biltong101

A Polish expat in South Africa. A humurous blog. Haha.

Gender Equality and Women’s Rights in South Africa

women rightsOn Wednesday South Africa celebrated National Women’s Day. Everyone is happy to have a day off and I’m not sure whether many people remember that the day commemorates the women’s march of 1956 when plus/minus 20 thousand women protested against a new law of the apartheid era, requiring people defined as “black” to carry internal passes with them. I’m also not convinced that the day off should focus on sending women wishes. It’d be of much more use if we use it to raise awareness about gender (in)equality.

On the surface everything looks great in South Africa. The country has a rather progressive legislation. The Employment Equity Act, No 55 of 1998 is meant to make sure that workplace is free of discrimination. Women are politically active and after the 2014 elections took around 40% of political positions (Cabinet Posts, Deputy Ministers positions and Parliament seats). There are special reproductive clinics in the country where people can get access to free contraception. Abortions are also free in government clinics and hospitals for the first three months of pregnancy. The last two points seem particularly progressive to me as in Poland reproductive rights of women are not respected in a similar way. If you’d like to read more on the topic you can read my post on the issue on my other blog.

The framework looks good, but of course this doesn’t mean that things are that great in reality. The biggest hindrance in women fully enjoying their legal rights is poverty. Crime is high particularly in informal settlements and rape in South Africa has one of the highest rates in the world. The statistics are absolutely terrifying, with the estimation that 40% of South African women will be raped in their lifetime. Some forms of rape are: gang rape, corrective rape (inflicted on lesbians to “teach them out” of their homosexuality”) and virgin cleansing rape (rape inflicted on virgins to cure oneself from HIV/AIDS). The transmission of STD’s particularly HIV is another issue related to sexual violence in the country. It’s not uncommon for the rapist to be someone that the victim knows. Sexual crimes are reported more and more often but in rural areas the lack of accessibility to services is one of the reasons why the crimes don’t get reported. Unfortunately, the understanding of what consensual sex is, doesn’t help the situation. According to Medical Research Council  forms of coercion and sexual harassment are considered by many to be just a part of male behavior.

Domestic violence, including but not limited to sexual violence, is also a big problem in South Africa. It was considered a private matter up to 1990s so the movement to effectively prevent it is very new. Here, the attitude of women is as much of a problem as the attitude of men. Many representatives of both sexes hold views that women should obey their husbands. 59% of women reported to have experienced some form of domestic violence. Murder victims are very often victims of domestic violence. Among the “big” domestic violence cases one should mention Oscar Pistorous who murdered his girlfriend most probably because of the fight their had. He was sentenced to 6 years of prison. What sort of message do you think such a lenient verdict sends?

So far I’ve focused on statistics but what have I seen in the last years of living in South Africa? A lot of conservatism. For instance, a hen party in Afrikaans is called “kombuistee” which means a “kitchen tea”. I pointed out to the person who told me that, that it seemed a bit sexist and they (a man) replied “Oh but women LOVE their little kitchen parties! They’re also so happy when they get their kitchen utensils as presents when they get married!”. And indeed a lot of Afrikaans women I’ve met seem to be programmed to believe that their only mission in life is to get married and reproduce. Many women are “kept” as because of their good financial situation they have a bunch of people helping with household chores and children, while the ladies can enjoy their yoga and Pilates. Of course, I’ve met Afrikaans women, who aspire to have both a family life and a career but the do seem to be in minority. I personally once made an Afrikaans man boil with anger as I dared to drink a beer straight from a bottle and “a lady should not do that!”. I rejected the offer of him bringing me a glass and the man just kept mumbling that I should not be doing that. I’m assuming this was because of the phallic associations one may have with a bottle? There’s also a strong belief that a man should always pay for a lady.

Women in general in South Africa are still valued by whether they have a partner or not, they also shouldn’t have too many as “you don’t want to get a reputation”. “Do you have a boyfriend” was a question I was asked by male members of my friends families, who couldn’t be interested in my relationship status for reasons such as learning whether I’m available. When I was single the answer “no” was often followed by a “Why?”. Catcalling is a popular pastime and I was verbally abused numerous times for ignoring such comments. I was also once told by a coworker (not South African) that I should stop wearing short skirts if I don’t want people to behave that way, which just shows that putting the blame on the victim mentality is a worldwide thing.

There are indeed many women in management and women are professionally active in South Africa. There’s a noticeable gap in gender in tech and science, though. Also, inappropriate behaviors from male workers are usually ignored or at least I’ve never heard anyone being lectured for making a sexual comment either. For instance such an exchange took place in one of my workplaces:

A male colleague was telling us about his country another colleague asked him what are the three best things about it. He said: women, food and beaches. Hearing the latter, the person who asked him the question said: You’ve already said that! Some people chuckled, some stayed silent but no one commented on the joke in any way, making the person know that such behaviors are inappropriate. Of course, even the initial mention of women as something to be “recommended” in a country is questionable…

The situation of women in South Africa isn’t great, even though the country has a progressive legal framework. There’s a lot to do to improve the situation. As much as it’s important to also fight inappropriateness in workplace, the most important thing to focus on is to fight sexual and domestic violence against women and children.

 

I’ve used the following sources when writing this post:

https://www.one.org/africa/policy/status-of-women-and-girls-in-south-africa/

http://www.wpaquatics.org/2016/08/09/history-national-womens-day-9th-august/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domestic_violence_in_South_Africa

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_violence_in_South_Africa

 

6 Years in South Africa – Reflections of an Immigrant

cape-townIt’s been six years since I arrived in South Africa. It seems like a long time and with all the adventures I’ve had along the way, it feels even longer. I don’t regret coming here but I certainly had no idea what I was getting myself into when I left my home country. Bear with me in this summary of my reflections after 6 years abroad.

I’ll start with the positive. South Africa is undeniably beautiful. I’ve been accused before of being on permanent vacation because of pictures from my weekend escapades I post on social media. Cape Town itself is scenic and between mountains and the ocean, the inhabitants are extremely spoilt with the wonders of nature. For those lucky enough to be living in the Atlantic Seaboard area a walk or a run on the promenade is just a part of a daily routine. The sounds and the looks of the ocean have a calming quality and so does the nearby park. Even when normalized, such views never cease to please. The beauty of Cape Town encourages healthy and fit lifestyle but don’t even try to get into competition with the fittest. You think it’s impressive because you go on a hike at 8 o’clock on a Saturday? On your way up you’ll meet plenty of people on their way down, who’ve already finished their second peak that day. Lion’s Head is one of the most popular trails and it gets so crowded every month during the full moon hike that people need to queue in order to continue their journey. There are plenty of other ways to spend time outdoors and appreciate the city you live in. Apart from active outdoors pastimes Cape Town offers a generous choice of markets. In case of bad weather there are numerous pubs, clubs and restaurans to go to. Last but not least, there’s sushi everywhere!!! If you’re not a fan (then we won’t be friends, but) you can go to a variety of other food places. There’s always something happening here!

The lifestyle is probably one of the biggest perks of living in Cape Town. I earn more than I would in Poland but life (apart from the rent) is cheaper. It’s nice to be able to go out without depriving myself of an occasional treat. It is still quite a new thing for me, though. My beginnings here weren’t that easy and I still have a slight aversion towards baked beans in tomato sauce! In six years I’ve obviously made some friends here, even though Cape Town isn’t the easiest place to make lasting connections. More importantly, I met my husband and that changed my life a lot, for the better. At the same time, life isn’t just unicorns and roses.

I’m not particularly attached to Poland but even I occasionally suffer from nostalgia. I miss the language, books, people, places, food… I don’t visit the country often but when I do I have mixed feelings about it. South Africa feels more like home to me than Poland. People can make things difficult, though. They keep reminding you that you’re not from here. They comment on your accent and constantly ask you where you come from. It’s not only during social events, it’s on an Uber, in a shop, at a doctor’s office… Sometimes you can tell it’s just curiosity, other times it’s prying or micro-aggression. As a foreigner you also deal with a whole bunch of issues that have to do with immigration. The lengthy visa processes are exhausting for everyone. Spouses are on the top of the food chain, but their lives still can be seriously hindered by immigration matters. The inefficiency of the public sector can be extremely frustrating, more so for foreigners as they deal with it often. The obsession with formalities infiltrated the private sector and the magic object called a proof of residency is needed for every formal arrangement. They want a proof of everything here: of where you live, of your bank details, of the fact that you actually live with your husband, of the fact that you do what it says on your visa… Silly me with my (now fading) European inclinations of just believing what people tell you!

My career has probably been my biggest source of frustration during my life here. People are prejudiced against foreigners from non-English speaking countries. Many holders of undergraduate and graduate degrees do entry level jobs. It doesn’t really help that the recognition of my degree has been certified by the local authority. A degree from the best (I hope still?) university in Poland means as much to many employers as if I graduated from a college in a village of 50 people. Employers may be prejudices against me but I’m still much better off than any immigrants from African countries. It’s not uncommon to meet an extremely knowledgable Master’s Degree holder from Zimbabwe who’s been working as a waiter since he moved to South Africa. Of course, such problems mostly apply to us, the wanky humanities types. Those with more technical qualifications and similar struggle much less. If only I hadn’t had this ridiculous ideas about “just studying what interests me” when I was 18… On the other hand, I could have become a lawyer as my parents wanted me to and then I could truly just wipe my ass with my degree in South Africa…Anyway, I’m starting my own business now and hoping for a better future. For what’s left for us humans than to keep trying?

Last but not least, there are of course the local problems here to deal with. Crime is high, but I’ve been lucky so far not to be touched by it directly. Let’s not forget about the poverty that’s very much present in daily life. So many South African live in horrible conditions… You can help some people directly and donate to charities but at the end of the day it’s just a drop in the ocean of needs. As a lefty foreigner you may get upset with the fact that race and class are still so strongly connected here. Racial divisions are visible 20 years after the apartheid ended and we can’t talk about a unified society.  Now and then there are cases of some blatant racism on social media and then the society does its finger pointing, but it just hides South Africa’s actual problem with race. The biggest issue is the normalized and internalized racism of:

The white South African who speaks s l o w l y and LOUDLY to representatives of other races. This one white acquaintance of mine who, when I was visiting her, told me that if I didn’t like what I was eating I could give it to her maid to finish. The black guy who told me he doesn’t like Indian people because there’s just “something funny” about them. The colored girl who refused to go to a certain place for a bachelorette party because it was “too black”. This other white woman who always speaks of people of races other than white with and adjective: this black woman, that colored boy. The guy who chased me through the whole train station shouting at me that my skin is white and I don’t belong in Africa… I could go on and on with the examples accumulated in 6 years but I guess you get the idea. It still seems to be us and them for most South Africans and the divisions are mostly based on race. Who am I to judge, anyway? I’m just an observer who’s not from here.

I don’t regret moving here but if I could write a letter to the 18 year old me, who already knew she wanted to leave Poland, I’d ask her to be more pragmatic with her choice of studies. Let’s be honest: most of us end up with boring jobs, some of us just earn more. I’d also encourage her to maybe research the immigration policy of a country she’s planning to choose for her home. Maybe somewhere deep down I just like a challenge and that’s why things worked out the way they did for me. Perhaps a lot of feelings I have would be the same if I moved to a different country. Maybe we do something horrible uprooting ourselves by leaving the country we were born in? Maybe it’s normal to always have a sense of longing because of it? I don’t know the answers but I’d like to hear about your experiences with immigration in the comments! Was it tough for you to adapt? Is life better where you are at the moment?

 

So Are You a Citizen Now? – What Does It Actually Mean When a Foreigner Marries a South African

south-africaSince I got married people have been saying weird things to me like: “So, you’re a citizen now, right?” or “At least they can’t kick you out now!” (whatever the f**k that means). I can’t help but to think that there is a giant misconception about the rights of foreigners married to South Africans. South Africa is quite protective of its citizens so handing out citizenships or even permanent residencies to anyone who married a South African isn’t something that would be in alignment with the country’s policy. Any foreigner, including a spouse, can also get deported or banned.

When you marry a South African you have four legal visa options. You can just be an accompanying spouse and not be allowed to work, you can get the spousal visa with a condition to work for a specific company (you need a contract to apply for it), to study or to have your own business. Every time your circumstances change you need to apply for a new visa. Even though such an alteration is referred to as a “change of conditions”, you need to resubmit all the documents every time. They include among others, police clearances from all the countries you’ve lived for over a year after the age of 18, medical report and a radiological report stating you don’t have TB. It takes around 2 months to compile the documents. The South African police clearance is usually the longest wait, but they are getting better. For instance last time I only waited a week as opposed to eight weeks for my application before that. Once the visa application is submitted, an applicant has to wait 3-4 months to have it processed. This may seem long but it’s nothing in comparison to how long people used to wait.

The whole process takes quite a bit of time which as you imagine can be frustrating. Of course it disadvantages spouses on the labour market as very few employees want to wait for so long. Even if they do, the applicants often deal with missed income. If they quit their old job and get a new one, they will have to wait quite a bit for their next payslip. This leads me to my next point which is the cost of the whole process. Just to organize the documents for the application is pricey. Between medical reports, Xrays, police clearances, courier services and translations, you can easily spend a few grand. Technically spouses are exempt from paying for the visa itself but since obligatory visa facilitation centers were introduced we have been paying R1500 for their service. There’s also a question of submitting your application with or without an immigration agency. Such private companies are there to make sure that you’re submitting everything that’s necessary. Even though, in theory, all the requirements are listed on the VFS website, in practice rejections happen much more often to the applicants submitting on their own. The cost of such help is around 10 thousand rand. This is just an option but even if you only do the necessary, it’s a costly business not everyone can afford. What’s more, to get a visa the family has to meet the requirement of the monthly income of R8500 per person. A lot of people in South Africa live for way less than that. I guess the suggestion of this discriminatory rule is not to fall in love with a foreigner if you don’t have money… One should not be surprised that people left without a choice, end up staying in the country without visas.

Once you receive a spousal visa life isn’t just unicorns and roses either. As it is referred to as a visitor’s visa numerous institutions will question your rights to get things sorted. I’ve had problems with banks, telecommunications service providers and the traffic department. The thinking behind it is: why does a visitor need things such as a bank account, driver’s license or a phone contract? You live, you learn and sooner or later one has these things sorted somehow but I don’t see why life of a spouse who has the legal right to be with their better half, should be so difficult and nerve-racking. Some service providers are better than others but they still obsess about the validity of your visa, even though you can renew it. You’re also not allowed to apply for a new one more than 6 months before the expiry date, so things can be a bit tough for you, if you happen to need a new phone contract in that time period.

Last but not least, let me discuss two things I’ve heard repeatedly:

  • So are you a citizen now?
  • No, one has to be married to a South African for 5 years to be able to apply for permanent residency (PR). The application for PR can take up to 24 months. After one receives a PR, he or she needs to remain a permanent citizen for 10 years in order to be able to apply for a citizenship. After the application is submitted there’s a similar waiting period as in the case of permanent residency. This means I may potentially become a citizen in more or less 5 + 2 + 10 + 2 – 1 (that’s how long we’ve been married!) = 18 years!
  • At least they can’t kick you out now!
  • Yes, they can. Violation of terms stipulated on the permit or a visa overstay are grounds for deportation. The most common case is a spouse who applies for a visa before her visa expires but doesn’t receive a new one in time. It’s okay for her to stay in the country but not to travel as officially she’s an overstayer. If she travels, she will be banned from returning to the country for 1 year (an overstay of less than 30 days) or 5 years (an overstay of more than 30 days). Now, of course you can fight the ban and have it overturned if the grounds were unjust. At the same time, it costs you, yet again, a lot of money and stress.

I hope that some of you will find this article helpful and informative and I’m for one very happy that from now on I’ll have a link to give to people, instead of starting to rage.

Dear Reader, a spouse or not, you’re more than welcome to pour your frustrations about the South African immigration policies in the comments section! Or maybe you have bad experiences from a different country?

Accent Shaming

english

This is an issue which I take rather personally and translating a Polish idiomatic expression “a knife opens in my pocket” every time I have to deal with. First I’ll speak about my personal experience of living with an accent (even sounds like a disease, doesn’t it?) and then I’ll discuss what certain prejudices mean for South Africans for whom English isn’t their first language.

The first issue is the arrogance. English speakers accept a whole variety of English speaking native accents (American, Australian, British, South African etc) as acceptable. Accent mostly has to do with where someone was born and yet for many there’s a strong division between what’s hot and what’s not. When you don’t sound like a native speaker you have to deal with patronizing comments and micro aggressions. “You have an accent” is the most ridiculous statement I’ve ever heard. Everyone has a fucking accent! Just say it straight, you arrogant buffoon, that my accent does not agree with what you consider to be “proper”. “You have an accent” is meant to be negative and read as “I can hear by the way you speak you’re not from here”. Guess what? I’m not! Sure some people put effort into sounding more like a native speaker and it’s their choice. Back in the days I also thought it was something one should do. Yet, after years of living in a foreign country I did get quite possessive over the way I speak. It doesn’t mean I’m making a conscious effort of not sounding more South African, but I don’t see why I should make an effort to sound in such a way either. Some people, of course, don’t just point out that I have an accent (thanks everyone who does that, btw, I did not know that! I’m happy you’re making me SO much more self-aware every day. You guys are amazing XOXO). There are those who while commenting on it will additionally call it weird or funny just to point out my alleged inferiority. Last but not least, there are the patronizing “well meant” comments such as “Your accent is so cute”, “Your husband must LOVE your accent” and so on and so forth.

In my opinion as long as you’re understood, it’s not anyone’s business what sort of accent you have. Unfortunately, many people don’t seem to share this view (nor care about your potential identity issues). After all, there’s a “proper” way of speaking and it’s not yours. You can’t do anything about not being born in certain places, but you could become the acceptable foreigner by loosing your accent. Even with my preference for keeping it, I just feel sometimes like perhaps I should give up and just change it so that I don’t have to reply to a question “Where do you come from?” every time I meet someone new. Or perhaps next time I’ll simply reply to this question with “From my mother’s vagina, how about you?”. Jokes aside (it was a good one, right?), sometimes I do get self-conscious because of people being rude. For instance last weekend I went to a supposedly international event and a South African girl asked me what’s WRONG with me that I still don’t sound South African after the time I spent in the country (followed by don’t you want to sound normal and similar…). Perhaps it says more about her than about me, though. There’s no such thing as a South African accent. Representatives of numerous cultural groups speak the language differently.  Apart from the “proper” accent there are first language Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu and other languages speakers, many of whom have accents and have to deal with similar attitudes in their daily life. Occasionally their English isn’t great (after all they do have their own native languages), but in most cases it’s excellent. Nevertheless, if they occasionally do struggle to express themselves in English it is attributed to their intelligence. Perhaps if such judgy English speakers took their heads out of their own asses and used their ears, they’d realize that the differences in accents actually don’t hinder comprehension. To be honest I rarely struggle to understand South Africans but I did have trouble before with some Americans from the South and British people particularly from Nuhgfgclgrd (= Newcastle).

The expectation in South Africa (Western Cape?) is to speak English flawlessly even though the country has 11 official languages. Of course, it’s rather culturally insensitive and of course most people, who expect everyone to sound like them in English, don’t have the same expectations towards themselves. They’re happy being monolingual and taking pride in their accent. Perhaps if they learnt another language they would realize that a second language speaker should be praised for how well they’ve learnt the language on the top of mastering his or her own. Even if they did that, they wouldn’t understand the struggle of those who had difficult educational circumstances. Maybe rather than be judgmental about accentual imperfections of others, such individuals should ask themselves: How well do I speak Xhosa or Zulu I’ve learnt in my model C school in my perfect middle class circumstances? Ja, exactly, so who’s looking stupid now?

To conclude, having a “clear” accent for those who acquired not learnt it, isn’t an achievement. It’s just something you have, like legs. I’m glad if someone’s accent makes them proud but the truth is that anyone born in their position would sound the same. Becoming fluent in another language, on the other hand, is hard work. Dismissing such an effort is being a dick. Judging an accent as inferior is like saying that Queen is a worse band than The Doors because you’re more used to their music. Forgive me all the swearwords, I’m NOT a native speaker, you see, so my vocabulary is rather limited.

Visiting Homeland and Reversed Culture Shock

palacI’ve been living in South Africa for almost six years. During this time I only visited “home” twice. The first time was a three-month long visit after my first year which was extended due to a delay with the paperwork allowing me to come back to South Africa. I waited four years before I came back to Poland again.

Why do I visit so rarely? I guess longing for what I miss is weaker than the need to stay away from what I escaped. Most people who leave their home country for good, for reasons other than money, to some extent dislike where they come from. My decision about moving abroad was a mixture of personal and social reasons. I thought I’d be fine never coming back, but it was a form of escapism. I needed to go visit eventually. At the same time felt I needed enough security in Cape Town before I could go there. I had to know that the other world wouldn’t drag me in.

The right moment came when I got married. On a personal level I felt more secure, stable and tied to South Africa. On a superficial level I was glad I didn’t have to explain to people why I prefer to live on a different continent. In fact, I don’t think I’d ever have the guts to come back if not for my husband going with me and supporting me on the trip. Being with someone who understands the person you are gives you protection. Whatever they say about your life choices doesn’t matter, you’re not crazy, there’s someone else who believes in the same things that you do.

I associate Poland with the family, the issues and the past. Nevertheless, it’s also a country where I grew up and of which I have some fond memories strengthen by nostalgia. Unfortunately, it turned out that the motherland bread is so much tastier in our brains than in reality. All the food that we miss when abroad just isn’t as good as we remember it. On the top of it, both my husband and I got a very acute case of the culture shock in the form of gastric problems.

The landmarks I remembered stayed the same, but my favorite coffee shops and restaurants were gone. What stayed intact in my memory changed in reality and that was surprising too. I naively expected to find what I left behind forgetting that show must go on, whether we’re present to witness it or not. The same is true for people. I missed those I didn’t see in my last years in Poland just to realize upon meeting them again that they were reasons why we lost touch. Even the closest ones had a completely different life and I was just a tourist passing by. All of this is a part of the reversed cultural shock but there’s more to it.

After a few years I simply got used to the ways in which things are done in South Africa. It doesn’t mean that I love it all because regardless of where I live there’ll be things to complain about. At the same time Poland isn’t really familiar any more. I don’t think the cold and the snow were any easier for me to handle than for my husband. I didn’t know how to do things in Warsaw. What sorts of tickets are there to commute? How much do they cost? I also had outdated ideas about what’s hot and what’s not. Because of it all I had a feeling of being a stranger there. Perhaps it was partially because we used English and people would stare at us wherever it wasn’t common to see tourists. As surprising as hearing English may be to some, I was shocked by the whiteness of Poland and I don’t mean the snow. Almost everyone on the streets was Caucasian. After years in a multicultural and multilingual South Africa it was shocking. I didn’t feel at home, I didn’t feel I was on holiday… Everything just felt weird and alienating in a way that a holiday spot never could.

Of course, there were positives too. Hanging out with friends, seeing the family, visiting new places. Even looking at my old scary high school and knowing that I’m a BIG girl now (although I’m happy I didn’t bump into the Lucipher’s daughter, I mean my Polish teacher). Perhaps if I come visit next time sooner the feeling of alienation won’t be so pronounced. I don’t know. It was certainly a heavy and discombobulating experience.

Band-aid for a Broken Leg by Damien Brown

image“Band-aid for a Broken Leg. Being a Doctor with No Borders and Other Ways to Stay Single” is a memoire written by a South-African/Aussie doctor who worked for Doctors Without Borders (MSF). I bumped into this book and I thought it would be an interesting read. I wasn’t mistaken.

The book describes the experiences of a young doctor who decided to “make a difference”. His first position is in a post war Angolan town, Mavinga. The rural area in which he’s stationed is a challenging workplace. The hospital doesn’t have proper equipment and necessary medication. The local staff got trained very provisionally during the war but they lack formal education. Long hours and little sleep is challenging and so is the lack of chances to get laid. The main character didn’t learn Portuguese before he went to Angola and people don’t speak English around… Despite all these trouble the mission manages to help a lot of people with their emergencies but doesn’t bring a sustainable change. When MSF disappears so do the jobs and the situation gets back to its previous state. We follow the author to two more postings to Mozambique and Sudan about which I won’t say more as it may spoil your read.

The author is quite acutely aware of MSF’s shortcomings but he also sees that a saved life is a saved life regardless of whether the country’s condition improves too. His cynicism definitely improved the way I think of him which wasn’t so partial after I learnt that he accepted position in a former Portuguese colony without speaking the language. I don’t feel he’s an entirely likeable character and you do get a feeling that his idea to work with MSF is as much driven by his need to help as it is by his need to get away. You never learn from what, though. The book is a very good account of A doctor working in difficult conditions but as for it being a memoir it lacks certain sincerity. We’re just thrown into the author’s experience as an MSF doctor without learning much about himself. It’s definitely a big weakness of the book.

The biggest advantage of it is the description of cultures so foreign to the western one. It’s not only the financial constraints that make the aid business so difficult. It’s also the attitudes deriving from often patriarchal and driven by violence cultures. Husbands and fathers there are considered masters of women. The decision whether a doctor can or cannot operate on them and what he can do is entirely dependable on the man responsible for her. A “no” even if it kills the patient is a decision that a doctor must respect. In a similar way people fight to death over cattle and to settle clan disputes filling hospitals with evitable victims. Last but not least, the superstitions prevent many from going to hospitals at all or make them postpone the proper treatment till it’s too late for help. All this is a terrifying but also fascinating glimpse to a world views that are so different to ours they seem to come from another world. One can of course label them as ignorant or even stupid but does it help anyone at all to do so?

The book is a good read and if you’re interested in this sort of accounts you’ll appreciate the humor and the stories described. I enjoyed reading it but find the book a bit sketchy. The author didn’t spend enough time time in field to give a fuller account which isn’t his fault but may leave a reader slightly disappointed.

 

How to make friends in Cape Town

meangirlsYou land in Cape Town and after picking up your luggage you’re ready to start your new life. So exciting! The only problem is that you don’t know anyone yet. How to make friends in the Mother City? I’ll speak from experience!

Cape Town is famous for being cliquey. The locals are not really interested in meeting new people and tend to stick to their well-established groups of friends often still from school. At a house party (to which it’s difficult to get an invite) they’ll show you superficial interest and quickly drift away to more familiar faces. They may ask you a few questions about you and your country and tell you that it’s all divine, lovely and lekker (depending who you speak to) but that’s about it. You may receive a Facebook request or a suggestion that you should totally hang out but unfortunately follow ups are rare and if you try you may not even receive a reply. Of course things are a bit different when you’re an attractive woman but we’re talking about making friends here so the not so innocent interest from the opposite sex’s side isn’t really helpful (you can read about my experience with that as an Eastern European on my other blog). I didn’t know any better, though, so my first attempt at friendships in CT was via my ex boyfriend who showed A LOT of interest in me at my first house party. I was constantly busy for a while but the people I met through him disappeared from my life as soon as the relationship finished and you can’t blame them as they were friends with my ex first.

Work of course can be a good place to meet people but I’m quite wary of that. Remember the craziest friend you’ve ever had whom you had a bad fight with… Now imagine it could be something you had to deal with at work EVERY DAY. It’s good to stay friendly with people at work but one must be very careful before they decide that they should let a colleague in their private lives.

Of course you can use your acquaintances and attend ALL events you are invited to but I had little success at making friends that way. If you appear in certain company often enough you are tolerated but not much more than that. Afrikaans people in particular are quite alienating as they keep switching to their language. The one answer to survive outings with them is to drink and to drink hard. Eventually you’ll get your social calendar busy but you must remember they’re not really your friends. Forget also trying to meet people at festivals and concerts. Yet again, it’s a good way to find a hook-up but not friends.

What remains then? Interests in common and other similarities. These qualities are something we value in friends the most. Why not to use the good old Internet to help us with our mission? For expats there’s InterNations. Meet people in similar situations, listen do their often fascinating life stories, swap business cards. InterNations is a great place to find people you may hit it off with. Eventually, the events get slightly tedious and the turnover of people is big as they often don’t stay around for too long. Take the best of it but don’t get trapped. Even better than InterNations is Meet Up which hosts various groups of people with very diverse interests. If you love hiking and don’t know anyone it’s a great way to both follow your passion and meet like minded individuals. There’s probably a meet up for all sorts of needs so it’s definitely something to check out if you’re on a friendship lookout. It has a big advantage over regular book clubs or running clubs as people by joining state that they want to meet others rather than just do what they’re interested in. Last but not least, become a “yes” person. People you like are quite likely to know more people you’ll like so let others drag you along to places. Eventually, you’ll have more friends that you want to deal with 😉

To sum up, Cape Town unfortunately can be very alienating at first but there are tools which can help you bypass the “cliqueiness”. Don’t worry too much about people who are not interested in others and rather judgmental, it says more about them than about you.

Should I buy pepper spray and other questions to ask when living in a dangerous country

fear is a liar

I guess I’ve never really written about crime in South Africa. Part of the reason is that I’m blessed with a life in central Cape Town which is safer than most of the country. Also, I don’t really want to spread what you cannot describe in any other way than white paranoia about safety issues in the city. Some parts are indeed very dangerous but I assure you these are not the areas the scared people live in or even visit. You really have to sieve through what you hear from the (white) locals as their views are often highly exaggerated. Having said that, the issue of safety was addressed few times in recent conversations and hence the need to write about the topic.

The first question I was asked that surprised me, was whether I want to insure my engagement ring. It is a golden ring with a diamond of a considerable size, but its value to me is mostly sentimental. The question of insurance seemed weird mostly because I have never had anything insured. I can understand car and house insurance but South Africans I know insure much more than these things. People try to protect many valuables in this way as well as devices of everyday use such as laptops and iPhones. All that in fear of losing it to a burglar or a mugger. These fears are not entirely unfounded, but I really don’t want to live like this. I wouldn’t like to spend few hundred rands monthly waiting for a valuable of mine to be stolen. For me this isn’t a reasonable safety measure. If I’m supposed to  prepare myself for a possible loss of it by paying for insurance, what is the point and pleasure of having it at all? Maybe my views on the matter would have been different if I had lived in South Africa all my life, I can’t know this for sure.

The other question I was asked was whether I was going to get myself a pepper spray. I don’t think I’ll do it either. To me carrying something in preparation for being attacked means embracing the culture of violence. Of course, if all my friends had stories to tell me about being attacked it would seem like a reasonable precaution. Fortunately, this is not the case. Should I then carry something in my bag at all times that may never be used? What is more, even in dangerous situations pepper spray is only of circumstantial use. I wouldn’t like to define my life by fear and a possibility of something bad happening. Bad things happen anyway and you can never be prepared for all possibilities. There are reasonable measures of safety such as avoiding certain areas at certain times but I don’t think that carrying pepper spray is one of them. Yet again maybe in this regard my views would be different too if I was born here.

Last but not least, most middle class people in Cape Town will assume that you have a car. For many representatives of this group not having one is as unimaginable as not having a limb. I’m not saying that having a car wouldn’t make my life easier but at the moment it’s just not something I can have. The answer to the question: “So how do you move around?” is simple – by public transport. Even though many (white) South Africans will advise you against using it you can move around relatively safe. My Citi buses are not perfect means of transport in terms of reliability but you can use them without fear. I haven’t tried out other available bus providers but the only complaints I heard were about reliability and not safety. I wrote about the use of public transport before but after a few years here I’d advise more safety measures to take when using public taxis. In brief, listen to your heart (lalalala) and avoid taxis very early in the morning and late at night, try to make sure there are other passengers on the board and don’t flash with jewellery and technology. One can also try out a bike but driving habits in Cape Town are bad.

To conclude, life in Cape Town is potentially dangerous. Muggings, burglaries and assaults happen quite often and everyone knows someone who has been a victim of violence. Nevertheless, I don’t think that living in fear is an answer to the problem. One should consider the issues of safety carefully and use whatever measures they feel are adequate, keeping in mind the unpredictability of life. After all we are all responsible for ourselves and our decisions.

 

Nik Rabinowitz and Jimmy Carr

imageI saw two comedy shows last week in Cape Town and I’d like to share my humble opinion about them with my Dear Readers.

I’ll start with Nik Rabinowitz as you can still catch his new show at the Baxter theatre. “Power struggle” is a comedy show loosely constructed around the history of the world (and power struggle). It was the third time for me to see him on stage. He’s always good but never  amazing. Don’t get me wrong, his shows give me moments of unstoppable laughter. His observations of Cape Town and South Africa are very funny and true. Some could argue that the way he portrays coloured people and rendition of their accents are stereotypical (and maybe slighly offensive) but I think this is just what comedy does. If one tries not to offend anyone I guess there’ll be no space to be actually funny. Besides, Rabinowitz  is Jewish and mocks the culture mercilessly which shows that he doesn’t have any barriers. I must say he’s very good with modulating his voice and that’s something he should focus on. What “Power Struggle” lacked was a more unified and consistent structure of the show. I also didn’t think that characters he created were particularly funny and seemed a forced technique aimed at pretending that the formula of the show made more sense than it actually did. I’ll definitely go to see Rabinowitz again because regardless of his flaws he remains a good stand-up comedian. Tickets are at 165 Rand which is not the cheapest but still worth it.

imageLet’s move on to our international star, Mr Jimmy Carr. The comedian came all the way from the country famous for ugliest men in the world, the UK. Unfortunately I cannot confirm positively whether Jimmy is an exception to the rule as I was sitting too far from the stage to notice. There was a big picture of himself (see above) behind him so at least I had an idea about his looks. I didn’t go to the show aware of who he really is, my fiancé’s sister won the tickets and couldn’t go. Thanks Satan for that because if I had paid 700 bucks to see what I saw I would have really regretted it. Rabintowitz’s show was at least an attempt on structure, Carr couldn’t care about such things. He started off with few South Africa related comments. He attacked the president a bit, told a few of racial inequality jokes and beautifully mocked the Afrikaans accent. Some of what he said was wrong on many levels but funny, other things disgusting. Unfortunately, from there it was just getting worse. The jokes were really loosely linked to each other and they often seemed chosen at random. The show reminded me more of someone reading jokes out of a book than of actual stand-up comedy. This isn’t to say that Carr isn’t resourceful. He asked the audience to join in and his responses to silly comments such as “Jimmyyyyyyy, Trevor Noah, Daily Show” were quick and sharp (Some people would say that Trevor Noah is funnier than me, others that I’m funnier than him, but what’s important is that everyone would say we’re both funnier than you, Sir). Exchanges like this one bought him a lot of laughter but unfortunately the formula wore off quickly and I started to be bored after 45 minutes. I don’t think Carr’s problem is that he isn’t funny – I really thought he was hilarious at times. I think that people should be able to joke about anything so his being inappropriate wasn’t shocking to me either. I reckon the problem was that you can only say so many short, quick and unrelated to each other jokes before they get boring. In other words, bless Jimmy Carr for all his jokes about pedophilia, women, stupidity, racism, immigration and religion but you, Sir, would be so much funnier if you put more effort into the flow and structure of the show.

Comments welcome. If you have any suggestions about good comedians in CT or simply have something to say, you’re more than welcome to.

4dx – a new cinema experience in Cape Town

image“Available only at Nu Metro” informs us a poster advertising the new cinema technology 4dx that has recently come to Cape Town. As a serious movie geek I just had to go and check this thing out. Was it worth it? You’ll have to read this post to find out!

My fiancé, friends and I (it’s irrelevant to say who went with me, I know, but I like using the word fiancé) went to the cinema to watch “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice”. The film didn’t get the best reviews but it was an action flick, so it seemed like just the right opportunity to check the new technology out. 4dx seems to have a lot of potential. After all it’s supposed to be recreating the movements, smells and even wetness the viewer sees on the screen. I must admit I’m not a big fan of 3D, which usually makes me feel rather unwell but the upgrade seemed worth a try.

The first disappointment comes quite early into the experience and it is the price. One ticket costs 175 rand in the Nu Metro at the Waterfront and that’s without the 3D glasses. At a price of a good play at the theatre, the technology sets the expectations quite high and unfortunately disappoints.

The special seats move quite violently and not necessarily in agreement with what’s happening on the screen. The makers seem to think that every moment is a good one to shake you up a bit. The flashes and bright lights are supposed to make us feel more “in the movie” but in fact have a contradictory effect. When the light are switched on even temporarily it’s difficult not to realize that we’re in a cinema and not in the superhero world. The smells are the biggest let down as they remind you of being in a freshly cleaned kitchen. In short, the whole thing is just an overpriced no-no.

Even though 4dx doesn’t seem to be well developed at the moment, I can see it improving one day. The small movements of the chairs that accompanied changes of perspective were very cool, for instance. Getting more realistic and user friendly seems to be the way to go. The current shake, shake, shake approach may be effective with children but many adults will find it irritating and distracting.

I’d still say it’s an experience worth having and evaluating for oneself, but the price is definitely a big discouragement. I’d also want to say one good thing about the not-so-great movie – Wonder Woman theme song is amazing.