1. I am aware that suffering and the resulting struggle build whole nations, historical connections, unbreakable bonds.
I imagine the 1960’s as the temporal intersection between oppression and uprising; an extended moment when bondage and passion coalesced into a colonial blind spot and the great pan-African nationalist movements that inspired my grandparents. Freedom swept through sub-Saharan Africa through a deep, intentional man’s voice. It was carried and dispersed through orators whose Africanist ideologies rooted them in the united struggle of the present; the African struggle of the day and yet whose hope projected their people into the possibilities of the future. Freedom filled Africa, nurturing its people, preparing them for the novelty of an African future, and yet it skimmed past the Limpopo, blockaded by foreign borders that sought to quarantine Africanness, ration blackness — age-old enemies of white order. Freedom paused at those borders as if it could be summoned and dismissed by a white colonialist voice. Freedom, a force engraved on the consciousness of a people unmitigated by space, paused at borders constructed and not known. That irony is not lost on time.
Freedom paused, and it would linger at those borders for another 30 years, piercing through South Africa’s public space through mothers toi-toing and small black bodies scattered on hot tarmac, their blood exorcising a colonial spirit from their land.
I am here in Cape Town, but two weeks ago I was in Johannesburg scouring apartheid histories in museums that remember the intersection between oppression and uprising — the colonial blind spot. Their stories bring tears and a bile-like taste that remains in stasis at the base of my mouth. I was looking for a connection, but now I know that I just wanted to feel African in those winding mazes of historic pain.
Now, I am convinced that the same freedom that swept through my grandparents land swept through this one too.
2. I told my South-African friend Ash that pan-Africanism is dead. And she disputed this with the same fervor that invades my mother’s throat when she speaks blessings upon her children. She believes in its redeeming power. Her futurity exists beyond the state-capture and racial inequality that riddles the present moment. I’m hoping she’ll rub off on me soon.
3. Decolonization feels like a myth when I’m at home, but here it feels palpable. People know that there is an alternative present to the current one where their people are dying and they feel foreign in their own land. They are conscious of the fact that the land is not theirs but that it should be. They are fighting.
The natives are restless.
4. Every weekday I walk the streets of downtown Cape Town. So much feels like home and yet so much feels foreign. Neutral-colored Victorian-style buildings line the streets, and in front of them a man with long dread-locks and a beanie hawks canvas paintings of tall dark figures in red Masaai cloth. I have seen these paintings in my own city. Every day we walk on sloping side walks past botanical gardens, flowing traffic, antique churches and for a minute a day I think I am walking in the streets of Aix-En-Provence (a small town in France). In this city, my insecurities about my own country betray a sense of awe at the idea that such development could exist on a continent doomed to be dark, and yet I also feel envy at the idea that this is not my city. These sloping sidewalks are not mine and I cannot find them in the memories of my childhood even though women question me in Xhosa and taxi drivers tell me that I blend in. I hide my excitement if it means that I will be able to hide my foreignness.
5. At work on Tuesday someone called Zanzibar “so Third World.” I laughed uncomfortably, as my heart sunk because of the smugness in her voice, as if it was something that she expected. Spending my formative years at a Pan-African high school meant that I bonded with people from all corners of the continent and often we bonded over the shared experience of growing up in places with unreliable electricity and water, unruly traffic, developing infrastructure and conservative morals. We bonded over a middle-class African struggle that seemed to be unmitigated by borders and we couldn’t articulate it at the time, but we bonded over a sense of otherness that marks our continent in global discourse. So when this South African woman called Zanzibar “so Third World,” I was disappointed, and also confused. How do the inhabitants of these incredibly developed yet unequal South African cities locate themselves in a continent that is so often united by its status as underdeveloped — as other? How do they dissociate themselves from the “Third-Worldness” that marks so much of their surroundings? Do they hear Africanness in their voices — do they see it on their skin?
Do they call themselves African?
6. Corruption isn’t a South African thing, it is an African thing. Let’s bond over that.
7. The American students on this trip did not need a visa, but me, a Kenyan, an African, needed one and I paid $200 for it.
Meanwhile, I did not cross oceans to get here.
8. If I had a rand for every time someone compared South Africa to America I would be all sorts of balling. Apartheid and segregation there is some camaraderie there. After all, I am aware that suffering and the resulting struggle build whole nations, historical connections, unbreakable bonds. There was some triumph in that struggle. But if I had a rand for every time someone compared South Africa to America, I would have nothing. Corruption, absolute poverty, illness, grand theft, evangelical churches, hope, youth, culture, Bantu, nakupenda, music, struggle, protest, pain, anger, big men, big cars, blessers, pap, beans, maheyu, I am running out of words to say that I am not foreign here.