The Sankofa Concept
When I called my good friend Selaelo Maredi after not seeing him since 1992, what is that 20 years, it was if it was yesterday. He asked me where I was, and when I responded Melville, he couldn’t believe I was that close. I still can hardly believe it.
I set my phone to wake me at 7 a.m. I could hardly sleep the day before—I am going to see Selaelo I kept saying to myself as I went to bed too late. I’d just seen my younger daughter off to the airport. I was now alone, no company, no one to hang out with, to haggle with vendors, to zip my backpack, to tell me I am overreacting, to ask me when I want to pull over on the side of the road for a photo, “what is your vision Mommy?”
I get up, but I am late getting out after getting dressed, packing lunch and drinking my Vega or liquid breakfast. I am riding with a new taxi driver, Pieter, who is the same person who took TaSin to the airport. I have fired Freedom, who didn’t honor our reservation at the last minute. Burning bridges is something Africans do quite easily, whether that is continental or stateside—white skin privilege is a given. Dr. Franz Fanon’s “White Skin, Black Masks,” needs to be on the required reading list for our folks worldwide and for those with privilege too, just in case they’d like to interrupt this unconscious self-degradation. It’s the little things like forgetting the promise to one’s little sister, TaSin, when one has an opportunity to fill one’s taxi with five white passengers, (who, by the way, were flying standby, and ended up returning to the hostel that same evening). Just the day before, TaSin was getting a bracelet woven and up walks a white American and the salesperson puts TaSin’s bracelet down and was going to make the white boy’s first. Mind you, TaSin was buying four bracelets, one was mine. The guy had the nerve to give me a dirty look when I took his photo despite TaSin’s explanation that we were together.
No customer service training.
Reminded me of why my father hated shopping in Oakland. The black people in Oakland, didn’t like black dollars, even though they spent like white ones. They’d act like they were doing the customer a favor when he or she was why they had a job in the first place.
When I get to Selaelo’s in Alexandra Township he tells me two stories, both mean he is happy to see me. I will never forget the honor I felt when he asked me to keep him drum when he was in exile in the United States. It was like someone asking me to safeguard their heart. I returned it, of course, but I have never been so honored ever again.
I am in Jo’burg, South Africa, the Melville District, an area of Johannesburg along the outskirts of Sophiatown, a place in South Africa where people of all races lived harmoniously. At the peak of the Apartheid regime, this town was razed and African people, indigenous African people were sent to the Southwest Township or Soweto. Military trucks came in and removed families that rainy morning. Usually when I am in Africa I eventually feel a familiar vibe, but this place, South Africa, is unlike anything I’ve know thus far. The indigenous Africans live along the periphery of economic fault lines, as if nothing has changed except the faces of the oppressors. Granted women no longer clean white women’s kitchens, instead new immigrants from places like Zimbabwe do this dirty work, while kerchief covered South African heads sweep streets, train stations and latrines in public toilets.
As an African descendent in the Diaspora, I claim citizenship throughout the continent and usually I feel at home eventually, not here, at least, not until I went to Alexandra. There was something about this ghetto that spoke to me in a way that changed my view of South Africa. These people, perhaps because they are the people whose descendents sheltered a young Mandela. Perhaps it’s because my good friend, playwright Selaelo Maredi lives here with his family, older brother, nieces and nephews, three guard dogs—perhaps this is the reason why I now feel more comfortable.
Selaelo is a Diaspora citizen. For 14 years he lived away from home writing and producing plays with well known African American artists like Danny Glover and Caribbean star, Sidney Poitier, Ed Bullins, activists and artists, Alice Walker, Fania Davis and her sister, Angela Davis, and many others whose names escape me.
Presently, he is working on a play about violence against women, namely rape, which is at epidemic proportions here in South Africa. Daily one sees in the news accounts of rape and mutilation from President Zuma to pedophiles masquerading as school teachers. Most of these men, remain unprosecuted or exonerated (like Zuma). In a country the world has looked to as a model of social, economic and political justice, the people, the black people are still suffering: unemployment and undereducation, homeless and houselessness, hunger and illness. One wonders why so many flock to the city to work when options are so slim, but for parents who want to educate their children, the rural education is often worse than that in the townships.
Selaelo speaks of his father’s passing signaling the end of his former education. His uncle sent him to a fashion institute to learn a trade, design, only to find out that those jobs were reserved for whites and with his certificate, all he could do was iron. When asked why there was such a school run by whites who knew their students would never be able to work in the industry, he said, “for the money.”
Everything is for sale: identity, favor and sometimes privilege.
Diaspora citizenship is often commoditized, similar to the way women are commoditized—the female body takes the place of the abstract and often inaccessible pain body and relief is felt when this vehicle is tarnished or removed.
America is not seen with any love here. Our companies come and invest and then leave employees without any recompense when the pseudo feeling of ease disappears almost overnight. On a South African reality tour, we pass by many vacant factories in Alexandra, now places where shacks are built. There is no government regulation in the townships. The only time government comes in is to remove families from land with the promise of permanent housing, only to give that housing away once it is complete. There was a story about such a broken promise in last week’s paper. The families were told they had to wait a year for resettlement.
At the Market Theatre Tuesday evening, January 10, 2012, three plays opened, all of them reprises: Percy Mtwa’s “Woza Albert!,” this show directed by Prince Lamla, Dael Orlandersmith’s “Yellow Man,” directed by Lara Bye, and Anthony Akerman’s “ Somewhere on the Border,” directed by Andre Odendaal. All the plays look at war whether that is internal conflict or both. Armed with different tools and strategies the battles ensue, whether that is protecting the rights of the apartheid state to racist biased rule, as is the case in “Somewhere,” or looking for something outside of the day to day oppressive reality to believe in, to give one courage, as is the case in “Woza Albert!” when protagonists find Jesus’s second coming a reason to resist the norms they’d come to accept. It doesn’t matter if one goes to church, reads the bible or prays, Morena or Jesus is one’s representative and in a place where no one seems to care about the black South African, this is encouraging. The last play’s story, “Yellowman,” which I saw in Berkeley, California, is one of pigment, skin color, a topic black people whether colonized or enslaved share.
In the news here in South Africa, a singer recently had injections to make her appear white. She thought lighter skin would make her more attractive to her boyfriend, who is a millionaire. The procedure, which is irreversible, has made is so she cannot be out in the direct sun. She also has to have regular maintenance treatments which she says she can no longer afford, now that her boyfriend has left her. The story reminds me of John Howard Griffin’s, author of “Black like Me.” Both the singer and the author take injections to change their pigment, Griffin, to turn his skin black, the singer, to turn hers white. Griffin literally poisons his system and dies from liver complications.
Getting back to” Yellowman,” in the story, the lighter complexioned man is in love with a woman who is darker and she feels inadequate, similar to the singer. Set in South Carolina, the play has obvious resonance here.
One wants to belong. African people are relationship people, which means, we thrive in community not isolation.
America is a place where no one belongs except the Native Americans, the few left. As a person of African descent, I belong in that my ancestors are responsible more than any other constituency or group of people for the wealth founding families built this empire upon. I come from unwilling immigrants, not indentured, but captured and bound first physically, then spiritually and psychologically to such an extent that my people are a new people: no conscious connection to Diaspora lineage. Many of my people are not interested in exploring this connection to Diaspora, to ancestral memory(s), yet, without such an exploration we will remain lost, confused and enslaved to behaviors that guarantee our extinction.
Black history did not begin with European conquest, yet, this is the history most of us are conversant. In my work over the past 16 years, I have looked at the riff that occurred when Africans were taken from the continent renamed for a western explorer, a place formally known as Alkebulan or land of the blacks. Dr. Marimba Ani, calls this horrific period “the Maafa,” Kiiswahili for terrible occurrence or reoccurring calamity. The Maafa then is perhaps the worse crime against humanity in our collective histories, yes, even surpassing what happened to the Jews and Roma and homosexuals and some blacks during WW2. What is so horrific about the Maafa or African Holocaust is the way its history is unresolved 150 or so years later. A trauma unaddressed, does not go away, it just gets pushed down and appears in other ways, namely through behavior.
The Maafa Ritual is a way to address this silence. An annual event, it is a time when people of African descent come together to give our ancestors, namely, those who were not mourned, those whose spirits continue to wander, an opportunity to rest. The ceremony is predawn and takes the participants through the ordeal. There is a Door of No Return, where our ancestors passed, no knowing that this would be the last time they touched home-land. We have an altar for prayer and supplication and then in the circle we pour libations, give prayers, sing, dance –leaving space for spontaneity, so spirit feels free to have its way.
I have found in my travels that continental Africans are also addressing this PTSD or Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome coupled with what Selaelo called pull down syndrome, where one does not wish other like himself well, he or she tries to crush their progress.
In Rufisque, Senegal, there are women called The Congregation or who are skilled with addressing mental illness and aberrant behavior associated with such illness. The entire community is involved with the cure which involves music, song, dance and medicine. There are such healers in the Kikongo tradition as well and here in South Africa among the Sangoma.