Our ‘Most Wanted’ Man: The (Unauthorized) Kony 2012 Companion

Earlier this week, I reluctantly gave Kony 2012 its 84,506,080th view on YouTube. As many of you know, Invisible Children’s portrayal of a raging war in Uganda (which is, in actuality, neither raging nor in Uganda) sparked vehement controversy. Scholars and slacktivists alike weighed in on the cause du jour during the week(s) that the 30-minute shockumentary received more hits than all of those crude cat vids combined. Issues that do not typically enter popular discourse—the paradox of humanitarian aid, the ills of intervention, the infantilizing of the African continent—conflated to take center stage. Last week, arguably misguided legislators signed off on a resolution that supports the mission to catch Kony. Soon after, the African Union announced that it will deploy a peacekeeping force of 5,000 to capture the now-infamous warlord. The propriety of these measures can and will be debated by far more qualified scholars.

For now, color me cynic because what follows may reek of sarcasm and disdain. Below, my thoughts on Kony 2012 as I finally watch what I’ve been loath to for weeks.

***

(8:34) “If we succeed, we change the course of human history.”

I think it’s dangerous to think that “we,” who have virtually no understanding of the complexity that is the prevailing situation in Uganda, the DRC, the CAR, and South Sudan, have the ability to fix it. While Kony may not have been a household name, it’s not as if his crimes (or the crimes committed by the Ugandan army, for that matter) have gone unreported. Solutions have been sought, and the option that Invisible Children will present may not be the most tenable. The problem (one of many) with Invisible Children is that it operates under the pretext that something is better than nothing. When it comes to issues of international aid and military intervention, that’s not always the case.

Of course, individuals and organizations can make a difference if they have a nuanced understanding of the problem and intelligent ways to address it. For that, they will need to devote more than 30 minutes.

(8:46) Finally, almost nine minutes into the film, our narrator Jason Russell mentions Joseph Kony.

Many criticize the film for providing a simplistic account of Kony and the LRA. To this, Invisible Children responds, “In a 30-minute film, many nuances of the 26-year conflict are admittedly lost or overlooked.” Well, Invisible Children could have covered more ground if it didn’t take nine minutes to start talking about the man that this campaign is supposed to make famous. Right now, I know more about our supporting actor, Gavin, his ninja moves and his bumbling acting skills, than I do about our leading man, the perpetrator of vast atrocities.

(12:08) “He has repeatedly used peace talks to re-arm and murder, again and again.”

Aside from the repetitive nature of this sentence, I take issue with the suggestion that peace talks are definitively not the answer, and that Invisible Children’s alternative—military intervention—presents a better option. Writer Dinaw Mengestu and Professor Mahmood Mamdani offer some thoughts on the specious alternative. In Foreign Affairs, Mareike Schomerus, Tim Allen, and Koen Vlassenroot write, “If the film were actually about change, it might have addressed its own paradox: that trying yet again to end a military conflict with more of the same sort of military engagement will probably cost too many civilian lives.”

In matters of foreign intervention, the US has a bleak track record. Afghanistan, Iraq and the Philippines offer just a few case studies that Russell & Co. may want to consider before they advocate military aid. On a related note, how can we expect US intervention to be successful when many Ugandans resent this involvement?

(14:40) “They turned their awareness into action.” Does joining a Facebook group qualify as action?

One of the most frustrating arguments is the one that begins, “But at least it’s raising awareness.” Generally speaking, I wholeheartedly support this mission and a certain brand of “advocacy-by-journalism.” Ask me why I chose this field, and you’ll probably hear this motive mentioned in my ramblings. But what will this form of awareness, loaded with misinformation, accomplish? How will this turn into something more than a fundraising campaign for the incredibly visible Invisible Children? I wonder how many people watched Kony 2012 and sought to learn more about the political context that led to the “problem.”

After all, politics heavily shape these disasters. The LRA is not a one-man band, and Kony is not the only player. In some sense, the LRA is symptomatic of larger problems that plague these countries. And in order to stop the LRA, or any subsequent rebel group, governments must fundamentally redefine and revamp the way they operate. To help, we must first understand the broader political context. But Invisible Children doesn’t attempt to impart this information, and so fails to recognize that Kony’s capture will not end the dangerous political interplay that the region continues to endure.

The story won’t end with the capture of Kony.

(15:05) Hold up.

Did that map just show that the LRA has moved into South Sudan, the DRC, and the CAR and is NO LONGER IN UGANDA? Here, the video betrays its dated nature, retelling a story without bothering to elaborate on the current situation.

(16:20) Hm, I wonder where those critics get the idea that Invisible Children’s founders come across as narcissistic, patronizing, self-serving, and condescending.

Perhaps it’s because Russell spent the past few minutes lauding the work of Invisible Children and all it’s done to help Africans. What a load of, um, propaganda.

The “White Savior Industrial Complex” is the paternalistic sentiment that Africa and its people need the Western world to rid the war-ravaged country—er, continent—of all its problems, poverty and violence among them. It seems like that’s exactly the “solution” that Invisible Children has in mind. Of course, the organization calls this accusation the “most absurd and offensive” of them all.

(19:18) African writers and journalists have weighed in on Kony 2012.

All the reactions I’ve watched or read have been critical, if not altogether derisive, about the video and the attention it has garnered. Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama writes that, “Campaigns [like Kony 2012] don’t just lack scholarship or nuance. They are not bothered to seek it.” In a more recent op-ed for The New York Times, he adds that, “killing Mr. Kony may remove him from the battlefield but it will not cure the conditions that have allowed him to thrive for so long.”

However, Ugandans who support Invisible Children and this effort to “make Kony famous” have remained silent, it seems. How do the Ugandans portrayed in the film, and those who work with Invisible Children, react to the backlash?

(20:35) International support could be removed at any time?

Says who? I’ll borrow from Michael Wilkerson’s oft-cited piece for Foreign Policy, in which he asks, “Does anyone else have any evidence about this urgent threat of cancellation? One that justifies such a massive production campaign and surely lucrative donation drive?” Wilkerson also calls attention to the films factual errors, such as the fact that Kony’s ranks number in the hundreds, and surely not in the tens of thousands.

(21:20) Cue emotional appeals.

No, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but let’s substantiate it with a comprehensive and contextual analysis of Kony and the LRA.

(22:20) Let’s recap, briefly.

Russell narrates, “We know what to do. Here it is, ready? In order for Kony to be arrested this year, the Ugandan military has to find him. In order to find him, they need the technology and training to track him in the vast jungle. That’s where the American advisors come in. But in order for the American advisors to be there, the American government has to deploy them. They’ve done that, but if the government doesn’t believe the people care about Kony, the mission will be cancelled. In order for the people to care, they have to know. And they will only know if Kony’s name is everywhere.”

I’m not sure I follow Russell’s vertiginous rationale. Somehow, the “solution” rests in the purchase of a $30 “action kit,” but Invisible Children fails to connect the dots. How will the purchase stop Kony?

(22:55) That face is priceless.

Gavin, he’s not really invisible. Your dad’s taking some creative liberties. Okay, he’s exercising a lot of creative liberty.

(24:13) “This is something we can all agree on.”

Is the irony of this statement lost on anyone?

(25:21) And rock it they did.

It’s cliché to end on an optimistic note, but after a rant that traffics in borderline disillusionment, it might be appropriate, even necessary. There are a few silver linings. The cause célèbre and its “incredible virality” demonstrate the power that can be harnessed by social media and the “desire to do good” that pervades. The last time I voraciously debated these issues, it was within the confines of a college classroom. I echo what Yale professor Chris Blattman writes: “What’s new and amazing is that, with the direction that coverage has taken, the average high school activist, donor and Congressman might just understand a little better what separates advocacy from badvocacy, and demand better in [the] future.”

Oh, and one more thing.

(26:29) 4/20? Sorry, Jason Russell and Co. This day is already reserved for another hallowed event. On second thought, a converging of the two may be appropriate. (That’s a joke, guys.)

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i’m calling bullshit.

A potentially inflammatory headline for an undoubtedly inflammatory situation: Bulldozers enter the Kyang’ombe slums in Nairobi, Kenya. But this isn’t the inauguration of some urban redevelopment program or slum upgrading initiative. It’s almost midnight, and the bulldozers are there to tear it all down. Their engines run throughout the night and into the following day. In the end, fallen homes, schools and businesses, now nothing more than an amalgamation of timber and iron sheets.

Before I proceed, forgive me my theatrics and let me betray my vested interest in this issue, in the spirit of full disclosure. On Monday, I awoke to find a frantic email in my inbox. It was from a close friend I met in Kibera, where I spent most of my days last summer working on a research project. The subject line reads, “Homeless,” a spoiler that immediately betrays the outcome and leaves no room for ambiguity. My friend and his family are among the more than 200,000 people who have lost everything, I discover.

His account includes details that have been left out of reports by independent media, telling omissions that reveal something about the state of journalism in the country; its one that dillydallies somewhere between offering detached stenography and emotionally-charged diatribes that lack a broader explanatory context.

My friend writes that he received no warning, that the electricity in the slum was shut off, that police disembarked from their vehicles clutching guns and canisters of teargas, that he hardly had time to save any belongings, that the soundtrack of the night was a symphony of screams, that he’s grateful his family is alive.

Some journalistic instinct kicks in, and I hardly pause to process before I begin sending messages to former colleagues and previous sources in Nairobi. I enter a state of search engine-induced delirium, knowing all along that I am looking for answers that don’t exist. I imagine that the parties privy to these coveted answers have sworn to maintain secrecy during some corrupt back-room deal, complete with a satiating dose of bribery and political posturing. My theory is corroborated by reports like this. I can’t confirm their legitimacy beyond reasonable doubt, but they claim that the government evicted residents because private developers acquired the land (illegally, of course) by tapping their powerful connections. For someone somewhat familiar with the customary wheelings and dealings in Kenya, the land of “TKK,” it’s convincing enough.

The government is toting the line that the slum was demolished because it obstructed the flight path of planes headed toward the nearby Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. I’m not asserting that this territory is indisputably safe. But I challenge the officials who issued this statement to consider how many slums are located on land that’s less than ideal, often near road, power and railway reserves. For instance, the Uganda Railway Line cuts through Kibera’s muddy hillsides, and a steady flow of pedestrian traffic runs along and across the line. Squatter settlements emerge on these tracts of land precisely because they are otherwise undesirable. They remain vacant until prospective tenants occupy them in a desperate search for shelter. So why start with Kyang’ombe, of all slums? Surely there are other settlements that rest on land where dangers permeate tenfold.

The inhumanity of it all strikes me, and it’s what compelled to write this blog post instead of copious cover letters. For instance, Gerald Mutiso was sleeping when a bulldozer entered his home. Who considers the hours between 10 p.m. and midnight as optimal to engage in such decimation? Surely, they realized that there were families nestled within the feeble walls. The same account reports that schools, too, weren’t spared.

***

I will not claim to rank among the cognoscenti who are experts on economic development, humanitarian issues, slum redevelopment efforts and so forth. But my instinct (and common sense) tells me that this situation reeks of human rights violations. First, let me point out what should have been obvious to the wily power players who signed off on the demolition: Destroying one slum will not decrease the number of slum dwellers in Nairobi, in Kenya. Those who lost their homes and businesses with the demolition of the Kyang’ombe slums will most likely relocate to one of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other slums that pepper Kenya. The presence of these slums is simply a manifestation of the various issues that wrack the country. Nairobi’s distorted housing market and the absence of prospects in the countryside drive tens, even hundreds of thousands of people to Nairobi’s urban slums every year. So demolishing informal settlements like Kibera and Mathare and Mukuru is an impossible task; where does the government expect their residents to go?

Based on my experience in squatter settlements, I argue that slums are thriving informal economies in their own right. Sure, there are vendors who scheme, selling jerry cans of water for ten times the market value, and they get away with it. Salesmen solicit to passersby, fanning their pirated DVDs, Bollywood and Hollywood movies alike. But in an environment where the government fails to provide basic services for its citizens, third parties also step in to provide what the government either cannot or will not. Schools, clinics and even latrines, which cost a few shillings per use, are provided by private entities. And because of these well-meaning individuals and organizations, children have schools to attend and fields to play soccer on. Restaurants (confusingly referred to as “hotels”) and shops abound, so when the political cronies and the bulldozers team up to raze homes, they destroy livelihoods as well.

For those who find themselves compelled to relocate to urban centers and unable to afford middle class housing, living in informal settlements like Kyang’ombe is the only option. Until, of course, the government does something that actually addresses the issues at hand. Barring demolitions like the one that occurred last Friday would be an acceptable start.

piga picha.

A picture is worth a thousand words.

Shouldn’t this axiom be the anathema of every (print) journalist? Perhaps not, and yet it’s definitely mine. After all, I write. I believe that writing is one of the most effective ways of communicating—of sharing news, experiences, ideas, challenges. But this maxim disagrees: Prevent wasted ink, wasted time and carpal tunnel; snap a picture instead, it says. In my mind, the saying surmises that no matter what I write, no matter how much time I spend trying to craft a gem of a sentence or a perfect paragraph, one click of my camera could accomplish the same feat.

But pulling out a camera in Kibera is the equivalent of wearing the perennial “KICK ME” sign, as looks of disparagement shoot my way. I might as well show up wearing a banana suit or some other ridiculous attire. When I pull out that Canon, I feel like the slum tourist who callously invades another’s home, snapping away at artifacts of his or her daily life. The camera is a reminder: Remember, I’m a journalist. Remember, I’m not from here. Remember, beware.

I delayed it for as long as I possibly could. So long, in fact, that Genesis began to wonder where my camera was. He assumed that pictures are a component of my project. He also assumed that I might be reluctant to unmask my camera, for fear that those around me might then begin to resent my presence. He was right, as he has been all too often.

Soweto East is bustling, teeming with people who hasten up and down the only road in Kibera. The occasional vehicle hoots, and pedestrians scuttle out of the way. I’m surprised by the number of people I see in Soweto East, one of twelve or thirteen villages in Kibera. My astonishment is based on an interview with a staff worker at the KENSUP Secretariat, who reassured me that Soweto East is nearly empty now that its former residents have been relocated to a decanting site while their neighborhood is renovated. She assured me that Soweto East remains virtually vacant, that I might find a dozen people there, but no more.

She’s wrong. Since their relocation, others have moved in, claiming those shacks as their own. Genesis and I joke that we should take a picture and show it to my liaison at the Secretariat. And then I decide that I will.

Enter the camera.  I have a paranoid-but-not-altogether-delusional sense that I’ve suddenly made myself more noticeable, tenfold. Using my budding photographic skills (not really) and the few techniques that I’ve mastered (really, only the Rule of Thirds), I snap a few quick pictures and put the camera away, eager to revert back to my not-so-conspicuous ways.

Genesis says, “See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

But it was, and I’ll just have to pretend that I didn’t notice the stares.

not another poverty story.

I made my first of several visits to Kibera this week.  It is infamously known as one of the largest slums in Africa, an epithet that has boosted the slum’s repute as the place to go for any journalist looking for a quick story on poverty in Africa. Andrew Cawthorne sardonically writes that in Kibera, we’d be able to find an “Africa poverty story” in half an hour. Or less, I say.

The Government of Kenya approximates that Kibera’s population is 500,000, but this is the most conservative estimate. Local NGOs and most residents triple this amount, setting the number closer to 1.5 million, half of Nairobi’s population. Regardless, it’s one of the most densely populated places in the world. Kibera’s residents live on an area of land roughly the size of New York’s Central Park, five percent of Nairobi’s total landmass.

Upon the culmination of my first day in Kibera, I was asked to describe what I saw: Was it dangerous? Was I scared? And did I take pictures? (The answer to all of these questions: No.)

Of Kibera, what can I say that hasn’t been said before? I could paint you a picture by conjuring up all of the tired and cliché (but nonetheless heart-wrenching) images of poverty and slums: children with distended bellies, shacks made of scavenged metal scraps, heaps of garbage. All of this has been described before, and more eloquently and poignantly than I will even bother to attempt here.

***

“You see these children, and it’s just heartbreaking to think that they will never have a home like you and I do,” she told me. Her words struck me, and immediately I wanted to retort, “How do YOU know?” I like to think I’m a firm believer in the “anything-is-possible” philosophy, the mantra that encourages us to dream big, because our wildest dreams can come true. But in hindsight, she’s probably right. Fine, she is right. Poverty isn’t going to disappear in my lifetime, and Kibera, as it stands today, isn’t going to vanish in the next ten years, whether or not the Government of Kenya will admit it (They won’t. I asked).

***

I’m following Genesis through the maze of Kibera’s alleyways on my first day here. He shows me a rift has been re-purposed to serve as a dumping ground.

Children barrel their way into the garbage, searching for scraps. One thrusts his arms into the air enthusiastically, displaying his creation for his friends to behold. He’s fashioned a toy out of an empty bottle, a plastic bag and cardboard scraps, attached by a maze of wires. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” That’s what they say, right? And that’s literally what he’s doing — turning trash into treasure. Sort of.  As I observe his obvious pride in his innovation, I realize that this is — and will probably always be — his equivalent of a new toy train set or those Matchbox cars that every boy seemed to love when I was a kid.

I look back. Genesis is already several paces in front of me, and I must catch up. I get to move on.

In recent years, Kibera has become the all-you-can-eat buffet of slum tours, where tourists can sample everything on the laundry list of issues plaguing the slum: lack of sanitation, water shortages, health hazards and diseases, the sale of illicit alcoholic brews, a lack of access to education, HIV/AIDS. These tours exoticize slum dwellers’ day-to-day lives, making a mockery of their situation in the least amusing way possible. (For more on the evils of slum tourism, read this article by Andrew Cawthorne and this op-ed piece recently featured in The New York Times.)

I don’t blame them for resenting the trigger-happy tourists that traipse through their neighborhoods, for these unwelcome visitors aren’t the least bit hesitant about pulling out their cameras and snapping away. They’re fascinated by the novelty of it all. Never before have they seen the likes of Kibera’s multi-purpose shacks and mud-ridden pathways, which are worlds apart from their own green lawns and paved concrete streets.

I feel a compulsion to distinguish myself from these one-time visitors, who flock to Kibera on slum tours that are growing increasingly common.  I grimace at the thought of being confused with just another tourist who visits Kibera on a whim. Still, I know that no matter how much time I spend in Kibera, I will never fully understand what it means to live in Kibera. Because I’m not living it. And although at the end of this project I will have spent countless hours here, it still won’t be enough.

But thankfully Genesis trusts me and my intentions, and this reassures me. He doesn’t know who or what will bring change to Kibera, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to stop trying to make a difference in whatever way he can. He encourages me to ask him questions, no-holes-barred. And so I ask.

effin’ fifa: a rant.

The World Cup shenanigans will conclude this weekend.

Most thought I was delirious for booking a flight home only a week into the World Cup. In hindsight, I would have loved to stay longer; watching World Cup matches from home, so far removed from the delightful drone of vuvuzelas (other than my own), has been the source of substantial doses of nostalgia. I watch games in Nelspruit, Rustenburg, Polokwane, Pretoria, Cape Town and Jozi and I think, I was there. Damnit, why am I not there?

But really, I’m even more curious as to what it will be like come Monday (or soon thereafter), when the World Cup frenzy—virtually inescapable in the months leading up to the event—dissipates. In preceding months, Zakumi’s image blared from billboards along highways across the country. Countdowns on front page banners of newspapers served as daily reminders: The World Cup was 60 days away; and then it was 16 days away. And before we knew it, it was upon us. Flags of participating nations hung in front of B&Bs. Restaurants and bars redecorated, professing their loyalty to all 32 competing countries at once.

So when the flags disappear, then what?

The not-so-optimistic answer: Shit’s gonna hit the fan. This I heard from co-workers, university students, fellow patrons. Some disagreed, but the majority consented: The World Cup brought with it a euphoria that wouldn’t last, they said. South Africa’s problems hadn’t disappeared. Spin doctors successfully constructed a facade of a new and improved South Africa, but it was just that. A facade. Sure, the airports were prettier. The new Gautrain efficiently shuttled visitors from OR Tambo International Airport to the wealthier, stereotypically suburban suburbs and then onto Pretoria. Cities sported new, freshly paved roads. But there is another South Africa that many visitors never saw, and officials made sure of it. Pathways to and from the stadiums are tunnels of illusion, depicting one South Africa. Visit parts of Soweto, Alexandra, Khayelitsha and Masiphumelele, and you’ll witness another.

Many of the challenges that plagued the pre-World Cup South Africa will continue post-World Cup: a socioeconomically divided population; a crumbling education system; an unemployment rate that’s up to three times that of the U.S.

And if I just sound like I have a chip on my shoulder, John Pilger’s tirade and this CNN article provide a comparatively well-substantiated argument. He cites many of the accounts I heard myself while in South Africa. Like the story of 20,000 Joe Slovo settlement residents who were threatened with eviction because they live near the main motorway between Cape Town and the city’s airport.

For five-and-a-half years, Hellen sold pap, meat and vegetables to passersby. On average, she earned R100 a day, which she collected in old Peter Stuyvesant cigarette containers. Her food stand was located across the street from Soccer City. I interviewed her and several others, who hoped that the World Cup would translate to added revenue, more R10 notes to fill those cigarette containers. No such luck. FIFA rules commanded that she, along with thousands of street vendors throughout South Africa, must pack up and move out. They missed out on the World Cup boom because a line of shops erected using dingy green tarp and scavenged street signs would sully the view of the stadium, taint the illusion.

I hope that the World Cup brings great things for South Africa, that the promise of foreign investment materializes, that Mzansi finds itself on the global radar. I hope this optimism isn’t naïve. I hope that shit doesn’t hit the fan.

anatomy of a name.

So, I decided that my blog needs a name. And that as an ode to my time in South Africa and Mozambique, it deserves something more than “Nazish Dholakia’s Blog,” which I haphazardly created to serve as only a temporary placeholder while I mastered the workings of WordPress. After five months, I think it’s time is up.

Over the past weeks and months, I’ve struggled to find an appropriate name. I wanted something more than a vague title; no nonsense about journeys or travels or the road that is life. So the one I created in my days of ineptitude has had to suffice.  Until now. Drum roll, please?

fifty-three.
(I realize you’ve already noticed it at the top of this Web page. Humor me.)

Let me explain. Yes, it is Herbie’s racing number in The Love Bug, an indisputably great movie (at least, I loved it when I watched it at my end-of-the-year celebration in second grade). But more importantly, it’s the number of countries in Africa. Actually, even this is contested; it depends on whether or not you count the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Sporcle doesn’t, Wikipedia  does. I side with what the majority of Google hits declared.

So why fifty-three?

When Ghana played Uruguay in the Quarterfinals, commentators heralded Ghana as Africa’s last hope of World Cup victory. But these commentators didn’t point out that Uruguay was the last South American team still standing, and surely Mexico was never relegated as the last ray of hope for the North American continent. Sure, these differences might have something to do with the way this World Cup was marketed as an African World Cup, a first for the continent. But I can’t help but think it also has something to do with the way the rest of the world lumps all 53 African nations, its one billion people who collectively speak 2,000 different languages, into one category.

Sarah Palin, in all her glorious idiocy, may have thought Africa was a country (I’m believing the rumor mill on this one, especially because it comes from that oh so reputable network, FOX), but I think her ignorance only betrays the more pervasive misperception that Africa is Africa. And this forgoes the reality that Stellenbosch, South Africa and Kibera, in Nairobi, Kenya really are worlds apart. So why is there a tendency to overlook this?

Then again, I realize that this sentiment is not necessarily falsely and forcibly imposed upon the continent. I know South Africans, Kenyans and Tanzanians who rooted for Ghana precisely because it was the only African team still standing. But to underestimate the distinctiveness of each of Africa’s 53 countries is, well, ignorance.

In blogging over the past months, if there’s been anything I’ve tried to accomplish it’s been to shatter those hastily conceived misperceptions of what “South Africa” is (or really, what many outside South Africa thinks it is). Fifty-three is my metaphor of choice.

And I guess if/when I decide to venture beyond the continent, I’ll have to start brainstorming all over again.

for the memories.

At the risk of sounding maudlin, I’ll admit that this experience has satisfied every cliché anybody’s ever used to describe their life-changing experiences abroad.

In Maputo, we were held hostage at a shebeen. Earlier, a local had enthusiastically pulled a plastic lawn chair up to our table, assuming a position as part of our entourage. But barred by our inability to speak Portuguese and failing in our attempts to communicate in debauched Spanish, we remained largely oblivious of our fellow audience member’s continued presence behind us. Nathan had moved his chair to within two feet of the TV screen, anxious to catch every second of the action as our boys, Bafana Bafana, played Mexico in the opening match of the World Cup. Meanwhile, Bettina and I interrogated our new Cambodian-French-Canadian footie fanatic friend.

But while our eyes remained glued to the soccer players dancing across the screen like mosquitoes abuzz, our clever friend ordered beer after beer, under the false conjecture that it was our treat. When the time came to pay our tab, we obviously refused to pay for our drunken accomplice. So naturally, the employees locked us within the premises, guarding the door like bouncers. A confusing chaos ensued, fueled by communication barriers. The waitress furiously punched keys on her calculator, showing us the tab our friend had racked up. We futilely argued with her until we realized that the amount in contestation was a few measly bucks. We paid up, largely because the urgency of the hunger pangs raging in our stomachs (and the amazing seafood that beckoned) weighed heavier than the matter of principle.

Hours later, our drunken friend reappeared, having recovered from his babalas. Racked with guilt for making us pay for his beer while he basked in drunken stupor—and realizing that he may not have left the most desirable impression on his foreign friends—he offered us a token of reconciliation. “A coke?” he questioned earnestly. We kindly refused but to no avail, and he returned minutes later with two cans. He insisted that we accept his gesture: “Keep it. For the memories.”

In all honestly, I’m not quite sure what fate that Coke confronted, whether it was left atop a deserted table or salvaged by another indulging spectator. But this somewhat bizarre encounter, at the time no more than a pain in the ass, I will now undoubtedly reflect upon fondly.

***

Midway through my time in South Africa, I experienced what I’ve since jokingly dubbed my “quarter-life crisis.” It forced me to revisit and challenge my perceptions about, vaguely speaking, life. My college-bound self thought she had all the answers—or at least 89 percent of them. I thought I’d figured things out, that I knew exactly where that road I’d begun treading would lead.

Now, I know that I’m not even close. I let go of my prematurely conceived notions about who I am and what I want, and it was the best thing I could have done. As Woodstock-esque as it sounds, I danced to the beats of Bob Marley, trails of cigarette smoke encircling me, the inescapable scent working its way into the fibers of my clothing. Kwaito music blared from speakers in Tembisa, as I fumbled to follow synchronized steps in the midst of a cluster of dancers (a young man eventually began whispering the upcoming steps in my ear, saving me from further embarrassment). I walked up and down Seventh Avenue hundreds of times, where I exchanged greetings with so many familiar faces—the patron at the IT café with the blonde hip-length dreadlocks; the street vendor who offered to make me a beaded masterpiece countless times; Sebastian, the waiter with one heck of an afro, at SIX.

I know that I’ll likely continue to surprise myself, as I re-evaluate what I think I know. I know that that’s OK. I know that—barring any further near-death experiences (this is another story that, unfortunately, I don’t think any blog post could do justice)—I’ll have years to figure it out.

And I’ve come back with an paradoxical sense of both clarity and confusion. There is no definitive moment when all these revelations exposed themselves to me, as it often occurs so effusively in the final pages of a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Instead, these revelations came gradually. Many times, I’ve surprised even myself, only confirming that one should never say never.

I hoped South Africa would stand to validate what, for the past ten years, I’ve thought I wanted to be. In the end, it did and it didn’t. Now, I relish the fact that there isn’t just one path. I’ve come back inspired by the stories of others’ travels. And if I can muster the guts to do it, why not follow in Nathan’s footsteps, delivering pizzas, saving up for months for the journey of a lifetime, initially landing in Joburg and booking only that first night at a B&B, then backpacking through southern Africa?

I learned to live in the moment, to let go of my inhibitions.  It’s been a whirlwind. And I will treasure it, keep it. For the memories.