Monday, December 29, 2014

A good makoti doesn't sleep in

I first become conscious of what it means to be umakoti when I was in high school. I had finally been asked to be a bridesmaid by a young woman who sang in the church choir. Being a bridesmaid meant more than looking pretty on the wedding day. We were also part of the traditional wedding where the bride is officially introduced to the groom’s family. There isn't an English equivalent for the word makoti; perhaps "new bride" comes close.

The most illuminating part of the wedding for black women is the traditional wedding. Most black couples have two weddings: the white wedding and the traditional wedding. For amaXhosa the introduction takes on many forms but it involves the bride getting a new name (igama lasemzini), she wears a new outfit and uyayalwa: she is given advice by the groom’s family, mostly a list of expectations  and sometimes rules about the home that she needs to abide by as the new bride in the home. She is expected to sit demurely, making no eye contact as her doek (ikhetshemiya) covers her eyes. She is judged fiercely if she attempts to look up on the day of the traditional wedding. Soon after ukuyalwa she is sheparded into the kitchen where the process of ukuhota begins. This is a period of a few days where the new bride serves the family: cooks, cleans, makes tea and shows her in-laws and their community that she is worthy of being their new daughter. The mother-in-law (mamazala)watches like a hawk throughout all the proceedings and if the makoti is to have a happy marriage, her mamazala must approve of her in every way.

When my mother left Queenstown and moved to East London it seems she was no longer “tight” with her mamazala (mother-in-law) mostly because they were no longer neighbours. While she was married and in close proximity to her in-laws, it seems it was very important for my mother to have a good relationship with her mother in law. They shared recipes, they went to the same church and they shared tips about sewing (they were both “resourceful”, good Christian women so it seems they had some things in common).  My mother’s makoti name was Nokuzola (the calm, peaceful one) and she always used to laugh at the irony in her name because she hardly has a calm temperament. For her it was a symbol of how little her in-laws knew about her. I always think of her experience as an example of someone who led a double life: as uNokuzola, the good makoti and Thami, her authentic self before she got married.

And now it’s my turn. My partner and I have been talking about getting married for a while. In our efforts of eschewing tradition we decided against the traditional route: no weddings (traditional and white), no lobola and no rituals where families are formally introduced (maybe we’ll have a family dinner to appease my sister who finds the whole thing abhorrent). Just the formal legal procedure in an office somewhere (I’m trying to avoid a church service). Friends  and family have been confused by this choice and in stepping out of tradition we have found ourselves in a very strange situation: which rules do we abide by? Do we abide by the rules at all? The thing about rituals and traditions is that they give you boundaries and an understanding about how to relate to people−a memo of sorts, a social contract. When you step outside those rituals does it mean that you are exempt from the way things are supposed to be? So in avoiding a traditional wedding, does that mean I am exempt from the rules, expectations and ways of being that guide life after these rituals?

 I had hoped I would be. I’m not really crazy about being a makoti. It doesn’t sit well with who I think I am and whom I would like to be. It mostly doesn’t sit well with my feminism (I’ve already been through the tension between marriage and feminism). I don’t like some aspects of being a makoti: when my partner visits my family, there are no expectations on him: he doesn’t need to make tea or cook for anyone. As a woman, I still worry when I visit my partner’s home: is there an unwritten expectation that I should do something? Offer to make tea? (I think of myself as a visitor when I visit his mom’s place). My sister has been married for five years and she often reminds me that being umakoti is about a few moments a year when one has to perform being umakoti (Christmas dinner, attending a family funeral or a family function). There's more to the performance for her though as she gets along with her in-laws and her mamazala has always been supportive of her and her husband.

Recently my partner, his mom and I went to a gathering and his mom introduced me using the word “makoti”. My partner and I are not officially married so I was surprised when she used the word makoti which is usually reserved for a newly-minted wife.  I didn’t say anything about her using the title because I understood that in context, that’s the only way she could have introduced me. I like my partner’s mother. The best word I can think of to describe her is cool or as my mother often describes free women, uyalandela. She’s in her 70s, she works as a nurse in a private hospital nearby (on her own terms), she drives her own car, she lives alone and she seems like a very relaxed and sociable person. She travels with a tour group every December (this year they are going to Dubai). She’s a modern woman and doesn’t seem to have the same hang ups about tradition that I am anxious about.

She’s so modern she allows me to stay over at their home when my partner and I visit Durban. Anyone coming from a traditional or somewhat conservative family will know the unwritten rule that girlfriends (for lack of a better word) never sleep over at their boyfriend’s home until they’ve jumped through the official hoops. The first time I stayed over I was very anxious. In my mind I was breaking the cardinal rule of family relations (mostly I kept thinking: what would my mother say?) but I stayed anyway. I didn’t wake up early to make tea. I didn’t offer to clean the house. I didn’t do anything. I was on holiday and I was a visitor (even though I was a visitor under the guise that I was “the girl I’m going to marry” as my partner said to his mom). I never got over the awkwardness. In a second visit to Durban I reverted to the unwritten rule and decided against staying over, like a good girl should.

But then I changed my mind again. My relationship has shifted and I’ve moved in with my partner, there’s talk of a pre-nup and I have a ring on my finger so I’m a little more legit than being the girlfriend. So when my partner’s mom suggested I stay over, I relented, with fewer anxieties this time around. My partner warned me that she doesn’t like it when people sleep in so every morning we would be out of bed by 10am. I ignored the rule on a particular day and his mom walked into our room looking for something only to find me half asleep at 12 noon. I was mortified, vuleka mhlaba ndingene. I felt like I had offended her by breaking a rule her own son doesn’t break when he visits her. But partly, I felt justified: at least she knows I can break the rules. Good makotis don’t sleep in.

I’m not sure how to relate to my partner’s family. My partner doesn’t think that is a problem. I have convinced myself that my family isn’t as structured as his family and he keeps reminding me that his family is far more relaxed than I think. So in stepping out of the boundaries given by tradition we’re allowing ourselves the chance to figure things out. My greatest fear is that we will eventually give into the default setting where I will be a makoti because it’s easier than trying to decide if I’m pushing the boundaries if I decide to sleep in because I’m on holiday.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Moving to Joburg and leaving Cape Town

The year is coming to an end. I have a few weeks left in Cape Town before I do the unthinkable: move to Joburg. People have been asking me how I feel about moving to Jozi. I’m not sure. My standard answer has been “I’m just trying to get to the end of the year, pack and move things across the country and then think about what it all means”. It sounds as though I’m in survival mode and trying to get through to the end of the year with all my wits intact. Some days are better than others. My wits keep leaving me from time to time and I have a sleeplessness night plagued by endless worries.

I’ve had a few teary moments when thinking about the trek up North. Not because I have any major attachments to Cape Town (I wish I did). Sometimes I feel like I’ve let myself down by not giving this place a chance to seep into my bones and psyche (when I moved here in 2012 I knew I wouldn't think of Cape Town as home. I wasn't settling here). I’m sad to be leaving my school. I’m sad there are some kids I won’t be able to see grow a little older. There’s creative writing from my favourite writers I’ll never get to see (I keep saying I would love to edit their work even when I’m away, but I doubt they will email me and keep in touch). And another teacher is going to reap the rewards of some of the work I’ve put into the students I’ve taught and struggled with since 2012.

The move to Joburg has made me question myself and my intentions a lot. The idea for the great move first came to mind last year July. But near the end of the year I decided to be selfless (and practical) and stay for another year so that my Grade 11 class (in 2013) wouldn’t have to deal with a new teacher in their final year. Somehow, it mattered more for them then my current Grade 11s (story for another day).  The desire for change also posed some questions about whether I would continue teaching or study further. Initially I applied and registered for a Ph. D. But things didn’t quite fit. I had lots of admin and the registration process became a chore. If I was a little more esoteric, I would have read the disruptions differently; as signs, omens of things to come. But I pushed through and attempted to do the Ph. D while teaching as well. “Big mistake! Huge!”[1] (another story for another day).

The omen did come in the form of my mother having a stroke in July. It shouldn’t have rattled me as much as it did. I’m used to things going wrong as much as I’m surprised when things don’t go wrong. So when my mother had a stroke I had to rethink my plans: to teach or to push through with the Ph. D and be a poor student for a few years? I opted for the former and decided to find other options for my new life in Joburg. I was surprised when I saw a teaching post at a girls school in Joburg, another sign, or omen or serendipity (I'm still deciding). I applied and they gave me the job as the English teacher starting next year.

As the year creeps closer to the end and my spell in Cape Town has been narrowed down to calendar days, I am partly relieved and partly haunted by the consequences of my decisions. What does Joburg hold in store for me? I’ve heard of people moving continents in pursuit of their dreams and that makes me feel like a wimp. I’m not there yet. I’m just moving provinces because something (or more honestly, being with someone) compels me to get out of my comfort zone (yes, clichés are often the default) and take the leap of faith and trust my instincts (creativity be damned).

I’m waiting for some emotion to overtake me so I can finally have a definite answer for the questions about what I feel about moving to Joburg and leaving Cape Town. I want to be more excited. But after all the paper work I’ve had to deal with in the most recent weeks, I’m hardly excited. I’m mellow, almost simmering with something that could be excitement. I want to be excited but the thought of what lies ahead of me before the mid-December 14 hour drive keeps reigning me in. I have to mark hundreds of exam scripts. I’m going to spend my hours in a chair with red pen in hand and invigilating exams. I hate exam time (another story, perhaps for the next post). What a way to go out!

[1] As Julia Robers says in Pretty Woman

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

When “-isms” collide: racism vs classism vs ageism vc sexism (thinking out aloud)

Recently a colleague made a jibe “not everything is about race” while we were in conversation. I would mention her race except that would perpetuate the label that’s been lumped on to me: the angry black woman. I realised that as one of the few black staff members, race talk is always awkward in the staff room. We usually play it safe by making jibes at each other by talking about the weird things Coloured people say (“You’re gonna learn…who learn you English?”) or the most recent one, why do white (often English-speaking) people think it’s okay to call older people by their name? My Coloured colleagues and I stick to titles (Mr, Mrs, sisi, bhuti etc) unless the white person insists I use their first name, even when they are old enough to be my mother (which is very awkward).

These conversations can be fun and light-hearted and we feel like we are the rainbow nation and we’re all getting along in spite of the differences we hold onto. That’s until one of my white colleagues say they don’t get what the big deal is with #blackface, “what's the big deal” and then I'm placed in the position of being the “expert ethnic” and speak on behalf of my race. Or a white colleague questions the credentials of a coloured woman because she doesn’t meet his standards about what an educated person should say and behave like so she couldn’t possibly have gone through the arduous task of reading and writing her Ph.D “she probably bought it” he says. Or I complain about the class dynamics and my class sensibilities are questioned. Who is the problem in this situation: the one who judges according to race or the one who judges according to class or the one who uses culture? The simple answer is, all of the above.

When I admit my class consciousness I have noticed some who says something potentially racist will not admit that they are racist. We don’t like racists but it’s okay for people to say horrible things about working class and middle class people. Why? It’s somewhat okay to be a nice guy and say sexists things from time to time, but it’s usually just a joke and if anyone takes offense, they lack a sense of humour. I’m starting to think that we have a pecking order: the racist is the scum of the earth; then the sexist. If you haven’t checked your privilege and you’re middle class, people often turn a blind eye to comments about poor people (“why can’t they just get a job?”). If you’re somewhere in between classes and you feel like you can point fingers at both middle and working class then you’re the expert because you’re in both worlds. And then ageist on the grounds of religion and culture is usually pardoned and the conversation can move on swiftly.

Of course, the problem here is that if one is working within binaries of race, class and gender the complexities about the things we say when we forget who is in our company can get lost. I haven’t worked this problem out in my head except that I want another way of talking to people about race, gender class without killing the conversation because I’m the resident “angry black woman”.

I’m just thinking out aloud and making sense of some awkward situations I find myself within. What happens when my “nice” colleagues say something I think is racist and they think I’m being too sensitive? What happens when I say something offensive but because I’m the “angry black woman”, I may be exempt from correction in the fear of me pulling the race card? It all sounds quite silly to be honest. Grown people who can’t have frank conversations with each other for the fear of being misunderstood.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

On giving into adult peer pressure and buying a car

My worst nightmare came true. When I decided I would move to a bigger city with a “kak” public transport system, I had to make peace with the fact that I had to buy a car. I had always hoped I would stay in a small town that didn’t really require a car (only just as a luxuary) or I could be anti-establishment and try to live without a car: shun consumerism and save the environment one taxi ride at a time. But my plans were thwarted and I took the plunge and decided to buy a car.

When I look around, it seems everyone approaches this part of their life with much ease. I envy people who inherited cars from their mom, dad or grandparents. My girlfriends and I always spoke about getting cars but in a casual non-committal sort of way. It's the adult thing to do. And I don’t know what it’s like for guys but I’ve decided that it’s way easier; the same way there isn’t much anxiety about getting a drivers license. Cars aren’t a mystery for men. Growing up, I knew few women who actually drove  or even owned cars so cars became the thing men did and women tagged along. (I've never seen my mother drive)

My disdain for cars also came from a secret I harboured: with the salary I have and the responsibilities on that salary, there’s no way I could afford a car. And the expectation that I must indeed have one in spite of this slight hinderance gave me heart palpitations. It felt like a cruel joke: people ask “when are you getting a car?” and I knew the answer wasn’t allowed to be “when I get a better salary” or even better “when I don’t have to contribute a chunk of my salary to my mother”.

So for the first two years of working I decided I would rather travel than save for a car. The first bit of money I saved I blew on a trip to Mozambique. I knew I couldn’t have it all like my friends with corporate salaries so I decided to make a trade off: a car or travel? And I chose travelling. I blew my first bonus on a trip to Kenya the following year. After the trip in Mozambique I was surprised by a conversation which made me realize I would make a somewhat major life choice: I had decided to move to Joburg and immediately I started thinking about the logistics: when? How? What would I do when I get to Joburg? Teach? Study further? So first I decided to get my drivers license.

I started saving hoping to buy a cheap jalopy sometime during the year. I would practice driving in Cape Town so I wouldn’t have a seizure when I stall in the middle of Jan Smuts Avenue in Joburg. I didn’t realize how little I know about cars until I started getting specific with friends. I knew the basics: if you don’t have enough money, vehicle finance is what most people do. Getting a car on credit is quite normal but also outs your social class in a huge way. It says “I’m normal: I want things I can’t afford and my parents couldn’t afford to help me out with a starter pack”. I was also grateful to find out that AVIS and most car rental companies sell their cars so I went for the AVIS option.

I don’t remember if I ever had a dream car (my few attempts at being anti-consumerism). A car is an object I wasn’t willing to spend too much energy on. It’s a possession that loses value as soon as you sign on the dotted line. So I knew I wanted something simple, basic and didn’t attract any attention or say anything about me at all: I didn’t want it to be an extension of me. I didn’t consider fuel consumption or whether it’s fuel consumption friendly. I didn’t know how long I wanted the car. I just wanted a car.

AVIS responded immediately after I sent them forms and documents(a day and a bit is too quick in my world). It all happened too quickly. Within a day I knew I qualified for vehicle finance. The biggest sham ever! On my current salary, there’s no way I can afford a car. I guess they make the decision based on credit. Money I don’t have. I made the decision based on my salary starting in January next year and the savings I had so far. My heart broke every time I considered that the money I saved so studiously would end up buying a car and not go into some other long term investment

And then the jargon began. My communication at AVIS was rerouted to the sales rep and not the administrator who processed the paper work: payslips, certified copies of this and that. I started making lists and ticking off all the documents as I went I along. An email from the sales rep told me good news and made me realize I had to ask questions: “your finance has  officially been approved with no residual with an estimated instalment @ 12% linked R2650 +- including warranty and service plan and smash and grab”. She offered to find someone who would help me with insurance quotes.  She told me I had the public holiday to think about it. Think about what? I didn’t know anything about residual and 12% linked. I asked around. I was also getting loads of advice from everywhere: ask about the service plan, ask about the warranty, ask about the accident report. And every time these questions were posed I felt like I was making the biggest decision of my life. Deciding on a career or degree of study wasn’t as stressful and that determined my future in real measurable terms. Why was there more pressure when buying a car?

The questions were sent in bits and pieces and I outed myself: I’m a first time buyer who has no clue what is going on. I assumed that people think like me: a teacher. Either assume the kids know nothing about what you’re talking about or start from what they know and build from there. It turns out this basic principal only applies in the classroom. In the real world people assume you know everything.

I then went onto the Hippo website. The Hippo adverts on tv were always lost on me: why compare insurance prices anyway? Because everything is a potential scam! Everyone is trying to squeeze as much money out of us as possible and the more naïve you are, the better. The website was helpful because it gave me a sense of what to expect when I eventually got a call from someone who would give me more quotes. I saw the words “excess” on the Hippo website and I didn’t know what that meant. It turns out, for every claim I make with the insurance company I would first have to pay money. But what about all the instalments I would have made already? The excess is supposed to be a deterrent from claiming willy nilly. The remaining lessons at school on Friday were a blur. I had heart palpitations every time I thought about the car and the word insurance made me queasy.

After school, the car arrived and I went for a test drive. I did a pit stop at AVIS and finally met the people who had bombarded me with emails. I realized as I had the face to face conversation: I probably should have done my homework a bit more. I decided to be a victim and blame all the friends I kept asking who gave me half-hearted advice or worse, advice in instalments. The thought of prolonging this trauma and doing more homework gave me a sleepless night. I was up until 2am looking at other car websites. I didn’t know what I was looking for. Some people told me to look a bit more. Look for what?

I think I’ve decided on the deal. It’s not my dream car but it will do the job for the next few years. I haven’t dealt with the trauma of what buying on credit really means: I will eventually end up paying more than the price I saw on the website. The system is flawed and how much room is there to find the ideal situation? What is the ideal situation when buying a car? I still resent the fact that I need a car. But the whole process has been a rite for passage. I can already see the next stress with the car (assuming there are no accidents, the breaks don’t fail, I don’t burn the clutch, the fan belt doesn’t start screaming and whatever else it is that ruins a car): how long will I keep it for? Will I trade it in? Will I be able to sell it?

I’m not anymore car savvy than when I began this process. I just feel a little more like an adult. After a 40 minute conversation with friends I realized, perhaps I should have read a little more. Perhaps I should have waited one more month. Shoulda, coulda, woulda! Now I have my heart set on having transport options from this week onwards. I don’t have to take the taxi or bus if I don’t want to. I probably will, to save and not have to worry about parking when I get to school. I don’t have to bother people with asking for lifts anymore. I don’t have to worry about carrying stuff next time I go grocery shopping.

I have given away a fraction of my soul because buying a car is a necessary evil.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

On being let down by a strong, black woman

The last time I wrote a post was more than a month ago. I was in the throes of exams and trying to keep up with the mountain of exam marking. When I could finally breathe and the holiday began, my mother had a stroke a few days after my long-awaited holiday began.

A stroke isn't something that can be planned. But it feels like my mother chose the perfect time to have her stroke. My sisters and I had planned to take some time off and be home during July so when the stroke happened, we had all been preparing ourselves to come home anyway. I always have to prepare myself for going home: mentally and emotionally. Over the years, home has become an emotional desert. 

The stroke happened on Wednesday morning. Mama called me and she didn't sound like herself. My initial thought was that she had been crying. But seeing as I can count the number of times I’ve seen her cry, I immediately dismissed that thought. She told me she wasn’t well, but assured me she had everything under control. She said she would go and see a doctor. My mother never single-handedly chooses to see a doctor. She has to be coerced or in a diabetic coma for four days before she concedes that something is wrong with her. So when she said she was going to the doctor, I thought: maybe this is serious. But being my mother’s daughter, I also knew that my mother also cried wolf before so I decided to disengage and allow her to take care of herself. My 9 year old nephew was visiting her and she assured me she would be fine with the nephew around. So after I spoke to her I rolled over in my bed and carried on sleeping, enjoying the fact that I had nothing planned for the day except for a few errands that weren’t really urgent.

Later I got a message from my cousin saying she had seen my mom and something was amiss. Still, nothing moved me. My mother is a strong, black woman. Capable. This couldn’t be too serious. She called me later telling me she’d been to the doctor, got “i-treatment” (medication) and the doctor assured her that the stroke had passed her by, leaving a little damage; she was a bit wobbly but she assured me she would be fine.

Thursday morning and I get a call from my aunt who never calls me. She tells me mama had fallen over during the night and had lost feeling in the left side of her body. She asked me the dreaded question: ubuya nini? (when are you coming home?) I had planned to visit mama during the last week of my holiday. The first two weeks would be mine to do the things I wanted to do. But my aunt demanded an answer: when are you coming home? I think I lied to her and said I would make a plan. My sisters and I began to make plans via whatsapp and it was decided that the eldest would find a flight on Thursday; but later we discovered flights were full so she would be home Friday morning. By the end of the day on Thursday I had been convinced by other people that I too should abandon my plans and go home. I didn’t want to go home.

Memories of giving up time, emotions and money in order for mama to be happy came flooding back to me. A few years ago mama showed symptoms of having diabetes. My sisters and I noticed in October but mama refused to acknowledge this. I came home for the December vac and she was emaciated and drinking lots of water. Within a few days she had lost her appetite and she no longer had energy to get out of bed. She began vomiting and before long she was dragged out of the house, almost unconscious, taken to the hospital and into a coma for four days.

The diabetic coma was a culmination of the dysfunction in my family, especially when it came to my mother. The dysfunctional nature of our family life has a long history of subtle signs throughout my childhood and adolescence. Ours has never been a normal family By the time I left for varsity, I had decided my mother has bipolar and she existed on a different reality than the one I lived within. But because she didn’t believe in doctors, that was just my conjecture based on some reading and efforts of putting together the pieces of the stories she told me. The pieces never came together.

I didn’t want to go home because I didn’t want to deal with my mother’s drama. The stroke could have been avoided but my mother didn’t look after herself even though she understood she had diabetes which needed prolonged treatment. But I conceded and went home in spite of my plans of having a peaceful holiday. When my sisters and I arrived in East London Friday evening my mother was in a pitiful state. The next day my sisters admitted her into the hospital and her road to recovery began.

As I write this, she’s been in hospital for more than a week receiving care and physio to help her along. Because she’s my mother, she’s also been drinking concoctions from a famous medicine man who makes a herbal concoction to drive away the effects of a stroke. A miracle man. I decided against visiting her in hospital today. I didn’t take any of her calls as I usually do because I am tired. Physically and emotionally spent by yet another episode of drama.

My sisters and I have been packing up her house as she can no longer live alone. I have been sorting through boxes and shelves of clothing discovering pictures and letters from my mother’s former life as a teacher and devout church lady. In the past twenty years, I have watched my mother disintegrate into a shadow of herself, relying on pictures and stories about my mother before she checked out of life.

I’m hoping I will weep at some point or whatever the appropriate response is when one has an ailing mother. I have not wept. I am only tired. I wake up in the middle of the night wondering how this happened and what will life look like now that my life and my sisters’ lives have been changed by one single person who was supposed to keep it together? Instead she has three daughters keeping it together because we are her pension plan, her retirement annuity. The strong, black woman has let us down.