“Where do we belong?” he asked…Joe asked. I focused the camera lens through my eye piece, I watched his lips move. In a pause his words diffused into the ether. I breathed in the question and put my camera down, abruptly self conscious for several reasons. I put a tack in the map of Joe’s story and paused in self reflection. I felt quite the interloper, a white woman from America, I’ve not been displaced from my home, how did I belong to, relate to this place, this District Six Museum?
Joe Schaffers, one of the museum’s Education Officers, described how he and virtually everyone he knew living in District Six, were extirpated from their homes and moved somewhere else. Buried in the rubble of his story Joe mentioned his birthday, and I placed another tack – he was the same age as my mother. My mother had been displaced from her home, not by a government but by very unfortunate circumstances nonetheless. I tried to concentrate on a vibrant, diverse neighborhood of 60,000 people being involuntarily displaced. Joe equated the number to being about a tenth of the total population. This disaster was done in 1966. I was four years old when Joe was being kicked out.
Situational awareness kicked in. I was in Cape Town, part of the Western Cape of South Africa, on the corner of Albertus & Buitenkant Street, in a museum housed within an agglomeration of buildings that began with a converted Methodist church. I liked that a group of buildings was now home to a National Heritage Site. District Six, the actual neighborhood, was within walking distance; we’d driven on a street called Darling somewhere nearby, I wondered why it was named that and what Buitenkant meant. It means outside. I felt like an outsider.
“The area was declared white – forced removal,” phrases in Joe’s telling the story; he continued and I listened and raised my camera again, not to hide behind, but to capture images that I knew most certainly would take me more study and time to truly comprehend. I turned to a display of street name signs towering behind me, a permanent part of the museum’s collection; they’d been added in 1994 for the exhibition, Streets: Retracing District Six. Leveled at my head was the sign for the street, Virginia – I lived in Virginia, stacked atop several more signs, Richmond, Virginia’s capitol. I pushed in another tack making notice of a connection or a coincidence? I wondered which of the streets Joe had lived on. A map expanded over the entire floor.
“The entire neighborhood just sits empty?” I missed who asked. “Save for St. Mark’s, an Anglican church, yes.” Joe very kindly answered, “The Hand’s Off protest movement barred any real development.” His hands were clasped as if in prayer and it all seemed incredibly pointless, cruel, shameful. Joe continued his lesson – he used the word, trauma. Trauma. I didn’t need a pin to tack into what that word was all about. My own history with trauma became a portal I connected to Joe’s story. A different trauma, not the same, but a way I could relate to the lifetime of pain Joe felt!
In the decades of work to heal the effect trauma has had in my life, I’ve learned there are diagrams to chart the hierarchy of trauma. On those charts, the events – and the consequences of those events – Joe described ranked understandably as an event at the TOP, clearly one of the most devastating things that can happen to a person in their lifetime. I believe people feel this intrinsically and categorize painful experiences as important or not important depending on where they fall on the list. Seemingly in accordance to the hierarchy, experiences with subordinate trauma are often discounted as insignificant.
A profound thought came to me, (profound for me anyway) and it was that trauma is one thing that connects us! Trauma doesn’t have a nation, country, a sex, a race, a color.
I wish that where a particular trauma ‘fell on the scale’ wouldn’t determine how painful it’s supposed to be. Trauma is trauma – the experience of it and recovering from it. For big or small trauma, who is to judge? The process of healing is to deal with it, to remember it, to share it with others and learn somehow to cope. Could the human condition, bound through pain, provide insight into the lives of people unlike ourselves? My guide, trying to keep me on schedule, signaled it was time to go. I could have stayed with Joe all day. My trauma was not Joe’s, nor his mine, but planted on the map of District Six I (a middle-aged white woman from the U.S.) found a way to tap into the pain of a South African, eighty-year-old man of color. I used my pain to make sense of his. I felt no longer an outsider; Joe and I are both survivors. There can be no accounting for traumas like mine or his, no apology or reparation is enough.
So it is that I was delighted to read of Tom Slater’s powerful experience also with Joe, and their subsequent collaboration with the graduate program at the University of Edinburgh. It makes me so happy that Joe will be, in November, 2020, receiving an honorary doctorate. I invite you to read Professor Slater’s most excellent blog provides history of Cape Town, and how apartheid demolished District Six and of course his relationship with Joe. And hope my photographs do justice to the feelings I had about Joe when I met him. The photos are shared on my Instagram page. Congratulations, and well done Mr. Schaffers.
The echo of injustice continues in the telling and retelling of the District Six story, ramifications of which are still to be dealt with today. I suggest for anyone attempting to fathom something so awful, connect to your own pain and draw a map.
Please read and thank you ~ Jeanne