Thursday, February 17, 2011


So after endless headaches with the student loans department at Nedbank (NEVER apply for a student loan through them) and wading (telephonically) through incompetent Wits staff (and some super-competent ones it must be said), I am at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg beginning a masters degree.

Starting a masters (particularly in a university where you know almost no one) is a little like stepping onto a floating island. It's incredibly difficult to get on to a floating island in the first place (as any Irish legend will tell you) because they move away from you and are shrouded in mists or even deterrent storms. Once you are on the island, however, you find yourself in a lush and fertile landscape that may or may not be inhabited by a race of mischievous and subversive faerie.

So far, reading and researching (though in its current fragmented and disorganised form that no doubt resembles faerie witchery) has been incredibly enriching and rewarding. I read things every day that I think are wise and true, or deeply disturbing and unsettling or intriguing and inspiringly complex and uncompromisingly unresolved into a pat conclusion. It's beautiful. It's also an island. I don't have lectures with anyone else and my room is a colourful cocoon of organised self-sufficiency perfect for concentrated study. It is not conducive for meeting and interacting with other people.

So I've ventured out a little. I thought Joburg would be impossible to navigate without a car and that I would be restricted to the little oil-smelling complex of shops in the student "Matrix" on campus and a few lectures on early mankind or the discovery of new medication for malaria (or something). Actually, Braamfontein (along with the JoBurg and Market theatres and the Johannesburg Art Gallery) are right outside one of the exits. I started walking with (it must be said) some trepidation as true stories of violent crime and muggings have put the fear of walking anywhere in Joburg very deeply in my heart. There were actually lots of people from all over walking around, and I even found a good second-hand bookshop. This - it must be said - always warms my heart to any area. I even found a book of Sydney Clouts's excellent poetry. There are such carefully wrought gems I feel my heart move in my chest every time I read some of them. (A gripe of mine has always been that the idiotic ramblings about it by Stephen Watson were given so much weight).

And then I also went to a short, introductory session in the Johannesburg Planetarium. I have never been to one before, and I felt quite overwhelmed by a sense of wonder and joy at the sight of the stars shifting in a huge arc above my head. When they placed diagrams of the constellation pictures over the stars and I could finally see the connections I have been frustratingly blind to all my life it was a revelation. I learnt (and now you too, from reading my blog will learn) that all the constellations one can see in the Northern Hemisphere are inverted in the Southern Hemisphere. So don't worry if you can't put together a picture of Orion around his famous belt: he is upside down on this side of the world anyway.

Then last night I went to my first Bible study in years. I was both excited and apprehensive. Some Bible studies are exercises in hate and exclusion; you spend more time talking about how you shouldn't date people from other churches and how awful everybody else is than you do meditating on the humbling and endlessly meaningful love of the Mother and Father that is God. I have felt like a cornered mental patient that someone is trying to give a prefrontal lobotomy to at some of these meetings, and I have become wary of going to churches.

At this Bible study, however, I was not disappointed. All of us are from different countries in Africa (Cameroon, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Malawi oh and me, the South African) and from different churches (I know one man is an ordained Anglican priest but I still don't know what denomination the others are from. It was something that didn't come up) and we had never met before, but because we were all meeting together to pray and have fellowship together, in this context, the differences felt negligible. There was a lack of arrogance or posturing (this was no evangelical grandstand), and though I am the equivalent of a Christian newborn baby, the atmosphere was so gentle and accepting that I felt the good influence of spending time in God's loving presence every day had had on these people and the good they were therefore able to communicate to me. It made me hope that one day I too will be able to communicate a fraction of that peace.

Reading through this blog, I think one of the most common words I have repeated is "heart". Even in all this newness, and despite the fact I am but floating past everyone on an island a lot of the time, I realise that Joburg has a lot of heart. I'm sure I will experience the lows of living in this complex mix of a city, but I think that heart will sustain me.

1 comment:

  1. This is going to sound a bit ridiculous (given that you are doing your masters in this field), but I felt that I had to comment. I found your blog ever so eloquently poised - so "clearly written". Finding something you like in a new place certainly warms the heart and opens it to the infinite possibilities of a beating life :)