‘Africa’s not for Sissies’ is a slogan sometimes seen on billboards around Johannesburg – and probably other South African cities. Funnily enough, it’s not a word I hear much in other contexts these days. It seems to have been usurped by other more modern insults and I have certainly never been moved to look up its official, dictionary definition before now:
sissy (Brit. Also cissy) informal > noun (pl. sissies) a person regarded as effeminate or cowardly. (New Oxford Dictionary of English.)
But the reason this blog has been so quiet over the last few months is because I’ve been involved in a personal, very subjective tussle with myself lately during which time I have stopped to wonder, on a number of occasions, whether or not I am perhaps too much of a ‘sissy’ for this country of my birth. This happens periodically. Sometimes there is simply too much horror, cruelty and incompetence to digest or to excuse. The beloved Rainbow Nation seems smothered in cloud and it becomes very difficult to find the silver lining.
The last little while has been rather like this: We’ve had a resurgence of awful xenophobia in the townships. Foreigners, in particular Somalians, have had their small businesses and shops looted, seemingly under the noses of an uninterested police force. Some reports have gone so far as to suggest that policemen not only encouraged but participated in the terror. A headline blazes out of today’s Sunday paper “Baby trampled to Death in Looting”. I couldn’t bring myself to buy it.
Just as I couldn’t bring myself to buy Thursday’s paper bearing a cover photograph of cattle, involved first in an accident on the N1 and then subjected to the horror of nearby township residents attacking and slaughtering them for either money or food. A subsequent radio phone-in programme debated whether this barbaric behaviour was the product of lawlessness or hunger. I don’t care either way. I care only that it happened and that I live in a country where people can behave in this way. And I thank God that I was not there to witness it.
Two weeks ago I waited more than five hours for an ambulance to take our gardener to hospital. Joseph deserves a dedicated blog post but suffice it to say he has been ill for many years and every now and then he takes a sharp downward turn. This happened shortly after Xmas and I became increasingly worried about him. Eventually, realizing I could no longer take responsibility for him, I called for an ambulance to take him to hospital. Just getting through to the dispatcher was a challenge but on the 5th try I was successful and spoke to someone who sounded efficient. He couldn’t give me even a vague estimate of how long the ambulance would be, but said they weren’t having a particularly busy day. After an hour and a half I called again and an hour after that, again. When, after 1pm the ambulance eventually arrived, the medics were very surprised that I’d been waiting so long. They’d only just received the message.
Their arrival was not encouraging. They parked in the road and then very casually, leaving the driver in the vehicle, the attendant sauntered down the driveway and asked in a tone of utter disbelief if I had, in fact, called an ambulance. The impression given was firstly, that someone living in a home like mine should have other options and secondly, that I was probably making a fuss about something trivial.
To give him credit, by the time I’d got him to Joseph’s room and asked him very specifically to ‘please be kind to him’ and by the time Joseph had painstakingly managed the three steps from his bed to his door, the medic’s attitude had softened and he and his colleague treated Joseph with gentle respect.
Keeping track of Joseph in the state hospital to which he was admitted was not easy. Inquiries as to his wellbeing were stonewalled and our request that we be notified in good time should they choose to discharge him, fell on deaf ears. We hoped for some time to negotiate a place in a hospice or nursing home but a week later, without warning and in a thunderous Highveld storm, we received a call to say he was waiting to be brought home. And so home he is, with a supermarket packet of medication and no clarity as to his condition or his prognosis.
Trying to find suitable, alternative accommodation and care for him has been a thoroughly disheartening experience and has thrown into stark relief the remark by one doctor that we live ‘in a first and third world country with little in between.’ It is frightening and Joseph’s precarious future is weighing heavily on my mind.
But once in a rare while, one comes across a writer who seems to speak directly to one’s heart and serendipitously I have recently found one.
Late last year I was given two books by Antony Osler, a South African human rights advocate, Buddhist monk, farmer, husband and father. Knowing next to nothing about Buddhism or Zen, I was very surprised to find in ‘Stoep Zen’ and ‘Zen Dust’ many of my own thoughts about and struggles with this conflicted country, articulated more succinctly and lyrically than I could ever hope to express them myself.
I have often said and I do believe that you can only live in South Africa if you can maintain a sense of humour, but I have also come to realise that personally, I can only cope with living here by cultivating an awareness of the moments of extraordinary grace which happen almost every day, but which can be so easily overlooked in the morass of other, ongoing drama.
On the back cover of ‘Stoep Zen’ an explanatory paragraph reads:
“South Africa has experienced one of the most riveting, frightening and inspiring political revolutions in history. How, Osler asks himself, do we dance with this? How do we reach down through swirling emotions into a quieter space where we can see a little further, love a little deeper, laugh a little louder?”
My questions exactly. This was a book I had to read.
It seems to me that Osler has perfected the art of finding grace in the ordinary and in his writing, I find an echo and expression of myself.
‘Zen dust’ opens with a story of such a momentous experience of the extraordinary behind the ordinary, I am not able to it justice with paraphrasing of any sort. Suffice it to say it involves an encounter Osler had at a dusty Karoo petrol station, a lone attendant, a pair of trousers and Italian opera.
In ‘Stoep Zen’ the story of a black youth orchestra playing at a small-town white school leaves one with a similar feeling. It has something to do with the once-impossible (maybe even now the seemingly-impossible) becoming reality.
I am reminded of an incident a few weeks ago at my local supermarket. Having done a mundane round of grocery shopping, I arrived at the cashier’s desk with my mind on other things and started to unpack my trolley. Anyone familiar with South Africa will know that far from having self-check-out desks, we have not only a cashier but also a packer to pack our groceries into bags. It is quite easy to tune out completely as this goes on and no doubt that is what I was doing when I realised my cashier was singing softly to herself as she rang up my purchases. African women are renowned for their beautiful voices and in a heartbeat the packer, also a woman, had picked up on the melody and joined in. And so I stood there in what should have been the most ordinary of moments, wrapped in the harmony of two lovely voices singing in a language I do not understand. My day was transformed from the prosaic to the extraordinary and I struggled to keep tears from my eyes. And then my trolley was packed and it was time for me to move on. As I left, I thanked them and told them that nowhere else in the world would I ever have that experience; that it was uniquely South African. They were disbelieving. To them it seemed the most natural thing in the world. Now I only wish I’d taken note of their names.
And so, to quote Antony Osler in ‘Stoep Zen’ once again:
“This is Zen in Africa. I am a Zen African. That means I have no choice but to open my heart.”
Stoep Zen, A Zen Life in South Africa, Antony Osler, first published by Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd in 2008.
Zen Dust, a journey home through the back roads of South Africa, Antony Osler, published by Jacana Media in 2012.
‘Stoep’ – > noun S. African a veranda in front of a house. (New Oxford Dictionary of English.)