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That Island Life

Back in 2008, when Barack Obama had just won his first term as president of the United States, one of the many empty critiques of his freshman year of service was the vague complaint that he was too aloof. Too calm. “We need to see that he is ANGRY.” I remember these critiques well because I heard them not only from the standard racists who liked to pretend they were mere political pundits, but also from other black people – both those who thought of him as God and those who were unsure of his ability to lead even though they stood in line for several hours to vote for him. Luther, Obama’s Anger Translator from the hit show, Key and Peele, was a satirical way of implying that President Obama was too blasé about many of the jabs blatantly thrown at him by the Republican party.

“Uhm…Island life,” was my friend’s shrugged response to the complaints that our president wasn’t “angry” enough. Tamara grew up in Hawaii, only coming in mainland to New York City as a college student. I doubt that even to this day the woman owns a proper pair of shoes. (For a work party once, she actually asked if she should wear her dress up flip flops.) She maintained that no one from she and the president’s home state probably saw President Obama’s chill level as a flaw. “I doubt any Hawaiian even noticed he was chilled out most of the time. Like, did you ever notice your Southern accent when you were growing up in New Orleans?”

Intellectually I understood Tamara’s analogy, but I did not understand it personally.

Until…

I came to the islands to end all islands…the Seychelles off the coast of East Africa. I have only been here five days and will be leaving right after Christmas, but I can see Tamara’s point already.

It is really hard to get yourself too wound up when you are surrounded by gorgeous waves of clear water bordered by lush greenery and gigantic boulders that look like they have been chiseled by sculptors into clever puzzles for your brain to figure out.

I have not driven regularly in 15 years. But the people who insisted I needed a car to navigate Mahe, the main island on which I would be staying, gave me the keys to this itty bitty Hyundai with the steering wheel on the right side. They then told me “Good luck” with a smile and walked off like I had not just been given a woefully incorrect car. Once driving on the streets of Mahe, I was even more perplexed as to why these people with their wrong cars were also driving on the wrong side of the street.

But, for some reason, I find it difficult to get vexed each and every time I am driving up a hill only to have another itty bitty vehicle all of a sudden facing me. It is rather funny, actually. And the many drivers who I nearly rear end when I have to back up in the middle of the only narrow road to turn around and then drive forward because I did not back up enough to turn properly, then back up again because I still underestimated how much I needed to turn…well, they are noticeably different in their responses than when I have done this during holiday breaks back home in New Orleans. I don’t even recall hearing a horn being furiously blown and sometimes when I look in the rearview mirror during my third time backing up, the driver behind me is simply shaking his head in amused disbelief. Not even a frown.

This morning, I found ants in the sugar jar of the little studio apartment I booked through Airbnb. “Ants in my sugar,” I mused. “Perhaps I will not need sugar in my coffee after all. Perhaps I do not need coffee. I need to go to the beach.” I then gingerly put the top back on the sweetened home of my ant friends and got in my itty bitty, woefully incorrect Hyundai and proceeded to spend 4 minutes backing it up and turning it around to get it out of the security gate.

I think I felt my deepest connection to our president when I thought I broke the washing machine in my little studio and had to tell my host. Through the screen door that led into her house, I saw her sitting on the sofa with a glass of wine.

“Uhm, Marlaine…I think I pressed the wrong button on the machine or something,” I stammered. “There was a puddle of water on the floor. I mopped it up and hung the mats out to dry, but I don’t know what I did to the washing machine. Sorry.”

She laughed and called her husband. “Alex, isn’t this funny? The machine at the salon and at the apartment BOTH broke today.”

Alex found this funny, too. He took a sip of whiskey and waved me off.

“I will look at the machine later. Marlaine needs more wine. She has been sick for two days so she has not been able to drink.”

Then, Marlaine began to tell me how miserable she has been subsisting on water alone. She goes on to share gossip that her clients at her hair salon shared with her while she put highlights in their hair and trimmed their tresses.

Alex pours himself more whiskey and realizes he is “being very rude, shame on me” and asks me if I want a glass, too.

Neither of these people mentions the washing machine again.

Island life.

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.

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