Saturday, December 31, 2016

India diaries: Good bye India

I've been useless at blogging about this trip. Mostly because I was always too tired at the end of the day or I was mulling over the day and couldn't decide what to write about (it was easier just leaving a Facebook post in fact). But it's only fitting that I least write a final blog seeing as today is the last day of the trip.

India has been a lesson about many things and unfortunately I have very little original thoughts on my trip because I leave with the lessons I've seen been written about many times before: the inequality, the history, the traffic, the pollution etc etc. Of course this list runs the risk of framing India as the single story of what we mostly see on CNN or the media (perhaps excluding Bollywood). It's been an interesting 10 days which have left me with many questions. The trip spanned Pondicherry, Chennai and New Delhi (I would have loved to pass through Jaipur but after the New Delhi experience we decided against it).

The first mistake I made when I arrived in India was to try and liken India to a place I know. This was a huge error. Of course some cities and places have a similar sense about certain things but there are limitations to the similarities. For example I compared Chennai to Butterworth or Umtata based on first impressions. But after navigating more of the city I realised I was wrong. Chennai has it's own feel and texture that I haven't experienced before. Perhaps this is the danger of travelling: bringing preconceptions or previous experiences with us on the journey does not allow us to fully experience the new place we visit because we're trying to make meaning of the place based on the information we have about the place. Of course it's impossible to travel on a clean slate because we carry our experiences and memories everywhere we go. But the best way to travel should be about suspending those memories or misconceptions and simply experiencing the new place rather than relying on the contrived and imagined idea about the place we choose to visit.

One of the experiences I haven't been honest about while I've been here is that I have been operating as a monolingual English speaker. I have not learned one word of the local language. The truth is I haven't had to. The power of English has become very clear for me in an experiential way for the first time in my life. In South Africa I am more aware of the fact that I would be at an advantage if I learned to speak more South African languages.  English has many limitations in South Africa even though it carries a lot of social capital in some places. The fact that I know Nguni languages places me in a position of being able to navigate most places. Outside the context of my work (which is largely English), I often have to communicate in other languages which means I am constantly aware of my linguistic shortcomings. However, for the past ten days I haven't really had to think about my lack of language ability in a foreign country: why? Because English and Hindi are the official languages in India. I worked on the assumption that if anyone heard me speak English they would try to help me because at least I spoke one of the official languages.

This assumption is based on the knowledge that English has power. People have been willing to help or simply ignore me once I've spoken English (tuk tuk drivers have no time for English-speakers; they just ignored us if we didn't use the correct key words of locations). In New Delhi most people understood and spoke English. And unlike South Africa, there doesn't seem to be an obsession with accent (at least that was my impression). And so unbeknownst to me India gave me the feeling of what it feels like to use the dominant language with very little shame of not speaking the language most people speak (Hindi or Tamil in my context). I should have been ashamed or shunned but I always expected someone to respond to me when I spoke English. I've never done this while speaking African languages in South Africa. I've never approached someone in isiZulu (the most widely spoken language in South Africa) with the same confidence of approaching people in English in India. And upon reflection; I should have. But I was too drunk on the social capital I had to care about the language.

I shouldn't be shocked by this experience. The Englishness is a real presence in countries that used to be English colonies. Even in a country like India which has an interesting disregard for anything "western" in some parts of India. But when it comes to anything that resembles prestige, English is ever present (especially in the cities). This is not a new idea. And anyone who has a real sense of inequality is yawning at my observations. India is one giant lesson in inequality. There doesn't even seem to be a restlessness with inequality. The scale of it is largely because there are 1.2 billion people in India and it is the second most unequal country (South Arica remains at the top of the list). But somehow I was still shocked by the level of inequality. Every time I've travelled to a plush mall, where the middle class of India seem to be comfortable, I drove past what looks like a poor area. Of course I've experienced this in South Africa as well. But not at the same scale I've seen in India. It would be an interesting investigation to look at the levels of poverty and wealth per square kilometre and compare between India and South Africa. Perhaps the poverty I experienced and seen in South Africa has become normalised. I've been more overwhelmed by the levels of poverty and wealth that I've seen in India. I have been consumed by images of how well India is doing while navigating malls which speak to this success. There's a mall called DLF Emporio in New Delhi  which is Hyde Park Corner (in Johannesburg) on steroids. It makes Hyde Park look like a small shopping centre.

I would be remiss in writing a final post about India without writing about money; or rather lack of it. Throughout the trip I became hyper-aware of money in my bag. Mostly because most ATMs did not have any money. For a night Sku and I had 350 rupees in New Delhi without the hope of getting any more money. This meant we wouldn't be able to pay for a tuk tuk if we wanted to get around (there are certain places where uber wasn't available). This was very worrying. The kind of worry I've never had about not having money. I generally carry no physical money with me in South Africa. It's become normal. And there's almost a sense of pride about having a moneyless lifestyle because that's a marker of real progress. And perhaps that's what India is going for. But if you're poor and have no access to digital money this can be a precarious experience. When we eventually found an ATM with money, it gave us 500 rupee notes which made us very nervous because we weren't sure if the notes were credible. We had to google and check whether the new 500 rupee notes had been released before we could rest in the confidence of having money for a few days. The excitement was also hollow because all ATMs have had a limit on the amount of money which can be withdrawn. It was 2500 rupees when we arrived and it will be increasing to 4500 rupees in the new year. These limitations bring into question the urgent need for money and the security it offers. And of course the nervousness of not being able to be a consumer or to travel easily without the confidence of money in your pocket. I couldn't have these questions in South African in my privileged lifestyle where the only thing threatening my livelihood is what will happen at universities next year.

I've been writing and rewriting this post in my head throughout my time here and I can't find the right words to write about India without sounding like another privileged tourist who came searching for enlightenment in India. Most of the stories I've been sharing on Facebook make it sound like I never want to come back to India. But the opposite is the case. I will come back to India. There's a whole country to experience. Of course I'll carry this first experience with me when I come back. It's a complex place like most places in the world. I wish I could understand how people who live here make sense of living in India: are they happy? What do they see? Would they ever live in another country? These are questions I could ask anyone really but they are particular for people who live in a country that is struggling and far from perfect. I could ask myself these questions about South Africa in fact. I wouldn't have any simple answers.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

India Diaries: Day 2 in Pondicherry

What a day! After surviving a three hour drive from Chennai yesterday-- no streetlights, reckless overtaking, incessant hooting, robots I can count on one hand-- we arrived in Pondicherry. It was cooler and quieter than Chennai. Pondicherry is right by the coast of what used to be a French colony.
Today we started the day with Sku talking to MA students at Pondicherry University. Pondicherry University is a mixture of both buildings and forest across the campus (or jungle;we saw a snake slither across the road) . It's a postgrad university with only Masters and PhD students. The class Sku addressed was dominated by women. There's very little I can say beyond my observations about the campus as I spoke to very few students. The class dynamic was very apparent within the university as the cleaners around the university were women who are visibly poor, gaunt and old. The university is so expansive we couldn't walk from the gate to the Humanities building when we arrived. We hopped onto the official on-campus tuk tuks to get us to our next destination. After the lecture we met the English Department HOD for lunch together with Sku's colleague who has organised the trip. They were very worried about whether we would enjoy the food but we assured them that we were well-versed in South Indian cuisine thanks to Dosa Hut, Spiceburg in our neck of the hood.

Sku's lecture notes.
 We were then given an itinerary of things to do for the afternoon. Top of the list was a book fair in the heart of Pondicherry. Perfect! The fair was wonderful; stuck in an old hall, there were stalls of various book shops in the region. Most books were in Tamil or a variation of Hindi and Tamil(even Long walk to freedom in Tamil). We found some interesting books by Indian writers (Sku bought another copy of Mein Kampf:seriously!). If I had to compare the book fair with any literary space in South Africa I would have to say I've never seen so much literature written in a local language. In South Africa, our literature is dominated by English. In India the literary sphere is dominated by the dominant local languages (or the region perhaps). There are familiar covers of books written in Tamil and Hindi. There are translations of the major autobiographies rather than English copies in India. All this seems to be done by independent publishers rather than a government entity. We definitely don't have this in South Africa. We don't value the translation of texts in our local languages because we defer this to the government to do this work. India could teach us a thing or two about the error in this shirking of the responsibility.

One of the stalls at the book fair

Look who I found in India!

Next on our list was Pothys: the Macy's of Pondicherry. First and second floor: women's clothing. Third floor: children's clothing. Fourth floor: men's clothing. Fifth floor: groceries and the basement: electronics and parking for moterbikes! Sku has been wondering where the normal people are: "people who aren't trading and just living their lives"; basically people like us who go to the shops after work and buy normal things. Of course we've seen normal people since we've arrived but not Sku's version of normal. This is a simplistic understanding of people in Pondicherry. Most people seem to be working as traders with very few professionals in the mix. Perhaps it's just the consequence of being in a place like Pondicherry (New Delhi will probably be different).
Pothys was a dream. Sku managed to successfully distract me from the first and second floor by occupying me with his concerns for pots and pans and an extra t-shirt. What fascinated me most about Pothys was the first and second floor: sprawling spaces filled with fabric for saris and reams of ready made saris. Interestingly the men's section is dominated by "western" clothing of jeans, t-shirts and suits. The colours on the first and second floor were dazzling. And it's no surprise that women are targeted: we are the biggest consumers. Like the book festival, the centering of "Indian" culture was glaring. There's absolutely no shop in South Africa that has the amount of space I saw at Pothys of what we could consider as "South African" clothing. Sku pointed out that if we do have something that is typically South African it's a boutique or a shop like Urban Zulu. But our mainstream shops certainly don't centre what we consider South African or even African styles of clothing. And when they do it's probably a short-lived marketing gimmick that is very expensive. But of course, there's the issue of colourism (or racism as a friend pointed out to me a while ago): all the advertising (tv and print media) is of light-skinned people. This is in spite of the fact that people in the South are considerably dark. This is probably the only area where whiteness (or the hankerings after the "West") are visible (I walked past a salon that advertised skin bleaching as one of their services).
This is an open secret in India: Indians prefer light skin. A book that I bought at the book fair by Chetan Bhagat, Making India Awesome, writes about this as well as all the other interesting dynamics about India. With all it's problems, there's an interesting sense of nationalism operating in this country. From the language issue (where there doesn't seem to be an obsession with speaking "good" English but rather being multi-lingual) to the lack of American influence (no McDonalds in these parts, no rap music and no pictures of American brands), Indians seem to have a healthy sense of what it means to be Indian: with all its problems. I don't think I could say the same as a South African. Ours is a visibly American/Westernised country with tiny gestures of including Africa. Even in the moment of decolonising education. One of students asked me what my mother tongue was and when he discovered it's different to Sku's he said "so that's why you guys speak English". I responded "No, we're just lazy" considering Sku and I speak a variation of the same language. His comment precisely points to the existence Sku and I have in South Africa: we easily lean towards Englishness in most aspects of our lives.
Pothys is situated in an area that appears to be the CBD of Pondicherry. It's vastly different to where we stay which is near Auroville which has restaurants and stalls on the side of the road. On a Facebook post about Day 1 I compared Chennai to Butterworth (perhaps Umtata would have been more correct): the hustle and bustle felt familiar. Pondicherry feels like Pondicherry. I've never seen anything like it. The smells of cooking on the side of the road, the motorcycles that rule the road, the bullying buses, the honking tuk tuks, the men in wraps and pants and the women in their beautiful colours is unlike anywhere I've been to. There's definitely a "third world" sense about the place as Sku remarked "everything could do with an extra coat of paint around here". But that just highlights how my lifestyle in Johannesburg is basically first world. Everything in my radius of Johannesburg life is the right kind of shiny and clean (even Braamfontein) and the right kind of shabby because the buildings are still well-kempt. But not here, but that doesn't matter until someone point it out to you.
It's important to note what I was wearing today: I decided to wear one of my favourite dresses on account of the weather. Instead of wearing my kurti and blending in with the locals I decided on a knee-length dress. Sku was the one to tell me that everyone was looking at my legs. Tomorrow I shall wear my kurti and leggings and attempt to blend in. It's probably the most sensible thing to do.

I'm not sure what tomorrow holds: possibly Pothys shopping for me and university things for Sku!

This is a chalk drawing found on the entrance of most homes and shops. This was at the entrance of our guest house. It is believed that it brings luck to the home. New patterns are drawn everyday.
And some pics from Day 1 in Nanganallur, Chennai:
A sign outside the bank: India (or rather Modi) decided to demonitise 500 and 100 rupee notes in November which left very little money in circulation. Most ATMs have shut down and there are long queues outside banks. 

There are shrines and temples everywhere. It feels weird taking pictures of them so I've only taken a few when I don't feel weird about it.

Trying a worm's eye view of the entrance of a temple

Just to give you a sense of the competing elements in the road: although this picture doesn't do justice to the number of motorbikes on the road who are a law unto themselves.

And of course: cows everywhere!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Hello and Goodbye: farewell speech to my girls

As is customary at my (now previous) school; when teachers leave they say a farewell speech to the school. Before I said goodbye to the school two of my students in Form II said their speech which ended in two sonnets which made me realise what my two years at St Mary's have meant. Below are the two sonnets-with little iambic pentameter if at all- which they read as well as the speech from me (because that was the last section of work we did).

(Shakespearean Sonnet)
Could I compare thee to a summers day?
Nope, you simply outshine the summer sun,
And anyway it would sound too Cliche,
And not describe the amazing things you've done,

English from you was more than just a lecture,
Because you were the teacher that gave us a voice,
And we used to explore topics like history and pop culture,
And you'd listen to our opinions like you had no choice,

Being taught by an empowering woman like you,
Made us want to make a permanent mark in society,
Just like your strong Africa tattoo,
Because we had thought provoking discussions about Humanity,

So as long as people breathe or eyes can see,
I doubt the school would ever find a teacher as astounding or legendary as thee

(Italian Sonnet)
Romeo and Juliet ended in heart-wrenching tragedy
But Ms Masola your departure clearly wins the sadness contest
Against Shakespeare's famous protagonists deaths.
Ms Masola you're leaving and its really hard to see
The one teacher that was truly down for a DMC
Leave but there wasn't much we could do to protest
Because we know that the new journey you're embarking on is for the best
English will seriously be different next year and I know it's not just for me

But at least we have the brain capacity to remember the importance of your English lessons
And with what you've left us with I'm very thankful
Because it was the TED talks that encouraged us to think differently everyday
Which were combined with our beloved random class gossip sessions
You enabled us to grow and to voice and discuss our opinions no matter how controversial
So I'll keep it simple and say goodbye because I know you don't want a cliche

Many of you have asked me why I became a teacher. This question was always posed during a not so riveting lesson and some classes managed more than others to get me to digress from the original script of the lesson. So as I say goodbye to you I think it's fitting I give you the full answer.

The answer to that question is quite simple for me: why not? I am well aware of the opportunities I have out there in the world because when I was in primary school my teachers went to great lengths to expose me to astronomy, paleontology, engineering and many other areas that were forbidden for girls. This was important for young girls in the 90s because I went to school when there were still lots of firsts: first black female accountant in South Africa, first female Vice-Chancellor at UCT, the first female African pilot in South Africa: my generation finally had an endless list of opportunities to choose from because other women were finally breaking the glass ceiling.  It wasn’t for lack of knowledge or exposure that I became a teacher. I became a teacher largely because of my own teachers at school. I had great teachers growing up and when I got to matric I thought, if I could become a fraction of what these people have been to me I will be pretty happy with myself. They weren’t perfect but they always seemed to know a lot without checking Google.. They also taught me important lessons about what it means to be human. 

And so I did a BA: also known as a bugger all. It was the kind of degree that if you looked at my transcript/report you wouldn’t be able to say which job I could I apply for. When I left home at the beginning of my first year I lied to my family and told them I was going to do journalism. I needed them to take me seriously. And journalists take themselves very seriously. I was the golden child who had made it into university so I had to do something that was anything but teaching. But by August of my first year my sister had cornered me and asked me: what are you actually doing with your life while I tried to explain the modules I'd done in Philosophy and I decided to tell her the truth: I’m going to be a teacher. She was appalled: you’re going to spend all these years at university just to become a teacher. Just to become a teacher: as though that was a failure. And in my context: perhaps it was. Some people told me, “but you’re too smart to be a teacher”, others said “you’re too soft to be a teacher, they’ll eat you alive”. My mom was probably the most disappointed. She had been a teacher in the 70s and early 80s. I think she had a bad experience because she said very little about why she left teaching. My decision must have triggered all those memories for her because she had been the generation of black women who were told which professions they could choose.

So you can imagine me in the early 2000s with my wonderful, middle class education which had prepared me for the 21st century, having done all the right subjects, ticked the right boxes. And I wanted to be a teacher! I wanted to be a teacher because it felt like I was making a choice. I wasn’t stumbling into someone else’s expectations of who I should be. I wasn’t forced to do it because some government official decided that’s what I should do. I chose to be a teacher for all the warm and fuzzy reasons: I like people. And mostly, I like kids and teenagers. I became a teacher because I genuinely believe in the importance of learning, life-long learning. And not just the learning that happens through books but the learning that happens through a meaningful life through meaningful relationships.

And St Mary’s has been part of that journey of forming meaningful relationships. I know I’ve only been here for two years which is a second by St Mary’s standards. And I’m okay with that. I know I haven’t taught many of you but those whom I have taught have a very special place in my heart because willingly or sometimes unwillingly you gave me your time. Even those who don't like poetry somehow humoured me when I tried to read you poetry just for fun with the hope you could enjoy poetry rather than asking: is this going to be in the exam? You allowed me to share random stories and you too shared many random stories. Some of you taught me not to take myself too seriously by teaching me juju on that beat dance moves and giving me homework like: you need to to listen to Solange’s seat at the table. Some of you forced me to put my game-face on and pretend to be an adult, but it turns out I'm not good with being an adult anyway. You wrote me some wonderful essays which I loved reading and shared many laughs about many things like someone told me in a Form II class that Jesus died three times. Some of you challenged me when that needed to be done and humbled me when that needed to be done. And some of you have seen me recover from my most embarrassing moments. 

I'm telling you all this because I know first-hand the negative perception teaching has because I know many of you would never choose to be teachers. And it's such a pity because it truly is one of the most fulfilling and challenging professions you could choose. I'm also telling you this because you're in the process of making choices. Both big and seemingly insignificant choices. Take those choices seriously. Don't be afraid to disappoint people with your choices. And when in doubt choose yourself. I encourage you to read about the legacy of women who have gone before us, women who made choices they could stand for and we as young women can read about them and be proud of those women. There are many women whose stories don't make it into the history books who managed to change the world. And I'm not talking about changing the world in grand gestures but change your world and the things you have control over. One of the most inspiring stories I keep coming back to is about Charlotte Maxeke: the women who has a hospital named after her in Johannesburg. She was the first black woman to get a university degree in 1901 from Wilberforce University in Ohio, America. She graduated with a BSc and came back to South Africa and in 1918 she started the Bantu Women's League which spearheaded the anti-pass laws campaign as early as 1919. In 1912 she was the only woman present at the inauguration of the SANNC (South African Native National Congress which later became the ANC). Together with her husband Marshall Maxeke (also a graduate of Wilberforce University) who was the editor of the newspaper Umteteli waBantu, they started the Wilberforce Community College in Evaton which is still in existence today and she helped establish the African Episcopal Church in South Africa. Charlotte Maxeke's life reminds me that one of the best gifts women have is the ability to make choices to create the kind of lives we want to live rather than simply be an idea of what society think we should be.

Being a teacher has been the best decision of my life thus far. Going to the University of Pretoria is a continuation of this journey because I’ll be teaching other young people who want to be teachers. I’m going to end of with an extract from a poem written by James Schlatter which I first came across while I was in high school. It was on a teacher’s wall and when I read it I thought, hmmm, it’s cheesy and I like it. I tweaked slightly so it can make sense to a St Mary's context:

Throughout the course of a day I have been called upon to be an
actor, friend, nurse and doctor: although those of you who had a nosebleed during my lesson will agree I’m a lousy doctor. I have been called upon to be a coach, finder of lost articles, cheerleader, psychologist, substitute parent, salesman, politician and a keeper of the faith.
Despite the poems, Shakespeare, verbs, PEE method, marking tests and exams, I have
really had nothing to teach, for my students really have only themselves to learn, and I know it takes the whole world to tell you who you are.
I am a paradox. I speak loudest when I listen the most. My greatest
gifts are in what I am willing to appreciatively receive from my students.
Material wealth is not one of my goals, but I am a full-time treasure
seeker in my quest for new opportunities for my students to use their talents, and in my constant search for those talents that sometimes lie buried in self-defeat.
I am the most fortunate of all who labour.
A doctor is allowed to usher life into the world in one magical moment.
I am allowed to see that life is reborn each day with new questions, ideas and friendships.
An architect knows that if she builds with care, her structure may stand
for centuries. A teacher knows that if she builds with love and truth, what she builds will last forever.
I am a warrior, daily doing battle against peer pressure, negativity,
fear, conformity, prejudice, ignorance and apathy: But I have great allies: Intelligence, Curiosity, Parental Support, Individuality, Creativity, Faith, Love and Laughter all rush to my banner with indomitable support.
And who do I have to thank for this wonderful life I am so fortunate
to experience, but you, St Mary’s girls and staff.
And so I have a past that is rich in memories. I have a present
that is challenging, adventurous and fun because I am allowed to spend my days with the future.

I am a teacher...and thank you St Mary's for being part of that journey.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Surname saga: final edition (hopefully)

A few months ago I wrote a piece about discovering my surname had been changed without my permission at the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) with the title "What's in a woman's [sur]name?". The issue of women's surnames being changed after they got married, even though they had stipulated they wanted to keep their surnames, caused a bit of a stir a few days after the local elections. Many of us had dared to lean over and check our details on the voter's roll only to discover the surname was different.

A few weeks after I wrote the article I had an email conversation with someone who made me think more about the issue and the piece I wrote. It feels relevant posting this exchange because today I was at Home Affairs. I'm in the process of getting a new passport (and I decided to throw in a smart ID in there as well). If you haven't got your smart ID yet, do it. It's easy and efficient assuming you have good wifi and internet banking and a bank nearby that's working together with the DHA about processing passports and IDs within "five to ten working days".

Today I went to the bank to complete the process and was helped by a very friendly guy, Tlou. Everything was fine until I leaned over to check Tlou's computer screen hoping that I'd filled in the online form correctly. My suspicion was confirmed: I still had the surname that isn't mine as my surname and my surname as maiden surname. Of course I was ready for this given my previous encounters with my surname issue. I dramatically whipped out my marriage certificate and explained to Tlou that I wanted to keep my surname and the certificate was the proof. He was dumbfounded "Why would you want to keep your surname?". In fact he was even suspicious of whether or not I am in fact married (who would marry someone who wanted to keep their surname right?). And so began the usual conversation where a stranger quizzes me about my choices and I give the same answers I always give. Tlou was a nice guy so I was very nice to him in spite of how bizarre the conversation sounded to me: I still don't get why I have to explain this simple choice. My favourite part of the conversation was when my partner was invoked: how did he feel about me not changing my surname? My response: it wasn't an issue (true story). His response:

Eventually I was asked to fill in a form with the heading REQUEST TO USE MAIDEN NAME/PREVIOUS SURNAME (I took a picture of it as evidence). The form is like an affidavit including a section "My reason being" and a section for an explanation. There was something humiliating in this process. How it is okay for me to explain why I want to keep my surname? Surely there should be a form for people who take on other people's surname. They should be explaining why they want to take someone else's surname. I asked Tlou what I should say (he was still making calls to someone who had the power to give me back my surname). And he said this was to safe-guard DHA from an angry husband who discovered his wife had changed her surname. My response: 

He explained that my reason (I want to keep my surname) wasn't good enough. Maybe if I had a business (or something to that effect) he would understand if I wanted to keep my surname (I explained I'm a teacher). I guess he was making the argument others make about the professional brand that women want to keep and therefore decide they do not want to change their surname. We continued to have a lively conversation and he finally processed my form and my surname was returned to me. 

I left the interaction with Tlou feeling very conflicted: should I have fought against the form? I can't think of other words to describe the feeling of filling in a form explaining why I want to keep my surname. There's something bizarre about that in ways that bizarre can't fully express. Absurd perhaps. I think I may have dashed Tlou's romanticism about marriage. At some point I noticed a tinge of irritation "That means marriage is just paper work mos!". Well yes, I also signed a pre-nup. But there's more to the paperwork surely.

I'm waiting with bated breath for the arrival of my new passport and ID. Hopefully this will be the end of the surname saga. 

Below is the email exchange in response to the previous article:

DM: I am a little concerned about this name change thing being made into a ‘middle class’ concern although I see that what you were trying to do is to suggest that ‘there are bigger issues out there’.  I think that it is precisely BECAUSE your middle class positionality gives you the resources and social capital to fight this issue of people’s names being changed that your struggle is actually one of human rights: the right to retain one’s birth name even in marriage.  Although Nguni women may have a back-up in the sense that you become ‘Ma(your surname)’ it is the case especially with Basotho that your in-laws in, fact, GIVE you a new name in their family and you become incorporated into the family in that way.  It is for these reasons that I find the issue that you have raised to be a deeply important human rights complaint.

 AM: I didn't see it that way because there's no record of women complaining about the issue. I wish there were more voices. Even Home Affairs made it sound like we're in the minority and they are making it easier for the majority of women who want to change their surnames. 
DM: Well it is precisely because it is seen as a minority issue that it must be discussed. When you write "I also feel like this is an issue amongst an educated and mostly privileged group of women", This doesn’t make the problem any less significant but it feels like a middle-class concern.’ I think that what you are pointing to is that the mass of people who undergo this either never realise that they have a different choice OR they are inundated by other more urgent and life threatening issues . They do not have the socio-economic capital  (or leisure) to do something about the fact that they are being infantilised by the state in this particular way.  Precisely because they are infantilised in other, pressing ways such as social grants (basically an allowance for being poor), RDP housing etc.
It is no surprise, given the state of most women in South Africa’s lives, that this issue is under-reported.  They are too busy reporting more pressing issues.

 This, however, does not mean that this issue is not important.  As you rightly point out "The change of the surname is both a public and private symbolism that matters greatly in our society. Whether we like it or not, the expectation that a woman should take her husband’s surname stems from a sexist belief that I aver is also a result of colonialism". This means that in a society that is constantly talking about de-colonisation and ‘freedom’, there is an underlying level on which colonialism is still creeping up on us and  positioning itself as a base line to our feelings about right and wrong, how society works and how marriage is constructed.
 It is entirely likely that there are hundreds of thousands of women right now in dire socio-economic-political situations who, in their quiet moments, would like to have kept their birth names.  It is precisely the use of ‘maiden-name’ as a descriptor that makes this colonial logic so pervasive. What is a maiden?  In isiXhosa or isiZulu one would have had umemulo already to strip one of the ‘maiden’ part of one’s identity – one becomes a woman.  So…why can’t you choose your own surname? Because of this infantilising logic of the state as daddy who is an extension of daddy at home and daddy at work…
It is this level of structurally oppressive logic that requires that we dismantle it all at once.  No oppression is too small but some are more urgent, more life threatening than others.  So…if we use the rules of triage then of course we must tackle economic issues first but oppression is overlapping (intersectional) and so we cannot use triage. We cannot deal with single strands of oppression one at a time.
It is very important for us to note that even the poorest woman in the most dire conditions has the richness of internal world to also feel as you feel: humiliated, stripped, unfree. Even if she has more pressing oppressions to contend and deal with.

AM: Would you mind if I copied and pasted some of this email discussion as a follow up blog post on the issue? I know it's weird and I'll understand if you say no. It's the most valuable feedback and discussion I've received on the issue.
DM:It's not weird at all and I would be honoured. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Asinakuthula umhlab’ubolile: the poetry of Nontsizi Mgqwetho


Hoha Mrs M. Maxeke
Mti omde orara wakulo
Bhikica emva kwabavumi
Mrs M. Maxeke
Ze nengcwaba lamagqwira
Libe ndaweninye
(Ho, Mrs M. Maxeke,
Tall, bitter tree,
Deborah’s sister,
Give us advice
On harvesting crops
Glean in the wake of the reapers
Mrs M. Maxeke
So every witch
Drops down dead)
These are the words of Nontsizi Mgqwetho’s poetry. This is an extract from her poem Iziko le nyembezi (The vale of tears) written in 1921. My previous post was about Charlotte Mannye Maxeke. It therefore seems fitting that I should write about Nontsizi Mgqwetho as the reference in the poem makes me suspect that these two women lived and read about each other’s work in the 1920s. Mgqwetho’s poetry gives us the voice of another Black woman who reveals so much more about Black life in 19th century South Africa.
Nontsizi Mgqwetho wrote poetry for the newspaper Umteteli wa Bantu (The People’s Advocate or The People’s Mouthpiece) in the 1920s: a multilingual newspaper edited by Marshall Maxeke (Charlotte Maxeke’s husband). Mgqwetho’s work explores the complexities of identity and experience in an urban space which provides us with many answers to similar questions we’re still asking today.
Jeff Opland collected her poetry from the newspapers into a more accessible poetry anthology The nation’s bounty: The Xhosa poetry of Nontsizi Mgqwetho. When I came across her work in 2009 I knew very little about Black life in 19th century South Africa. Reading Mgqwetho’s poetry made me question even more the perception I had about Black people’s lives while confronting early settlers and urbanisation. In primary school I was taught about the 1820 settlers in the Eastern Cape and the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley as though the white people arriving in Africa were arriving on unchartered territory. The absence of Black and Khoi San people’s experiences in the early history I was taught meant that my young mind believed that Black people as agents simply didn’t exist until the missionaries and the mining magnets came along and colonised the land and the people already occupying the land. The idea that Black people could have engaged the missionaries as equals and in fact resisted colonial imperialism is a narrative I am still discovering and grappling with.
The idea that a Black woman could have been writing poetry in a newspaper edited and read by Black people is an important consideration; especially when one looks at the content in Mgqwetho’s poetry. One of her her most significant poems is a poem that addresses the spilt of the South African Native Congress (SANNC) as a result of people like Maxeke who had become disillusioned by the work of the congress. Read with modern sensibilities, the thought that the early SANNC could have been fraught with tensions does not sit comfortably with the imagined past of African resistance and Mgqwetho’s poetry allows us to interrogate this imagination as her poetry is evidence of the tensions within early political movements.
The role of women in politics is one that is contested in 2016 as we can see even in a country like the United States of America (with Hillary Clinton contesting the presidency) and even closer to home when the Nigerian president, Buhari, stated that a woman’s place is in the kitchen after his wife made comments about the ruling party in Nigeria however, it seems clear that Mgqwetho’s position as a poet allowed her to make commentary about the politics of the 1920s. The poem below illustrates the contestation about a woman seeing herself as imbongi (a poet) because poets were assumed to be men who could use their poetry to confront their leaders.
Kuba tina simadoda nje asizange
Siyibone kowetu imbongokazi
Yenkazana kuba imbongi inyuka
Nenkundla ituke inkosi
(We as men have never encountered
these female poets in our our homes
Because a poet—a male— rouses the court and censures the king)
Mgqwetho’s poetry can be seen as the earliest form of protest poetry as she wrote many poems addressing the experiences of confronting African modernity in the midst of Black people trying to build resistance movements. Her poetry openly lambastes leaders at the time as well as the complacency amongst privileged Black people who were not willing to confront the complexities of their time. He greatest concern was about speaking up against the injustice she was seeing around her:
Asinakutula umhlab’ubolile
Xa ndikubonisa ubume bomhlaba
Angabhekabheka onk’amagqoboka.
Ukutula Ikwakuvuma
(We can’t sit silent, the country’s rotten
If I exposed the state of the country
the Christians’ jaws would drop
Silence implies consent!)
Her poetry reveals that she had converted to Christianity which allowed her to be critical of those in the church preaching the gospel as well as those she felt were resisting the gospel to their own detriment. Her allusion to Christianity also reveals an ambivalence where she implores Black people not to forget the ancestoral African traditionalism which was getting lost amongst Black people who were embracing Christianity and modernity. This ambivalence is familiar even in 2016 where religious beliefs are constantly being questioned as a legitimate lens for understanding our world.
One of Mgqwetho’s poems Ingwe idla ngamabala (Spots feed the leopard) questions the political economy of the 1920s. The poem begins with a warning to Black people thatSatshabalala tina ngokuswela ukwazi (Our ignorance will destroy us) as Black people were fast becoming landless and moving to the cities and thus being at the mercy of the city economy. Instead of cultivating the land (which was slowly being taken away from Black people since the 1913 Land Act) Black people were selling their maize only to buy it back at a higher price from the shops established by white traders. In the same poem she asks the question Zipina izityebi zelixesha letu (Where are the wealthy today) which speaks to a question of Black ownership and wealth which is yet to be actualised for many black people even in a democratic South Africa. Black people still do not own much of the land in South Africa and with the exception of a few industrialists and entrepreneurs (which we can count by name) much of the wealth in South Africa is in the hands of a few, mostly white people. We are yet to answer the questions posed by Mgqwetho in her poetry about the importance of self-actualisation of black people through economic means. This is further illustrated in a poem directed at workers to unite in the wake of oppressive laws that were being established at the time: Izizwe ezintsundu mazidibane/Livakale ilizwi labasebenzi…Livakale ilizwi labasebenzi/Bawafumane amalungelo abo (Black nations must come together/Let the voice of the workers be heard…Let the voice of the workers be heard/let them reclaim their rights).
I am constantly returning to the words Asinakuthula umhlab’ubolile as though they were a mantra because they are very apt to all South Africans almost a century after Mgqwetho was witnessing an equally fraught South Africa in transition. Reading Mgqwetho’s poetry helps me find a language of resistance and the courage to speak about injustice even when choosing silence seems easier. Mgqwetho’s poetry is a gift to South Africans who are doing the work against injustice we still see so prevalent in South Africa today.