Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Archive for the category “South Africa”

7. Acknowledge and fight racism


You’re probably a little racist.  I’m a little racist.  The more different cultures I encounter, the more presumptions and stereotypes build up in my head.  If anyone says that they’re 100% not racist, they’re either lying or the most amazing human being on the planet.  Or – like many Canadians – they live in an all-white, progressive, upper/middle-class community where it’s easy to accept differences because there aren’t any.

First step is acknowledgement.  Second step is doing something about it.

Don’t accept bullshit like the American school that refused admission to a student from Rwanda because of misplaced fears of Ebola.  If you hear of an institution like that, boycott it.

Moreover, stop spreading fear of Ebola.  As Hannah Giorgis articulates, many of these stupid fear-mongering stories are thinly-veiled attempts to capitalize on the West’s fear of Africa and black people.  It’s disgusting.

Here’s a list of Mia McKenzie’s How Not to Be An Ally so that you don’t do it wrong.

A personal story as a response to #3 on the list “Date ‘em all”

Some folks seem to think that the quickest way to lifelong allyship status is to just date all the people who resemble those that one claims to exist in solidarity with. Anti-racist? Date all the POC! And be sure to do so exclusively and with no analysis whatsoever about fetishism, exotification, or the ways your white body might be interrupting POC space! Cuz, hey, you’re an ally and stuff. Right? Ew.

I dated a South African man like this two years ago.  It took me awhile to realize it, since I still forget that I’m not white.  A couple months into our relationship we watched “The Power of One.”  During the movie he commented on Apartheid’s crazy marriage laws.  He ended with, “You and I wouldn’t be able to be together.”

I was shocked.  I hadn’t previously realized that he identified me “exotic” instead of simply a human being.  It was an ego boost for him to think “I’m so open-minded that I date non-white women.”  It was almost as though I should believe it was charity, an act of generosity, for him to date me.  No one likes feeling like a charity case.


After the tragic shooting of an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Janee Woods wrote a great article on what white people can do to join the dialogue on racism.


Pecha Kucha

Here’s a Pecha Kucha presentation that I gave about my experience in South Africa:

6.7 minutes of me speaking

A couple things:

  1. After watching it, I realized that I should probably hold notes that I don’t say “um” every 2-5 seconds.  That being said, this Pecha Kucha was the most stressful presentation I’ve ever given.  In Pecha Kucha events, each speaker has 20 slides and they’re timed to automatically switch every 20 seconds.  It was amazingly disconcerting to give up control over my slides.
  2. I switched around and edited my presentation many, many times.  As a result, I very obviously screw up in the middle when I look at my slide and realize it’s not what I expected.  Wooo hooo live presentations!
  3. A moment of self-realization: I uptalk.  A lot.  (Obviously I’ve been living the city too long.) The uptalking and giggling makes me extremely annoying to listen to.  Sorry.  I’ll work on that.



Well, this is it. At least for awhile. Perhaps I’ll volunteer in Ghana with Engineers Without Borders and resume this blog in a couple years. Until then, however, this site will be silent.

In summary, here are my favourite posts from my 10 months in Johannesburg. Interestingly, though, they don’t match up with the most popular ones on the right hand side of the page. You can take your pick.



My Job Here
MHA Clarification

Transportation Issues
The Importance of Transportation

Race and Ethnicity
Returning Racist
Vanishing Race
Definitions of African

Development Work
Revolutionary and Counter-Revolutionary Theory
State Power

Back to Blogging
Humble Pie

Until Next Time

I am writing this post with mixed feelings.  On the one hand, I’m super excited to move back home and see my friends and family again.  At the same time, however, I’m incredibly sad at the thought of leaving my friends (some who have become like family) in Jozi.

For the past two months, my coworker has asked me every couple days, “You’re coming back to SA, right?”

“Don’t worry.  I’m already plotting my return,” I’ve laughed.

I think almost every day in May she said, “I’m going to miss you.”

“Don’t start,” I’ve warned.  “You know I’m going to miss you too and I don’t want to start crying in the office.”

I’ve been extremely lucky with the amazing people I’ve met here as well as the wonderful opportunities I’ve had to travel and experience this country.

In all honesty, though, the more I travel the more I realize that all those marvelous experiences aren’t really that remarkable after all.  Please don’t get me wrong – I loved hiking the Drakensberg and swimming in Lake Malawi.  But it doesn’t matter how many indigenous forests I explore or pristine beaches I suntan on: it’s the people that are important.

Yeah this is cool…

Yeah this is cool…

...but this is what I'll remember.

…but this is what I’ll remember.

The more I travel, the more grateful I become for the people in my life.

Whether it’s my dad sending me Kyusho Jitsu video clips.

Or my mom’s daily email.

Or my sister’s scolding messages (“Be Be, you shouldn’t drink so much.”)

Or a phone call from a new acquaintance, “Want to hang out tonight?”

Or keeping in touch with friends who are becoming increasingly scattered all over the world.

These people mean way more to me than swimming with tiger sharks or any mountain view.

So thank you, World.  Thank you, Humanity.  Thanks for being awesome!

Thanks for being awesome everywhere.

Kate’s Africa

I just found out my American friend Kate also has an awesome blog about Africa!  Check it out!  Especially since my blogging days are numbered…

Celebration Service

Noma, the receptionist for Madulammoho’s Client Services department, who gave me her famous chakalaka recipe, passed away unexpectedly last Sunday.

We all knew she was sick: she had been in and out of the hospital for months.  When I asked my coworkers if the doctors ever determined what was wrong, all I got was a vague, “I think she needed a kidney transplant.  Or maybe a new liver.”

I didn’t know Noma very well since I rarely go into Client Services, but I learned a bit more from her memorial service yesterday.  She started at MHA as a cleaner and was determined to improve her position.  She worked so hard that she would often finish her cleaning duties by 10am.  Afterwards she would go around the office asking, “What else can I do?  Can I do filing?  Or paperwork?”

She was quickly promoted to receptionist.

What an amazing woman.

Yesterday’s service wasn’t like any other that I’ve attended.  It began familiar enough.  We all sat in a church and one of our House Managers acted as MC.  Before any procedures started, however, he asked for two songs.

There was a short pause before someone in the audience started singing.  After she sang a verse, the rest of the crowd joined in.  Except for me and the two Afrikaner directors who attended.

For the rest of the service, there were no pauses.  After each person spoke, someone from the audience would burst into song and the rest of the audience soon followed.  The MC at the front had a fantastic voice and clapped and danced to the music.  Sometimes the rest of the audience would stand up and clap too.

I wish I knew what the songs were about.  They were beautiful.  I hope they were celebrations of wondrous life and a peaceful death.

Go well, Noma.

Village Story

A friend and I constantly complain about Vancouver “No Fun City.”  The weather is gray, the people aren’t friendly, the man-to-woman ratio is highly skewed out of our favour, etc etc etc.  People go to the bar to play board games for goodness sakes!  I love board games, but that’s something you do at home with your friends.  At a bar, it’s so ostentatious it blows my mind.

(On a second date I once played Jenga in Gastown.  Absolutely terrible.)

This friend recently sent me an email asking if I was excited to return to Vancouver.  “I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed,” she wrote.  Then she told me a story:

A man leaves his town for a new town.  When he arrives, he asks the leader of the new village, “How are the people in your village?”

The leader asks the man his own question, “How were the people in your old village?”

The man replies, “They were unkind, unfriendly, selfish, impolite, and unhelpful.”

The leader then says, “Those are exactly the kind of people we have in this village!”

Shortly after, another man moves to the village and asks the leader the same question.

Again, the leader reverses the question, “How were the people in your old village?

The newcomer replies, “They were loving, caring, kind, and helpful.”

The leader says, “Those are exactly the kind of people we have in this village!”

All right, all right – I get the point!

Since I’m voluntarily returning to Vancouver/UBC for at least 2 years (although I’m desperately hoping I can do at least one term of school abroad), I should stop complaining.

And Vancouver isn’t that bad.  It has its charms.  Moreover, even though the city’s culture isn’t particularly approachable, I know there are still tons of amazing people back home.

My response to my friend (written a couple days after being hijacked plus witnessing domestic violence):

How could I ever be disappointed with Van when I’m coming back to so many awesome people!  Furthermore, I’m getting a bit tired of worrying about hijackings, hitting pedestrians with my car as they walk within 2” of my moving vehicle, and whether or not that men yelling obscenities at me is carrying a weapon.  After this last week, I could use some of the tranquility (which I used to call “boredom”) of Vancouver!

Counting down the days until home!

Another Break

As mentioned previously, I’m off to Malawi for a week because of complications regarding my visa.

One of my friends here recently asked, “When are you gone again?  I can’t keep track of your schedule.”

“Me neither.  I feel pretty organized if I know what I’m doing two hours from now, maybe two days – but two weeks?  Forget it!”

Life sure is exciting, isn’t it?

Posts will begin again June 1!  But only for 10 more days.  After that I’m going back home to Canada!!!

Band-Aid for a Broken Leg

A couple months ago, my friend gave me this book as a gift for chauffeuring her around Johannesburg:

Band-aid for a Broken Leg

“Thank you!  This looks really interesting,” I exclaimed.

“Yeah, I saw the part about being single and it immediately reminded me of you,” she answered.

A short pause.

“I’m single by choice.”

“Sure, sure,” she sniggered.

Regardless of her reasons, I thoroughly enjoyed the book.  I could definitely relate to many of Damien Brown’s experiences in Africa.  As a doctor, however, his job is much more exciting than mine and actually interesting to read about.

Maybe this is cruel, but I’m going to give away the ending.

The last page says something like,

“(Oh… and other ways to stay single?  Move back in with your parents.  Then write a book.)”

“Great,” I thought.  I’m moving back in with my parents when I return to Canada (hopefully only for 3 weeks, but still) and lots of people (no publishers, mostly family) have told me I should consider writing a book.  Staying single, however, is not on my agenda.

If you’ve never worked overseas – or maybe even if you have – you might find Brown’s emphasis on being single at odds with the rest of his book.  He jokes about it a few times, but does it really deserve a shout out on the cover?

I think it’s common, though, for development workers to worry slightly about their future.  I turned 25 a month ago and entering my mid-20’s has been more sobering that I thought it would be.  I look at many of my friends and I see successful young adults with high paying jobs and long term relationships.  They’re buying apartments while I’m trying to figure out how to budget for another 2 years of school.

It’s easy for that worry to get slightly out of control.  Occasionally I freak out along the lines of “Oh god, I’m 25 now!  I need to get my act together!  I want to get married!  I want to have kids!  What am I doing going back to school?  Isn’t it healthier to pop out your babies before you’re 30?  I ONLY HAVE 5 MORE YEARS TO FALL IN LOVE, GET A DECENT JOB, AND BEAR 3 CHILDREN!!!!!  If I get a Master’s that’s another 2 years.  And volunteering with EWB would be another year.  And I want to date for at least a year before I get engaged, then it’ll probably take a year to plan the wedding but ugh I hate planning and even if I to schedule my time I’ll probably do it all in the last month anyways and become a total bridezilla.  Then he’ll probably cancel the whole thing and I’ll have to start the whole dating thing from scratch.  And I want to have a good job before I get preggers so that I get decent maternity benefits.  Plus I want a workplace baby shower – they usually give awesome gifts….”

You see?  Absolutely crazy.  Before I even realize that my brain is freaking out, in my head I’m already 52-years-old with a 2ft long beard and living in a mud hut with 80 cats.  It’s not a good image, to say the least.

It can be difficult to go off the beaten path and redefine your own version of “success” and “fulfillment.”  For me, it’s tough not to compare my life to my friends’: it feels like they’re growing into responsible adults while I’m still adventuring and avoiding commitments.

At the same time, however, I recognize that I’m much happier with my current lifestyle than I ever would have been in a “real” job and climbing the corporate ladder.

Also much more broke.

But that’s cool.  It means I can’t afford cats.


Sarcasm, or Lack Of

Last night I was looking through one of my old journals and came across my notes from a telephone conversation I had with the previous MHA intern before I moved to Jozi.

“They didn’t understand sarcasm.”

I should’ve re-read my notes a month after I arrived.  It would’ve saved me a lot of trouble!

One of my friends here is from Ethiopia, but he went to university in Canada and picked up some Canadian sarcasm.  Here’s a story to illustrate how our humour doesn’t quite fit in this country:

A South African girl asked him how he did laundry in Ethiopia.

“That’s why we all have six-packs,” he replied.


He mimed washing laundry on his stomach.

“Oh…” she said, amused but uncertain.

Afterwards he said, “I couldn’t tell if she was extra sarcastic, or didn’t understand the joke at all.”

Trying to be as diplomatic as possible, I told him, “I’ve noticed that subtle sarcasm isn’t part of the culture here.  The humour tends to be much more… overt.”

“I was being pretty outrageous.”

Throwing diplomacy to hell, I said, “Maybe she was just dumb.”

Canadians try super hard to be nice, but we can only go so far.

Or maybe I’ve lived in South Africa too long and turned callous.

Uh oh – how am I going to integrate back into Canadian society?  Forget about getting used to stopping at red lights again… how am I going to relearn sarcasm?


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