Anne de Graaf's blog: International-Intrigue-Injustice

31 January 2012


Filed under: Aids survival,PhD: South Africa!,The Children's Voices — annedegraaf @ 3:41 pm

Am thinking in terms of shared complicities and collective futures. No innocents involved. All share responsibility. Any society that buys into victimization forfeits its own power, handing its ability to reinvent itself to the perpetrators. So, (take a leap with me here), does the language of human rights equal victimhood, thereby disempowering the very people it’s meant to strengthen?

Am thinking critique is every society’s best friend.

Listened to a group of students a few days ago who talked about ignorance as the number-one problem in South Africa. Other songs on the Top Ten: lack of wise leadership, corruption, material disparity, and people not realizing how to reach their potential.

”What would it take?” I asked (you never know). They said, mentorship programs, more access to sports to level the playing field, a new identity to replace their parents’ broken record about colonialization and apartheid legacies, investment in civil society, community support. Oh yeah.

Then they told me stories of seeing people, really seeing them: seeing their pain and dreams and how sharing in fear or joy melted the divisions. “A friend of mine was raped by her uncle and gave birth as a result when she was 13. She went back to school and the community helped her keep her child. Now she runs a peer mentorship program and center for HIV and rape counseling.”

I already knew from previous trips that the shoulders of young people here must grow to bear adult-sized burdens. “Child-headed households” is the fancy name for kids who have no one but each other—an older brother or sister raising younger siblings, scraping together school fees, putting shoes on the little ones so they’ll still be allowed into school, worrying about where the one meal every day will come from, walking the tightrope between gang protection and drug markets. The aloneness is because my generation has more or less died out due to AIDS. So either the gogos, or grandmothers must raise their grandchildren, or worse, the orphans look after each other. During a previous trip here, Mbeki’s denials of the pandemic literally cost lives. Now some HIV patients have access to drugs, and there is more information about healthy diets, and children as young as 8 sometimes hear about the absolute necessity of using condoms. But it remains a taboo subject, and when I ask about a student’s family, they still look away and talk of fathers who died of TB or mothers who died of malaria. Never mind that this area is malaria-free.

So what would it mean to not see these young people as victims?

Life feels very close here because death treads so near.

29 January 2012

Hemayel Martina–In heaven for a year

Filed under: The Children's Voices,Thin and Thick Places,Words by Others,Write on — annedegraaf @ 11:32 am

It was a year ago.

Hemayel’s Words

If I go to Finder and type in hemayel a screen full of entries appears:

  • This photo
  • Various essays from his composition class with me
  • The different versions of his poetry book as we worked on the English translations of his poems
  • A Rwanda research proposal that looked more like PhD material than undergraduate work
  • Outlines of papers he was working on for other classes that I helped him with in the Writing Center.

Here is an excerpt from one of those papers, dated 17 September 2009:

Introduction: In post-armed conflict countries the active involvement of the youth in peace building from the ground up is a primary means of guaranteeing peace. This is based on the assumptions that: humans are creatures able to choose; disagreement is inevitable but resolvable through non-violent means; and that the youth have the potential to ensure transformation in the realm of resolving conflict. In this paper, the peace building process in Sierra Leone after the civil war will be used as an example, in addition to examples taken from conflicts in other geographical areas. The programs by and for the youth in Sierra Leone after the decades-long civil war, illustrate that the youth cannot only be used to perpetuate conflict, but to build peace as well. In partnership with the international community, (I)NGOs and UN, as facilitators. Besides that, the student uprising in Serbia shows that a non-violent approach to conflict is possible and that the young community does have a voice.

Conclusion: The youth should not only be seen as the victims or perpetuators of armed conflicts, rather, as one of the main means to ensure the absence of war. The challenge of the leaders today is to secure the absence of war, but the leaders of tomorrow face a greater challenge. The achievement of positive peace, where structural violence will be obliterated. Nevertheless, for that to happen tomorrow the seeds have to be planted today, if we do not want history to repeat itself.

So, as I read this in South Africa, where I’m conducting my own research for a PhD on the role of young people’s narratives in conflict and peacebuilding within a deeply divided society, goosebumps now cover my arms, despite the 34-degree heat. Hemayel’s words seem prophetic for my own research. The more I learn, the more I want to learn, and his words act as a lodestar, pointing me toward the true North of understanding. And yet, this is true of all my students; the more I listen, the more I learn.

During this past Fall semester, students wandered into WRiSC (the writing center) and talked about Hemayel with me. “I dreamed about him.” “I heard his laughter.” “I’m writing a paper about a conversation I had with Hemayel—about how we cannot write about poverty until we’ve experienced it.” Some days he seemed more present than others. A few times the first-year students overheard these conversations. “Who is Hemayel?” they asked. It was a hard question to answer.

In the year since his death many have made him into whatever they needed him to be: prophet, saint, martyr, mentor, angel, idol, friend. I wonder what he would have said about all the fuss. To be honest, I see Hemayel as a reminder. I stand by what I said at his memorial: he was special, but so is each and every young person, searing with white-hot potential. For Hemayel then, if not for ourselves, learn all you can, reach deep and develop your potential to its fullest, face the fear and do it—whatever it is—going back to school, getting that degree, becoming a politician who is not corrupt, make your dream come true. Create a space for listening, to others, to young people, but most of all, listen to your own heart. He lives on in our hearts—if we listen there . . . we hear him still. Maybe everyone is a Hemayel, in his words.

28 January 2012

Continents apart

Filed under: PhD: South Africa! — annedegraaf @ 7:57 pm

I have many things to say, and I wonder, do I put it into my journal, share it on my blog, write it down, or type it up? I know from past trips that if I don’t “give it a place,” as we say in Dutch, it may demand one later on. So here begins a series of blog entries sketching my impressions of the last three weeks.

This is a great adventure I am on. I realize this when I explain what I am doing in South Africa, and I watch my listeners’ eyes grow wide. “What about your family?” the women ask. “You’re in a good place,” the men say. My family is fine; and yes I am.







In fact, my husband just left a week ago, after visiting me for four days. We stuffed as much food and wine into the days and ourselves as we could manage. This country, the wines, the generosity of the people, the natural beauty, the warmth of temperature and personalities—all are so exceptional.



I play with the Afrikaans, photographing signs that seem to say what we all think.:





The interviews for my research yield surprising answers, which is good, since I’m supposed to be creating knowledge. So if we already knew this stuff, it wouldn’t be new. People say things, and I think, is that true? Is it true that the African concept of wealth is that it is limited, finite? This implies that when someone has more, then someone else has less, pays a price for the affluence of the other. This contrasts the Western notion of wealth as infinite, out there for the taking.

What is true is the fact that people feel betrayed by the current government. The ANC celebrated its 100th anniversary in mid January and the country was not pleased with images of these men drinking champagne in one hand and lifting the raised fist in the other. They have spent too much money on themselves, and broken too many promises made during the campaigns.

In my research I’m wondering what happens when youth are given a place at the table in a deeply divided society? More and more societies are becoming deeply divided; think of our own—so would creating listening spaces for young people blur the dividing lines?

Define the divisions: racial, religious, socio-economic, educational. So we have blacks, and within that category there are ANC and PAC and Christians and Muslims. Then there are the so-called coloureds and Indians, a society that places education for their children at the top of a long list of priorities—these are also divided between Christian and Muslims, and along other lines. The whites, who are the English and Afrikaners. But the old faultlines of township people and non-township no longer apply as the “Black Diamonds,” or newly wealthy black members of society, now send their children to better schools. So are the schools where divisions are made and unmade?

I’m thinking that communities may be defined by the stories told. I’m thinking we would save ourselves a lot of trouble if we looked at individuals, instead of groups.

Today I read about a man called Power. He runs the local carwash. Yesterday my gas station attendant said, “Hi, I’m Clever.” I almost responded, “So am I,” when I caught sight of his name tag. After I tipped him R5 (50 euro cents) for filling up the car with petrol and checking the oil and water, I called out, “Thanks, Clever!” just because I’ve always wanted to put those two words together that way.

My talks grow in me. I interview professors at universities, students of all the above categories and all ages and all studies, people working at NGOs, scholars, researchers, taxi drivers, and neighbors.

Words bounce around my brain and I hardly know where to put them down. So I listen, and listen some more. What is not being said? Which question? This country is in transition, that’s for sure.

The Afrikaans says it all, embedded in the language itself is a description of the biggest trading partner, or new best friend of this South Africa: The way to say, “How are you my brother, you’re my mate” is Howzit my bru? You’re my China.

7 January 2012

Cape of Good Hope

Filed under: PhD: South Africa!,Thin and Thick Places — annedegraaf @ 6:16 pm

This is a little bit how I feel at the moment.

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.

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