everything, in the same way love is (maybe they’re the same thing), and it transcends all the arguments in global wars and domestic disputes. It works whether you’re religious or an atheist, and I say this as someone who’s a bit of both. And it works whether you’re a hippy or a cynic. Ditto.

Here I could add a nice line just to wrap it up in a well-written way. But I don’t want to because these things are unresolved.


P.S. Not sure what the blogging protocol is on fiddling with posts, but am I bovered? Ann has added a most excellent comment to this post, so please do read and then add your names to the global petition against guns at: I’m not entirely convinced such petitions are taken seriously, but, even if you’re as cynical as me, it’s worth doing cos there’s a fantastic doodling pad where you get to draw a picture of yourself with the cursor. Hours of fun.

P.P.S. Three gory gun stats from South Africa: 1) More people are killed by firearms than die in road accidents; 2) 10,854 people were murdered by firearms in 2000; 3) For people age over 15, firearms are the most common cause of death.

16 October, 2006

Fist-in-the-stomach moments

Filed under: Development worker, johannesburg, south africa — Ag @ 8:28 pm

In Joburg, I’m surrounded by statistics. Crime statistics (only 642 ‘aggravated robberies’, a paltry 12 murders, and just 150 instances of carjacking in my area in 2004 – hurrah!), HIV statistics, house price inflation (which is a tedious gluttony here too)… numbers, numbers, numbers. But for me it is the tiny details that I come across that turn these numbers into full-colour pictures. Tiny tiny details – just a couple of words thrown at me here, a snap-shot as I glance up a side-street there; the surprise of exchanging pleasantries with a stranger whilst waiting at a pedestrian crossing.

So here are just two of the tiny moments that have left me winded during my three weeks in Joburg. The instances when I’ve felt sick to my core at the burdens of the people who live with me and around me.

1. Mary does the cleaning in the offices where I work. She is, I guess, about 60. She’s a big lady – she puffs and creaks as she washes the two flights of stairs from the ground floor up to our offices. On the first day I met her, I walked into the kitchen where she was sitting with a cup of tea, tired and sweating. She said, “Aggy, where you live, have you already got a maid?” And I was flummoxed. A maid? A what? “No mamma. I live in a house with a family. We don’t have a maid.” She said, “I need more work, I need some money.” And I’m looking at her and I’m thinking that she probably travels here for an hour each day from one of the townships, and she didn’t even ask me where I live. Wherever I live she will travel there every week for the few Rands that she would make cleaning my tiny flat for a morning. It’s surely time for her to relax and work less and just have enough. I said, “When I move to my own place I’ll tell you mamma”. She said, “Thank you, sissy.”

2. In the first few days that I lived in Joburg, my boss (another Blighter) used to pick me up and take me to work. At the end of my street, there would always be men gathered, obviously waiting for something – I assumed to be picked up to go and work somewhere. On the third day, I said to my boss, “These men, who are they waiting for?” She said, “They are waiting for you or I to ask them to do some work on our houses, like plumbing or fixing something.” They are waiting for me? Is that why they look up at us as we pass every day? I don’t have anything for them. It’s late in the morning, so surely there won’t be any offers today? So they probably won’t make any money today. So what will they live on? These are such naive questions, but I ask them, hoping that there are some reassuring answers to them, which of course there aren’t.

You can read about a project to help these thousands of unemployed men.

10 October, 2006

A horror story

Filed under: Development worker, johannesburg — Ag @ 6:59 pm

The charity I work for uses theatre to try to influence the way ‘young people’ behave in order to reduce the spread of HIV. Stand back! There’s no right-wing-SilverRingThing-positioning going on here. George Bush wouldn’t approve. It’s all very pragmatic and realistic. (Actually, it’s remarkably candid – I never knew there were so many sexual practices available to young people today, I was quite envious – I’ll list them another time…) And because it’s theatre, darling, the 15 or so actors do various warm up acts in the mornings and afternoons before rehearsals and performances. So today, I thought I’d leave the dreariness of my office and wander down to join them in a warm up. I imagined that maybe we’d do something fairly innocuous like… um, like… play British Bulldog or something. But no.

Everyone stood round in a circle, then each person had to jump into the circle, shout someone else’s name and then “do a jive” which everyone else had to copy, with loads of shouting, whooping, clapping, etc. After a few seconds the person whose name was called jumped into the circle, shouted someone else’s name and “did a jive”, whooped, cheered, etc. The thing is, these people are all black and young and cool and lithe and they can bump and grind and whoop and, you know, they can do it, man! Me, I’m none of these things and, what’s worse, I’m a bleedin’ Blighter (person from Blighty) so I’m additionally transfixed by the horror of having to make a complete fuckin idiot of myself. Can you imagine the terror?

So not only was I frantically searching my brain for a “jive” I could do without looking a complete prick but I was also making the feeblest, pathetic-est attempt to copy the jives that were being flung out mercilessly in front in me, quick time. Most of the time I just squiggled from foot to foot, grinning inanely, but once or twice they did a jive that was easy enough for me to vaguely copy, so I’d give it an extra small pathetic effort, and then, big-hole-please-swallow-me-up, they pointed at my hips, whooped more and shouted, ‘yeah, Sissy!”

After a few rounds (believe me, it felt like a boxing match) my name got called. People who know me will vouch that I don’t suffer nerves – I don’t mind public speaking and I quite enjoy interviews, but this… this… this felt like the emotional equivalent of fingernails scraping very slowly down a blackboard.

So I stumbled into the circle like the scarecrow in Wizard of Oz, stopped, looked up and, right there, discovered that I know how to do the Charleston. It just happened. My feet were twisting left-right, forward-back; my hands were twirling round in circles together then opposite; then kick foot out front, hold it! then kick foot out back, hold it! then straight back to the twisting and circling – the whole bleedin’ jive, and everyone’s shouting, ‘Yeah, Sissy’s doing the Charleston!’. And then we’re all doing the Charleston with whooping and shouting and I survived.

So was it liberating? Did I find out something new about myself? Is this like the ending to an American film where we clap each other on the back and big each other up? No. I am NEVER NEVER doing that again.

8 October, 2006

Tales from different worlds

Filed under: apartheid, johannesburg, quakers, south africa — Ag @ 2:44 pm

Today I was sitting around with various people in a Quaker meeting in Joburg. A couple of white people spoke. The first was an older man with grown up sons and daughters. He spoke of how he loved South Africa, its lands and people and its chequered history. He then spoke of how he loved his children and that they no longer live in SA. He spoke of how his heart is twisted with grief by their absence. His son was out of the country for political reasons. He spoke of how his grief has expressed itself in a physical paralysis he has in his foot – he cannot walk easily, but he has no medically identifiable problem.

Then a woman about my age spoke. She told of how her only brother lives in Ireland, and that he has three children, two of whom she has never seen, and how much she misses him and yearns for him. He was out of the country for economic reasons. She said that she thought he was doing the best thing for his family by staying in Ireland and that they were very lucky to have EU passports and ‘all the freedoms and opportunities that affords’.

And I looked at these white people and felt, probably for the first time, how much the apartheid-hangover continues to wound South Africa and all of its people, of every colour. How politicized people’s private lives are. It is unthinkable that anyone I know in the UK would leave for political or even economic reasons. When they leave it is through personal choice.

I find it impossible to imagine that my government’s policies could cause me to be separated from the people I love, and I’m profoundly grateful that I am a citizen of a country where politics is a gentle, largely optional, often imperceptible sideline to the main business of living the lives we choose with the people we choose in the way we choose.

1 October, 2006

No escape

Filed under: johannesburg — Ag @ 5:05 pm

Apologies: couldn’t decide whether to use apostrophes or speech marks (or whatever they’re called) so have used both randomly. Pedants, get over it.

A month or so ago, when I was still in Bristol, a friend and I went to see a shite exhibition at The Bristol Museum called ‘The British Art Show 6’. According to the press release from the Arts Council, this was my “opportunity” to “see the most ambitious survey of new and recent developments in art from the UK”. The word ‘opportunity’ was used in the same way that timeshare-hawkers offer you the ‘opportunity’ to go to a ‘showcase event’ at a hotel in town and get ripped off.

Before we went in, we both estimated how shite it would be. He went for 90% shite and I went for 65%. He won. As an example, the “art” included a “piece” that comprised three pieces of MDF joined together. Hmmmm. I stroked my chin.

The thing is, I’d never thought about it, but if I had, I would have guessed that indulgence of such nonsense was a proviso of the West. If pressed on why I thought this, I would have weighed up my assumptions-based-on-prejudices, squeezed them through an inappropriate-stereotyping-filter, and then said something only mildly patronising like, ‘Outside the West I reckon that there is less tolerance for pretentious art bollocks’.

Well, I was wrong. I went to a dance thing at the Dance Factory in Newtown, Joburg on Thursday night, and my previous performance-art-bollocks experiences were truly equalled. Having missed the first ‘piece’ through getting scarily lost driving round-and-round Newtown, I was in good time to see the second ‘piece’. This involved a guy kind of dropping-around the stage area. The audience were invited to come closer to see the action “from a different perspective”, so I did. Dropping-around from the side instead of the front, close up. Hmmmm. I stroked my chin. If it was meant to be a tragedy, it succeeded. During the applause I shouted out ‘Hoxton’. It just came out.

So anyway. There it is. Yet another assumption shattered. There is no geographical border containing art bollocks, and it’s strangely comforting-but-disturbing to know that chin stroking is an international past-time.

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