Colombiana in Cape Town.
So at the start of the year, 2014, I was a bit down in the dumps. Feeling a bit alone, depressed and isolated. Heading quickly down the road of a well overdue existential crisis, engaging in readings and ideas that I hoped would resolve my identity contradictions. And restrictions. I had just moved into a suburb in Cape Town called Observatory. Now it’s a bit rough around the edges and grimy during the daylight.. And I guess you could call it “alternative”.. if you are so predisposed. It’s teeming brim of struggling artists of all forms. Plenty of hispters. No shortage of people who prefer to live on the left. Packed to brim with international youths. Coming to experience “Africa”. To see the lions. And maybe feed some children.. or something similar – But I do love it. Most people are friendly and many celebrate diversity. Comparatively in this city, this space can be quite refreshing.
Around the time when I had just started writing. Days when I’d be carrying my notebook everywhere. Scribbling down every thought. Excited by the kick from my cappacunnios. Challenged by the sights and sounds brought to life in front of my eyes. With all the oddities that Observatory celebrated. I had stumbled upon a small restaurant. In search of something warm and a table to press on. I found a seat and gestured to the waiters for assistance. The waiter who approached me was a pretty young woman, she didn’t look like she was from around here. This is not unusual for ol’ Observatory so I didn’t think anything much about it. She spoke to me in a thick Spanish accent and after some time and after a few sips of my cappuccino I asked her where she was from. “Colombia” she said – Now at this point it’s important that you know that I have somewhat of an affinity for South America. I dived into a rant about the African Diaspora and the slaves and Third world solidarity.. that pretty much fell flat. Language was a barrier. Sure I’ll go with that explanation. Haha.. So after some time I collected my things, said goodbye and promised to return. And so I did. Again and again until it became somewhat of a routine. Sometimes for a drink. Sometimes just to say hello. More often than not stopping by to hear a story about Colombia or to probe her about what life was like over there. I remember those conversations well. Every time her home was brought up her face would glow with excitement. She would always start her stories the same way..
“Bri-yan..! You can’ imagnine.. In Colombia we have…”
And there she would go. Off into a long stories about things I had never seen. Never heard about. In places I haven’t even dreamed about. It was so exciting.
After some time I asked her what had brought her to the country. She told me that for herself – and many other of her countrymen and countrywomen – who had arrived in Cape Town, they had done so primarily to learn English. Many have come to attend the numerous English schools that are thriving in and around the city. The prices apparently are a great deal more affordable than the schools in North America. Tied of course to the cost of living. I guess for many, at the moment, Cape Town is the next best thing?
She reflected about employment trends in Latin America. Saying that being able to speak English multipled your earning potential in the region. And that many Latin Americans are travelling and working at lengths to get a handle of the language. She told me about many Colombians who had left home indefinitely, who had arrived in South Africa for new jobs. New opportunities. New lives.
Now for me hearing this was a bit emotional. My father came to South Africa as an immigrant. I wonder what it was like for him and his brother when they came here?
I thought about all the young people who traveled in her cohort. How so many had arrived on our shores without speaking much more than a few key phrases in English. Thrusting themselves into this environment. To leave behind everything. Some had left their jobs. Their lovers. Their mothers. It is incredibly brave, I thought.
Over time she introduced me to her Cape Town familia. Most of them where from her home town, Bogotá.. But had met upon arrival. They were warm and welcoming and excited to share stories. And curious and willing to hear what I had to say about my mother “Africa”.
Time continued to march on. And on one day in particular, I remember. Having an evening beer back at the store where she used to work. I remember her saying to me “Bri-yan.. you know South Africans are so unfriendly”.. I was a bit taken aback. While on so many levels I agreed, this was not a reflection I have become used to hearing from our visitors.. I sat up a bit straighter and listened carefully..
She told me about her experience arriving to the country. Struggling to find reliable information about accommodation. Dealing with a number of people who had little patience for the language barrier between them. She spoke about the difficulties – and sometimes the impossibilities – of finding contacts in industries that she had been trained in Universities to contribute to. It made me reflect a bit about immigration. And it’s stagnation in our current public political conversations. It made me reflect on how ambivalent we can actually be to the plight of many – especially from the rest of the continent – as they risk so much to participate in our economy. Myself included in this ambivalence.
She continued to share stories with me about her early days in the city. When she lived with a host family. A white South African family. She would go on to tell me about awkward dinner conversations. And advice that had been passed on to her. Several times. To avoid black people. To stay safe by avoiding unsanitary public transport like our taxis and our trains. She was fuming when she told these stories. For this, at least I was grateful..
Unfortunately it’s a common tale. Of stories told behind closed doors. When people feel they are in “good company”.
She would often lament about work at the restaurant. When customers would ask her in hushed tones. “What went wrong?”.. “How did you end up here?” .. “Are you okay?”. Customers who had the audacity on several occasions to include her in a closely guarded racist, classist conversation, as an unwilling participant. It makes me shiver to think how many times I sit in that very store next to tables of people who think in those archaic ways. Makes me wonder if perhaps I even think of them as archaic to preserve my sanity, these opinions are very much alive in the present day. Of this I am very sorry to say.
She would often sadly discuss the preferential treatment she would get at work. Over her colleges of colour.. In one conversation in particular I recall her explaining how the tips were divided among the staff. And how a black South African mother working as part of the kitchen staff would get a rather small portion, when she had the longest distance to travel to work. Each and every single day. She lived on the outskirts of the city. And she used only public transport. If the restaurant closed at 1am one night how would she get home? Would her ration of the tips even cover her transport for the evening? What time would she arrive home? When is she to spend time with her children? The questions kept coming. I had nothing to say. I have almost nothing to say.
Days turned quickly into weeks. And I began to really gel with the little Colombian community. I would often probe them about their experiences in the city and one particularly caught my attention. It related to the dynamics within the Cape Town English schools.
I was told that there where clear divides in treatment between the European and the Latin American students. Some disputed this account.. It seemed to vary quite a bit from school to school. I was told about a school in Green Point. One that offered accommodation for travelling students. It separated them by region and language, I think to make the transition a bit more comfortable. And I was told about incidents where colloquially students would refer to the Latin American sections of the accommodation as the “Townships”. And the European sections as the “City”. This apparently is just a joke. But I don’t think it’s funny, and only a certain kind of voice seems to be laughing.
This was unfortunate news, but hardly a surprise.
A great deal more came out of our conversations. And interactions. But I think for today let’s leave it at that.
I’ll leave you with a short reflection.
More than ever. Each day. I am reminded on the commonality of our experiences. There are so many struggles that we experience on a daily basis that are inextricably linked to the struggles of others. We must stand together to oppose violent ideas and cultural hegemonies. We must actively embrace one another and check our internalized prejudices at the door. We must humanize each other, with every interaction. Words and thoughts delivered with prejudice, fear and hatred can do so much damage. Words of kindness and appreciation can bring to many much needed validation.
To this day. A great deal of my continued awakening, I attribute to my dialogues.. with the Colombiana in Cape Town.