Thursday, June 18, 2009

100th post: An African memoir


Brought out of my drowsy sleep during the long flight from Singapore to Johannesburg by muffled sounds of footsteps on carpet. The plane’s lights came on again prompting the crew to head for the meal storage section and begin preparing breakfast for passengers. Both eyes were still having some difficulty adjusting to the bright lights. Tried looking out of the window through which the soft morning sunlight was starting to pour in. And there it was, the vast African landscape below me. Nothing but miles and miles of flat and grassy land all the way up to the horizon. Wondered how this immense landscape influenced the African people’s psyche. For someone who came from an archipelago, where only a few hours of travel to any direction would take you to the land’s edge, this realization of the African continent’s breadth is simply an amazing experience. Really mind-expanding and disconcerting at the same time.

A few hours later, our group was driving through a s
mall section of this landscape, somewhere in Johannesburg. I was sitting beside this American lady who was the big boss for our project with the Bank. My unconscious mind, hoping to start a conversation, was busy trying to retrieve some compromising bit of information from Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine. Something about how the Bank had helped impose the Milton Friedman brand of unhindered market capitalism to developing countries through its structural adjustment programs and created havoc in these countries’ economies. My conscious mind was indifferent to these machinations of its naughty counterpart and was still absorbing the South African landscape. There were just brown grass, and scraggly bush, and all these stunted savanna trees everywhere. In some areas, the blackish remains of extensive bush fires were still evident. And, as if echoing my heretical meditations, there were the large public housing areas and sprawling communities of informal settlers.

I’m not sure if my seat mate recognized those makeshift cube-like dwellings of the poor black folks made from scrap aluminum sheets. Perhaps the chilly air of the South African morning has created in her the anticipation for hot coffee and warm beds at the hotel. In the end though, she would still beat me to the small talk with this curt noncommittal question about how I was taking in South Africa so far and whether it was my first time to be in Johannesburg. I gave affirmative answers, trying hard to sound genuinely excited and interested in our exchange. Nothing more would follow. Our van was soon within the premises of this rustic hotel-cum-country estate which would be our residence for the next two weeks or so. After depositing my luggage and backpack in the room and putting on additional layers of clothing, I was out in the nearby fields, taking some pictures of the buildings and the trees. My unprotected hands were freezing in the cold spring air and I would soon be having trouble pressing the shutter of my phone’s camera.

But a certain mystery in the landscape egged me on.

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