Where I live


I live in a suburb called Observatory. Suburbs are less about Nancys with lemonade and lawnmowers and more about the distinct sections of living situations that surround the city. Cape Town and all its suburbs are built in a circle around the big and beautiful Table Mountain, and inside the curve of the mountain lies the city bowl. Further on the outskirts are townships, designated black areas to which people were forced to relocate during apartheid, which ended less than 30 years ago. Apartheid is “over” but the economic and social disparities are very much alive and kicking, largely because of the city’s purposeful spatial planning that keeps white real estate climbing and black communities hidden. Langa, for example, is a square mile surrounded by road and rail. Population is between 50,000 and 80,000, which qualifies as a town in the U.S. As the population continues to grow, the area gets more dense with nowhere to go.

The areas bordering the ocean are all inhabited by wealthy white people. Sea Point is where the rich Jews live, Green Point is for the gays, Observatory is for the Muslims and the pot smokers, a quirky Venn diagram with no middle pocket. What I love most about Obz is that it feels like a cozy town. I know Paul and Ross that run their vegan cafe, Cliff who makes tarts, and Johno who explained 5 different kids of fabric blend to me on a slow afternoon. In the mornings, I walk past the homeless couple whose dogs remember me. The liquor store owner has a parrot name Jody that likes to bite people.


this would be me, but I don’t get close enough

I started off sharing a home with a roommate, then halfway through decided it was time for me to experience living alone. I asked Paul if he knew any places available in the area, and he reached into his pocket, handed me some house keys, and told me to let myself into a house his friend was renting. It was such a gesture of trust and care that I have never experienced from someone at my local Starbucks. I also feel I’m surrounded by real people making an honest attempt at starting their own businesses, their own art galleries, their own recipes for their restaurants. It’s an engaging and interactive place to live.

I live far from the gym, and unfortunately close to the world’s best Ferrero Rocher milkshakes. I and 7 minutes from Langa and 10 from town. There’s beer pong on Thursdays, pressed juices for two dollars, and a cafe that has bout a million books for sale crammed into the walls top to bottom.

The issue of homelessness is very jarring and heartbreaking in Cape Town, and largely in Observatory. The city issues PSAs to not give to homeless people, since there is guaranteed food, water, and showers for any and all that are in need.

On a daily basis, it can be desensitizing as it isn’t uncommon to be approached half a dozen times in a day. But in the bigger picture, living in Cape Town will never ever let a person forget about their privilege. The history of ZA segregation is bare faced in the present, with evidence in every street, restaurant, or house you point to. Minibuses can take you anywhere, and my friends who’ve spent their entire lives in Langa will say they’ve been to the beach once. Older white South Africans I met at the Waterfront will have spent 60 years in the city without having been in a township once.

I will be honest in my struggle between the balance of being empathetic and maintaining my own level of comfort and sanity. My home got broken into while I was gone. They stole $600 worth of Isaac’s music equipment, which he was using to help teach youth in Langa songwriting and music engineering (more on that later). More heinously, they stole a jigsaw puzzle I didn’t get to start yet. While feeling shaken at the lack of security and the huge financial loss (to Ikes), I also couldn’t help but understand the desperation that poorer people feel here. I attended with my Langa friends a lecture on intergenerational trauma, where the lecturer spoke about how an incident like apartheid or even domestic abuse continues to pass down trauma from parent (or lack/neglect of) to child, creating a vicious cycle of violence, need, and crime. It is impossible to distinguish the criminal actions of a person from the South African context from which it comes from. The political system spent decades disenfranchising the majority of the South African population, and its replacement has done little to help in reconciliation or access to wealth and health. People aren’t stealing puzzles to ruin my day; I live in a community where someone needs to take a puzzle to survive. It doesn’t make it right and it doesn’t cheer me up, but I believe the understanding of the “why’s” behind crime, at least in this environment, is something that I will take home with me.

On a separate and lighter note, living alone is awesome. Two days ago I baked 30 biscuits inspired by the Red Lobster appetizers at midnight and ate 10 of them. I spend my afternoons painting or reading. My smaller living space makes much harder for me to decide not to cross the room and get a glass of water. I’m more hydrated than I’ve been in years. I listen to Kelly Clarkson (2004) without headphones. And I get to use the whole entire table for the new puzzle I bought. Sometimes I dream about living here for ten more years. I try to ignore that I have three and a half months left.


Fish out of water, except the fish is Cape Town

“The government cautions that the Day Zero threat will surpass anything a major city has faced since World War II or the Sept. 11 attacks. Talks are underway with South Africa’s police because “normal policing will be entirely inadequate.” Residents, their nerves increasingly frayed, speak in whispers of impending chaos.

A family negotiates their way through caked mud around a dried up section of the Theewaterskloof dam near Cape Town

I’ve been putting off writing about this to give me time to organize my thoughts and research about how this managed to happen and what’s largely to blame… but, considering that today we have advanced (or devolved) to level 6b water restrictions, it’s a good a time as any. This means that residents are required to use less than 50L of water a day (yesterday it was 87L). For us imperial system Americanos, consider the fact a toilet flush is 6 liters, a 2 minutes shower is 20 liters, and washing your face and hands in the morning is 3L. It can add up for people that aren’t paying attention. And despite the public service announcements, interactive graphics, persistent urgent warnings, and now international news coverage, many Cape Tonians are still not listening. It’s been revealed that under the 87 L restriction, 67% of residents were still overusing their daily quota.

The rest of them have it down pat. To flush the toilet is to commit the deepest sin. The bucket in the shower is a household staple. To emit a slight funk is a badge of honor. Some are literally diagnosed with “bucket back” due to their commitment of saving grey water.

But I will say despite statistics, I have been very proud of the way I have seen residents in my neighborhood and Langa come together to do what’s necessary. Many people believe that low income neighborhoods have bigger problems to worry about than the environment, but I have found the exact opposite to be true. Each Langa homestay has finished a SMART living training program that had them put signs in their bathrooms and make moves towards solar and energy cutting appliances. But go to Constantia, Hout Bay, Camps Bay, the 1% garden cities of Cape Town, and I don’t doubt you will find green manicured lawns and pools still full of water. And yet, last week, the DA leader Mmusi Maimaine sparked outrage by posting a picture handing out 25 L buckets to Constantia (think Bel Air) residents to encourage them to save water.


When you consider the context — a very economically and racially stratified post-apartheid social environment, and the guy is handing out buckets to white people at the black taxpayer expense — it’s not a super good look. Hundreds of pissed off South Africans put it to words better than I do:

Screen Shot 2018-02-02 at 12.18.02 AM

It is very important to see how the government will handle this problem. When Day Zero comes in April, residents are to queue in one of 200 water collection points throughout the city with armed guards making sure people don’t get more than 25L per day. As the Times put it, we’re truly going Mad Max. But the question I’m interested in seeing is the placement of these points. Townships are extremely dense with people, but don’t have the wealthy vote for the next election cycle, which could very well incenstivize the placement of these points. It’s politics that largely got the water crisis to be this exacerbated in the first place. With the ANC party holding the national government and the DA holding the regional government, budgets have been handed off from one election cycle to the other with each budget focused on getting short term votes. This means funds have long been dedicated to short term poverty alleviation to long term infrastructure projects. When Cape Town should have been listening to the dooming weather patters and shocking population increase, officals should have been allocating funds to desalination tanks and a better dam system much longer ago.

The city centre business are already exempt from the water cutoffs in order to keep business running. Informal settlements are also exempt. But what about those living in townships that are formal settlements? What about people in Muisenberg, who my Uber driver tells me wait for over an hour at collection points already? What about lil ol me in Observatory?

Time will tell. Commnuication from up top has been unreliable from the start. Every day was a changing percentage of how full the dams were, and statements about the current state of water is geared more towards political pats on the back than actually dessimating important information to citizens (I just read an article celebrating the fact that we pushed Day Zero back to April 16… when the Times reported it was to be April 22. Go figure.) But desalination plants from the Waterfront should be online by March, and until then, hospitals, clinics, informal settlements, and clinical points will still have access to water.

This is the first major city in the world to run out of water, but it is most definitely not the first city. Cape Town has many rural groups to turn to to gain valuable protips on how to last without water. If they take some proper notes, they could rise from this political embarrassment as a decent case study on how to survive when other countries inevitably run into the same problem. Maybe by that point we’ll have no need for our buckets and back braces.

The coming weeks will be interesting, to say the least. But to those wondering if we’re flopping like dried fish out here, we are okay. The water crisis is as bad as it sounds, but people will adapt and adjust to do what is necessary to make push through Day Zero, or, in a perfect world, make sure the day doesn’t have to come.


The burst of the blue bubble

I have felt useless contributing to the conversations following the election of Donald Trump last week. I haven’t felt the fire in my chest to protest, to take a stand, to sign the petition in the hopes that a loophole will bring Clinton into office. I don’t feel that those are actions helping me get closer to reality.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from the social media discourse, it’s that it is an echo chamber. I have taken comfort in my blue bubble for many years, believing that the country was collectively rolling forward in progress. I take comfort in it now in remembering that in the light of electing a white supremacist, my circle of diverse friends and allies will continue to exist and advocate for each other in the face of the doom that marches forward on January 20. But alas.

The Wall Street Journal released an interesting interface called Blue Feed, Red Feed, a project that shows how Facebook reveals an entirely different set of articles and news sources depending on the political alignment of the user. To a red user, posts about “reverse racism on the rise as black Americans beat an old Trump supporter” hit headlines, while a blue user reads about “Hijabi woman gets robbed and beaten by racist Trump supporter.” Clicking through this site makes it clear just how different the world is shaped and seen by people interacting with different corners of the internet.

Back in journalism class in high school, I was asked by my teacher, “What is the most important part about being a journalist?” I replied that it was to tell the truth, and was immediately corrected. “The most important thing is to make money.”Part of the reason this is so is because nobody is paying for good journalism anymore. Smaller scale newspapers and magazines are underfunded and have to rely on sensationalist drama to catch a reader’s eye.

Seeing the effect that this sort of news bias has had on our election, I now believe it is imperative to spend the money to get good journalism. No matter what the cost. I would be willing to pay to hear the truth if it means that I never have to feel the shock that the majority of the country is speaking an entirely different language when it comes to the conversations around choosing our next president. Of course, election articles and polls are merely speculative until the votes start rolling in. CNN was wrong. BBC was wrong. Even Nate Silver was wrong.  Over at Carreon Thinking, she says “this era of weakened trust in mainstream outlets and in poor media literacy is troubling considering that Balkan teenagers can run pro-Trump websites full of inaccurate or misleading information that nevertheless generates hundreds of thousands of engagements on social media.” But I no longer want to be in my blue echo chamber. This is the time for Americans like me to switch to Fox News every once in a while. For Republicans to have conversations with their Muslim and Latinx colleagues. For the bubble to burst.


The new Ellis Island




With the announcement of the new President of the United States still ringing in America’s ears, some are left speechless. Others are left scrambling through the soundbites of the campaign’s promises, trying to see what sort of laws he will implement that could hurt their families, their citizenship, and their sense of inclusion. And even 6,000 miles away, a broken nation of people are seeing the lock bolted on the door of the country they hoped they could have called home. The escapees of the Syrian civil war, 80% of whom are women and children, find themselves now in the crux of a psychological war in the American mind, caught between those who sympathize with their genocide and those who simply don’t want to be involved.

“Because they’re coming into the country, they’re being put where nobody even knows where they are,” guesses Trump, president elect  of our country. “We don’t know where they are, where they’re coming, you’ve them all over the place. And for all we know, this could be the great Trojan Horse.”

This depiction of these fleeing families, much like the story of the Trojan Horse, is a tired myth with no roots in reality or lived experiences. The reality is that out of 800,000 of the refugees accepted into American borders since the rise of terrorism in 2001, not a single one has been convicted of terrorism. Yet every last of these new Americans continue to be feared and attacked on the grounds of their otherness.

As a result of this stance of inaction, Americans have watched and balked at President Bashar al-Assad’s systematic massacre of his people. The degree of this engagement is limited to exclamations of lukewarm sympathy on social media, feelings of sadness at the circulation of images of bloody and drowned children, but never a stirring of emotion to the point of action. Instead, the reflexive instinct of our country has been to point right back at the Middle East, insisting that Syrian neighbors aren’t doing their part to shoulder the immigrants. But two of Syria’s neighbors, Jordan and Lebanon, host more refugees per capita than any European country. On the Western side, Canada has a tenth of America’s population, yet has resettled double the amount the States have. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister, has even volunteered to accept 250,000 refugees from the States, Syrians and undocumented Mexicans included, if the ban on immigration holds water this coming January.

The fear that drives Americans to push refugees out of our borders is not new-founded: In 1939, the U.S. turned away 900 of them, fearing that they may be conspirators or puppets from their oppressors. These individuals were Jews, and after they were forced back into Germany, a quarter of them were killed in the Holocaust. This is not to say that these two tragedies are comparable in scale or in atrocity. The point is not to play Oppression Olympics, but to say that the opportunity for the United States to intervene in the face of human rights abuses was present in both cases, and in both cases, the fear of the foreigner caused the country to turn its cheek.

This issue has often been split down partisan lines. Yet traditionalists and constitutionalists above anyone shouldn’t find it difficult to boast in the land of the free, the resurgence of the legacy of Ellis Island. But it seems that for many Americans, the lines of distinction seem to blur the farther the victims seem to be from the West. Suddenly, it’s not a human problem, it’s an Arab problem. This issue has been exacerbated every time media fails to delineate between ISIS and Muslim, between Islamic radicals and the peaceful followers of Islam. Thanks to this discourse, an entire religious group has been painted with a broad stroke of suspicion and mistrust, one that blankets the compassion for a nation of dying women and children that just want to live somewhere safe.

Pulling the welcome mat from our doors may ironically be the strike of the match that destabilizes our national security. Our compassion and accordance with global community in resettling refugees not only strengthens alliances, but also acts against the image of Islamophobia that jihadists use to justify their hatred against the States.

Regardless, such fear of ramification should not even be the basis for deciding to open our doors. Compassion, decency, and the practice of liberty and justice for all should be more than enough. Our country is only enriched with every new spice, every new addition to the melting pot of its demography. To go safe would be to be sorry.


America’s Employees of the month are behind bars


This holiday season, I finally got to enjoy the free time that I use to kick back and watch troubling documentaries about the state of our civil society, as I like to do. I was most looking forward to watching 13th, the documentary about America’s relentless incarceration of people in color. The movie is explicit in its message, which is lays out in a linear, chronological fashion, starting with slavery. As it moves through the decades, the director points at the ways that this institutional dominance persists through different means, from chain gangs to the war on drugs to the three-strikes policy, and finally to police brutality of black bodies.

Racism is an ugly streak on the track record of humanity, an example of the human race turning in on itself on very frail bases of beliefs. It has always been difficult of me to understand why discrimination and bigotry exists.

First reason: Once a pattern and worldview has started, it can be hard to stop. 13th defines incarceration as an extended pattern from slavery (though doesn’t necessarily explain my black men were targeted for slavery).

Second reason: This is one that we’re told as international relations students: in human society, it there must exist in a given moment a dominating class and a group being dominated. This is often used to explain why often dominating groups attempt to pit minorities against each other. In the 60’s mainstream media began defining Chinese and Japanese Americans as the model minority, by classifying black Americans as the “bad minority.” By doing this, America was able to wave away accusations of racism by using Asian Americans as case studies in “working hard to be successful.” Again, this is touched upon by 13th in the context of the war on drugs, during which Reagan racialized cocaine as a white drug and crack as a black drug, and criminalized them each to extremely different degree. Again, it doesn’t explain why black men are targeted as the minority in the crosshairs.

Third reason: I began to understand this one as the most convincing argument after finishing the documentary. Ultimately, evil begets evil, and the impulse for subjugating races of people is fed by the ever-present evil of … you guessed it! Capitalism. The need for profit, as we have learned (and learned again form the outcome of this presidential election) has always been held in higher regard than the liberties of historically oppressed people.

Companies have reaped huge benefits from this imprisoned labor force, some of whom get paid as little as 12 cents an hour to work for corporations like Victoria’s Secret or Walmart. The same size corporations are part of ALEC, the American Legislative Council, that works with politicians and lawmakers to create templates for laws. This undercover council is to blame for the “three strikes laws,” “truth in sentencing” laws, and mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders. Even when mainstream media is pressed to pay more attention to the human rights of these prisoners, the corporate proposal is to allow prisoners to be imprisoned in their own homes, under surveillance of leg braces off of which they could profit from once more. No matter which way you see it, there is money to be made off of putting people in cages. As long as there is a hunt for money, there will always be a manhunt for bodies to fund it. This documentary helped me understand the logic behind it all, though I found there to be no sense at all.


Australia: A horrific case study in closing borders

The question of resettling Syrian refugees has been a major talking point in our presidential election. Images of injured and hungry Syrian women and children are combated with questions of our national security that fuel American anxieties about letting them in. Trump has said many a time that the immigrants will undergo “extreme vetting” and that he’s going to be “so tough” on letting them in.

“We have no idea who these people are, where they come from,” Trump said of Syrian refugees during his speech in Phoenix on Wednesday. “I always say, Trojan horse. Watch what’s going to happen, folks. It’s not going to be pretty.”

This kind of rhetoric and the historical images that it evokes taps into the fears of the “others” and the “unknown” that Americans feel towards immigrants, especially those of Arabic-speaking countries. The Trojan Horse, as some may forget, is a myth. It was a story from centuries go that never actually happened. If one were to base the implications of extreme vetting, however, on situations that are actually taking place right now, perhaps the American people would think twice about turning Syrian refugees away. I’m talking about Australia and its use of torture on immigrants.

Yes, torture is an extreme word, one which happens to be perfectly suitable for the measures that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and head of immigration Michael Pezzullo have taken in ensuring the boats go elsewhere. Their policy thus far has been to capture boats heading to Australia and send those aboard to camps in Nauru or Papua New Guinea indefinitely. Many who are stuck on the island have died or are suffering from medical inattention. Their acts have been listed as violations of the Convention Against Torture. Little of the Australian public is speaking out against this because the discourse is more more centered around how the refugees aren’t there and less around where they’re actually going. The sort of blissful ignorance is almost certainly what’s going to happen if we leave vetting to the hands of Trump or other administrators that do not have the refugee’s best interests at hand.

This thought would be incomplete without my saying that Syrian refugees aren’t the only refugees that we should be talking about, despite the focused rhetoric of the election. As Emily points out in Refugees Aren’t From Syria, a massive amount of refugees are forgotten in countries in Africa, where 17 million are displaced within the African continent. Of course, there must be a line drawn for the sake of America’s capacity for aid. But must that same line be drawn for our recognition and attention paid to crises beyond our shores?


Voting for Trump isn’t always black and white

Many of friends on Facebook have garnered up the guts to publicly denounce friends and family who support Trump as bigots, racists, and women-haters, largely backed by the knowledge that the majority of their circles will choose to hit them with a like or keep their opposing opinions to themselves. This group of silent readership, of course, always excludes an uncle Al or Auntie Helen who will unleash a tone deaf tirade about crooked Hillary, sparking a back and forth that I find myself simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by until I turn off my laptop and go for a walk.

My point is, Trump has said enough remarks about minorities, POWs, women, and immigrants to make the case against bigotry a harder and harder one to crack for his faithful supporters. As a Muslim, a woman, and an ally/friend to many of the groups he targets, I myself have found myself noting Trump supporters in my networks in a mental blacklist of “people I can’t trust with my rights and liberties.”

That was before I watched this Guardian video about McDowell County, West Virginia. McDowell is the poorest country in one of the poorest states, virtually forgotten except for the fact that during the primaries, they surfaced as the county with a higher percentage of people voted for Trump than anywhere else in the U.S. The video shows a grassy, gloomy landscape shrouded in silence and dust. Once a population of 100,000, the country now is home to 18,000, all who suffer from a life expectancy rate par to that of Ethiopia.  In the video, a woman, swinging on her destitute yet charmingly cozy porch, explains that she walks the road in search of aluminum cans, which earn her 45 cents a pound. “It’s not easy,” she says, with more defeat in her voice than complaint.

McDowell was once considered the coal capital of America, before technology and cheaper energy alternatives took work opportunities from miners one by one. In a town where everyone’s father, grandfather, and great grandfather was a coal miner, the residents are no sons and daughters that sit around, waiting for a deus ex machina that didn’t look like it was coming. Until, of course, Donald Trump announced that he was running for president.

“Hillary said, I’m going to put the mines and the miners out of business. That’s a hard one to explain, isn’t it? We’re going to put the miners back to work. We’re going to get the coal mines back open.”

Upon hearing these words, in the midst of their economic tragedy, it’s absolutely no surprise that 5 days later, Trump emerged with 91.5% of the republican primary votes from the county.

For the record, Hillary’s words were taken out of context. Her full quote:

“I’m the only candidate which has a policy about how to ring economic opportunity using clean, renewable energy as the key, into coal country”We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”

Regardless, it’s easy how that could be misinterpreted by a community that has proved itself on being the spearheads of the same industry for decades. Change is frightening. What they are not told is that the platform that Trump feeds them is built on false promises. Needless to say, reintroducing coal as the primary energy source for the U.S. is both environmentally destructive and economically unfeasible. Coal is becoming obsolete, and pretending that the transition is not happening is serving as instant gratification to these families that is soon to be replaced by monumental disappointment.

My big takeaway from this video is that there is so much more to politics than the shocking sound bytes, the scandals, the personal vices of the candidates. For some people, it is a matter of life or death.
“They’ll do anything for a job,” says Sharon in the video. “They’ll do anything to feed their families. “They’re getting tricked, manipulated, and they believe that things are different than they really are.

Yes, the people in the country are overwhelmingly white. This county doesn’t boast the diversity, the color spectrum, the melting pot that the United States boasts in the coasts. They’ve likely not met a Mexican, a Muslim, a POC.

Paw Paw, Sharon’s grandfather, echoes this in a tone deaf yet somehow still endearing explanation. “I voted for that black guy two times. I’m a democrat.”

But in the context of the election (and I struggle to say this) I don’t think it matters. Ignorance is not their driving force of voting for a president that has the capability to harm many groups of people. The people of McDowell county are zoned in on one line, one promise of hope, one they haven’t heard in years.