Dear Mana, To Be Equal, Not Just Free

Dear Mana,

Happy New Year! You are on my mind, as I sojourn to lands new to me. I think of you exploring India for the first time, not long ago; I imagine colors and cultural expressions were similarly bright and bold there as they are here in Africa. This trip of mine, like yours, feels part pleasure, part pilgrimage–I am partaking in adventures not just for the sake of vacation, but also to stretch and engage my mind and spirit and soul. In some deep way, I feel myself coming home: to my personhood, my identity outside of my Portland culture and community, my true homo sapien self. After all, we call Africa the “cradle of humanity” for a reason: where you, me, we all literally originated as a species.

Our final day in South Africa was a fascinating foray into a city new to us, Pretoria, where we stood face to face with the extremes of this culture. The Boutique Hotel we stayed in was the former home of the Swedish Ambassador, which shifted hands 40 years ago to a family who are just now opening the space to guests again. On the night we were there, we were the only people besides the owner and her extended family on the premises; they took excellent care of us, providing generous and warm hospitality, and a full English breakfast in the morning. I was left reeling imagining growing up in this grand home: 12 bedrooms, expansive entryway with spiral staircase, huge dining hall and living area, decor of brass, ivory, ebony. There was house staff there at all hours (a butler to take our bags and squeeze us fresh juice), floor-to-ceiling bookcases lined with books and expensive paraphernalia from all around the world, chairs were plush velvet, and the bed frames were made of deep-hued wood. The space oozed of affluence, extravagance, luxury.

Outside the stately walls, two doors down, was the US Embassy. Two minutes down, a busy road, where homeless folks sat on street corners. Twenty minutes down, in city center where we strolled the next day, we were literally three of five white people on the busy streets we walked–and this for the entirety of an hour and a half span.

The crowds we encountered ranged demographically, though most were clearly middle to lower class; many were dressed in their Sunday best (church day!), and the sun blazed hot on street vendors selling imported socks, Disney backpacks, knockoff Nikes. Storefronts were shabby, dirty, even decrepit–seemingly world’s away from the stately homes with turrets and spires in the neighborhood of consulates and diplomats we were staying.

Mana: I know you, like me, think about these contrasts; ponder how they might be reconciled. I am well aware of the privilege a trip like mine implies and necessitates. I also feel startled, time and time again, by the wealth disparities that are present in every nation worldwide. There seems to be no escaping the collision of worlds based on income and upbringing; the opportunities that are afforded to folks with money, and denied to those with none. Even the possibility of receiving a good education, making a living wage, gaining any traction whatsoever to leverage oneself or one’s family up and out of poverty–in so many places, this is virtually impossible.

Though I know this subculture of division and inequality exists strongly in the US, it’s smacking me in the face in a different way here in Africa–and I imagine you had a similar experience in India. One more illustrative example from recent days: the Airbnb where we stayed in Cape Town was owned by a wealthy family who owned several different properties in the area. Rather than managing the house themselves, they had a woman who was our primary resource: she met us on-site, walked us around, answered our questions, and worked as liason. In addition, there was a housekeeper who came every other day to the property, who was responsible for all of the cleaning, laundry, chores, and anything else we requested. Albert made our beds, mopped the floors, cleaned the pool, swept the floors. We were told to leave our dishes and dirty clothes in piles, so he could wash and dry them. He was on-site from 9am until 4pm, literally every other day. A typical daily wage for someone like Albert is 150-200 rand. For comparison, a friend who is a music teacher in the city reported a “reasonable” salary of 430 rand per hour. You do the math–there’s simply no comparison. (And, for what it’s worth: my US equivalent for teaching piano is more than double the above hourly rate. Granted, my cost of living is also comparatively higher.)

Over dinner last night, with the much-welcome company of a dear university friend (what joy to reunite after 8 years apart!), we talked about all this, and more. South Africa has a particularly complicated racial dynamic that further exacerbates the painful reality of inequality, due to many pre-Apartheid years of a white ruling class. Though things have shifted, and there have been many dramatic improvements since 1994, there are intense challenges that continue to arise. This includes a frought issue of racism toward whites, as some people of European descent are now being devalued or denied jobs (or replaced in their positions) simply because of their ethnic background. Though several of our white friends here spoke of this with resignation and gentle understanding (“A pendulum often swings far in an opposing direction before reaching equilibrium,” we were told), it’s undeniably messy, and challenging. The 2011 census tells me that whites make up only 8.9% of the population of South Africa, but after holding the majority of the power for so long, it’s no longer there’s now a backlash, with many non-whites holding on to deep anger and resentment for all the years they were repressed and denied equality. Powerful for me to consider, especially given all that’s transpiring these days in our very own US of A.

I love you, Mana. What sweet & simple pleasure to be writing to you, thinking of you, from my vantage point 12 hours in the future. I hope you are well, and can’t wait to reconnect and share more stories once I’m back in town. And one more thing: you’ve come up in conversation not once, but twice, in the past several days–first with my sister, and next with my parents. In both cases, I’ve been reflecting about you as a strong role model in my life: a woman who I hold so dear, and admire for your wisdom, courageousness, resourcefulness, savvy, independent spirit, and deep soulful creativity. Thanks for you, Mana.

I close with a few compelling words of Nelson Mandela, whose statue is today’s cover photo.

As I have said, the first thing is to be honest with yourself. You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself… Great peacemakers are all people of integrity, of honesty, but humility.

And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

You do both honesty and light-shining in droves, Mana. Again, thank you. I love you.


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