Huts and Immorality and the Thing That Must Not Be Named.

Check out these digs!  This is a touristy example of an Ndebele home.  The people you see sitting in front of it are actors.  And that’s cool, right?  They don’t really live there, so it’s ok.  Otherwise, if they did live there, they really should be working a lot harder so that they no longer have to live like that, right?

Indlu. Photo credit not available at this time.

One of my favorite memories from my fabled nine months in South Africa is of the time I spent visiting with one of my grandfathers who lived in eNtokozweni (formerly known as Machadodorp) in the  Mpumalanga Province (formerly known as the Eastern Transvaal).  My grandfather had worked for a Boer who, in turn, allowed my grandfather to live on a small piece of land until he died. My grandfather was about 92 years old when I first met him.  I have some amazing video that includes him climbing up onto the roof of his storage/multipurpose building to fix it.  (As an aside, I hope the video has survived the years.  It was shot on Hi8 tape and I haven’t been able to find a Hi8 player.  I would be grateful if anyone in the NYC area could point me in the direction of one).

My grandfather’s home sat on a hilltop and it was arranged in a very common Ndebele style.  There were three buildings arranged in a squared off “u” – sort of like a staple – forming an open courtyard.  To the left was the kitchen, in the middle was a larger building that was partitioned into two rooms, one big, one small.  The smaller room was for storage and bathing and the larger one was where the men slept and visitors sat to eat.  To the right, directly across from and facing the kitchen, was the indlu were the women and children slept.

Indlu is an Nguni word for house.  Saying “the indlu” sounds funny to me.  In the context of this word, the prefix “in” actually means “the” while “dlu” actually means “house”.  To say “the indlu” sounds to me like saying “the the house”.  Still, convention doesn’t allow me to say “the dlu” – which sounds better to me.  Except that I like to buck convention.

The dlu (ha!) was brown and round and the walls were built out of mud brick covered with a combination of mud and cured cow dung.  The roof was made of thatch.  There was a low doorway leading inside and in the center of the room was a round iron ring that had been  slightly buried into the earthen floor.  It was the fire pit.  I remember the fire pit because I spent one unfortunately crowded night trying to sleep with my leg resting on it.

During one of my visits a couple of cousins and I walked to another farm where another set of cousins lived.  We spent the night there and walked back to my grandfather’s place in the morning.

Mpumalanga is gorgeous – especially in the summertime.  The contrast between the bluest skies, the red earth and the greens and yellows of the grasses and flowers rolling down the hills and through the valleys makes the place look like a veritable paradise.  As the sun rises and glistens the dew on blades of grass, the earth comes alive with the music of birds chirping and cows lowing as they are set out to pasture.

I was reveling in all of this when I saw my eldest cousin, who had walked ahead of me and another cousin, do the strangest thing.  She had a plastic bag with her and I saw her suddenly stop, stoop over, scoop something up with her hand and slap it into the bag.  She walked a little further, stooped over, scooped something up with her hand and slapped it in the bag.  I caught up with her the third time she did this and that’s when I saw it: Poo!  It was a large, very fresh, steaming mound of cow poo!  And there she went, stuck her hand right in it,  scooped out a heaping pile of it and slapped it in the bag. I was intrigued.

When we reached home, she plopped the contents of the bag into a large oil drum that had more poo in it and liquid – which I assumed to be water – and perhaps mud and grass that was then left to sit out in the sun to cure.  My cousin got to work cleaning the dlu.  She used a bundled broom called itshanyela to sweep the floor of the dlu.  Then she took some dung that had been cured and methodically paved the floor of the dlu with it. It looked almost like she was laying down cement.  She drew beautiful designs into the wet floor which then dried into a hard covering.  It smelled wonderful – like fresh grass and sunshine.

The dlu’s architecture and materials made it easy to keep cool during the daytime and body heat was all we needed to stay warm at night.  It had zero carbon impact and the materials were totally renewable and eco-friendly.

I would be naive to say that all was paradise in the dlu.  I happened to be there in the summertime.  Winters can get very, very cold in South Africa (many people are surprised by this – yes it even snows in some parts) and I have never had to try to stay warm in a dlu during the wintertime or to maintain one, for that matter.  I can say, however, that I imagine it to be warmer than living in what is supposed to be the more “modern” iteration: a house made of tin.

Tin is a terrible material to live in, from my perspective. The material cannot breath like mud and thatch. It keeps the cold at night – so much so that moisture condenses on its surfaces forming little droplets of cold water on the walls inside the dwelling when the sun rises in the morning.  As the day progresses, tin traps heat inside, making the dwelling unbearably hot.  When it rains, tin magnifies the sound so that the pounding on the roof drowns out all sound on the inside.  And of course there are the issues of rust and expense. There are advantages to using tin – it lasts longer than the natural materials, for example.

I found the whole experience of staying with my grandfather and my cousins to be so very restful.  At night one could see the universe in the sky.  We drank fresh water and breathed clean air.  When I returned to the United States I found it extremely difficult to readjust to the speed at which life moves here.  My first drive on the freeway was terrifying. The world here felt frenetic and insane.  No wonder we suffer from so many stress related illnesses.  I could see why my grandfather was living so long.

I once shared these thoughts with a friend of mine, an anthropologist, who was quick to warn me about romanticizing.  She talked about the shorter lifespans and lack of advanced health care in “primitive” societies and reminded me that they were not the paradise that many overstressed urbanites dream of.  Fine, I said, but they died sane.

There is a subtext to this tension, a thread running through it, an inbred instinct to recoil at the thought of mud huts and cow dung. It is the idea that a person who lives that “primitive” lifestyle is cursed.  Yes, cursed. (Keep reading!)  This antipathy informs our abandoning our traditional architecture so that, rather than advancing it, we repudiate it and adopt manufactured materials that require us to earn money in order to purchase them and repurchase them when they wear out.  And so we find ourselves captured in a market economy. The hut taxes didn’t help, either – but that is a different subject.

So I come to the question: Is it immoral to live in a hut?

Living in a hut is associated with being poor. In the United States, poverty is associated with immorality. The United States was founded upon a religiosity brought over from England that said: God blesses the righteous and punishes (curses) the wicked.  Evidence of God’s blessings come in the form of material prosperity.  If one is prosperous, one is righteous.  If one is poor, it is proof positive that one is wicked.  Today we vigorously deny that we still believe it but we do.  We express that belief in the way we lash out at people who are on welfare and other forms of public assistance (the infamous 47%). The underlying idea is that since you are poor (punished by God), you must be bad.  Poor people live in huts.  So people who live in huts are bad.

Christan missionaries to the African continent brought this perspective with them.  It inspired a nearly hysterical obsession with wiping out African cultures since those cultures were so directly associated with evil.  Writing about Nigeria, author Richard Bleakley says:

“The missionaries completely overlooked any cultural richness that existed in Nigeria. . . .  They were absolutely convinced of the superiority of Europeans as an undeniable fact against the assumed inferiority of the natives. . . . Indeed, they often found the Africans themselves, the very subject of their duties, to be utterly repulsive both in appearance and behaviour.

Perceived indolence, squalor, licentiousness, and the “selling” of women and the like threw the missionaries into quiet but apoplectic frenzies.  They believed that Africans not only worshiped the devil but were likely of the devil, what with their dark skin and devilish names.  This was the sort of person who lived in a hut.

Thankfully today’s attitudes are generally not so blatant.  Still, I can say with certainty that I grew up believing that I was dirty.  I still feel a tiny bit embarrassed when white people touch me because of the internalized idea that I will be responsible for soiling them.  I know many people who will read this and feel absolutely horrified.  My parents will be horrified that I said it out loud. I am foolishly brash about these things.

I believe it is imperative to be candid about this disease, the self-loathing that afflicts so many African people, if the Continent is to make any progress in healing from our collective trauma.  Truthfully, the same can be said of any colonized place.  And the  trauma goes both ways.  To loathe someone does damage to the perpetrator, too.  So  I remember a family friend asking me “what’s your name?” as he helped me to fill out an official document.  What’s my name?!  “Bathabile”, I replied.  I felt as though Wonderland were opening its gates before me.  What did he mean, “What’s your name?”  How long had we known each other?  “No, what’s your other name?”  He asked, “your Christian name?”   It was 1996.

We are commanded not to recall such things even as they happen in the present. We are made to feel guilty for speaking them because they bring discomfort and embarrassment to White people.  It is the essential characteristic of a colonized existence.  We must never embarrass the White people.  Ubuntu, remember?  Ubuntu?  And so we don’t name it.  Even though it binds us – all.  Black and White, African and European, Modern and Primitive.  These manufactured dichotomies bind us as they divide us and the looting of souls as well as the earth continues unabated.

As my mother and I were excitedly planning our resort/retreat/ecotourism/cultural immersion experience venture-type thinggy, we came to realize that while we had plans for where our guests would stay, we had neglected to provide for where we would stay.  We are still trying to figure that out.  My solution?  I told my mom that I want a hut.  She thinks I’m joking.  Just watch.

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Farmer Jonathan

When I first announced on Facebook that I am moving to South Africa, a friend of mine,  who has lived in South Africa, kidded me a little by suggesting that I am actually going there to become a corporate shill and live in Hillbrow – which is sort of like moving to Beverly Hills.  I sputtered and spun and insisted that, no, I’m moving to a real farm in real farm country to which he responded, “Yeah right.  The weekend place.” Mercy.

To demonstrate that I’m going to a real farm with some serious farming going on, here is a photo of my dad, hard at work on the farm.

Farmer Jonathan

I called my mother when I first saw this picture.  I was really concerned. “Is Dad trying to tell us something?” I asked.  “And isn’t he taking self-sufficiency a little far? And how much does he plan to take with him, anyway?”  She assured me that this hole in the ground was not his grave but rather the dump for our trash.  I felt better.

My dad is is an amazing man.  He was 70 years old when this photo was taken.  We fully expect him to live to be 120. He started farming at about 67. He started medical school at 39.  Age means nothing to him – and a lot, at the same time.  He remains aware of his age; it keeps him vigilant. So he works very hard to remain fit and healthy.  Here is a video I made of us hiking a couple of years ago.

Dad is no joke and I fully anticipate him working my butt to the bone (that’s a LOT of work) when I arrive.

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Jettison. A voluntary sacrifice of cargo to lighten a ship’s load in time of distress (Miriam-Webster Online).

Five years ago I read The 4-Hour Workweek and it revolutionized my life.  I know Tim Ferriss has many critics and a lot of the book was impractical for me (I was not quitting my job) but, in my time of distress, the underlying principles and philosophies freed me to ask the questions I needed to ask so I could create the life I wanted to live in the now.

The book is about exploding conventions about what it means to live “the good life”.  Our conventions tell us to go to school, work hard, get a good job, work hard, save money, retire and then enjoy “the good life”.  Along the way we pile on stuff: Belongings and obligations.  School loans, mortgages, car payments, credit card debt, clothes, furniture, souvenirs and trinkets.  We sink under it.  We drown in it.

I’m certainly not saying don’t work hard, don’t go to school, have no ambitions or goals.  I’m questioning what all that is supposed to bring. Stuff? Is that what we are to strive for – to be tied down by all our stuff?

Sometimes I see backpackers in the train station and wonder what it would be like to own nothing more than what I could carry on my back.  Now I have a chance to find out.

I have to get rid of all my stuff.


I have three months.

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Back to Africa

About a week ago, a Facebook friend of mine posted an article by Eric Michael Johnson  titled Ayn Rand v Pygmies: Does Evolution favor Individualism or Altruism?  The tagline states, “Do the anti-soviet individualist polemics of Ayn Rand coexist with anthropological analysis of the often egalitarian early human societies?”

This photo illustrated the article.
I couldn’t find the photo credit.

Stuff like this hurts my head.  Ayn Rand doesn’t fare very well in the article and I like that.  I find Ayn Rand’s ideology baffling,  crude and, quite frankly, ludicrous.  I am not a soviet sympathizer but I am partial to anything that is critical of Ayn Rand.  So it pains me greatly that I must repudiate this article because the author, who would be my ally,  commits a grievous act by pitting Ayn Rand (modern human) versus “pygmies” (“early humans”) and perfectly demonstrates why using word “Back” in relation to “Africa” troubles me.

For the savvy blogger, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the holiest of holy grails.  Meaning and creativity are secondary.  Maybe even tertiary; having cool pictures might come second.  The blog title is especially important so, the savvy blogger chooses a name that is both available (oh, the agony of the search) and common enough that potential readers will actually search for it. For example, I think it reasonable to assume that potential readers are more likely to use the search string “Back to Africa” before the search string “Return to Africa”.  Assuming that “Back to Africa” were available as a URL, that is what I should have called my blog. Except that where the African continent is concerned, “back” has a peculiar connotation that refuses to die.

Biologists exploring a theory or phenomenon regarding human physiology or biology or whatever, often refer to simpler life forms in order to develop and test those theories or phenomenon. For example, much about human genetics is known because of experiments done with Drosophila Melanogaster, aka The Common Fruit Fly. Biologists use rats, mice and, yes, monkeys whose evolution is considered to be more primitive than ours in order to develop their understandings of human biology.

Social scientists (such as evolutionary anthropologists) have been guilty of using African people as their lab monkeys.  I’m not talking about comparative sociology or anthropology.  What has happened with African societies is something more.  Like fruit flies or monkeys, African societies have been seen as the “simpler” more “primitive” social organisms to study in order to gain a better understanding of our own complex and advanced reality.  So, the thought goes, social scientists don’t have to go back millions of years to examine our social origins. There are available today living, breathing, under-developed, primitive “early human” social ecosystems all nice and preserved, just waiting for the academics to examine them.

Actual contact with African societies is unavailing since anything the academic experiences is interpreted as conforming to that unchangeable truth: Africa is the seat of the ancient and the primitive.  Everything that it produces, regardless of historical time, is ancient and primitive. Anything that seems to contradict that notion is explained as Africans simply mimicking or applying what they are learning from the West.  Africa has great ancient proverbs, yes.  But Africa is not and cannot be it’s own source of “advanced” knowledge.

The idea of Africa as dark, wild and primitive and generally horrible is so strong in some parts that many people, like the Republican Arkansas State Representative, Jon Hubbard  will actually argue that being enslaved by Americans was better for Black people than running around Africa free, naked, and un-churched.  Today Hubbard might be denounced as a fringe loony.  Not too long ago his viewpoint was quite dominant and the “you’re lucky to be in America” part finds few objectors.  I  know that deep in the heart of many a bleeding heart liberal is that tiny little voice that says, “Slavery is bad but he has a point”.  This article repeats the insult in its own way by using Mbuti people (seriously, “pygmies“? They have names!) to say, even in the wilds of Africa, Ayn Rand is a loony.  And, look,  attributes of altruism still survive all the way forward into our modern society.

I responded to my Facebook friend’s posting by calling the article disrespectful and racist. A friend of my friend replied saying that he had read the article several times and could find no racism in it.  But, he said, “I’m more interested to know if the Mbuti practiced any form of majick and what the rituals were.” I was done. I literally said, “I can’t help you”.

That response was once recommended to me while I was a fiery college student.  Burn-out is an occupational hazard for fiery college students; knowing when to say, “I can’t help you” is important.  So, at that moment, I had neither the energy nor the time to do what I’m going to do now.  I will explain why the article is disrespectful and racist. I really shouldn’t have to.  Why, why, why??? Relax, release, relate.  Here we go.

Both of the pictures above were taken with a camera.  This means, that all of the people in the pictures are modern humans.  And yet, the writer refers to the African people in the pictures as representing “early human society” in order to provide a contrast for “modernity.”  For the author, “Africa” allows us (the privileged advanced people) to travel back in time.  It is as though he says, you want to see our human ancestors?  Check out these “P words” in the picture who live in the forest right now.  They are our “early human” ancestors. The way their society has evolved doesn’t count.  That the picture of them was (most likely) taken in the 20th century doesn’t count.  These are early humans and look how bad it makes Ayn Rand look that she can’t hold a candle to even these primitive people.

You don’t have to take my word for it.  Check out this book: Reading National Geographic.

I could contort myself with all kinds of impassioned arguments and evidence and statistics to prove that Africa is, indeed, as modern as any other part of the world.  After all, we have cars, TV and, more recently, a dramatic increase in obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and the need for shrinks.  But why? What reward does that bring? Should we Africans care what the rest of the world chooses to think? Why concede the power of definition?

That thought is a choice by the way.  A very strategic choice.  Westerners tend to see the world in competitive terms.  The fewer competitors, the better.  What better way is there to perpetually undermine a people than to keep them from even becoming competitors? Disqualify them from the race.  Not just the race, the world.  Put them in a different world.  The Third World.

So I have opted to do what drives my web guru, Maisha Walker, absolutely nuts.  I have put meaning and philosophy over SEO. Yes, I acknowledge Marcus Garvey’s proud Back to Africa movement.  Still there are issues about what that means.  One can be proud to go back to Africa while feeling shame for being African. I’ll be writing about that one later.

The upshot is, I cannot go back to Africa (which is not a monolith anyway – more on that to come).  The Continent has changed since I was last there, just like the rest of the earth.  I am returning to South Africa and I will greet it as it is, in the now, on its own terms.

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The Kids

I don’t know what my parents are doing most of the time. Their relationship is actually rather mysterious to me since so much of it is conducted in Zulu. People who grew up in a home where their parents spoke a language they themselves did not speak will understand what I’m talking about.  Whereas most parents would have to go to their room and shut the door to share secrets, my parents could be quite brazen about speaking in front of me and my siblings; they’d simply switch to Zulu.

I had no idea that my parents were . . . well, you know . . . colorful with each other until 1996 when I came back from that nine-month stint in South Africa brimming with my newly minted Zulu language ability. I remember sitting with them at the dining table in the family room one Sunday afternoon and suddenly realizing that I could understand what they were saying.  Normally I would tune them out the moment the Zulu started.  That is one skill kids who grow up monolingual in a multilingual household learn to do. We turn the incomprehensible chatter into a dull background drone – kind of like the hum of a car engine on a long drive.  When the Zulu started,  I would just go to that deliciously warm and day-dreamy place in my head until they were  done and the time would pass without my notice.  Well, this time, I noticed.  I was shocked! And my ears burned a little.  I felt duty bound to remind my parents that I could understand them now – and they were shocked!  Things had changed.  So we just sat there at the table silently looking at each other.  And then my mom turned to my dad and started speaking in Sotho.  Problem solved.

So, I usually don’t know what they are up to until they choose to tell me. Or they post something on Facebook.  One day my dad posted this picture.

Waiting for lunch.

I was intrigued.  So I asked about the picture and this is what I had learned.  Somehow (the details are still unclear to me) my parents found out that there were a lot of hungry children in a place called Mampimpana, not too far from the farm. Many came from very poor families who had been living in shacks until the government built the neighborhood which is made up of the ubiquitous three room houses that populate so many South African townships.  Many of the children were orphans.  By the way, I know that Mampimpana is an unfortunate name from an American standpoint.  Everybody points out the “pimp” thing and snickers.  Go ahead. I know you want to.  Anyway, my parents and a few volunteers started cooking meals in the big farm kitchen and bringing the food to the kids where they lived.  A woman in the area donated her house and so the after-school meal program began.  I am told that over 100 children now get meals through the program.  This has me rubbing my hands together with glee.

I don’t have children of my own.  I have a condition called endometriosis.  I mention it because so many women who have it don’t know and are misdiagnosed (like I was) for many years. If you don’t know what it is, look it up.  Ok, that’s the endo PSA for the moment.  So I’ve accepted that I’m not going to give birth to my own children.  No problem.  Rather than having one or two or three, I can have 100!  YES!  100 children! ALL MINE!!! <Insert big smily-face emoticon here>.

I love kids and the idea of being a mom to a whole passel of them – well, yeah.  That’s what really has me obsessed inspired about moving to South Africa and starting this next part of my life.  I can’t wait to help them grow up, to watch them figure out who they are and what they want to do with that and provide a place and resources for that growth. I want them  to stump me with brilliant questions and I want to teach them how to find their own answers, and, mainly, I look forward to being in love 100 times over. Even when they are pissed and screaming and fighting and generally getting on my last nerve. Learning that one cannot have children of one’s own can change one’s perspective on such things.  Just look at those faces.  I would be so grateful for them to let me be their mom.

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Stranger in my homeland

I’m moving to South Africa in 2013.  The thought of it knocks the wind out of me.  Literally, I feel breathless.  I am excited.  I am apprehensive.  I am determined.  But mostly I am excited.  I’ve decided to write about this.  “The Diaspora” returning to “Africa” is a huge topic these days.  I put quotation marks around terms and concepts that I think are often mis-conceptualized – or are erroneously reduced to simple definitions.  I don’t know what those things mean.  But I look forward to talking about them.  Mostly, I am writing about what it means to be a stranger in my own homeland – and whether one ever goes  back. I’m betting that I won’t be going back.  I’m betting that I’m going forward.  Forward in time though back in geography.  But is it even that, since things have changed so much since both times I left? Maybe that’s what scares me.  I have no idea where I am going.

I was born in South Africa in . . . at some time prior to today.  I was almost five years old when my family moved to the United States.  I grew up in a beautiful and sheltered community in Southern California.  South Africa’s Apartheid system made staying connected to family very difficult so, aside from my maternal grandmother who lived with us for a couple of years while I was in elementary school and a cousin and his family on my father’s side, I didn’t get to know my extended family at all. Being part of an extended family of blood relations is a very new experience for me.

My parents wanted us to speak English well so they spoke to us in English.  When we arrived in the United States, I spoke four languages: English, Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho.  I’m pretty sure that was pared down to one by the time I turned seven.  I took a year off between my junior and senior years in college and I returned (?) to South Africa for a nine month research stint. I lived with my father’s sister in Middleburg. That’s where my father was born. I vividly remember listening to my cousins chatter on in Zulu one  evening as we sat at my Aunt’s kitchen table. Not knowing what they were talking about was totally unacceptable to me.  No way was I going to be handicapped by language and so I became fanatical about studying Zulu.  And I didn’t tell them about it.  It took them a while to figure out when I could understand them.

Now I speak one language (English) fluently, and I hobble along in two other languages: Spanish and a version of Zulu that is all my own. My Zulu was so much better 17 years ago, the last time I lived in South Africa. As I said, I lived with my Aunt who actually is most comfortable in Afrikaans (long story – later).  So, my Zulu is somewhat liberally sprinkled with Afrikaans nuggets.  “Ngizogushaya nge hot klaap! Uzokhala reich!”  I’m not even sure whether I spelled that correctly.  Whatever the case, I’m excited about finally fixing my Zulu/Xhosa/Ndebele situation and learning to speak Sotho, as well.

But, mostly, I am excited about the kids.  I am excited about the kids and I hope they will be excited about me. What kids? Look out for that in my next post.

One thing – I’m a really bad blogger.  Either that or I just haven’t found anything to blog about that has held my interest enough for me to blog regularly about it for the five years or however long it takes to generate enough of a following for a blog to be actually interactive.  Otherwise, I feel as though I’m just talking to myself and I’m really not good at doing that for very long.  I keep trying though.  And my relentless optimism says, this will be the one!

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