Canceled in the USA, I’ve emerged triumphant in South Africa. I’m huge here, for real. Everywhere I go, people know my name.
“Hello, Jackie Chan!”
“Hi, Mr. Lee.”
“Hey, Bruce Lee!”
“Ching ching!” accompanied by a huge smile.
My self worth restored, I strut. As I pass two chunky prostitutes in Bellville, one laughingly says, “Free to Chinese people.” Now, that’s prestige.
Short skirts or tight pants showcase their bulging buttocks and thick thighs, for locals demand lots of cushion for the pushing. The matchstick thin would snap in two. In groups of three, four or five, they display themselves and wait.
Robert Crumb must have been inspired by caricatures of the Hottentot Venus. More recently, we have Kim Kardashian popping a champagne bottle to ejaculate a creamy white stream of bubbly over her head into a glass perched on her huge rump.
Treated like a freak in Europe, pinched and poked at, Sarah Bartmann has become a symbol of her people’s dehumanized treatment. At age 25 or 26, Bartmann died in Paris in 1815. Eighty-seven years later, she was finally returned to the Eastern Cape to be buried. In Cape Town, there’s the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children, and the main hall at the University of Cape Town is named after her.
As inscribed on Bartmann’s grave, “The site has spiritual, cultural, social and historical significance. The treatment of Sarah Bartmann during her life and after her death speaks of suffering, dispossession, sadness and loss of dignity, culture, community, language and life. It is a symptom of the inhumanity of people.”
Although man’s inhumanity is a constant, and you can’t indict it enough, Bartmann was actually complicit in her own degradation.
It was certainly not black and white, for many Europeans didn’t find her show too amusing. Here’s an account from one disturbed contemporary:
She was extremely ill, and the man insisted on her dancing, this being one of the tricks which she is forced to display. The poor creature pointed to her throat and to her knees as if she felt pain in both, pleading with tears that he would not force her compliance. He declared that she was sulky, produced a long piece of bamboo, and shook it at her: she saw it, knew its power, and, though ill, delayed no longer. While she was playing on a rude kind of guitar, a gentleman in the room chanced to laugh: the unhappy woman, ignorant of the cause, imagined herself the object of it, and as though the slightest addition and as though the slightest addition to the woes of sickness, servitude, and involuntary banishment from her native land was more than she could bear, her broken spirit was aroused for a moment, and she endeavored to strike him with the musical instrument which she held: but the sight of the long bamboo, the knowledge of its pain, and the fear of incurring it again, calmed her. The master declared that she was as wild as a beast, and the spectators agreed with him, forgetting that the language of ridicule is the same, and understood alike, in all countries, and that not one of them could bear to be the object of derision without an attempt to revenge the insult.
Many similar responses led the white-run African Institution to take her impresario, a colored man, to court, but Bartmann refused to be freed from him and return to Africa (at the African Institution’s expense).
In his Early African Entertainments Abroad, Bernth Linfords sums up Bartmann’s situation:
She had agreed to allow herself to be exhibited indecently to the European public, and she persisted in this tawdry occupation for more than five years, stopping only when her health finally broke down. She may have been the victim of the cruelest kind of predatory ruthlessness, but her collusion in her own victimization seems clear. She wanted the show to go on and the profits to keep rolling in. She wanted to capitalize on Western curiosity.
One can argue that her poverty and illiteracy allowed her to be used, but that’s too patronizing, for it implies she was incapable of making life choices. Many say the same of prostitutes, and yes, Bartmann was likely one also.
In any case, Bartmann didn’t consent to having her body cast displayed at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris for a century and a half. In 1982, this stiff and naked “African” was finally removed from the bemused, disgusted or scandalized gazes of clothed visitors.
Confronted with a foreign body, we’re naturally curious, so we gaze, flirt, fuck or even kill, with the last two not all that rare throughout history. Since I’m in Africa, let’s talk about Africa. Am I in Africa?
I’m pretty sure I’m in Africa, although with the internet, the Nescafe Coffee I’m drinking with condensed milk (Vietnamese style) and the Seattle Seahawks highlights I checked out this morning, I could be almost anywhere. For lunch, though, I will have a bototie pie, yum yum, so I’m really in Africa! South Africa.
A pioneering European explorer of the African interior, the Scottish Mungo Park got a very raw deal, indeed, but he too, courted his own doom.
Looking for the source of the Niger, Park went to Africa twice. After all the misfortunes, hardship and near-death experiences Park encountered on his first trip, in 1795-97, most people would have stayed the hell away from the Dark Continent, but Park couldn’t stand being happily married back home, so he had to return.
On both trips, blacks actually treated Park rather well, and sometimes even profoundly so.
Traveling with a caravan of slaves about to be sold (by their black master), Park was even looked after by these wretched men and women. Unlike Park, they had to carry huge burdens on their heads, with one woman, exhausted, beaten then stung by bees, left behind to die. Park:
During a wearisome peregrination of more than five hundred British miles, exposed to the burning rays of a tropical sun, these poor slaves, amidst their own infinitely greater sufferings, would commiserate mine; and frequently of their own accord bring water to quench my thirst, and at night collect branches and leaves to prepare me a bed in the Wilderness.
It’s certainly not anything like the Hollywood or cartoony image of a lone white being cooked in a pot by black savages, but that’s why travelers’ accounts are valuable. If truthful, they add to our understanding with nuanced or surprising depictions.
During another leg of Park’s first trip, he entered the native village (in present-day Gambia) of someone in his caravan:
When we arrived at the blacksmith’s place of residence we dismounted and fired our muskets. The meeting between him and his relations was very tender; for these rude children of nature, free from restraint, display their emotions in the strongest and most expressive manner. Amidst these transports, the blacksmith’s aged mother was led forth, leaning upon a staff. Every one made way for her; and she stretched out her hand to bid her son welcome. Being totally blind, she stroked his hands, arms, and face, with great care, and seemed highly delighted that her latter days were blessed by his return, and that her ears once more heard the music of his voice. From this interview I was fully convinced, that whatever difference there is between the Negro and European, in the conformation of the nose and the colour of the skin, there is none in the genuine sympathies and characteristic feelings of our common nature.
As said, Park had many horrible encounters, with most of them at the hands of the Moors, which by Park’s time meant North African Arabs.
In 1796, Park was a captive of a Moorish chief, Ali, for four months. Constantly starving and thirsty, he also had to display himself nonstop. Like the Hottentot Venus just 14 years later, Park was a freak:
The surrounding attendants, and especially the ladies, were abundantly more inquisitive: they asked a thousand questions, inspected every part of my apparel, searched my pockets, and obliged me to unbutton my waistcoat, and display the whiteness of my skin: they even counted my toes and fingers, as if they doubted whether I was in truth a human being.
I was no sooner seated in this my new habitation, than the Moors assembled in crowds to behold me; but I found it rather a troublesome levee, for I was obliged to take off one of my stockings, and show them my foot, and even to take off my jacket and waistcoat, to show them how my clothes were put on and off: they were much delighted with the curious contrivance of buttons. All this was to be repeated to every succeeding visitor; for such as had already seen these wonders insisted on their friends seeing the same; and in this manner I was employed, dressing and undressing, buttoning and unbuttoning, from noon to night.
Tired of this pale spectacle, the Moors met to decide Park’s fate. Benevolently sparing his life, they decided only to gouge out his eyes, for they resembled a cat’s. This operation would have to wait, however, until an absent Queen Fatima could inspect this queer creature. Luckily for Park, his blinding never happened.
No two travelers experience the same country, even if they’re walking side by side, down the same streets, and this is fine.
The only worthless portraits are by those who have never seen it.
Take Apocalypse Now. Though it was filmed in the Philippines by a director who had never been to Vietnam, during war or peace, Francis Ford Coppola had the hubris to proclaim, “My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like.”
Although many believe this preposterous statement, none of them are Vietnamese, I can assure you. Many can’t help but chuckle, still, at the flick’s most quoted line, “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning.” Americans are often amused by their own sadism.
During my five weeks in South Africa, I’ve written three articles about it, and after each one, there are peculiar misreadings that are very revealing.
One reader comments, “Lihn has a way with words, in that bar with the three negroes, I could smell the sweat, urine and negro funk and he didn’t even mention them.” Although I cite no unpleasant smells in Boum Boum Africa, this white man promptly infuses it with his own stinking cocktail, because he knows, you know, negroes.
Another white man, “Not sure what to make of this article. Is it supposed to be wonderful that the formerly White created and controlled country of S. Africa is now a multicultural hell hole, full of dysfunction and violence? Is it wonderful you have all kinds of different things to eat, but you are living in a war zone, with the existential threat of white annihilation ever imminent? The cheery nonchalant attitude of this non white interloper makes me cringe. He can leave anytime he wants. The Whites unfortunately may not be able to. I never celebrate places where white genocide is occurring. It is sickening.”
The article in question is called, “Heavenly, Hellish Cape Town,” so it’s clear I’m acknowledging South Africa’s negative aspects. In it, I mention the recent rape and murder of a 93-year-old Captonian, and a local mother who’s on trial for allowing the rape and torture of her 2-year-old girl, but there’s much more to Cape Town, obviously.
In this metropolis of four million, there are neighborhoods of million dollar homes, with world-class restaurants that are filled mostly with whites, and served by blacks. I’ve pointed out that most South African Jews have stayed, despite Israel welcoming them. “So clearly,” I said, “they’re not too nervous about their future or money here.” The South African real estate market is dominated by Jews, who sell to other Jews, so until they jump ship en masse, it’s not sinking quite yet. Before spending time here, I didn’t know any of this, and that’s why everyone should travel.
Despite all its problems, South Africa attracts lots of immigrants, especially from other parts of Africa. I’ve met people from Burundi, Malawi, Nigeria, Congo, Ethiopia and Mozambique.
The guy I exchange money from is an Ethiopian of about 40 who has been here for 27 years, “If someone gives me a million dollars to go to America, I’ll tell him to keep it. I’m not going anywhere. I love it here.”
On my first day here, I met a Chinese who had returned to Cape Town after eight years in Australia.
“When I was in school in China, most other kids studied sciences, they wanted to become engineers, but a teacher told me to focus on English. If you become good at English, you’ll get many opportunities, and he was right. I listened to him.”
This man’s first job overseas was in Abu Dhabi, where he worked for a Chinese furniture company. “It was a different world. I saw all these nice houses, nice cars, nice SUVs. I realized us Chinese were living like pigs!” he laughed.
In Abu Dhabi, he read stories about Nelson Mandela, so became aware of South Africa. After Abu Dhabi, he returned to China, where he almost got married, but his itch to go back overseas prevented this. He no longer wanted to live in China.
In Cape Town on a tourist visa, he learned from other Chinese, at the casino where they frequented, that if you applied for political asylum, you could legally linger. Post-Apartheid, the South African bureaucracy has become preposterously slow. With extra time, he managed to meet a South African-born Chinese and they got married.
Brits, Germans, Arabs and Chinese are also buying splendid houses here, so people are moving in. Whether they’re foolish for doing so, time will tell. If I had a million bucks, though, I would buy a home in Cape Town and not Philadelphia, where I spent three decades. In fact, I wouldn’t accept a free home anywhere in the quickly disintegrating and psychotically angry USA, not that there’s anything waiting for me there.
A lovely comment, “I have wondered how a Southeast Asian junk picker, the last job I remember him mentioning working, can afford to bebop around the world spewing his Asian hive mind twaddle.
“It is a shame the little ingrate was ever allowed to step foot on US soil. A shame the South China Sea pirates didn’t get him.”
You see, these stay-at-home white Americans are enraged that I have anything positive to say about South Africa. To them, it has to be a black created hell where all whites are being raped, killed or being driven out. They’re also outraged that I have anything nice to say about any black, who are all supposed to be stinking criminals.
They’re disgusted at my description of a taxi van “that’s redolent of body oils and arm pits,” and my conclusion that “we’re all the same, dude, and heading in the same direction, until you get off, that is, so hallelujah!” Last I checked, my armpits, and much else, which I won’t go into, could outstink that of any man, woman or animal on earth.
Let’s end on a positive note. Until someone proves otherwise, he is your brother. Walking down Kloof the other day, a black woman said to me, “Have a beautiful day!”
Not used to such civility, or beauty, for that matter, I ignored her.
“I guess he didn’t hear me,” she muttered as she kept walking.
“Oh I’m sorry,” I turned around. “What did you say?”
“I said, ‘Have a beautiful day!’”
“I’m sorry I didn’t hear you. You too!”