Sunday, 25 October 2009

The new white man's burden

The white man's burden was an excuse, an ideology, to justify imperialism in its time. It is also a poem by Rudiyard Kipling which can be viewed here.

Basically, the white man's burden was the obligation the white man had, to "civilize" the so-called "black continent", the darkest Africy (colonies in other places were also included in the civilizing mission).

Today, I feel that there is a new kind of white man's burden at work. It is mostly found in the language used by well-meaning white people. And even if it is well-meaning, it doesn't mean that it is harmless.

What I am referring to, is the following: Some people/ groups who are involved with and enthusiastic about charity work directed at African countries (or other development countries), have a tendency of referring to these countries of "less fortunate" people as more or less helpless, if not for the help that we, in the rich and educated Europe, can offer them. This language signalizes that these countries are unable to help themselves, have no agency of their own, etc etc. We are faced with a stereotyped African.

Keep in mind that African countries have, all on their own, been able to remove the chains of oppression, the shackles put onto them, by colonialism. They freed themselves. South Africa has raised people like Nelson Mandela, and he can symbolize the agency and power that all people have the potential of having. Not just Europeans who happen to have internet access or rich parents.

I am not arguing against charity work or trying to discourage anyone from trying to help others. What I have a problem with, is the patronizing language, the image of the "African" we are selling, or have bought into. What we should rather focus on, instead of thinking of them as helpless if it weren't for our help, is of empowerment. What we can contribute to, is empowerment.

I also have to ask myself if we use this language, the language of the "helpless African", to somehow make ourselves feel better about helping. If it is a motivating factor, if people will give more, if they believe they are helping someone who is unable to help themselves. I also wonder if the white man's burden TODAY, is the burden of what the white man did in the past. If we are constantly suffering from a guilty conscious of imperialism, and is trying to make up for it.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

A place called home

I recently returned home to Tromsø after 7 months in Joburg. Just landing in Oslo, I "knew" that this isn't home anymore. There was something about the way people don't look into each others eyes. About the way it's cold. About the irritation I felt at hearing Norwegian spoken all around me. And when I finally placed my feet inside my childhood home again, there was no doubt in my mind that I don't belong here.

Shortly after my return, I spoke to a friend of mine. After hearing how I was dealing (or not) with the return, he said "there's no coming home". There's never any coming back. And what he continued to say was, "and if you go back to SA, it won't be the same either".

Well, I did go back. Just for a week, 6 weeks after coming home to Tromsø again. And in part, he was right. In part he was wrong.

It feels like I've had two homes in Joburg. At the end of my longer stay, one of them became more distant to me, for different reasons, yet I still felt at home there. Now when I revisited this home again, my feelings are more uncertain. So many things had changed. I was happy to be back, yet I felt estranged. This is a place of constant change. It does not accomodate constancy. Everyone are guests here, and my place there can never again be what it was. I no longer had my place there, I was just saying hi.

My second Joburg home was different. Upon arrival, I still felt completely at home there. But also here, some things were changed. Some members were absent for the duration of my stay, changing the dynamics and the experience altogether. Yet it did not change the feeling of peace and contentment. The "home" might be slightly altered, yet it was still home.

Being back in Tromsø for the 2nd time, I can only note the contrast between where I want to be, and where I am. I'm at home, but I'm not at home. The dream now is to go and stay in Joburg again next year. If I do, tho, I'll go there in a completely different capacity than before. Will that change the experience of "home"?

If there's no returning, if there's never any "coming home", then where are we all going? Are we all homeless, orphans, have we all cut the umbilical cord? Are we all longing back to a fictional past or imagined future?

They say that the human condition is strongly infuenced by a feeling of loss. The loss of the vomb, the loss of innocence, etc etc. A longing back, nostalgia, and for some, an insatiable hunger to get away, away, away. Are we running away from something, or to something?

Or are we doomed to create new homes at every turn? To adapt to change, to start nesting all over again, to create a place we can call home?

I've had a few homes in my life. But to recreate them seems impossible. There is no returning. Those homes had their time and space. I am beyond both these times and spaces.

"A Place Called Home" by P J Harvey

One day
I know
We'll find
A place of hope
Just hold on to me
Just hold on to me
Walk tight
One line
You're wanted
This time
There's no-one to blame
Just hold on to me

And I'm right on time
And the birds keep singing
And you're right on line
And the bells keep ringing } come on my love
And the battle is won
And the planes keep winging
And I'm right on time
And the girl keeps singing

I walk
I wade
Through full lands
And lonely
I stumble
I stumble
With you
I wait
To be born
Again
With love comes the day
Just hold on to me

Now is the time to follow through, to read the signs
Now the message is sent, let's bring it to its final end

One-day-I-know-there'll-be-a-place-called-home.