Monthly Archives: September 2014

Haggling | Customary Business Transaction or Another Means of Exploiting the Poor?

I grew up as an expat in East Africa. A part of my childhood experience and memory is haggling with hawkers/vendors/traders, whether for farming produce in the open air market or for curios made out of a combination of ebony wood and elephant ivory.

Ebony walking sticks

Ebony walking sticks

Baseball caps, in particular, were a popular trading item. My family kept a ream for just such occasions. Economic transactions of one baseball cap for one or more carvings was always disproportionately financially skewed to favor the buyer, and gifted the buyer with a smugness that s/he got the better of the merchant.

My family learned this “cultural practice” as it were from other expatriates, and probably, truth be told, from Kenyans and Tanzanians themselves, never having personal reason or conscience to rethink a practice or game, depending upon one’s perspective, that everyone seemed to participate in.

It wasn’t until years later as a young adult living in one of South Africa’s self-proclaimed “Bantu homelands,” Venda, that I became conscience-stricken over my acquired attitude toward and manner of engaging people, who just happened to be street vendors.

Venda, a small and veritable garden of Eden exception to the much more arid homelands the apartheid government created in an effort to falsely convey to the world a “separate but equal” racial policy, was renowned for its fresh produce of litchi (lychee), mango, papaya, banana, avocado, and pineapple.

Early during my family’s three-year residence in Venda, I discovered that local roadside traders refused to haggle over price. The price listed–most often times scrawled on a cut-out small piece of cardboard–was the cash expected. Full stop.

I asked our language and culture tutor about this, referencing my experience in East Africa. I remember him looking at me with a puzzled expression before replying, “If anything, you should pay more than the asking price. Never less than.”

Our mentor’s surprised facial expression was similar to a Germiston Afrikaner police officer’s two years later, who, when I asked why South African law did not allow motorists to turn left on a red light (called “robot” in South Africa) after coming to a complete stop and checking to be certain no cars were oncoming (as motorists are allowed to turn right at most stop lights in the United States) looked quizzically at me and stated emphatically, “Because the light is red!

These random memories came tumbling to mind this morning when I was reading the former South African Pulitzer Prize novelist and anti-apartheid activist, Nadine Gordimer’s short story, “The Train From Rhodesia” (now Zimbabwean). In it, she describes a sleepy Rhodesian backwater, where the only social stirring and economic activity occurred when the “creaking, jerking, jostling, gasping, train filled the station.”

An old man attempts to entice a young white woman and her male compatriot passenger to buy a lion, one “carved out of soft dry wood that looked like spongecake; heraldic, black and white, with impressionistic detail burnt in.”

The woman hesitates to buy the lion carving, uncertain of how it will look back at home or where she’ll put it. As the train lurches to movement again, the young man, thinking that he’s doing his lover a favor, quickly tosses the old man “one-and-six” pence for the lion (just a bit more than one penny in old British currency, I believe).

Once the train is moving he arrives in the carriage doorway breathless, “shaking his head with laughter and triumph. Here! he said. And waggled the lion at her. One-and-six!”

What was merely a fun-filled argument (haggle/barter) for him, was perceived and met with angered incredulity on her part.

She almost shouted, “If you wanted the thing, her voice rising and breaking with the shrill impotence of anger, why didn’t you buy it in the first place? Why didn’t you take it decently, when he offered it? Why did you have to wait for him to run after the train with it, and give him one-and-six? One-and-six!”

 

 

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Filed under Africa, Culture and Africa, Family, Life, Memories, Mentor, Pedagogy, Perspective, Prejudice, Race, Relationships, Religion and Faith

Grasping An Elephant’s Hand | Navigating Life’s Journey

This blog is dedicated to “Bum Bum,” “Teddy Beddy Bear,” “Fooey,” “Tusky or Tutty,” “Puuddy” and “Wuwoof”–my five children’s stuffed animals, whose inanimate lives like Winnie the Pooh and Pals, took on life and needed companionship in the imagination of my children’s lives.

Tusky and Puuddy

Tusky and Puuddy

Tusky & Moose

Tusky & Moose

 

Transitioning through life’s early developmental stages of infancy, childhood and adolescence is difficult enough without having to fearfully obsess or freak out about dying by random acts of violence, infectious diseases, or colossal acts of nature, such as tsunamis. Unfortunately, merely Google “children’s exposure to violence” or “death” and you’ll obtain more than 10M hits.

For two years I taught South African Department of Education life orientation teachers a curriculum developed by Community Information for Empowerment and Transparency (CIET), that corroborated the link between sexual violence and AIDS. As facilitator I often illustrated violence with reference to South Africa’s endemic “culture of violence.”

I illustrated it this way:

Imagine you’re driving to work at 8AM on X-Highway, when you turn on the radio and hear motorists excitedly calling in to John Robbie, local Radio 702’s Talk Show host, informing him and other commuters that an armed hijacking of a cash/coin truck is occurring as you speak. Twelve to 16 men wearing balaclavas and holding AK-47s are hacking into the overturned armored truck with axes to grab the money bags before fleeing in several getaway cars (I recall one November that 31 cash in-transit heists occurred in Gauteng Province alone).

A culture of violence is not the violent act itself, but rather, the day-to-day life reality and expectation that violent acts are commonplace, part of life’s “normal” existence in South Africa.

So, with respect to the cash heist, commuters who are not bottlenecked on the highway because of the armed robbery in progress, express little thought or mention for the safety of the security guards or other commuters, and instead, think, “So glad I’m not caught up in that traffic jam?” or “Whew! I should still make my 8:30AM meeting if I hurry.”

Adults everywhere struggle with this daily physiologically and emotionally tense white elephant–this walking on death’s black ice and knowing you’re going to fall yourself one day, but hoping against all hopes it’s not “your time” to break your neck, but merely get “a good” bruising.

Seldom do adults still possess or have reason to rely on stuffed childhood animals to mediate fearful and anxious tension. Many people have no-one to accompany them through difficult life passages. It’s notable that Seton Brackenridge Hospital in Austin, began an initiative in 2009 to help indigents.  It’s called No One Dies Alone or NODA.

Doctor Bongani Thembela didn’t know it at the time, but his recall of the last hours spent with an HIV/AIDS patient, effectively qualified him to be a NODA volunteer–“I could see he might die any minute. So I sat with him, held his hand. We sat there an hour, two hours, three hours, four hours, five hours. Eventually he died at 4:30 in the morning.”

Children being the little human sponges they are, absorb overt and latent fear from whomever and wherever it might originate, and yet, unlike adults, they are less capable of managing early-life stress and violence, which adversely affects their developing brains.

For an oddly engaging and informative glimpse into childhood trauma and development, read The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog: And Other Stories From a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook–What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love and Healing.

The political cartoon satirist, David Zapiro made light of South African children’s daily fearful experiences in a drawing of a teacher asking her class what they wanted to be when they grew up, while immediately outside the classroom window stood two muggers, one armed with a large knife and the other with a pistol. One young girl raises her hand and shouts her response, “ALIVE!”

My children aren’t perfect but they’re as near perfect as I or my wife could have ever hoped for. We’re grateful for their polyester stuffed companions, who not only accompanied our children on their perilous developmental journeys, but who likely were all made or assembled in China, and who were loved literally to death and shreds by one American family.

 

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The Unknown and Unimagined Life of Being a (Black) Problem

IMAGINE for a moment that you were black, brown, yellow, whatever color, really–even white–as long as it’s not the reigning color of hegemony in a given place (hegemony=the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group).

The important point of imagining is that you belong to a segment of society that for what seems forever has been bereft of sociopolitical and economic power, resulting in a troubled state of life, being, even self-identification.

Imagine that you personally, or members of your family or community have recent and past memory of being routinely profiled, unjustly or disproportionately incarcerated, disenfranchised, subjugated, enslaved (forced marital and family separation, rape), derided, stereotypically blamed for high crime rates and indulgent abuse of welfare subsidies, a member of “the native problem,” and most shameful of late, given racially charged incidents such as occurred in Ferguson, MO, publicly ridiculed on prime time by “news” hucksters, the likes of whom resemble a wily red fox.

One North American, who not only successfully imagines, but also in a two-part Op-Ed risks exposing and challenging “smug white delusion,” and who knows first-hand a smidgen, at least, of what it’s like to be non-privileged in a democracy that often evidences a one-step forward, two-steps backward reality in matters of economic inequity and race relationships is The New York Times Op-Ed columnist, twice Nobel Peace winner, and “honorary African” (according to Desmond Tutu), Nicholas Kristof.

Similarly, Nadine Gordimer, former South African writer, anti-apartheid activist and Nobel Peace laureate, in a chapter story, “Ah, Woe Is Me,” (from Selected Stories), shares a white, apartheid-era, self-awareness moment, through the narrative of a white woman and her former obese and physically debilitated black “servant” Sarah.

In the short story, one of Sarah’s three children, a daughter arrives unexpectedly at Ma’am’s doorstep after years absence. Once the apple of her mother Sarah’s eyes, in terms of potential as scholar and aspiring teacher, the girl is now disheveled and anguished in appearance–the result of forced withdrawal from school due to lack of school fees, as well as her unyielding duty to care for her bedridden mother.

Ma’am nervously and immediately bombards the young “location” (black township=where black people were consigned to live under apartheid) girl with questions about her mom’s health, the girl’s schooling, her siblings, her father’s loss of job, the hardships of life in the location, et cetera.

Abruptly, almost, she becomes self-conscious of the incessant and personally detached nature of her questioning, and shares with the Reader this bit of inner self-discourse:

“I always had the curious feeling that they (Sarah’s children) were embarrassed, not by me, but for me, as if their faces knew that I could not help asking these same questions, because the real state of their lives was unknown and unimagined by me, and therefore beyond my questioning.”

This representative apartheid-era white woman, who lived in a white’s-only suburb, and who not only had the economic means to hire household servants, but also belonged to the ruling political power–one capable of dictating and enforcing upon everyone different to themselves not only where they would live, but what and how they should think of themselvesin a narrative flash realized she knew absolutely nothing about, and could imagine even less, what day-to-day life was really like for a non-white in apartheid South Africa.

Uncanny in similarity are W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1903 words in The Souls of Black Folk–

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy, by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ they say, ‘I know an excellent colored man in my town,’ or, ‘Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil?’

At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ I answer seldom a word.

To not personally know what it’s like to be “a problem,” profiled, incarcerated or a systematically disenfranchised person or people is understandable, particularly if your life has been one of disproportional privilege than struggle and hardship.

An unwillingness, however, to attempt vicariously imagining what another’s life must in reality be like, is inexcusable, and reflective not of power, but of fear–a fear of what your conscience, like Ma’am’s, might instruct and compel you to act upon, given your new awareness.

 

Note: One example of one city’s bipartisan, interracial, and intentional effort to understand “the other’s” life experience and narrative of pain, is Richmond, Virginia’s Initiatives of Change and Hope In The Cities. They promote trust building through honest and courageous communities of dialogue.

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