Saturday, January 22, 2011

An open letter to an Iowa State Representative

When I was in middle school, I earned spare money by babysitting for a lot of the neighborhood kids. One of the parents I was employed by was Kim Pearson, one of the sponsors of the bill in the Iowa House to amend the Constitution to ban not only gay marriage, but also civil unions and domestic partnerships. This is my letter to her. (edited somewhat with the recognition that this is now going to a lot of folks who don't know me as well as Kim did, and who likely don't care what I've been up to since I spent a summer taking care of her kids)

Dear Kim,

This is your former neighbor, Stephanie Bell, writing you from a long ways away—Oxford, England, to be specific. I hope this letter finds you, your husband, and your daughters well. I know it’s been a long time since we were last in touch, but my mother suggested I reach out to you and let you know what I’ve been up to since you knew me as a middle schooler, over a decade ago. I went on to high school at Valley, and really thrived there. I got involved with a number of activities, from debate and orchestra to the Principal's Advisory Council. I got my first taste of what it means to serve and have an impact when the school district adopted a solution to its 2003 budget crisis that I had helped to develop with a coalition of students, teachers, and community members.

Those initial forays into community involvement really set the stage for my activities in college. I went to the University of Chicago, and spent part of my time there continuing to coach Valley’s debate team. The political consciousness and sense of equality and justice I had gained over the course of growing up in West Des Moines led me to join a movement to increase access to HIV/AIDS treatment throughout the developing world. I’m thrilled to say that we succeeded—in my junior year of college, we received word that our work led to a major drop in the price of a highly needed treatment in all countries where the median income is less than $2/day. We were a ragtag bunch of college students, learning what we were doing as we went along, with little more than youthful energy, drive, and idealism on our side. We were nothing short of dumbfounded by the impact we were able to have halfway across the world.

I also spent a great deal of time focused on the issues in my own backyard. The University of Chicago is located in a pretty rough area in Chicago’s impoverished South Side, and the surrounding neighborhoods are far worse. Tensions between the community and the University run high, and there are many unmet social needs in the area. Wanting to be a better neighbor, I took a part-time job with the area alderman. I helped her connect residents with city services, and sort out their complaints with the city and with each other. In the alderman’s office, I saw why the University inspired such anger—not only did it demand a lot from the surrounding residents, it attempted to dictate how they ran their lives as well. The University’s interactions with the community were contentious, borderline coercive at times. One well-funded, extremely powerful institution with a unified understanding of what was “best” could carry a lot of weight in the fragmented realm of local politics. Yet the University had no mandate or right to determine what should be considered “the good life” by the rest of the residents. It was no wonder the University’s involvement bred such resentment. As much as I loved the University and the intellectual rigor and the opportunities it afforded, it was still clear to me that the University of Chicago was sometimes a terrible neighbor to people in need of a compassionate community member—a neighbor that would listen, support in times of need, but never be so arrogant as to forcefully impose its view of the world.

My focus on communities like those on the South Side didn’t end in college. After graduating, I spent the next two years of my life working to improve the education system for disadvantaged kids. I think you'd agree that it’s shameful that in the richest society in the world, we’re content with a 70% high school graduation rate, and content that the rate is 20% higher for whites than for blacks. It’s a disgrace that our country has 2000 high schools in which kids literally have a coin flip’s chances of making it through. And it’s horrifying and maddening that out of all of the Latino boys that start school in Chicago at the age of 4 or 5, only 3% of those kids will graduate from college. Three percent. I spent the past couple years of my life doing my best to improve those odds—and you know, I think my colleagues and I made a dent in it.

I’m at Oxford now, honored to represent the state of Iowa on a Rhodes Scholarship and studying international development. I intend to spend my life figuring out how to empower people to make their lives better—whether that’s improving the education system in the US or working on public health abroad, I’m not sure yet. I am pretty sure, however, that I got here by being a good neighbor—by making good on all of those values I learned growing up in Iowa. While I may have left Iowa awhile ago, it’s never left me. In the most recent snowstorm in England (you might have heard about all the flight cancellations and such in Heathrow—the English are not a hardy people compared to Iowans), I was stunned by the condition of the sidewalks in Oxford. No one shoveled them, and in a day or so, they became dangerous sheets of ice, some four inches thick. This never happened where I grew up. People cleared their walks for the convenience and safety of their community, and if there was someone nearby who wasn’t able to clean their walk, their neighbors would do it for them, no questions or future favors asked.

I have an immense fondness for Iowa, and pride in my state for reasons that are exemplified in that somewhat silly anecdote. There’s a certain pragmatism about life in Iowa, a stoicism in folks’ willingness to go out and take care of business, regardless of how cold it is. But most importantly, there’s a sense of responsibility to each other, an understanding of oneself as a part of a bigger community, a community that is more than just the sum of its parts. And one of the things I love so much about Iowa’s sense of community is that it, too, is pragmatic. It’s a sense of community that recognizes that people are different, and so have different needs, different aspirations, different desires. It’s a community born of understanding that what’s good for the goose might not be good for the gander—and in that pragmatism, it’s respectful. The Iowa I know, the Iowa I grew up in was one that celebrated the diversity it had. The Iowa values I was raised on included everyone in that community—and the ties that bound us were stronger than the divides created by our differences.

You may be wondering why, over a decade down the road, I decided to contact you with what I've been up to and my meditations on and pride in my home state of Iowa. Part of it is to congratulate you on your election to the House, and to thank you for serving our state. And the other part of it is to make a plea, from one good neighbor to another.

Kim, I’m gay. I figured it out in the middle of my senior year of high school, and I stayed in the closet until I graduated. I adored Valley, but I also knew it wasn’t the most tolerant of places. My life was running too smoothly to rock the boat. I was so honored when I was elected to speak at graduation and I was on friendly terms with nearly everyone in my class. I was afraid all of that would end if I came out. I told my mother before I left for college, and I waited two years before telling my dad because I was so worried about how he would react. I don’t think you know my parents well, but my dad is fiscally conservative and we rarely talked about social issues. I think he’s voted Republican in every election since the age of 18. I’d seen friends of mine come out (or be forcibly outed by others), and have their parents reject them—refuse to pay for college, kick them out of the house, tell them they were worthless. While I didn't think my father would react as badly as that, I spent two years of my life too scared to tell him. My uncertainty of his reaction meant I stayed silent, to ensure that I didn't destroy a relationship with someone I deeply love and respect. I shouldn't have been so scared. Both of my parents were immediately supportive when I told them. In that regard, I'm tremendously lucky.

Coming out to my parents was hardly easy, but thankfully, they know what I know: that I’m the same person I was before I realized I was gay. I have the same sense of humor, the same love for my family and sense of responsibility toward them. My relationships with my parents and sister are stronger than they've ever been. The fact that the one time in my short life I was in love, I was in love with a woman has done nothing to change my personality, or my belief in the value of service that I know you and I share. I remain the same good neighbor—to you, and to the world—that I’ve always been. I thought Iowa understood this too. April 3, 2009, when the Supreme Court unanimously and courageously fulfilled their sworn obligation to uphold the constitution, and legalized gay marriage, was the day on which I was proudest to be an Iowan. I recognize that the way I lead my life makes some people uncomfortable—just as the ways others lead their lives sometimes make me uncomfortable. But on April 3, Iowa moved past that discomfort, or so I thought. The justices voted regardless of their political opinions, because that’s what the law demanded of them. That’s also what a true sense of justice and equality demands: equal civil rights for all.

When I was working after college, I lived with my girlfriend, Cheryl. Cheryl is easily one of the most compassionate and bravest people I’ve ever metsomeone I was proud to introduce to my family. She works as a special education teacher in one of the worst performing and most violent districts in the country. Her school draws from multiple gang territories. Kids bring weapons to school routinely, sometimes for aggression, and sometimes for self defense. Serious gang fights break out on a regular basis. One night she came home to the apartment that we shared and told me that a massive riot had broken out that day in an assembly. She was one of three teachers present, and they had been barricaded in by students. As you might imagine, Kim, it was chaos, and a number of the kids were injured. In addition to being so, so thankful that Cheryl and her fellow teachers were all right, and that nothing worse had happened to the students, I was forced to think about the fact that if anything had happened, I wouldn’t have been able to visit her in the hospital—the State of California didn’t recognize our relationship. Lesbians and gays across the country are literally putting themselves in the line of fire for the rest of society, as school teachers in gang territories, as police officers, as fire fighters. Yet their partners lack the security of knowing that if anything goes wrong, they’ll be able to see them in the hospital, to reassure them that they’ll be all right, or, heaven forbid, to see them alive one last time.

But what deeply worries and outrages me is that I shouldn’t have to justify having the same rights as the rest of society on my attempts to be a good citizen. Like you, I serve because I think it's the right thing to doit's how I was raisednot because I think that's how I'll get equal rights. It shouldn’t be relevant that the people we’re depriving of their rights are police officers, fire fighters, and school teachers. No other group has to justify their rights by pointing to all that they’ve contributed to the world, something gays are repeatedly challenged on. The rest of society has the right to marry because they’re part of society, period. The openly gay San Francisco City Councilman, Harvey Milk, gave a moving speech on equal rights, which opened with the idea that a young person in Des Moines who recognizes that he or she is gay has two options: to move to San Francisco, or to stay and fight for an equal world, for a better tomorrow. I’ve done both. I was living in San Francisco when Proposition 8 was passed and banned gay marriage in California, and when Iowa surprised the nation by making a courageous move to defend the civil rights of all people in its borders. Over thirty years after Milk was assassinated, I thought Iowa had moved beyond pushing its LGBT youth to live elsewhere when it recognized that depriving gays of their right to marry was fundamentally discriminatory and wrong. It’s an offense to our understanding of democracy and freedom to remove the rights of some because they make others uncomfortable, or because others disagree with the ways they lead their lives. It goes against the Iowan values I was raised on, which were founded on sensibility and respect. There’s nothing sensible about legislating bigotry. And nothing about it is neighborly.

Respectfully yours,

Stephanie Bell

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

not politics as usual

so i just got back from reno, where i was doing some canvassing for the obama campaign. stories and photos from that will be up soon, likely once i get an internet connection that will cooperate for longer than 2 minutes. highlights include many a terrorist fist jab, nearly getting the police called on us, chasing the best motorcycle in the world down reno's main drag, demonstrating time and time again that we were indeed from san francisco, and winning some money. oh, and seeing "change we can believe in" in person...

but, for now, the message of change that actually has me most captivated is from 30 years ago.

30 years ago, harvey milk, the first openly gay american elected official, was assassinated in san francisco, along with the mayor of sf. sean penn is starring in a movie about him, and there's also a fantastic (if dated) documentary about him. but, the reason harvey milk is on my mind right now is that it's 30 years after his assassination, 30 years after his message of change, and california is still on the verge of banning gay marriage. the vote on proposition 8 is shockingly close, and a lot of people in the city (myself included) are worried about it. the yes on 8 campaign has gotten a surge from their ads that include truth-stretching and blatant lies about the effect of the CA supreme court decision on gay marriage.

almost as a point of principle, i dislike political ads, regardless of whose side they're on. their partisanship usually means they're devoid of true content. i'm not sure whether to call currentTV's animation of harvey milk's most famous speech one of the very few exceptions to that rule, or to say that it's not really a political ad at all.

either way, it's not politics as usual--milk's speech is the closest thing the gay rights movement has ever had to an "i have a dream speech," and it's a travesty as well as a testament to our political climate most of the country has never heard it. and yes, prop 8 supporters, if i had my way, i'd teach it in schools.

"You Cannot Live on Hope Alone."

Monday, September 1, 2008

from the mission, with love

i think i should have realized that moving across the country was going to be an adventure... the american value of manifest destiny instilled in me from a very young age made me somewhat aware of that fact, but i was far from prepared. while diptheria, a shortage of huntable game, and poor wagon caulking jobs haven't appeared on the scene (yet), i've faced some obstacles of my own...

after a very uneventful, even comfortable flight, i touched down in san francisco, grabbed my luggage, and stepped into the eucalyptus infused air to catch a cab. one friendly cab driver and one beautiful drive later, i found myself outside my apartment... having failed to get in touch with my flaky real estate guy, keith (otherwise known as keith the keeper of the keys). keith is... unreliable at best. he answers his cell at will, and when he suggested the plan for me to get keys was to call him when i got in, i got nervous... but, it was a step up from what i had previously conceived of him as. keith has made me nervous this entire time. he wears sunglasses no matter what, making it impossible to discern what his face actually looks like. the name of his company is "" (yes, it includes the .com). he doesn't answer his phone. he wants his security deposits in cashiers checks only. and the "Contact me!" link on his craigslist ad for his apartments is a link that tries to get you to download what has to be either spyware or a virus... in short, i woke up in the middle of the night a couple days before leaving for job training, having dreamt that i arrived in san francisco and keith the keeper of the keys was actually just keith the nondescript scam artist and i found myself homeless in san francisco. at three am, i ran every google search imaginable to determine if keith was legit. the answer was indeterminate at best...

so, back to being in san francisco, no keith, no keys, lots of luggage. i decided to go to the coffee shop just around the corner from my apartment, and enjoyed a pleasant cup of coffee surrounded by a mixture of hipsters in skinny jeans and trendy hats and old folks muttering to themselves. keith finally called back, said he'd be around in an hour, apologized for the inconvenience, and even carried one of my bags for me when he arrived (my messenger bag, the lightest of the four by far, but it's the thought that counts, no?) keys in hand, i stepped into my new abode, and remembered why i was excited about this place to begin with. it's small but lovely, with hardwood floors (complete with interesting detailing), a bay window with a sitting cushion, and a semi-spacious kitchen with room for a breakfast nook (and even a microwave in addition to the standard fridge and stove!). by this point, it was starting to get late, and dark so i went to hit the lights, and made an interesting discovery...

guess what i don't have! gas and electric... so that's the current quest. right now i'm charging my computer and cell phone at the local coffee shop (this place has been way handy so far), and trying to figure out how to get service started over labor day weekend... chances are i'm not going to have electricity and gas until sometime next week. i also couldn't find a place to buy an aerobed, but found that i fit rather comfortably on the cushion for the bay window couch... so that's where i slept last night, using a pillow i stole from united airlines. turns out when you sleep right in front of drafty windows, it gets pretty damn cold, so by the end of the night, i had a hooded sweatshirt on the way you're supposed to wear them, another on my legs and feet (thank goodness for having the foresight to bring two!) and was wrapped in my blanket... as well as my towel.

but, on the positive side of things, i do have hot water, so i took a long shower to warm up this morning. and, while i can't really buy any food, since i can neither cook nor refrigerate it (gas stove, electric fridge! yay for modern convenience!), i do have a decent number of friends in the area (at least three different people) i can probably bother to get dinner with until i have electricity.

at this point, i'm just laughing at the sheer absurdity of all of this. try asking me mid-week whether my amusement has worn off, i'm not sure what the answer will be. and the discussion at work...
steph to boss: hi, um, i was wondering if i could get thursday afternoon off to let the gas & electric folks into my building to start service?
boss: yes, of course, but how long have you been living there already!?
steph: uh, a week and a half...
boss: (utter consternation at choosing to hire this crazy/disorganized individual)

but, i have more important things to worry about now. like the fact that i decided socks would be irrelevant to my life for the next week, and packed them all in boxes for the movers, rather than bringing any with me. socks are a good thing writ large, but are even more important when you've resorted to wearing sweatshirts on your feet to stay warm while sleeping on the bay window cushion of your gas/electric-less apartment. frankly, i don't know how i didn't account for that. the movers should show up sometime this week and when the movers arrive, socks galore! as well as a bunch of things that require electricity that i can't use, a mattress for a bed frame i don't have, cooking equipment for the stove that can't turn on...

time to go find socks.

Saturday, August 30, 2008


so it’s been over a year since i’ve last posted, and it’s safe to say that things have changed a bit. some highlights:
-i left south africa in late September 2007, and went back to chicago, to live in a lovely apartment full of generous people.
-i went back to south africa at the beginning of 2008, sent some of you this blog link, promised to post, and… didn’t. sorry guys. the second go-round was also amazing, and i had the chance to meet some truly inspiring people over the course of doing fieldwork for my honors thesis.
-in june 2008, i graduated from college, went on a fantastic road trip through the western us, filled with generous parents, crazy geological formations, crazier friends, and a couple of citations for having “knowingly and unlawfully violating the peace and dignity of the state of wyoming,”
-the rest of the summer was filled with twilight swims in lake michigan, lengthy bike rides, lots of cooking, a few nights that actually ended the next morning, and farewells to chicago and the people i’d gotten to know there over the past four years.

that brings us to now… the start of my attempts to be a real person before i likely flee to the safety and security of “the Academy” for another couple (many?) years. how have those attempts been going? well, i suppose the purpose of this blog is to chronicle that answer. call it a pretty good beginning.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

montagu, on delay

i'm not up for writing much right now, was up late and up early getting an assignment done for work and am fried at the moment. so instead, because i've been meaning to do this for quite awhile but got distracted by (in no particular order) a sinus infection, a protest, and a sprained wrist, i'll post a few photos from montagu.

montagu is an area a bit north and a bit east of here (somewhere around 2 hrs drive?) with natural hot springs and these very awesome "folded mountains," called that because their rock layers make them look, well, folded. we went a couple of weekends back (and by we, i mean some people from the office, paymon's sister and friend who were visiting, and myself), and stayed at this fantastic working class resort in two "cabins" (upon seeing the pictures of said cabins, you'll understand why that's in quotes). it was a really refreshing break from the sometimes overwhelming wealth and race divisions in cape town.

without further ado... montagu!

our accommodations. yes, that is indeed a trailer home. a surprisingly comfortable and spacious trailer home... and somehow simply perfect for the weekend. key was the porch, as well as the space to braai (barbecue)

after a day of braaiing, hot spring-ing and driving, we all went to sleep and then woke up to a delicious breakfast, thanks to dalli (featured sideways in above photo... still haven't quite sorted that out yet)

paymon then took some time to think about our next course of action. or work on posing for magazine covers, not quite sure which...

we decided to go hiking in the gorge, in search of some caves. we're pretty sure the caves were an immediate turn inside the entrance, but hey, the two hour hike in search of them was gorgeous. we saw some awesome sights, like these kloof flowers...

and folded mountains (that's zoomed, but it's big. really, really big.).

we also made some new friends, like this dassi (despite the fact that it's the size of a groundhog, its closest relative is an elephant)...

this giant red grasshopper (photo also features andrew's hand)

and this turtle (tortoise? we had a big debate, but it was left unsettled), which was surprisingly chill with being picked up by parissa.

at the end of the weekend though, we had to head back for the beginning of a new week. this is along the N2 (I think?), one of their national highways (the word "interstate" doesn't work here, for the obvious reason that they have provinces, not states). we tried to find a farm stand (awesome roadside shops with all kinds of deliciousness for weary travelers) but since it was sunday, they were all closed, and we ended up at..... a mcdonalds. it seems there's no escaping them. hopefully i'll get around to posting some photos from the TAC rally in Cape Town in the next couple of days, but if you're really eager, some can be found at

Thursday, August 23, 2007

life outside the political?

i realise that this is increasingly turning into a blog about south african politics rather than my experiences of south africa/my life here more generally... but at this point, i've been so slammed with work as a result of said politics that i've barely had a personal life... and even then, it's hard to forget about politics.

an example:
on saturday night, paymon (the other american volunteer i've mentioned), dalli (completely awesome, progressive, mid-twenties afrikaner who now works at Community Health Media Trust--a treatment literacy org of sorts), and i were headed to town to meet up with some friends of ours to get a drink or two then head to a party. on the way, paymon mentioned that his sister, parissa, (who is currently visiting) was blown away by "how few black people there are here," as she phrased it. i've noticed the same myself--while the office i work in is mostly black, if i go out to the clubs or anything, they're still mostly de facto segregated. and cape town is a very, very white city in comparison with the rest of south africa. to say that i probably encounter more blacks during my life as a UChicago student, isolated ivory tower institution that it is, is really saying something.

this led into a very frank and at times uneasy discussion about race, one that i'd say has a lot of implications in the US as well. go to any bar on the north side of chicago, a city that's 42% white and ~37% black according to the most recent census in 2000, and you're barely going to see any blacks there. while it's difficult to make a comparison between the racial demographics of chicago and cape town due to the south african category of colored, it's safe to say that cape town is ~24% white according to their most recent census (1996). so yes, the de facto segregation is more striking here, but to say that very similar things aren't happening in US cities is just flat out wrong. there's also the issue that parissa's sample population was skewed--the locations she'd been to were generally very touristy/rich (like the v&a waterfront), but her point was definitely well taken--it's something that had occured to me quite often, and still does in areas like that.

dalli's response was well, yes, there are very few blacks in a lot of areas, but the fact that there are *any* there is an important change, and at this point, the absence of certain people in certain areas has more to do with class than with race. i think his point has some merit, but i'll get there in a moment--at this point, i was silent, and paymon went absolutely off on the idea of it being attributable to class--other cities, like jo'burg, have managed to create a black middle and upper class at this point, so why not cape town? to say it has nothing to do with race is to mask racism that is bound to be around thirteen years after the official end of apartheid.

i'd say that they're both right--that the legacy created by apartheid (and thus by past racism) has so thoroughly entrenched massive numbers of blacks in poverty that it will take a decent amount of time to get beyond that. kids who started school after apartheid, in desegregated schools, are just starting to pass matric (graduate), and the public school system is still a wreck. some schools pulled/are continuing to pull tricks to avoid integrating, much like schools in the US post-brown v. board, kids are still being illegally prevented from attending education, and there's a vast differential in funding between the schools in poor areas and the schools in middle-class and rich areas. during the struggle, most of the leaders espoused heavily socialist views--we now see the anc lead government, under mbeki, setting up a generally liberal welfare capitalist state. rather than get into any huge discussions about the proper way to organise an economy here, i'll just note that in order for the ideals underpinning welfare capitalism to be realised, everyone needs to have a fair shot in life, and that means equal access to education and health care. in their defense, the anc inherited a complete mess in terms of both of those systems, and i generally believe that at least on the education side of things, they're doing their best to sort it all out. but it's going to take awhile, and there's no way around that.

at this point in the discussion, we got to our destination, called it quits on the political discussion, and walked into the bar, which was filled wall to wall with people. we each left it unspoken that there were only three black people in sight.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

enough said...

another quick post, again from the ny times:

South African Study: Drugs are Best for AIDS

"'Raw garlic and a skin of the lemon -- not only do they give you a beautiful face and skin, but they also protect you from disease,' [Manto] told a news conference in 2005. 'All I am bombarded about is anti-retrovirals, anti-retrovirals. There are other things we can be assisted in doing to respond to HIV/AIDS in this country.'

The Academy of Science disagreed."

update on manto

the ny times just covered the allegations against manto. while the article is in the news section, they do a touch of commentary... and i'd say their take is spot on. it's a good summary of what's been happening here in the past week and a half.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

of drunkards, thieves, and health ministers

the health minstry just can't avoid controversy. a good deal of south african society is still in an uproar over the firing of the deputy minister of health, and thabo isn't faring too well in the international press either--when the new york times and both the guardian and the economist have serious questions about your leadership and decisionmaking, it's safe to say that it's an impressively poor call.

but the latest stories about the health ministry are hilariously scandalous. manto tshabalala-msimang, the health minister, has been raked over the coals by the sunday times, one of the biggest papers in SA. they broke a story on sunday the 12th proclaiming that a) the reason she needed a liver transplant was due to alcoholism, and b) that she drank while in the hospital for a previous surgery and harrassed hospital staff until they brought her alcohol. in response, manto sued the hospital for her medical records, which she eventually got back from the sunday times, though they maintained a copy of them.

the following tuesday, the democratic alliance (DA), the opposition party here, made an allegation that manto got to jump the queue for a liver due to behind the scenes maneuvering by president mbeki and herself, a charge that both vigorously deny. manto has not, however, denied that she was drinking in the hospital. interesting.

all the while, manto/her spokespeople/anc spokespeople have been castigating the sunday times at every opportunity... but the sunday times is not a paper to take such things lying down. instead, they took the opportunity this past sunday to destroy any remaining shreds of manto's credibility (if anyone believed that dr. beetroot had *any* remaining credibility, that is) by breaking a story that she was fired from her post as the superintendent of a hospital in botswana because she was stealing from patients who were under anaesthetics. the times also reported that because of her thievery, they banned her from the country for ten years. the sunday times also renewed their cries that she had alcoholic liver disease and reported that she was drinking before the procedure (patients are usually prohibited to drink for six to twelve months before the surgery) and has kept drinking since.

something to note here is that newspapers place their biggest and most sensationalist/interesting headlines on posters that go up daily on lightpoles around the city, so you see that the newspaper is something worth buying. so last sunday, the street was covered in "MANTO THE DRUNK" and "MANTO IS A THIEF." anyone remotely involved with hiv/aids issues couldn't help but be at least slightly pleased with the story about thievery. but she's still never going to get fired, because her husband, the head of the ANC treasury, knows too many of mbeki's secrets.

in the midst of all of this, thabo mbeki released his "ANC Today" newsletter, like he does every friday. his focus this time? not his health minster, in the midst of complete scandal... instead, his fired deputy health minister! of the tome that he wrote, a mere paragraph is dedicated to the manto controversy, with the rest of it an attempt to discredit the deputy minister of health. the tone is extraordinarily defensive, and at one point, he quotes at length an article in "the independent," a british newspaper, that quoted TAC, the DA, and a highly respected professor at UCT, Nicoli Nattrass (who, by the way, is the author of the very excellent "Mortal Combat," a book on SA's struggle with HIV that was published a month or two ago). the intent was to quote the article in order to discredit it... the problem with that strategy is that it was all true. his refutation is a complete tap dance, and not a very good one at that. perhaps he's relying upon the revisionist history (fiction?) written by his biographer (fantasy author?) Ronald Suresh Roberts, who did his damnedest to erase the entirety of mbeki's shameful legacy on AIDS by characterising his fatally dilatory stance on antiretroviral roll-out as merely "cautious." but i digress.

mbeki closes his letter in a typical mbeki fashion--subtly (or not so subtly) characterising his detractors as racist colonisers. the roberts book does the same thing. and even if one were to believe that every non-black who was an mbeki detractor was a racist, a difficult claim to swallow, that would still leave all of the black mbeki critics as what? unthinking, mindless, colonised drones with a complete lack of agency? manto has leveled this criticism against tac because two of its three main leaders in the past were a white man and a colored man--she must have somehow forgotten the existence of sipho mthathi, tac's other leader, just as brilliant as the other two--and a black woman. and that's to say nothing of the 16,000+ TAC leaders and members. it seems to me that this country is never going to move beyond race and racism if they're perpetually used as excuses... but that's a much lengthtier post for another time.

two things to close on:
Zapiro's top 10 manto cartoons
and a brilliant op ed by stephen lewis, the former un special envoy to africa on hiv/aids, and one of my personal heroes.

for me, the bottom line is that i believe in the right of access to health care for all, and that includes manto tshabalala-msimang, no matter how infuriating her policy is. i hope that if sunday times is right that she's battling alcoholism, she gets proper treatment for it. but she needs to get healthy and sober out of office. her status as health minister doesn't give her the right to jump organ transplant queues, and it certainly doesn't give her the right to a liver if her disease is alcohol related and she's continuing to drink. her policy has already proven inexcusable (no matter how hard mbeki and roberts try), and her history of theft just adds insult to injury.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

on language

for unknown reasons, i’ve always been hyper-cognizant of language as well as rather interested in its assorted usages. here’s a handful of thoughts on speech that have come to me over the course of my stay here.

while most of the people i’ve come into contact with here speak english at least conversationally, many are fluent in at least one of south africa’s other 10 official languages (the official languages are: afrikaans, english, ndebele, northern sotho, sotho, swati, tsonga, tswana, venda, xhosa, and zulu--those are the english names for all of them, by the way.)—xhosa and afrikaans are the two most common languages other than english where i am, in the western cape. this creates a wide variety of south african accents, from the high society british-sounding accent of the well-educated middle and upper classes, raised speaking only english, to the dutch influenced afrikaans accent, to the heavy native language accents that give me the most trouble. around the office, many of the women usually speak in xhosa when chatting with each other about work or personal matters, which leaves me clueless as to what they’re speaking about, save the occasional appropriated english word. i’d like to learn some xhosa while i’m here, but my clumsy american tongue has had a great deal of difficulty with the different clicks used for the letters x, c, and q… indeed, i can barely pronounce the name of the language.

the above mention of the prevalence of english should not fool you into thinking that i am always readily understood—american accents cause a bit of trouble around here, it seems, no matter whom i’m speaking with. one misinterpretation is the construal of my pronunciation of the word “latte” as “water.” this seems to keep cropping up, due to: a) the ready availability of espresso nearly anywhere (though, rarely “for take-away,” which has been a huge adjustment for me, given my high reliance upon coffee-on-the-go) and b) my great fondness for coffee (well, i say fondness, concerned family members say addiction… but an addiction isn’t a problem so long as i can get my fix, right?). a glass of water has shown up at my table instead of a latte six or seven times now… upon consultation with my south african friends, apparently i say the a all wrong, and the fact that r’s disappear from the endings of words all the time here only adds to the confusion.

my own r’s have been disappearing as well—i’ve always been one to absorb speech rather quickly. several summers back, i spent two weeks in the constant company of a crew of southerners, and have at this point given up on trying to get rid of the “y’all” that I picked up then. here, i’ve thus far picked up one of the mainstay sign-off’s, “cheers” (minus an r, of course), as well as its introductory counterpart, “howzit?”, use “as well” way too frequently (always with a strong emphasis on the “as,” unlike in the states,), and speaking of the states, refer to them as that, or “US” with an emphasis on the U. i’ve also started using the word “hectic” far too frequently, thanks to paymon, a fellow american who has absorbed south african slang to an even greater extent than i have.

i’ll end this with one of the more amusing speech differences between the states and here—they refer to stoplights as “robots.” i’ve readily replaced “stoplight” with “robot” in my own speech, but after a month and a half, i still grin at the warning signs that say “robot ahead.” one of the dance clubs around here, fiction, has a fantastic electronica night called “killer robot,” and visualising the local meaning of the phrase is still a great source of amusement after a couple of drinks. and in jozi (jo’burg, johannesburg), the hijacking rate is so high that at night, most people don’t bother stopping at red lights. they just look both ways, and if the coast is clear, they keep going. most police officers understand this and don’t bother people, but should a SAPS officer (South African Police Services, the friendlier, more humanitarian, post-apartheid version of the South African Police Forces) pull you over, an appropriate excuse is “i’m sorry officer, it’s just that i’m really afraid of the robots, a friend of mine was badly roughed up around here the other night…”

something tells me that if i try that when I get back to the south side of chicago, i’ll get hauled in on suspicion of hallucinogenic drug use.