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Category: bodies older than borders

aweh, my ma se kind

It was the word “prawns” that first caught my attention. Stumbling sleepy somewhere around about 2 am on a frosty night in Newtown, I thought I must be hearing things. But then there it was again on their lips, praaawns. They wanted to hit another club just not that spot “with all them prawns and snakeskin pointyshoe n***as.” Heh heh heh. Instead we went to an all-night eatery across town, where tipsy patrons jumped up on the seats to lead a few rounds of Shosholoza, the day’s futbol games looping on corner TV screens. They tried to get me to sing too, but I didn’t know the words.

And so I sat and reflected on why I was back in South Africa. On prawns and makwerekweres, the origins of idle hatred, living frustrations, bodies and borders, the chasms between us, and how far one person has to be pushed before they feel the need to break their brother.

I spent the past five weeks or so traveling from one end of South Africa to the other. The N1 highway starts in Beit Bridge, where Mzansi touches Zimbabwe, and ends 1,929 km later in Cape Town, bending toward the mingling Indian and South Atlantic oceans. The N1 is where the story starts for a lot of foreign nationals in the country. They cross the Limpopo river, by bridge or bush, and the N1 is on their lips. That’s the road that will take them to Joburg, jobs, a different life. It’s also the road on their minds when they look for a way out. An escape from harassment, from threats, and from the promise of violence. The N1 goes both ways.

I was lucky enough to work on this project alongside my wildly talented friend Dominic Nahr (fresh from a Magnum Photo nomination! Yea!), and am deeply indebted to the support of the Pulitzer Center in DC. Our first Pulitzer Center blog post from the northern border is here, with more dispatches appearing here as they come. It’s worth poking around my twitter for updates too.

I still have piles of interviews, notes and audio to go through and Dom has such striking photos to share, so please do check back in. This is an important story. It’s not about spoiling any Black Star-inspired unity myth, not about simple racism or throwing blame or a jobs-and-housing cause and effect formula. It’s the most human of stories: about movement, the tugging and shoving of bodies. It’s about skeletons from the past and a crisis of poverty. It’s about being at a breaking point — just before you, or your entire world, explodes.


I draw bathwater so hot in the mornings I have to coax my limbs into the tub. Skin searing, right foot first, then the right calf, now the left one, down to my knees, etc. It’s been so cold in Johannesburg, I can’t remember the last time I felt heat. Dizzying, nauseating steam sinks deep.

I arrived in Jozi late on a Wednesday night, a trio of lovelies waiting for me at O.R. Tambo. The flags had just gone up, decorations for hundreds of thousands of anticipated guests, not yet arrived.

Guests of another sort are occupying my time here, though.

Hanging about Mzansi for another while. More to come.

more to dream

But while I was abroad I felt the need to find out who I was and where my soul was. I chose to be a Haitian woman. I couldn’t see myself being forever a nigger in the United States, an immigrant in Canada, or a stranger in Europe. I felt the need to be a part of something. This couldn’t be the black cause in the United States or the immigration cause in Canada. It could only be the cause of the Haitian people. Thus, I decided to return to Haiti.

Myriam Merlet, The More People Dream

I talked to a friend the other night, far from his New Mexico home in Hong Kong, where he’s decided to stay for another year. “I’m quickly becoming a refugee from everything,” he said. “In a way, it’s a nice feeling.”

There is no comparing self-imposed exile, or self-controlled banishment, from the kind of displacement people affected by war, economic collapse, or natural disaster experience. They are on different planes, different planets. I am a different sort of migrant from my parents, me with my fancy degrees, languages, bank cards. But when you are removed, for whatever reason, your relationship with yourself, your past and your future changes. Plucked from a space where you don’t have to second-guess such things, second-guessing becomes everything. It’s in your air.

“I chose,” writes Myriam Merlet, “to be a Haitian woman.” She sought and found her soul in her native Haiti, where she passed decades later in that terrible January quake along with so many others. I am saddened to know that, were it not for that disaster and her death, I might not have found her words. Sadder still that there will be no more words.

I’ve reached the conclusion that one should just proceed, and to hell with the others. This means that I won’t play the game. It’s hard and frustrating because you find yourself alone. At times you question your sanity, your ability to function while being so different from others.

A tribute to Myriam, and to others who perished in the rubble, is here.

mood lighting

I spend a lot of time thinking about Tariq ibn Ziyad, DNA tests, and the fluidity of geography and skin.

Cristãos Novos, criptojudeus, and the indelicacies of the 15th century. It’s somewhat of an idle obsession.

we fly home

Yesterday I wrote about Africa Paradis, a Béninois film that depicts the migration en masse of down-on-their-luck Europeans to richer African pastures. This morning, the Europe edition of the Wall Street Journal ran a cover story with a similar plotline. First- and Second-Generation Françaises are “returning” to their parents’ homelands, the article says, in search of better job opportunities — and, interestingly, to escape systemic discrimination.

As France’s economy slowed in subsequent decades, however, unemployment rose, and hasn’t dipped below 7% for the past quarter of a century. In recent years, the jobless rate for immigrants has been around twice that of non-immigrants. Now that France is in recession, the first jobs to go are often those filled by minorities.

…. [In Morocco] Life can be better than in France. Surveys show that in France, applicants for a job have around a third the chance of getting a reply if their name sounds Arab or African as they do with a more traditional French name.

France is not alone in wanting to ignore race and ethnicity as markers. “You are all French now,” the state says. “And Frenchness transcends race.” But when your skin, your name, and the way others treat you tell you otherwise, what are you to believe? The (neo-)colonizer / (ex-)colony tango makes navigation particularly tricky.

I’ve had a few 1st and 2nd Gen friends move “back” over the years. It started happening when I was still in grade school — Marisa was 12 when she left her parents in Canada to go live in Portugal — and I have conversations with friends, now in their 20s and 30s, who want to live closer to their roots. There are new opportunities for them in China, in India, in Italy, in Morocco, and at one time, in Zimbabwe.

I can’t say this is a recent trend, but I do know that the tug to go “back home” pops up at one time or another. Goodness knows it’s crossed my mind.