I wrote an email to a friend the other day that began like this:
When I was a kid, I used to say quiet thank yous to the universe that there were no tsunamis or earthquakes or tornadoes where we are from. Like I had luckily been born in the one safe place on earth. Every day now I read about something terrible; about how one girl was grabbed and choked and raped in Tokai forest on her run. About a little baby girl being raped and murdered three blocks from her mamma’s home. About Hannah, right in Bird Street. And I wish I were naive enough to think, again, that I was from a safe place.
I am from a place that began fighting with itself almost four centuries ago when Jan van Riebeeck founded the first colony at its very tip. It has many names, but you would know it as South Africa. It has still not arrived at the quiet peace that both people and places tend to come to with age.
Up until recently, I knew very little about what went into the making – at foundation level – of South Africa. I didn’t learn these things at school because a thing happened in the middle of the twentieth century; a harrowing thing that turned everything that came before it into trivial unimportance, and will continue to be the only thing too many people know of this beautiful place. Apartheid came, and with it a kind of pain that has blinded us to most of what led up to it. I knew, of course, that Bartolomeu Dias came first (if by “first” you mean not first at all, but first to begin documenting), but about how exactly my country arrived at the point where the law began to dictate personhood, I have never known much.
The thing that we get the most wrong, and we get so much wrong, is thinking that what happened before doesn’t matter, and can be forgotten. If there is anything I know to be true at twenty-three, it is that nothing exists by itself, nothing came about by itself, and nothing will be resolved by itself.
Because I teach young children every day, very few sets of twenty-four hours go by without me having to act as arbitrator to some form of disagreement. And because my students and I do not speak the same language – save for the bastardized language that is the amalgamation of their limited English and my severely flawed Korean – it is not often that I am able to get a clear understanding of what has transpired before one or both parties involved are already crying.