Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Archive for the tag “Safety”

4/4: Thank You

As much as I wanted to tell people back home about the moto incident, I resisted until I was leaving Ghana.  The worry would have been too awful for my family and friends.

That being said, I still want to thank everyone back home for your love and support.  I cried a lot during the first 24 hours after the mugging – feeling scared and desperately incapable.  I lay in bed, tears leaking out of my eyes, and imagined that you were all here with me.  I pretended that I was hugging my mum and dad and sister.  I imagined that the wall against my back was my boyfriend’s body.  I invented conversations with friends back home, giggling and gossiping.

Even if none of these were real, they saved me.  So did my colleague, H.  I don’t know how I would have managed without her.

But you were all wonderful too.  Every email from home helped me pretend to be strong (“fake it ‘til you make it”).  Each EWB chapter letter reminded me to be optimistic.  Every Skype call was like a soothing bath at the end of a rough day.

Even though I couldn’t tell you at the time, your love still carried me through everything.

Thank you.


3/4: The Aftermath

During the rest of my placement, I fought against my anxiety.  Reports of crime were increasing.  The taxi driver who brought H to me on that awful night told us that a similar thing had happened to his friend in the area a few weeks earlier.  We heard stories of men in motos (motorcycles) following cars and waiting to rob them or men waiting outside certain restaurants to follow patrons home.  A friend of my host-sister had someone with a moto drive in front of her so she thought that she hit him.  She got out of the car to ask if he was ok, and he pulled out a gun and made her give him everything in her car. Some of my expat friends still drove motos at night and said things like, “I don’t carry much money anyways so there’s nothing to steal.”  But when someone is holding a huge knife and demanding your money, the worst part isn’t what you lose.  It’s how you feel.  Often a friend in a truck would follow a friend’s moto home, since thieves usually only strike if no one else is around.  If someone did jump the moto, though, what would we in the truck do?  Try to run over the robber?  Honk the horn?  It’s unlikely we would have gotten out, even if we had time. The danger felt worse than in Joburg, where everything is set up against crime.  In Jozi, there are private security guards everywhere and we all had automatic garage gates so we didn’t have to get out of our cars.  Here, though, crime was evolving as the value of the cedi (Ghanaian currency) fell and most people weren’t ready for it.  For instance, thieves are now cutting holes in the roofs of homes to enter because windows are barred. We have lots of theories about that night and what could have prevented it.  Everyone thinks the thieves are “local boys” – guys who live in the area and hang around, waiting for an opportunity.  S thought that they’d been watching me for a while because they didn’t even ask for his phone or wallet.  All they wanted was my backpack.  Maybe, but a backpack is also a quick thing to steal.  Even if I’d taken a taxi, they usually made me get out and walk those last 10m to the gate anyways because of the muddy road.  We decided that the only safe option would have been to stay overnight at Heather’s, but it never occurred to me that Tamale would be this dangerous. I don’t like feeling scared.  For weeks after being mugged, my heart jumped every time a young man drove by on a moto or groups of men greeted me.  I tried to laugh at myself: even at night, the two men on the moto wearing neon green and bright pink were unlikely to be thieves.  But it was hard.  This has been an emotionally exhausting trip. When she picked me up after the incident, my coworker probably thought it was silly of me to be so fixated on work. “How am I going to get anything done without a computer?” I sobbed. “I have one you can borrow,” she soothed.  “We’ll get it from Accra at our team meeting next weekend.” “That’s another whole week of doing nothing!” Maybe I should have focused more on appreciating that no one was hurt – but work is the only measure of success I have here (and, perhaps, surviving).  I only had 3 months to accomplish what I can.  On slow days I read my transportation texts, but the hours crawled by.  With no work, I would quickly become depressed.  I have friends, but not traveling after 6:30pm put a damper on my social life. These past three months have been a struggle, but they’ve also been wonderful.  I have made some wonderful friends and had lots of fun times.  Although this incident definitely affected me, it wasn’t the defining moment of my placement.  To be honest, I’d rather not talk about it so please don’t ask me.  Instead, ask me about the work I ended up accomplishing (despite my slow start).

2/4: What Happened

It was about 8pm on a Thursday when we finished dinner at my colleague’s place, who I’ll call H in these posts.  My Ghanaian friend (called S) had ridden his motorcycle over so we asked if he’d give me a ride home.  It was dark, but not very late.  I considered called a taxi because we’re not supposed to travel at night, but I’d already had one taxi driver steal my backpack and another yell at me because the road to my host family’s was gutted from the rain.  An exciting motorcycle side with a friend seemed like much more fun.

We were almost at my host family’s place, less than 10m from the gate, when I felt something pull on my back.  I turned and saw someone on a motorcycle beside us, holding my backpack.

I wish this was a story of my bravery or quick thinking, but it isn’t.  It just illustrates how terrible I am in crisis situations.

I screamed and jumped off the motorcycle.  I fell in the mud and scrambled up and turned around.  I could see one man with a machete standing next to my friend and S’s motorcycle was pushed over into the bushes.  The other man was about 2m away, facing me and also holding a machete.

I kept screaming.  We paused, looking at each other while I screamed.  Even though my family’s compound’s gate was only 5m or so behind me, I didn’t think about running.  He took a step toward me and all I could think was that I didn’t want him any closer.  I took off my backpack and threw it at him, still screaming.  He picked it ud, climbed back on his motorcycle with his friend, and they drove away.

I took off my bulky motorcycle helmet and threw it on the ground, sinking onto my knees in the mud while wailing, “NOOOOOOOOO!”

Poor S.  He must have been shaken too but I didn’t even ask how he was.  I stood in the middle of the street, sobbing, while he said “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry” and neighbours began filtering out of their houses to see what the commotion was.

“I. Need. To. Phone. H.” I gasped.  S gave me his phone and I called my colleague.  As soon as she picked up I wailed, “They took everything!”  She didn’t know who I was or what I was talking about so I tried to explain about the two men with machetes, my backpack with my (second) computer, (third) smart phone, and camera – but quickly had to give the phone back to S to explain.

Poor S.  I can’t say that enough.  My host father came out and accused him of working with the thieves and putting me at risk on purpose.  I feebly said, “It wasn’t his fault” but most of the conversation was in the local dialect and I too distraught to do or say anything useful or rational.  Instead, I just stood there and cried.

Poor S left soon after.  If I’d just gone through what he went through, the last thing I’d want to do is get back on my motorcycle and ride into the dark.  But I didn’t think to insist that he stay.  I was useless.

H and our other friend came in a taxi to bring me back to her place.  We stayed up past midnight, discussing some of the other terrible things that have recently happened in Ghana and being thankful that no one got hurt.  I babbled incoherently about things back home and we laughed at whatever we could.

1/4: Introduction

Warning: the next few blog posts are a bit more emotional than usual.

During my second week in Ghana, I was mugged while returning to my host family’s home after having dinner with my colleague.  I didn’t blog about it then because I didn’t want to worry anyone back home.  Furthermore, there are enough fearful stories of Africa: if I tell people about this, it will be the one thing out of all these posts that they fixate on.  At the same time, though, the mugging (and dealing with it afterwards) was part of my experience over here.

I wrote the following posts right afterwards, so they’re overly melodramatic.  As time moved forward, however, I relaxed about the experience.  I decided to leave posts in their original dramatic words because that’s what people like, right?  The exciting stories.

These posts will become live as I leave this country and start the long journey back home.  Everyone, please don’t worry!  There is nothing to worry about and I’ll see your beautiful faces soon.

Black cloud

In the Vancouver firefighting force, some firefighters are constantly called to fires, regardless of which Firehall they’re assigned to.  This is unusual because Vancouver doesn’t have many fire incidents nowadays.  These firefighters that seem to attract (or are attracted to) fires are called Black Clouds.

I feel like I’ve been a Black Cloud lately.

It’s a self-centred and pessimistic statement, I know.  Hundreds of things go right, a few things go wrong, and yet I string together the few bad things and declare my luck is going badly?  Yep, that’s exactly what I’m doing.

Why?  Because it’s hard for me to admit that I was at a super low point last week, but that’s part of this adventure so I’m confessing it.  Straight up honest, I wanted to go home.  Not that I ever would go home, but in the moment I really, really wanted to.

First, the week leading up to my departure was hectic.  Too many errands, lots of forgotten things, too many arguments… I felt like I was aggravating everyone close to me.  Then a very long two day plan ride in which I lost my phone at the first layover (overnight in Toronto) and spent the next 24 hours berating myself.

Once in Ghana, things did not get better right away.  It took three days for my luggage to arrive.  I was so excited to go the airport and pick it up – plus I got to spend a few hours with the summer Junior Fellows before they left – that I was starting to feel good again.  Maybe too good because while I was struggling with my big heavy bag back at the house I was staying at, the taxi driver stole my laptop out of my smaller backpack.  When I realized it, I was devastated.  How could I be so stupid?  I had opened my little backpack to pull out my purse – why didn’t I close it again right away?  Less than a week and I’d already lost two of my electronics!  How am I ever going to contribute to Amplify Governance when I can barely keep my shit together?

In typical mid-20s girl fashion, my self-confidence plummeted.  I spent the night sobbing and hating myself.

Rational Princess B knew that I was overreacting, but Emotional Princess B had lots of pent up anxiety that was going to burst at something – and a lost computer was enough to break the dam.

By the next morning, though, I’d perked up.  It was an old computer that I was planning on replacing soon anyways.  Same with my phone.  The universe was simply forcing me to make the step a little faster than I’d planned – but I could deal with it.  Amplify had a spare laptop to lend me.  It’s so big (and HEAVY) that it barely fits into my backpack, but I’ll make it work.  They gave me a phone too.

Everything worked out fine and I remind myself that stuff is just stuff.  I think of the other JFs who had their house broken into or my Canadian friend in South Africa who has had at least three phones, one laptop, and one external hard drive stolen.  I’ve had a laptop stolen before back home in Vancouver.  That time it was actually much more inconvenient.

So I’ve decided to stop thinking myself as a Black Cloud.  I am not a walking disaster.  My number one pep talk these past few days is, “Get over yourself, Princess B.”


Let’s get this post over with since it’s the first thing that anyone asks now when I say I’m going to Africa.  “What about Ebola?”  “Aren’t you scared?”  “What do your parents think?”

To be honest, I’m a teensy little bit scared.  I joke with people that I’m much more likely to get malaria or hit by a minibus than Ebola, but the unknown is always a bit frightening.  That being said, Sierra Leone and Liberia are the only two countries where Ebola is out of control.  Last time I checked, Nigeria had had 10 cases, all caused by one American who visited Liberia.  Although Ghana is also in “western Africa” with these other countries, western Africa is a big place.  It’s sort of like the suspected case of Ebola in Toronto: while scary for Canadians, it did not affect us significantly on the west coast.

Moreover, Engineers Without Borders is an extremely safe organization.  They’re not like Doctors Without Borders who send their volunteers to warring or diseased places.  I think that if any cases of Ebola popped up in Ghana, EWB would pull me out.  Although it is unlikely that I would get it under most circumstances, EWB still wouldn’t want me to get stranded.

I don’t want to sound flippant about it.  Ebola is a serious disease that had affected over 1000 people.  But the chances of me catching it – even if I spend three months in western Africa – are about the same as my plane crashing. 

I think family and friends will always be concerned about a loved one traveling to somewhere far away – especially if it’s full of the unknown.  We channel our love into worry.  If it wasn’t Ebola, though, than I’d be getting advice for other things.  Concerns like malaria or dengue fever or dangerous transportation or black people.  There will always be something.

That being said, I am taking Ebola concerns seriously.  I’ve been following the cases – both proven and suspected.  I know the maps and disease vectors better than most people sending me new stories.  I bought hand sanitizer, even though I hate the stuff.  Thank goodness I’m a vegetarian and won’t be eating any monkey or bat meat!  Nor was I planning swapping bodily fluids with people.

Now that this post is done, though, I hope not to write about Ebola again.

Letter to Newbies

Two new Rooftops Canada interns are coming to Jozi in June!  How exciting is that?

After being introduced via email, I wrote them the super long message below that I then decided to post here because
a)      some of you readers might want a list of things to do in J’burg, and
b)      I was too lazy to type a new entry.




Hello ladies,

I’ve been reaching into the depths of my memory, trying to remember what it felt like to move last year from Canada to a completely unknown place with a terrible reputation.  I remember I emailed the Rooftops Canada interns who were already here, but they were unresponsive.  I hope I can be more helpful to you.

So, as I already told one of you, my biggest piece of advice is to pack warm clothes.  It gets seriously cold here at night.  You probably don’t need a winter jacket, but I’d recommend thick socks, long johns and other clothes you can layer, a hat – stuff like that that you can sleep in.

I’m not sure what else to tell you because I want you to love Joyburg as much as I do, but I also don’t want to lull you into a false sense of security.  Honestly, this city is amazing.  The people are really friendly and I’ve made lots of friends here.  On the other hand, you have to be careful.  Last week I was hijacked and I watched a man punch his sister in the face while my friends told me to stay back because he most likely had a weapon.  But stuff like that probably (hopefully) won’t happen to you.  It didn’t happen to any of the last three interns who were here.  I get myself into these situations by being straight up dumb.

I could write you a long list of safety recommendations, but – if your experience was anything like mine – everyone you know who knows someone who knows someone from South Africa has already given you tons of advice.  I was sick of getting advice before I even got on the plane!

Haha I think my biggest concern before moving here was asking everyone “What would you recommend?  Where should I go?  What should I do?”

In that vein, I’ve compiled some lists for you!

Things to do in Jozi:

  • Visit the Neighbourgoods market on Saturdays
  • Visit Arts on Main on Sundays and the first Thursday of every month
  • Visit the Bryanston Night Market in December (they have a weekly markets too)
  • Visit the Rosebank African Market on Sundays
  • Go to the Johannesburg Art Gallery in the CBD (it’s free)
  • Go to a play at the Market Theatre in the CBD
  • Go to the Apartheid Museum
  • Go to Warm Up Jozi, a rooftop party in the CBD on the first Saturday of every month
  • Eat pizza at Jolly Rogers in Parkhurst (half price on Wednesdays and Sundays) – I highly recommend the chocolate cake shooters
  • Eat at Possum in Parkhurst
  • Go for drinks on 7th Ave in Melville (the Lucky Bean has great cocktails, although I’m not a fan of their food)
  • Eat sushi at Koi
  • Party at Kitchener’s Bar and the Great Dane (right beside each other) in the CBD
  • Go for drinks at the Baron in Sandton before going clubbing
  • Go dancing in Greenside (I personally find the area lame and yuppie, but it’s also super safe)
  • Buy orange juice from Tyrone Fruiterers on Tyrone Street in Parkview (one Canadian used the OJ as his pick up strategy for a girl he liked.  No joke)
  • Do “springbok” shots (Amarula + crème de menthe, similar to a “polar bear”)
  • Walk along Vilakazi Street in Soweto
  • Go to a soccer or rugby or cricket game


Things to do just outside Jozi

  • Check out Hartbeesporte, especially on a Sunday for trashy Afrikaner types
  • Go to the Cradle of Humankind
  • Check out the Magaliesburg
  • Check out Blyder Canyon
  • Go to MonkeyTown monkey sanctuary (near Hartebeesporte)
  • Kruger Park


Places to visit in South Africa

  • Durban (easy to take the overnight train)
  • Cape Town and the Garden Route
  • The Drakensberg


Places to visit outside South Africa

  • Lesotho
  • Tofo Beach in Mozambique (worth the 6 hour drive from Maputo)
  • Victoria Falls (I was recommended the Zambia side, but I never went to Zim so can’t compare)
  • Malawi


If you have questions about any of those places, please feel free to ask.  I’ve received and written lists of things to do in CT and Durban for other friends, so I can easily pass on the info.

I know Kamba recommended that you read my blog, but I wouldn’t if I were you.  I mean, I’d like to say that everything I’ve written is brilliant and eloquent, but the truth is that most of it won’t be useful to you.  If you’re super bored (ie if you have a job like mine), however, here are some posts that you might find interesting.

Jozi is awesome, but complicated

Taking Minibus Taxis

Taking the train to Durban

Hiking the Drakensberg


Kruger Park

Dealing with racism

Dealing with aggressive men

Dealing with safety concerns

Getting mugged

Getting hijacked

Whoa, that quickly turned into a long list.  Bhahaha I have no idea what type of people you two are – the kinds who like research or the kinds who just jump in.  I’m a jumper, thus I won’t feel insulted whatsoever if you don’t click on any of those links.

I hope you’re here by the June 8/9 weekend since I’ll be back in Jozi to celebrate my friend’s birthday plus my going-away party.  A couple days ago my roommate asked, “What should we do for your going-away party?”  and I responded, “Get black out drunk and bring strangers home.”  She said, completely deadpan, “I think we can manage that.”

Not that that’s actually going to happen – but I think it should be a fun weekend nonetheless!

Sorry if this email is information overload.  Enjoy your next couple weeks in Canada and can’t wait to meet you in Joburg!


Decisions and Repercussions

First of all, a huge thank you to everyone for their supportive messages after yesterday’s post.

Second, despite the tone of the last few days – hijackings and gender violence – I still think Joburg’s reputation is worse than it deserves.

This city has dangerous areas and safe areas.  Most South Africans that I’ve talked to have never been hijacked.  At the same time, however, many never go south of Parkhurst.  And the CBD?  Forget it.

My friends and I, on the other hand, do some dumb stuff.  We’re not used to be being scared, hence we’re not automatically frightened of certain environments.  It doesn’t help that I work in Hillbrow and thus think I’m pretty tough.  Furthermore, I’m a little bit judgmental regarding yuppies and rich kids: as stupid as it sounds, I’d rather hang out in the “rough” areas with people who can carry conversations about things other than silly drunk stories or spending their parent’s money.

Consequently, we get ourselves into situations that most people wouldn’t.

And we continue despite the repercussions: we’re too stubborn to let ourselves become paranoid.

Furthermore, I might just be a tiny bit of an instigator.  Where most girls would say, “I don’t feel safe in this situation,” I tend to exclaim, “Full steam ahead!”

Although, on occasions, I do make a smart decision once in a while.  For instance, last week I was going to go camping by myself at a nature reserve 2 hours north of Jozi.  My roommate, however, recommended not to.  Furthermore, my friend had gone hiking there last year and described the following story:

“When the guide was showing us the paths on the maps, he circled an area just past the grotto and told us not to go there.  We asked why and he nonchalantly replied because guys had been attacking people with machetes around there.”

As a result, I decided not to go on my own.  See?  A smart decision.

But perhaps these are too few and far between.  You might think that after last week I’d be thinking about playing it safe.  Instead, on Saturday I’m heading to a party in “deep Soweto” – as my coworker calls it.

After inviting me, she asked, “Are you sure you’re not scared?”

“Should I be?” I asked.

“No,” she answered.  “But most white people are scared of Soweto.  And you’ll stick out.”

“That’s ok,” I laughed.  “I’m used to sticking out in this country.”

“What about your friends?”

“They go to Soweto all the time and volunteer at one of the schools.”

“There’s a difference between “deep Soweto” and “just off the highway Soweto,” she laughed.

“Perfect,” I answered.

So you see, it’s actually quite easy to spend time in this city and remain relative safe.  You could live further north and spend all your time in upscale coffee shops, exclusive shopping malls, and expensive restaurants.  The city is designed in suburban hubs so you can drive past any “unsavory” areas without even seeing them.  You could easily only socialize with upper middle-class white people.  Not saying that black people are automatically more dangerous, but we all know the stereotypes.  If you want to feel safe, you have to stay within certain bounds.

And that’s fine.  Especially for women.  I’m not advocating that you put yourself in dangerous situations.  You’ll still go through self-discovery.  You might even have a better all-around experience.  I’ve been in a bit of a grumpy mood the past couple days.  One friend started a Skype conversation with me yesterday and I said something along the lines of, “Today is not the day to talk me.  I fucking hate people.”

But I’ll get over it.

Because, honestly, this city isn’t that bad.

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.

Hillbrow versus Parkhurst

The different suburbs of Johannesburg each have a distinct feel and vibe.  For example, I used to live in Melville.  It had a lively commercial street filled with delicious cocktail restaurants, second-hand bookstores, charity shops, and clothing boutiques.  It catered to students since it was close to the university, but also hippie, bohemian types.

I loved it.

Now, however, I live in Houghton across from a golf course.  Houghton is the Jozi suburb for old money.  Nelson Mandela’s house is in this area and there is tons of security patrolling the streets.  It’s one of the few areas where people feel safe to jog alone at night.

Hillbrow, where I work, is on the complete opposite end of the scale.  It’s known as the busiest, most dangerous part of Johannesburg.  Most white people have never even been there.  During the day, people are everywhere.  Driving through the area is hectic: pedestrians walk all over the roads, within 2 inches of your vehicle.  And you always keep your windows up.

Parkhurst, on the other hand, is a cute yuppie area where a group of my friends work.  Its main street is lined with upscale restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and expensive clothing boutiques.  Hanging out there feels like hanging out in Yaletown back in Vancouver: safe and pretentious.

But it also doesn’t feel like authentic Joburg – whatever that means.

I have mixed feelings about where I work.  On days where I don’t pack a big enough lunch, I would kill to be able to walk to a restaurant besides braai and pap alcoves or McDonalds.  Moreover, it would be nice to be able to simply go for a walk and enjoy it – no men asking, “How much?” or trying to touch me.  Sometimes it’s funny, like one group of men as I walked by:

Man 1: Eeish, that’s nice.
Man 2: It’s ok.

But usually it’s not.

On the other hand, I feel like I’ve experienced more of Joburg than my friends.  I get to see all sides of this crazy city.

Furthermore, I understand that I have to be careful.

One of my friends got his phone hijacked last week.  I was in the backseat and – I’m ashamed to say – completely useless.

A group of us were returning from Arts on Main on Thursday night around 10:30pm.  Arts on Main is a really cool market in the city that occurs every Sunday and the first Thursday of every night.  Five of us had gone and had a really good time drinking mojitos and people watching.

On the way home we had to drive through the city.  My friend, the driver, was confident with his window down and music pumping.

We weren’t in a bad area of the city, but I know hijackings happen all the time.  I considered telling him to roll his window up, but he has a girlfriend who constantly nags him so I decided not to say anything.  I did, however, put my purse under the seat in front of me.

We stopped at an intersection right before the Mandela Bridge, where I’ve heard about police sitting in cafes and watch car after car get their phones stolen while stuck in traffic.

At group of three men saw us stopped and started running toward us.

One friend, in the backseat beside me, told the driver, “Start driving.  Just start driving.  There are three of them.”

He wasn’t listening, however.  His girlfriend was speaking and a good song was on.

The first guy reached our open window.

“Hey man, how are you doing?” He leaned in, all smiles.

“Hey” the driver responded.

The man reached over and took the key out of the ignition.  “Give me your phone!  Give me your phone!” He yelled.

“I don’t have one!” the driver shouted back while held onto the keys.

“We don’t have anything!” the car full of people yelled.

“I’ll shoot you!  Give me your phone!  Hey, shoot this guy!” he yelled over his shoulder to his friends.

“There are two more coming,” my friend beside me said.

The two cars that were also stopped at the intersection took off.

The driver threw his phone out the window.

“Another one!  Give me another one!”

“We don’t have any more!  You already took mine!” the driver yelled back.

The man finally stepped away from the window and we drove off.

Shit, it was frustrating.  On the one hand, you know the guys probably don’t have a weapon.  Wedged in the backseat, I felt completely useless at helping my friend.  Even if I had been driving, though, what would I have done?  A finger lock to make him drop the keys?  But angering the guy doesn’t seem worth the potential risk.

It was scary.  And irritating.  That’s the second time my friend has had his phone stolen.  He says both times it’s been his fault, but that’s not true.  Canadians have a completely different mindset regarding safety and security.  It’s hard to wrap your head around the differences.

Almost every day, I experience the hectic side of Johannesburg.  I know I am a different country, outside of my element.  I’ve done some stupid stuff and been extremely lucky, but I’ve also been super careful.

To be honest, if I lived and worked in Parkhurst I probably wouldn’t be as careful in this city.  I’d forget.

Still, I wish I knew how to respond to shit like this.  The next day I spent a lot of time sitting at my desk, imagining someone standing on my right side, and experimenting with holding the keys/man’s hand in my right hand and palm heeling his face with my left.  It’s an awkward position, to say the least.  Maybe hold the keys with my left hand and chop the neck with my right hand?  Forget the keys, grab the wrist, and start throwing elbows?

But what if there are a group of them?  Do you stand a chance?

Furthermore, the whole thing happened crazy fast.

Not that I have a phone worth stealing, anyways.  People constantly make fun of me for this thing.

It's also a flashlight

It’s also a flashlight

Regardless, I want to know what to do.  I want to know how to respond.

So I’ve been role-playing.

What else can you do?  One of my friends will no longer drive in the CBD, but I refuse to let fear dictate my life.  And, even though I usually keep my windows up, sometimes you have to roll it down – like when you’re entering or leaving a parking garage.

I think it’s more beneficial to channel your nervous energy into something useful than let fear take over.

Joburg, I still love you – all your different suburbs.  But this relationship of ours needs some ironing out: we need to change some things.  It’s an ongoing process, but that’s ok.  We’ll figure it out.

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