Sunday, May 11, 2008
The ties that bind...
Over the past few months, during which the weather has been absolutely stunning, when Capetonians would ask me what I thought of their city and I exuberantly replied how gorgeous and breathtaking everything was, my enthusiasm was inevitably met with: ‘Have you spent a winter here yet?’
Well, as of last week, autumn has officially arrived here in Cape Town. And if the weather we have been getting is any indication of the shape of things to come (it is), I think I understand what they meant.
Rain, wind, damp grey skies. The sun did not come out once all weekend. And to make matters worse, most houses (ours included), for some reason are not insulated. Which amazes me to no end, as it’s not like it hasn’t always been this cold in the winter months. Moreover, most houses (again, ours included), do not have central heating. Single-paned windows too. So, the cold gets in the house and doesn’t leave. Ugh.
As I was commenting on the cold to my housemate yesterday she laughed (in a not-unkind way) and told me that this wasn’t even cold. That when I could see my breath in the air IN THE HOUSE, then I could talk to her about the cold. Ughhhhhhhhh.
The point of this entry however is not to complain about the weather (well not much), but more about something it has led me to think about lately.
As the weather is getting poorer and today my ride told me that she is moving to Kuils River at the end of the month, I am realizing that I may have to purchase a car. Aside from transport to work, the mobility it will provide during the cold winter months, (particularly when it gets dark before 5pm) is important I think.
I have not missed not having a car this past little while. In fact, I am very grateful for the experiences it has allowed me out of serendipitous necessity. I have learnt and continue to learn a great deal about the cultures and context within which I am working from my shared-commute colleagues, and feel so fortunate to be privy to their worlds and part of the daily banter (well the parts I understand anyway).
A few weeks ago, S. one of the women who I ride with every day, told me that she had learnt something that morning. Roads all throughout Guguletu are named and numbered some variation on NY#. We have NY4, NY16, NY8, and so on. She told me that she had always wondered what the NY meant for but never knew. That day, she said, she had found out that NY stood for Native Yard, and that the streets had been named as such during the Apartheid era by a regime who didn’t think it important to give actual names to the township roads.
Last week, when the weather turned cool, we were riding to work in the morning and commenting on how the temperature had dropped. On our way before 7:30AM, the sun had not yet fully risen and the mist was so dense that we could not even see the mountain which normally poses as an impending backdrop to the skyline on our way out of the city. An impossible-to-ignore dampness filled the air.
“You know Alex,” she began, “when we were kids, we used to walk to school in this sort of weather barefoot.” I shivered at thought and asked her how far of a walk it was. “About 45 minutes,” she replied. She went on to tell me how they didn’t have shoes. And if they were lucky enough to get a pair of Bata shoes,
(side note – I find it so interesting to note the various threads that in some way connect us all. Bata http://www.bata.com is the Canada-headquartered shoe company started in Czechoslovakia in the late 1800s that by the early 1930s was the world’s leading footwear exporter. A revolutionary company in not only how it industrialized rapidly and expanded internationally, but in its commitment to community-amelioration, customers-first motto and the ways in which it offered employees profit-sharing at a time when such a thing was unheard of. Bata stores can be found in many developing-world nations, and I even noticed a retail outlet on a recent visit to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. The tie-in here comes from the fact that at one point, the sporting goods chain Athlete’s World was owned by Bata. I worked at Athlete’s World for 3 years when I was in high school, can vividly remember learning about the Bata Empire at training seminars at the Bata head office in Toronto, and remember being surprised to learn of its far reaches.)
But back to the car ride.
If they were lucky enough to get a pair of Bata shoes, S. told me, they saved and took great care of them. The only time they would wear them would be to church. And they knew, because if they didn’t their mothers would be quick to remind them, that the minute they left church, the shoes came off. When the shoes got holes in them, they would cut out some cardboard and fit the bottom of them with a piece. And if their feet outgrew the shoes, they wore them anyway.
The commentary on the culture and context that S. grew up in that was offered by this memory was most enlightening, and obviously thought-provoking as I write about it and make the linkages between the forces of international capitalism and its effects on our lived experiences across the planet.