Estimated worldwide HIV infections: 46, 397,145 as of 3:10pm April 18, 2002. Percentage of those infections on the African continent: between 40 and 50.
HIV/AIDS is now the leading cause of death in sub-Saharan Africa. Worldwide, it is the fourth biggest killer.
- www.redribbon.co.za and www.who.org
Bear witness when called The road stretches and Arches its back.
A week after the 8am attack on my way to work, my house in Yeoville was broken into and ransacked. I was not home when it happened, which is good because I later found out that two people had been shot in similar break-ins. The robbers entered through a second-floor window and took the obvious valuables: cell phone, laptop, camera, money. Everything had been pulled from cabinets and closets; the linen had been yanked off the bed and the mattress overturned. But in the corner of my room, a small space had been cleared for neat little piles of clothing. All of my socks except for two pairs were gone, and my things had been sorted by apparent degree of quality. Work pants and skirts were gone, but jeans remained. They took my nice underwear but left the faded cotton pairs separate from the two pairs of wool socks and the jeans. Luckily for me, they were not interested in my dirty laundry, which means that a good month's worth of stinky, unwashed pret a porter items were still in my possession. They were kind enough to leave all of my books except my rape counseling manual (do those have a good resale value here? Who knows).
A friend, in an effort to cheer me up, pointed out the inherent humor in the image of a couple of small time thieves surfing the internet wearing nothing but satin skivvies. More likely, some lucky Hillbrow residents paid cash to take the hot items out of circulation. I keep waiting to see my clothes for sale at a stall on the edge of Joubert Park. I got a great bargain: my most valuable material possessions in exchange for my irreplaceable life.
I decided that sleeping another night in Yeoville would be recklessly tempting fate. After picking my way through the trashed house yelling obscenities at no one, I proceeded to pack my remaining belongings. I threw a few bags and the TV they couldn't fit through the window into a metered taxi and stored them at a friend's secure house. I kept only a backpack with my mostly dirty clothes and my journal. Until my new place became available in Melville on April 1, I was prepared to sleep anywhere but in that house at the corner of Ellis and Bezuidenhout. And so, my brief stint as a nomad began.
Mangos. Dog Food. Long Life Milk
On the bright and sunny morning of Friday, March 22, Eric was driving me to the taxi rank in Midrand, about 20km north of the Johannesburg city center, so I could catch a kombi (minibus taxi) to work. I had been staying at his place, but he had plans so I had packed up to get out of the way. I didn't know where I was going to stay that night. I had called Tracey, another friend, to ask if I could impose, but hadn't heard back yet. If she didn't come through, I would have to go back to the house in Yeoville and bait death. I was experiencing terror for the first time since being attacked and having my house broken into. My friends had thoughtfully provided a cocoon after the events, enabling me to feel safe in the immediate aftermath. But as I approached my first foray back into the world outside that bubble, I felt alone, vulnerable, and irrationally petrified. The exhilaration of survival mode and the joy at just being alive had worn off.
I looked out the car window and watched people walking over the highway pass, along the sides of busy roads with no sidewalks. They were in a different, but very comprehensive, transportation circuit. I was enclosed, whizzing past. My eye caught a sign that I knew was the one-minute mark before I would be re-entering an alternate universe most whites are oblivious to. The sign advertised Mangos. Dog Food. Long Life Milk. I repeated the words in my head like a mantra as I hardened myself to the injustice of fear and got ready to open the door.
That day, as I changed taxis in Hillbrow, I felt as though I had earned my place in the downtown street. I walked with confidence, feeling more denizen than alien. My things had become part of the Wealth Redistribution Project that is crime in Johannesburg. Little parts of me were being integrated into lives, stories, and homes that I would probably never see or know. Somewhere on Twist Street a homeless person could be wearing my socks. A drug dealer could, at this very moment, be cluelessly attempting to dial local numbers on my United States cell phone. My laptop could be part of an emerging business in Diepkloof, my underwear lying on the floor of an illicit lover's rundown flat. For the moment, I was one with the city.
V-Day: Elitist Feminism or Necessary Hype?
On April 10th, Eve Ensler's play The Vagina Monologues came to the Caesar's Gauteng venue in South Africa. The Wednesday of the performance was declared V-Day (ostensibly the abbreviated version of Vagina Day), and the event was billed as both a "radical revolution for women to take back their vaginas" and a hip see-and-be-seen mingle fest for Johannesburg's glitterati. Proceeds from ticket sales went to support POWA, People Opposing Women Abuse, an organization I'm involved with.
Unfortunately, the ticket price made sure that women who were not either independently wealthy or willing to give up their grocery money for a month would not get to see the one-time performance of the show. As one radio deejay put it, "If violence against women happens to everyone, why should only the rich get to be enlightened and uplifted?" Highlighting the elitist nature of the event, the cast of another socially aware play called Vatmaar ("Help Yourself" in Afrikaans) about race relations and land issues, had been performing for free for poor and illiterate township audiences with great success.
V-Day drew celebrities and grassroots NGO types wearing T-shirts with slogans like "Pussy Magnet" to Eve Ensler's celebration of the vagina. Paraphernalia on sale during pre-event cocktails included home pap-smear kits, purple velvet vagina puppets, Astroglide, and logo undies. The event was a success by its own standards. Nonetheless, delivering the message that talking openly about female sexuality is okay to the audience in attendance was like preaching to the choir. A couple of free performances in Soweto would have been more responsible, might have been more fun, but probably wouldn't have yielded as much tchotchke revenue.
California Dreaming, Bloukrans Healing
I hadn't realized how much residual stress I was harboring until Shani arrived from San Francisco to force me on vacation. The list of comfort items she brought me from the States includes back issues of the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, a Williams-Sonoma garlic press, and packets of ranch dressing from Lee's Deli in San Francisco. I had lost my commuter confidence in the attack and my sense of control in the breakin. I had quit my research position at Idasa at the end of March because of ideological differences with the management of the NGO. Before starting my new job at the Institute for Security Studies on April 15th, I needed to detox.
There is a peculiar Johannesburg sensibility that is gradually taking root in my consciousness. I'm internalizing a way of life, a heightened sense of risk, a blase attitude about electric fences, guard houses, alligator moats, flame throwers installed on the undersides of cars. I think a lot about privilege, danger, fear, and race. Sometimes I forget that people in other parts of the world still go for a morning jog without the imminent possibility of death by stray bullet or mugger's knife. Seeing other parts of the country, where people still live without medieval walls, was a good first step out of the war zone mentality.
We got our first adrenaline rush driving a manual stick shift on the other side of the road in a country with some of the worst road fatality statistics in the world. Mad Max was the first thing that came to mind, but mostly as a verb: as in, "That guy in the Jeep is mad maxing us again." We found peace in Blyde River Canyon and the wonderfully populist Kruger National Park (you can affordably safari in your own economy vehicle by following well-signposted tracks). We stopped to gaze at waterfalls and watch elephants cross the road in golden afternoon sunlight.
After returning to Joburg so I could attend a two-day workshop on rape trauma syndrome, we got to experience the coast on a drive along the Garden Route, from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town. Wanting to overcome a different kind of fear, we stopped at the Bloukrans bridge: the highest bungy jump in the world at 216 meters. I was last in our group to jump, and as I watched about 15 other people chain smoke and rationalize themselves to the edge, I felt very calm. Looking out over the gorge and the mountains in the distance, I was ready when I finally stood with my toes peeking out over the drop. I bent my knees and leaped, arms out to embrace the world. I felt the wind on my body, relaxed, and breathed deeply as I watched the valley turn upside down.
Having left Idasa (the Institute for Democracy in South Africa), I am now doing research at the Institute for Security Studies. ISS is policy wonk heaven, a serious research institute that wields considerable influence over government and regional approaches to problems as diverse as HIV/AIDS, child combatants, and illegal drug and arms trafficking. Recent publications include "Drugs and Crime in South Africa, a Study in Three Cities;" "Blood Diamonds: Effective African-based monopolies?"; and "Tackling Small Arms in Eastern Africa and the Greater Horn." I will most likely be focusing on the impact of small arms trafficking on women and children in conflict-ridden communities. I will still spend part of my time at POWA as a counselor and strategic advisor. The grassroots nature of the POWA work complements the more abstract policy thinking. I couldn't be happier with my work, my colleagues, and the potential of the coming months. Now that my inner sanity has been restored and I am nesting in my tiny but adequate one-room Melville abode, I am ready to dive back in and tackle Africa’s problems with full gusto.
In deep appreciation of many different kinds of peace,