“It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters.” -Stephen King, On Writing
This year, my birthday fell on a Tuesday in Johannesburg. Feeling bold about having returned from my trip to the US to a place that still feels like home, I decided to throw a party. The purpose of the gathering was also a housewarming; within three days of coming home my landlords gave notice that they were selling the property and I had to move. Within two weeks I was unpacked in my huge but noisy flat in Killarney, several blocks away from the US Consulate and the onramp to the M1 North highway. My guest list looked something like this:
1. As many friends from the Kliptown informal settlement as could fit into their shared minibus
2. Skydivers from the Johannesburg Skydiving Club where I’ve jumped in the last year, white and mostly well-off
3. Colleagues from the Institute for Security Studies
4. Colleagues from People Opposing Women Abuse
5. The Melville greengrocer I buy veggies from
6. A Harvard friend doing her Ph.D. research in Joburg for the year and her roommate, an Associated Press reporter recently returned from a harrowing arrest in Zimbabwe
7. The security staff of the building I now call home.
The invitation was for “Tuesday at Taya’s”, and called interested parties to shirk their usual weekday routines in favor of good food, free beer, and an opportunity to huck water balloons in the general direction of the consulate across the street “just to see what they’ll do”. It was BYO Missile Defense Shield, and since most people didn’t want to test American aggression, no water balloons were actually tossed. What did happen was a low-key yet, for me, momentous occasion.
Friends I’ve made here in the last year came together for one of the unlikeliest gatherings I’ve seen in South Africa. I felt privileged to have friends from the township as guests in my home, since they have hosted and fed me more times than I can count. The security guards (who are black) initially refused to let them come up to my flat in utter denial that they were as much invitees as the various white couples they hadn’t questioned. When I eventually coaxed one guard into coming in for a beer, he seemed to relax, but maintained a look of distinct disbelief at the scene. At that moment, a few young Kliptown guys were teaching a Chinese social worker from Hong Kong how to do gumboots dancing as the Melville greengrocer talked politics with a POWA volunteer and her accountant husband.
Later, as people were leaving, he asked if I had another beer for him. I lied and said no, keeping in mind that I preferred him to be lucid enough to do his job. He said, “You see? This is what happens when you have black people over. They eat, they drink all your beer, and the next thing you know, they’re gone!”
I got off the plane in Boston on Friday, December 13th exhausted but happy. It was cold and grey, but still familiar, and I was relieved to find that I didn’t turn into a pumpkin or immediately lose all sense of global perspective upon touching down on American soil. My secret fear of being questioned by Ashcroft-appointed security personnel because of the stamps in my passport turned out to be overblown, and I rolled my suitcase out to meet my mom at the baggage claim curb. After putting my bag in the boot—wait, trunk—I hesitated before walking to the right side of the car to get in. So far, so good. It wasn’t until we got to the busy Storrow Drive that the real fear and alienation set in.
Seeing oncoming traffic on the “wrong” side of the road, I started yelling and almost got us into an accident. Boston was the city where I was born, grew up, and learned how to drive, but it was as though someone was holding a giant mirror up in front of everything. I was through the looking glass and it was all the more strange since it was supposed to be home turf. The only positive outcome of my inability to readjust to the roads was a curiously energetic parental chauffeur service rendering it unnecessary for me to drive a family car.
Boston and New York were easy to visit because they don’t feel like home. I had recurring dreams about oncoming traffic, but there was minimal culture shock and no regret about the life I’ve chosen as compared to the one my east-coast peers are leading. As always, it helped that it was the dead of winter and got dark by 3pm every day. Yet most of my longings in these places were material; although I had truly missed the cupcakes from my favorite bakery in Belmont and the bagels from H&H in New York, I felt nothing deeper calling to me. I was on vacation.
California was a different story. The life one leaves behind is the most difficult to return to, even for a short visit. The first place I willingly chose as a home after getting my degree still resonated with the memories I left there on my way to South Africa. Some of this mental debris, like the work I found unfulfilling and the ludicrous cost of living, hit me with affirmation that I’ve ventured into a less predictable but more rewarding life. Others, like friendships rooted in shared personal history and my buried sense of belonging, struck a sore place and presented unwanted pop-up maps of my emotional landscape, complete with cost-benefit analyses of my choices. I reveled in dinner gatherings with old friends, sipped coffee in my favorite park, and ate life-changing sushi.
My awareness of the courage required to exist between worlds is only tangible while traveling between them. The day before leaving the U.S. everything seemed wobbly and surreal; the Starbucks that has taken up residence in what used to be a Friendly’s restaurant near my parents’ house in suburban Boston looked to me as though it could beam into space at any second. It is incredibly liberating to bear witness to this impermanent sense of place. The act of traveling is a spiritual declaration of freedom. It requires sacrifice but rewards the brave with the perspective that home is truly “a moveable feast”, a lunchbox to be packed on a life journey.
The ICC Cricket World Cup has descended on South Africa with a kind of fervor I usually reserve for games with some semblance of pacing. There are certain triggers that make me feel like I have giant stars and stripes tattooed all over my face, and one of them is cricket fever. In my American ignorance, what I know about this distinctly un-American game can be summed up easily: it can actually go on for days without end and seems to feature at least some commentary about how to grow the grass on the field for maximum team performance. “One-day cricket” is about as fast moving as it gets.
Nonetheless, the World Cup kicked off on Saturday night with a big ceremony featuring speeches by the likes of President Thabo Mbeki and performances by everyone from Dave Matthews to a troupe of dancing zebra puppets. South Africa narrowly lost its first game against the “Windies”, or West Indian team, but morale is still high and talk of a new era in African sports is afoot. The South African equivalents of Superbowl commercials frequently feature a dusty township team of young black kids engaged in an earnest game of cricket. The winning team breaks into African-style dance with the community joining in jubilantly. These shots are usually spliced into footage from actual cricket games, which feature predominantly white players and a corresponding white male crowd. The gap between the present and future of the game is only as surmountable as race-based cultural differences in South Africa: which is to say no one really knows what is possible.
In the meantime, as one of my favorite cartoon characters from a strip called “Madam and Eve” said: “No matter what, I can support a sport that has tea breaks”.
Every New Year brings with it reflection and resolutions. At the end of 2002 I paused to take stock of the twelve months behind me. It was one of the first opportunities I’ve had to consider the wisdom and outcome of my decision to sell what little I owned and move to, as Rian Malan so aptly puts it, “a doomed city on a damned continent”. I encountered both support and opposition to the idea when I started talking to people about it late in 2001, but I got the general sense that everyone thought I had a touch of madness. Madness aside, I did have plenty of self-doubt about jetting off to work on difficult issues for no pay in a place where I had no history, no connections, no family, and basically no support system.
The great (sometimes even terrible) thing about real dreams is that you can’t stop a person who has found one so important they feel they have nothing to lose. My dream was to take my skills and my passion for issues that are larger-than-life in South Africa (violence against women and children, HIV/Aids, conflict resolution) and see what I could do by sharing my privilege instead of using it to make money. My journey took me all the way across the United States and into the Southern Hemisphere. While here, I have struggled to live within my means but have found fulfillment in leaving behind the constraints of what I thought I needed to be happy.
A good friend of mine termed my change in mindset and life direction a “secular conversion”. There is, of course, no need to travel halfway around the world to change your spiritual or vocational landscape, but for me it made sense. I studied African History at Harvard and had lived and worked in Kenya and traveled all over the eastern part of Africa. I was drawn to the idea of Johannesburg because it is in the vanguard of nonprofit work for the entire continent. A cosmopolitan city with a unique economic and social identity, it matched my mood both in the way people here nonchalantly live on the edge and the way a search for social justice is interwoven into the fabric of everyday life.
2003 will be different, another starting over. I’ve moved into a spacious flat in a building where I’m no longer either in the ghetto or living like a serf in a one-room cottage on someone else’s property. I’m more willing to find a balance between living like a poverty-stricken monk and a full-fledged yuppie, especially in the interests of my stress level and my health. Most importantly, though, I’m deeply engaged in the fulfilling work I once thought was only available to the independently wealthy or the unusually lucky. (The best way to start someone brainstorming about what they really want is to say, “If you won the lottery and had all the money in the world, what would you do tomorrow?” Realizing I couldn’t wait that long, I went ahead and did it anyway.) I had to step over the edge to find my work, commit to it, and take a stab at making a living at it, but there’s no going back now.
I’m still planning my life a year at a time, and I plan to stay until the end of 2003. The Institute for Security Studies has hired me as a research consultant on gun and violence issues, and there is an exciting project in the works to start a program of my own teaching self-defense. My biggest motivation is that I’ve built a life where I am relevant and effective to the issues I care about, which was my dream when I set out from San Francisco in December of 2001. Last year was incredible, but often difficult. I lost most of my possessions in the first half and almost gave up on my health in the second. The rewards of those sacrifices are still in the pipeline; I’ve only just laid the foundation for what I will learn and accomplish in the months ahead.
Happy in Johannesburg,