Contrasts and Comparisons

Making ends meet in Grahamstown is never easy, especially when it gets cold

I could almost see a tear in her eye as she spoke to me. The passion in her voice made it quiver and her constant slapping of her hands to emphasize a point didn’t help either. Her natural hair, her slim physique, her gestures and brown slippers gave nothing away of the strong views about how much she wanted to change her country.

I met her in the streets of Grahamstown while searching for food. She had two friends with her (I will come to them later) and I guess the talkative part off me took over immediately. It was her response when I shared a joke with the group that got me to ask my first question when we were seated in the lush sitting area at Hill Street manor.

She said “As South Africans, we think that the struggle is over. In terms of history, I think our history will always be relevant for today because it is informing the present. But at the same time I think that, especially with black people, I don’t think we have maintained an eye for the main chance. I think now we feel we are in a democracy now, we can go to school, now we are fine; I don’t think we are hungry.”

She is 21 years old. I did not know this at this point so pardon me. I just sat there and wondered to myself, “what an amazing mind”.

We were speaking about Grahamstown and Rhodes University and drawing parallels were there were some to be drawn and understanding why when she walked through the streets the people felt she belonged to another world.

She told me the people in the town, which is a street from the university, felt like the school was in a bubble. A sacred sanctuary for a privileged few who were very different from them.

Made me think about my city of Accra. A town, more metropolitan, more chic, with many lights than Grahamstown but with much the same contrasts. The poverty and rich living side by side, the literate and illiterate side by side, the filthy and clean side by side, the cheap and expensive… yes side by side.

Here words hit me: “I think it’s because we have forgotten what hunger feels like that we’ve become like this. That whole sense of entitlement.” Like someone owes us something. Like I have been living here for 20 years after my great grandfather lived here with his great great grandfather who acquired the property from his ancestors.

Anny (the only other guy who walked with us that afternoon) has said to me earlier that day, “South Africa will have been worse than Grahamstown if the black people had ruled South Africa”. Much like what I hear a lot of Ghanaians say a lot of time; “why did Nkrumah rush our independence”, “why did he have to say self-governance now?”

Nomonde Ndwalaza’s (that was her name) words explained it to a point “It’s important, the context, and it is important to understand why people see things the way they see them”. So why do we see things that way then? Why do we feel like we deserve something and yet never work to keep it or maintain it? We felt we deserved independence. We fought and bled for independence.

So what, now we don’t deserve good roads? We don’t deserve clean water? We deserve malaria and cholera to exchange batons in and out of season? We deserve over crowded city centers and deserted towns and villages where the production of the fuel for the powering of the nation happens?

A woman with a great mind worthy of exploring

Nomonde again “we need to keep trying and we need to be aware that intentions don’t translate into actions. We have a lot good intentions but at the end of everything we need to be doing stuff… We need to be moving because if we are not moving then there is no point. We are wasting money. It’s important that we say “what are we trying to achieve”, and at the end we look back and say “did we achieve it or not?”

Truth. Wish I could say it better but then, can i? When we leave the office knowing full well the script is poorly written. When we refuse to properly clean the fish the client will be coming in for at lunch time. When we throw the bag out of the window!

“Intentions don’t translate into actions”.

She went on “I think that we need to be critical of ourselves all the time. I feel like people find it hard to criticize each other. As people, do what you can when you can, don’t wait for people, don’t wait for that moment and don’t wait for yourself.”

I could have ended here but then I knew i won’t forgive myself so I asked her about her people and their government. I asked her because it seems everywhere the people blame the government for all their woes. The government this and the government that.

“Does the government of South Africa know its people?”

“I think the people think that the government knows them especially with voting patterns; I think people will rather vote for a black man rather than a white man. It’s more instinctive and intuitive more than it is rational”, she started off.

Then she said “I think our leaders are generally desensitized. They are leading from a distance. This thing of saying that I have to be poor to understand poverty, it’s very problematic…  The values that informed the struggle for freedom in South Africa are not shared anymore or they have been lost. Where they are living the good life and keeping everything to themselves and are not sharing anymore.”

She did not cry, but I did. Not there, of course not. But when I sat and wrote this piece. When I thought about how in Obuasi it was ok for the ‘white people’ to be on the hill while the ‘black people’ were at the bottom. How they had their break time 30 minutes before ours. How the swimming pool had to be cleaned out when the ‘black people’ had used it so the ‘white people’ could use it. How it always felt weird my ‘black friends’ gave me messages to pass on to my ‘white friends’.

It might have been amusing as a child, but now it just makes me cry.

Welcome Home

When you get that feeling in your tummy and hear a voice announce you are descending into the town and the movie you are watching in the plane has 30 more minutes to go, then, I guess, you know it’s not really a dream.

At least that’s how I felt when the plane descended into OR Tambo airport.

I am not sure if I was to expect anything different though. Maybe the look of organization about the lives of the people I could see through the windows, or the feeling I was no longer in my home country, Ghana, or something! Whatever It was that I felt, I knew this was for real.

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I speak to Bisi Olaleye of ‘The Sun’ newspaper in Nigeria. She does not talk much but then when she does (and lays on you the full arsenal of her Nigerian accent), you realize it does pay to know people from other cultures.

How they speak of their mother continent, the corruption, the roads, their children (I know I also realize she was getting personal) and so many others; makes you realize just how much we as Africans have in common.

BUT, there is always one thing that captures my imagination above all else as i arrive in this country called South Africa (and no, it’s not the flag).

There is a warm breeze of ‘welcome home’ that fills the air I suck into my body. There is a ‘welcome home’ smile that greets me when I hand over my passport to the man at the immigration who usually says something along the lines of “Black Stars!”

There is a ‘welcome home’ atmosphere in the arrival lounge where despite the diversity of the cultures staring at you and hoping you will be the one they have to meet, there is a feeling of safety in the knowledge that all is well.

From an advantaged position in in the plane as the descent begins, I see a country well organised, well thought through, mostly green and ready to accommodate. With an impressive edifice of an airport to boast of as the first point of contact with South Africa, it is not rocket science why ‘Madiba land’ fills the hearts of the Africans with pride.

I am not sure which comes first for South Africans when making a choice on what to consume but if my first meal at the airport is anything to go by, then survival in this beautiful country for a West African 27 year old man is very limited.

Either too much spice (as with the hotdog at the airport), or as I found out at a dinner on Monday night, plain rice without gravy; maybe, just maybe, the food in the town could be different but with the places I have been exposed to, it will be a struggle.

However the spice that the scenery offers, as I discovered on our drive from Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown, completely changes the favour.

It was the most difficult duty keeping up with the landscape, the wildlife and the diversity. At every turn, the team in the bus I was travelling in had to adjust to take pictures. The experience bordered on limits of childhood fantasy and unreserved admiration.

In Ghana, the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ would most likely be interrupted by an occasional bump in the road or a wild swerve and maneuvering by the driver. Our journey to Grahamstown however had more and more ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ than the backing vocals from a ballad by Nat King Cole.

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The Telkom Highway Africa Conference, for which reason I find myself in South Africa was a true opener. A humbling experience like none I had felt before. The passion of broadcasters from across the world, the urgency with which journalists want to transform a continent rising, the inspiration I gather from the youth of the Rhodes University and the hospitality of the people of Grahamstown. In life I believe there is little that compares to such a cornucopia of emotion.

From issues of corruption, covering conflict situations, ethics in the internet era to the revelations into how much of our information we ‘share’ unknowingly with the world and on the future on journalism on the African continent, humbling is the best way to describe it.

For three days I network, talk, adjust, shiver, over sleep, eat, drink, party, cry, and feel virtually every human emotion there is to be felt in this country of contrasts. The diversity and contracts however blend and adjust to accommodate my shocks and surprises as I move through the town of Grahamstown.

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Though it feels strange that the world outside the walls of the 9th best school in Africa is in sharp contrasts with the life on the campus, one gets a sense things could be changing for the people of Grahamstown.

And maybe it is because of the conference that the people I interact with seem so nice, or maybe it’s because of Rand I paid for the conference that I am offered assistance everywhere I go, or better still maybe it is because I am a nice guy; whichever! But nothing beats the warmth I feel inside when I hear the words of Nicky Hlanze saying, ‘welcome home’.

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