Culture and Politics

Over the last couple of days I have met some truly remarkable people while accompanying president Steinmeier and Elke Büdenbender on a state visit to South Africa and Botswana as part of the cultural delegation. Those remarkable people I speak of were not the heads of state or the politicians – competent in their own right of course – but rather the artists whom I met who continue to create their work despite a lack of support from government or other institutions and despite a lack of resources. Artists and creatives who continue to dream up better futures, who continue to create beauty and culture despite lack of recognition for the importance of their contribution to the world. South Africa must recognise the importance of arts and culture and then invest in cultural education and cultural innovation accordingly because while technological innovation and economic growth are important for the future of our country, it is art and culture that makes a future even worthwhile wanting to strive for. For a world without art is like a home without love – fokken boring and just pretty damn sad.

Returning home

Being the outsider in our family – the one without knowledge of her own culture, the light one, the „white“ one, the Western one, the European one – many stories that form the basis for our family history, that carry the sense of pride of our family name or sense of belonging to our culture are hidden from me, by virtue of my having grown up in Cape Town, far away from other Vendas except for my father. Who is, as many know, not much of a talker. Unless on those rare occasions where he does decide to talk, then simple time references can expand into seemingly endless soliloquies.
„Papa, when are you working this week?“
„I will be working this week Monday, Tuesday, eeeh, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Sunday.“
„So…the whole week?“
„The whole week, yes, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, through to Sunday. The whole week“
„Okay….thanks for taking a whole week to answer the question“. My disrespect for my elders comes from Europe also, clearly.
A whole world, an entire universe has been hidden, locked away from me and my sisters who have no access to our fathertongue and the culture that it holds.
Now however, on our way to the funeral of my grandmother, Augustina Maria Sebe, the long way on the road from Johannesburg to Limpopo, home of the Vendas, allows for many stories to pass between my cousin and father to my sister and myself. Both personal family stories and stories passed down from generation to generation amongst the Venda people, the people that we come from, this small group of South Africans that long have had an odd reputation amongst South Africans, about strange customs and traditions and in true complex racist history of South Africa „the too darkness“ of their skin. When in reality, we all know the Vendas are the spiritually most powerful, the most beautiful, the kindest. I might be biased but ask a Zimbabwean and he will tell you the story of the kind Venda women in the villages who would feed them on their long journey crossing the Zimbabwean border into South Africa.

I used to doubt the stories my father told me when I was younger, thinking he was embelleshing them for my or perhaps more his own pleasure: „We are descendants of royalty. My grandfather was forced to change his name and flee his village to escape death at the hands of those who were after his thrown.“
Royalty? Princess. My mind conjured up images of girls with straight flowing blond hair and pink dresses that adorned white delicate skin. Not the dark charcoal skin of my fathers, this man who could touch fire without feeling the heat. We are descendants of royalty. In my mind it did not add up.
Now in the car, my cousin was there to confirm the truthfulness of our grand heritage. I learned about my own grandfather, the many wives, one of them, my grandmother, the most caring and loving and generous, never jealous, always good and fair. I learned of the intrigues, the family members that disappeared, the great aunt that upon my grandfather’s death told my father she was not his aunt and did not come to attend the funeral. The man who appeared out of nowhere some years ago, claimed to be a son and promptly moved his entire family into one of the few rooms in my late grandfather’s house. But the room seemed not to be enough and so his scheming to take over the entire Sebe family home in Diepkloof began. How do we know that was his plan? We can only assume. Assume. Assume based on what? Based on a dream? On the dreams of my cousin, of my grandmother. My grandmother was a healer before she turned away from her traditional beliefs to follow the new pastor in the village who asked for sole devotion to Morena Jesu, to the Lord. Everyone should „get up and go to the House of the Lord“. In her last years she was firmly rooted in the House of the Lord, she carried a bible with her everywhere she went – although she was illiterate. My grandmother.
But she had visions. As did my cousin. Visions. Magic. I learned of the magic hidden in the Limpopo valleys, the trees that you may not chop down or cut or else you would disappear in the woods, vanish, never to be seen again. Powerful trees, magic trees. Trees you do not fuck with so to speak. Is this true, I ask my cousin? Yes, everyone knows it. Except for me and my sister. The only unknowing Vendas.
The story, or rather history that most intrigued me is the story of the Venda drum. The drum had belonged to the Vendas hundreds of years ago, it was a powerful drum, a spiritual drum. Upon the arrival of the British who tried to overthrow the Vendas, chase them away from their spiritual lands, the drum would be beaten and the British soldiers, heavy with guns and weapons upon hearing its sound would fall asleep on the spot. The drum rendered them powerless. I thought how beautifully descriptive of the Venda people, so peaceful that a drum would be their weapon and sleep would be their punishment. Of course they should have killed the British soldiers. While The Vendas for a long time were able to defend themselves against the intruders, even amongst Vendas there must have been some traitors who helped the British, for finally they managed to capture the drum. It is said to still be somewhere over there, somewhere in England, far away from its rightful owners. One day I will go to England and find it, I think to myself as we leave behind the tar roads and the gravelroads to the villages begin. I will recapture it, bring it back here to where it belongs. Who knows what else this drum can do for the Venda people. Our people.
Our people:
The arrival at my grandmother’s yard in the village was astonishing to say the least. Hundreds of people already filled the place, preparing my grandmother’s last big party, cooking (all women), talking (mostly men). Many family, many not. Who was who to a large extent I could not know, many new cousins had been born in the last years that I had never seen, many faces had changed too much since I had last seen them. Even if my face had changed, everyone knew me and my sister. Although often I was confused with Naima, sometimes Singita, but clearly, always „daughter of Tshamano“. Genetics are beautiful of course, because some children I could guess belonged to our family, just by a brief look at the face, those eyes that belonged to my late grandmother, the round face, the dark lashes. I would sometimes place them wrongly: „You must be the child of Benjamin“ „no, David“. Sometimes genes play a trick on us. A son looking more like the uncle than his father. But still traceable to the common denominator, the grandmother that brought us here. Onto this earth and now, here, to this red-earthed village, to say goodbye to her. Vha tshimbile zwavhudi. Goodbye grandmother. What language to speak to her? When she was alive I could not reach her, our languages collided, never met, but now that she is dead, surely she can understand me, even if I speak in English or even in German? Of course we, my sister and myself, could not understand most of what was spoken over the next couple of days, the origin of the laughter when it erupted in large groups could only be guessed by us. Something about my grandmother having been the last to keep dancing, while everyone else was already exhausted, she asked to hit the repeat button on her favourite song…?
On the second day of speeches held in the large white tent – the front rows of white plastic chairs reserved for family were draped with blue ribbons, an attempt to bring urban sophistication to simple ruralness – an interpreter translated the kind Venda words spoken about my grandmother whose body rested in the coffin in front of the tent. Sentence by sentence, the words of family members were translated and my sister and I grew red with shame that the speech-time was doubled despite the blistering heat only because of us, Tshamano’s, „Bra Biza’s“ daughters.
My fathers speech started in Venda and ended in English, stumbling over his mothertongue and finally apologising in the colonisers language „I will always be a Venda but I am sorry, I am struggling to find the words, I have been living in Cape Town for too long“ before he sat down again and cried over the loss of his mother but maybe also a little over the loss of his tongue.
„Let us get up and go to the House of the Lord.“ The pastors speech was the longest, too long, endless, a reminder of eternity. The first time the pastor asked us to get up and go to the House of the Lord, my instinct was to get up and follow, taking the request literally, maybe out of a desperation to finally get away from the tent and go somewhere else, anywhere else, let it be the House of the Lord, just away from the boring and generic speech of the pastor. But he must have said this same thing about fifteen times more in the next half hour that his speech lasted. My atheist heart appreciated the moments that were allocated to prayer, in those moments I could close my eyes and sleep without any body noticing it. Perhaps everyone else did the same. Surely everyone else was tired too? From sleeping on the hard concrete floor – my „white“ sister and I were offered the bed in the brick house, as we were of course too frail to lie on the hard concrete floor like everyone else including the elders, whose bones were reaching the age of one hundred years perhaps, but my sister and I refused, though as soon as my body touched the floor I regretted it, especially when I realised that now no one else would be taking the bed allocated to us, about 100 bodies sleeping around the bed, on the floor of the house, in cars, on mats in the yard – tired from drinking beer, from the long road traveled the day prior, the past two days of getting up at 4.30am? Surely I was not the only one affected by all of this or was it true that my sister and I were weaker? As I closed my eyes I wondered why the pastor was so forceful. Probably my sister and myself were the only atheists present, everyone else surely was already in the House of the Lord. When we got up to bring my grandmother to her final resting place, hundreds of people followed on foot or by car to the graveyard. After the long speeches everything else went far too quickly. By the time we reached the grave – we were one of the last cars following the trail – the coffin was already in the ground and we had to force ourselves through the singing masses to the front so that we could add our hand full of red soil to the sand falling on to the concrete that already fully covered her coffin. I embraced my cousins who cried and as my own tears mixed with theirs the man who had taken care of my grandmother and her yard in her last years, a simple man, took the sleeve of his pullover to gently wipe the tears from our eyes.
We ended our farewell with the unveiling of the tombstone – a massive thing of grey stone – and then endless amounts of selfies posing in front of it followed.
Returning to her yard the rest of the day was spent eating, sleeping, talking, laughing, eating. So much eating. Two cows, a goat and I do not know how many chickens had been slaughtered. I had decided that I would eat meat for this occasion although I did draw a line. My line was: the head of the cow and intestines. That was too far, although I was assured that the head was by far the most delicious part. But I could not bring myself to eat this head that one of my cousins just hours before had chased me with while another cousin pinned me down. A silly moment between cousins. A villager passing by laughed at the „white girl running“. We shared many joyous moments at my grandmother’s funeral. There is beauty and love and joy everywhere.
We left the village filled with sadness and love. On our way back home during a break at a petrol station my father called me to the other side of the parking lot. I thought he needed help with something, but when I arrived next to him he pointed to a tree. „Look up there“. Up there hanging from a branch was a bird’s nest. My father was amazed at the intricate design, he admired the sturdy, yet beautiful architecture that this little bird had constructed.
I had had a trip planned to see my grandmother for just weeks after she passed away; but she could not wait for me. I am blessed and grateful nonetheless that my trip to see her even in her death allowed me to spend time with my family, to discover new things about them and about the culture that is theirs and mine and I wonder whether one day we will be able to sit together in the village and know that the magic drum of the Vendas is returned to the valleys of Limpopo.

Personal Growth > hair growth

I recently lost my hair.  Pretty much all of it. Well, not quite all, but those on my head at least. I lost the hair we like as opposed to that which we don’t: the hairs on my legs and privates, those ones remain, unphased by what is happening up top. But on my head, those individual hairs that held on tight looked dangerously lonely and so a week ago, I decided to shave it all off. It is not the first time for me to lose my hair. About 8 years ago I lost my luscious locks for the first time. Back then, it was more than a nightmare, a truly traumatic experience; I did not know what was happening and I felt completely helpless watching bundles of hair collect in the drains, on the floor, in my hands. Back then too, I decided to shave my head. At the point I made the decision to shave it, it was really just one tiny bun-turned-dreadlock at the top of my head, with hairs that had long divorced themselves from my scalp trapped in tangles – I had been too scared to comb for weeks. And so, a friend helped me to cut and shave while I sat in the bathtub shaking and crying.
The following years were tough. I felt as though along with my hair I had completely lost my sense of self, my self-worth. For a black woman growing up in a white space (or any space, to be honest), growing to love my hair was such a difficult process, but I had finally arrived there: proud of my hair, proud of the curls, proud of my „kroeskop“. And now, just like that, my crown was gone. I felt an incredible shame, and again, like in my early teens, I felt ugly, felt like I had lost my desirability. I dreaded leaving the house. It was a lonely time in my life: I didn’t want to be around friends, barely wanted to be with my family, but most of all, I did not like to be around myself. Since childhood I have suffered from eczema and my hair had helped me to cover the skin on my face and on my neck. I used my hair to cover what I did not want others to see. When my hair finally grew back, only then did I feel like myself again.
Losing my hair again today definitely feels like a setback, because recently I thought that finally I was on the “right path”. This year has been an interesting one so far. Interesting, not always good. But also good. When it came to work, Cape Town – despite being a „dry season“ (in terms of rain but also in terms of film productions) – was good to me. I shot three commercials, was lucky to have a main role in a feature film, wrote a film treatment and did some voice work. Much of that work I can say with certainty I was able to book because of my look. And my look is: „brown“ (or a synonym therefor, some more or less racist) and „afro“. Most of the commercial castings I went to I would sit in a room with dozens of other black and brown girls rocking ‘fros, short and large, loose and tight. Losing my hair of course means that I am scared of losing those opportunities. But this time around, unlike 8 years ago, I am trying actively to see the positive, and seeking opportunity in this loss. I am trying to choose a path of the least resistance.
And, unlike back then, I do not hate looking in the mirror. It is fascinating, really. Now at 30, I can look in the mirror and look at my face, sans hair and I see my eyes, and I see my lips and I see my cheekbones and I see all these features that I did not really see when I had hair and I am actually learning to love my face! Much of this is possible – as banal as it sounds – because of the beautiful woman of  Wakanda that showed the world bald beauty, and the equally beautiful women of South Africa that have been rocking shiny bald heads for years! Seeing more and more women, on and off screen showing off the curves of their heads helps me to see beauty in mine. Of course, I will not pretend like I am not eagerly waiting for my locks to return (Is it not strange? While I shave the undesired hair on my legs, meticulously trying to rid myself of every hair on my toes, my legs, under my arms, I truly treasure every tiny hair that I see sprout on my head, call on it to stay strong and keep going. Lol. Humans are silly, really) but I am enjoying this process of growth, both internal and on my head and I am no longer scared of change, neither on my body nor in my life, because I am coming to realise that each era, each path, can bare beauty.

Of course, tomorrow I will lie in bed crying, wondering what the fuck I am doing here and why the world could be so cruel and unfair to take the one and only thing I have in this life. lol. It’s all a part of the process. But there is no denying, quite objectively, that Personal Growth > than hair growth.

Sibling Stories

Because I am a very nice person (and very humble) I helped my sister move the other day. It was just the two of us because apparently other people have jobs. We had to drive twice because not all her things fit into one load. Both rides I was not allowed to drive (she thinks she is a better driver although she believes a red light is just a suggestion and cars as opposed to pedestrians always have right of way,  because cars are „stronger“ or something) and so I sat in the front passenger seat with a heavy box on my lap and a spiky thorny plant pressing into my face (don’t tell them I am exaggerating Naima!). We had to carry the boxes and matress and plants, so many fucking plants up the stairs into her new apartment. I already had sore muscles because she had forced me to do squats on my tipy-toes the day prior. So it was pain and agony walking up and down, down and up until finally we were finished and I could get back home to do my own work. Later that day she came over to visit and because it was late and I was still sitting at my desk working I asked her if she could make me a coffee. In true sisterly fashion she said no. I said, „but I helped you move an entire apartment into your new home today!“. She actually replied „You can’t bring that up forever“. Lol. Like certain South Africans right after ’94.

Pretty privilege(d)

I had a conversation with a friend yesterday. We were joking around about some trivial shit when I mentioned that I will probably at some point in the future invest in a little bit of Botox or boob implants or both. He was surprised, probably even shocked at how superficial I had exposed myself to be. But honestly, it’s not that simple. It’s not even that I am unhappy with the way I look. I actually feel about a million times better than I did in my early twenties, I feel more attractive, I feel more vibrant, all in all age is treating me well ( at least in terms of looks, I’m not talking about work or relationships or life, or money. So basically like Berlin: arm aber sexy, lol. (This by the way is a scam, I have never seen a city unsexier than Berlin)). The thing is though, that I know that I will not always look the way that I look now. And that is of course okay because it is natural and because I am more than just my looks BUT the problem is that I also know how my life is when I look good as opposed to when I do not. And I honestly prefer my life when I look good. Now usually when I talk about this to guys that are into me, they will exclaim something like „you never look bad!“ but that is obviously nonsense. Give me two weeks of not washing my hair, two months of living in Berlin and voila, I look like an alcoholic deprived of sunshine, which would be the truth. I was once turned away by a guy who thought I was begging („no, sorry, thanks!“) when I was in fact just trying to ask for directions (true story).
But that is of course an extreme. A less extreme scenario and far more common is the way I get treated on a market day on a good-looking day as opposed to a bad-looking day (now you can always put these terms „good“ and „bad“ in inverted commas in your head, because of course it’s „all in the eye of the beholder“ blablaba, but we all know what I am saying!). The difference in how I get treated is striking! On a good day, visiting Maybachufer market is a joy, I will leave with a bag full of fruit and vegetables and a hand full of compliments and many how are yous and discounts here and an olive to taste there and very quick and friendly assistance when pressing past hundreds of other hands to buy a bag of grapes. To juxtapose: on a bad-looking day I will be asked not to touch the avocados. „But how am I supposed to know which ones are good??“. „They are good, just take, don’t touch“. WTF. That’s the whole point of a market innit, touching the avocados? Not groping of course, that’s just disrespectful. But touching? feeling? smelling? Nope! Sorry. Not today!
I was forced to buy a new laptop some weeks ago. Now my ex-boyfriend was growing increasinly annoyed at me for asking questions like „what’s a RAM?“ so I decided to take things into my own hands and go to Mediamarkt to get advised on what laptop I should buy (later online). But going to Mediamarkt for advice is not as simple as it sounds. It’s winter, people are grumpy and low on Vitamin D and I had been there two weeks prior to buy a powerbank for a vacation I was going on. That day I had had an ugly day. I went into the shop and asked one of the guys where the powerbanks are. He pointed me in a general direction. I asked him if he could help me figuring out which one I should buy and his response was: „They are over there. You can read the description on the back“. I was shocked at his rudeness. But then I caught a glimpse of my reflection in a window and I understood. So this time around I was not going to take any chances. Make up (including foundation as it is apparently very important to guys that the face is the same colour all over), lipstick, heels, tight pants, cleavage. I went to the notebook aisle and I was not disappointed. I spent 40 minutes asking questions that two Mitarbeiter attending to me did not tire answering. „sorry, can you just explain that again, I’m not even sure, is a megabyte bigger or the gigab….“ A smile in response. More than happy to help. In the end I didn’t even have to come up with an excuse as to why I wasn’t going to buy the laptop he highly recommended in the shop because he said: „honestly, get that one, but order it somewhere else online, it will be much cheaper“.
So all I am saying is that I am keeping a bit of botox and a bit of a boobjob as an option in the back of my head. Because in all honesty I am just terrified that one day no matter how much makeup I apply I will be sent to the notebook section to look at laptops and figure out the difference between mega and gigabytes all by myself.

Joburg Stories

Two beautiful women followed by two (bleh) men exit a large Jozi shopping centre. They have clearly just come from the salon; parading their weaves while their boyfriends tag behind and take photos of the women flicking their newly attached Brazilian hair this way and that way. So much joy on all four faces as the women strut their stuff up and down the parking lot, admiring the length and fall of their hair and overall transformation: „So nice, now we can know which direction the wind is blowing!“ Who knew that weaves are not only beautiful but equally useful!

 

 

Siblings

I hated my sister because she was four years younger than me. I hated her because I had to take her everywhere with me. On all my playdates. It would have been okay, would she have just sat silently by herself in the corner, but no, she wanted to join our fun! She was nothing short of a monster! Wanted to play with our barbies! Steal our joy, basically! And because she was four years younger and because she turned to crying when she didn’t get the nice barbie with the good hair (yep) a parent would quickly come and tell us that because we were older of course we should give her the pretty barbie.

How does that even make sense??? Because I am four years older my sister gets to play with the princess barbie while I get stuck with the…pleb barbie? Shut the fuck up! Usually you’re telling me because I am ONLY 8 years old I can’t do this I can’t do that. Can’t drink alcohol, can’t take drugs, can’t go to da club! Also, I can’t stay up as long as I want? Why? What will happen if I do? Be tired? Wow, terrible! Really! Great threat!

But now, because I am ALREADY 8, I have to give my sister the barbie with the long blond silky hair? This makes no sense at all!

Really the only power I had against her was an ancient knowledge that only young siblings have – knowledge that later in life is lost to most. It is the power of the fart. The mere threat of farting in someones face “Stop it or I’ll fart in your face” or later “Stop it, I’ll fucking fart in your face!” was…potent. It could stop her from stealing my sweets, could stop her from hitting me, from kicking me, from entering my room.

But I guess I must have loved her too, because I remember that for a number of years we had a ritual during supper time. It was in fact more a game of psychological warfare. We would eat, all the while watching each other’s plates. The goal was to be the one that still had “good food” (usually the meat) left on our plates while the other was left stuck with their vegetables, or worse, with no food at all. My sister at the time was a lot greedier than me, so while she tried to eat slowly in the beginning and follow me in hiding pieces of steak underneath salad leaves, she did not have my willpower. And so I won, every time. My moment of victory was presented with a war cry: “muhahahahah, I still have my steak, na na na naaa na!”

My sister however soon realised that if she finished eating before me and then snuck underneath the table and pretended to be a cute dog (I didn’t even like dogs, but my little sister as a puppy dog was a lot more adorable than my sister just being my sister) and would howl-cry, begging for a bite of my food. I aaaalways! gave her some of mine, a bite of my meat even! It was a true testament of my love for my sister. I guess I really really love/hated her. My sister, the adorable tyrant.

Home is

my parents‘ house

playing Marco Polo in the round plastic pool my father patched frequently „Papa, der Pool muss papariert werden!“ the neighbours would hear me shout across the lane

Home is

the bed I slept in, Bibi Blocksberg ringing in my ears night after night as I dozed off

Home is

where the wind crashes against the roof of the house, of the car, the school building, always with me safe inside, wondering about those who are without shelter, lying on porches, pavements, in front of Mr Parker’s corner store, the Ferrari shop, where behind bulges of blankets a glass wall houses cars in shiny red and black

Home is that place where the question „what are you?“ follows me from all nooks and crannys of the Mother City, from the woman on the market asking tourist prices of me, to the man standing on the pavement who explained that my hair looks „white“ but my teeth „zulu“

but leaving my white German mother uninterrogated by the same question

Home is the words I speak

the food I eat

the songs I sing

when I am left to myself

with the thoughts of my past and present wrapped around my soul

Home is the place with the person I love, head resting on chest in moments of joy and pain

Where I remember my first thoughts though

where the playground I played at still lures children to play amongst „Hundescheiße und Schaukeln“

Home is where the question „wo kommst du her?“ follows me from all nooks and crannys of the Hauptstadt, from the old man at the bar to the woman studying Asien-und Afrikawissenschaften, who claims I look „exactly“ like her friend because „Ihr habt genau die gleichen Haare!“

The place where I ride my bike alone in the middle of the night, in the heart of the city, without fear, but where I never frequent the outskirts on my own, because children’s playful words telling on each other „Dat sach ich dem Führer!“ ring in my ears and make me wonder who their parents are

Home is the words I speak

the food I eat

the songs I sing

when I am left to myself

with the thoughts of my past and present wrapped around my soul

Mangoes

Mangoes

is there anything better than letting the sun kiss your face

the grass tickle your bum

naked

(hot) brown on

(soft) green

peeling into the mango’s skin with your teeth

sweetness dripping

dripping down the side of your hands

your mouth

your face

onto your legs

into the grass

sticky

happy

the world pauses

when youre eating mangoes

eating mangoes naked in the sun

looking up at the

blue skyes

feeling full

of orange joy