My last blog entry described my golf adventure during the final weeks I spent at St. Andrews. I write this entry from Cape Town. What happened between Scotland and South Africa? A summer and autumn in The Netherlands, catching up with friends and family after my 9-month stint in Scotland; then my dream job of teaching and researching and heading up the writing center at Webster University. The Fall semester grew and blossomed as I taught writing classes and International Relations classes. Most of my time became wrapped around lesson plans and papers in need of correction, midterms, final exams, and readings.
The great gift was the quality of my students (yet again) this term: courageous, hard-working, engaged, caring. They came from South America, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, North America, and Asia. I’m still waiting for someone from Australia and Antarctica to show up; then I can claim all seven continents. We had heated discussions about everything under the sun: human rights, revolutions, theories—theirs and ours, wars—them and us. As in all great classes, I learned from them; and I hope they learned from me. I also had the privilege of coaching an amazing group of fiction writers. Their stories whirl around my head like the legs of an octopus, sucking me into plots and characters I care about and pulling me ever deeper.
As I taught, my PhD research kept calling to me: more books to buy and skim, more outlines, more emails, more lines of correlation, more wondering why.
And then it was over. I turned in the last grades and started packing for my field work in South Africa: 9 weeks of interviewing and collecting data on the role of young people in conflict and peacebuilding. I finally have a name for what I’m looking at—a deeply divided society. So I’ve been reading up on that and discovering that any answers I might find could help just about every society we live in, as we tend to be heading for deeper and more deeply divided societies.
My Egyptian student told me when I left, “Build a lot of peace.” I made the crucial mistake of telling my students I could be bribed with chocolate and alcohol. As a result, I received Christmas baskets full of goodies. I will see my students and colleagues at Webster again in mid-March, when I return to teach again.
Right now though, as at the beginning of all new dives, I’m just barely lowering myself down into the water. Did someone say something about a cage? Still, on that 11-hour flight from Amsterdam a few days ago, I wrote that my heart is humming at the adventure awaiting me. And I keep thinking about what it means to be a peacebuilder.
I’m staying in an apartment complex for staff at the University of Cape Town. I’m a visiting researcher, affiliated with the Children’s Institute here. I’ll also be working with the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.
My apartment nestles at the foot of Table Mountain, with Devil’s Peak looming out my back windows. I look out at the Rhodes Memorial, a Greek-columned tribute to a man who either built or tore down this corner of the continent, depending on the history book you read. (My IR students would tell you it’s all about perspectives.) This memorial is surrounded by savannah and forest, where zebra and wildebeest graze on the Rhodes Estate, just on the other side of the M3 highway. I like the way the cars and game act as if the other isn’t there.
Yesterday I went up to the restaurant beside the stone lions on the porticoed steps of the memorial and had a glass of sauvignon blanc (don’t get me started about South African wines) and watched the Cape Town view. I smelled the spindly pines and watched dappled light as the sun shifted. Southern skies: sun over the north instead of the south.
This is what my apartment complex looks like from there. Mine is the window in the triangle of shadow to the left, on the second floor.It’s 33 degrees today during the height of South Africa’s summer, with 20 mph winds gusting from the southeast. That’s Antarctica, so it’s a cool wind, but wild, and trees rock and bow at its force. They call this wind the “Cape Doctor” because it blows the smog out to sea. My apartment couldn’t be more different than my wee hoose in St. Monans. I’m in a big complex and I hear children laughing, adults calling to each other, and heavy traffic on the Main Road at the front of the building. During rush hour vans toot their horns and men call out the destinations of their taxis, car alarms go off, trucks rumble past and buses screech their brakes. I wake at 6 when the traffic gets too noisy, and rarely get to sleep before midnight because of the roar. That’s at the front. At the back I gaze at the mini-game preserve ala Cecil.
I brought 47 kg of luggage with me, 40 kg of which are books. What was I thinking? I look at them now, and realize I’m supposed to read them, read and digest them, read and write about them. So I sit here on the couch with my feet up on a pillow, the fan humming to my left, the wind whistling through the glass, smelling my vanilla candle, and think of my students, my family, my friends, and watch the South African light.
In Scotland the light shone thin and tenuous in the moist air. Here the light is no less extraordinary, but not thin—heavy, heavy with color and heat, as if at the tip-toe end of this mighty continent, the light has run out of breath. Still it is a fine light—heavy and fine like the strokes of a Dutch landscape painting. When I’m outside, the light and sun and wind caress my pasty North European skin. I eavesdrop on people talking more languages than I can count. There are eleven official languages alone here.
I’ve learned that a car hoots, traffic lights are robots, I need to tip petrol station attendants since I’m not supposed to fill the tank myself, to capture me is to take down my details, that it’s important to padlock the iron grill at my front door when I go to sleep (don’t worry-there’s 24-hour security, but still), to always give the mini-bus taxis right of way, that half a supermarket aisle can be devoted to braai (barbeque) materials, and to watch for the golden babies: children from mixed parents—something I didn’t see much of during the first of many visits to this place back in 1998.
You know what they call the generation born after the first free elections in 1994? Born Free.
In this place then, where my heart soars and my soul settles, I ring in the New Year, wish you all health and happiness, and christen this new season one of Hope.