10 Years

“When do we have peace? Is peace only the absence of war? Peace is very broad. When I am hungry, I am not at peace with myself. When I don’t have shelter I am not at peace with myself. When there is insecurity outside and I am scared someone might come to kill me I am not at peace with myself.” -Youth worker in a Kenyan slum


Reflections 10 Years


I initially moved to South Africa because it was a decision that made me feel at peace with myself. As the world has tumbled further into war, my work has brought me closer to sources of conflict, and that sense of inner peace continues to grow more important. It is the foundation that keeps me focused on why I gave up a city I loved, proximity to my family, the company of old friends, and the potential to earn a good salary, all for an adventure that I hoped would lead to an interesting life.

The longer I live in Johannesburg, the more difficult it becomes to write about what I’m experiencing. Sometime in the last two and a half years, I ceased to be an anthropologist/observer and became something else. I have now lived here for longer than I did in San Francisco, my chosen location after four enforced years in Boston’s tundra. There was a slow process of yuppification after college, like being stuck in a gooey bowl of gelatinous credit card debt, car payments, and the sweet girlie-drinks that came after work and before the latest fondue dinner craze. I was waiting for the whole mess to solidify around me when I finally got out.

The life that I have created here is not without its gradual yuppie trimmings: I have upwardly mobilized from an inner-city ghetto neighborhood shared with drug lords and Congolese refugees to a two-bedroom flat in a big, old Art Deco building. I used to take public transport, and now I drive my ten year old Opel Kadett (when it isn’t broken). And yet, I no longer work just to pay the bills, and that feels good. On the other hand, I sometimes miss the byproducts of consumer culture.

I get homesick for Americans and their brazen sense of entitlement. Deep down, it turns out I really do believe that every middle-class person should be able to afford a digital camera of some sort, and possesses an inalienable right to shop for bulk Norwegian salmon at Costco. Nonetheless, when the American media all but ignores large-scale wars in Africa because the latest Harry Potter movie takes up the front page, I get testy and frustrated. There is a balance in there somewhere, one that I am still searching for within myself.

I’ve been buried in work for the past three months, teaching self-defense and developing the IMPACT program, watching women find strength that they never thought possible. I’ve just finished consulting on the latest regional police training, this time on HIV/AIDS since both the police and armed services in Southern Africa are being decimated. In my spare time, I have started studying a form of kung fu with an incredible martial artist from Hong Kong who lives in my building. Last Sunday, we spent several hours at a nearby park learning to drum and preparing for the lion dancing that will happen on Chinese New Year. My partner Eric and I followed up the class with pizza at a restaurant where everyone was speaking Italian, at the invitation of an Italian-Eritrean skydiver.

I consider these stretches of time when life can unfold day by day to be a privilege. April was more hectic, with a trip to Nairobi to launch my research publication from last year, titled Guns in the Borderlands. My South African colleague from the Institute for Security Studies got so drunk after the launch event that he was still passed out the following afternoon; I had to get hotel security to open his door so I could make sure he wasn’t dead. Being a small, gossipy city, word had traveled to several hotels by the end of the weekend. He has kept his job. Nonetheless, he’ll be notorious in Kenya from now on after forcing the hotel staff to clean up his room. Even Hilton employees have limits—and large families with long memories.

In Kenya I found, to my dismay, that the infamous Nairobi matatus (shared taxis) have been completely revamped. They are now all painted white, with the route and route number clearly marked on the side in yellow. I fear that the days of “Hoo Bangin,” “The Death Machine” (plying route 42 to Hurlingham), “The Sacred Cow”, and “Jealousy Doesn’t Pay” with their hot pink logos and bass beats thrumming may be over. The streets are being cleaned up and public transportation Europeanized. Is this the first official era that I’ve lived through?

10 Years

June 4, 1994:

I boarded a plane in Boston for Nairobi, Kenya to see who I was when all the layers of my suburban upbringing were peeled off. I was 17 years old and I suspected that success was possible for those brave enough to risk it; I just wasn’t sure what success was yet.

People were dying in the Rwandan genocide as the world looked on and did nothing. The bodies were piling up in Lake Victoria, and in the small village where I taught English and math in Western Kenya we were advised not to eat any fish. They had been feeding on human corpses and people were getting sick.

I had my first encounter with someone dying of AIDS, known at that time and place as “the skinny disease”.

South Africa embarked on its democratic experiment, with Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress at the helm.

June 4, 1996:

Against all odds, I landed a job as a travel writer covering Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon during Harvard University’s summer break. Many people said I couldn’t do it because I was a woman and would be traveling alone, but those voices were thoroughly drowned out by my enthusiasm. I accepted the assignment.

Before leaving, I took my first self-defense class, then called “Model Mugging” (now IMPACT, the form that I teach), with my mother, who was still healthy enough to routinely kick the padded male instructor hard enough to knock him into the air before he hit the ground.

I used the techniques a month later when I knocked out an assailant on the streets of Amman.

June 4, 1998:

I headed for Kenya again, this time with better knowledge of Swahili and a research project that went beyond my own personal exploration. I went from being a vegetarian to killing my transport camel, whom I had named “Harold,” for food while stuck en route to Ethiopia.

December 19, 2001:

There were 44 667 937 estimated worldwide HIV infections.

The Treatment Action Campaign, an advocacy organization, won its legal challenge to force the South African Department of Health and its minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, to make nevirapine available to all HIV-positive pregnant women attending public antenatal facilities. Tshabalala-Msimang and her government were planning an appeal to the Constitutional Court to reverse the judgment.

I was in my silver Toyota Corolla, somewhere on Route 66 between Los Angeles and the Atlantic: heading east to Boston to say goodbye to my family before moving to Johannesburg.

June 7, 2004:

It is winter again in Johannesburg, with smoke hanging over the townships and the air dropping to below freezing at night.

There are 57 569 638 estimated worldwide HIV infections, 12 901 701 more than that December day I was driving through some Southern state.

The South African government, with the same health minister, is now acting to roll out antiretroviral treatment to HIV-positive patients at all public hospitals, although the process is slow. Zackie Achmat, a key figure in the Treatment Action Campaign, began taking antiretrovirals to stay alive and continue his work.

The tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide was celebrated as another one rages in Darfur, on the border between Sudan and Chad.

The tenth anniversary of South African democracy was celebrated as 600 people die of AIDS every day.


I go on a much needed holiday, and I’ll bet on waking up smiling the same way I did two and a half years ago when I first got here.