Friday, April 25, 2008

Learning from a trip down memory lane

The Tenement Museum in New York tells the story of a tenement building in the city used as low-income rental apartments for immigrants coming to the US between 1863 and 1935. Over these years, the building housed over 7 000 immigrants from more than 20 countries.

The museum takes you back in time through the re-creation of the apartments and tells the stories of the different people who lived in them. On visiting the museum recently, it was the life of Natalie Gumpertz, a Prussian immigrant, which touched me. After her husband went missing in 1874, she raised three girls alone and pulled her family out of poverty through dressmaking and a small inheritance. Focusing on stories like Natalie’s helps you realise that everyone has a story, even those who are seemingly forgotten.

Visiting this museum got me thinking about my own history. I am lucky because I have a dedicated relative who has spent an enormous amount of time tracing the family roots. As a result, I have information about my relatives, at least on one side of the family, back to 1769.

Without boring those who are not interested in my background, what has been significant about the process is to see how the family has changed over time. There are successful relatives as well as those who had problems, like alcoholism. However, what is undeniable is that even after periods of hardship and some relatives sinking into poverty, the family recovered and moved forward.

I understand this might not be the case in all families, and appreciate that in the South African context it has been difficult for many people to lift themselves out of poverty because of apartheid. However, one of the other impacts of apartheid and colonisation is that many people have lost touch with their history. Most South Africans know little about their families beyond the memories of living relatives.

Families were separated because of apartheid migrant labour and even whites were often cut off from their country of origin. The result of this has been a simplifying of the South African story. The dominant view is that all whites are somehow descendants of privilege, and diverse cultures in the black community are perceived as homogenous.

Of course, this is complicated by the fact that in South Africa, whites, largely because of apartheid, ended up being more advantaged than most black South Africans, who were shamefully discriminated against by whites. But thinking of South African national identity through the prism of the present can be limit- ing.

Many extraordinary historical stories of everyday resilience in the black community have been lost, or superseded by the bigger story of fighting against apartheid. That many white immigrants to South Africa were fleeing persecution and poverty is also underemphasised. Of course, this cannot hide the larger story of how many of these individuals then persecuted black South Africans. But my point is that losing touch with one’s history means one is more prone to repeat its negative aspects rather than learning from them. This results in those who were mistreated maltreating others, or those who make it out of poverty even today forgetting about their fellow citizens in the poverty trap.

I am not advocating a sanitised and sentimental trip down memory lane or suggesting that having poverty or discrimination in one’s background justifies one’s actions. But, rather, the process of uncovering my own family tree has taught me how change happens and to appreciate resilience, and that all history is marked with imperfection.

South Africa, not to mention Northern Ireland, could do with more complex and nuanced historical storytelling. It is only when we become aware of the indivi-dual journeys we have all travelled, and particularly how flawed these are in most cases, that we can really get to know one another and transform the present with a sense of humility and purpose.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 25 April 2008 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The bluetongue blues

Since the infamous war hero, Tony Blair, resigned and Gordon Brown took over, the news in the UK has been fitting for the most virulent of blues riffs. Brown’s Premiership began with floods, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and an economic downturn fuelled by a US housing crisis. The Gordon Brown blues then reached their apex with the discovery of bluetongue.

When I first heard the report, and showing my urban upbringing, I thought it was a joke or a new technology not too dissimilar to bluetooth but somehow related to cows. However, after hearing interviews with distraught farmers who had little time for gadgets or their livestock getting blue tongues, I realised it was no laughing matter.

For those of you living in countries spared the ongoing reporting of the disease, bluetongue is an illness transmitted by a specific midge. Sheep or cows bitten by the midges can suffer from fever, swelling, congestion, lameness and depression. A discoloured tongue, needless to say, is common and sheep whose lips and nose swell can apparently take on a ‘monkey-face’ appearance.

Most infected animals do not die but lose weight and, consequently, value, although in some species up to 70% can perish. The good news is that humans cannot get bluetongue (unless they drink too much cheap read wine) and animals cannot pass it to others animals (even if one sheep bites another after being teased for looking like an ape).

Bluetongue was first discovered in South Africa, which was the principal site of study for many years, since the disease was not present in other countries – but now it can be found in parts of Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and the US. Some scientists relate the movement of the midges to climate change.

In South Africa, a so-called ‘weakened’ vaccine is used against bluetongue with some success, but in Europe the vaccine is not considered safe and is still undergoing testing, presumably, because Europeans have the luxury of wealthy governments to assist farmers while a more tested vaccine is developed. This means that bluetongue, like climate change, media hype and terrible British summers, will be around for a while.

So understanding the spread of bluetongue or preventing it is shaped by a north–south divide, money, inconclusive science, environmental destruction and occasionally bad luck. Such a plot line is fitting for any gloomy blues tune. That said, I must admit, blues music cheers me up. I think this is because it alerts me to the fragility of our existence. Realising how flimsy life is, in turn, reminds me that I should use my time wisely.

To this end, I am becoming intolerant of media hype and public panic. I know bluetongue is serious, but the more I listen to the news in Britain, the more I think the media, and, perhaps, some overly comfortable suburbanites, long for the so-called good old days, when diseases sounded really nasty, like the Black Death or bovine spongiform encephalitis. There is an underlying nostalgia in some quarters for woebegone days, when people pulled together as German bombs rained down, and for the daily discussion, not about the weather but about some terrifying apocalypse-like uninhibited terrorism or rampant bird flu.

This might sound cynical, but I don’t think I can cope with another health scare in the media, and the exaggeration and hysteria that follow. It is interesting to learn about the challenges of livestock diseases and how this might affect the welfare of farmers, but that is not the story the media wants to tell. The desired story is about fear and uncontrollable pestilence, and fear sells newspapers and gets governments re-elected.

So here goes my own little blues riff: “Woke this morning, now my chickens got flu; woke this morning, Brown’s gonna see it through. Woke this morning, my sheep’s tongues were blue; woke this morning, jabbering media starting anew.”

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, October 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 12 October 2007.