The Wind


The sound of the wind wakes her. It knocks loudly on her window, begging her to come in. She shuts it swiftly, the same way a civilian would to a fugitive during times of war. She stares out of her window blankly, overcome with the guilt of knowing that she’s just shut out someone in need of refuge, merely to save herself. There’s no way of telling whether the wind is on her side or not, especially as it howls eerily, reminding her that something is very very wrong. Only she would be naïve enough to provide a safe haven to a rogue soldier.

Not another sleepless night, she thinks. The damn wind. She is not really mad at the wind, she knows in combat there is no good nor bad. There is only self-preservation. She rejected the idea of good and bad at the height of her activism, when the lines became as blurry as the one between self-interest and self-care. She remembers holding up a placard, being so convinced that she had an idea of what justice was. Now here she is, preserving herself in her room. The one that she refuses to leave, to enter the world that she refuses to read about in the news.

She lies back in bed, her blood slowly draining back into its regular position. At this point her bed has become her biggest source of belongingness, and also, her grave. The sunlight reminds her that it is in fact a new day and she had slept all night. Not that it matters, she can sleep all night. She can sleep all day, for that matter. She remains tired. Although the word tired has never been able to describe the absolute fatigue she feels. Chained to the bed, trapped in her sheets of Stockholm syndrome. Let me go! Never let me go.

Sometimes days and nights mash into each other like an acapella performance, a Bruno Mars and Adele mash-up to be exact, merely interrupted by how she can fit herself into other people’s schedules. By now she knows she needs people, it was the bottom-line of every hard lesson she’s ever learned, and she tries to leave the house for them. She tells herself this every day, after announcing her mantra: I am a strong, independent woman.

Having too much empathy with the struggles of the world might seem like a burden. But those are the moments that she lives for. The thing that gets to her is not even a feeling of hopelessness, but something vastly more empty. She likes referring to it as her existential dread. Except on those days she doesn’t like anything at all. On those days she wishes she’d left the window open, not to provide refuge to anyone, but for her ashes to be picked up by the merciless wind, and scatter her out into the great big world.

Brain-boggling Beijing

Brain-boggling Beijing

Whenever I leave South Africa, I never feel prepared. I always assume I must have forgotten something. Passport? Check. Wallet? Check. Everything else can be replaced. In theory – I am not sentimental. This entire process of anxiety is ironic because I flourish in organizing travel, and my visa is generally approved a month before my departure.

The day I chartered off to Beijing, however, I quickly realized how futile travel preparation had been. The week leading up my flight had been slightly chaotic (I say slightly, because come on, it’s me). It had not sunk in that I would wake up in Asia the next day until I passed through security. “I am going to China. China! What do I know about China?” I suddenly asked myself. Again an ironic-anxiety since I probably know more about China than most South Africans. I am doing my PhD on China for goodness sakes.

During my first couple of days in Beijing I realized, however, that nothing – no textbook, film, newspaper article, oral history lesson – could have prepared me for this. Beijing is enormous. In fact, the font of this post is too small to possibly indicate how BIG the city is.


As I tried to absorb everything that I’d seen in my first few 24 hour cycles spent in Beijing, I realised that at some point on this trip I was going to be overwhelmed. Not by the language barrier, or the busy streets, or the endless array of monuments and statues, but by everything that I didn’t know. Or let’s rather say, by everything I hadn’t known that I didn’t know. It is like that moment when you open up a book about evolution for the first time. Suddenly everything makes sense, and nothing makes sense. You can barely grasp how much you didn’t know. How much you hadn’t known that you didn’t know.

Where were you media, when I needed you to plant a seed of what China was like in my frame of reference? The place that Western media likes to demonise as the core of environmental destruction and human rights violations, turns out to be a country. With big cities. Where people live.

The tough part of being a critical thinking tourist (or maybe this comes as part of the PhD student package), is that you like to make sense of things. You like to notice trends, but not stereotype. You like to notice differences, but not do “othering”. You like to notice similarities, but not erase. Well, more than 30 million people live in Beijing. That means up to two thirds of South Africa’s entire population lives in this one city. As much as you like to make sense of Beijing, you can only do so a couple of hours before getting your brain fried.

For example. I sent my family a message in our Whatsapp group making the statement that “a lot of people in Beijing take the subway.” Beijing subway, what joy you have brought to my life! But the next day I noticed that a lot of people drive. Then I noticed that a lot of people ride scooters. Then that a lot cycle. Then that they walk! There are a lot of people, so they are doing a lot of things.


I assume this will end up being the crux of my study: you cannot culturally theorise a place that has so many people, with such different ways of expressing their individuality. Tick tick, boom! That was my brain. Splattered all over the screen where I was watching myself becoming more conscious.

I have received several questions from interested and slightly frightened humans upon my return. No, Beijing is not very English. Whoever spread that myth, it’s a lie! No, the language barrier is not that tough. As long as there were pictures on the menus and the meat looked slightly like chicken, I could go to bed with a full tummy every night. No, their culture(s) is not that different. I mean yes, it is. The Chinese population is big, so I saw everything from dancing grannies to a young Chinese journalist who loves classical music to teenagers shopping in gigantic eight-storey malls. There are elements of Chinese culture that are unique, that I have never seen or heard of before. I am not convinced that that makes China so different that we can justify misunderstanding them the way many of us have been.

No, the large population did not overwhelm me. But then again, I did not really notice the population was that big until it was a public holiday and I had to stand in a queue for about an hour to enter Tsinghua campus. I was also only there for two weeks, and my biggest struggle was coming to terms with my own insignificance, so this is not something I can fully answer. And finally, yes, the pollution bothered me. But almost the entire time it had indicated green, for low levels of pollution, and only about three days my mask was really necessary.


As a masters student in Oregon, USA, I had become close friends (okay let’s get real, she’s my bestie) with Jane Lin from Taiwan. Even then, spending time with her and her family, I had realized how little I know about the Asian continent. How limited my exposure and understanding had been about any of the cultures on the Eastern side of the world. Why, I can’t say for sure. There are a lot of positives and negatives about China – as a critical thinking human I am aware of this. But positive and negative could also be incredibly subjective. If you think you have the moral highground to label a country that big as either-or, then that’s you. As for me, I am grateful for the Chinese citizens who welcomed me with open arms, shared their experiences with me and have encouraged me to come back. Xiexie ni!

PS because these two weeks could never possibly fit into one blogpost, anyone is welcome to ask me questions.

The struggle with depression


I have been struggling with depression for more than a year now. And I mean, struggle. I haven’t felt depressed for a year, I have been struggling through one of the most painful experiences of my life. People can be so well-intentioned, especially with mental illnesses, they just want to help. Have you tried… Yes. Maybe you should… No. My cousin usually does… Shut up. I am taking medication, and yes it is working. But no, it doesn’t cure my illness it only makes it slightly more manageable. I am seeing a psychologist, and yes it is working. But no, it doesn’t cure my illness it only makes it slightly more manageable. I try to take a walk when my body allows me to, I try not to isolate when my body allows me to. Even if you try all the beautiful socially approved coping mechanisms, there is no guarantee that it will ease your struggle. Every day is a new day of trying trying trying.

Trying is made so much harder by the financial cost of a mental illness. Do you have any idea how much a psychiatrist costs in South Africa? It’s uhm well, a lot. And then there is the option of turning to state health care, but so much documentation is required. When you are struggling to get up, you will most likely struggle to get to banks, printers and police stations for the paperwork you need to access state mental healthcare. I was recently fortunate enough to be institutionalized in a free state mental hospital. But again, paperwork and lots of it. And what happens when I get out? Where do I go now for prescriptions? Psychiatrists? Private clinics might have a bit more of a sustainable system but they are pretty much unaffordable to the average South African.

Recently, I’ve realized that my depression reminds me a lot of the abusive relationship I was in when I was younger. Depression pushes me to the floor, pins me down on the bed, isolates me from friends and family and ultimately is poison to my self-esteem. I am currently doing my PhD, and on my good days I have so much hope for the researcher I think I want to be. I am excited for the conference I will be attending in the UK, I am beside myself for the opportunity to interview journalists in China in 2016. But, depression. What if you arrive in Nottingham and you can’t get out of bed? What if you try to engage with fellow researchers and you are unable to utter a word? What if you are asked questions about your presentation but you are unable to focus and it makes you look incompetent?. Most people with depression know, these fears are real. You have very little control over when a depressive episode will strike and how. There is no magic Red Bull to drag you out of your mind for just that conference, just that interview, just that conversation.

For many people with depression, the illness is about a lot more than just feeling down or feeling completely hopeless. It is often coupled with severe anxiety. I wake up anxious about the stack of books next to my bed I need to read for my dissertation, but my depression tells me I can’t read anything. I can’t do anything. So here I am, caught between being anxious about something and being unable to do anything about it. Depression is also often accompanied by physical reactions – fatigue that you have no words to explain, pain all over your body, inflammation in your muscles, tired arms and tired legs that wobble when you walk. It is incredibly hard not to pity yourself when you are feeling incredibly depressed. It is also hard to fight suicidal thoughts. Sometimes when they appear, I am really surprised and I think: “where did you just come from? I’m not suicidal!” But then they persist and eventually you believe that maybe you are suicidal. My depression has just convinced my brain that I don’t want to live anymore. It is in those moments that you have to reach out until you are blue. Be honest about your feelings, the people who understand will know and hopefully tell you that you will get through those moments. Make your gratitude list, think about the potential of a beautiful life that you know exists just beyond this low. Overcoming those moments in itself can be traumatic: you realise that you were considering ending your life but you know for a fact that you really don’t want to die.

I am writing openly about these thoughts because I know for a fact that I’m not alone in this struggle. This could be read by my employers or my students and could make me seem incompetent, unprofessional, etc. Unfortunately I am dealing with this struggle first and foremost right now and communicating my experience is more important to me than how I am perceived. I am a human being, I am trying to survive and only then am I my career or my relationships. This is part of the realization of how important loving myself is even though depression often makes me forget.

The nothing of nothing


People ask me when I will start writing again. I smile back at them, my smile without the eyes. The type of smile you play when you are at a party pretending to enjoy yourself, but you find yourself going to the bathroom for 2 minutes, then 5, then 10, then 15 until finally you don’t have the guts to emerge from solitude. The type of smile that says I will most likely never write again because apart from the physical pain in my wrists, upper arms, and shoulders, there are no words. There is mostly nothing. My brain is like the winds of Cape Town nudging, hitting and pushing at the waves below it. The sky is dark and the faint cries of seagulls are barely heard over the sound of the quiet storm. There is my mind echoing against itself midst a sky of bare, vulnerable, emptiness. An overwhelming sense of nothing – a fearful nothing – rains down my spine, crashes into my toes and fingertips and makes me unable to move. I am now possessed.

As my big eyes stare back at you longingly, for hopeful moments and future plans, you can tell that I’m lost. My body and my soul is overcome with darkness and I can move only when it tells me to, I can speak only when it tells me to. I am the owner of my body no longer. For the most part I sleep. I am exhausted by my own existence. I fight to get up to pee. I am vulnerable. I am even embarrassed. There are days when you see me laughing, and you think that I am back. She has finally returned to herself. But the darkness punishes me for fighting back – as most anyone with depression can tell you, with every high comes a deep, unbearable low. Such is the struggle of the depressed, shall we fight for happiness and deal with that backlash of being swiftly sucked hollow, or shall we accept the empty, the dark, and try not to disturb it?

Depression will kick you when you are down, it has empathy for no-one. Instead, it feeds off of your heightened levels of empathy. When in a low, the pain of the world is overwhelming. The pain of your own life is overwhelming. The fear of more pain in the world is overwhelming. The fear of more pain in your own life is overwhelming. Every death, every abuse, every neglect, every tragedy – including your own – knocks you over with a powerful punch in the face. You are everyone in that accident, you are every woman in that shelter, you are every child in that hospital. This is how your depression keeps growing inside you like damp on the bathroom walls.
Every resolved or unresolved issue in your life comes to haunt you and those ghosts whisper terrifying ideas in your ear. They tell you that your life is snowballing and that everything will slowly but surely become worse for you. They tell you that you will never thrive, never succeed, never again be able to strive for your dreams. They tell you that you might as well press Exit now, because there is no reason for you to carry on. Perhaps they tell you your weight is too heavy to carry, perhaps they tell you that you will forever carry it alone. Whatever it is that your ghosts tell you, they have the advantage of being closer to you than anything that gives you strength. They are in your mind, they roam freely and they create chaos like wasps in a wild beehive. It is more than just a game to haunt you, it is how they survive. It is how they remain a part of you. They have their own fear, and that is that you will let go of them.

Depression stalks you like the prey of a glorious cheetah in the Bushveld. It waits, waits, waits until you slip up, until you don’t pay attention, until you give it that gap. I feel like I am always on the edge of a mountain. I am always ready to fall. Or jump? It simply depends on how hard the wind blows. Or how many winds blow at the same time. Can you imagine planning your future when you constantly feel like you are at the end of your life? Sometimes at the end of the life you’ve known, sometimes just at the end of life itself. In these moments I want to escape, sometimes the life that I’ve known, sometimes just life itself. Escapism is tragic. We find it in alcohol, exercise, romantic relationships, drugs, health disorders, suicide. Without it, there are moments that we simply cannot face being alive. We are in a constant state of fear of how low we can go and how long we can stay there.

I believe my depression is linked to some level of consciousness. Perhaps those critical thinking skills or my search for the bigger picture have been to my detriment. Now that I see the world for what it is, I find it hard to imagine that it is worth living in. For me, trauma has been a reality. Spending decades on healing from abuse and rape has taught me strength, but it has also taught me that the pain of the world is very real. And at least once in your life you reach a moment when you realise that such pain is perhaps too real. How you react to that moment is all you have. When a person with depression tells you that they are tired, no exhausted, it’s because fighting for this life is hard work. We have to sift through sadness and fear to find moments of hope. Not only moments of hope we have for our future, because they are sometimes impossible to find, but we have to delve into the toughest moments of our lives and find the grains of courage that pulled us through. We have to remember what they felt like, how we used them, why they even existed for us at that point. It is very easy to get frustrated with a depressed person, because there is much in life to be thankful for. Life itself is a gift. But depression makes you forget. Depression is a long and exhausting war against yourself, and sometimes the touch of another human hand is the most powerful weapon we need.

Passionate Job Search


Few things can leave you feeling as insecure about yourself as the job searching process. Putting yourself out there professionally is not that different from putting yourself out there on OKCupid. You want to seem confident, but not arrogant. You want someone to recognise your (what you imagine to be unique) sense of humour, but you don’t want to come across as a loose cannon that is unfocused. You want people to know your great qualities (which as you list them you realize you kind of like yourself), but you want to remain humble because you value that quality in others. Interviews are like going on a first date: you are suddenly aware of your lack of etiquette, you spend several hours deciding what to wear, you don’t want to overdo or underdo your make-up, and you are either up for commitment or you aren’t. All in all you are a constant bundle of nerves and more than once you’ve envisioned yourself cold and alone and aimless in a not too distant future.

For me this process is particularly grueling because I’m on the verge of knowing where I belong. Career-wise, region-wise, people-wise. Having grown up in a small town, worked across South Africa and then studied abroad in the USA, my first post-master’s job is meant to set everything alight for the very vague idea I have of my life. It is the shoulder boosting me into either a journalism, public relations or non-profit field. It is the boot kicking me either to Cape Town, dragging me to Pretoria or shoving me to Johannesburg. It is the pull to old friends, new friends, colleagues, community and the combination of them all.

So what is it then that I want out of this big (no-pressure, pffft, of course pressure) new job? At first it was clear that money was going to be the deciding factor this time. I don’t want to drive around extra carefully because I haven’t paid third party insurance for years. I want to eat my own sarmie at Mugg & Bean, even if the portions are unnaturally large, I don’t want to share. And I want to be able to tip more than 10%. I want to be able to pay the car guard more than R2 without thinking of how I probably won’t make the end of the month without my coins. I don’t want my stomach to make a double twist everytime the petrol price goes up. And most of all I don’t want to spend a lifetime paying my medical bills.

But, speaking of lifetimes, I find this one to be short. So, after putting on tight knee-length skirts and frilly silk shirts to show the corporate world that I can play this game too, I was bugged by an annoying voice that follows me everywhere I go. This voice is supportive and kind, but socially awkward and persistent. This voice is the sound of my passion. My passion prevented me from committing to a corporate communications position and my passion distracted me when I started googling journalism jobs. My passion is wise for its age, and I think that rubs off on me some days. So, as the recruiter asked me about my writing and editing experience, it was my passion that responded. It was my passion that elaborated on my work in climate change, in development, in human rights, in community organisation, in gender-based violence, in empowerment and in understanding the South African context. My passion was the one that put the smile on my face as we spoke. My passion put the stars in my eyes as I thought back to the days where I did research about things I cared about, when I could talk to people about what I cared about. When we could put together ideas and work work work until something somewhere started to look like a beautiful plan.

Even as I write about my passion right here, for social justice, for equality, for acceptance, for understanding, for compassion, I feel like I am in love. Blood rushes through my veins as I remember the faces I have learned and still learn from, as I remember anyone and everyone that has ever had a genuine appreciation for my work. My passion teaches me who I am. On my idealistic days I believe that those of us with this kind of passion, no matter what shape or size it comes in, are actually changing the world.

It is true, finding a job can be like finding a life partner. And in the same way that I hope to one day find passionate love, I am now hoping to find passionate work.

The Human Being Names


The human being not only observes but names

Crucifies mountains with words because they cannot run away

They can only fight back

White pans below, are they salt or are they snow?

To the earth it doesn’t matter, they love them equally

Salt. Snow. English words that the human being decided to spit

The foam fizzing on the ground

A rabid dog conquering

Armed with mighty (s)words

“Colonise every corner, he must be named to belong to me”

Only humans would think them a he

Only humans would give them any pronoun at all

Colonise to civilise

Mark them with syllables

Strike at them with the Roman alphabet

Even the language I make love in

Has wrapped its hands around the throats of trees and rivers and people

I am not untouched by conquer

I too (have) smother(ed)

I say people have eyes because he told me people have eyes

I say a mountain has no heart because he told me a mountain has no heart

Then what are these beating stalactites and stalagmites fed by veins of water?

The mountain knows only beauty, why would I ever believe they would aspire to look like me when I so feverishly yearn to look like them?

I wink at the mountain, maybe we are friends

The mountain does not wink back

It has no eyes

Instead, the sockets in my colonizing skull are home to two dark red marble rocks.

First visit home.


After greeting my beloved Jane, Gabby and I load my few, but increasing amount of possessions into the storage room below the cooperative house on 18th and Alder. We then jump into the dark blue minibus Gabby borrowed, to pick up Evansi from campus. I look at the clock. 15:15pm, there’s still plenty of time. We spot Evansi in front of the Noodle Head where he grabbed his vegetarian Thai lunch, and wave at him to come over. “Hey ladies!” He jumps in the back and reaches over to hug Gabby and me simultaneously. As I manage to affectionately squeeze his hand, I look at the clock again. 15:16pm. “Really? Willemien, you have got to relax,” I hear a voice in my head. Another one responds: “But if she’s late for her Portland flight, she’ll be late for her New York flight, and then she’ll be late for her Johannesburg to Cape Town flight, and then she won’t be on time for the wedding and, and, and. All that excitement for nothing. And all that money wasted!” I guess this is the extra price you pay for saving up to buy your own R15 000 ticket home.

Evansi’s voice sirens through my anxious thoughts. “Are you ready for this? I’m going to miss you!” Miss me. I haven’t even had time to think about how much I was going to miss the magnificent friends I’ve made in Eugene. Some I’ll return to in three months, but others I might actually never see again. The reality that everything is going to change now, as it has many times before, suddenly hits me. I’m speechless. I’ve always been good at running away and I’ve always been terrible at goodbyes. Few times in my life I’ve met friends like Evansi and Gabby, who, despite our very diverse backgrounds, actually get me. Respect me. Understand my beliefs. Value my opinion. Mourn with me my hardships as I mourn theirs. It’s very rare to meet friends with whom and through whom you can become each other’s rocks, each other’s pillars of strength. Friends who help you understand the meaning of strength in numbers, because numbers are what you usually had to overcome. I know how rare this is because I have a handful of them back home in SA, and I’ve never forgotten what it had felt like to leave them.

I reflect for a brief moment on all the support and kindness I’ve received lately. Last night Gabby showed up at my house with a bottle of Dandelion wine to help me pack. This morning she helped me upload and unload all my stuff, without me having to ask once. When I ever need an ear, Evans is barely a text or a Facebook message away. And I can’t even begin to describe how special Jane made my birthday for me. A music concert, a photo board, a movie, lunch and breakfast – that was only half of it. I feel as if I don’t deserve any of this. And then AhYeong, Sachi, Sarah and Jaki’s bday contributions. Can I save all of this beauty into a snowglobe and shake it up and down whenever I feel alone or lost?

Birthday photoboard from Jane!

Birthday photoboard from Jane!

I am proud of myself for learning to love and to be loved, exactly the way that I imagine Arundhati Roy wishes me to. Some days when I am confronting myself in my head, to prepare me for the conflict that I know I’ll run into in some parts of SA, I resort to my strongest argument: “All I want is to love and to be loved, is that too much to ask for?” For many it is. For many it comes with strings attached. For many it’s not enough. For me, it seems that simple.

I hug Evansi tight, I squeeze him the way only those born on African soil can appreciate. A hug of joy, of friendship, of longing, of yearning for our homes, of understanding the difficulties that come with that home, of knowing that we wouldn’t want it any other way, and of validating each other’s hopes that everything’s going to be okay. Our people will be okay, just get us back to them. I hug Gabby and I don’t want to let go. This hug says I will miss you, but it also says I have never met anyone like you. It tells her to be strong, yet it tells her to break down. It’s a hug of exhaustion, a recognition of the energy it has taken from her to deal with some of the harsh realities that only a woman of colour really knows. I wish I could give her more – more love, more strength, more hope – the kind that she deserves. But what I have left is what I’ll need for my own road ahead, and I know this is how the world works, in the end the three of us give as much as we can and preserve the rest for our own tough battles.
I want to leave them with a message to remember me by, I want to tell them that all I want is to love and to be loved. I want to explain how I find both of those extremely hard. To love – how do you do that? And how do you let yourself be loved? Yet, I don’t feel the need to say anything as I turn to walk away. They know that I love. I know that they love. It is the perfect balance.

Evansi, Gabby and me.

Evansi, Gabby and me.

On the flight to South Africa I hear tourists throwing the Nelson Mandela buzzword around like they know the man personally. I shut my eyes and breathe deeply. Please do not trivialize our history by making him a commodity? South Africa is not Mandela and it’s not the World Cup, our people have existed and lived long before Hollywood discovered we’d make a good topic for tragic or feel-good movies. Tata Madiba, I wonder how you feel about all this hype around your health. I wonder how you feel about imperialism and poverty and corruption and nation-building. Tata, is the transformation in South Africa real or are we living in an illusion of unity? And what about equality and justice? I don’t want to live an illusion, I’d prefer to call a spade a spade. Before we end up 20 years later with people who claim they aren’t racist because they’ve got ‘black friends’, or aren’t classist because they ‘totally respect people’s decisions to live in townships’, or aren’t sexist but they find corrective rape funny, and aren’t homophobic but goodness knows ‘being gay is un-African’.

At OR Tambo airport at least six black taxi drivers approach me. “Taxi ma’am?” I must look like a tourist. I am wearing an Oregon Ducks sweatshirt after all. I respond in Afrikaans, “nee dankie.” They smile at me and shout “welcome home!” and then say “but you might need a taxi, and if you do, you know where to find us.” I laugh and tell them I have one more flight to take, but ngiyabonga, salani kahle. I exchange 25 dollars for 200 rand. Out of the machine emerges a bright pink note with Nelson Mandela’s face glowing at me. “Wow!” I say. The woman behind the counter smiles, “Mooi ne?” Pretty, right? I’ve heard about our new South African cash, but I had no idea they would be so striking. Two big eyes nod back at her. Things sure change quickly, I have only been gone 10 months! Right? I laugh to myself, now Madiba literally is a commodity.

I walk to the window and look out at Johannesburg. The winter is fairly warm, but has still managed to put the land to sleep. Between the haziness I see leafless trees and white and yellow bush and grass. I see the many types of familiar faces and I remember the familiar feeling of pain of being South African – saying no to beggars who now stand on every street corner, ignoring the larger than life townships that push back like jumping castles every time they get knocked down. I sit down. I can’t live like that anymore, I have never realized how privileged I am to be able to turn a blind eye when I feel like it stings too much. Privilege, I did not understand you before I left, but now you are clear to me, as clear as the warm bed I sleep in every night. I smile to myself, they all said that the U.S. was going to change me – but they had no idea how much. I left with my hands tied, but I’m coming back with a voice.