Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Finding Freedom: a recent reminder

Here's to resilience. Here's to the instinct to survive and the ability to overcome all sorts of crazy, unjust and inhumane circumstances. Three cheers for Victor Frankl, Anne Frank, Kunta Kinte, Saartjie Baartman, Ahmed Timol and MILLIONS of others who have suffered at the hands of misguided, deluded and straight up crazy men and women throughout the ages. Here's to people who have survived and overcome the machinations of power-hungry despots and greedy, imperialist racists.
Ingrid Betancourt in captivity in the Colombian jungle.
(Melanie Delloye; Sipa Press/ Rex Features) 

And, just because I am currently reading her book, here's to Ingrid Betancourt. She is a French-Colombian politician who was abducted by the infamous FARC terrorist guerrilla organisation while campaigning for the Colombian presidential elections in 2002. "Even Silence Has an End" is her account of her six years of brutal captivity from 2002 to 2008. Look at those dates! This is so real, so recent! While I was obsessing over first year weight gain, doing biochem pracs, all night study sessions, and generally dancing and laughing my way through varsity, this woman was living through hell in the Amazon jungle, and what's more, through her suffering she was growing and becoming a better person. Snap.

I visited a friend in Harare recently. She is gorgeous, funny, tough as nails with killer wit and charm to boot. Possessed of an insatiable lust for life she documents every encounter with every person through a photograph or a verbal quote. She encourages the multitudes of people who have gathered at the social hub that is her home to scribble a few words on her bathroom wall. Her white bathroom tiles are covered in blue and black ink quotes, some deeply thoughtful and others cute and funny. As I read Ingrid's book I was impressed by her incredible presence of mind and spiritual discoveries. I love the idea of someone ruminating over some of the most basic ideas and human actions and interrogating them until a single, simple epiphany crystallises. There is a certain joy that arises out of these moments in which the penny drops and one finally understands something as deeply and completely as if one has always known it. Once or twice I thought to myself, 'Here's a good line for Joie's bathroom wall.' Unfortunately, being endowed with a deficient short term memory, I forgot to record them on said wall. Never mind! I'll share my favourite with you now:

"For I was discovering that the most precious gift someone can give us is time, because what gives time its value is death."
- Ingrid Betancourt

Friday, November 19, 2010

Finding freedom: In broken images

There are people who have the gift of clarity. They always know what they want and what needs to be done to get it; they can assess a situation and determine the appropriate course of action in the blink of an eye. They shine in a crisis, rounding up the troops and firing out instructions like traders on Wall Street in a dream sequence of pure left brain brilliance. These are the folks who are quick on their feet, witty and resplendent in their ability to produce inspiring and flawless ideas during workplace brainstorming sessions, while the rest of us can only beg, cajole or butt-kick our brains into coming up with ideas that turn out to be so asinine that the team discards them before we even finish articulating our poorly conceived thoughts. These are the folks who then take our dumb ideas, pimp them up and re-brand them into the Hail Mary we have all been waiting for in the boardroom torture chamber. We are reduced to tears, slowly shaking our heads from side to side as one by one we stand and ovate. Let's face it.These people suck. Big time. They make us feel like inadequate buffoons.

The thing is, though, it's not like I don't have great ideas. I have fantastic ideas. Later. When I have had some time to let them simmer a little it turns out my ideas "out-bling" the Hail Mary in the boardroom in their sheer brilliance. They are rounded and balanced and have a low center of gravity giving them good stability. They take into account all the internal and external variables they need to, they consider local context, they are commercially viable and sustainable, they are innovative and exciting. These are ideas to last through the ages and maybe save the planet. I have ideas that give me wings! After applying my mind a little it turns out I can come up with some startlingly sharp thoughts.The problem is I live in a world built for quick thinkers so my life appears somewhat off tempo. But go figure;it turns out I have amazing clarity too. Later. Eventually. A minute after the fireworks. It turns out that after groping in the darkness and wading through the marshlands of my brain, digesting and assimilating the wealth of information around me and simulating all the different combinations and permutations, I really, really get stuff and I am a rather sharp shooter too. So cheers to that!

Here is a poem I found when I was 15...
He is quick, thinking in clear images; 
I am slow, thinking in broken images.

He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images; 
I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images,

Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance; 
Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.

Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact, 
Questioning their relevance, I question the fact.

When the fact fails him, he questions his senses; 
When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.

He continues quick and dull in his clear images; 
I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.

He in a new confusion of his understanding; 
I in a new understanding of my confusion.
 - Robert Graves- In Broken Images
I read it and thought to myself, well there we go. That's me he's talking about. Clearly...

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The different ones are usually the glorious ones (Part 2): Salif Keita

Mali is a beautiful, dusty and old country named after the Mali Empire that was once part of a powerful triad of Sahel kingdoms that controlled the trans-Saharan trade route. It is on my bucket list of places to visit and I am hoping to make it to the Festival au Désert in 2011 and drop in on Timbuktu while I am at it. Mali is home to some of West Africa's most celebrated musicians such as the kora maestro Toumani Diabaté, Vieux Farka Touré the son of the late Ali Farka Touré who was a noted blues guitarist, Amadou and Mariam and the surprisingly rocking Tuareg band Tinariwen. If you have a love for traditional African instruments you want to go to Mali. The Mali Empire was founded by Sundiata Keita whose direct descendant Salif Keita is an accomplished musician widely referred to as the "Golden Voice of Africa."

On the 9th of October 2010 I went on a roadtrip to Bloemfontein in the Free State province of South Africa. It's a straight shot down the N1 South from Johannesburg and hours and hours and hours of flat farmland. It is not a scenic route but with tickets to the Macufe Jazz Festival we endured it in good spirits. You see, the Golden Voice was the headlining act this year. That's right. Salif Keita was in the sleepy town of Bloem and I would have happily driven all the way to the Cape of Good Hope to see him performing live. Seriously. He's that big a deal to me.

Salif Keita is "an albino". This is a sign of bad luck to the Mandinka people and he was cast out by his family, ending up as a musician. This in itself further alienated him as being of royal heritage, he should not have been doing the work of a griot. Griots are a caste of West African entertainers tasked with recording oral history through poetry, stories and music.

So he appeared on the stage like an apparition, a radiant, benevolent spirit here to share great wisdom with us. His band looked quite young, calabash, balafon and kora players amongst the instrumentalists on stage. Salif's movement on the stage is minimal. To experience him live on stage is nothing short of humbling. You almost get the feeling that "performing" is beneath him. He is smiling but he certainly not here to entertain you. You are here to be schooled at the feet of a musical sage. Humbling.
Image courtesy of E.Z Tshuma

He has a new album out this year but his repertoire at the concert was mostly comprised of older songs that the audience was familiar with. Come to think of it, the new album has quite a few previously released tracks that he has re-interpreted so he certainly didn't cop out. The title track of his 2010 album is La Différence and I must say it's a very catchy song and my favorite on the album. So we were all singing along and loving it but I wonder how many people in the audience knew what it was about. Salif champions the cause of those affected by albinism in Africa through an organisation he founded that raises awareness about the atrocities committed against people with albinism and provides them with support. People born with albinism are victims of superstition, ignorance and intolerance in Africa. Babies and children are abducted, dismembered and their body parts sold for use in animistic rituals. The stories are shocking and shameful.

Earlier this year I saw the hip hop emcee Zubz at the Blues Room in Johannesburg. His backing vocalist was a very stylish, stunning girl who happened to have albinism. She had long blond hair extensions, was made up and dressed to the nines and the men in the room were drooling. For this girl, music has served as an inlet for acceptance as it did for the Salif Keita as well as Hansen's fictional character Takadini. That is the transformational power of music. It's great. But here's my thing. A person with albinism should not have to do party tricks to win people over. Being a human being should be enough. So it is a crying shame and a tragedy that it isn't and shame on us for treating our own so very badly. La Différence is about the beauty of being different and it is a call for tolerance in which he reminds us that everyone deserves dignity and love.
je suis un noir
ma peau est blanche
et moi j'aime bien ça
c'est la différence qui est jolie

je suis un blanc
mon sang est noir
et moi j'adore ça
c'est la différence qui est jolie

je voudrais 
que nous nous entendions dans l'amour
que nous nous comprenions dans l'amour et dans la paix

la vie sera belle
chacun à son tour aura son amour
la vie sera belle
The proceeds from his album sales will go to the work of his organisation to protect the rights of people with albinism. Check out these sites for more information:

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Hermès Kelly bag: a case for compartmentalisation

I am not much of a girly girl. I don't get excited about shoes or dresses. I can't remember if I even own a dress; I may have a few skirts somewhere but I'm not so much of a girl's girl. However, I do like bags. 
Kelly bag: named after Grace Kelly, Princess Grace of Monaco,
a well loved actress. Image: www.portero.com
I probably don't like them as much as the next girl but I like them quite a bit. I get fairly excited around bags and anyone who knows me well knows why. Compartments. If it doesn't have lots of compartments and secret zips or pockets or partitions I am significantly less excited. Well to be honest I simply do not care for minimally compartmentalised bags. I find them quite disagreeable.

It's to do with order as opposed to chaos. I have a vague recollection of a lecture I attended during my student days in which it was impressed on me that compartmentalisation is a mark of cellular sophistication, a significant evolutionary feature. A smart cell has membrane bound organelles that perform their functions distinctly from the rest of the cellular contents with a timeliness and orderliness that enables adjacent cells to perform in sync and thus specialise as cell types, organs, organ systems and ultimately a complex organism. That's you and me. Complex organisms. 

Interior of the Kelly bag.
Boffins might refer to the spatiotemporal compartmentalisation of key physiological processes. The gist I got from the lecture was that everything should have it's place and everything should happen in the right place at the right time. You can't just have all your business happening willy nilly. Haphazardness in unevolved. It is only the rudimentary and unsophisticated organism whose processes are all mixed up, molecules all up in each other's space like vegetables in a sack... or keys, phones, purses, pens, wallets, cards, lipstick and a diary at the bottom of a handbag...I'm just saying. Ergo, to a functionality-focused-fox such as myself a vintage Hermès Kelly bag worth thousands of dollars is highly unimpressive.  Don't get me wrong I think they're cute, but no ma'am, I am unmoved. I say this with my nose decidedly turned up as if someone has just offered to buy me one (yeah, right) and I will not be made to acquiesce to such a base proposition.

I found a bag at a flea market. It comes with a little fair trade story about how this line of bags is made in rural KwaZulu Natal by a group of women that Western markets are supposed to feel sorry for and buy the bags as a sort of feel good, social upliftment activity, a clever way to minimise their guilt about their excessive and unnecessary consumerism. But that's a story for another time..;-) This bag is highly evolved. It has compartments galore: cell phone, mp3player, magazine/book, keys, even a separate space specifically for shoes. You know; so you can drive or walk and then get to work and put on your killer heels for that corporate ninja look. It's a commuting girl's bag. That's what the story said, not me. So I bought it. Because what can I say? I am a highly complex and sophisticated organism of a girl and a willy nilly lifestyle is not for me. I'm just saying...

Monday, November 1, 2010

The different ones are usually the glorious ones (Part 1): Takadini

The different ones are usually the glorious ones. Image: www.wolf.board-poster.com
I had never really thought about albinos. The only one I had ever seen was a destitute woman who sat outside a department store we frequented in my home town of Bulawayo when I was a child. To this day I remember the uncomfortable combination of fear and pity she elicited from me during the split second it took to toss a coin in her metal cup as we walked into the store. It was mostly to do with her eyes. She had deep red irises and that continually danced from left to right, never settling in any fixed position, even momentarily. Her left eyelid was lazy and hung half shut making it even harder to make eye contact with her. She made me uncomfortable because we could not connect. I didn't think of her much though. The exact time it took to extract a coin, aim at a metal cup, launch it into the air and await the sound of clinking metal is exactly how long I thought about her and was the extent of my consideration of albinos in general.


When I was a teenager, oscillating between imagining I was an all American sweetheart like the girls in the movie Clueless, and my nourishing my powerful academic inclinations while discovering the treasures of all manner of literature, I read a book called Takadini. This paperback novel by Ben Hansen, not many pages long, was about a woman and her child born with albinism in pre-colonial Zimbabwe.

Image: humanrightshouse.org
Sekai and her son, Takadini (it's a Shona name meaning, what have we done?) are kicked out of their home and the story skilfully chronicles their quest for survival, acceptance and his eventual fulfillment as a physically disabled but immensely talented Mbira player. Through the medium of music Takadini finds a place of acceptance and is embraced by the strangers amongst whom he and his mother have settled. It is a heart-wrenching story about ostracism, stigma, superstition, grace and love. I loved the illustration of the power of music in overcoming long held beliefs and breaking down social barriers.
Takadini is a story of astounding courage. It offers a rare insight into the nature of change in societies and how just a few enlightened people who dare to question, can really make all the difference. 
-Lantern Books
Takadini ranks as one of my favorite books of all time.I loved how the author brought me into such intimate proximity with a character who represented a demographic of people I knew so little about, describing in detail the texture of his skin such that to this day I feel like I have held the hand of a boy with albinism.

After I read it I saw albinos everywhere I went. I worried when I saw them not wearing hats out in the sun, wished I could give them sunscreen, wondered if people were being mean to them and seethed when I saw them shunned. As a person with a penchant for adopting all manner of causes and for finding myself time and again, championing the cause of the underdog, people with albinism then became an object of profound empathy for me. Based on a wonderful little book I read that opened up my eyes to a certain extent I felt very protective of them although I really had no idea what they were going through in the real world and the absolute horror they were faced with in a world of superstition, witchcraft and ignorance. I really had no idea...

Friday, October 29, 2010

Introduction: the beginnings of freedom

This is about collected things. Words, poetry, thoughts, music and images that I have stumbled upon, uncovered, marveled at and given place of pride. This is about cherished things, discovered and collected over time. It is about ideas, the kind of ideas that form organically after quiet observation, voyage and contemplation and slowly fit together like drifting continents revealing themselves to be a more honest version of the struggle of life. Because that's what it is, an exertion against the laws of nature from chaos to order and hopefully the highest level of existence: true freedom. So this blog is about collected things in my journey to freedom.
So where do we begin? We begin with a lesson on resilience; we begin with dandelions...
Dandelion Thinking 
don't care
that nobody cares
to cultivate dandelions.

don't know
that everyone knows
they grow everywhere.
Underfoot. In cracks.
© Monica Cromhout 

I love this poem by the Zimbabwean-born Monica Cromhout because the vast majority of us have not had ideal conditions to nurture our development. Our leaders fail us, loved ones leave us, hunger, illness and natural disasters plague us, we blunder and fall. It's a life of hard knocks. But look at us still, dreaming, growing, learning, discovering and loving "extravagantly." Dandelions are those among us who are described by Paul in a letter to believers in Corinth a couple of thousand years ago as "regarded as unknown...beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich". Dandelions have nothing, yet they possess everything. 

Dandelion thinking is the beginning of freedom.

Freedom Square, Kliptown, South Africa. 3 000 resistors converged here in 1955 to draw up the Freedom Charter.

Two dandelions.

Will she make it through the cracks?