The Hustle. Shit just got real.

We – a friend in aid, an artist- are sitting outside on the patio of a restaurant on Eduardo Mondlane road. It’s a mid-priced restaurant- we all eat and drink (no alchohol, it’s halal) for under 8 euros. Around us are working people, it’s not filled with excited 18-year-old middle class Maputenos furiously taking selfies and celebrating a birthday with a monstrous pink cake. Or nervous tired pale tourists trying to ignore the constant onslaught of street vendors selling flowers, mobile phones, batik art or sculptures. For that you go to Mimmos, a few hundred yards further on.

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No, this restaurant is delightfully daily, the waitress is young, alert and funny. A Zimbabwean fellow eater leans in to join our conversation. We’re discussing aid, James Baldwin and the daily bits of race politics; how manners become a way to gatekeep conversations. A throw back to Portuguese policy of defining who was black and who was white- one’s use of cutlery. How these colonial legalities have woven themselves into peoples’ psyches and senses of self-esteem.

One of the first books I read at the beginning of studying at the inelegantly and problematically named School of Oriental and African Studies (Oriental? Really? Post-Said don’t we know better?) was Rajanna Khanna’s work. Discussing the drilled down micro-effects of colonialism on people’s sense of self. The trauma of exploitation and oppression, Frantz Fanon taken a step further. I was in therapy at the time- the book was a tight knitting together of the theoretical and the personal. Maybe this is over-sharing. The impervious self-aggrandisement of the self in this age of neurotic self-promotion. I’m making the point that it spoke very directly to me  when I felt very dislocated from my life and loves in Tanzania, and was trying to work out which shaped hole I fitted into in Britain.

So, back to the conversation on the restaurant patio: we know as nominally ‘white’ people we have power, social cache, access and bridges into the worlds of money. We’ve got social and fiscal capital. It’s not like being Victoria Beckham or Beyonce. No, it’s not that we, transient paler folk are perceived as special, interesting or talented. (Although judging from the rampant performances of entitlement from some of the expat folk at the regular openings and drinks dos you’d be forgiven for misreading this).
It’s my last month here. I’m trying to take stock. To tie up ends, to make sense of the days when butterflies land on the car, or frogs drown out the insistent whine of the water pumps. To understand the freakishly huge teaching load of my colleagues. Of a university that has no books and only erratic internet (twice since I arrived in Feb). To fit into a department that didn’t know I was arriving, and hasn’t to my knowledge got a written curriculum or modules. To understand a place where I’ve not in four months seen a single lesson plan. Except my own.

I would love to say it’s been a ball here. But it’s been very mixed… the students of course are what make it incredible, as every teacher/lecturer knows.

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Last week was a roller coaster. I was consumed with exhaustion, self-flagellation and lack of direction- so much so that I was reassured by a Facebook quiz which informed me I was both superlatively emotionally intelligent and empathetic.

This post is me trying to make sense of that.

Us outsiders, blow-ins, farangi, wazungu, mlungu, farnanj, (all names used for foriengers in various bits of Africa, and not necessarily colour-related) we are connected. We are not stuck. We have power to move and talk across the social divides, up into the higher private stalls where World Bankers, donors with aid budgets sit. We can get audiences with the ministry of finance. The head of what not. The minister of thingy.

When we- me and the artist- go out drinking on the street below the flat where I live, when we knock back beers in the open-corrugated roofed shacks called barakas, we are like lighthouses. Privacy is impossible- people constantly are drawn in… there’s something we have that people want.

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We can move. We can leave, we can work, we have choices and power. We’re not stuck in jobs we don’t really want but have to do because there’s taxes, licences, bills to pay, food to buy. We can allow our personal desires, feelings to influence who we are, how we are in very big ways indeed; I’m not for one moment suggesting that others here don’t have all the same feelings and influences. But they don’t have the structural, social and political power to act on it. We have access, agency, that others will never get, even if they’re brilliant artists, drummers, swimmers or carpenters.

Last night Pedro, who works selling booze on a little stall on the corner, described why he will never be a PE teacher. Which is what he really wants to do. He described in detail his day- leaving at 5am from his house 40 km away (this central district where I live is impossibly expensive for 90% of the population). He gets home at half past midnight. One day off a fortnight. He and little Pedro  (who is at least 50cm taller, but younger)  work 13 days on, 1 day off, alternating so one can go to church. They are eloquent and funny: “what will gas and oil bring us? Fuck all. Our government will still have us climbing trees for firewood and cooking. And if we call out the corruption we risk getting shot…” He described the three chapas (minibuses) he takes to work. He says:
“I realised that there was this group of men who bought booze on the weekends and went to Baixa (downtown, near the port) to hook up with Mozzas. (sex workers). It’s a rougher area and gradually this road has become a place where there’s ladies working.”

He points to a young woman, Carla, with a tight top, tiny jean skirt and cropped hair who’s skinny and weaving her way in the middle of the road. He pauses and looks at me to see if I disapprove. It’s obvious he doesn’t. “We have millions of women working like this too in UK” I say. “But they tend to work in groups and often don’t actually work on the street and as visibly as they do here.” I think back to Marseille, that street where working women in their 50’s and 60’s sat outside on chairs, at midday on a Sunday.

(Later I catch up with Carla and we walk down the middle of the road, and ask her how she stays safe. I show how the pocket knife I carry clenched in my fist when I walk around. She thinks this is totally hilarious: “You obviously don’t know Maputo, this area is safe as anything”. She reels off a list of names- “Now those areas, they’re really dangerous”. But I’ve read the stats on gender violence here…. It’s really not a joke… Carla hugs me when we part at my door, promising to be in touch. I can smell her skinny vulnerability. I realise she wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a client or not.)

Pedro carries on. Despite selling Jonny Walker, Jim Beam and all the other tipples, it’s clear from his build, clearness of skin and eyes he doesn’t drink much. “I’m 30, I’ve got three kids. 4, 10, 12…” he pauses again to detail his budget, monthly, for school books, clothes, food and fees. “The big problem here is that we pay for school. I could potentially go to night classes to train as a PE teacher, but financially I can’t manage it. Effectively the whole thing is structured against me, the system is actually designed to keep me in my place.”

“So what keeps you going?”

“Knowing that there will be changes for my kids, god willing….” He does that Maputeno thing- knocking his head to one side, blowing out “Eish, epa!” when I suggest that it could change. And then laughs.

That laugh I must have heard hundreds of times interviewing in East, Central and Southern Africa. That laugh that says “Forget it. Have you any clue how nuts that is?”. But he’s not at all bitter. He’s not diffident or surly. This is how it is. “My kids will see the benefit, hopefully.”

I think about Alfonso, Milchon and Chahude; fathers respectively- gardener. Lorry driver. Night guard. Some of my strongest, smartest, hardest working journalism students. Their mothers: all domestic workers.P1020721.JPG

Mozambican society is one of the least meritocratic places I have ever worked. Perhaps on a par with Ethiopia, where the social hierarchies are tights a s cicada’s nostril. Or a cat’s arse. Depending on my levels of cynicism. And Mozambique is genuinely bursting with talent- last night I recorded Muhamed (“yes, Muhamed Ali!” he giggles) in three of the five languages he speaks: Swahili, English Portuguese. He also speaks Shangaan, Kinyarwanda. He arrived 20 years ago from Rwnda in Maputo as a kid. He sweeps his hand around the blue shipping container lined neatly with jam, rice, spaghetti, oil, washing powders and a disarming assortment of fizzy drinks. All imports from South Africa. He raps beautifully along to his phone (but I can’t see enough to get the tape recorder working,) and then I ask him to choose his favourite song.

He sings We are the World, by Michael Jackson. He ploughs on, defiantly out of tune, singing all the words and full of conviction. I lip sync along with him, as I don’t want my voice on tape. For a moment, last night at 10pm on a street full of boozed up people and hookers, we had a moment. We did.

There comes a time when we heed a certain call
When the world must come together as one
There are people dying
And it’s time to lend a hand to life
The greatest gift of all

We are the world,
We are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day
So, let’s start giving
There’s a choice we’re making
We’re saving our own lives
It’s true we’ll make a better day
Just you and me

Back at the restaurant, I micro-analyze a rather harrowing incident

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Earlier in the week  I am accused of racism by some of my 4th year students- more later- a beggar totters up. Our table is facing the street. He’s nervous and his whole body is twitching. His face crumpling and rearranging. I know where I’ve seen that body language- in the mental hospitals over the years in West London, visiting my brother. The man is very dirty. Stained grey pants held up with string. He doesn’t even talk. There’s no patter, no performance, no spiel.

We give him bread and some money.

For a moment this place is all Carlos Castaneda, all Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Locks that work back to front. Streets that are vibrant with life. Night guards who sit on chairs so broken they’re sculptural. Surreal in its contradictions.

Why the fuck are we wasting valuable breath discussing my indulgences when this guy really is struggling?

Last week, after four weeks of planning with several colleagues, we have a tour of the city. Maputo a Pe, (Maputo on foot) co-ordinated by Jane Flood, and led by Walter Tembe, who is something of a genius. We are due to start in Tunduru gardens, a wonderful colonial relic, at 9am. The students arrive an hour late, claiming they knew nothing of the arrangements. My colleague Adau steps in and ferries students to the venue. When they arrive there are performances of Vicky Pollard (“do I look bothered?”) that tip me over the edge.

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I berate them for being late, not taking this seriously, not having the right attitude to be journalists.

I give my first lecture solely in Portuguese; a critical post-colonial reading of the African city, how we need to move away from seeing it as a place of slums or poverty. There’s much more, there are stories of powerful imaginative lives in the city. As journalists we need to find them, and we need to really listen, to dig deep into what is important to the people around us.
Maria, a student plastered in foundation and kohl and with a beautiful afro rolls her eyes and tells me “you are being so negative! Maputo is fantastic!” – “YES! That’s the point!”

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I am worried that this provocative piece, designed to get them to answer back to years of colonial definition, will backfire. It seems only the guides- Walter and Sheridan- understand the points about shopping malls being places where Maputenos are rewarded for embracing consumerism and eschewing their own (often better) locally made goods. Walter and Sheridan chuckle when I cite incidences of Zimbabwean, Ethiopian and Tanzanian governments ‘cleansing the streets of poor’ when state visits happen. The students just look scared.
I suggest to the students they need to be critical of modernism, not knock down or negate their own buildings, people, in favour of imports. They need to challenge the many insidious ways that inferiority is driven home, that Mozambicans are made to feel they’re not good enough. I’m not of course advocating a complete rejection of Converse etc. For gods sake I’ve got three pairs. I’m asking them to question their consumption and markers of improvement and identity. I want them to be proud and interested in the normal. To not look to the Global North for validation. To instead get excited about the women that work in the market making food every day. The guys who drive the chapas around town.

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The creatives and intellectuals in unlikely places.

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The students are animated and glowing at the end. They are shown the interior of the cathedral (not one has ever been in, despite being residents) and asked to think about why monuments are erected, why certain art deco buildings exist, and how the colonial imprint remains etched into the city.

Adau, Walter and I all remark on the ‘relaxed’  attitude of the students. Walter thinks that for journalists they need to be much more questioning, curious.

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Later in the week a handful of the students make a complaint about me. Accuse me of racism. Because I was angry that they were late for the tour, I was upset that they were so unappreciative of Walter and my colleagues who’d worked hard to plan this. Furious that our weeks of discussions trying to work out how to get them to be more engaged, had backfired.

The head of the course is called in. Under a tree in the Old Fort- site of commemoration of Royal Chief Gnugunane’s resistance – she asked them for actual examples of my racism; there were none. She said later that effectively they were lashing back because they were being told off and were immature. It was a low move of the students and I felt sad.

I was supported, defended and understood wholeheartedly by my colleagues, for which I am humbled and grateful.
The irony, of course, is poetic. In a fort, built by an unwanted, dictatorial colonial occupier, site of ferocious conflict, I’ve asked them to be emboldened, to answer back. To rewrite the script. They’ve responded by attacking me for trying to get them to be more adult and committed.

In hindsight, of course, the signs were always there: the students are victims of a university that needs huge investment, resources and properly paid staff so it can function. They are bashed about by a society that appears not to have very clear routes to self improvement, an outdated obscure Soviet curriculum, and few clear rules for advancement and success, yet asks them to work very hard.

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My role here was set up wonky to start with. No-one knew I was coming. I’ve still never seen a module or set of objectives, learning outcomes or a marking scheme. It doesn’t seem right to be all blamey, but I am beginning to wonder if these documents exist.
The truth is I don’t know what the journalism course is designed to do, what journalism openings exist, and how long it will take for  the 4th estate to be vibrant again here.  I don’t know what my role there is, four months later.

 

But I do have a much better understanding of how dysfunctional systems lean towards preventing people from expressing themselves, debating, and progressing. Dysfunctional systems reward bullying, bitching, and not talent, intuition, imagination, hard work and perceptiveness. Dysfunctional systems place disproportionate value on manners, form, and restricting people’s confidence to contribute.
And perhaps it’s that- fear, frustration, sadness that makes my students lash out. Who am I, zooming in all rich and mobile,  to stir it up, to ask them to demand more, when there’s a strong chance they won’t get it?
I’ve thought hard about this.
Would a prolonged discussion about racism- institutional, global, cultural, personal, historical, would that be useful for the students?

Probably it’s just really irritating having an odd rich foreigner sashay in and tell them to shape up.

And then it takes an unexpected turn. The students apologise to me. Separately, or in groups of three, I am cornered and asked to go for coffees. Quizzed about my job, my life, my opinions. The same thing happens with colleagues- it’s not interogative. It’s genuine interest. The entire year is given a grilling about being punctual, about being serious.
I want there to be a happier outcome. I want these students to dance in the corridors- as they do in the university. To change the entire modus operandi. To trust each other and themselves. To be powerful and brilliant and vocal. Or average, thoughtful and kind. Whatever. Maybe to be good journalists, or just good anything. To move beyond protocol and politeness, to express themselves, to question.

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I want them not to be stuck and to honour their own value. I want there to be real jobs for them as journalists or consultants or critics or writers…

I want to stay longer. It’s only in these times of agonising self-doubt that the real work is done…

LIST OF BOOKS THAT WE NEED HERE IN ECA UNIVERSITY, EDUARDO MONDLANE, MAPUTO

 

Here’s what you do: Pick a book or two, or three, or more! ( don’t worry if they get duplicated. I’ll let you know if we are getting too many of the same books. At the moment there’s almost none).There are a hundred on this list. If know the subject area  African media, journalism, global and digital media, or you’ve come across something that you really recommend, send it too. Thank you. Keep it within the subject area- but politics, history, philosophical ideas- relating to Africa, representation, media and communication, is appreciated.

 

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Buy the book- either in e-version or hardback. Bear in mind we currently have non-existent internet at the university and no kindles at the moment, and only limited laptops/computers. However this is set to change! Watch this space.

Order your book(s) Send directly to
Thembi Mutch,
C/o Henry Kenrick, British High Commission in Maputo, Mozambique
Avenida Vladimir I Lenine 310
Caixa Postal 55
Maputo
Mozambique

TELEPHONE(+258) 21 356 000
FAX(+258) 21 356 060
EMAILmaputo.consularenquiries@fco.gov.uk
WEBSITEwww.gov.uk/government/world/mozambique

OR:

Send to Debbie Humphrey , who has very wonderfully agreed to organise DHL all together. If you need to phone or text her number is 07831 811490
At 107C Fortess Rd, London NW5 2HR.

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94. Wasserman H, Internationalizing Media Studies : Popular Media, Democracy and Development in Africa Routledge 2011

95. Webner, Richard, and Terence Ranger. Postcolonial Identities in Africa. London: Zed Books, 1996

96. Willems W and Obadare E, Civic agency in Africa: arts of resistance in the 21st century, James Currey, Oxford, UK 2014

97. Willems W. Mano W; Everyday Media Culture in Africa, Audience and Users, London, Routledge 2017

98. Young, I.M, Inclusion and Democracy Oxford University Press, 2000

99. Weedon, Chris (1987) ‘Feminist Poststructuralism and Psychoanalysis’, in Feminist Practice & Poststructuralist Theory. Cambridge, MA & Oxford, Blackwell, pp. 43-73.

100. Williams N R;(2004) How To Get a 2:1 in Media, Communication and Cultural Studies, London: Sage

Back in the saddle: earthquakes, colts and chandeliers.

 

“Dr Thembi!”

“Dr  Natsumbo!”

“Are you fine?”

“I am fine. And how are you?”

And so begins the car journey into work at Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at 9am. Wednesday is a galling 6.45am start. I have learnt the hard way that transport in Maputo is a problem. For the first two weeks I tried various chopela (Tuk Tuk) drivers, appreciating the open air breezes and chance to get a sense of the city’s layout. Maputo is an instant history lesson in all things cold war and socialist: avenidas Mao-Tse-Tung, Kim Il Sung, Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere, Patrice Lumumba and Lenin clearly signpost the leanings. It seems the revolutionary zeal stops somewhere around 1970: there’s no Avenida Mandela, or  maybe it’s the lack of sufficiently revolutionary African leaders after this point that is the issue. No-one seems to be able to explain. And apart from Sekou Toure, there’s also a dearth of West African revolution in evidence. Part of me hankers to meet the learned folk responsible for this naming, and ask, “So, in hindsight,  Kim Il Sung, any regrets? ”

 

The streets are laid out grid style: which theoretically should make it easier to navigate. But there are few street names in evidence. There is plenty of renaming by local people, or identification based on oblique things like “Basopa” (which I think, hesitantly, is the name of a building that used to be there…) . Most confusingly, apart from the really obvious landmarks, there’s not enough variety. A lot of Maputo looks the same.  Add to this unholy mix the whole one way road issue, and frankly, getting to work was proving to be a task too large for me to muster.

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After riding in the tuk-tuks of Admiro, Athenium, Salvador, Jose and Artemis, (honestly, these are their names) I have settled on Mec Zito and  Abdul as my tuk tuk drivers of choice. Mec is a musician and composer by night, and tuk tuk driver by day. He is an astute observer of the political chaos and corruption in Maputo, and when he’s not playing the most seminal jazz and Michael Jackson tunes on the stereo, will volunteer useful information about the ten cars of the current president, or the lack of freedom of expression  here. Zito is also brazenly over-qualified to drive a tuk tuk. He is enrolled in the final year of  a BA in educational psychology. He’s also lived in South Africa and says “yebo” and “sharp” a lot, which I like. And has a young family. He does it all with calm grace and I feel replenished around him. For sheer grit and determination alone I ride with Zito- he reminds me anything is possible if you really set your mind to it.

But there are days when I get a lift. Natsumbo has taken pity on me, and now picks me up after he’s finished his 7am-9am English class, (and he then goes on to teach, all day, including the night classes, until 8pm).  All my colleagues here have punishing schedules: not out of choice. The descending metical (currency) means people work three jobs. University- poorly paid (if they get their salaries at all) comes last down the list. Several times this month I’ve been left teaching alone, or given 2 minutes to prepare, because my colleague hasn’t turned up.

 

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The problem is, I have overdone my desire to get brownie points with Natsumbo (offering to find scholarships for him, books for the library, online access to a wider variety of African communication publications, journals he might be able to contribute to, and, god forbid, new jobs) and I detect a whiff of lust emerging. Yesterday he turned up looking sharp as needles. Well cut leather jacket, hipster trousers and new haircut.  Natsumbo now texts two or three times a day: especially on weekends and late at night. Hovering near the top of my list of challenges (there are many) is ‘how to dampen the ardour of my head of department.’ He’s a lovely guy, but a married lovely guy.

Inappropriate relationships (to my evidently rather prudish eyes) seems to be a theme: three times so far I have seen male lecturers enthusiastically clutch and hug at the attractive female members of the class who don’t resist, but also don’t look comfortable. There’s nothing furtive about it: full on body- contact hugs, in full view in the corridor. I’ve yet to work out if it is my place to voice my anxiety about this behaviour. Where does it end?

The students are fairly tactile amongst themselves,  and the women students are no walkovers however: they look directly at me, in ways that neither Tanzanian nor British students would, they don’t smile much, and they’re extremely confident about talking and presenting to class. Carolina- queen sultry- takes the biscuit, and actually sells them during breaks. I had to resist physically hauling her away from a clutch of customers back into class this morning.

This week we did a role play (them challenging various oil, sanitation and private sector bosses about public interest and accountability) and once I’d made sure that the women didn’t just assume the secretarial roles (which they did, initially) it became obvious there’s some very smart female students. I have to admit I love it…. this direct unapologetic approach. . “Ah, Mozambiquan women are very strong”… says Natsumbo when I ask him about this. There are a few contradictions to unravel however….they’re allowed personality strength, but not political, public strength or power. This morning we waded into the thorny ocean of gender, abortion and teen pregnancies. Deliberately on my part- at 9am on a Monday morning the energy levels were low. Turning on a sixpence the class became animated and rowdy. As it should be.

 

We will be returning to gender stuff regularly, it’s clearly prescient for them.P1020639 (4)What’s also striking with the students is the absence of attitude: and a great deal of generosity. (Don’t be fooled, this photo took minutes to do as we all kept collapsing with laughter).

I keep imagining how my contemporaries would have reacted to a foreigner with poor language skills rocking up out of the blue, with all sorts of wacky ideas and teaching methods.
Anyway, overly-friendly boundary-stepping aside, I get a much-appreciated lift with Natsumbo on three days, and Celestino for the early start. Their cars are standard Toyota saloons, rather battered and with a variety of provocative and  illustrious noises. I dare not enquire. Only Maria- the radio journalism lecturer- who had a whole career as a Radio Mozambique reporter, and is now on the regulatory board for Mozambique telecoms, drives a serious new prada pickup. This is seventy thousand dollars jobby worth of vehicle, and hints suspiciously to me of a very rich partner, or several other jobs. Her blingy jewellery, sunglasses and teetery heels in  staff meetings are a bald reminder that Maria considers working at the Esceula des artes y Communicao  (ECA) a step down. I know this is the case- she gave me a lift later on, in the wonderously expensive pick up. She made it clear that she didn’t feel, as a woman of 60, that actually it was the right time for her to stop meeting international stars in five star Cape Town hotels, and interviewing presidents in her role as a door-opening reporter. I might of agreed, except she was so dismissive of the students, that I found myself torn between loving her for being such a character, and wondering if she wasn’t just a massive opportunist. My bets are on Maria crow-barring me into taking on all her lessons, leaving her more time to sort out more profitable career options.

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So far, four  weeks in, and the staff meeting has happened, where I was introduced. Apart from Maria’s shimmying into the classroom- a cross between Barbara Cartland and Nina Simone on a good day, it was a gentle affair, with a woman I immediately warmed to (the drama teacher, Esther) asking if I would help start up a magazine. And Gilbert, the music department head (also a top guitar and violin mender) giving me an impromptu tour of the college, which reverberates with the sounds of practicing and music all day.

Apart from the necessity to mime variations  of ‘turn the volume up’ gestures to my students when they are talking, the cacophony of practice is diverse and uplifting: last week it was the Messiah, interspersed with some elaborate and impressive drumming practice. There was also a rather heavenly violin sonata going on a one point. The building shows not even a nod towards sound insulation, open plan with no glass and almost completely concrete: the overall effect is a large living being, a massive accordion of life.

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I teach nine hours a week, spread over three days, on the online journalism, globalisation/global cultures and practical/theoretical radio journalism courses. This is a reasonably heavy work load: but the engagement and open-eyed rapacious interest of the students makes it easier than I imagined. Of course teaching in Spangatease (my own hybridised version of Portuguese and Spanish) is somewhat challenging, however in each class several students take their roles as interpreters/teaching assistants very seriously, they’re alarmingly good,  and I would be disabled without them. What I lack in linguistic skills I make up for in variety: last week I introduced the whole notion of alt-facts and subjectivity, starting the class with ‘nothing is true’- relativism v’s absolutism. I think I could here the fuses blowing. This, is, as Natsumbo reminds me,  a military-run country. He’s 100% confident we have spies in the department. We spend the car journeys working out who it might be.

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Back to the transport. There are four options: take the local minibus taxis ‘chapas’ – which are rammed to comedy bursting point, and apart from getting a person from point A to point B, a little counter-productive. The journey is so harrowing, so uncomfortable and such a total immersion in other people’s personal space and odours that it takes the rest of the day to recover. For my students- 130 in total spread over four lessons, there is no choice. This is their transport, and frankly I am amazed they are as calm and composed as they when they arrive. Unlike South Africa, there are many people walking around, (despite the shocking state of the pavements), and not striding or scurrying, which is reassuring and makes my journey home easier. I often detour via the market- to pick up veg.

This the gloating section. There is a huge variety of cheap, organic fruit and veg (Mozambique has no foreign exchange, so can’t buy the fertilisers and pesticides. Possibly the only advantage to a completely collapsed economy). Mangos, pineapples, moringa, passion fruit, limes, ginger, avocados. This is my diet. Except for weekends. When it’s Afrikaans meat fest gone mad.

 

On Thursdays, after the fourth-year radio journalism class, I head an hour North out of town to Macaneta. To begin my other life for three days.

Riding and training horses. On a ranch. On the beach. Five hours a day, minimum.

 

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Clipping colt’s hooves. Dipping horses for ticks. Walking colic-ridden horses around at 2am in dramatic lightening storms. Training a stallion appaloosa to be more trusting.  A partially blind Arab gelding to stop seeing ghoulies and ghosties everywhere. Working with a spirited, headstrong gelding (called Nyala) to respond better to me when I need to ‘round up’ the clients on the beach and stop the horses galloping into a frenzy. Fixing bridles and oiling saddles. Hoisting up 100kg chandeliers to the centre of the saloon. Reassuring people who’ve never ridden before that they won’t be permanently crippled after an hour in the saddle.

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The ranch is run by Afrikaaners Carla and Kestel, who built it themselves 20 years ago and now have 14 rescue horses, 7 dogs, three rescue cats, one very non-rescue cat (entitlement issues), three ducks, and one pig. They are incredibly kind and what they say, and what they do, do not coincide.

“Fit in or Fuck off” Kestel informed me early on, in the most non-ambiguous welcome I’ve ever had. There’s a motley crew there: a 60 year old South African called Susan who eats only pasta and meat and never leaves her room. Marzaan, a butch lesbian, who is a total legend with horses and a gun. Peter the miserable barely-functioning alcoholic planning his sex holidays to Thailand, and his rather gentle brother, Elof. Joao, the son of Mozambique’s only (and thus most famous) film maker- my guide to all things political and cultural here- and his shy, smart and pony-mad teenage daughter Lowiya, who wafts around in tiny shorts.

And at the weekends a steady stream of white working class Afrikaaners who come over the border from South Africa crammed into their 4 x 4’s… to drink outlandish amounts at unfeasible hours, talk at length about fixing things,  and waddle around ordering hamburgers with egg and cheese.…
But that’s for another time… the complexities of poverty, racism and white African identity. I feel like I’m living in a Studs Terkel book. Never off duty.

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I found out earlier this week that Mozambique holds the number one position for acute weather events brought on by climate change. I can vouch for that. 2 weeks ago the most intense storm of my life- thunder, lightening, I can’t describe it. The cyclone was a week before I arrived on Feb 17th. There was an earthquake three hours ago. For a moment the room around me swayed and moved and I felt seasick. Not frightened, just disorientated. No-one dead, nothing fallen down, (yet) but 6.2 on the richter scale. The earth, literally, moves here. The universe is very present, and we are extremely insignificant. I find that reassuring really.

ATM’s and bad pavements

Internet super intergalactic highway is really little more than a goat track here. I’ve only been here 74 hours. Five of which were consumed with two separate visits to the internet shop, this is my first log on. My skin and body may love the humidity and heat. Laptop certainly does not. Laptop says no, a lot.

I’ve also left my cash card in the ATM, twice, and the first time, a smiley, English-speaking cashier promptly opened the whole machine in front of me and fished it out. The palpitations (I never carry emergency cash) lasted minutes, as I realised there’s a chaotic flexibility here that will take some learning. A mish mash improvised jazz tune: sexy and exciting but alarming too.

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Baptisms on the beach:

Photo by Solange Dos Santos (Copyright Solange, reproduced with permission)

Rewind: It’s been a bumpy landing. Lucky I’ve had a cushion strapped to my arse. I nearly didn’t get here. The plan was to leave Tanzania, take a bus North six hours to Nairobi, and fly to Mozambique. At the Kenyan border on Monday a pudgy Rottweiler masquerading as chief immigration officer didn’t believe me when I said I couldn’t lift my suitcase. (This time it wasn’t laziness, but a torn back muscle, provoked by a month of moving house, stress, a third floor flat with no lift, tax returns and two unfortunately placed boils). My grimacing caused him to beckon me to a side office, shouting across the 20 yards of the freshly constructed immigration office.

“You give me your passport. COME HERE INTO THIS OFFICE”.

Something about his booming, his swagger, spoke to real fear, and I quietly refused, saying “I’m frightened”.

“You disobey me? Right. I deny access to Kenya. You cannot come in. I deny. I will, and I can”.

This wrangle went on for over an hour, three times the driver of the shuttle bus scuttling off to plead with him, me increasingly tearful and panicked. Finally he relented, after a very public speech, in front of the entire immigration queue and his staff:
“You come to our country to escape your shitty weather. I’ve been to your country, and USA, your immigration treats us like this, they disrespect us, they humiliate us, they deny us access; when you come to our country, our beautiful sunny country, you will respect us, you will understand that we can stop you coming in, and we will.”

Snivelling, I agreed, and apologised collectively for all the bad decisions, racism and colonial humiliation that the British gov has inflicted on countless immigrants. I think he had a point, I wish I hadn’t been his punch bag. And wasn’t such a blatant misogynist. A million theories about global affect collapsed into that one moment. I wondered how much worse it would have been if I was a black Tanzanian woman. I thought about borders, and what charged places they are: sites of countless dubious transactions, sexual, financial and illegal.

At Nairobi airport on Wednesday I found the head of immigration and explained to her what happened.
“Ah, him, Colonel Gitangi, he’s leaving this Monday. He’s being sacked. We’ve had too many complaints. Did he get any money out of you? Did you get a receipt for your visa?”

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Maputo water collection

Photo by Solange Dos Santos (Copyright Solange, reproduced with permission)

This morning, here in Maputo, I woke to peacocks crawing below, the drip of heavy rains and the gentle swish of the ocean a few metres away.  After a marathon 19 hour sleep on Wednesday. A wealthy important friend who is probably isn’t a good idea to name – met me at the airport. VIP treatment meant we were actually last to be seen, and we drove back to her house. By a combination of lengthy and not very interesting twists, D now lives bang next door to the presidential palace. She is a Russian-trained ballerina, a musician, a singer, has stories of singing with Miles Davis and dating Marcus Miller in New York.  She pulses with regret that  the idealism of her father -a V V VIP indeed, has been evicted by opportunists, kidnapped by consumerist and nepotistic greed.

Salazar’s fascist legacy. Photo by Solange Dos Santos (Copyright Solange, reproduced with permission)

A rich-hearted, global amazon, she is a bundle of contradictions, and co-ordinates the major arts festivals here. Everywhere we go she is recognised, greeted with warm smiles,  with her dreadlocks, her warm eyes, shoddy cheap car and expansive Buddhist heart is a threat to the order of things.  On the pot-holed, dense, complicated streets of Maputo she’s also hugely liked, evidently, and even after two days, it’s like hanging out with a female musical Jesus.

Her house- my home now for a few weeks whilst I settle in- is a beautiful modernist space of sharp lines, light, marble floors, ebony sculptures and well-made wooden cabinets. I have a bedroom overlooking the ocean, my own bathroom, and the whole top floor as a study.  There is no tv, radio and internet is patchy. I will get a lot of writing done. It’s in the equivalent of Knightsbridge, or Whitehall. But looks more like Tottenham. There’s a Soviet block next door, a crumbling homage to failed promises.

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Water banter

Photo by Solange Dos Santos (Copyright Solange, reproduced with permission)

I start on Monday at the university. Apparently, I am teaching the MA journalism course I designed on foggy nights in London two years ago. There have been no responses at all in five months to the Dean of the university. Asking for basics- what language will I teach in? Are there laptops and internet connections? How many students per class? He was laughing and jokey as we arranged to meet at 9am on Monday. He’s not worried, so I won’t be either.

There’s little choice but to identify the flow, and go with it. In the mobile phone shop Sandy, takes my recently broken phone (I left Tanzania and it promptly fizzled, symbolically burped and died) and offers to fix it as a black-market job. He flips open google translate and we talk across the ether. My Spanish is a sort of salve, but I must learn Portuguese, fast. I understand but I am dumb.

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Photo by Solange Dos Santos (Copyright Solange, reproduced with permission)

I know very little: it is ridiculous how little I understand. I know that there are two competing economies- one where a 250 gram bag of coffee costs ten pounds in the Spar rammed with South African imports. And a fresh pineapple, or three mangos, sixty pence on the street. There is a free newspaper plastered on the street walls every day, and a thriving media scene. Every night, sharply dressed snake hipped jazz musicians thrum their tunes in clubs across town. Gustave Eiffel built his prototype for the tower first here, a strange Wonderland-esque tin house too hot for anyone but Catholic nuns, who finally agreed to stew inside it.

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Photo copyright Thembi Mutch

There are no street signs, the only landmarks the incredible, brutal, fascist architecture of Portugal’s dictatorship. This is photographer’s heaven. If you are rich. The grid streets are heaving, small stalls, everything from bras, rat poison, single eggs and one CD on sale. The typefaces are lost in some swirling 50’s timewarp.  There are few expats in evidence, none on the streets at all; I am possibly the only mzungu in town who doesn’t own a 4x 4, and who walks. Riding a bike, or motorbike, is suicidal. The driving protocol, like the politics, seems to be unfathomable, dangerous.

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Photo copyright Thembi Mutch

This is a hard, messy place, second only to Ethiopia with the visible poverty… too many young skinny people sitting bored on street corners. Not malevolent or idle, but unemployed. but there is art, music, sharp suited-booted hipsters and graffiti everywhere, and people are obviously, openly very kind to each other. This is the only place in the world a person has chased me and handed me back my cash card after I left it in the machine. The only place where the cashier in a small store walked with me 200 yards in the rain to find a tuk tuk and negotiate the correct price… there are glimmers of colonial Portugal- in the bread, the unbelievable dilapidation….

Here, faith makes sense. I am frightened, often, though I can’t say why exactly. I feel my English-ness fighting for recognition: and I’m comforted by public assertion of the importance of queuing and politeness.

 

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Real sound

 

Photo copyright Thembi Mutch

For now, my biggest problems are finding a map of the city. Internet is too crap for google maps. And accessing foreign currency. And repairing my phone so I have whatsapp again. I must leave the country every month (my visa is only 30 days) and must pay $80 dollars each time I return. It may end up being a blessing, but it certainly means I’ll get to go back to SA and Nairobi on a regular basis.

A rhythm will emerge, it always does when it’s above 30 degrees in the shade.

Gloat gloat.

Berlin Biennale: genius or the luxury bleating of the youthful super-elite?

 

(This article was first published in The Conversation, June 28th 2016,)

The Berlin Biennale is an event which encompasses the whole city. The venues are pieces of art in themselves: the former headquarters of the East German Council (ESMT) is a confident, brutalist sixties building, now an expensive business school. The modernist, glass-fronted Akademie overlooks the historic Hotel Adlon on one side, and Potsdamer Platz on the other.

Inside, I’m completely overwhelmed. We get communicative capitalism, hyper-individualism and supra-nationalism, all illustrated via conceptual art. There are lightboxes, gym workouts, racetracks, opportunities to contribute to blogs, interactive apps. There are narratives that speak to the blurred line between commerce and domesticity (we’re all potentially uber and Airbnb customers now), and endless thanks to the sponsors.

We get rammed spaces and murky videos or spangly ad-art-verts with no real starting points, which are hard to actually see. There are no paintings, or sculptures made of clay or stone. No craft. No people talking about getting water, food, education. Just ironic nods to things created by polymers.

Is this a zeitgeist that I’ve just failed to miss? Or are these (first-world, young, privileged) artists radical visionaries, and recognising something that in years to come will be obvious? I am still wading through the press material four days after I’ve arrived, but there’s little to suggest a global conversation. As someone who has spent half of my adult life in the “Global South” and is obsessed with its representation, I am looking for those voices.

Dragging me down

The DiS Collective. Courtesy 9th Berlin Biennale of Contemporary Art/sabine reitmaier

Isn’t less more? “The Present in Drag” – the title of the 9th Berlin Biennale is a reference (by the Manhattan, 30-something curators DiS collective) to the confusion of “our” present state. Lauren Boyd, one of the DiS collective, is adamant that despite the dominance of European and American artists:

We are interested in the globalised issues in Berlin … the city itself is globalised around global real estate, gentrification, the tourism, migrants and refugees.

That much is true. Berlin, like almost all European cities, is being hollowed out by gentrification while becoming more expensive. But the assertion that “we” are all living in the same global narratives and that our present is incomprehensible, immaterial, driven by algorithms, is very problematic.

There are a few artists who seem to make comments on real, material issues. GCC collective, based in the Arabian Gulf, makes the connection between supply chains, oil and global ideas. They have created a large running track, surrounding a stationary mannequin mother in traditional dress “healing” a small child. They also show videos of the office of the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Dubai ruler who has appointed a minister of happiness – and whose desk here doubles as a ping pong table. The work critiques the twin rise of an Arab “happiness industry” of personal healers and self-help, alongside the idea that personal happiness is a prerequisite of a high-producing capitalist, consumerist economy.

Compassionate, difficult, honest

The other artist who makes work that isn’t, in plain speak, so “up itself” is Turkish artist Halil Altindere. Inside the glass-fronted modernist building, the Akadamie in Berlin, the video Homeland is being played. It shows a Syrian rapper describing his journey from Turkey, and there are re-enacted scenes in an old airport and people tumbling off trains in Berlin central station.

A still from Altindere’s Homeland. Courtesy 9th Berlin Biennale of Contemporary Art

It is impossible to tell what is news footage and what is staged. Refugees in well-cut clothes looking middle class and powerful, are given a voice. They tell us how they do enjoy currywurst now (a sanctified German sausage dish) but also want citizenship papers. The video is edited with scenes from a luxury yoga retreat, people sit in meditational repose. “Only observe” the subtitle cuttingly tells us. Altindere’s work is compassionate, linear, difficult, honest.

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In a country of 3.5m Turks, and an enviable attitude to refugees, Berlin is a place where tolerance is normalised and there’s a great deal of human goodness. Not much of the exhibition acknowledges this, although there is a stunning work where the themes of lost intimacy, disconnection and impotence are beautifully dealt with: Alexa Karolinski and Ingo Nierman’s Army of Love is a powerful and clever comment on this. It is a video of a naked woman nursing a baby. Other people crowd around her, and a disabled, naked man is caressed by able-bodied naked women.

Karolinski and Nierman’s Army of Love. Courtesy 9th Berlin Biennale of Contemporary Art

So there are some stand-out moments, but the Biennale is supposed to be a place where all artists can push the boat out, and take risks without the tedious constraints of needing to sell. Perhaps, though, that is making them so comfortable they have little of interest to say? German art critic for the Magazine “Art”, Ute Thon, says:

The artists, so called Digital Natives, are caught up in their technical/virtual worlds, fluent in managing algorithms and motion capturing technology but not very inventive when it comes to using these tools to create real change, real emotions, real disruptions.

Global silence

One group able to do this is the South African art collective CUSS. They have created Triomf, a reference to a (real) South African super mall in Soweto, an equalising and generous offer for Black South Africans to consume, in an equal – but different geographical – space to their richer friends. Triomf is a small shop complete with flickering neon light (a reference to the increasing power cuts in South Africa) in which one TV and some beer can be bought.

CUSS make their point in a stripped version of a Soweto mall. Courtesy 9th Berlin Biennale of Contemporary Art

CUSS wants to address the new pan-African rhetoric that is being created by a highly visually literate youth, to engage with a consistently developing new aesthetics which that rejects the stuckism of older generations, who they say, relied too heavily on the same dialogues.

What this Biennale confirms for me is that talk of a “global conversation” has to be much more inclusive and more material. There are significant – the majority actually – chunks of the world, including East and Southern Africa, where the concerns are not the digital blurring of boundaries. Their issues are pretty quotidian: marriages, babies, falling in love, getting a bank loan, or the day’s grace a trader gets to move unrefrigerated fish to the nearest town.

There is another marked divide: where are the sympathetic critiques of people? The pieces of work that celebrate the craft, music, inventiveness, jokes, wordplay, resilience, beauty, sensitivity, communalism, humour and imagination of people everywhere – Benares, London, Sao Paulo, Dar es Salaam, Pnomh Penh – these are missing.

Is Simon Denny’s work a luxury? Courtesy 9th Berlin Biennale of Contemporary Art

It is a luxury to be able to devote money and time to an artwork which describes the intricacies of bitcoin and its role in the (heavily modernised, global North) financial system, as Simon Denny does. But other concerns are more fundamental. Will a hospital get built when the proposed pipeline happens from Uganda to Tanzania? Will trafficking and trading laws be made more coherent to better protect the girls and young women who disappear when they cross the borders out of Syria and Turkey?

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Artist Simon Denny looking at a 3D reconstruction of himself. ( copyright Thembi Mutch)

 

One of the important roles of public spaces – museums, Biennales, fesitvals – is to relocate the conversations, to reorganise our expectations, and to avoid cultural ventriloquism. There are many people who are interested in the concerns of a small, parochial, youthful elite. There are others who – like me – want to see the Global South talking for themselves more, and explaining the humanity, teamwork, the depth of understanding that we experience there.

The compassion, skill and sensitivity of Middle Eastern photographer Tanya Habjouqa – whose work over five years, has shown Palestinians finding incredible ways to love, relax, resist, play, have babies and exercise – offers an eloquent illustration of this. Her work is so interesting precisely because it resonates around the world. She has exhibited across the Middle East, in Europe and America and got an absurd number of Facebook conversations to “prove” that she is getting it right. She is not, sadly, at the Biennale.

The DiS Collective want us to be disturbed, stateless, confused about what is an advert and where the art stops. They are trying to tap into our annoyed and anxious contemporary state – one where there are no clear reference points. But that is not how many of us actually feel.

Hey you! Fatty!

 

Hey you, Fatty! What are you hungry for?

 

This morning I was chatted up by a woman. Tall, sturdy, she worked out, the first thing I noticed was her trim Ben Sherman checked shirt, open to reveal a chunky silver chain. Her hair was completely shorn- clean and shiny, she had no earrings, no makeup. Her feet were large, a size nine perhaps, in new Nikes, her jeans loosely fitting, just so. Her breasts were vaguely noticeable. A butch Tanzanian woman- openly cruising me on a dusty pavement outside the shop where I had stopped the motorbike to pick up cigarettes. She was perfunctory- what was my name, did I ‘smoke’, peeling back her trouser leg to reveal small rolled packets of ganja tucked into her sock. “I sell it” she announced with little fanfare. Then she proceeded to tell me she had two kids- 14 and 9 “no more, enough” she flicked her hand dismissively, and that was that.

Being a dope dealer, or a butch lesbian, or the mechanics of picking up a foreign woman on the side of the road of a medium sized African city are not what this piece is about.

The bit I want to focus on is being fat (or just not thin) and female in Africa, which has a particular set of assumptions.  Twice this week I’ve ended up having conversations with (white, expat) women about their eating disorders. About the obsessive concentration and planning that goes into thinking about food: it strikes me as a route into edifying one’s own existence. A way of exploring how to assert one’s ‘realness’ in a world where it’s easy to disappear, to starve oneself out of existence.  A road into emotional terrain that is complex and contradictory, a way to name the tangents of the first, basest emotion: hunger.

Writing about being fat in Africa, It’s hard to know where to position the lens, where to start.  Images on British news screens of Biafra in the 70’s, Michael Buerk in Ethiopia in the 80’s. All showed thin as a double negative, doubly sub-altern, a culpable state of vulnerable victimhood, being a refugee; never chosen, but inflicted by political conflict, drought, and now we know, environmental damage.

On the other side, occasionally we see images of fat African mamas selling bananas in markets. Or wives and political leaders (I’m thinking Sally Mugabe, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, Winnie Mandela) whose bulk and largesse, swathed in powerful bright material, is positioned as vaguely ridiculous. A reference to their lack of self-control? Inability to discipline themselves? The Williams sisters (Serena and Venus) are remarkable because they unashamedly portray an image of African (American) femininity as powerful. But they are not, strictly African, and sportswomen belong to a whole different category I think. A whole other set of essentialist assumptions about body-fascism, that belongs to another day.

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It’s what hit me in Manhattan. The skinny white women. Same in Richmond (West London, not the US) – home of Japanese shoe-ins, Russian Oligarchs and South African bankers: girl-women crammed into tight jeans, ugg boots, pushing prams, their bodies a triumph over their biological histories.  It is like choosing horses at the auction, only the ones of a certain height, strength (flimsy looking) with no body mass or sturdiness, get in. (Who is doing the choosing?) I could understand why in certain circles women are referred as ‘fillies’ – all gangly legs, big eyes and cute fragility. There is a certain similarity. When women are thin, Bambi-like and in the ‘first world’ it is desirable. But in East and Southern Africa being thin means something else entirely. The slang for HIV positive in parts of South Africa is ‘thin’.  When I visit England and return, my Tanzanian friends greet me with jubilant cries of “Look how you’ve increased! You’ve got fatter! Welcome back!” It’s a way of saying I look good, healthy. Nogizi Chimananda writes about it too- good she’s noticed as well- the way that there’s a correlation between geography and perceptions/interpretations of bulk: a few train stops in New York is the difference between rich, thin white, and poor, black and FAT. Yes, personhood as drama of heterogeneity (Bataille 2001) rings true.

Being fat in Tanzania has its own set of signifiers. It indicates wealth, comfort, ease, choice. It says “I am thinking and doing beyond the next meal.”  It says, I have ‘made it’ (income wise) and can support myself, my extended family, and I can sit down long enough to eat more than my body needs. That in turn says a huge amount about your time, choices, job, social life, access to medical care, and life chances. In a way being fat constitutes being ‘more’ of a citizen, or, in more academic language “sovereignty described as the foundation of individual autonomy….over identifies the similarity of self-control to sovereign performativity and state control over geographical boundaries”.(Balke 2005). The frequency of seeing fat people here in Tanzania is rare- the streets and markets are heaving with lean slim people. With current wages (low) and unemployment unofficially near 50% There simply is, for the majority of people, not the choice to be fat in Tanzania, I have, in over 20 years of visiting and living and working in Tanzania only known one clinically obese person. He was an immigration officer, not a high ranking one, and ate enormous meals, as part of my visa process (paid for by me).  The medical facilities do not exist here to investigate the cause of his bulk, (emotional, or physiological) and I did not know him well enough to probe.

In a poetic twist, the rich (the fat ones) here in Tanzania are hidden. There are whole suburbs, unsigned, nestling out of town, whole estates where fat people (expat and local) live in protected, barbed wire bliss. It’s only the poor we see with their skinny frames in public view. With the recently elected Prime Minister, (Magafuli, interestingly shown on his campaign posters as slim and riding a bicycle) perhaps the (corrupt) fatties will come out of hiding…. We shall see.

 

 

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Obesity is a national concern in South Africa, where a diet of pap (similar to ugali here, maize meal, but more processed) has resulted in a carbohydrate heavy diet, and diabetes 2 being the highest rising illness in the country. There are no recorded cases of anorexia or bulimia in Tanzania, there is a dedicated state clinic in South Africa, and numerous private facilities.

As for me, let’s get personal, as it is the political. My father expanded from being a beanpole in his twenties, to a man weighing more than 220kg who was carried dead out of his flat by eight men who struggled. I am about 15kg overweight, and have been since 2009, either as a result of the drugs I have to take to stay alive, or aging, or eating too much.

Only in the last year have I acknowledged how irritated I am by the photos of me in the last six years showing a substantial ‘winter reserve’. It’s funny here in Tanzania, (my friends glow, giggle and prod my tummy as they exclaim “You’ve expanded!).  it’s normal in the UK (I am a size 14) but it bothers me that my choice to think about my diet, to have the time and knowledge to delve into various gluten- or non-gluten diets, is very much a privilege accorded because out of sheer luck. I was born in GB, and not Tanzania. (My parents were offered exile and citizenship in both places, and chose UK because my dad wanted to continue studying).

It bothers me that despite all this choice, all this politicised knowledge, all my self-control, I am not the lean, fit, energised person I want to be.

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It is not about being desirable, or desired (ok yes it is, a bit) it is about exercising the macro-political and dietary choices I have, and my failure to do so.

It’s been over-written. Fat is a Feminist issue. Susie Orbach said it well. The control of our bodies, our reproduction, sexuality, self-maintenance, who we are judged and assessed by, is not a neutral thing. Donna Harraway writes about the all-consuming lens of the male gaze, with its ability to un-make or create us, and to a large degree we (women) self-police: imposing implicit codes on what we can look like on ourselves and each other. Rarely are we allowed to look tatty, unkempt in the way that say Jeremy Corbyn or Michael Foot does. A woman can be many things- but she must not be fat and ‘let herself go’. That is an indication of insanity.

I type this in a loose kaftan, hair un-brushed, fat at 6am, wondering if I too, might be slightly mad.

 

See also, for further reading:

 

Berlant, L. Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency) Critical Enquiry, www4.uwm.edu/c21/pdfs/events/berlant_slowdeath.pdf Chicago Press 2007

Cooper C. The Girl Chubster Gang: http://charlottecooper.net/b/chubsters/

Cooper C. Fat Activism, A Radical Social Movement, Hammeron press 2016

Ida Horner Big is Beautiful,. http://www.africaontheblog.com/big-is-beautiful-in-africa-but-should-a-person%E2%80%99s-size-matter/ 2010

Sebag-Montiefiore C. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150116-can-fat-be-beautiful 2015

Simmons, A. Where Fat Is a Mark of Beauty, Los Angeles Times, 1998 http://www.anthroprof.org/documents/Docs102/102articles/fat26.pdf

 

 

BODA BODA

For about, I suppose, ten years now, Chinese motorcycles have been over-running East Africa. Tanzania is awash with rip-off fake bikes, with names like “Sanyam” or “Toyo” (actually this has become slang for motorbike) and boda boda is the name for the driver and bike, who pick you up. If ever you wanted evidence of how China has changed Tanzanian lives, this is it. Providing the means for literally thousands of young men (there are no female boda bodas to my knowledge) across every town, village, dusty plot in Tanzania.

 

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So this is Frank. Or coyboy. Or Emmanuel. I started knowing him as Frank (in 2010) and then realised his friends called him Emmanuel. And then in December 2015 I was told his nickname is Cowboy. He sold me my second bike. It’s still going strong, four years later. Which is a miracle. Given the shoddiness of Chinese imported parts.

 

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Phillips, Arusha, 2016

Everyone is self taught. Or they teach each other- some of the mechanics are really very good. Some are  just chancers. It’s very male. The workshops are always in these weird back-alley stuffed up places reeking of  infamy and the lash…(there’s no evidence of this. Just my imganination), everyone’s short of money, more than anything. The workshop is throbbing. The thing is: these ruddy bikes break all the time. So they require non-stop maintenance. (My own battery has just conked out. The second in three months, how is it even possible to make a fifth-rate battery?). Tanzania gets all the sub-quality Chinese imports. They’re plentiful. They’re cheap. They break. Fordism at work.

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The boda bodas work long days, from 7.30am until 9pm and then Sunday is a busy day because everyone needs to get to church. The prices are low, about a pound to go 3-4 kms. These guys are a definate sub-culture, batchelor boys renting one room in someone else’s compound, always looking for money, and mostly, a girlfriend. Trouble is boda boda has no prestige in Arusha. Girls in Arusha are remarkably ruthless and money-focussed. Mussa said to me “One girl actually insisted I bought her a power pack phone charger before we went on a date. Apparently that was so, ‘she could ring me’ and then she asked for pay as you go credit for her phone. We’d not even been on the first date!” He stops to cackle with laughter.

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14 hours a day.7 days a week
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Ema
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that’s the sound of the man…

 

Way out in Kilosa, down long dusty roads, Masaai are tending their beloved cattle (which are incidentally, the subject of a massive furore… as the government want to tag them, and they regard this as insulting. Afterall, they have their own tags. Cattle are more like children than animals to the Masaii, plus they are worth a huge amount of money). But even out here, where there’s no public transport at all, there’s still boda boda…

 

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SURFING IN PALESTINE

Original: Guardian 23 May 2016

 

Palestinians were baffled when Tanya Habjouqa first explained her photographic project to them. “They felt a political obligation to talk about their suffering,” she says. “They were startled when I asked about pleasure. They would slowly ask, ‘Pleasure? We don’t usually discuss pleasure.’ While my pictures may seem light and easy, I had to foster their trust to convince them I was not working to show that things were actually ‘hunky-dory’ under occupation.”

Bodybuilders in Gaza strike a pose.
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Bodybuilders in Gaza strike a pose. Photograph: Tanya Habjouqa/ Panos Pictures

Occupied Pleasures, judged one of the best photo books of 2015 by Time magazine, takes an astonishingly fresh and vibrant look at the people of the occupied territories: from teenage surfer girl Sabah Abu Ghanim waiting for a wave, to three bodybuilders posing after a workout; from an elderly man sitting amid the paraphernalia of his son’s new wedding business Bliss Life, to the airborne free-runners spinning through a cemetery near their refugee camp.

Habjouqa says she started thinking about the book in 2009 when she felt increasingly dissatisfied “with a tired narrative that held little truth in the daily reality of kafka-esque checkpoints and militarised limited movements”. She adds: “Israel and Palestine are almost always presented in a reductionist manner. Palestinians are either victims, or proponents, of violence. There is rarely the nuanced context needed.”

the Gaza Parkour and Free-running team at a cemetery near their refugee camp
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The Gaza Parkour and Free-running team at a cemetery near their refugee camp Photograph: Tanya Habjouqa/ Panos Pictures

Although she was born in Jordan, Habjouqa was educated in the US, beginning her career in Texas, where she documented Mexican migrant communities and urban poverty. She now lives in the Middle East, having married a Palestinian and started a family. This, she says, was the final motivation to make Occupied Territories. “Having children who are now inheriting the heavy weight of this narrative, I wanted to explore and celebrate the impressive human side of how Palestinians, despite almost 49 years of occupation, have kept their humanity and respect for one another as a people.”

Full of gentle humour, Habjouqa’s photos play with gender and humanity, finding unexpected entry points to well-worn stories. She has photographed the only all-women Palestinian car-racing team and briefly documented a Palestinian and Israeli drag queen community in Jerusalem. She is a founder member of Rawiya, an all-female documentary photography collective whose Arabic name means: “She who tells a story.”

Young women in jilbab exercise in a gym in Gaza.
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Young women in jilbab exercise in a gym in Gaza. Photograph: Tanya Habjouqa/ Panos Pictures

Although it shows everyday lives in often ironic juxtapositions, Habjouqa’s work is not intended to normalise the occupation, as some critics have suggested. Instead, it shows everyday resilience. “It is one of the most covered and scrutinised stories in the world. Many journalists have a timid paranoia when they portray this reality, trying to report this occupation in a supposedly balanced way that actually distorts the lived reality.”

A young man brings home a sheep for Eid after passing a Qalandia checkpoint.
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A young man brings home a sheep for Eid after passing a Qalandia checkpoint. Photograph: Tanya Habjouqa/ Panos Pictures

Occupied Pleasures features a shot of three veiled women working out in a gym, facing away like synchronised swimmers and wearing full jilbab, or long trench coats. Access took some negotiation: the women feared they would be mocked as being oppressed for dressing that way while exercising.

Habjouqa gets very irate about western attitudes to such attire. “As a woman from the region,” she says, “what I find orientalist, reductionist, simplistic and outright baffling is the inordinate obsession with women in hijab. We are talking about a shocking period of tumult – occupation, displacement, breakneck geo-political developments, utter violence in Iraq and Syria – why discuss the veil? It is such a non-issue for me. Your average Middle Easterner or enlightened traveller, journalist, or academic will not focus on it. Unless it is intended to sell. Sex sells. And when talking about the Middle East, the veil sells.”

A family in Gaza City enjoys a picnic on the beach.
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A family in Gaza City enjoys a picnic on the beach. Photograph: Tanya Habjouqa/ Panos Pictures

Habjouqa mentions another event that encouraged her to make Occupied Pleasures: an encounter with a groom who had fallen in love with his Jordanian bride via Skype. He sneaked the woman through tunnels into Egypt, embracing her in what he described as a scene snatched from a Bollywood film. “No matter what this occupation does to us,” he told Habjouqa, “we will always find a way to live and love – and maybe even laugh.”

The UK launch of Occupied Pleasures takes place at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, on 26 May. This article was amended on 23 May 2016. An earlier version misquoted Habjouqa.

Occupied Pleasures. The Original. Permission to narrate.

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/may/22/surfing-in-palestine-the-occupied-territories-as-youve-never-seen-them-before-tanya-habjouqa. The link takes you to the piece published in the G2 on Monday 23rd May 2016. This however, is what I actually wrote. To follow will be a much more detailed article about the weary bending and accomodating to fit the Western model of news and journalism. Who, indeed, does have permission to narrate?

 

In the prologue to Tanya Habjouqa’s book, Occupied Pleasures, launched in the UK next week, Professor Laleh Khalil- Habjouqa’s former tutor at SOAS- provides a powerful introduction:

“When war, colonialism, or extreme political violence become the scaffolding of everyday life, photojournalism emerges as the most prevalent document recording the enormity of the prevailing conditions. This photojournalism is crucial. The obligation to remember our histories and pasts can only be met if we have imagery with which we can narrate what has happened to us, and the work of photojournalists provides some of this imagery.  Without this work we would not be able to imagine the vastness of the system of control the Israeli military uses to discipline Palestinians; without this work, the moment of conflict, of violent collision, of loss, would remain anaemically verbal. That so frequently the occupied Palestinian territories are subjected to curfews and closures, to enforced invisibility behind walls and detention centres and security zones, reinforces the necessity of making politics visible through images and news items. …

 

Credit Tanya Habjouqa/Panos

 

Tanya Habjouqa’s book, “Occupied Pleasures” is a personal project, and will be launched at the School of Oriental and African Studies on May 26. The book made the best photo book of 2015 in both Time Magazine and Smithsonian. It arose in 2009 after dissatisfaction with mainstream narratives of the daily reality of kafka-esque checkpoints and militarized limited movements.  Habjouqa says,

“Israel and Palestine is almost always told in reductionist manner with the same tired tropes. Where Palestinians are either victims of or proponents of violence, and rarely with the nuanced context needed”.

Ultimately, it was her marriage to a Palestinian and having children that motivated Habjouqa to take different photos. She says,

“Having children here who are inheriting the heavy weight of this narrative, I wanted to find a way to explore this and celebrate the impressive human side of how the Palestinians, despite almost 49 years of occupation have kept their humanity, civil society, and respect for one another as a people. “

Habjouqa  is unequivocally contradictory and unboxable: her photos speak of quiet politics, humor, and play with juxtapositons of gender and humanity and unexpected entry points to worn stories.  She has photographed the only all women Palestinian car racing team and documented a brief period of a vibrant Palestinian and Israeli draq queen community in Jerusalem.  She is a founder member of all-female documentary photography collective Rawiya (“she who tells a story” in Arabic) and regularly talks and exhibits around the world.

Occupied Pleasures took many months of research, of developing trust, and Habjouqa set out to act ethically, and to make sure that her subjects felt treated respectfully. Habjouqa says that many Palestinians she meets feel

“A political obligation here to talk about their suffering. They were startled when I asked  about pleasure. They would slowly ask pleasure? WE don’t usually discuss pleasure. And in fact, while the pictures may seem light and easy, it took fostered trust to show that I was not working on an agenda to show “things were hunky dorey under occupation or diminish it in some way.

Habjouqa’s work, which shows everyday lives often in ironic juxtapositions, is not intended to normalise the occupation, as some critics may have suggested. Instead, it actually shows every day inner resilience.

“As one of the most covered and scrutinized media stories in the world; many journalists often work with a timid paranoia in how they portray this reality. Trying to report this occupation in a supposedly “balanced” way that actually distorts the lived reality. To borrow from the title of a superb work by Edward Said, by marrying into this conflict and having children here, it gave me “Permission to Narrate”. To say things more directly…. and to explore in my work a more overt social documentary nature not timidly outlined in hard news restrictions.”

credit Tanya Habjouqa/Panos

Like the Middle East, Habjouqa – as an articulate feminist photographer- is now at the centre of gaze, and she is keen to use this platform to fundamentally change the media’s approach to the Middle East. Occupied Pleasures started from an interview in 2009 with the groom featured in the wedding photograph glued to a rust-coloured wall. Having fallen in love with his Jordanian bride on Skype, the groom snuck her through the tunnels to Egypt, embracing her in what he describes as a scene snatched from a Bollywood film. He said to Habjouqa, “No matter what this occupation does to us or takes, we will always find a way to live and love. And maybe even laugh”.

Simultaneously, Habjouqa became increasingly dissatisfied with assignments that seemed to simply reiterate the clichés and tired tropes and even grossly diminish affects, scope, affects of occupation.

 

“I was often being asked to do the same stories- diminishing Christian numbers struggling in Muslim majority Bethlehem (despite fact that both Muslim and Christian Palestinians equally struggling for their rights). , Or when a complex story would appear, such as a friendship formed between a Palestinian from West Bank and Israeli Jew in cancer treatment…(imagery that spoke to the intimacy of the friendship and uncommon decision of a Israeli Jewish woman visiting her friend in her West Bank) these were pushed out of the edit in favour of walls and check points without context.”

She decided to go deeper, to lean on her anthropological training (which favours immersion, forming relationships, gaining trust and taking her time), and to try and explore the nuances. But Occupied Pleasures was a completely new direction. Her style is a combination of street photography and slow nurtured relationships; when faced with reluctant or shy teen agers (often girls), she built up relationships via facebook, a disclosure of her own personal life, rather than just turn up and shoot.

 

Habjouqa Is understandably irritated with ongoing questions about niqab, the veil, and the burkah.

“As a woman from region (Habjouqa is Texan/Jordanian with Circassian ancestry) covering the Middle East, what I find orientalist, reductionist, simplistic, and outright baffling is the inordinate obsession with women in hijab. We are talking about a shocking period of tumult, of occupation, displacement, breakneck geo-political developments….utter violence in Iraq and Syria. The rise of a terrorist entity that has access to selling oil and the creation of a state. Why discuss the veil? It is such a non-issue for me. Your average middle easterner or enlightened traveller, journalist, or academic will not focus on it. Unless it is intended to sell. Sex sells. And when talking about the Middle East, the veil sells. The same picture, of a woman on a beach peering to sea with hair showing versus a woman in hijab staring at sea will illicit different intrigue and publishing options. It is harmful, the utter lack of knowledge of various Middle East communities. The lack of diversity and vibrancy ascribed  to Muslims and Arabs. We need a sophisticated and more nuanced conversation. if you can present people in their complexity people can relate to them much more, and this is what I seek to do.  The idea that most interesting or relevant part of their being is the veil is asinine”.

With the hyper narration of Palestine, mocking or fetishizing of women in hijab, many in the region are aware of how they are often misrepresented.  A photograph from the series (taken just months after the 2009 Israeli military operation across Gaza) is of four veiled women who are working out, facing away like synchronised swimmers, wearing full “jilbab” or long trench coats. Access to the photo took some negotiation. The women were concerned that they would be mocked as being oppressed for wearing such long coats while working out.

credit Tanya Habjouqa/Panos

“They said to me, we’re going to be mocked or pitied by the West, look at those poor women and how oppressed they are….how the cover even while working out.  But in fact our neighbourhood has been decimated, we have nowhere private to work out, we have nowhere else to go but this very public high school building.”

Habjouqa told them that this photo would be accompanied by a caption explaining their situation. And that is what is often lacking in mainstream media, the background, the context.

Hayat Abu R'maes, 25, and Nabila Albo, 39, take students out on a nature walk for yoga in Zatara, on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Sometimes they go to nature spots (one popular spot with Roman ruins) that settlers try to intimidate Palestinians from accessing. They call it "inner resistance". Photo: Tanya Habjouqa

Hayat Abu R’maes, 25, and Nabila Albo, 39, take students out on a nature walk for yoga in Zatara, on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Sometimes they go to nature spots (one popular spot with Roman ruins) that settlers try to intimidate Palestinians from accessing. They call it “inner resistance”. Credit Tanya Habjouqa/Panos

In one photo the two yoga teachers lead their students from Zaatara village on a nature walk to practice, with a beautiful landscape in background. They say they sometimes encounter hostile Israeli settlers. They call it “inner resistance”.  It is a poetic, unpredictable, universal, humane response to a situation.

END

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Blacksmith in the frilly frock

I was struck by how such a small woman, underneath such a large sun hat, could radiate such frosty disdain, on a summer’s day. She wore hiking trousers, chunky work boots and a plain shirt. Mostly she was in flimsy summer dresses, even in February, once saying, whilst ironing, “I get very hot these days”.

There really was no spare fat on her. For a woman barely five foot two, and brushing 64, she was remarkably fit. I watched her chop less than dry tree trunks, or smash pallets for the fire. She demolished the front garden wall and wheelbarrowed 8 loads round the back of the garden in an afternoon. In my head she was an early pioneer: a feminist who rewrote the rules, who lived ‘the personal is political’.
Later that day, by the burner she’d personally smelted, she sat gulping back her home-made elder flower brew (deadly stuff) giggling as she recounted setting up and running London’s first vegetarian co-op, and keeping a horse in the back. It was the early 70’s, garlic had just been invented.  In the days when it genuinely was weird to be a vegetarian, even in London. She offered me a glass, and I realised that for months now she’d been totally sloshed after the first drink, if this was the size of her measures.
Things fell into place. Her comments about the Nazi’s “Having a fair point at the time” (she’d grown up in Belgium and her mother had seen the country fall apart as Nazis took over and Jews were rounded up) were the result of being drunk. “Jews were really tight with their money”…. I was Jewish, I had no idea how to counter this statement. Eventually I said “I’ve noticed the English are really stingy with their money. They’re the only ones I know who don’t help their kids, who don’t see each other much, who never really talk”. It felt weak to counter a slur with a slight. Not what Gandhi would have done.
She said,“Feminism was a waste of time: it wasn’t about gender, it was about just getting on with the job, and applying oneself”- this coming from the woman who raised three kids under five on her own in the Orkney’s after her alcoholic husband walked out.

The house on the South Coast reflected her history, her story, her self-reliance. It was a conventional suburban house with double glazing and too much plastic, that had been imaginatively extended at the back- it was a massive glass sun trap, in which an orange tree bloomed energetically. She had extraordinary luck with plants, and called herself a healer: more than anything I wanted to belive this was true- yet there were never any clients. Ok, I fib, there was one, in nine weeks.
The house was a little cramped, and ‘art’ was everywhere, although there were literally no photos of family, none whatsoever, which for a woman with two grandchildren and one more on the way struck me as odd. And none at all of the past: no hazy sun-filled days of kids being adored. No perched school photos of toothy grins and quickly brushed hair. No houses with kids tumbling out or ford estates with people uncomfortably lined up on parade. There was a lot of ‘stuff’ in the house, but as she was so keen to tell us, it was all bought “really cheaply!” in charity shops. An assemblage of someone else’s stories, someone else’s meanings. And we sort of danced uneasily around it all, pretending this wasn’t odd.

One day, after about a month living there, I threw a rather petulant hissy fit. I surprised myself at the words that came tumbling out “I don’t feel heard, I don’t feel seen! No-one asks me about me, about what I do, who I am, nothing. I feel invisibilized.”
Almost immediately I felt too vulnerable, rather childish. Silly. Despite spontaneously making up a word, voicing this insecurity didn’t make it better.
As lodgers there was no spare room for us except exactly the space we were given. In my case cramming the thousands of books, cd’s ‘treasures’ collected from around the world proved too much, and very soon I was leaking out of that room. Yet whilst the whole house reflected her contradictions, paradoxes and complexity (the most expensive chainsaw lying next to a delicate embroidered handkerchief. A Victorian child’s pram stuffed with scrawled index cards), my own rough edges had to be stuffed into an unmanageably small space.
She asked me to leave after only nine weeks of actually being there (although she’d insisted I started paying a month before I could actually move in). I could no longer live with the quivering dissonance of who she was. I tried hard to see ‘the positive’- her resilience, her strength, (physical and mental) instead I saw only someone who almost completely didn’t see other people. One day we were sitting in the garden. I watched her narrow her eyes and distend them, focusing on the middle distance. I was talking about living and working in East Africa where the constant demands for ‘presents’ and ‘gifts’ completely affected my ability to leave the house, and changed my relationship with gossip and feelng part of it and  integrated. All my relationships were embodied and weighed down by the problems of always being richer, fatter, lighter, more able to leave. She sighed heavily, I thought in understanding of the complexity of poverty, of being an expat, of the colonial legacy. She was not a stupid woman.
“I’m just struggling to line up the fence with the clouds, I do that- make patterns in my head, visual ones.”
I knew then that for months she really had not been listening. Not to me, not to any of us in the house. What I had thought was cheerful bonhomie and ability to roll along easily was little more than sheer self-obsession.
I envied her. Being able to live without noticing others, without letting their moods, energies, currents throw her off course for an entire day. To not spend a day worrying about a friends’ broken collar bone, or another’s alcoholic violently abusive dad, a family member’s recurring drug problem, a neighbour’s tendency to people-please. An older aunt’s leukaemia and difficulty breathing. I envied her so much, and understood her flagrant embrace of opposites. She hardly knew she was doing it.