I had been tidying up my desktop and, in boredom, proceeded to delete old emails off a little-used email address. A mail about my old high school caught my eye, and I opened the Facebook link distractedly. An invitation to a matric reunion of 30 years for next week popped up on the page. A mild panic ensued, and I quickly scrolled further to a video link. I started the video and watched photos and old video footage of myself and my classmates, the end of the video closed in memory of those who had passed and I felt something, but I am not sure what exactly.
What follows below is an attempt to make sense of my past relations that were very much spatially bounded alongside present and future community connections that are more digitally defined and how this can contribute toward feeling rooted to place.
Back to the video. I had seen my past self 30 years ago in the classroom, hair tied and wispy, and I wondered what this young person, staring straight at the camera, would think of me now. Did I meet her expectations? Did I do her proud? Then I fast-forwarded to the names again. I stared blankly at the list of those who had died and the memories slowly flooded back. My heart sank, realising that I did remember, they were not just names with forgotten faces. In particular, I remember one as he lived up the road from my house and I would often go there. A house full of musical instruments and a grand piano — a talented family of musicians so different from my own. The other I remembered for his kindness and cheeky grin. Both had died unbeknown to me in tragic accidents many years ago.
The realisation that there was no one from this old school that I had kept in contact with over these 30 years — no one that I had cared enough about to call or make enquires about was a gloomy revelation. Why had I not done so? Why was there no continuity of relationships in the university in the same town? Many university friendships proved to be more enduring though these have been limited as I have moved from London to Cape Town to Durban.
I am beginning to see how I had a way of parcelling people in my life into spatial — geographical, and institutional boundaries and then moving on to form new but limited relationships when I moved. Maybe this approach came from moving around as a child and knowing that relations were not forever, or perhaps it is just me — a loner by choice.
I have been in Durban for the longest time I have been anywhere in my life — 19 years — and I still feel like I moved here not so long ago. How is it that nearly 20 years into being in this so-called multicultural city, I am only now beginning to feel like I am becoming rooted in this place?
So what does it mean to grow roots, settle, establish oneself in a place, build relations, and become part of a community? What kind of communities do I want to be a part of? And what does this mean for being in Durban in this time and place?
In trying to think through the community I belong to, I realise these communities are multiple and primarily operate digitally, fuelled by Covid segregation, necessity, circumstance and convenience. Where community “membership” is loosely defined and many. I turn to my WhatsApp groups to ponder on this age of digital community.
How much of what is spread across these platforms is negative, insular, and self-regarding. What is the potential of those contributions that are outward-looking, supportive, uplifting, and that move beyond the platform to meet and take responsible and caring action? Generating communities of care.
How do we grow more of these communities in real tangible terms — not through platitudes and fake news, but through offering tangible acts of kindness such as water, food, a place to stay, some clothes, a job, and a helping hand? Building relations to make a better street, neighbourhood, school, university, sports club, and ultimately a better Durban.
Durban has been through a lot of late. The instability and fear arising from the looting and its uprooting of many families. The torrential rain and the radical impact this has had on the people and the landscape of Durban, ripping up vast sheets of land and buildings like a pickaxe tearing through the ground, exposing all that lies below the surface. Many have suffered huge losses; financial and emotional trauma, and many have chosen or have no choice but to stay here.
These significant events added to our political uncertainty and make for wet and slippery ground in Durban, making it hard to put down and grow roots in a place that has experienced so much turmoil and uncertainty. Yet, surely growing these roots is dependent on building relations with others we trust and through maintaining the positivity necessary to succeed?
Will communities hold those in power to account with respect and integrity? Yes, they will. But as communities we can do more by building upon what we have, finding tolerance to work across and within communities in the interest of the greater good — because quite frankly Durban needs all the community help she can get.
Are the raging torrents of Durban surface deep? Can we find a place for “community” roots to grow in muddy waters? I need to hope we can. DM