QA 5. (June 08) A Canuck in Cape Town


A friend in Vancouver asks me to “say in three lines why you would rather live there than here, not counting weather”. There are several ways I could answer, but my first quick response was: The people. Something about light. Something about deep. Something about real. Which means something like this…

It is beautiful here, and the people are beautiful. Their expressiveness, the way they talk with each other. I would like to send my friend a recording of women laughing. Or the way someone will sing on the street, just going about his business.

You may know that most of my philosophical writing has to do with Emmanuel Levinas, who was always going on about our interdependence and responsibility for others. But I can see this kind of humanism (called ubuntu here) in action with my South African friends. They’re not “do-gooders” – other people’s trouble just is their business, finish en klaar. Even when they don’t really feel like it, even when they know it’s not enough.

Once, in my early days here, my boss at the time saw a man come staggering out from a pub and try to get into his truck. He went out and asked this complete stranger to hand over his keys, saying he’d be glad to drive the guy home, but he couldn’t let him on the road.

And it’s not just my enchanting circle of friends. Someone in the paper was explaining why he’d moved back here after emigrating to California: “When I phoned American friends for help,” he said, “they always asked what was going on. South African friends would just say, where are you? and come.”

I met an Australian recently who had travelled the world in his youth, but had never wanted to spend time in Africa. He had the uneasy sense that white people could only live in Africa on sufferance. But, I said, isn’t that our basic human condition? We all depend upon the kindness of strangers, trusting that others might accommodate us, or at least tolerate us. What an astonishing gift, these strangers who acknowledge us with a glance or a smile, who offer hospitality and goodwill.

The kind of racism I learned in Canada disapproved of blatant bigotry, insisting instead that people of colour were “just like us” (us people of pallor). But twenty years ago, I discovered Africans getting on with their own lives, in their own way, in their own languages – none of which had any particular reference to me and mine. A revelation! (Remember the old joke that women who want to be the same as men lack ambition?) And if there were many ways to live, there were choices to be made. This was a liberating thought for me. The world got a lot more interesting.

And so, it turns out that maybe I choose to live here because it makes me a little less complacent, a little less stupid, a little more appreciative. (Thanks for asking, Meredith!)

© 2008

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