Semblance, Sand Dunes, and Seeing
The wind is whistling through my ears as the grasslands of Namibia whip by me in a blur. I’m in the back of a pickup truck on my way to Gobabis with my friend Erin who I’d met in Gaborone. It’s cold. I reach into my sack for my toque and polar fleece. Feeling like I’ve staved off hypothermia for the moment, I drift into thought as the unscreened scenery whips by.
My head falls back as I stare into the blue depths of the Namibian sky. I lose myself completely. I close my eyes for a moment, and leave this world. This is where I
I was remembering a story told by Derrick Jensen, a writer and activist. It went like this: “Once upon a time, human beings lived here. They sat by the stream and they laughed. They slept. They had sex. They caught salmon. They ate them. They quarreled with their neighbors. Sometimes, they even fought. Their children lived here, and their children’s children, and so on, forever, eating the children of the salmon, quarreling with the children of the neighbors, fighting the children of the neighbors, celebrating with the children of the neighbors, marrying the children of the neighbors, and having children with the children of the neighbors. They lived, and slept, in the sun, and felt the sun on their faces in the morning. At night, when they were tired they went to sleep, and the next morning they got up and they sat by the stream and they laughed. This is how human beings lived.”
I opened my eyes. I looked across to Erin and smiled. I began to think about our culture and what makes it so inhumane. What is it that keeps us so isolated from one another? Why are we always leaving our loved ones? What is so developed about the way we live? What is so developed about living in a materialistically affluent society riddled with rape, crime, poverty, fear, objectification and violence? Why is it that in the face of these problems we reflexively believe it’s just the way things are?
The answers to these questions became obvious to me in the back of the truck, twenty minutes into Namibia. Back home I was hard pressed to see them. I remembered getting to Botswana seven weeks before, keen on setting my mind in motion, meeting with people fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic at a grassroots level and contributing in whatever way I could. I came knowing that the epidemic hadn’t merely fallen from the sky, but was the result of a bloodied history, marked by apartheid and colonialism, and sustained through Eurocentric economics. I got off the plane not knowing what to expect.
Many Westerners seem to have Africa figured out. It’s seen as a fly-infested place filled with emaciated, sympathy-inducing faces pleading to a World Vision camera for the white people to save them. That perception seemed pretty common when I left, and it seems even more common being back. Sure, it’s a bullshit cash-grab by a corrupt charity, but this perception predates World Vision by hundreds of years. They’re just profiting from its existence. But it isn’t our fault, right? We have nothing to do with these people’s plight. It’s sad that they’re always fighting and killing one another. I just don’t understand how people can live this way, they must be animals. All we can do is hope and pray, and every so often show up and build them a church so we can all hope and pray together.We convey this to these peripheral cultures every time we show up on their doorstep with more aid. It’s so fucked how we force others into situations where they become dependent on our economy to “bail them out” (or “develop” them).
But here’s something the World Vision camera doesn’t show, something elementary and secondary school don’t teach. Any true adoption of what I’m about to share with you would involve you doing something about it, and lets be honest here; most of you can’t do a goddamned thing.
About three hundred years ago, white people from Europe came to what is now Cape Town, South Africa. Most of them were either from Holland or England. They came in the form of missionaries, “settlers”, farmers, soldiers, investors, merchants, sailors, prisoners: people looking for their claim to fortune. The people they encountered were ancient hunter-gatherer communities who had existed in that area of the world for forty thousand years (two million if you include their evolutionary ancestors), making them the longest known human culture to live in one place. The Ncoakhoe, Khoikhoi, and Bantu peoples, like all other indigenous communities to ever encounter Europeans, showed their new friends extraordinary kindness. It wasn’t long before this treatment was perceived by the “settlers” as a sign of their “primitive deficiencies”. And so like all other places to be “discovered” in this great era of exploration, the indigenous were at first coerced peacefully and then forcefully to vacate their lands to make way for the imperialist machine.
At one point the Khoikhoi approached Dutch East India commander Jan Van Riebeeck and asked (you can apply this question to Iraq, Vietnam, East Timor, the Philippines, Japan, China, India, the Americas, etc.) “whether if they were to come into Holland, they would be permitted to act in a similar manner.” Van Riebeeck
replied that “the country had been justly won by the sword in defensive warfare, and that it was now our intention to retain it.” He went on to say that if the Khoikhoi continued to complain then “they would still lose more of their land by the right of conquest, unless indeed they had the courage to expel us.” Not long after, the Khoikhoi found themselves enslaved, and eventually exterminated. At this point, I’d like to introduce the discovery of diamonds and gold into the picture.
Remember when I mentioned that economics had more to do with African oppression than any other thing? Well, when the Europeans discovered diamonds, they needed a workforce, a pool of labour. Since the indigenous peoples had been living off the land for thousands of years, paid labour was an alien concept to them. The whites needed to convey to the African people that “they may no longer be naked and wicked Barbarians which they will never be [sic] unless they labour and become industrious. They must learn that it is money that makes people rich by work.” It wasn’t long before the government (made up of mine owners) began implementing taxes on huts, dogs and movement, forcing the Africans into the mines to earn the wages to pay their taxes. More laws were passed until finally apartheid came to be in the early twentieth century, due mostly to the lobbying of DeBeers, the largest diamond company in the world.
In the 1930s, a delegation from South Africa came to Canada to observe how we dealt with “our native problem”. They essentially instituted the same reservation system in South Africa as we instituted here decades earlier, calling them Bantustans. To this day apartheid continues. Almost everything under the African sun is owned by white people. Eighty-five percent of the Botswana economy is dependent on diamonds. All of them leave Botswana for Europe and North America where they are sold at insanely inflated prices so someone can show their undying love. In exchange, a miniscule portion of that money makes its way back to the African people, with most of it going to DeBeers and higher-up Botswana officials.
Keep in mind what the Khoikhoi asked the Dutch. Ask yourself whether people in our country would stand for the Khoikhoi coming and taking our fish, our grain and our oil so that they may prosper and we may suffer. Imagine that they take so much that there is nothing left to feed our families. Imagine that they institute a system in which we’re forced to work by their rules or die. Imagine seeing our culture die off, and our people and our stories, whatever they may be, wiped from the planet forever.
Three hundred years ago there were three million San in southern Africa. Now there are ninety thousand left.
Genocides and holocausts are not limited to battlefields in far off places. I’m not the first to state that what was done with guns and swords can now be done with economics. Genocides and holocausts aren’t limited to gas chambers; they can take the form of changing a culture through the imposition of Christianity. They can take the form of removing people from their homes and placing them on ‘settlements’ so that their land can be mined for diamonds or aluminum or oil. Genocides can consist of one culture restricting another culture’s means to life by
increasing the subordinates dependence on the oppressor.
Now what if your culture was based on the constant existence of that genocide? What if your culture could only continue as long as those within it continued to accept the genocides because they knew somewhere, that as Jensen writes, “if your community is founded on an injustice, that injustice cannot be questioned.” Again, imagine the Khoikhoi tricking us into thinking that apartheid ended when they merely switched it from a legal, overt version, to a more pervasive psychological form. Imagine waking up everyday and going to work knowing that we may not get paid for the wealth we produce for the farmer who stole this land from our ancestors. There’s an old Kenyan proverb that goes, “If a man comes and steals your cow, you forget because the cow is gone and you will never see it again. But if someone steals your land then it is impossible to forget because you live your life upon that which has been stolen from you.”
What would we do? We would obviously strike back and destroy the ‘evil usurpers’ for trying to take what is ours. The irony of all of this is that what we deem ours isn’t actually something than can be owned. The land that I am sitting on as I write this was stolen in some way, just as the land you’re standing on as you read this was.
We take and we take, pathologically consuming all in our path, wiping out anything or anyone that stands between us and our apparent ‘destiny’ to rule the world. Our desire for more is insatiable. We crave a utopian ideal that will be forever unattainable. Those of our culture are, for the most part, miserable; never satisfied with the way their life is going. We get depressed over meaningless things and we cast that depression onto those around us, violently, never realizing that it is in simplicity that we are truly happy. How can we find love in a culture underwritten by so much hate? If only we could turn off our culture completely.
But no one wants to do that because we’ve all been duped into believing that our culture stands for what is right in the world. We are the beacon of hope for all other cultures. Sure, we may not be perfect, but it’s better than living without the comforts and amenities our way of living has afforded us, right? How can we truly love others and ourselves when those comforts and amenities are based on the oppression of other humanand non-human beings? How is it possible? The key to all of this is the perception of who and what is civilized; who and what is good; who and what is evil. That form of perception needs to be ingrained in order for the conquest to be successfully perpetuated for generations. If not then the conquerors leave themselves susceptible to empathy and understanding. How can you enslave someone when you fundamentally see them as human?
I’m in the back of a truck in Namibia on my way to Ghanzi, Gaborone, Johannesburg, London, and finally Toronto. I’m watching the same unscreened scenery whip by me as before. My soul is clear, and my path is free of the cultural debris that had long tripped up every step I tried to begin with. I had seen a place few human eyes had seen; a place where dunes thousands of feet high meet an ocean thousands of feet deep.
I sat there one morning, on top of a seven hundred foot dune, staring out into the depths of the Atlantic, feeling the sun on my face, knowing that this is how human beings live. I cried again and again from the sensations of being so immersed in life. Tears cooled by the ocean breeze fell as my neck was warmed by the desert wind. Beneath me was a fresh water lagoon existing between dynamic opposites of sand and water. The sounds of jackals, dancing fish, and pelicans filled my ears with a resonance so deep that I can sometimes hear them calling me while I stand in the middle of the city.
I felt the Topnaars here with me. This place was home to them for so long. I felt a deep sadness. Their slaughter removed an important element of a magical system of life. Yet I could feel their imprint on it, I don’t know how, but I could feel them all around me. I felt a connection to the oldest parts of the earth, I felt a community that my culture had long since denied. I felt like I was home and that the world had been waiting for me, waiting to welcome me home.
I smiled knowing that this was my starting point. T.S. Eliot wrote, “What we call the beginning is often the end/And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” My beginning was at the top of that dune. The key to understanding the everyday atrocities of our existence is stepping away from them, first to the deepest parts of ourselves that we’ve denied, and then to the world, human and non-human. By embracing our humanity internally then externally, we do as Jensen says and “realize that our humanity runs deeper than any mere socialization.”