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The People of Johannesburg

There are few things that excite an extroverted black nerd more than meeting new people. When that extroverted nerd actually gets to visit another country and meet new people there, it is almost an orgasmic experience tantamount to having the perfect slice of bacon after being swine-free for four excruciating months. While it is impossible to share every single conversation I had in Johannesburg, South Africa, it is very easy for me to share excerpts of the three most informative (some might even say, life-changing) dialogues I engaged in during my 9-day stay in Jo’burg. So without any further adieu, I present to you:

THE PEOPLE OF JOHANNESBURG (ABRIDGED)

1. Christmas Dinner at Ethel’s

The Context: A few hours before this exchange occurred, Kate, the woman from whom I am renting a room, has picked me up at the airport and asked: Do you mind if we stop at my neighbor, Ethel’s, before I get you settled at my place? I am eager to fellowship with some real South Africans so I not only agree to go to this stranger’s house for dinner, I pull out one of the bottles of wine I brought from Capetown and ask Kate if this Ethel person will like it.

Ethel: I no longer tolerate boring people. I have decided they are a waste of my time and energy.
Me: Well…dayum. I guess we all have to have our standards for the company we keep.
Ethel: These boring people…they take and take and take. They give nothing. They come to Christmas dinner with a bottle of wine and think: this is all I have to do. They do not try to be the least bit interesting. Or think of anything clever to say. It is like they do not know or care to know the rules of human engagement.
Me: (remembering the bottle of Pinotage I gifted to Ethel upon entering her house) Uhm…are you trying to tell me I am boring? Should I leave now? I am sorry.
Ethel: (laughing) Oh no…I do not think you are boring. I know this because even my daughter wants to talk to you. She has not found any adult interesting since she turned 12. Even before then, she would yawn and go into her room whenever I had people over.

How this conversation changed me life: I will no longer tolerate the intellectually lazy either. Up until this exchange with Ethel,I thought my requirement to surround myself only with people who could stimulate me was elitist. Perhaps, it is. But, Ethel’s unapologetic theory on why we should not allow our time to be hi jacked by our duller brethren has given me a sense of clarity. I can now rest assured that my refusal to interact with the uninteresting is really a fight for intellectual survival. Thanks, Ethel.

2. A Girls’ Day Out With Sonele

The Context: I have a friend named Tiaji. Tiaji has traveled to damn near every African country on the continent at least once. As a result, she is always the first to e-introduce me to someone with whom she has formed a long distance friendship. Hence, my afternoon with Sonele. She picks me up from my overwhelming shopping mall excursion and drives me around funky little neighborhoods that tour companies do not include in their promotional brochures. We talk politics. We talk the future of both of our countries. And as often happens when single women get together for any reason, we eventually talk men.

Sonele: So, how are the men in Rwanda?
Me: Girl, don’t even get me started. Well, at least not until we have another cocktail.
Sonele: Oh yes…I can see you have stories. I bet mine are better than yours.
Me: Oh, we gon play this game, huh? Alright…all I have to say is: if one more Rwandan man invites himself over to my house to help me practice my French AFTER talking about his wonderful wife and dozens of kids, I. Will. Lose. My. Shit.

Sonele: Is that the best you can do? Let me tell you about a friend of mine who is dating a very successful Nigerian businessman. At 3 months in, he casually tells her that he has a wife who is raising his children back in Nigeria. He explains that the wife would like to meet her.

Me: (a look that I can not describe, but that Sonele finds hilarious)

Sonele: Oh no, Dear One, that is not even the best part. Just wait.

Me: Don’t tell me that she actually agreed to meet this man’s wife?

Sonele: Yes, she did. At the meeting, the wife thanked her for keeping her husband occupied on his many trips to South Africa. She said something like: “I know he is going to have sex with women when he travels, but I just don’t like the idea of him being with just any woman…no matter how dirty. If he is with you, I am happy about how his activities will turn out.”

Me: (A look that obviously shows how much my mind is blown)

Sonele: That is the look that all of us had on our faces when she told us this. When we were all like: “You are going to break up with him, right,” she looked at us the same way we were looking at her.

Me: Wait…so this friend is still with the Nigerian man and his wife has not shown out or thrown shade AT ALL during this whole arrangement?

Sonele: Oh no, Dear One. They are true sisterwives in every sense of the word. Sometimes, when he travels, he will take my friend and not his wife. My friend will call the wife and ask if the children need anything and the wife will give her a list. She will even make sure the children thank their auntie for bringing them back gifts from her many travels.

Me: Alright, you win. I have nothing to top that.

How this conversation changed my life: It confirmed for me what I have known for quite some time. It is not life that causes suffering. It is when people refuse to face and deal with the reality of their lives that they end up suffering. Sonele’s friend doesn’t appear to be in great pain over her situation and neither does her sisterwife. They both seemed to have decided early on not to wage a war against the reality they chose for themselves and have created the rules around their relationship with the same man that makes them both comfortable. Their eyes seem to be open and not closed. This is probably the most practical way to approach any relationship, actually. Carry on, Sonele’s friend (and your sisterwife).

3. An Inquiry Into My Wasted Womb By Wendele

The Context: Unlike Capetown, folks can not be bothered to actually walk around Johannesburg. Not during the night. Or day. Not when it is raining. Or when the sun is shining and there is a nice breeze to balance it out. Kate has a car, but sleeps until 3 in the afternoon so as a result, I get the number of a reliable cabbie within my first day. Wendele has driven me around several times before the following conversation occurs.

Wendele: When do you leave for Rwanda?
Me: Friday morning.
Wendele: Good, I am sure you miss your children. And they will be happy that you are back.
Me: Oh, I don’t have children.
Wendele: I am sorry to hear that.
Me: Don’t be. I’m not.
Wendele: Excuse me, Ma’am?
Me: You shouldn’t be sorry. I don’t have children because I don’t want them.
Wendele: Do not worry. There is still time for you. You can still have babies.
Me: Oh, I know I can. I just won’t.
Wendele: (a look that I can not describe but I find hilarious) No babies for you?
Me: Nope. No babies for me.
Wendele: But what about your husband? He is fine with no babies?
Me: I don’t have a husband.
Wendele: You do not want a husband either?
Me: (shrugs shoulders) Sure, why not? Under the right circumstances, I would get married.
Wendele: But…I do not understand. You are beautiful. And very kind. (Wendele shakes head)
Me: (laughing) Thanks for the compliment.
Wendele: I do not know many men who will be fine with no babies.
Me: Neither do I.
Wendele: Then, how will you get a husband?
Me: (shrugs shoulders) I dunno. Maybe I just won’t get one.
Wendele: What will you do with your life if there are no babies? No husband?
Me: See the world, write books, have brunch with Toni Morrison, have interesting conversations like this one, open schools, mentor teenaged girls, make out with smart, attractive men, eat good food, drink good wine, read books, meet people and become their friend, spend time with my family, help my nephew finish school…the possibilities are endless.

Wendele: (a look that shows just how much his mind is blown)

How this conversation changed my life: Much like Sonele’s friend and her sisterwife, I tend to look at the reality of the life I have chosen with my eyes wide open. I moved to the continent of Africa unapologetically rejecting motherhood and indifferent to marriage. I fully expect reactions like Wendele’s when I choose to engage in conversations about my reproductive choices. Perhaps because I have been having the more politically correct versions of these conversations in the states since I was in my 20s or because when this topic came up with a Rwandan woman several months ago I almost got prayed on, I find Wendele’s disappointment in me rather cute. Each time I have the “but, what do you mean you do not want children” conversation, I learn more about why many people do choose to have children. Wendele talked about how expensive Johannesburg was (his children’s fees at a local public school are 550 rand per month, per child) and how he can not afford to take days off, yet he and his wife are trying to have a fourth child. Why? Because he just wants another one, that’s all. Maybe try for another boy since he already has two girls. Much like the confusion in his voice when he questioned me, I offered my own, “Huh…but why?” when he shared his reproductive choices with me. I reserved my judgment of what I find to be a weak reason for bringing a life into the world. And by reserving my judgment, I realized that there will never be a reason that makes sense to me for why Wendele chooses to have another child. He just will. And I just won’t. And I learn again that I do, in fact, have something in common with this fellow human being. So, early congrats on Baby #4, Wendele.

No Rest For The Weary

The day after New York City told the world that it was okay for a man of the law to choke to death a citizen he was supposed to protect and serve, I sat across from my colleagues at lunch stoic and silent. The British teachers teased me (as usual) about not properly making tea. The Canadian teacher, who had asked me earlier with the sincerest confusion how could an officer kill an innocent man ON TAPE and not lose his badge, looked knowingly at me when I ignored the Brits’ jabs. The other American teacher knew why my talkative, silly disposition had drastically changed. She was white. An ally in this centuries old war to dismantle white supremacy, she knew the color of her skin dictated she proceed with caution.

“Are you okay, Keturah? You look troubled.”

“Do I?”

I realized at that moment I was not only troubled. I was tired. Tired of having these conversations. Tired because I had moved to another continent – one where everyone looked like me – and I still could not escape these inquiries about how it felt as a Black American to know that the country’s laws didn’t really apply to me. That I was foolish to even expect them to.

“Should I be troubled that the country my ancestors built for free is STILL trying to kill me? Should I be bothered that it is getting more successful at it with each passing day?”

The American teacher burst into tears and tried to tell me that she felt the same way. She said something about having two black brothers and the fear she had always felt for them only increasing since the non-indictment. She started to say something about the system being designed to screw her brothers, but I walked away.

Because I was tired.

Not even a full month after America reminded me that my life had little value since I had served my purpose several centuries ago, I took my weary self to South Africa for holiday. I began my holiday in the breezy beauty of Capetown since it had been cited by many travel magazines as a top city to visit given its stellar wine and breathe taking beaches. It was my goal to take full advantage of both the wine and the beaches for the nine days I was going to be here.

At Clifton Beach, the only thing whiter than the sand were all the bodies laying on it, as black ones brought them water and chairs and towels. At the nearby Bungalow Restaurant, more white people drank, ate and laughed as people who looked like me brought them food and cleaned up after them in the bathroom.

In one of many cab rides I was to take, a Zimbabwean driver said to me: “I bet you came here expecting to see Africans, didn’t you?” I told him that while I did not naively expect complete African empowerment only 20 years after apartheid ended, it was still jarring to see what is called the best African city on the continent essentially devoid of Africans. “Who calls this an ‘African’ city,” the driver quipped. “Don’t bother answering that. People who aren’t African probably.”

A Congolese bartender told me how he had to quit his last job because after training a bunch of white people who were being paid significantly more than him, his boss shrugged and simply said: White people get paid more. Sorry.

During my tour of the townships, my Black South African guide explained to me how he advanced from being “just a driver” to a certified guide. “A really nice German lady paid for my course. When I had gone to my boss to suggest the company send me to the course, he said not to worry about it because the exam was so hard that not even white people could pass it.”

The weariness I thought I’d left behind in Rwanda followed me as another Black South African informed me that while the running of the country was in the hands of Africans, all of the wealth remained in the firm clutches of essentially two Dutch families.

I am not the only person in this city right now who feels almost comatose because when my life is devalued by my country, that same country then tries to convince me that I am over reacting to or simply dreaming up its suffocation of my humanity. Somewhere in Capetown a man named Yonela Diko is so damn tired of white supremacy and its insistence that it does not really exist that he wrote a letter to The Cape Times. It’s been 20 years since apartheid ended on paper. Where is this new South Africa, he asks. Citing the white minority’s refusal to sacrifice even the easiest privileges that were gained on the backs of the black majority, Diko goes on for paragraph after paragraph wondering why he even has to write the paper to speak the obvious such as:

“Were white people, who had largely benefitted and made wealth under the apartheid regime, willing to underwrite the rise of the black majority that had been locked outside and remained impoverished, by allowing a specific tax transfer for leveling the playing field? That idea was rejected as anti-reconcilitary. What we were then left with was a necessity to believe in magic and hope for the best.”

And…

“The saddest part, however, about what is really happening in our country is that there is today no one who claims any responsibility for apartheid; the same people who are obviously holding on to generational gains of the regime, have today shifted into an almost pathological obsession with 20 years of democracy and what they think could have happened in the past 20 years. What they seem to forget is that we have been watching them since the beginning of these 20 years, at every turn.”

Oh Yonela, what can I say to you at 20 years in? We have been watching for over 60 years. We have written some version of your letter to every paper in every state and every legislator in every branch. We have marched every sentence of your weariness across every street in the country. We have fought with our dollars, our ballots, our fists. And they are still killing us.

Yonela, you haven’t earned the privilege to feel fatigued. Neither have you earned the luxury of time. You have no idea how exhausting this shit will get.

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