Claire L Bell
Claire L Bell

Putting ourselves through the (Biscuit) Mill

It’s a sleepy Saturday afternoon in Muizenberg. Outside the streets are empty, most people are at the beach. In the dining room of an old blue house, seven South African residents sit on wooden chairs arranged in a circle.

Divide them according to the old South African labels, and they are black, coloured, white, white, white, coloured, coloured. Divide them by gender and they are man, woman, woman, woman, woman, woman, woman. Divide them by nationality and they are Zimbabwean, Zimbabwean, South African, Norwegian, South African, South African, South African.

But they are not here to be divided. They are here to connect.

The No Name Initiative (NNI) is a non-profit movement founded by facilitator coach Jonelle Naudé. The free workshops draw participants into a deep dialogue about the uncomfortable issues of South African society: racism, rootlessness, the injustice of poverty in a nation of privilege, the discomfort of privilege in a nation of suffering. These topics may be the usual fodder of South African debates, but the mode of engagement is different. This is not the safe communion of friends around a six-pack of beers. It is not the gun-slinging, shoot-from-the-hip debates on Facebook. It is not the troll-bashing cyber comments that accompany most online news reporting. It is not the journalist and academic oratory from established soap-boxes spouting yet another received opinion.

Rather the NNI workshops bring together groups of strangers, families and communities, to engage in deep dialogue and deep listening. The three-hour workshops are underpinned by the belief that although we have different stories and life experiences, we share something fundamental: each one of us attempts to make sense of ourselves and our lives. The thinking is that by sparking deep conversations that dig beneath our narratives, we may stumble upon shared motivations, frustrations, hopes and hurts that will go some way to healing our past and present.

Each member of a group suggests a topic and the group then votes for which topic to which they will devote the next three hours. Today we vote for rootlessness. We are instructed that we can speak on behalf of ourselves and we can enact voices not present. If we hear a voice that resonates with us, we can rise and cross the room and stand physically closer to that voice.

The topic is inspired by a story told by the man from Zimbabwe. “My uncle is old and frail. He came to live in South Africa in 1947. He left behind his wife, as they did in those days, and all these years they have lived apart. He now has a home in Parklands. He is wealthy. He has money in offshore accounts that make him a dollar millionaire. He has achieved what he set out to achieve in life, he has provided well for his whole family, and yet yesterday he told me he feels empty and lost, and he cannot make sense of it.”

We divide into pairs and are asked what is our dream for this rootlessness. What form would it take so that it no longer caused suffering?

At first there are no words, but the topic resonates deeply with me. I grew up in white society in Benoni during apartheid. Society was claustrophobic and my home was abusive. As soon as I could, I ran away, abroad, chasing rainbows. I wanted to travel, make money, inhale the world, and I have, but it has not filled me up. After 14 years I away I feel dislocated, empty, rootless. I come home and try and make sense of this gnawing within, but being here is even harder.

I focus my mind on the dream. An image enters my head of myself standing with my roots over my arm, like a bride holding the long train of her wedding dress. The roots are draped gracefully and others stop to admire them. When I put them down on the floor they take to the earth, they nourish and are nourished, but then they lift easily again and move on to another patch of earth. The roots give and they take. It is a beautiful dream. We share our dreams and they are similar. We all smile at the thought of the Banyan that grows its roots down from its branches so that most of its roots are above the ground. And at the air plant that grows without ever needing to put its root into the earth. It feels like the plant for our times.

We return to our seats and are invited to put our voice to rootlessness.

The voices I represent are not my own. There are two inside my head.

“What right have you to feel rootless and empty when your stomach is full? Hush with your first-world problems.”

And the other, the voice of one white South African to another. “Ag quiet. It was your choice. You left. You betrayed us.”

The woman from Zimbabwe crosses the floor to stand alongside me. “I know that voice. I hear it calling all the way from Zimbabwe: you betrayed us when you left for Cape Town. And I hear it from my coloured South African friends: you betrayed us when you went to work at an NGO run by white, male managers. And I hear it again because I do not speak Ndebele even though my father was Ndebele, because my white mother sacrificed everything to send me to a private school and give me an education that I cannot undo and that puts me ahead of others.”

The Zimbabwean man also rises and crosses the floor. “I hear those accusations of betrayal. They say to me: ‘you were not here when our money became worthless and we carried three million Zim dollars in our pockets.’ And I hear it from the black South Africans: ‘You were not here during apartheid. You do not understand.’ Where can I go where I am permitted to understand? Where will someone allow me to understand?”

The Norwegian woman speaks. “Before I came to live here, I thought being Norwegian was so boring. Just plain old Norwegian. Life here seemed so exotic. Now I have been here for nine years and I am married to a coloured man, and we are having difficulties because he feels a huge sense of responsibility to this country. He is a businessman and works so hard to create jobs for others, but it means I never see him. I want society to change too, but I don’t want it to be at the expense of my own personal life.”

The coloured South African woman speaks. “I do not feel exotic. I feel unseen. You come here with your international education. You who have travelled. You who have written books. It is you who are exotic. I already felt small because of apartheid, and now I feel smaller. You come to my neighbourhood and build your Biscuit Mill. But it is not for me.”

The second coloured South African woman rises to stand next to her. “I live in Woodstock. The Biscuit Mill is in my community, but it is not my place. It makes me feel excluded from my own community.”

“I was at the Biscuit Mill this morning,” I say. “And it made me cry. All I could see was this pretence of a beautiful life built on the suffering of others. This illusion of a perfect life that is rotten to its core. It makes me angry, most of all with myself because I looked the other way for so long.”

The Zimbabwean woman crosses to stand alongside her. “I confess, I like the Biscuit Mill. It represents the life I want. I like its creativity and its food and its social scene. I work all week long in my job fighting for social justice and on the weekends I want something for me.”

The white South African woman crosses to join her. “I want it too. I want even more. I want New York City. My job takes me into the rural areas, I fight for social justice. I need something for me.”

“It’s an oxymoron, isn’t it?” says the first South African coloured woman. “The Biscuit and the Mill. The hard-working mill which supports a community and the biscuit, sprinkled with icing sugar, which we eat with our little fingers stuck up in the air. We have forgotten the mill at the expense of the biscuit.”

The room falls silent. We have found a truth.

Something in each of us shifts.

Our conversation and deep listening continues through the afternoon. We question our value systems. We ask whose drum we are marching to. For three hours, seven strangers have the kind of conversation usually reserved for beers, spirits, wine and tears. The kind of soul-searching usually obliterated from memory by the morning-after hangover.

As the afternoon draws to a close our awareness of our shared humanity has blossomed and each of us feels comforted. We have spoken and we have been heard. Our burdens do not feel as heavy because we have understood that others carry them too. We have not put the world to rights but we have begun to put ourselves to rights. And that is a start.

NNI workshops are free to participate. Email [email protected] or visit www.no-name-initiative.com to find out about the next workshop closest to you.