I don't believe in miracles - I rely on them

I don't believe in miracles - I rely on them

Yogi Bhajan


You found my blog and as I am experimenting with the weird and wonderful world of cyber publishing, let me explain what
a gunna is: it's a word for all things desirable, something that makes us happy and warm and comforts us when we feel tired or sad or lonely. a gunna is the best gadget in the world! it was leah s first word for all things she wanted. Or you might also know it as: dummy, schnulli, pacifier binky, schnuller...... and so on. So this is for my beautiful


Monday, November 5, 2012

Every day racism: If we don't talk about it, it doesn't exist.

So ok then, let's talk about the largely racist society - a term I used in my last post to describe the world we live in - and some of you don't agree.

Without wanting to attack anybody,  I have to say that so far only "white" people don't agree or in some cases even feel they have to be on the defense when they read this. And whats more, they are mostly white, educated and liberal people, who "love" their domestic workers, give to charities and truly believe that "color does not matter" and "we are all equal". So really they should have the cognitive abilities to see things from different perspectives sometimes - and this would also mean to acknowledge that from a non-white perspective things in today's South Africa are not so rosy when it comes to distribution of wealth and privilege - so why this refusal to look at our society critically and attempt to change things rather than live in denial? and why this radical defensive reaction,  I wonder...

 Does the word racism automatically invoque some sort of "white guilt" against which we can only defend ourselves by immediately jumping on the opposite side of the fence and denying  that there might be any truth in this statement?

Are we so afraid to admit to our white privileges because doing that would mean having to give them up?

And on a purely emotional level, where daily prejudice, discrimination and injustice are concerned, do we really believe the propaganda, that we have completely left the dark days of apartheid behind?

Where I agree, that in this country all the right things are said and done on a poltical level (mostly) to ensure that apartheid and racism don't enter into the equasion, nothing much has changed for not so white people when it comes to prejudice and stereotype.  It is precisely this detached political correctness that allows everyone to hide behind a set of rules and regulations and not question what happens behind all this polished politeness, hidden or obvious.

And yes, I generalise, when I say "largely racist" - if generalising is taking my own experiences and knowlege,  which is obviously limited by time and space - and apply it to the larger picture, but this is precisely what I do - unashamedly I might add.

According to the rules, the written ones and the unspoken ones -  it all comes down to one thing: we're so over apartheid/racism that  we don't even talk about it. Ever.  So if this is true -  I ask myself, and we are no longer racist, how come we live in such a divided society? People might work together, study together, go to school together - by numbers  prescribed by affirmative action or BEE or some other carefully formulated rule - yet socially everybody seems to revert back to apartheid-segregation laws.  How many parties do you go to, how many restaurants do you visit, how many private dinners do you attend, where black and white are not only represented by number but actually mix and socialise with each other?  Not so many, is my guess...so how can anybody call this a diverse and non-racist society?

As this did not make sense to me,  I have started to ask questions, personal questions, questions, that we (white) people normally don't ask other (black) people. And here is what I learned (and for the sake of my typing speed I am now going to forsake the "", when referring to "black" and "white"): These are a only a few of many many examples of today's non racist South Africa, all of it happened to black professional women in the last couple of months, all of it was handled in a politically correct manner, and all of it is "largely racist":

One woman makes an appointment with a well known white GP in Constantia (why she doesn't want to reveal his name is beyond my understanding, but for her sake I can't out him here) - she enters his practise, gives her name and sits down in the waiting area. When  he comes out of his consulting room to call her, he takes one look at her, starts mumbling something into his collar, looks again and stutters: "sorry, I can't see  you now..." and literally runs out of his own waiting room. I have to add here, that she has an English sounding name and her being black must have been a surprise to the good doctor. When she questions the receptionist about the doctors behaviour, she first gets brushed off with: he had to rush to an appointment. When she insits she is not going to leave without a truthful explanation , the receptionist finally caves in and admits: " I am so sorry, I don't know how to say this, but he doesn't know how to deal with you". The black woman is shocked and speechless and leaves the practise, feeling humiliated and angry. But at least through her own persistence, she managed to get to the bottom of the matter and did not accept the usual explanation, where victims of racial abuse get told, that they are imagining things and clearly have "issues".

Another woman notices that, whenever she goes shopping at Clicks,  she regularly gets followed around by a security guard, who does not follow the white women who shop there. She does not know how to deal with this situation, which leaves her  feeling confused, doubting  her own perception,  humiliated and angry. People, even friends, to whom she talks about these incidents, often tell her, that white women also sometimes get followed at Clicks (not me!) and that it is not neccessarily racist. Thereby telling her not to trust her own intuition but rather believe the official propaganda that security guards do not target black people in supermarkets as potential thieves, because that would be racist. Also - she tells me - what could she do? "I can't start arguing with the security guard, who only does what he gets told to do."

Yet another woman with a small baby gets dropped off at a suburbian security complex, where she is visiting a friend. As she attempts to walk past the security guard, he stops her and tells her she can't go in. She tells him she's there to visit somebody and continues walking until he physically prevents her from entering the complex. When she tries to reason with him, he claims, he is not allowed to let anybody in, "who does not park a car" (???).  She refuses to leave and eventually gets the manager of the complex to come out and talk to her. He quickly realises the mistake and apologises by explaining, that there is a nearby construction site and all the workers march into the complex to use the toilets. A new new rule had to be put into place , in order to protect the residents against lawless abuse of their private facilities. In line with political  correctness though, nobody even mentions the word "black" in connection with that rule and yet it was abundantly clear that only black people were prevented from entering the complex and any white person on foot would have been greeted and waved through. How did this black woman feel? Amongst many other things, angry, frustrated and exasperated. She knew she was being treated this way because she was black yet nobody would ever acknowlege her reality, so no point fighting or arguing against something that never happened - right?

Another one? Here is a good one: a black pathologist working in a lab reports a faulty machine. Instead of sending somebody to sort the problem out - as I bet would have happened had a white male doctor reported the problem, the white person representing the company puts the pathologist through an interrogation as to wether she even knows how to operate the machine, implying that it is her incompentence and not the machine's fault. Did she feel humiliated? Angry?Frustrated?  I don't know. Considering that she was one of the first black students in an all Africaans university where the lecturers refused to teach in English, even though they were required by law (which was politically correct of course) to do so - I can't even begin to understand how she must have felt. Most of the black students who started with her, were not able to stand the pressure and gave up, reaffirming the status quo and the prejudice of course that black people are not as clever as white people. The way in which the white lecturers managed to outwit the law was simply by letting the students "vote" at the beginning of a lecture, whether they wanted the lecture to be in English or Africaans. Predictably, with only two or three black students per class, the outcome was overwhelmingly democratic and non racist - Africaans only!

I have many more examples of the same nature, where black women - and men - get subtly or overtly discriminated, insulted and marginalised on a daily basis - but everybody pretends it is not happening.  The emotional impact of this "hidden racism" is in many ways even worse than open discrimination, as the "victims" get deprived of their reality and subsequently their sanity. They get told, it is not so and they are imagining things. They are told, they have issues and they are playing the race card. They can hardly ever "prove" anything, or if they could, it is hardly worth the effort as it will get explained away with politically correct phrases and smiles or at best a fake apology, which does not mean anything as it does  not even touch the hurt of continious racial abuse.

When  later in our conversation, one of the women said to me, with a half smile that she "hates" white people - I certainly felt the sting of that statement but mostly I could relate. What hurt me was that I, by default of my skin color, was part of the group "white" people. At the same time it suddenly dawned on me what it must feel like to constantly be part of the group "black"people in a world where so much stereotyping continues to happen. I also understood how we create this divided society in which dialogue becomes impossible because people learn to "hate" each other instead of understanding each other. There is no room for deeper understanding and personal connection in a professional or political environment, where all the rules are followed by the book and nobody is really interested in why those rules exist in the first place. If we were to truly understand what it feels like to be black or any other shade of color we might stop and think before we rule that post apartheid SA is no longer racist

So - where am I getting at ? Again: I don't want to attack white people, I am one of the group and as such know that it is possible to relate and connect and that many of us really want to do just that but don't know how. I am learning that our South African racism can not be healed on a political level as it is all too personal. We all need to take a step into the unknown and start being uncomfortably interested in the "other". Only by taking the time to connect from white to black out of any political or professional context but in a very personal setting, will we be able to initiate true healing and change. And for those of you who wonder about my relationship with the black woman who hates white people, I had a wonderful time talking to her (we actually spent a weekend together with our families) and I am proud to say that we truly like and respect each other and are on our way to becoming good friends. So next time, you come across an"other" person a different shade from yours, this  could be your chance to cross the universe of racial divide in what might only be a small step for you but could easily turn into a huge leap for mankind ;-)

Monday, October 29, 2012

You are listening - but can you hear me?

In true listening, we reach behind the words,
 to find the person who is being revealed...
There is the semantic problem of course.
The words bear a different connotation for you
than they do for me.
Consequently I can never tell what you said
but only what I heard.
I will have to rephrase what you said
and check it out with you to make sure that
what left your mind and heart
arrived in my mind and heart
intact and without contortions. (John Powell)

Recently I found myself in the middle of  this "dialogue thing" - a group of people sharing and listening, more accurately, women sharing and listening - and most importantly women of different cultures and skin colors sharing and listening to each other.

And while I am writing this, I am wondering  how the most important part of this evening for me, the fact that I am able to connect with a woman from a different culture/race to mine, becomes difficult for me to put into words that don't seem awkward and stilted but natural and fluid.

And once again, I realise, that natural and fluid are not words connected to race/culture issues - I feel awkward, as lots of us  "white" women do when referring to skin tones different from our own. Part of me still resents the idea that this should be in any way important in my connection with another person, while the much bigger part is hugely excited about being able to have this connection with a woman of a different race/culture.  Our evening would not have been half as inspiring -in fact, I would probably have found it a little pointless - had we all been the same.

So our differences do matter. They start with the most obvious - how we look but they don't end there.  As we stumble around vocabulary, trying to find a common language that we can all accept and relate to, we have to be prepared to expose and at times even embarass ourselves. And have a good laugh with everyone else, when we get caught with our tongues in a knot as we are trying to talk about race/culture without using the "b-word". Why is it so difficult for "white" women to  say black?

I tell you why - because we have grown up believing that white is good and black is bad ( a famous german children's game is called: who is afraid of the "schwarze mann" - the black man,  angels are white, evil is associated with black, white is virginal and equals good, whilst black is dark, threatening and equals bad )  - subsequently we shy away from giving anybody the label "black" but don't mind referring to somebody  as "white".  And while nobody would readily admit that these largely subconsicous agendas apply to them, a scientific test about .hidden racial bias  , done in 2007 (check it out!!),  has revealed that  they most probably would too!

At the same time the test also shows that "black" people with a preference for "their" color show pride in this fact, while "white" people with a preference for white are embarrassed and often ashamed by their test results. This of course makes perfect sense as historically most "white" people have nothing much to be proud of when it comes to race relations, while many "black" people have fought injustice and prejudice to come to a place of pride in their "black" identity.

(I personally never felt the need to be proud of my "race" or culture as - and I only understand this now - I have never been part of an oppressed minority and enjoyed the privilege of defining myself first and foremost as a woman, for whom skin color has been largely unimportant)

So where does this leave us today as we are trying to transcend stereotypes and overcome our own ingrained and often subconscious assumptions about "the other"? The only way we can do this is by talking honestly and openly to each other, by sharing emotions rather than intellectualised political viewpoints, by telling each other how we feel rather than how we think - as one is about finding connection and the other mostly about establishing differences. 

And this is, what this "dialogue thing" is to me: a forum where we can - in time - find a safe space to explore our feelings around our different identities as women, women of different colors and cultures and mothers (some of us) to non-white children in a largely racist society ,where we can come to understand what has divided us in the past and celebrate what connects us as women, mothers, sisters, daughters, friends and partners.

Watch this space - and our soon to be established face book group - for more on our eclectic (yes, we do know what the word means ;-)) group of dialoguers.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Are you proudly African?

During a diversity lecture in my college this question was given to everyone  as a homework assignment: do you consider yourself an African?

Well, that's an easy one I thought: I am a foreigner, aren't I? So: No.

Happy to get that assignment out of the way, I closed my notebook and went on to cook supper for the family. As I am not the Buddhist kind of cooker, Zen and the art of chopping up carrots and potatoes does not quite absorb my hyperactive mind so it got me thinking instead: If I am not an African, despite having spent more time in this country than anywhere else in the world, what am I? European? German? What is it that makes me whatever I consider myself to be? My place of birth, my genetic background, certain physical features, likes or dislikes, language, beliefs, traditions like having Christmas on the 24th of December rather than on the 25th and cooking  raclette instead of turkey? But-  hang on - surely Christmas turkey or even Christmas is not an African tradition and yet grocery stores nationwide sell turkey and fruitcakes on Christmas - to whom? 3rd or 4th generation descendants of English colonisers and other more cross culturally bred or inclined Africans? Can somebody who celebrates Christmas with or without turkey, be considered an African? What about Jewish and Muslim traditions?  Are those certifiably African and at what point in history is the cut off line? Up to which year in the history books are then new influences elevated to tradition-status and become part of the elusive "African Culture"?  Lucky for you I couldn't google any of those questions there and then and risk to bore you any further, as frankly  I had vegetarian burgers to fry, so I decided not to pursue this particular train of thought - as I am sure it has been extensively covered by some book or another fathered by an academic mind of note. Instead I rather stick to what I do best, focus on the personal rather than on the historical or political  (or geographical as for a moment or two I wasn't sure whether as a European I should also identify with my Russian brothers and sisters or whether this is the Asian department... agh shame on me).

So here I ask myself : Is cultural identity something I am born and stuck with for life or can I  develop my culture as much as I develop my personality in the course of a life time? If living in this country and being part of a multi-cultural family doesn't make me feel African, what does this say about me, about the question of my cultural identity? Do I need a cultural identity, do I want one? As I attacked a large onion, my confusion approached to what should be near-anxiety-levels but surprisingly,  I was simply bored to tears instead of angst-ridden at the thought of my missing cultural identity. And I don't blame the onion entirely.

What's more - I couldn't give two carrots about whether I was or not: African or European or Afrogerman or Germanican. I also realised what a time consuming business it must be to have to identify oneself consistently with one thing or another - I cooked a whole family meal trying to wrap my head around some of the most basic questions about my cultural identity only to realise I don't have any of the answers.  So no, I don't view  myself  as African or German or European in order to define my identity.  In the same way that I am happy and grateful to be a woman, but do not feel the need to cling to feminine stereotypes in order to define myself in a male world. The only thing I can say with some certainty - and yes, it is a handwoven hippie cliche - I am mostly h u m a n (with some lion, chicken and wallflower genes evenly spread around).

I also realise that to have this uniquely individual approach to who I am is mostly a by-product of my privileges. As I have never been oppressed as part of a cultural minority and grew up mainly post feminism, it is easy for me to rebel against any form of cultural or gender stereotyping.

But there are those Africans who have been robbed of their identity for generations, who have been defined through other (white) people's eyes and could never develop freely and within their own frame of references. In order to find and redefine themselves some of us might have the need to belong to a culture, to resuscitate forgotten traditions and to stand out against the dominant world culture (yes the cliche still applies: I refer to Euro-Americanism as spread by the media).  And then of course there are those who are born today, who might be unburdened by the past and find a  new cultural idendity by picking and choosing from all the different influences to get to what works for them. Will they forever sit between chairs, not finding acceptance with any given culture or will they be grounded and confident enough to create their own unique identity and thus feel free to be an African according to their own definition?

And where will they get that grounding and self confidence if not from us?

Again, it all comes down to communicating across the divide and finding safe spaces to do so. I am in no position to question or try and talk somebody out of their need to identify with any given culture - but being an African by geographical choice does mean that I need to question and talk about cultural stereotyping and cliches that imprison people rather than allow them to develop freely.

The stereotypes I am talking about are the daily challenges I am facing when my children are for example expected to speak Xhosa, because of their physical features, meanwhile from their genetic background their should really be speaking Afrikaans and yet they speak German and English. I do encourage them to learn Xhosa and they sort of do - but should I not rather teach them their birth mothers language? Or leave it entirely up to them when they are old enough to make that choice? Are their more endangered by their genetic background and by how the world views them as people of color than empowered by what I hope to teach them? Those are questions I keep on asking myself and until they are old enough to tell me (and it is too late of course :-)) I have to listen to as many view points as possible in order to learn as much as possible and then still change my mind at the end of the day and wake up the next morning asking all over again. 

And here is where I can be an African - on my quest to learn and find out not where I belong but how I fit into this exciting mix of people and their cultures. First and foremost I have to learn how to broaden my field of vision, to shift my perspective  from my  safe "Euro-American" spectacles to a more encompassing view where the privileges I grew up with are nothing but an unrealistic dream for most African people and the assumptions I have about my rightful place in this world are challenged by the question: by whose right? 

Of course that is depressing as much as it is enlightening. And in one swift move my balloon of rightful superiority - acknowledged or not - deflates and leaves me somewhat flat and shamefaced. As I look back at my righteous opinions about so many things that now feel slightly embarrassing to outright wrong - I realise that today I might be more insecure as to where I fit in  - but  at the same time I am more alive and inspired than ever before by those insecurities, the questions I now know to ask and the people who are mindful and open and willing to answer with their own experiences and insecurities so that  together we can come up with more questions. I also realise it is not the answers that are important but the questions we ask and the fact that our children hear us asking those questions without being afraid of not having the answers.

So at the end of this: I might not be an African by birth and I might not die an African, but today I am an African by choice, happily, proudly, gladly and gratefully so and of course like most people in this country: mainly confused.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Coconuts and other hairy stuff - lets talk about race baby!

This can't be true  - has it really been 6 months or so, since my last attempt to keep at it??? If it wasn't for you (you know who) and you (yes, you too) telling me I NEEDED to write more, I would be too embarrassed to even officially declare this blog dead - leave alone keep posting at 6 months intervals. As it is though, I love writing and venting and opinionating and reflecting about life, SO (big sigh)- here I am again, despite my best efforts to self boycott.

And today's special is: coconut shake with sweet 'n sour vanilla flavour

Lately I found myself at college again, in  a proudly post apartheid environment, many cultures present, in the midst of a lively discussion about racism, prejudice, white guilt and other favourite things to pretend-discuss amongst educated South Africans. Everybody had something to say that seemed to come straight from a political banner or out of the 2012 handbook for political correctness.

Bottom line: WeareSOoverit!

 Between statements like:
"Racism is alive and well in post apartheid SA" (but hey - I am saying it, so clearly I am one of the good guys)
"We are now officially colorblind " (some of my best friends are b l a c k )
" Affirmative Action is Reverse Racism" (and I am SO going to leave this country if  some b l a c k person is getting the job I want and deserve and, and, and..... that'll teach you!)..... and so on ....

We were just getting started to tear into each other in a civilised and controlled manner, when one of the younger students, fresh from matric (with b l a c k friends on the school-grounds) brought up the issue of the older, guilt ridden generation of white post apartheid survivors, who now smell and suspect racism in every innocent remark - whereas the younger ones, born post 1990, are so NOT affected by this stuff and manage to cross-culturally connect in a way that is totally oblivious of racial issues and yet at the same time has put the funny into racism.

So,  she told us, when they celebrate their matric, they play jokes on each other with mock certificates, where they give each other funny titles, like: wannabe gangsta and coconut....

My gasping for air was somewhat gleefully anticipated and I was promptly attacked with: you see, that's what you oldies always do, get all huffed up about a simple joke, that we (the young people) all understand and ALL laugh about, because (and here I quote verbatim):

It Is Actually True

When I managed to interrupt the rant to ask what about the term coconut in connection with a well educated and affluent person with dark complexion was actually "true" - I had the answer coming: because they act white and they know it and they actually laugh about it themselves.....

So  you are telling me that young black people in this country, who are getting a (traditionally white) education, learn to speak English (fluently as a second language) and are eligible for good jobs are actually acting white, because these are all white privileges?

There was an embarrassed silence in our little group and someone interjected with a soothing voice (it is after all a counseling course): I can see you feel very passionate about this....but .....
and luckily, right at this point the fire alarm went off - and we were all saved from exposing raw emotions and unbecoming opinions....

So back to the coconuts: what this incident made painfully obvious to me is that racism is so ingrained and so unreflected that racist assumptions have become popular truths - even in the mind of the "targets", the non-white persons who are labelled in such a manner and don't object because they actually "know it is true".

Having spoken to a Kenyan friend about this, there seems to be yet another dimension to the issue. In her opinion the term coconut is an accurate description of black people who have lost touch with their culture and language. As an example she described the fact that many educated and affluent black South Africans don't move to the suburbs but stay connected to their "roots" by living in communities in Soweto or Kayelitsha. Apparently,  a black person who lives "amongst white people" in the suburbs is regarded as a sell out by his/her fellow people and thus deserving of the term coconut.

Even though one might question the fact that "townships" created by an oppressive regime in order to segregate people are elevated to cultural heritage status, and one could also look at this as a way of hanging on to the past instead of moving forward to redefine black culture in a  post apartheid context, there is a certain true ring to this argument. Fanon, an author who I only came across recently, describes best the struggle for black identity in racist environments and how the suppressed becomes the suppressor  towards "the other" - xenophobia being one of the examples for this phenomena. Turning against people, who do not necessarily define themselves according to one or other traditional black culture but have assimilated two or more cultural heritages as is the case with mixed race people or people who grow up in a different culture to that of their genetic background, is a legacy of oppression and - in our case - apartheid. The psycho political environment of oppression is one of abuse and violence - and we all know by now that even when abuse and violence finally come to an end, the victims or survivors need to come to terms with what has happened to them.

Forgiveness and remorse are vital stepping stones on the journey to healing, and neither can be achieved through silence and denial. Apartheid might be in the past, but the past lives on and will continue to live on in each new generation of South Africans until we finally start dealing with it on a personal level. Even though the TRC has been one attempt of achieving healing and there are wise and clear voices to be heard amongst South Africans (Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela being one of them), ordinary people don't seem to want to talk about "it".  And when they do talk, it is on a removed, theoretical or political level, suppressing all emotions.

"We must move on" is the general consensus and talking about race, color, culture, racism and other hairy subjects clearly means to most people the opposite of moving on. And it is true we need more than just talking. We need an open an honest dialogue, we need to start talking to each other and not at each other, we need to step out of our comfortable peer groups and cross the divide of race and culture.

My challenge to myself this year is to start listening and talking. And when I next look around my dinner table I want to find myself amongst all shades of skin tones and cultures, excited and curious and maybe even slightly uncomfortable but most of all inspired and energised, knowing that I am busy creating a reality for my children, where having people in our lives who look or think or speak different is not the exception but normality, where talking about race and color and culture is not only political but also intensely personal and emotional and  where those emotions are not only allowed and respected but vitally important so we can learn about and from each other. It is only through our emotions that we connect with our humanity and find love and respect for each other.

And it is only through my beautiful children, who look so different from me, that I am on this journey! ..

xxxxxxxand last newsflashxxxxxxx...since yesterday, 11am, thanks to the barbercutter man,  Kala is now finally a true soccer boy,  mohawk and all!!!!! (that's Leah screaming nooooooooo way in the background :-):-))

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

soooooo out of the loop - fear, race and fairy tales

Its been so long, I have so many excuses, and none of them really count. Coming back to my blog feels like opening the door to a cupboard that I haven't been in in such a long time that I am scared what I might find there. Moths come flying out, clothes are scattered about, some of them even make me feel embarrassed - I was wearing THAT??? Anyway - good excuse or not: I started studying - for the third time - and am slowly finding my way around text books, computer based courses and whole mornings spent at school with classmates the age my kids should really be by now, had I made up my mind about having them, before starting my midlife crisis. Most important lesson learned so far: teenagers  (or people the age my kids should be by now) are really just people who are (a lot)  younger - but other than that, not so scary-alien as previously believed by me. They do of course like their own company and regard me (and the other oldish girl in my class) like one indulgently looks upon an elderly person who takes up skydiving or parachuting at an age where most people start to notice retirement villages in their area. So as I am busy enjoying myself in the company of youngsters, my writing is taking second place and I somewhat guiltily open this blog, wave the moths out of the way and start thinking about what I want to write next.

As my children grow older and noticeably change from being blissfully unaware of skin color to being only too aware of the differences in status, prospects and privilege that come along with the color of our skin, I go through a borderline-spectrum of emotions, ranging from "I will change the world"  to "I have totally and utterly failed them" and anything in between.

When my six year old daughter asked her dad the other day, if a person her color could ever drive a car like that  - referring to some fancy brand that I don't have an eye or memory for - I was once again thrown deep into the guilt and I-will-never-be-able-to-get-this-right scenario. Feeling that what we say to her now might influence her for the rest of her life, and at the same time not wanting to make a huge issue out of her question, which we of course sort of did, with her scowling at us, saying she didn't want to talk about it, I was at a total loss at to what to do or say.  And that's the thing: there is so much we could say, like:

Sadly in this society black people or people with brown skin are still so much worse off than "white people". This has to do with the history of apartheid, where black and colored people were treated badly by white people, who had all the power and made all the decisions. Today things should change but they don't change very quickly and it will still take a long time before black people all over the world will have the same chances and opportunities as white people. But you can change this for yourself, because you are a resourceful, beautiful and intelligent human being who can achieve whatever she wants in this world. And you have your papa and I who will fight for you and support you and be at your side for as long as you let us and probably even longer.

 Only I could not say that because she doesn't want to talk about it, she does not want to talk -period. Whenever I raise the subject of color or race or any subject for that matter, like what was nice at school today or what did she play with her friends all day, she gives me about 5 seconds of grudging attention before zooming out or changing the subject. She is no dialogue-communicator my daughter. There are no cozy mum-daughter talks (yet???) about her school day or disputes with her friends on the long drives to and from school or at meal- or bed-times. All those golden archways of opportunity that the relevant textbooks suggest  somewhat fail to work for us. So either I am getting this whole talking-to-my-children-thing totally wrong or it's simply something in her nature that I will have to come to terms with. I suspect she has an overdeveloped probing-adult radar that detects the slightest hint of a conversation that only tentatively steers in the direction of approaching her emotional landscape. She immediately clams up and disappears. So,  as I see it, I have two choices here: I can either accept that I have totally and irrevocably fxxxxd up in my novice attempts at mothering a 6  year old teenager or I can come to terms with how and who she is: An intensely private yet uncompromisingly authentic person, who hates to talk about herself but at the same time expresses her emotions in ways that might not be agreeable to me but could teach  me new ways of communicating  - if I don't give up here.

 So next time she has a meltdown because she does not want me to do her hair in the morning ( but what she is really saying is that she hates how she sometimes feels so different from other girls in her class and just wants to fit in and look like everybody else) - I don't look so hard for an opportunity to corner her into a conversation about being different and how I understand that she feels awful and that it is hard for her - because all that achieves is her talking about something else (best case scenario) or shouting "don't talk to me, I don't like you (x-rated version for young mothers and fathers of a not yet 6 year old).

What I only recently learned instead (pat on shoulder from myself here and huge thanks to my beloved, beautiful and wise friend Brooke ) - is a  new way of approaching her, which came about as a total "coincidence" when once again we had a highly emotional scene: She had psyched herself up all week to go for a camel ride at Imhof farm, but when the moment arrived, was so overcome by fear (So was I - at the sight of the enormous mouth full of hugely unattractive yellow teeth, repeatedly attempting to bite the bum of the person in front of him) that she had to be rescued from the saddle and burst first into tears and then into a fit of rage. The rest of the afternoon was spent in different attempts to talk to her about fear and how it is ok to feel it and that it can in fact help you to be safe when other people are not, and that you can only be brave when you know that you are afraid and so on and so forth. With - you will have guessed - no effect whatsoever and only resulting in her getting more and more livid with me for being such an annoying and persistantly ignorant mothercow.

That evening she asked me to tell her the story of the witch Babayaga (check it out  babayaga) which I had started telling her before bedtime. Next thing I noticed that the story coming out of my mouth was a more or less accurate retelling of the afternoon's events with the beautiful girl with dreadlocks (Wassilissa) being bullied and ridiculed by the horrible witch Babajaga for being too cowardly to jump on one of the fiery red horses gallopping through her house at sunrise every morning. She then threatens to eat her in the evening when she  returns from her day's work as a witch, where upon Wassilissa has to come up with a plan to escape, which is obviously to steal one of the horses and ride off.  Wassilissa has a little doll, that her mother gave her on her deathbed, and which she always carries close to her heart. The doll,who can talk and helps her whenever she is in need of "mothering" could tell Wassilissa what I had tried all day to impress on my child :

Don't be ashamed of being afraid Wassilissa, fear is your friend. Fear will always warn you when something bad is about to happen and when it is better to run. But fear also tells you when it is wise to step back and think about what could really happen. Only brave people know fear. If you are not afraid you can not be brave. The whitch is not brave, she is unafraid because she is not human. So think about it Wassilissa, maybe there is not so much to be afraid of. 

They then discuss the worst thing that could happen -  falling off the horse and getting eaten by the witch - and the most likely thing to happen - that she will be able to stay on the horse and get away as she is young and fit and strong. In the end Wassilissa manages to jump on the witches horse and ride off into the forest. It amazed me how totally unaware Leah was of how the fairy tale was all about what happened to her during the day. She was so utterly absorbed in my story that she never once interrupted, or got bored or started doing something else. She just wanted to hear more and more and we are  now on the third episode, where Wassilissa - after returning to the witch - goes on adventures with the witch as her guide to find out about race and fear and some of life's  mysteries.

The next Saturday we went to the Constantia Waldorf fair (yeah, still in Waldorf world :-))where they had a sky high and scary long fuffy-slide. Leah announced she wanted to go up, and I almost did not dare to look at her for fear she would lose her nerve again and come back down, defeated and humiliated and angrier than ever.

But she did it. With her whole face a mask of fear and determination she whizzed passed me and down the hill where I ran to her and could not stop admiring and praising her. And again, she did not really want to hear it or talk about it. Her eyes were just a tiny bit shinier, when she heard the words brave and courageous and great and wonderful explode out of my mouth- but she would not acknowledge her feelings. Much later, when I brought it up once again ( I do have an annoying persistance) in a by-the-way- kind of way, she said to me:

Mama, I was afraid but I was also curious, like Wassilissa.

I never felt so rewarded, proud, happy, elated, wonderful, jump-in-the-air-happy in my whole entire long life. Wassilissa has become my saviour, my new way of communicating with my daughter, she allows me to reach her secret inner world, to become a part of it, and maybe even plant a little memory there of my huge love for her.

It just occured to me, that my next post will be the beginning of the Wassilissa tale as adapted for Leah.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Congratulations: She's a little boy!

My daughter Kala came to us about a week before her 3 rd birthday and announced in a cheerful voice:

I don't want Barney at my party anymore, I want a Spiderman Party, because I am a boy.

As it was only half past five in the morning, on a dark and gloomy winters day, I just yawned and mumbled: oh, that's nice darling, let's talk about it later.

Hoping of course that she'd forget all about it by breakfast time, as we had already booked the themed Barney venue including a garish purple dinosaur cake. But as the day progressed she asked me at 5 minute intervals whether I had organised her Spiderman party,  giving me no choice but to phone the party people and pray that by Saturday she won't turn into a frog and we'd have to spray the walls green and all wear gumboots to her pond party....

Now I know some things about phases and stages in a three year olds life as I have been there before with Leah, who transformed from princess to helicopter pilot to fairy to brat-girl and back again within days.

But Kala  showed an impressive amount of consistency in all the 7 or so days leading up to her birthday party. Not only did she stick with the I-am-now-a-boy theme, she raised the bar by changing her name to Maxi and only responding to her own given name for long stretches of time - without prior notice of course.

If it was a Maxi-day,  she would simply ignore any comments, suggestions or questions when addressed as Kala. There were moments during the first couple of days, when  I was getting worried about her hearing or her ability to concentrate or some new form or autism, only to realise that I had called her by the wrong name. As soon as I would repeat whatever I had said but addressed  Maxi  instead of Kala, she'd immediately engage with a distinct undertone of buoyant glee and a triumphant glimmer in her eye.

On her birthday she finalised her transformation by  refusing to wear anything that had the color pink in it, anything with flowers, butterflies or fairies, no skirts or ruffles or leggings or t-shirts that could be mistaken for dresses. Which pretty much ruled out her entire wardrobe.

Except for her new Spiderman Pyjamas, which came in handy as her chosen party outfit for the day.

Needless to say, the party was a great success.  Barney was finally reunited with Spiderman - apparently they had been separated at birth -  ,  our new 3 year old boy came officially out  and she might have even helped one or two boy- princesses along in the process....

After the life changing event, I packed away the pyjamas and sort of hoped that life would now resume in it's old ways, where Kala is just Kala and the Spiderman persona retires until her next birthday (or maybe her final coming out party at 16 or so....).

Of course it did not turn out this way, otherwise, what's the point of blogging about it, right? The next day, she demanded her pyjamas back and I could only coax her into getting dressed in fairly neutral clothes by offering a trip to the next department store to stock up on themed boy's outfits.

From here on there was no looking back. It has been over 6 months now, and we had to invest in  new shoes (only Ben 10 flip flops or bafana-socker-shoes in her cupboard), buy a truly scary pirate cap and even cut her hair for the first time in her life as she was threatening to take scissors to her own head.

We had heated discussions amongst us and with friends and fellow parents about how far and how long we could let this go on for without consulting a professional, how to deal with people's reactions, her sisters questions, our own prejudiced minds about what is acceptable, possible or  normal in this world.

At the end of each of those sometimes lighthearted and funny, sometimes helpless and angst-ridden conversations, it only became clear that all we could do was learn from the only specialist in this particular field: Kala herself (or Maxi himself).  It also helped to re-read the somewhat worn  into a cliche(from hanging on too many Eco-toilet walls) poem by Khalil Gibran about our children.

Yes, it never hurts to challenge my own prejudiced mind and do some good old fashioned Kumbaya-ing along with ageing hippies from my own generation in order to get in touch with the wisdom of my heart-center. Read it again, if you haven't done so in a while and you might be surprised  what suddenly jumps out at you,  infused with new meaning. This was the one sentence that got me:

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

Where I may have understood this sentence on a purely intellectual level before, it now brought home a whole new emotion filled meaning. Instead of worrying about my daughter, because she won't conform with a socially accepted image of a girl/woman that is ultimately me (more or less, if you don't know too much about me that is :-)) - I can use this unique opportunity to learn how to become more like her.

I have never in my life come across a person who is so true to herself:  uncompromisingly, happily and unconcerned about what anybody may think. Where I have to work hard  to overcome my life long conditioning to fit the social mould, striving to eventually become my true empowered self,  my daughter is still effortlessly authentic. Even when faced with the many challenges that come with being "different", she reacts only with humor and wisdom (or a well aimed punch to the head if her still limited vocabulary fails her from time to time  - which I am NOT encouraging of course - but can't help admiring :-))

When told by a friend's mother, that she is not a "real"  boy because she does not have a penis (really!) - she calmly replied: So? I am going to buy one at Woolworth.... (in the newly opened penis department - in case you didn't know). I could not have suggested a better response to her - and she came up with this within miliseconds of the offending remark!

So from today on I make the conscious decision to quit worrying about her - and start trusting in her.

To go with the flow and at the pace she decides she wants to grow.

Hoping that she will be happy in HER body as she grows up,  as the idea of having to chop off bits here and add other bits there really scares me - but for today I am not challenging this remnant of my own conditioning as we are nowhere near that bridge.

Today I am happy that I have a daughter who chooses to be a beautiful, strong, happy boy with a heart big enough for the whole world and it's neighbouring planets.

And who knows: by tomorrow we might all decide to become superheroes and wear our Pyjamas to work....