Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Dialogue with Hundreds of Years of Oppression

I mention Mark a bit. He's white and sort of the boss of the infrastructure around here. He has long hair and a whispy beard, a little overweight and clothed like he hasn't had a girlfriend to sort out his wardrobe for far too long, but his face is handsome, and suits his prescription John Lennon sunglasses. I don't know if I like him, mainly due to the way he speaks to the black workers, but he's been a great source of local information and very enthusiastic to help us. He had advised us, for example, that the black guys won't join in playing soccer unless they're asked. Actually he was mostly worried about the prospect of his employees playing while they should be working, but the information was useful.

When Jacob came in from the afternoon kickabout yesterday, halfway through the Chile game, he looked excited. He reads my blog and knows my interest in racial reconciliation through football, and shares it I think. It had happened. A group of locals had been passing and the guys invited them to play. I wish I was there to watch, but apparently they were bloody good, including a couple of around Jacob's age, and a small kid. Small joys I suppose. I just think it's cool, and I'm guessing these guys will be back with their mates.

Owen is very black. He lives in a space that makes Harry Potter's cupboard look pretty roomy, at the front gate. He is security, and is there to let us in and out of the place day and night.

The whole place, about 150 metres square, is surrounded by fences topped by barbed wire and (in some places) electric fences. I've checked it out from the outside and it looks pretty breachable to me, which is not helped by some of the blokes' habit of burning parts of the fence on the fire.

There is no organised firewood really, though every day one of the workers brings a pile of all sorts of scrap timber from wherever on the place - there are corners of the compound that are full of all sorts of junk. It always runs out, and drunk boys burn things when it's cold. There are some boys that should not drink at all, as we all know.

I want to get back to Owen though. He is about 5'10, with a round likeable face. He's from Zimbabwe, and his English is poor, but he likes to communicate, and has a great smile. As with many encounters here, it took a while for his body language to start saying he was not inferior to me. This morning around the fire it was just him and I and for the first time he had no humble hunch. He was looking me in the eye and had his shoulders squared like a proud man. This was particularly important to me because I had never tipped him. Of course when there's money involved people get friendly very quickly, but the friendliness is cheapened by it.

But I still wanted to tip him. All the Australians (I think) are in the habit of tipping well and constantly - the amounts are not really that much, after all, and I think we're very conscious of how privileged we are here and the reactions make it clear how much a little bit can help. But although the bar workers get tipped, our security doesn't because there's no money changing hands to start with. Anyway this morning I gave him a hundred rand (about $15) with a short speech thanking him for watching out for us.

It was a mistake. He immediately regained his humble hunch and said, "God bless you" far too many times for a man's comfort. How can I regret giving it to him though?

I don't know who I am in this situation.

I'll talk more about the compound (I could use 'ghetto' but 'compound' is reasonably accurate) and the people from now on I think. I've wanted to from the moment I got here but needed some time to watch and collect impressions and think about them. This is a unique experience for me and my son and all of us.



Blogger dawn said...

Thanks for attempting to speak something that seems unspeakable. Please keep sharing your observations and your honest responses. I have no other words just now, except to say I think I understand that it has taken 10 days to make this first attempt to describe an experience. And I hope the locals come back to play with Jacob again.

June 23, 2010 12:46 pm  

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