i write at my auntie's house- a plush apartment in northern Jo'burg and the setting for a weekend of recuperation after the culmination of our 'delegation' around south africa and before a 20 hour bus journey to harare and all that lies in the great country of zimbabwe.
i had the first dream that i remembered about mbira last night- a very happy thing for me as proper mbira players (of which i am a generation away from being) often talk of ancestors coming into their dreams and teaching them new parts, or giving encouragement. in this dream an old man took the mbira from my hands as i was playing a tune i know and said something along the lines of 'no, you haven't got the feeling yet, play the song like this' and played the same song in a way that made all the bits of it fit together in a very beautiful way, but when he handed it back to me again i still could n't master it. i also dreamt about riding my bike over small burgeons of grass and on and on and on.
my auntie works for the UN and it was interesting to hear the inside knowledge before and after on the 'development world' before and after we met representatives from the UNDP (united nations development programme) and the british high commission in pretoria. certainly, especially in swaziland (yet another ex-colony) people look to the UK as a country that may intervene to improve governance (i.e. help install proper democracy) and provide aid and to some extent international recognition for their social stuggles. whilst one of the people we spoke to seemed to genuinely be trying to make headway on the swazi issue (detailed in the last blog post), the un seems like a badly governed country that is as slow to acknowledge the gravity of issues as it is to act on them.
welcome relief to this beaurocracy was abundant in and around cape town. on 16th june, south african youth day in rememberance of the Soweto township uprisings in which mostly 13-16 year old children marched autonomously by the thousand in protest at having to be taught in afrikaans, and were met with live ammunition from the SA police. dozens died and white vigalantes were photographed shooting indiscriminantly at blacks in the townships. at the project we found beautiful and raw performance poetry, ragingly beautiful choirs and strong old marxists who had put the project together with tiny amounts of money and had seen a sharp decline in the amount of young people entering gangs in the area. as a white tourist i like to work to gain the smiles and respect of south african activists rather than be judged on the money i have or potentially will bring in to a project, and this was an excellent case in point. we shared food and music and talked about their home made library, funeral cooperative and reading schemes.
perhaps the most powerful day though was the day we were taken by ex-ANC youth members, who escaped the country in the early 60s to be trained in Tanzania, uganda and zambia in guerilla warfare tactics (Mandela made a speech advocating violent resistance in the late 50s just before he was put in prison and a militant wing of the ANC was established), leaving their wives and lives and coming back into the country to practice what they had learned as the white government got more and more extreme in their own suppressive tactics. we were taken to a place bang in the middle of the beautiful downtown of cape town to see the shrubby hills where no less than 60,000 blacks and coloureds were forcibly removed to the townships to make way for pretty white developments, and then travelled out to three of the townships (read black and coloured ghettos) where they had been resettled.
i have seen slums in india and uganda but never anything on this scale- kilometre after kilometre of tightly packed corrogated iron homes, the ones that were shipping containers looked the most stable, with small fires, tiny shops selling pumpkins and potatos, ladies carrying children on their backs and whole lives on their heads. we stopped and smelt the air where just 20 years ago hundreds were killed, maimed and abducted in running battles with the police, where only 15 years ago the ailing white rulers sent in agent provocateurs to turn zulu against xhosa to prove that blacks were always going to be violent and would never be able to run a country, and where even today we are the only white faces that can be seen. but we were being led by a man whose history and presence commanded respect from us and potential pickpockets alike. this was a comrade whose brother and father had been killed under aparteid, who had left his family to fight for his beliefs and who still, amost 20 years later, was living in the informal housing sector waiting for the government to build him a proper house. another legend we were lucky to have access to.
South Africa in a paragraph is one of inequality with such the extremes so starkly across racial lines that at times it feels like apartheid rumbles on through the much more subtle rule of the dollar, much in the same way that imperialism rules through the dollar rather than the gun in much of the world today. however, despite a government that bleats socialism but actually is liberalising markets faster than you can say 'IMF', the people on the ground have the concept of ubuntu i.e. support and empathy for your fellow man, firmly fixed into them, and i guess this is the only way to keep smiling when the perils of post-apartheid capitalism keep life so hard
and in my travels there always seems room for the absurd (indeed, it is essential). here it involved a 7am trip to an evangelical church in the heart of johannesburg- at least 700 people in a huge room focussing on a slick-haired, greasy brazilian 'pastor' who praised god and money in equal measure. he and many others wore tshirts saying in huge letters 'SACRIFICE IS A MUST'... which ofcourse meant giving shitloads of your money to the church (him). we were subjected to a 10 minute long film, the first 3 minutes of which detailed 'mr chippy' and how shit his life was before he ignored the protests of his wife and gave 2 months entire salary to the church. the second 7 minutes surveyed in details all the material possessions he now had as one of the most successful businessmen in south africa. we were then all encouraged to pick up an envelope from the front, stuff it with as much money as we had (if we didn't have enough we were, happily, allowed to bring it back the next week)... if we didn't do this, it was implied, there was little welcome to be had here. everyone loved the hope this man offered and it was painful at times, however the music they played and we sang to- the reason i was there- was somethign between hard drum and bass and 'feeling hot hot hot' style pop and i danced my tits off.
Friday, June 19, 2009
written on 11/56/09 but held back without internet till now... i think some of it was perhaps a bit rash...
This whole thing is kind of funny. I am in Johannesburg, a city that
oscillates between the brooding, colourful hope and exhaust that I smelt
in Kampala, and the stulted, wide boulevards of an LA suburb, with
teenagers licking ice creams and mirrored office buildings sitting at
every corner. Not that this somewhat negative impression scratches the
surface of what I am sure is a great and beautiful city- I just haven¡¦t
had a chance to explore it. We have been in southern africa almost a week,
chauffered between fancy hotel and wood panelled board room over and over
again, meeting various organisations and getting to know each other- a
group of 10 ¡¥youth leaders¡¦.
Having said this, some of Africa was found on a 3 day sojourn to
Swaziland, a landlocked absolutist monarchy that is home to just over 1
million people and the highest HIV rate in the world. We took the 6 hour
drive from Jo-burg as the landscape changed from flat prarie land to deep
valleys and hills that are almost mountains. The Swazi people are really
lovely, relaxed people who are for the most part off the tourist trail
and so tiny crime rates and no cynicism. We visited some growing co-ops
and walked a little in the hills.
My fellow ¡¥youth leaders¡¦ leave me flummoxed. Four work for the labour
party, either as campaigners or PAs for MPs. One of them used to work for
Liam Burn, ex-immigration minister and a total Daily Hate Male. Three have
close links with the NUS, including it¡¦s vice-president- an organisation
that this year has decided to campaign against binge drinking (as opposed
to free education, student housing or anti-racism) in a bizarre twist that
makes students effectively pay to be mothered. The rest are trade
unionists (always good eggs, and this case is no exception). Talk is of
nonsense NUS and labour insider politics- this in between meetings where
we hear how the world bank is withholding aid, people are dying of curable
diseases if they are not dying of AIDS and many of the people we meet look
to the UK government and therefore the labour party to ¡¥do something,
The juxtapositions are everywhere: a meal where the pay of NUS full timers
and general sabbaticals was bemoaned before we met the Swaziland NUS who
have NO money and have to go cap in hand to local NGOs and pay for meeting
venues and transport out of their own pockets. Talking about fair trade
food over a meal in which half the food ordered is wasted. Intense
meetings about our collective solidarity followed by a shyness in engaging
with the people we meet on a social level immediately after.
The wrong people have come on this delegation. SOAS development studies
students would not only bring so much more to the table when we meet
genuinely knowledgeable, interesting and inspiring people (we had to
clarify what ¡¥Harare¡¦ was today) but they would also understand the many
pitfalls of westerners coming to help ¡¥develop¡¦ for 2 weeks staying in
well fucking posh hotels and sponsored by coca cola. They would also be
committed to do something beyond these weeks, something I seriously doubt
members of this group are (guys, if you are reading this please don¡¦t be
hurt, I think you know anyway) Even in ethnomusicology we talk about the
¡¥insider/outsider¡¦ way of doing fieldwork, (fieldwork is what this
essentially is) and taking a community on their own terms using its own
value sets to figure out what practical steps we can take together to
forge real positive change. This, by contrast, sometimes comes dangerously
close to voyeurism. We visited an orphanage for all of 45 minutes, handed
out food and listened to them sing (which was magic, and I briefly fell in
love with the soloist), cuddled them a bit and then spent the journey back
talking about how much we pity them. Awwww. I had a short but intense
moral dilemma shortly after- should I go and say hello to the woman in the
house dying of HIV induced TB who needs her mother to speak for her?
Everyone else was. In the end I decided that playing mbira to her might
make the experience overall positive and I did and it was nice, but only
In contrast to the lack of real Politik amongst the delegation, the people
we have met- reprentatives from the zimbabwean and swazi national student
unions, who regularly face imprisonment and beatings for standing up to
the state; members of civil rights groups who travel for miles from rural
areas to meet us; aswell as the taxi drivers and hotel porters that speak
the truth wherever you are in the world- are amazing and it is a real
honour and inspiration to spend time with them. And there is proper
revolutionary activity happening- the Swazi equivalent of the trade union
congress asked for a photocopier and 10 bikes so they can take the truth
to rural areas. Also in Swaziland, the last demonstration to free two
political prisoners ended when the police got a good hiding and ran into
the hills. The people we meet are young, totally dedicated, totally
lacking the egos of the Britist student movement and all the stronger for
their lack of cynicism about the political process.
And this is what I am here for and makes the whole corporate sponsored
endeavour worthwhile. Despite what Ed said about how I could do this by
myself if I really wanted and avoid being tainted, the bottom line is that
I wouldn¡¦t have access to these people if I hadn¡¦t come with ACTSA and
they wouldn¡¦t have access to the myriad of possibilities that are brewing
in my mind for what we can do from London.
The perspective on my life that I feel I have almost entirely lost in the
big city with the big job and dense (but joyful) squatlife is beginning to
return, and I once again feel that I can interact with the world on my own
terms and get excited by the big and small things. I have the same cycle
each time I go far away from home- the initial elation and exhaustion of
travel and solitude gives way after a week or so to some strong pangs of
loneliness and the question that ¡¥if this is what I feel the best thing
for me to spend my time doing is, yet I feel kind of homesick and lonely
then what is left?¡¦. This usually co-incides with the residual bits of
cannabis leaving my system and along with it the fuzziness that makes many
things bearable, but soon both these things turn from bad to good and a
clarity comes that is the marrow in the middle of the bone that I secretly
look forward to. I am almost there ƒº.
And my mind races forward to zimbabwe¡K we have met quite a lot of
zimbabweans here and I have picked their collective brain about the
current conditions in zim, ability to travel, availability of goods etc
(apparently they have rolling tobacco so I can stop smoking imported
Camels¡K). The bad news is that in their desperation for food and fuel the
people killed lots of the wildlife and chopped down lots of the ancient
trees in the national parks. This is shit, but I have heard that some of
the national parks in the north are still pretty ok. I have also made
contacts with some Jazz musicians in Harare and it turns out that there is
a Jazz festival on 24-6 June in Harare, just at the right time to for me
to make a leisurely overland trip there from SA. I have brought some good
musical materials with me and have been learning new tunes on the Mbira at
And so we roll on. Tommorow we tour a coke factory. I am going to go well
armed (with facts) and then cape down early next week.