And then just like that, you hop a plane from Johannesburg, stop after 8 hours in Dakar for refuelling. Take another 9 hours to arrive in New York, take a cab into the city with a great driver who hails from Guinea and is going back there to work on the democratic elections this spring, and you get dropped in front of a small boutique hotel on Madison Avenue. The air is cold and crisp and the city seems to be in a good mood.
The woman at the check in counter at The MAve Hotel directs me to Penelope, a great little breakfast place at E 30th and Lexington Ave, where I have just downed a great tasting egg and pesto sandwich on a croissant, surrounded by people talking about real estate deals, high blodd pressure medication and book promotion tours.
It’s a huge difference in some ways and just another city in other ways. I am reminded how much I love being in New York City, and how much I love eastern North American cities in general in the winter – New York, Boston, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa. All places I have some lingering presence in, some impression left on me from the dark and blustery days of winter, the days when, as a young man, I crept away to late night coffee shops to read and write poetry, or out to hear jazz and blues muted behind closed doors and windows dripping with condensation.
Just as languishing over the weekend in the leafy northern suburbs of Johannesburg brought me to my childhood growing up in Toronto – and to my partner’s childhood in South Africa – being here in new York this morning evokes a kind of nostalgia and a kind of energy for exploration. I feel like a young man again, half my age, a free day in New York, bracing air and bright eyed people. Somehow cleansed from my trip. Clear eyed.
It’s Groundhog Day in the United States, a strange holiday. The day in which one solitary animal in Pennsylvania awakes from his winter hibernation, takes a look out of his burrow and gauges what he sees. If he sees his shadow, it’s six more weeks of winter.
Somehow this captures what it is like to have arrived here in the United States from Africa. Today is a good day to wake up and see our shadows. Can we see the connection between the the crime and poverty and disparity of wealth and the apartheid-by-another-name of South Africa and daily life on the streets of midtown Manhattan? A cab driver dreams of returning to Africa to work for a democratic solution to the turmoil in Guinea, a country that hasn’t known the ethnic conflicts and civil wars of its neighbours. he worries that unless people get to work, that might change and Guinea could descend into bloodshed because the bigger powers in the world, some of them in the office buildings above us, may decide to act ruthlessly for the oil and resources that the country is endowed with.
North America and Europe has a nearly trillion dollar arms industry, much of which, in the form of small arms, ends up in Africa. the hands of despotic leaders, paramilitary death squads, gang leaders and petty criminals are filled with this deadly engineering that generates huge amounts of wealth for the North. The oil and precious metals that power our economies are extracted from the coastal platforms of Senegal, the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the diamond mines of Kimberly. Whatever we want in North America we can have. Cross some palms with dollars and ammunition and turn away from the shadow. A bright day dawns.
Our shadows are all around us, and to see them this clearly means two things. First, it means more winter – that the hard times are not yet done that weeks complicated and mindful living still lie between now and the promise and ease of spring. Second, it means that the sun is shining, something is warming my back, throwing my silhouette on the ground. And that the winter continues.
What a complicated world! What an untidy conclusion! What a way to try and capture the truth of this strange trip I’ve been on!
On the way into Manhattan today my cab driver, Bubu, asked me what my impression of Africa was. I admitted that it was limited – I had only spent a week there, most of it in a middle class suburb or on a safari ranch and all of it in the company of middle class people. But I said that the overwhelming impression was that Africa differed from North America in a key way: in Africa, the truth is valued above everything else. Here in North America we are quick to sacrifice truth at the alter of a happy ending but African stories would never do that. To do so is the ultimate betrayal of promise. To tell the story of South Africa as a successful miracle of transition to democracy would be to betray the promise of what the struggle was all about. It was about truth. Clear, shiny, complicated, messy, dark truth.
Bubu, my driver, smiled widely. “Exactly,” he said.