The sunrise of my last morning in Urbana reminded me of so many other beautiful sunrises I have seen from my apartment there on the rare (usually contemplative) occasions I am awake at that time. It is early morning here in Durban as I write this - 5:44am - but the sun has already risen and I am awake after about five hours of sleep. My wakefulness is likely due to jet lag and my excitement to finally see the city in daylight but also partly due to the loud cries of hadada ibis from outside of my window. The "hadada" part of their name refers to their loud call of "haa haa haa de dah" that sounds to me at this early hour like mocking. Of course I can hardly blame them - my dreams were suffuse with everyday anxieties from Urbana and it seems ridiculous to me they still reach me thousands of miles away.
K dropped me off in Indianapolis about 10:30am (EST) and I entered the "airport-complex" - a vast network of airports, technical devices, quasi-private/quasi-public organizations providing services that range from shoe shines to security, and the individuals who move within the complex for work, pleasure, and countless other reasons. After an event-less couple of hours of waiting, I boarded my flight to Atlanta and arrived with ample time to make my way to the international terminal where I would catch my next flight to Dakar, Senegal.
The international terminal buzzed with a different energy than the domestic terminals at Indy or Atlanta - it was a nervous, near-fearful energy encouraged by the public announcement warnings and the shallow glass displays that lined the concourse's walls. The majority of these displays were entitled "BUYER BEWARE" and they teemed with "exotic" objects including animal parts (in some cases, even wholes), jewelry, and powdered or liquid concoctions. The displays warned travelers not to partake in a particular kind of dangerous consumption while abroad - a consumption that suggests the piecemeal dismantlement of cultures that are at once attainable through the possession of a few totemic objects and at the same time radically "other" or incomprehensible. To me these glass cases resembled the dusty dioramas I remember poring over as a child during a class visit to a natural history or cultural museum.
The nervous energy of the concourse seemed most perceptible at the currency exchange stands, whose large, lighted advertisements exploited fears of US travelers of being caught in an unspoiled, idyllic paradise without a means to sustain the paradise and their experience of it monetarily. Other smaller and more officious warnings instilled fears of these same travelers being caught "out there" at the mercy of exchange rates and money-changers in unfamiliar territory. Ironically enough, this particular stand in Atlanta offered an exchange rate for the Rand (South African currency unit) at 6.2 to the dollar while the rate in Johannesburg's airport offered R7 to the dollar.
The eight-hour flight from Atlanta to Dakar was pleasant - the 767 was relatively empty and many of us were able to spread out into two or more seats and attempt odd bodily contortions in hopes of finding a few hours of sleep along the way. We landed in Dakar about 5:20am local time but those of us continuing on to Johannesburg were not allowed to disembark. It would have been nice to get a sense of what Dakar looked like - I was hoping the sun would rise before our takeoff or the ascent above the clouds - but I just saw lights intermittently scattered around the airport and the scrabbly vegetation next to the runway during our plane’s taxi. During the hour we waited on the plane, airport/government officials entered to search our seats and bags and spray a “human-friendly” insecticide of some sort through the cabin that smelled sweet and heavy.
When we reached 10,000 feet during the next eight-hour leg of the flight it looked as though we were flying next to the stars themselves. There were two especially bright ones in relative proximity to one another that stayed constant even while the others began to fade at the suggestion of dawn. Seeing them made me wonder which stars they were and encouraged me to investigate stars visible from the Southern hemisphere after landing. The sun rose blindingly bright above the clouds and I closed the window-shades so that I could sleep for a few more hours before landing.
After the quiet seclusion of the flights, the Johannesburg airport seemed to explode with confused interactions that ranged from the sweet (a cute little hound sniffed out a banana I had stowed in my bag – its caretaker confiscated it while several people pet the dog) to the inexplicable. Because of the country’s high rate of unemployment (of which I hope to address in more detail in future posts), the international terminal teems with unofficial porters who insistently attempt to take charge of you and your luggage. From what I was told these porters often offer help and then pressure you for a disproportionate amount of compensation later. The Joburg airport was vast and – although much of it was under construction – enclosed its inhabitants within a giant cocoon of glass and steel. During my wait for the last part of my travels within the airport complex (an hour flight from Joburg to Durban) I ate at “WIMPY,” a fast-food burger restaurant (the ketchup is so sweet here, its first ingredient is sugar!) and met J, about eight years younger than me but also traveling to South Africa to complete a semester at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban.
After the quick flight into Durban I also met two other young Americans – S and H, two women from Portland who were traveling to a smaller, coastal town two hours from Durban as volunteers to help the local school establish an after-school program. It was hard to have an impression of Durban since it was so dark when I arrived. It is nearly 7am now and later today I will be going round to get a sense of the area – at least in terms of necessities (a laptop adaptor, a pay-as-you-go cell phone, and food for my kitchenette). Also, at some point later it will be necessary for me to articulate in words why it is that I have come here to spend the next three months. But first… perhaps I will try to sleep for another few hours.
Although yesterday (Wednesday) was technically my first day in Durban, after going to the Woolies (Woolworth’s, the more expensive but better quality grocery store) for food in the early afternoon, I slept most of the rest of the day. Today (Thursday) was my first full day around the city. This morning around 9:30 I went with J, my landlady, to a local art gallery and café to meet up with her friend N for some coffee. Both J and N are immigrants to South Africa, entering the country from Scotland and Bulgaria, respectively, about two decades ago at a time when immigration (at least from certain areas) was more encouraged by the government. The gallery also housed a fair trade shop, which reminded me a bit of being back at 10,000 Villages in Champaign. Most of the crafts were from within SA, but they also had some items from various artisan groups in other African countries. I bought a wonderful beaded doll made by Monkeybiz South Africa, a group that supports craftwork made by disadvantaged people in the townships of Cape Town. The practice of beaded crafts predates colonialism in SA, unlike most needlework crafts, which arose amongst women after its introduction by (mostly) British missionaries (more detail on needlework and British missionaries later). After the gallery J took me to a shopping mall to obtain a cell phone to use while I am here. They are pervasive in Durban so I was able to find one for R350. Unfortunately I can’t use the phone in the US so as much as I can save it as a souvenir or possible future use here or in Europe, it will likely end up adding to the technological waste-pile, even after disposing of it “properly” (as in, not just chucking it into a trash can).
In the afternoon I visited the University of KwaZulu-Natal, which is located along the same ridge where I’m staying. The view of Durban’s harbor was so beautiful from outside of the library - it is cluttered with industry compared to the wide, empty expansiveness of the beaches but Durban's port is one of the ten busiest in the world.
The sky was so blue and everywhere the verdure landscape filled my views with intense greens. There are dandelions here too! Since their bracts are shaped differently from the species I am familiar with, I had to take a picture. At the university I visited the library and spoke to the very friendly officer in charge of the special collections whom I hope to see again in the future after I have set up my affiliation so I can use materials there. For the rest of the afternoon I sat at a table in the library and looked out at the view of harbor as the sky darkened somewhat (thunderstorms were predicted but never arrived – only overcast skies and cool winds that made the walk up the ridge a lot easier). I read some of Modikwe Dikobe’s poetry (from Dispossessed) and then started a novel, Second-Class Taxi, by Sylvester Stein. The latter was one of the first satirical books written about apartheid; it was first published in 1958 but promptly banned in SA. I’m reading them in context with Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums and will have much more to say about this soon.
After the library I walked along the ridge and passed where I am staying to walk down Moore Street to the Glenwood Shopping Centre. I browsed a fabric store (nothing caught my interest and I’m still a bit confused at how to order fabric here anyway since it’s certainly not by the yard) and then shopped for some food and supplies to take back home at the SuperSpar grocery store there. I still haven’t tired of wandering the aisles of the local grocery stores to note the persistence of originally US brands of foodstuffs and also to note differences in food tastes. I knew things were going to go well culinarily speaking when I spied the Russian rolls behind the bakery stand. It’s a hot dog baked within a seasoned bun that has melted cheese on top – and all for less than $1 US! It was so savory and made part of a great dinner. I also discovered something else that I am looking forward to trying – “Mince Mate” – much like “Hamburger Helper” except you “just add mince,” which is seasoned textured vegetable protein. The produce here is so fresh and very reasonable compared to the US so I bought mangoes, nectarines, sweetcorn, and baby marrows (squash). I caught the Mynah bus back up the hill (public transportation in Durban is not ideal so I am lucky to be staying right next to the Mynah line, which runs from Entabeni Hospital on the top of the ridge where I am all the way down to the beachfront, where I will be working). Tomorrow I spend my first day at Create South Africa’s offices where they store the archive of cloths. I look forward to writing about it afterwards – so far as I know now, I will be photographing the cloths for my research use but also assisting in editing the English translations associated with the cloths.
As much as I am here in Durban, I wish everyone I know in Urbana to be safe and well with the impending snowstorm that has been predicted for Friday.
I updated the "About" page with an explanation as to what the name for this blog means. It is early Saturday morning here and I have so much to say about yesterday, my first day at the CAS office, but I am still struggling with how I can say what I need to.
The name for this blog, (d)urban(a), refers to the city I am
currently living in for the next three months, Durban, KwaZulu-Natal,
South Africa, and the city I have spent the last three years living in,
Urbana, Illinois, United States. Their names connect formally through
the word "urban," but the concept "urban" manifests itself in each of
these cities in markedly different ways in terms of scale, population,
city structure, and development.
The coincidence of name may not last - there has been a proposed
name change, as Durban was named in 1835 by British white settlers
arriving from Cape Colony who named the strip of land along the coast
after Sir Benjamin d'Urban (governor of the Cape Colony at the time). A
couple of years ago many of Durban's street names were changed to honor
activists (mostly those affiliated with the African National Congress)
who spent years struggling against apartheid and its Group Areas Act. In 2000 the unicity council of Durban was renamed to "eThekwini," the original name for the greater Durban area. It derives its name from the word "itheku," which refers to the horns of the bull (the shape of the bay is said to resemble bull's horns). In terms of the city, the name KwaKhangela has been proposed, as this was King Shaka's name for the area prior to colonization.
I have willfully avoided describing my first day at Create South Africa (CAS) because it simply overwhelmed me. I'll try later today to put a narrative into text since I'm spending much of the day reading outside in the shade or in my room in Glenwood (a relatively quiet, suburban enclave in the city). For now, I want to discuss one project M (whom I will work most closely with at CAS) introduced me to on Friday and the particular question it poses to its participants.
CAS has recently partnered with the Parliament of the Republic of South Africa's Parliamentary Millennium Project, "Perspectives On and Of Africa." The PMP supports CAS to conduct quilt workshops with groups of women (living in both urban and rural areas) in each of the nine provinces of the country. M had just completed her first workshop in December with a group of about thirty women from the Eastern Cape province and the next workshop is scheduled for March right here within the KwaZulu-Natal province. At the beginning of the week the women are asked, "What Does Democracy Mean to You?" and by the week's end each woman has narrated (orally for those participants who are illiterate) a response to the question and accompanied it with a sewn quilt panel using mixed media of cloth, thread, and beads. Translators working for the PMP assist in the translation of the narratives from their original language (which, depending on the area, is usually in any one of ten official African languages or possibly in Afrikaans) into English. Eventually these quilt panels will be framed with the narratives (both forms) and a photograph of the panel's creator for display at the Parliament in Cape Town.
On Friday M and I pored over the English translations the PMP had sent along to edit them further (making small changes in grammar, syntax, and sometimes diction). M speaks seven of South Africa's official languages fluently to my one, but I suppose my background in composition instruction came somewhat in handy (I never imagined I would be so grateful for the time I spent, both as a student and an instructor, enmeshed in the brambly rules of English grammar offered by Diane Hacker and her kind). The overwhelming majority of responses cited the following four components of democracy: potable water electricity paved roads close access to health clinics I will be entirely honest to say that my particular background unprepared me for responses that were so immediate and concrete. What I wonder is, what is the difference of conceiving of democracy as equality of access to an essential bundle of material, social goods and conceiving of democracy through other abstractions such as equality before the law, rule of law, or human rights? Additionally, how have universal or global conceptions of democracy been put to use compared to site-specific or local understandings of democracy?
The question of how to conceive of democracy remains an important and highly contested one here in South Africa, particularly as the years from 1994 when South Africa formally achieved complete enfranchisement of the population elapse. The practical and widespread implementation of this formal achievement has been criticized on many fronts (nationally and globally). For example, last Tuesday (29 Jan 2008) John Minto, a New Zealand anti-apartheid activist who organized the 1981 Halt All Racist Tours, rejected a nomination for the Companion of OR Tambo Award (a prestigious award whose past posthumous recipients include Ghandi and MLK Jr). In his rejection letter to South Africa president Thabo Mkebi, Minto insisted, "when we protested and marched into police batons and barbed wire here in the struggle against apartheid, we were not fighting for a small black elite to become millionaires. We were fighting for a better South Africa for all its citizens."
Saturday I spent the morning at the Essenwood Market in Berea Park. Every Saturday morning, several rows of stalls filled with crafts and food cover part of the park. Bypassing the braai (the very popular Afrikaans barbecue), I finally got to try some of the Indian food I had heard so much about before arriving in Durban. The city and its surrounding areas has a population of at about one million Indians in large part because of a massive influx of Indians as indentured laborers in the mid-19th century. They came to the KwaZulu-Natal area primarily to work in sugar plantations or the mines for the British. Their imprint on the local food culture here has been indelible - there is even a particular curry widely known as "Durban curry" that I hope to try soon. On Saturday I had a kebab sandwich - it was made from ground mutton and served on roti, unleavened flat bread. The kebab was delicious - very spicy with strong accents of cilantro and coriander.
I'm looking forward to reading news of Super Tuesday tomorrow in the US and the major news outlets here in SA have provided some coverage of the US election season - in fact, when I landed in the Johannesburg airport I was surprised to see the giant front-page headline devoted to news that Ted Kennedy had officially announced his support of Barack Obama. However, another election has occupied much of the media's attention here.
Over the last week, reference to the economic and political crisis in Zimbabwe and its upcoming elections has arisen in nearly every conversation I have had. Bordering South Africa to the north, Zimbabwe has been in an economic spiral for the last seven years with most major news outlets attributing the current hard currency shortage and hyperinflation to President Mugabe's compulsory land redistribution policies beginning in 2000. While the idea of the redistribution was altruistic - it was meant to reclaim land for indigenous Zimbabweans from the small minority of whites who possessed over 70% of land - the implementation of the program and the subsequent standstill in farming and mining has made the redistribution project a disaster. The situation in Zimabwe has been so grim over the last seven years that the World Health Organization reports the average life span for Zimbabweans has halved - from 69 years in 2000 to 35 years today. BBC News and CNN have been banned from filming and reporting in the country and the government has enforced strict suppression of the press and free speech.
Thousands of Zimbabweans are fleeing the country each day, many into South Africa with the Zimbabwe Civic Action Support Group, amongst other groups, estimating that about three million have fled to South Africa since 2000. SA president Thabo Mbeki has attempted to mediate efforts in Zimbabwe, especially in regards to its upcoming elections, which are scheduled for March. Charges of electoral rigging have already been waged against the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party, led by President Mugabe, which has been the ruling political party since Zimbabwe's independence in 1980. Today, it was just reported that talks to unite the two factions of the Movement for Democratic Change have collapsed, a failure that may ensure Mugabe's reelection next month.
You can find it at convenience shops in the airport, at stands in local
outdoor markets, and even in the larger supermarkets around here. It's
meat jerky - called biltung here - and it may be made from
ostrich, wildebeest, springbok, other game meats, beef, or a blend of
several of these meats. The jerky is also inextricably connected to
Boer ethnic pride. During the "Great Trek" of the 1830s and 40s, a
group of about 12,000 Boers, later called Voortrekkers
(Pioneers), migrated from the Cape Colony to the areas now known as the
Natal, Free State, and Transvaal regions. For the most part,
historians suggest this group was fleeing from recently imposed British
rule but population pressures and constant border wars with
Xhosa-speaking African groups along the eastern frontier of the Cape
Colony may also have contributed to the move. Along the way, the voortrekkers
relied heavily on dried meat jerky to sustain them. I sampled an
"ostrich chunk" that I purchased from major food retailer, Woolworth's, and can't say
that I was particularly fond of ostrich. The flavor struck me as
somewhat heavy or "gamy," but it is a flavor that many find very enjoyable.
Although I wrote earlier about Create South Africa's quilt project with the South Africa Parliamentary Millennium Project, I finally feel more prepared to write about my involvement with them so far. In November of 2006 while writing a review essay on "material rhetoric," I included a catalog from the exhibition "Weavings of War: Fabrics of Memory" in my consideration of "material" engagements with the public sphere. In that essay I argued that a rhetoric of material insists textiles and clothing possess materialized agency, like Alfred Gell's notion of a secondary agent in Art and Agency or the notion of an actant in actor-network-theory. In positing a rhetoric of material, we can challenge the Western depth ontology that devalues surface and expand the possibility of what may count as rhetorical engagement, as well as the types of cultures and actors who can produce rhetoric.
Part of the "Weavings of War" exhibition included the "memory cloths" created through one of Create South Africa's workshops. These embroidered quilt panels disrupt expectations for craft work - they negotiate between invention and commonplaces within embroidery and quilt practice.
This panel, created by Pamela Grootboom in the Western Cape in December 2007, illustrates what I mean. In the lower part of the panel, Pamela depicts two young people on the street exchanging drugs for money. Above them she illustrates two young people making soup as part of a soup kitchen that Grootboom started in her township. Both show relationships between people, the former damaging to the township community near Cape Town where Pamela lives and the latter benefiting the community and giving its young residents a safe place to go to help provide meals for themselves and others. Most of us don't expect textiles or embroidery to approach subjects like drug use and the creation of soup kitchens and for that reason, these cloths arrest our attention more than merely reading a written account of the drug and poverty problem in Cape Town's informal settlements (or in economically depressed areas anywhere). Besides, many of the participants in the program don't have the facility in writing English to be able to reach audiences outside of their townships anyway.
Reading about the project and seeing a few digital image reproductions of the cloths, however, was not enough for me to get a sense of how the project operates on a daily basis. My curiosity about this particular nongovernmental organization (NGO) was embedded within a broader interest in handicraft NGOs operating within the "global South." My previous experience with such an NGO was volunteering for the local 10,000 Villages fair-trade shop in Champaign, Illinois, but that was a comfortable retail shop with several new computer stations to assist management and volunteers in product information and location. I think that was why I was so surprised when I went to the Create South Africa offices for the first time last Friday - there was such a difference. The CAS office is located on Palmer Street - basically an alley that mostly houses auto body repair shops - in Durban's relatively crime-ridden downtown area. The commercial building that houses the cloth archive is bare and the organization uses two PCs and a copy machine that are all nearly a decade old. During the summertime, the office can grow warm, even with the circulating fan and the breeze coming in from the large window that lights the space, especially on a day like yesterday when M and I spent some time ironing and steaming the cloths before photographing them. After the first few days I guess what I came to realize is that no matter how small or seemingly insignificant an infrastructure (economically and technologically speaking) - productive work (rhetorical and otherwise) can still happen. I look forward to writing more about the work that happens during a week-long workshop when the cloths are made and I will have the opportunity to participate (assisting in embroidery and sewing instruction) during the next one in March here in KwaZulu-Natal.
I have had a lot of friends ask me how South Africans and the South African media here conceive of the United States. I can only speak of what I have picked up so far from observing popular culture sources (through television, newspaper, and a couple of shopping malls) and a few scattered conversations. One of the first icons that greeted me when I arrived in Durban was a Native American Chief. Coming most recently from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where the school has only just (after years of activism) "retired" Chief Illiniwek as the school's mascot, seeing a giant chief plastered on trash bins throughout the city was pretty absurd. Spur is a large chain of restaurants in South Africa - visiting their website is certainly an experience one does not soon forget. Their theme song greets you with, "take me to the canyon, where the secret tribe plays, I'm hungry for adventure, I've got a taste for life today," as images of a multicultural "tribe" of "Indians" flashes before you. I've photographed the exteriors of two so far - "Mustang Spur" and "Kansas Spur." Although I have yet to dine at a Spurs and may never have the pleasure to "saddle up" at one of these "steak ranches", even from standing outside, you can tell the booths are upholstered with cow print. Granted, this is one of the more outrageous popular representations of the US, but while on the bus today I spoke to G, a man about my age who was telling me about a friend who moved to Ohio to teach rugby and be with his American girlfriend. G told me that his friend was concerned with meeting his girlfriend's father, as he was "coloured" (a specific racial category here in South Africa since Apartheid) and his girlfriend was white. G said he imagined the woman's father looming large on a "Texas-sized" ranch and brandishing a shotgun at his friend. Although he was joking somewhat in telling the story, it still speaks to how globally pervasive the American "wild west" trope seems to be. But this is just one of the many representations of the US here. So far coverage on the news has been limited to two subjects - the presidential primaries and entertainment news (apparently Britney Spears' latest dramas even rate here). The television programming relies heavily on American productions, in particular US "soapies" (Days of Our Lives, Passions, All My Children), several sitcoms and talk shows (Oprah is very popular here), and a lot of [bad] American movies (Barbed Wire, The Animal, should I go on?). What I have appreciated in conversation, especially the many I have had with M at the Create South Africa office, is that mostly people have questions about the US - they ask questions about the issues that are pressing here: particularly employment opportunity, race relations, HIV/AIDS, and drug use. I know I have asked so many questions about the culture here too. I have valued the open conversations I have been able to have so far, whether it's with M, a taxi driver, or the family who lives in the CAS offices to watch the building at night whose three-year-old son wants to go to America.