Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Brain Retrain

Cowardly Lion: Courage! What makes a king out of a slave? Courage! What makes the flag on the mast to wave? Courage! What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist, or the dusky dusk? What makes the muskrat guard his musk? Courage! What makes the sphinx the seventh wonder? Courage! What makes the dawn come up like thunder? Courage! What makes the Hottentot so hot? What puts the “ape” in apricot? What have they got that I ain’t got?

Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man: Courage!

Cowardly Lion: You can say that again!

A number of people have told me that they think it’s super important for young adults to travel and explore – that you learn new things about yourself by pushing your comfort zone in unfamiliar settings.

I agree 100%.

Sometimes, however, you learn things about yourself that you don’t want to know.  It’s always difficult to acknowledge your flaws, but even more so when you’re not surrounded by friends and family who would say things like, “You’re being too hard on yourself.  You’re awesome.”

Instead, you have to sit with your newfound knowledge and let it sink in.

And I can tell you that it sucks.  Majorly.

For example, I always wanted to believe that I’m brave. When I watch movies or read books, I’d like to think that I’d be put in the Gryffindor House or that I’d defeat the villain.  I’d like to believe that if I lived in Germany during WWII, I’d be one of those people who joined a resistance group and risked my life to smuggle Jews out of the country – or something like that.  But I’m not one of those people.  I’m one of the people who would’ve sat by passively while the Nazis murdered millions of innocent people.

I don’t like this.  I don’t like knowing that I’m a coward.

It started to dawn on me in Paris a year ago.  Some friends and I were dancing to hip hop music during a street festival.  The sidewalk was packed and we were three small girls who stuck out from the crowd as the only non-black people.

A fight broke out about 5m away.  I have no idea what happened, but people started surging past us and making space.  I saw a glimpse of one big guy on the ground, unconscious.

A brave person would’ve run over to see what was happening.  Maybe stepped in to stop it.  But I looked at my two friends, who were moving towards the disturbance to see what was happening, and told them that we were getting out of there.

Afterwards, I was able to justify it to myself.

“I was looking after my two friends, making sure I kept them out of harms away.”
“At least we got out and didn’t give the boys an audience.”
“Everyone there was twice my size.”
“It was a huge group.  If it had turned into a big fight, I wouldn’t have stood a chance.”
“It’s normal to be nervous when you’re the only white girl.  Race adds a whole new dynamic.”

Since then, I’ve tried not to think about that incident.  It makes my stomach turn with shame.

It came to the forefront of my mind again, though, when I went bungee jumping.  I don’t like heights and I especially don’t like the thought of jumping from them.  But I love rollercoasters and crazy rides, so bungee jumping shouldn’t be that bad – right?

Wrong.  It’s absolutely terrible.

In November, my friend and I went bungee jumping at Bloukrans Bridge outside Cape Town.  I watched her jump first and started freaking out.  The bungee guys could tell I was scared and were super professional about it.  They kept me talking and walked me to the edge of the bridge.

I thought I would be able to jump.  Just like I always imagined that I’d also stand and fight against Agent Smith in The Matrix.  Or at least sacrifice myself like Morpheus.

But the bungee guys could read me better than that.  They told me they’d count to five and yell BUNGEE, on which I’d jump.

They threw me off on “three.”

Bloukrans Bridge

Bloukrans Bridge

Yeah, it’s a funny story.  But I’ve also never been so frightened of my life.  I thought I was going to die and, no, my life didn’t flash before my eyes.  Instead my brain shut itself off.

I went bungee again last month off the Orlando Towers in Soweto.  I’d like to say that I reacted better this time, but I knew what to expect and fought even harder.  My friend let me jump first because she could tell I was super nervous (I pretty much started hyperventilating on the drive there).  The guys got me suited up and walked me towards the edge.

This time, I actually started resisting them.

“Keep walking forward,” one said,

“NO.  WHY AM I DOING THIS? I DON’T WANT TO DO THIS AGAIN!” I tried to step back and started thrashing side to side.  I’m sure I looked super dignified and daring.

Orlando Towers

Orlando Towers

Again, they threw me off the edge.

And, once again, I had to admit to myself that I’m not brave.  But, whatever, it was bungee jumping.  It’s not like it was something “important” – right?  I’m sure I’d still rush into a burning building and save a child if presented with the situation.

But I wouldn’t.  As I now know.

Last weekend, shit went down.  Worse shit than described in my post a couple days ago where I sat in the back seat of my friend’s car while he was hijacked.  Shit where I am now proper ashamed and disgusted with myself.

On Saturday night I went partying with a group of friends.  There were four of us: me and three guys – which was weird for me because I normally only hang out with girls.

We started out at one of the guy’s house in Fourways, which is a half hour drive north from where the other two and I live.  I’ve been in that area a couple times in my 9 months here, but I don’t know it all.

The night began innocently enough.  We went to a club and got too drunk.  Three of us had just been hijacked a few days before, after all, and we were dealing with it in a mature and constructive fashion: alcohol.  Moreover, the boys kept handing me jaggerbombs since I’d started the night on one, so not only was I sloshed but also super wired.  Plus I’d just watched a video my dad sent me on kyusho first aid and cured 2 guys of their hiccups using pressure points, so I was feeling pretty ballin’ about myself.

I’m not sure what happened since I spent a fair amount of time at the beginning of the night in the bathroom, washing blood off my foot from a cut (in this country, when glass breaks on the dance floor, no one cleans it up) or jumping around the side of the dance floor that didn’t have glass – but the three guys I was with started hanging out with another three people: two guys and a girl.

The girl and one of my friends began making out.  One guy, who was her brother, turned to me and asked, “How you doing?”

“Good,” I smiled.  “And you?”

“Horny,” he answered.

At that point I walked away and stopped talking to him.

The girl and I danced together and I gave her the rest of my drink.  I could tell I wasn’t that far from blackout drunk and – in my newfound mid-20’s maturity – decided to stop drinking.

The other guy, who was the brother’s friend, said we should bounce from Billy the Bum’s and go to Aruba instead.

“Where’s that?”

“It’s only 3 minutes away.”

Stupidly, I let myself get swept up with my friends – the leader of which I barely knew.  One guy said something about going home, but he couldn’t because we were all crashing at another guy’s house and couldn’t get in without the keys.

So we squished in a stranger’s car to drive to Aruba.

I hadn’t been paying attention to the group dynamics, but at that point I should’ve realized stuff was messed up.  My friend had disappeared for a while and I assumed he was making out with the girl, but now I’m not sure.  Instead, he might have been arguing with the brother.  The three of them took forever to get in the car because they were quarreling about something or other.  I sat in the backseat with the other two guys, the three of us shivering (its autumn here now and cold at night) and laughing at the drama.

Eventually the 7 of us squeezed into the car.  The girl was on my friend’s lap and they made out for the 15 minute drive (not 3 minutes) while the rest of us laughed and wiggled to the music, so the atmosphere seemed light-hearted enough.

At Aruba we tumbled out of the car.  Freezing cold, I ran into the club and waited at the doorway while the rest of group made their way over.  It took forever.  Maybe they were arguing again.  I’m not sure.

Inside, someone bought me a bottle of water and the girl and I started breaking it down on the dance floor.  Eventually she disappeared and the boys joined.  Not everyone, though.  Again, my friend, the girl, and her brother weren’t around.

By 6am we were pretty tired and decided to call it a night.  We climbed back in the car and the guy said he would drop us at home.  On the way, though, the brother started getting more and more aggressive.  He told his sister that she was selling herself cheap and had an easy pussy.  She argued with him that she’s allowed to make her own decisions, that having a fun night doesn’t make her a whore.

Even though it sounds terrible, the atmosphere still wasn’t that tense.  Maybe I read it wrong because I was drunk and frivolously flirting with a super cute Canadian – he and I kept giggling because the brother couldn’t remember my other friend’s name – but it seemed like drunken babble.  I laughed, “Hey man, I’ll vouch for my friend here.  He’s a good guy.  Seriously, he has a good heart.”

“I don’t blame him,” the brother said and continued to berate his sister.  The mood started to change and everyone had a look on their face that said, “I just want to get the fuck out of this car.”

I leaned forward to chat to the brother in the passenger seat and told him, “Hey man, I understand where you’re coming from.  I have a younger sister that I love more than anything and who I’m super protective over.  I’d kill anyone who hurt her.  When she’s older, though, I hope she has enough independence and confidence to make her own decisions and know how to have a fun night.”

He ignored me and said more derogatory things.

Finally we arrived at the brother and sister’s place.  The brother tried to convince her to get out of the car, but she said she was going to stay.  He got out and yelled at her from outside.  I jumped out of the backseat and took his place in the passenger seat.  He leaned back and I shut the door and locked it, hoping that he would finally walk off.  Instead, he opened the back door and continued yelling.  She couldn’t find her keys and asked me to look under my seat in the front.

The driver, a big guy, got out of the front.  I also got out.  My friends told me to get back in the car but I ignored them.

The brother suddenly kicked into the backseat at my friend’s head.  Honestly, I didn’t think it made it contact because it was such a ridiculous move, but afterwards I learned that it did.  He then he pulled his sister out of the car by her hair, dragged her a metre along the ground, and hit her in the face.

And I stood there and watched it.

I didn’t even yell.  I might’ve said “Hey stop” but mostly I was frozen.

The driver ran over and the brother walked away.  I helped the girl up and asked her if she was ok.  She was crying and apologizing and I hugged her while saying, “This is not your fault.”

The driver asked her to please stay and that he would come sort out his friend in the morning.

“Where do you want to go?” I asked.

She wanted to go to her sister’s, which was only a couple blocks away.

“Then we will take you to your sister’s,” I said.

She asked if she could stay with us.

“Of course,” I answered.

Her brother stormed back.  “Bitch gave me the wrong keys!” he yelled.

He started towards her, but I stepped between them while she ran to the other side of the car.  He tried to follow her but I bounced between them with my hands up defensively.  “She’s looking for her keys right now.  Calm down,” I said.

“Look what she did to me.  She hurt me,” he leaned forward and showed me a cut above his eye that was bleeding.

I fought back the urge to say, “Good.  I’m fucking proud of her,” and instead responded, “It’s ok.  She’s looking for her keys right now.  Everything is going to be ok.”

Eventually the brother decided to stay at their other sister’s house and walked off.  We climbed back in the car, the girl still crying and my friends still in the backseat.

On the drive to our place, the driver switched from defending the girl to telling her that it was her fault, that she was inconsiderate for dragging strangers into her drama, that her relationship with her brother was fucked up, and that she was asking for trouble.

I turned up the music and my friends tried to joke around that we should go to McDonald’s and get happy meals, but the driver turned it back down and told her that he didn’t want to talk to her about her issues.  Then proceeded to blame her for everything.

At one point I opened my mouth to say something, but then shut it.  He looked at me and said, “What?  What do you want to say?”

“It’s just that you keep telling her you don’t want to talk about it then bringing it up,” I said.

One of my friends put his hand on my shoulder from the backseat.  “Bethany…” he warned.

So I stopped talking.  My knuckles were white from the tension in my fists, but I chose not to say anything.  I sat there and let him blame her for her brother’s bullshit.

We finally arrived “home” and the boys jumped out of the car and walked away.  I asked the girl if she was going to be ok.  I gave her my number and told her to phone me if anything happened, that I would send a taxi or come get her or something.

Although, to be honest, I didn’t want to.  I didn’t want to be involved anymore.  I just wanted to walk away and forget about these strangers.  I’d already walked away from the brother early in the evening, making it clear that I didn’t want to talk to him.  Why was I hugging this girl and offering to take care of her when I wasn’t the one who made out with her?  How was this my job?  All I did was dance a bit.  I didn’t even know who she was.

How selfish is that reaction?

Safe and sound inside, one guy said to me, “You’re a brave little thing, hey?”

“I watched a girl get pulled out of a car by her hair and get punched in the face.  I’m not brave,” I answered.

The three boys argued about what had happened.  One was angry with himself that he let a girl get beat up in front of him.

Another said that it was cultural thing and that we shouldn’t get involved.  Which I think means “a black thing.”

“That’s bullshit,” the first man responded.

The second guy told him not to be so hard on himself.  He rationalized that the driver, the brother’s friend, was a huge guy who could’ve easily turned against us, the four white strangers.  He said he was glad that I didn’t get hurt, because if anyone had touched me they would’ve jumped out of the car and destroyed the guy.

Yes, the night could’ve gone a lot worse – especially since in South Africa you never know if someone has a weapon – but, honestly, I’d rather be sitting here now with a black eye and broken nose than this self-revulsion and shame.

What the hell is the point of all this martial arts training if my biggest accomplishment of the night was curing a couple cases of hiccups?

On the other hand, there’s no point in wallowing in self-pity.  That doesn’t solve anything.  I’ve been telling myself that I may not like my delayed, cowardly reactions,  but that I am going to change this.

I’ve always known that I’m a reactive fighter, not an aggressive one.  Even the way I play sports is reactive – I tend to hang back and analyze the field before making my cut.  But I’m going to work on this.  I have the physical training and now I have to work on the mental training.  My brain doesn’t know what to do what someone is attacking someone else.  It goes against all my reflexes to jump in there and wrestle with a big guy – just like it goes against my instincts to jump off a bridge or a tower.

Once upon a time, however, I was also really uncomfortable with controversy and arguments.  My parents never had vocal disagreements or yelled at me, so I used to find it extremely unnerving when someone raised their voice at me.

Now, though, I don’t care.  Last week a 19-year-old laughed that she felt she had a lot to learn from me after watching the way I dealt with men in Mozambique: lots of standing with my feet hip-width apart, my hand up in the universal sign for stop, and saying, “No.”  Often this is followed with accusations of being a total bitch, but that doesn’t faze me anymore.

“Whatever, man.  No one here wants to talk to you.  Fuck off.”

But it took me years to get to this point.

Maybe in a couple years I’ll be the sort of person I want to be, the sort of person who would’ve jumped between that guy and his car as soon as he lifted his foot to kick my friend’s head.  He was off-balanced; I easily could have pushed him away or pushed him to the ground.

I don’t want excuses.  I don’t want anyone applauding the little action I finally took, or saying that it was the men’s jobs to get out of the car.  It wasn’t.

I’m only here another month.  Thank goodness.  I’m starting to get sick of all this new found self-awareness and self-reflection.

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