Virtually living for real
Early morning stumbling out of bed. Only one thing on my mind: C*A*F*F*E*I*N*E. It’s a beautiful morning outside but first I plonk down in front of my computer. First sip of scalding hot coffee as I open up my browser. I log into News24. “Racism out of hand” it screams is large black letters on a white background. I read the article. Apparently the end is nigh. Everyone hates everyone. We are headed for a major disaster.
I swallow the last mouthful of coffee and get up. The day awaits. Shower and get dressed. Wake the kids. Dress them, hush them, brush them and off to school we go. I smile at the Indian father with twins at the school gates and let him go first. He holds the gate open for me when we come out again. On my way to work I am still distracted by my 5-year old wearing a totally crazy outfit today. She is gorgeous but what if she gets bullied for being so uniquely awesome? I don’t concentrate on the road and skip a 4-way stop. In peak traffic. I pull a face and apologise profusely with elaborate hand gestures to those around me. The black man who almost drove into me gives me a big smile and a thumbs up. I am thankful for the kindness. Next stop is the fuel station for some petrol. “Goeiemoooore Mevrou!” the petrol attendant exclaims. “How can I make your day awesome?”
While he fills up my tank I enter the virtual world again through my Facebook page. Someone asked on a popular parent group what the best breed of dog is to get if you have kids and is now being virtually assaulted for “being irresponsible” and “encouraging illegal trade and non-sterilisation” of pets in general . Someone else posted a breastfeeding-selfie and is currently being annihilated for apparently offending all mothers on the planet who are medically unable to breastfeed and at the same time promoting adultery by leading poor defenceless men into temptation. “See you again tomorrow mam!” I am brought back to the real world by the petrol attendant. He is laughing because I asked for only R100’s worth of petrol and he knows it will barely last me a day. I laugh with him. We all suffer together at month end.
I arrive at my job and immediately get to work. Guests waking up and stumbling into the dining room looking for coffee. The white couple from Phalaborwa is gushing about their son who was awarded a bursary and how proud he makes them. He wants to be a human rights lawyer. A Chinese couple is telling the black couple next to them about their immigration troubles. They are trying to establish the family business but can’t manage to get a home-loan so they can settle down. Two fathers are talking cricket over their bowls of cereal. Their sons are playing together on the floor. One was raised on breast-milk the other was bottle fed. They both seem fine to me.
After a couple of hours, my colleague arrives and tells me to go relax, she will take over. I smile thankfully and sneak off to check my emails.
“Leave before it’s too late” The first email exclaims. Apparently there is yet another green card lottery to get off the African continent “while we still can.” Apparently things are falling apart really quickly. Another email from the local tourist governing body warns locals to stay out of the city centre later this afternoon because of strikes. I close my emails. I have to go and sort out my municipal account and it has to be done today. Preferably before the strike. As I pass the dining room the Chinese lady comes over to me and takes both my hands in hers. I don’t understand much of what she is saying, but I am pretty sure she is thanking me for taking care of them while they try to sort out their living situation. Body language and tone of voice is such an important element in our communication, I realise again, as I get in my car.
I am very lucky to find parking close to the municipal offices. I make sure the car is locked and jog across the street to the entrance. “Stop mam! Stop right there!” Someone is yelling. I feel my heart sink. What now? Should I get into the relative safety of the building? It’s a huge black man with tattoos. “You dropped your wallet!” He yells before I can make a run for it. “Here you go” he hands it over to me with all the cash I need to pay my electricity bill still there. “Be careful. Apparently this is a dangerous country to live in” he smiles.
I enter the building and eventually I find the right line to wait in. There is a long line of chairs to queue in but they are all taken and about 10 of us are still standing in line before we can start playing musical chairs. An old grey lady enters shortly after me. She is also black. The white man on the second-to last chair gets up immediately. “Does anyone mind if I give her a place in the line?” No one does. A woman dressed in a designer pants-suit and a much younger man in a washed out t-shirt and jeans are discussing our president’s latest blunder. They are giggling together and doing some fairly good imitations. Every now and again you can hear someone else in the line snigger appreciatively. I spend my 40 minutes in line catching up on twitter. Someone posted a picture of his newly acquired beard and the picture is being retweeted with the hashtag #krugermustfall and threats to harm his family, his friends and his first grade teacher. A picture of a female hunter with a huge kudu bull has been retweeted 28 000 times blaming her for the extinction of the species, famine in Africa and misery on the continent in general. Someone tells her she deserves to “get AIDS and die." At last I get to the front of the queue and thankfully return to the real world. Although it takes longer than expected to sort out my issues, the government official behind the keyboard is particularly friendly and efficient. “Now get out of here” she says as I take my forms and get up “but be careful, the strike should be passing through soon.”
As I exit the building, a low rumbling greets me. It’s not a big crowd, only about 300 people marching and singing. The low baritone of the men’s voices is complimented perfectly by the women ululating. I stay on the steps with a small crowd of onlookers and wait for them to pass. A very beautifully dressed African lady next to me is holding onto a red umbrella to ward of the harsh African sun. An unexpected gust of wind suddenly lifts it up and carries it into the street. A young man stops mid-toyi-toyi and picks it up. He closes the umbrella and looks in our direction. He frowns and points towards us, loudly singing along with the other strikers. Then he starts taking the steps two-by-two with the pointy-bit of the bright red umbrella thrusted in front of him. The owner and I both take a careful step backwards. As he crosses the last few steps the singing reaches a crescendo. He is only a couple of steps away. At the very last moment he stops, turns the umbrella around and places the handle in my neighbour’s hand. “Here you go, mama.” Then he gives me a huge smile and winks. And just like that he disappears back into the crowd.
We live in strange times. Scary times. We are constantly being told how everything is deteriorating. Morals. Manners. In the printed media. Online media. Social media. Everywhere we are being reminded that we are “doomed”. Yet every time I return to the real world, I find the exact opposite. Kindness. Generosity. Acceptance. CHANGE. Real people living real lives. Not taking offense at every. Single. Thing. Not sharing someone’s ignorant little mistake with 34 000 people in 5 minutes.
The virtual world is a reality. Our children are being raised in a strange world where you can say anything, judge anyone and comment on everything with minimum accountability. We cannot escape it. We can only learn to control it and to evolve with it. Expose them to the dangers, to the online drama and the bad manners. Teach them how to be the change. Show them how to engage responsibly. I dream about a time where good manners and common sense will live in the virtual world as it does all around us every day.
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