Winter Wonderings


Saturday Centus #162

The prompt this week:   “If a June night could talk…”
Number of words:  106 total (including the six words of the prompt)
Style of writing: Any

 

Rain  has splattered our windows noisily all day. As night settles and the rain rattles on, the hissing and slight crackle of our log fire keep pace, testifying that like most June nights, it is indeed a cold, wet night in Cape Town.

If a June night could talk, it is not likely our story – of warmth and wi-fi, hearth and home –  that it would tell.  Why would it? There is no news or horror in the mundane middle-class comforts we enjoy.  Except perhaps, that warm and dry ,we spare no thought for the wet beggar, huddled under the bridge,  her stale dry bread now soggy.

homeless

jennysidebar_button_SAT-2

Murmurs from the Cape Flats express


 

This week marked a new chapter in my teaching adventures. While others in my profession move cities and countries, I’ve enjoyed the great adventure of moving my classroom from the suburbs to the city center! With the drop in foreign students over the wet Cape Town winter, a reshuffling of staff was in order and I took on doing what I had doggedly dodged for 8 years: working in the city. The idea of navigating the tedium of morning traffic around the mountain, into the heart of Cape Town, wipers swishing and demister puffing, has never inspired any degree of enthusiasm in me. And I had successfully avoided it by teaching in the leafy suburbs…until this week.

 

The truth is that I have been open to  new chapters this year: this blog is evidence of that. So I approached teaching in the city, with adventure in mind – a Metro Rail Adventure, at that! Rather than brave the carbon crawl in my car, I’ve opted for a real life, man-in-the-street experience. Which means (not the dreaded mini bus, thank goodness!) a morning train with my fellow South Africans! And it’s been a learning I continue to look forward to each day.

Now I’ve  traveled by train during various phases of my life before: as a high school and university student, and later as a young working mother. And what I’m getting is how differently we perceive life at the various stages of our journey through it. I accept that the world itself has changed: after all, I am no longer checked for the audacity of entering a first class carriage, signs are now displayed in three official languages inside the train and hawkers are allowed aboard to sell their wares. But what has changed most is my own awareness of life around me, of human behaviour, of the barriers that remain in place despite the apparent freedom we enjoy. As a teenager commuting only two stations, I looked forward to meeting my friends on the station then chatting all the way through the train ride and all through the walk up Kendal Road until the bell went for assembly. Barring a conductor throwing a passenger off for “jumping train”, I was oblivious to the people around me.

But I’m fully present now. And it’s been a wonderful discovery…

Embarking on any adventure requires a spirit of cheer and excited anticipation. So, despite the biting cold of Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday, I rose early and eager. This was great! I was out in the fresh air, energised and ready for a real workday start. There was a spring in my step as I briskly trotted down the steps into the subway. Immediately, the whiff of government issue sanitizer hit my nostrils, barely covering the stench of stale urine that lingered beneath it. I found myself smiling and shallowly breathing through my mouth, intent not to gag. Horribly familiar, true, but the memory had faded better than the stench.

Up on the other side, I marched on to the platform and chirped a “Good Morning” to three women sitting on the sheltered bench. One raised a sharp eyebrow, another looked away and the third smiled her bemusement in reply. Determined to maintain my cheerful demeanor, I scanned the platform.  How could there be so many people and so little sound, I wondered. Of course! Coated up against the chill of the morning, almost everyone was wired up to an iPod or their cell. A few others had a book and even fewer sat in pairs talking softly. Here and there were some dejected souls looking like the day’s work ahead was a fate worse than I could imagine. And near the fencing, like me twenty years ago, a group of self expressed teens were freely sharing their opinions on life with their buddies and whoever else would listen.

As the train pulled in to collect us, I realised how sheltered we are in a car –  my usual mode of transport. Without the protection of our vehicles’ hulking metal, we are all afraid, too timid to say hello to a stranger, too self-conscious to even smile warmly. In our cars, we easily show another driver our emotion – a wave to say “go ahead, cut in” or a fed up arched brow saying “Do you think your big car makes your rudeness okay?” We even show fists or a finger when we’re justifiably fed up and we don’t hesitate to blow our horns. But take away the shelter of the windscreen, the roof and the bonnet, put us face to face in a carriage with other human beings and – as in a fully packed elevator – there’s a fearful shut down: eyes drop or stare unseeing, bodies compact and stiffen and bags are clutched tightly.  Nobody wants to engage. There is no acknowledging the other. Even for those teens yakking away loudly, their full-blown expressiveness operates only to keep others at bay.  And packed as the train is, we remain disconnected.

So with these insights, I observe the other passengers. I’m enjoying the world that this adventure has opened…I’m learning about myself. And I’m learning about everyone else. What have you been noticing lately?

I almost omitted mentioning  Three Word Wednesday and this week’s prompts: ‘gag’, ‘maintain’ and ‘omit’. Follow the link in my Blogroll and read some more of the responses.

Before we Remember


One of the things I love about working with people from other parts of the world, is that I get to introduce them to my beautiful city. I love that I can show them aspects of Cape Town they don’t usually get to see and share a perspective they may otherwise miss. So I was thrilled last week when my students wanted to visit the District Six Museum. Armed with my phone camera we set out to explore an interesting bit of Cape Town’s past…

Now you may think that museums are boring but – although only 359 years old – Cape Town is a city with a history that is simultaneously rich, cruel and inspiring. And the District Six Museum captures that. With Table Mountain forming a secure backdrop, the open stage stretches all the way to the Cape Flats where the drama continues today.

The Museum fascinates people who visit it because it tells the story of how a government physically destroyed the homes of thousands of people under a policy of segregation during the Apartheid era. Bulldozers razed hovels, houses, flats, neighbourhoods to the ground. Families were split, communities broken and today the gaping emptiness remains at the foot of the mountain, while the Cape Flats – where those evicted were moved- is a daily scene of lost battles against drugs, alcoholism, unemployment and crime.

Horrible as it sounds, we love these kinds of stories. We want to understand how we came to be as we are, or explain how others made us this way. This museum was built to tell this story. The curator, Noor Ebrahim, regularly retells an account of his racing pigeons who, after months on the Cape Flats still flew ‘home’ to District Six and perched in front of the Moravian Church every time he set them free. For most visitors, whether you read it or hear it, it’s a tear jerker.

But there are some surprising elements of the museum that may be glossed over or even missed. That the museum tells a tragic tale is only one interpretation: There are portrait flags that fly in the museum celebrating its heroes: philanthropist Dr Abdurahman, activist Cissie Gool, poet and writer Richard Rievs, ballet dancer Johaar Mosaval, penny whistler Robert Sithole and so many others. They are not just famous people who once lived in District Six. They are extraordinary in that they did not allow the destruction of their homes to become the destruction of their lives.

They chose to use the experience of eviction and discrimination to forward their own contribution to the world. It is they who make the visit a life lesson. Their lives demand that we examine our own narrative and quit retelling the sad stories that keep us stuck.

Given, a walk down memory lane can bring on a bout of nostalgia, a longing for the good old days when the worst gangsters only had fist fights and children played in the streets with wooden pegs, tin cans and chalked blocks with no fear of being hit by stray bullets. But that only serves to disconnect from right now. On the other hand, remembering can evoke sadness, anger or hatred…that provokes blaming and revives long held grudges. Neither reaction is empowering.

Maybe there is something to consider about memory itself, as Roderick Sauls suggests in his “memory room” exhibit in the museum.

All the objects on display are only vaguely recognisable, as if  excavated from limestone when they’ve actually been dredged up from a chalky memory. Some items stick out clearly enough, but others require a fair amount of guess work to determine what they are…the tricks our memory plays as we remember and create what we see in our mind’s blurry eye.

How much of what we remember is what actually happened? And how much of it is simply our own reason for not taking up the challenges life presents and playing fullout to be productive, successful or just plain happy?  We don’t have to forget the history, but before we remember, let’s choose whether we are going to tell it as a story that inspires us or one that keeps us stuck.