Sunday, July 23, 2006

Journey into the interior

Manila Times column
July 9

We had chosen to stay the night at a 19th century farmhouse situated on a slope outside of Oudtshoorn, close to the Swartberg mountain range. An old animal trap decorated the top of our door and the toilet flushed only after we had given the iron chain a good many sharp tugs. The property nearby was a farm where ostriches were bred for meat and feathers. The Cango caves were a ten minute drive away. Helpful signs pointed the way: the caves are a part of South Africa’s patrimony, and the government has made every effort to make them visitor-friendly.

We bought tickets at the entrance lobby, which contained tourist shops, an exhibit of early photos of the caves, a small theater. In the parking lot, a tour bus idled; as we entered the vestibule of the cave, we came upon the passengers, a flock of German tourists. A tableau representing a Khoi-san family had been set up in a niche – these brown-skinned people, distinct in feature and culture from the black Africans, had inhabited the mouth of the cave several hundred years ago. Flashbulbs popped. Pretty soon, two young black women joined us. The one who spoke German shepherded the tourists away, leaving five or six for the English-speaking guide.

She led us down a flight of stairs into a cavern lit just enough for us to see the structures that water seeping through rock had created over thousands of years. She told us how the first European to set foot in this cave had come through that very entrance, equipped only with a kerosene lamp. He had estimated the cave to be a mile high and five miles deep. The guide turned the cave lights off and in total darkness we contemplated a single red pinprick high up on the wall – the wattage of that very lamp. Then the lights went on, gloriously illuminating the steles and waterfalls of rock, while we took pictures to our heart’s content.

The tour went on, through several more chambers, each strategically lit, sometimes with colored lights, each with its own story, each formation with a unique (albeit cheesy) nickname – the bridal bed, for instance, with seven bedposts; the angel; the devil; the African drum. We noted where souvenir seekers had destroyed the niche once-called Fairyland by breaking off every last stalactite and stalagmite. Once concerts had been held in the large chamber closest to the entrance but this had been stopped in the 60s for the damage it did to the interior. Green matter that snaked down one moist formation was moss caused by an excess of carbon dioxide the visitors had tracked in, as well as the lights: it was an ecological problem the cave’s preservers were battling.

All this we learned from the guide, who spoke in an engaging but extremely slow manner, as one might explain things to those for whom English is a third language, as I supposed many of the tourists would be. I was impressed that there would be a guide to speak German, but given the quality of the infrastructure surrounding this natural wonder, it seemed likely that, given the proper notice, the Cango Caves authorities would have been happy to field Japanese-, Spanish- or French-speaking guides as well. Her carefully paced and rehearsed commentary also served a more practical purpose – it protracted the tour of what was essentially a kilometer worth of oversized limestone carrots, playing to the imaginative child in all of us, and ensuring we knew enough to properly label our pictures when we got home. At the gift shop, we picked up ostrich feather fans and an African music CD.

I was struck by the contrast between the highly-developed Cango Caves and the Palawan underground cavern, which I visited, in 2002, in a banca equipped with a simple yellow floodlight. The boatman served as guide as well. His ability to steer us through the submerged rocks partway into the cave and back again was more crucial to the experience than his communication skills, and in consequence his cheesy commentary hindered, rather than enhanced, our enjoyment of the underground scenery. This scenery, with its swollen, organically shaped structures and intriguing textures, was, to my mind ten times more beautiful than what we had seen in the Cango chambers, had it been lit and presented in a similar way. And Palawan simply has more of it. But I suppose an underground river brings with it a number of engineering challenges, none of which might be funded at the rate of P100 per head, as we were charged. That journey, beneath the limestone crust of Palawan, was infused with a romantic jungle roughness – we were entering an enclave that even the locals were in awe of. Perhaps that is how the Philippine tourism department wishes to keep it.

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Old school and "Other-ness"

Manila Times column
July 2, 2006

It wasn’t until the spring term that I got around to reading Alexander McCall Smith. Two of his books – The Number One Ladies Detective Agency and one of its sequels, Morality for Beautiful Girls – were required at one course at Roskilde Universitetcentret. Filipinos will not be all that familiar with McCall Smith – his books tend to be expensive, and moreover, he often writes about Botswana, a setting that many of my countrymen would consider too remote and unglamorous to immerse themselves in.

At the Cape Town book fair, someone asked him how he got around to creating characters so radically different from himself. McCall Smith is a jocular, tweedy Scotsman in his 60s, a former law lecturer, but his most famous creation is Mma Ramotswe, owner of the said ladies’ detective agency, a “traditionally-built” black woman tooling around the countryside in her little white van. As I remember, he didn’t answer the question directly, but went into a vague speech about using one’s imagination and powers of observation and empathy.

I read the first book at the start of the term, and enjoyed it – it was extremely light reading, and it was pleasant to clip through the unfamiliar names and tales of witchcraft and snakes in car radiators. The books, as my teacher, Kirsten Holst Petersen, pointed out, are a send-up of the classic, scientific detective story – Mma Ramotswe’s methods are intuitive and what she resolves are, for the most part, family misunderstandings and moral conundrums rather than statute-book crimes. But by the end of the term, we had pored over several novels that explored the complexity, bitterness and frequent violence of race relations in southern Africa and the Caribbean, and I found the second book, Morality for Beautiful Girls almost impossible to digest.

Finish it I did, in time for the class session, the scene of a vigorous debate on whether the McCall Smith books presented stereotypes of black people, i.e. whether he was guilty of what Eduard Said called Orientalism, the tendency of “Westerners” (Europeans and, now, Americans) to construct an image of those different from themselves (the Other) that simply reinforces Western prejudices. There were those who thought McCall Smith had arrogated unto himself the voice of someone so different – we were reading his books against Unity Dow’s Juggling Truths (also set in Botswana) and were inclined to believe Smith’s women characters were inauthentic. As for me, I was unhappy with a certain patronizing tone throughout the novels – the author’s tendency, for example, to refer to certain prosperous characters by their full names and titles at every mention, as one might address royalty – or speak of the neighborhood chieftain whom one might snicker about over tea.

The McCall Smith lecture I attended was packed, and there were a few squabbles over seats. He told anecdote after anecdote about his experiences as an author, the strange things his fans had told him (one California woman purchased a white van and drove around the state pretending to be Mma Ramotswe) and throughout he was as charming as the English-language press had reported that morning. The queue at the Penguin stand, where I waited to have my books signed, were equally long, for McCall Smith had a tendency to chat with his admirers, shaking their hands and inquiring as to whom the book was to be dedicated to. Significantly, there wasn’t a black face among his fans. Not a one. With the exception of two or three “coloreds” or Indians, they were all English-speaking white South Africans. It would be interesting to know what the blacks think of his work.

It occurred to me that McCall Smith, with his avuncular, old-school charm, must have filled a deep need among these 40- and 50-somethings. He may have represented an England they had yearned for but never really experienced. Strange that in South Africa, the British have, to this day, maintained their Britishness – in Norwich, where I lived for a while, the inhabitants might say “Hi” in greeting and “Cheers” in farewell, but in Cape Town -- oh boy! -- it was “How do you do?” and “Thank you”-“It’s a pleasure” all the way.

McCall Smith was oddly cool when my turn in the queue came, but I suppose any author would be mortified to hear the words, so enthusiastically uttered – “I’m so glad to meet you! We debated your books in our Post-Colonial Lit class!” Despite writing about southern Africa, he wasn’t at all serious. Maybe his Botswana days had been fun.

Congratulations to Fil V. Elefante for winning second place in the Ongpin awards for Journalism for his special report on wire-tapping, published while he was an editor at the Manila Times. Keep up the good work, Fil!

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Snapshot in black and white

Manila Times column
June 25, 2006

Twelve days, I figured, would be enough to draw up a picture of South Africa, 12 years after the end of apartheid, four centuries after Europeans descended upon the southern tip of the continent and began the vicious, genocidal process of colonization. We spent a couple of days in Johannesberg, then flew south over brown and barren-seeming land to the city of George, and from there rented a car and spent a few days driving around the area of the Cape, culminating in four days in Cape Town for the international book fair.

It was a patchwork quilt of a trip. History was at the forefront of my agenda. By this I mean both natural history (the Big Five, and the numerous floral species indigenous to South Africa, including gladioli and freesias), and more recent narratives of conquest, admixing and resistance. Throughout I intended to keep a scholarly perspective. This was the first time in my life I had ever studied for an exam by going on vacation – for just 12 hours after our arrival in Denmark I was scheduled to take an oral exam at Roskilde University. Fortunately, it was for a paper in our Post-Apartheid literature class. Our teacher, Kirsten Holst Petersen, had primed us with four important novels and a compendium of articles describing the conditions under apartheid, the legislation upon which that unconscionable system had rested, and the attempts, after 1994, to right its wrongs.

So I had my eyes and ears tuned to any mention of the Griqua people, subject of my paper, but was also out hunting South African novellists. Thank goodness my friend Vagn knew a good many of them, and children’s book illustrators besides, and he was happy to introduce me around. Nevertheless, there were moments when I was happy to part company with my intellectual side, such as the morning, on a farm outside Oudtshoorn in the Little Karoo, that I mounted the warm ridged back of an ostrich and hung on shrieking as the bird made a wild dash around the corral. Despite the seriousness with which my friend and I were taking South Africa, we managed to do the usual stupid tourist things.

Is it a stupid tourist thing to keep track of the differences between black people and white? The ladies at the immigration counter at Johannesberg airport were black. Twelve years ago this would have been impossible. The polite men in shabby overcoats in the square before Joburg’s Africa Museum were black. In the span of ten minutes, two of them had greeted us nicely and explained that they were very hungry and would we care to help them out? ‘How do you find South Africa?’ the younger of them said. ‘Beautiful,’ I said, lapsing into the standard reply, the reply one gives to one’s charming host across a well-appointed dinner table.

What else could I say? I’m sure we both sensed the irony. Twelve years ago the beggars would have been black, too, but perhaps the pass laws would have barred them from that particular section of Johannesburg. The Africa Museum had an exhibit on the townships – slums – where blacks were forced to live, an exhibit that moved me to tears. Under apartheid, had there been an Africa Museum, and if so, what would it have displayed?

Any stupid tourist, I figure, would have to note the economic differences between races that exist to this very day. Joburg resembles an American city in its vastness and degree of development (or at least the areas in Joburg that we happened to visit). Cape Town even more so. Throughout this right-hand drive, American/European-seeming, nicely paved and skyscrapered system, black figures shuffle. On the shoulder of highways, thumb held out in the classic hitch-hiker pose, lounging on park benches, glimpsed through a doorway at a bed-and-breakfast. Perpetually in the margins.

But this is a negative image I am painting; moreover, it is only one facet of the picture: it is impossible to capture the country in a snapshot or 600 words.

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Growing, growing gone

Manila Times column
June 3, 2006

The grocery stores are selling plants – begonias, kalanchoe, fuchsias, ivy, six- and ten-cell packs of little pansies and petunias. In the early spring they were snapped up within minutes of opening, but after six weeks the initial mania has died down. Produced indiscriminately and en masse, the more common flowering plants are dying in their trays, while the larger, higher-end groceries in heated malls have put out more exotic specimens that will never thrive in Denmark’s cool summers – they are destined for greenhouses and glass-walled porches.

Gardening has become an addiction. Initially, I ventured out into the neglected lawn as a respite from my heavy academic reading list, but as April segued into May, the sunny weather had a profound effect on my system – it seduced me away from my studies. Like an errant schoolboy I was soon gazing out the window at the intense spring light and the profusion of buds on the tree branches. Soon the reading list had given way to a gardening list, filled with scientific names and brand names of commercial soil mixes, and I was squatting in the dirt, digging, grunting, shivering in the wind (for in this climate, working the ground is a sweatless endeavor). None of this I did with any shame, though it is far more typical for a middle-class Philippine gardening girl to stand in one corner, pointing this way and that, singing out instructions to the squad of young men hired for the day to do the dirty work.

Gardening is very much a part of the culture in this world of brief summers and an almost-sterile affluence. The neighborhood in this suburb of Copenhagen is filled with low brick houses, all of which seem obliged to put out geraniums in the window and white painted lawn furniture, complete with parasols, after the last frost. Even the most unromantic corporate type caves in to the pressure, zips down to the local ISO, and purchases a trimmed and blooming tree. There is a certain uniformity to this beauty, for the population is served by five or six major grocery franchises, all selling the same goods, with a branch or two (about the size of a Jollibee restaurant) in each district or town. Driving out into the country one sees the stupendous greenhouses that crank out the spring plantings – acres, it seems, of white-roofed, translucent-sided buildings, set against woods or in the middle of fields.

For Mother’s Day (a commercial occasion here, as well) the shops put out orchids – phalaenopsis in pretty pink-lavender hues. Phalaenopsis are the butterfly orchids Filipinos know so well – bound into quarter shells of coconut husk and lashed to the trunks of palm trees. The flowers are large and, commonly white; they glow in the brief tropical dusk; one hopes for their emergence, with the certainty at the back of the mind that they will arrive, some day. In Denmark the phalaenopsis are regimented -- two pairs of leaves to the pot, sprouting a clutch of perfect blooms that seem to take an entire month to wilt. Greenhouse grown, of course, the flowers “forced” by a mixture of chemicals, precision temperature and scheduled watering. That takes all the fun out of growing them. After the flowers die, I suppose, the befuddled owners of these orchids keep up the routine for a few weeks, before tossing them, shrivelled or water-logged, into the Green Refuse bin.

As for me, I work in the rain, under layers of fleece, for the novelty of having temperate zone plants – previously seen only in reference books – bloom under my ministrations. I leave the task of growing tropical flowers only to the natives, who have their own ideas of care and agendas of self-validation. Yesterday, I saw a row of bougainvillas outside an ISO grocery store. They were sprouting neatly from six-inch pots, little lollipop trees covered in papery hot pink blossoms – the kind you find, neglected, lining the walkways of public elementary schools from Aparri to Jolo. They cost 100 kroner apiece -- nine hundred pesos, for the promise of a hot and wholly imagined paradise.

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Griqua encounter

Manila Times column
May 28, 2006

Three histories and a novel lie open in front of me, all having to do with the Griqua people of South Africa. I had never heard of them prior to taking the course titled Post-Apartheid Writing in the English program at Roskilde University, but now am doing a short paper on them, for which I will be given an oral examination in June.

They are a people of mixed ancestry, descended from intermarriages between Khoe and Dutch colonizers (who gave the Khoe people the derogatory name Hottentot, which has stuck to this day). In the mix, as well, are Black African, e.g., Zulu or Xhosa, Indian, even Malay, the descendants of slaves that the Dutch brought in.

The Khoe, incidentally, have quite different physical characteristics from Black Africans of, for example, Zulu or Khosa origins – they tend to be brown-skinned, with slanted eyes and an Asian look. They are often lumped in with the San people (derogatorily termed Bushmen, a name which has likewise stuck) when speaking of the aboriginal inhabitants of Southern Africa, for they were there before the Blacks migrated from the Northern and Western parts of the continent.

During the 20th century, the tendency was for the Griqua to incorporate themselves into the Colored population of the Cape, such that it has long been debated whether they deserve separate-nation status. (Under apartheid, South Africa was legally divided into Black, comprising several nations; White; and whatever was in between, i.e. for which Colored was the convenient term.)

I was drawn to the Griqua, when so many of my Danish classmates were writing their short papers on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the abuses under apartheid, for two reasons. First, a long-term interest in the story of Saartjie Bartmaan, a Khoe woman who in the early 19th century was exhibited naked in a cage in Paris as a specimen of what the smug Europeans considered an inferior species. When she died, prematurely from tuberculosis, wax casts were made of her body, and she was dissected, her sexual organs displayed in a jar at the Museum of Man until the 1950s. She was by no means the only person to be so violated, other Khoe were as well; and so were many other individuals from outside Europe, and indeed her experience recalls that of the families of Igorots (an indigenous Philippine group) who were put on display at the Chicago World’s Fair. When several of them died, their bones were laid to rest in the stockrooms of a number of anthropology museums, neatly labeled in the interest of cataloguing humanity from so-called apex to nadir.

Of a more personal resonance, perhaps, is the traditional religiosity of the Griqua; their choice of Afrikaans as a language, their embrace of Christian values and European clothing, their use of Dutch names. Despite the racist disgust with which early missionaries treated them (on my desk are the revolting diaries of one Rev. T.L. Hodgson, circa 1821) they were eager to accept the white man’s religion, which intertwined with, and eventually eclipsed, their own. Why did this happen? I come from Silliman University, founded 1901, the bastion of Protestantism in the Philippines; and throughout my childhood I was hard-put to define myself as Filipino – all of us, it seemed, had our souls trained to the United States. “You’re a living example of what we’ve been reading about!” a classmate in the Post-Colonial course enthused.

I look forward to a June visit to Cape Town for its book fair – fitting culmination to an entire term reading Rian Malan, Zakes Mda, Phaswane Mpe, Bessie Head, Nadine Gordimer, Zoe Wicomb, Antjie Krog, Alexander McCall Smith. Mda, Smith and Krog will be signing books. So my visa application is pending at the South African embassy in Hellerup north of Copenhagen, and processing should take no longer than a week. That’s the difference between having a temporary residence permit in Denmark and applying for a visa in the Philippines. Fact of life.

Denmark and the slave trade

Manila Times column
May 7, 2006

The role Denmark played in the trans-Atlantic slave trade is an almost-forgotten aspect of its history. It has been virtually written out of the books – in the 80s, for example, one could open a gymnasium (high school) text and discover exactly one and a half lines about it: namely, that in 1917, Denmark had sold the Danish West Indies to the United States, whereupon they became the US Virgin Islands.

In fact, Danish presence in the islands dated back to 1672. In 1754, the islands became royal Danish colonies, their plantation economy flourishing on African slave labor.

A forum I attended last week, at the Politiken newspaper building in Copenhagen, was open to members of the media and endeavored to raise public awareness of this buried aspect of Danish history. The forum, incidentally, was tied in with a three day conference at Copenhagen University on the Danish presence in the Atlantic slave trade, and the speakers in the panel as well as many members of the audience, were participants in that conference.

Peter Tygesen, a journalist in the panel of speakers, noted that the strong Danish presence in what was then the Belgian Congo in the latter half of the 19th century. The area had been declared the personal property of King Leopold of Belgium, and the bulk of the king’s army was recruited from Scandinavia, according to Tygeson. An estimated one-third of the white officers in that army were from Scandinavia, and of these many were Danish, enforcing the king’s policy of forcing every single Congolese person to work for one month a year, without pay.

These officers often found themselves administering vast tracts of land, a single white man sometimes in charge of an area larger than that of Denmark itself. This was at a time when the mother country was extremely poor, and a stay in Africa was certain to beget a large fortune. The officers ran veritable kingdoms, and they (and their wives) wrote home about frightening encounters with nature and “savages.” It was a time in history when newspapers were widespread and cheap, and these letters home were printed each week in every small town newspaper throughout Denmark, to the delight and astonishment of readers, who were thus entertained by tales of servants who were “brutal, cheeky, deceitful, thieving and stupid” and “cannibals with filed teeth” (though the practice of cannibalism was never substantiated, according to Tygesen). These private adventure accounts, written in the mode of Henry Morton Stanley, reinforced negative notions of what was foreign and “Other,” and reassured sedentary, provincial Danes in the “Center” of their “civilized” and racial superiority.

These were concepts that circulated in Danish society for generations, and, according to Tygesen, their legacy is the notion of the Dane as hero – the emancipator, the civilizer, almost genetically-inlaid, that Danes do good in the world and can do only good.

One of the questions that had been asked at the beginning of that forum was why Denmark had allowed itself to ignore and forget its colonial past, and to build up an image of a small, inconsequential country in world affairs – to style itself, nowadays, “as victim, not executioner”? Always, in back of the discussion, surfacing from time to time in the inputs from panel speakers and audience, was the uncomfortable reality of xenophobia and contempt/mistrust for immigrants and foreigners within Danish society.

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