Monday, September 26, 2016

Eat, Love, Braai

It’s been a full first week guys. I showed up Monday morning all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, just raring to go. We jumped through the final hoops of getting me hooked up to the office computer system, and I now have my very own work e-mail. I’m thoroughly convinced this makes me much more legitimate.

Now that I’m plugged in on the technology side, it is amazing how quickly I’ve been sucked into the work happening here. My colleagues have patiently answered my questions all week, and laughed with me as I adjust to some of the norms here in SA. One of those norms is how openly, beautifully, and hilariously carnivorous this nation is. Everywhere I go I run into some form of grilled meat, and there are usually caramelised onions nearby. Portions are phenomenally large, vegetables only seem to make an appearance sometimes, and so far (just about) everything I’ve tried tastes amazing. The most social way to prepare meat is to have a braai, which is basically marinating the meat and cooking it over an open fire, South African-style. 

This is a braai (rhymes with 'try'). It smells like primal satisfaction and campfire. I highly recommend it.
South Africa is also famous for wine, and I have found that most people here are heathens like me. It’s so hot that white wine is actually served with a bowl of ice and a spoon, separate from the bucket of ice that the wine bottle goes in. Any idea on why? It’s glorious. They actually give you ice cubes to put directly into your wine. This is a thing of beauty and I want it to be normal everywhere. For years now I have been dropping an ice cube or two into my white wine to keep it crisply chilled, and that is generally frowned upon by wine aficionados. (Somewhere, my French host family is cringing in horror and they don’t know why.)

Back to the meat though. This past Saturday was Heritage Day in SA, and that’s a cause for food and celebration. Heritage Day is a national holiday where everyone in the Republic is invited to walk the streets, attend work, and generally live their lives in clothing that celebrates their heritage. This means that right off the bat I had the chance to see my colleagues step up and represent (culturally) where they’ve come from, which was really, really cool. Both of my officemates are originally Nigerian, and one is the daughter of a seamstress who deals in these incredible African fabrics. The colours are explosive, the patterns are bold, and the beadwork that goes with it all is pretty unreal. I am definitely looking forward to dropping by in the next few weeks, once they’ve stocked up again. Right now it sounds like it’s slim pickings. Heritage Day is a big deal, and everyone wanted to look their best, so of course the shop is running low.

This skirt that started it all... one of the attorneys in our office found this fabric while she was vacationing in Mozambique, and had it made into a skirt at the shop. We're like fashion lemmings, it's ridiculous. Now everyone at the office wants one.
Needless to say, several members of our office made a trip to this shop and contributed to the economy. The whole thing was fabulous. The head wraps some of the women elected to wear are called doeks, and even just aside from whatever other garments are being worn, a doek can be a statement in and of itself. They can be tied in flowers, a variety of bow-like figures, artistic knots, or flared right up and crinkled. There is a very fun young woman who works the reception desk at the college next door, and she regularly shows up dressed in Western business casual with a doek wrapped around her head. It’s a practice I entirely support, and I’m actually hoping they become more widely used back home. They are great flash of culture, colour, and fun. All things that are sort of shuffled under the rug in a business setting in North America.


Which brings me to an interesting place, and maybe you’ve pre-empted this already. When confronted with the dressing up that comes with Heritage Day, I promptly realised I was kind of stuck. Traditional Canadian clothing? What exactly does that consist of when you’re a third generation Canadian white girl? Initially I thought it was a bit of a silly problem, surely I could just dress in red and white (no differently than Canada Day), and be quite satisfied with that.

I was not satisfied with that. Not satisfied with that at all. The more I heard, the more I realised the purpose here was to celebrate a culture, not really a nation. There are many distinct cultures in SA, and it is totally normal for that to be reflected in everything from politics to fashion. For example, the riots that took place here a few months ago were much more grounded in the ANC’s attempt to run a candidate for office who was from a completely different tribal and cultural background than the community in the riding she was trying to win. Needles to say, it did not work. So it’s not like people were dressing up in patriotic South African colours and celebrating the birth of the Republic, or the end of apartheid, or even coming together. Really it’s about having the chance to celebrate your culture, your heritage. Also a chance to see where everyone around you comes from, and understand them better.

Remember those years I worked at the Calgary Stampede? That was a thing. It's ok, I know you're secretly terribly jealous of my hat and bandana. Please don't all applaud at once. 
This is when I started running into actual problems. What is traditionally Canadian clothing-wise? Ok before you yell ‘plaid!’ or ‘denim and cowboy boots!’, please note that yes, as an Albertan I did contemplate those. That being said, I brought exactly one very lightly plaid shirt, and certainly did not have room to pack my boots. I will also have you know that I was unwilling to show up wearing my toque, or red mittens, or a scarf. It is way too warm for that shenanigans here. I switched tactics:

I started asking around for what people here thought of when I said ‘traditional Canadian clothing’. It uh… didn’t really solve my problem. People overwhelmingly said they thought of traditional Canadian clothing as First Nations garments. Feathers, fringe, fine beadwork, moccasins and head dresses. That makes a ton of sense, but you will not catch me dead in a Stoney headdress, or a Cree vest, or wearing Blood facepaint. Cultural appropriation is a big deal. To show up with anything like that as someone who has never been invited to participate in a First Nations cultural event that involved my dressing up is pretty far over the line. I don’t think it would be alright to do it here just because there is (potentially) a lower risk for being called out on it.

Chief Hector Crawler. A fairly famous Chief of the Stoney Nakoda nation right next door to Kananaskis country near where I grew up, and a great example of traditional First Nation clothing. 
So… this left me in a bit of a quandary, what to wear to Heritage Day? My host initially suggested red plaid, and I thought about dropping by the mall to see if I could find anything lumberjack-appropriate, but then she came up with another suggestion: Why don’t I borrow a dress from her in a Kenyan pattern, and toss on some Kenyan beaded bracelets as well? I was thrilled by the offer. I’d get the chance to participate, and to do so in fun African colours.

Do you see the catch on this though? It took me a bit to realise what I might doing, and I’ve been thinking about it for a while now. If my host were a Kenyan woman, her inviting me to borrow her dress/beads and wear them to an event meant to celebrate heritage would have made sense. That’s an invitation to participate in culture from someone inside the cultural group, and I think invites like that are amazing chances. My host is not Kenyan though, and that got me wondering where the line is for cultural appropriation; what is appropriation, and what is not? By wearing a Kenyan dress and traditional beaded bracelets instead of a feathered headdress, have I just side-stepped appropriating one culturally significant thing and picked up another in its place?

Celebrating Heritage Day in my (borrowed) Kenyan dress.
Those beaded bracelets were by far my favourite though. 
Perhaps more importantly, why was I more comfortable wearing the dress instead of the headdress?

The conclusion I’ve come to rests on an uneasy balance between commercialisation and respect; and I’m still not totally sure it’s right. My line of thought is that by the very nature of a thing being for sale by a group with rights to it, an invitation is being extended to own and use the thing. For example: If it weren’t so warm here I’d be totally comfortable wearing a pair of Manitobah Mukluks.

If you haven't checked these out, I solidly recommend it.
They're a gorgeously made product, and the company makes sense to support from my perspective. 
In the end, the Kenyan dress and bracelets aren’t so different from the mukluks. Yes, I did borrow them from the woman hosting me, but I also could have picked up half a dozen dresses just like it in other Kenyan patterns at the market the next morning. I am way more comfortable with wearing something that is clearly commercialised, and not (to my knowledge) an appropriation of something sacred.

There is a flipside to this though. What happens when fashion steps in and pulls something that is sacred or traditional into the field of commercial gain? There's a great discussion of the problems inherent with that here. The short of it though is that a voice from inside the community needs to be leading the charge in sharing to really avoid appropriation, more like this. I think that’s where the balance has to come in though, and some buyer discretion.

For example, there is a Zulu headband here that makes me smile every time I see one. Just look at that white tuft in the middle! Look at it! It’s amazing! Be excited with me about it!

Ahem... this particular headband is only worn by married Zulu men.
As such, I lack all qualifications required to wear the headband. 
So there’s an example of something that is commercially for sale, but is grounded in tradition and still has some level of meaning in the modern world. Everyone I met who was wearing a headband was indeed married, and appeared to be male. (I don’t know if Zulu people are distinct looking, but my colleagues so far have indicated ‘no’.) That makes the headband exactly the kind of thing that pushes the responsibility of respect onto the buyer. Just like I wouldn’t buy a pair of mukluks and use them to dress up like a First Nations stereotype for Halloween, wearing a Kenyan dress and a Zulu headband seems pretty highly disrespectful.

This leaves my whole cultural appropriation conundrum in that wonderful (read: horrible) grey area of ‘do your research!’ and ‘be aware of what you’re buying!’. Optimistically, I’m going to take the ambiguity of it to mean I’m at least getting closer to the messy reality surrounding what should be a relatively simple kindergarten principle: Don’t take what’s not yours.

In case you're looking for a funny, easy, adorable read this fall.
Also a great lesson on things we were supposed to learn in kindergarten.

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