Sunday, November 25, 2007

Durban Holiday: Rain and ramblings

6 November 2007

It’s raining.

We’ve been in Durbs for three days now and haven’t seen the sun yet. And today it is actually raining. Having spent many years in a seaside suburb of San Diego, I am very aware of the implications of an all-day overcast. The cloud cover acts like a lid on a pot, and keeps everything in…heat, humidity, pollutants. One of the lovely things about Cape Town is the Cape Doctor, that stiff breeze that blows all your troubles…and the heat, humidity and air borne pollutants…away. Here in Durban, sans wind or sunshine, we are just stewing in it.

That, of course, drives us indoors. Right now we are in our room, Hubby in the shower, and I’ve mapped out a day of shopping in the indoor malls. Maybe tomorrow the sun will come out and I can take my camera to the Botanical Gardens.

* * *

It rained all day, but from within the confines of The Pavilion and Musgrave Centre, we barely noticed. Our wallets lightened and shopping bags filled, we made our way back to Mum’s for dinner, and I was touched and delighted to see that she had made one of my favourite curries, cauliflower and potato. Hubby bought a new digital camera, which I will try out tomorrow, this one a pocket-sized powerhouse, my Sony being a rather large and unwieldy thing, although it takes spectacular pics with absolutely stunning clarity. Tomorrow we shall see.

Living in Cape Town, a city in which the Indian…especially Hindu…population is rather small, I have grown accustomed to people giving me second glances because of the red bindi (dot) I customarily wear out in public. It is my nod of respect to my husband’s culture and customs, just as he wears a wedding ring as a mark of respect for mine. In the years I have been here, I have grown accustomed to the double-takes, most of them just innocuous confirming glances…“Was that really a white woman with a dot on her forehead I saw?”… although there have been a few looks that were unmistakeably hostile.

In all honesty, I did not expect this kind of surprise on the part of Durban residents. Certainly everyone here knows what the red dot means and surely, after 13 years of freedom, couples of mixed-race cannot still be fodder either for shock or hostility. But, based on this afternoon, apparently I am wrong. Stepping out of a shop at The Pavilion and glancing to my left, I did not see it, but I did hear Hubby’s surprised reaction. He said that a man walked past us and gave me such a hostile look…his eyes fixed on my forehead, then sweeping me up and down, then back to the dot…that were it possible, I would have been fried to a crisp by his glance alone. Pure hostility, Hubby told me, disbelief in his voice. I am sorry I missed the opportunity to stare challengingly back in the man’s face. Not ten minutes later I walked past a man who gave me the almost identical treatment! This time I did see him and this time I did stare straight into his eyes until he turned them away. Not that I think he was in any way chastened by my challenge, but at least he didn’t get away unscathed. What is wrong with these people, anyway??

My nephew, a precocious lad of 13, is becoming more and more socially aware. It seems that one of his teachers is a white lady of a very strong christian persuasion who apparently hasn’t a clue about respecting the belief systems of others. She obeys the absolute letter of the law without even acknowledging its spirit. For example, my Hindu nephew is expected to sing christian hymns in class, hymns that have had the word “God” substituted for “Jesus” so that the hymn can be for any religion or deity. Now, none of the other words are changed, so specifically christian references remain, as well as male gender references. My nephew feels marginalized, disrespected, and slighted by the whole thing.

Now I am the first to admit that the boy can be a bit on the cheeky side, but I think he has a point. The teacher seems to have an agenda, and not just one of recruiting children from his religion to hers. Apparently in giving lessons regarding the history of this country and continent, she takes the view that the European missionaries brought wonderful things to the local savages. My nephew, in his customarily confrontational manner, pointed out to her that the local people might take issue with such a statement, particularly since their lands were taken, their people enslaved, murdered, or put to rout, and what had been prosperous…if primitive…cultures decimated. His teacher, of course, insists that the European incursion into Africa was a good thing, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

I have a problem with people who are so convinced of their own superiority that they cannot give even the merest nod to another point of view. And when they ignore or discount incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, then I have to wonder what their real agenda is. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist…or even a Margaret Mead…to see the rude shacks and grinding poverty that is the subsistence of so many South Africans today. To say that they have “chosen” to live in such a way is to beg the question: do black South Africans today have better lives than they had before van Reebieck landed? I suppose the answer to that lies in what you consider to be the definition of “better,” but as we drove through the Transkei my husband asked me “Do you think these people would consider themselves poor if they had never been told they were, and looked down upon for it?” There was a time, after all, before the arrival of the Europeans, that the indigenous people of this country judged their prosperity by different standards and what is perceived as poverty and want in the rural areas today would have been wealth and contentment in a society untainted by alien paradigms.

Nephew’s teacher makes me wonder, then, what her real agenda might be. She gives the barest cooperation to the literal letter of the law without acknowledging its spirit…what kind of example does that set for her students? Is it acceptable to subordinate the law and its intent to her allegiance to her faith…or her political beliefs? The strategy by which she has inveigled students of non-christian faiths to sing hymns of her faith in class…can anyone truly accept the sophistry by which she has rationalized it? What is it about some people that they simply cannot accept that there are other paradigms that are entitled to the same level of respect they demand for their own?

Nephew, at 13, is a precocious kid who thinks about things that most of us don’t address until adulthood…if ever. He is an observant Hindu…not especially devout and certainly not fanatical…but he prays and participates in the religious observations. And while he is given to arguing for the sake of argument (or making another person wrong so he can be right) I get vibes that his sense of outrage is genuine.

The separation between church and state is not as clear here as it is in the States, nor as contentiously disputed. Aggressive proselytizing and conversion has turned numerous native people into semi-Christians, people who have failed to give up their belief in the magic of muti despite their Christian affiliation. The Christian right here even has its own political party, and while one’s freedom of religion is codified, the concept of respecting other faiths doesn’t seem to have taken a firm foothold.

I find this rather sad, and just one more indication that a large part of the white population still “doesn’t get it.” And while one might think that a faction that makes up no more than 15% of the population is without significant influence, that isn’t how it is in South Africa. The majority of the wealth of this country remains in white hands and the white lifestyle is the one sought after by virtually all South Africans. No one, after all, aspires to live in a rondawel, sans electricity or running water, on a dirt track in the middle of nowhere. It is the affluence sufficient to own a BMW, a modern house filled with luxury furnishings in an upmarket neighbourhood, and a bucket full of bling…these are the aspirations of South Africans of all colours and cultures. To live white.

And so a minority culture dominates South Africa, and with it comes a sense of being right in all things. The idea that people might want to live like you…but not think or worship like you…can be too fine a distinction for people who are not given to respecting the beliefs and values of other cultures….or prone to periods of deep thought. I think it’s remarkable that, at 13, Nephew “gets it.” And that his teacher does not.

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