Friday, December 9, 2011


Today I picked up a condom at the student-run co-op on campus. Now, let’s be fair, picking up a condom is not exactly groundbreaking news. It’s not the sort of thing that usually inspires a blog post. I mean, a condom’s a condom, right?

Well, no. Not this one. This is a piece of genius from a company that I think has hit the nail on the head.

The condom brand is ONE ( and they’re based in Boston, MA. The thing that really sets them apart is some awesome design which ties into an ethos of making condoms fun, interesting and, well, attractive. So the packaging is another level of cool – round rather than square, it feels a little like an oversized coin that you can flip through your fingers. I actually felt myself become cooler doing a little finger-flip move and slipping the thing into my bag. I may have winked. I probably looked like a madwoman, but I felt really cool. And then we get to the myriad of ways one can play on the word ONE and the punny imagination goes into overdrive. They’ve got something like a hundred designs, each a pun with a matching graphic. Some are meaningful, some crude, some nerdy, some cute and all look great. I actually want to get the whole bloody lot of them. Rather than the surreptitious slip-it-in-your-pocket-and-sidle-off, I can imagine anyone rooting around magpie-like in a bowl of the things looking for the coolest one for tonight. That’s saying a lot, in my book.

So the design is great, contemporary and certainly seems to be doing the trick on me; after all, I’m basically giving them a bunch of free and unsolicited advertising here. What the hell, they deserve it. They pair the slick design with a great ethos, a fun facebook page and a website that you actually want to visit. They have a yearly design competition for new packaging (canny marketing right there), a bunch of local musos who promote the brand, non-preachy info on HIV and sexual health, local sexual health and education programmes, and they donate part of their profits to HIV/ AIDS programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa.

It really is a win-win situation in every way. They make condoms cool which makes me want to buy and promote their product. Win for them, they get more profit; win for me and mine, I don’t get pregnant or HIV. Even the donating-to-Africa thing, for once, doesn’t make me roll my eyes. First win is that if it makes some kid in Boston more likely to glove up and feel good about it, it’s done a good thing. Second win is that condom companies are exactly the organisations we want to have a finger in the AIDS-prevention pie in Africa. No unfortunately ineffective “abstinence is the only way” malarkey for them but the far more pragmatic aim of trying to make condoms something people actually want to use. No avoiding this or that population group for ideological reasons – after all, you make more money if you sell to everybody. You make more condom-users too and that’s exactly what we need.

Of course there’s stigma and all of that, but here’s a company with a particular mission to make it cool to use condoms. Because it’s good for business, and if there’s one thing I can say with certainty it’s that if there’s a profit in it a company will find a way to do it. I know there’s still going to be some silly little git who bleats that it just doesn’t feel the same, but what if he wants to pick up the packet just because he likes the design? And then, well, it’s in his wallet. One step closer to where it’s supposed to be.

And yeah, it would be even better if they were free, except that it wouldn't. If they were free, there’d be no incentive to keep the design fresh, to keep the punters interested, to get me to want to use a condom. And yes, they should have dental dams and femidoms in awesome packages too. They really should, but I’m willing to forgive them.

I’ve been utterly pulled in by advertising and clever design. I’ve had the wool pulled over my eyes. Tomorrow, I’m going to go buy a bunch of these beautiful banana bonnets and for once be pretty excited about what’s usually a mundane chore of the “honey pick up some bog-roll on your way home” variety. I may even buy a few as gifts for my friends, some silly sexy souvenirs.

I’m okay with the wool being pulled over my eyes - or the latex over my little bishop - just this ONE time.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


So this is entirely silly, quite sentimental and disgustingly trite but I have nine days left in the States, I am soon to return to South Africa (which I miss like the blazes) and, like probably every homesick Saffer before me, I really, deeply and truly want a good braai. So I wrote a poem. As you do. Right?

With apologies to every real poet (ever) and all the language teachers I know ... Please try not to make gagging noises. Snorting beer out your nose is acceptable.

Ode on a Jozi braai

I sing tonight for that most sweet of meals,

to sate the yearning of my Saffer tongue

and calm the beating of this heart that feels

adrift in foreign lands so farly flung.

Oh give to me the scent of charring meat

and quench my thirst with ice-cold Zamalek!

With every cell my displaced soul does cry

for egte kos to eat.

It may be callous but, oh, what the heck:

my life would be complete had I a braai!

I long to phuza with my splendid friends

and watch the hot sun dip below the smog

as fire the burnt off’ring heaven-wards sends.

For heaven is wors cooked on flaming log

and strange salads that no-one ever eats.

Perhaps a slender branch to which I cling:

this masticating of my homesick jaw;

but in the country for which my heart beats

it’s just another thing

that makes me say today Mzansi fo’sho!

[There were going to be more stanzas, including a line about the dulcet sounds of police sirens, but I decided to spare you the pain and get back to the real work I'm supposed to be doing.]

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


I am reaching the final stages of my project, developing workshop pieces about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and watching, over and over again, footage from the TRC.

It is heartbreaking.

It is also heartbuilding.

Over and over again I listen to the cry of Nomonde Calata.

Over and over again I hear the phrases "Craddock 4", "Gugulethu 7."

Over and over again I hear the name Amy Biehl.

How do I explain the resonance these sounds have for me? Do I even wish, do I even need, to explain? Perhaps some resonances are best left open and unexplained. Perhaps some things can be felt but not expressed. I suffer no romantic illusions about the TRC and I am full of romantic illusions. Perhaps that is what catharsis is, perhaps that is what empathy is - a set of impressions, pictures and sounds that are stronger and more durable than syllogisms, premises and conclusions.

And what is this connection to Amy Biehl that is newly developed in me? A fellow Fulbrighter, a white woman, an uncompromising, hard-headed academic full of empathy and passion. More and more her name resonates within me, her story resonates within me. It is become a bell forever tolling, a model to work towards, a story to repeat. Over and over.

My heart is full, my mind is full, my eyes are full: with pain, with joy, with ideas, with goals, with tears, with respect, with admiration, with wonder, with the loss of mothers and the giving up of ego. Mongeni, Linda, Amy ... these people who will populate my dreams, and my work, and my future.

Over and over again my heart breaks for the loss that all these people suffered.

Over and over again my heart is rebuilt through the empathy these people built and the work they undertake.

Over and over.

A story, a name, a heart, a bell, a cry, a tear, a mind, a phrase, an impression, a refrain.

Over and over.

Friday, November 11, 2011


I am currently attending a conference on Human Rights in the Arts, Literature and Social Sciences hosted by Central Michigan University. My brain is fizzing with reactions to the panels I’ve attended today – some of that is positive, inspired fizz and some is enraged fizz. I am going to restrain myself for the moment – for fear of aimless ranting – to writing about the former.

Dr Modhumita Roy of Tufts University presented a fascinating paper discussing truth, the TRC and reconciliation through the lens of Gillian Slovo’s Every Secret Thing. Particularly insightful was her analysis about how the telling and narrative of the TRC shaped the often confessional nature of South African literature post-TRC. She also sketched some of the difficulties around the idea of truth and how it was approached in the TRC and how this approach differed from Slovo’s relationship to notions of truth. Brilliant as the paper was (especially from the point of view of literary criticism) it also, I feel, lacked nuance in its appraisal of the TRC. This is, of course understandable as Dr Roy’s aim is more to situate Slovo’s narrative within context rather than to provide an assessment of the TRC.

Still, it got me thinking. It’s really easy to criticise the TRC. There is really good, rigorous stuff out there doing just that. Yet, so many of these criticisms still include the caveat: but it stopped a bloodbath (or some similar claim). So what we essentially do (and I am guilty of this myself) is recognise that it sort-of worked but spend our time showing what the shortcomings were. We spend far less time looking at IF it really ‘worked ‘ in the sense of averting disaster or if that disaster was a fear that would not have occurred regardless of the TRC. Perhaps more importantly, we spend little time analysing HOW and WHY it worked (and here I’m assuming it did). I have begun to think that this is where the real difficult, interesting scholarship should be coming from with regards the TRC. The criticism is there, it is necessary, it is important. We now need to flesh out the other half of the story with some rigour.

That needs to go into my metaphorical “things I will research at some future point” backpack.

For now, I’m going to focus on my phantom curriculum, try to avoid the Michigan cold, and anticipate more fizzing tomorrow.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


So I decided to try my hand at a bit of fiction. It's pretty rough, but here goes ...


Dear Love,

I have just boarded. Strapped in. Waiting. I’m trying not to think about how far I am going or if I will be back. These uncertainties shiver me. It is strange to be so alone suddenly. Somewhat restful, but very strange. I feel my thoughts begin to wander, my heart seems to be pumping more furiously than usual, my hands gripping the rests. I’m trying not to think about how far I am going. It’s funny how little I believe that this is happening. I’m trying not to wonder if I will be back. To wander. To wander is my task. Oh, love, I miss you here.

Dear Love,

The initial flight tasks are completed, all is well. I must go to sleep now. I will be further from you when I eventually awake, far further. I will be so much closer to my destination. Close and far together, a somehow poetic antithesis. I must go to sleep now. I know I will not dream, but if I did I would dream of you, oh love.

Dear Love,

Awake. Confused. How long have I slept? Feels eternity. Feel light, soft, floating. Zero. Stiff. Light. Gravity has left me floating. Floating. Feels like infinity. Out of the window, infinity. Strange sounds. Beeps and blips saying all is well. All is well. Much to do. Too heavy; too light. How long have I slept?

Dear Love,

I am on the approach. There’s a new nausea in my throat that has little to do with movement. I have wandered far, wandered wide. I wonder what you are doing? Are you thinking of me? Do you even know where I am? I have come so far. So very, very far away. The mind flips at such distance. I slept so long even I cannot comprehend the immensity. Oh, love, I miss you here. You would hold my hand and tell me there was no need to worry. You would tell me the landing will be soft, safe, that the very air would not buck at my presence in this strange land. You would remind me of the birth of the world, the wonder of new grass, new air, new land. You would hold me. I have wandered far, but you whisper in my ear. I approach.

Dear Lover,

The landing was soft, safe. The air did not buck at my presence, though I wonder if it should have. The ground is soft, there is grass. The air is not so different from the air you must be breathing. The light is strange, but not as strange as I had thought. I feel very small in this endless land. As my feet touched this new ground, I felt the weight of air, of time, the gasp of fear. You would drink these vistas in. You would gasp with me, explore the strange. I have many things to do, so very far from home, so very far from you. Oh, lover, how I miss your arms.

Dear Lover,

How long has it been? The days are different here, the nights harder. There are things I never expected, the air is beginning to hurt my chest. Perhaps it is the breaking of a fragile heart, the closing of an alien lung. I’m losing track, wandering further and further. I feel the distance, the uncrossable space, today more than ever. Oh, lover, where are you? Where are you to whisper that all will be well? A soft landing does not imply a soft stay. I think the air has begun to buck at my presence.

Oh, You,

I have started to forget the contours of your neck. Your voice has faded utterly. I have not spoken aloud since I have been here. I do not even know whether the air here would let me. I am too afraid to try. How long has it been? What are these strange nights? The sky is so alien. I wonder if one of the lights is you, or if we even see the same lights in the sky? The sky is so alien. My tasks progress, but I am beginning to question the wisdom of sending me alone. I understand the theory, it was the best possible solution. But was it wise?

Oh, You,

Such beauty today! Such awe! I could forget the pain in my chest for a while. I think I may have gasped aloud. That gasp hurt my throat. There are things here you would not imagine, things I cannot describe. They fit so well, such a perfect ecosystem. It is so clear that I am the alien here. Oh, you. If you were here we would drink in all this awe, take over this wild land. We would build here, and grow here and make here. We would break here, and destroy here, and kill here. All that beauty – I wonder what we would do to it. I have wandered so far, and I think it may be best to keep this beauty far.

Dear Stranger,

How long has it been now? I can no longer reckon time here, in this strange land. I know I am the stranger here. I am too strange. The air has begun to push me out. I am getting weaker but my imagination stronger. I have completed my assigned tasks. The soil is caught, the air captured, the life preserved in tiny jars. Why was I left so alone? Today I packed the final samples, wrapped and swaddled them like the most precious of children. Each drop of liquid, each grain of soil, each molecule of air is in its place. Packed and ready. As I stare at the ship that will bring me back, at the world hidden in its guts, I shiver. The air here does not want me, does not want us. We have ripped the guts out of each other, we have grown so close; me and this strange land intertwined, connected by blood and flesh and guts and spit. One more night. One more strange sky, and I shall leave it all behind, bring this strange land’s guts and blood and sweat and spit back with me.

Dear Stranger,

Dawn. The night is over. I should board, should start the engine. Should begin the endless journey back. I should leave this strange and awful land and come back. I know I am the stranger here, I know I am alien beyond reckoning, i know I should come home. I shall board, I shall sleep, I shall wake confused, I shall land to cheers, I shall fall into the arms of a stranger, I shall spill the guts of a far and alien land, I shall lay that land open. I shall help to dissect it, to excise it, to remove the mystery and the awe. I shall make the land safe and homely, I shall set the plough to it. I shall kill, and break, and destroy it. Oh, Stranger, what would you do? Would you board, start, journey? Would you stay, and wander further, allowing the air to crush your lungs and steal your heart? Would you leave those back home to wonder? Oh, Stranger, what should I do?

Friday, October 7, 2011


The prayer service on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, begins with a ‘pneuma’ or a soul-breath at the start of the recitation of Kol Nidre. It is indeed a breath-taking experience.

Kol Nidre is at base nothing more than a formulaic legal declaration which says that all vows between people and God are from this night until the next Yom Kippur, null and void. Vows between people remain intact. It contains no poetic language, no professions of faith. Despite this, it is one of the most stirring and emotional parts of the Yom Kippur service. Through almost a millenium of recitation it has taken on meaning far beyond its mere formula. It has become an opening of gates, an entrance into a space of quiet and calm.

Although I am atheist, Kol Nidre is one religious ritual that I partake in every year. I must hear the chant, the soul-breath, I must allow it to open a gate in my mind to reflection, meditation, thought. In the same way as a dry formula can take on an intense and exquisite meaning, so too can seemingly empty rituals become important – and often for reasons which have little to do with the rituals themselves. The prayers themselves may not stir me, I do not give obeisance to any god, but the Kol Nidre chant always makes me reflect on vows, on love and loss, and on restitution.

Kol Nidre is an absolution of vows between a person and God, and very importantly not an absolution of vows between one person and another. It is clearly stated in various learned commentaries that such intra-personal vows cannot be absolved until restitution is made between the individuals concerned. Immersed as I am at the moment in peace education, this need for restitution strikes a particular chord with me. So much of what I am doing here questions the idea of absolution, of amnesty and of how to gain reconciliation. I think that the need for restitution is vital if true and lasting reconciliation is to take place. Restitution can take myriad forms and I am deeply inspired at the moment by the efforts of the National Homecomers’ Academy to make restitution. The Homecomers are people returning from often very long stretches in prison who have decided that their incarceration was not true restitution. In an effort to rebuild their own sense of purpose and worth, they in turn help to build and repair the communities they once hurt. Through various programmes they have dedicated the rest of their lives to ensuring that their communities become whole, strong, and safe. I feel deeply privileged to have met some of these wonderful people who are striving for true goodness. They also display what in Judaism is called chesed (loving kindness) and in Christian traditions agape. This is a love which is based on kindness, on empathy, on unconditional acceptance. It is, I believe, an essential part of reconciliation. That people who have had such hard, breaking experiences can develop this chesed gives me such hope. I want to thank them. I thank you all for the chesed you displayed towards me and the wonderful work you are doing to help fix a broken world.

I take another soul-breath and turn my thoughts now to love and loss. I am privileged to have known and continue to know so many forms of love. Tonight, though, it is not the joyous love I think about, but love as it ties in to loss. I think about my father every day and most of those memories are delightful and funny. I have so much to thank my father for. On Kol Nidre night, I cry for the loss of my father. There are no words that can properly express the hole that has been left in the universe with his passing.

In pain there is also hope, out of harm can come love, out of ritual can come meaning. What a wonderful world we live in.

Monday, September 19, 2011


As part of the one course I am doing at UMD - Embracing Diversity in Classroom Communities with the wonderful Prof Saroja Ringo - we were asked to sketch a diversity dilemma which we face. I have posted it below. Some of you might find it horribly simplistic (there was a strict word limit and it IS after all just a sketch) and I will be developing the ideas more thoroughly as the course progresses.

Here goes:

My capstone project for the Fulbright Distinguished Teachers’ Programme is a series of lessons/ workshop components which draw on experiences within and around the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The object of these lessons is to encourage participants to embrace and implement non-violent conflict management strategies in their daily lives. An example of a lesson would be to introduce participants to a specific set of stories from the TRC – for example the various reactions to the Guguletu 7 hearings – through various primary and secondary sources and use these stories to explore conflict resolution options available to the people involved. Ideally this would be done in a variety of ways, including structured exercises, role-plays and discussion.

The dilemma lies in how to balance the need to take differing points of view seriously with my goal of advocating non-violence. I intend to implement these workshops in a variety of contexts, both in the USA and South Africa with participants with cultural capital and paradigms which will very likely differ from my own. My dilemma thus lies at the heart of my project: on the one hand my workshops will only be effective if participants accept that non-violence and reconciliation are the best option; on the other hand if I deny conflicting worldviews I fail to reconcile within the workshop itself. The essential question is how do I approach and embrace diversity in the workshops without becoming morally relativist?

Having completed my Honours research paper on the accommodation and struggle between Western and Indigenous knowledge systems, I have become very aware that differing opinions are no surface matter. Knowledge systems inform the very bedrock of being, how a person views, interacts with and judges the world. Certain knowledge systems (or even certain individuals’ personal ethics) may very well judge retributive justice to be more ethically sound than restorative approaches. In this case my goal would be to change this view, to promote reconciliation and to prioritise restorative approaches. I do not for a moment believe that knowledge systems and beliefs are static objects; I understand the protean nature of individuals and of cultures as a whole. However, imposing a non-violent paradigm seems paradoxically inequitable and violent.

At the same time, I reject cultural relativism. The idea that all ethics and beliefs are entirely relative to culture and must all be accepted fails on a number of grounds. Sketched simply these include the circular basis of the relativist argument which undermines itself; the idea that certain things are essentially morally reprehensible regardless of culture and the belief that there are ethical essentials, supportable by valid, sound logic which must thus be followed. If I were to accept cultural relativism it would present me with a second dilemma – I would have to accept that certain conflicts (where ethics or paradigms are opposed) cannot be resolved through negotiation and reconciliation, if at all.

Does rejecting relativism mean I fail to acknowledge and embrace diversity? Can my project work if my desired outcome is a specific view of conflict management? I find myself upon the horns of a pedagogical dilemma.