After too many months of avoiding this work, avoiding the feelings and questions that going back to my time in South Africa would necessarily invoke, I am finally ready to think about South Africa again.
A thought-provoking conversation with one of my brilliant mentors at UW yesterday really got the balls rolling in my head in terms of thinking about how to approach and conceptualize the ‘doing’ of this research. She has gotten me thinking about identity politics, and what that might mean someone who identifies as a white Canadian woman is able to say about race, power, identity, and poverty in South Africa. It is not that I am unable to speak of these things, or that I am not allowed to, but that I can only do so from my own subjective position. I know that. I have always known that. But I think now I am coming to understand that.
I am also coming to understand that one of the reasons that I have struggled and avoided facing this work is because I have been grieving. I have been grieving the loss of the life that I loved in South Africa, the loss of all the treasured friends I made there. I am also grieving the lost opportunities to better understand.
I must confess – and no disrespect intended at all to all the lovely people who spoke with me about my project – but I feel as though these interviews and photos are so secondary to what I actually learned throughout my time there. Don’t worry Heather! – my research questions are up on my desktop, I’m not losing the thread. But my head and my heart keep returning to all that I learned there in my day-to-day. Joining in for Sunday chill, eating dinner and watching the soapies with Mama and the rest of the family, the Reconciliation Lunches. Amazink. I learned so much through these experiences and encounters. I miss them still.
And yet there is still so much that I don’t understand, so much that weighs on my heart. My friend who was stabbed, who waited so long to go and see a doctor that I legitimately feared he might lose his hand. Why was I the only family ‘member’ that would take him to the doctor? There was no lack of love or concern, to be sure. How is it that that fell to me? Why is it that several friends of my dear young friend who is drinking himself to death asked me to speak with him to try and help him. Why me? I don’t have any particular expertise or insight into what he is going through. I have heard that he isn’t doing well.
I also think about how we had no power in the township for the last two days I was there, apparently because thieves stole the copper wiring. Hundreds of people stood in the cold wind and rain, literally for hours, to get kerosene for their stoves and heaters. I watched them from my window, drove past them in my rental car. Where do I file that heartbreak, that shame?
I miss my friends who tried to help me understand all of this; the Viviers, Elsa, Patrick, Franky, Roots, Monde, Jedi, Pakamisa, Anathi, Mama, Bongani, Nozi, Joes. I feel as though this is just the beginning of a torrent of questions and feelings as I try to unpack some of this. More to come, no doubt 🙂