In search of real connections amid all the noise

Photo: Delwyn Verasamy/ M&G

Photo: Delwyn Verasamy/ M&G

Zuma.

The ANC.

Inxeba.

Tweets.

Twitter.

Racism.

Black Panther.

WhatsApp groups.

Emails.

Responding.

Ten billion litres.

Eating healthily.

Looking good.

Loneliness.

Groceries.

Constipated emotions.

Friendship.

Praying alone.

Facebook.

Kylie Jenner.

Invoices.

Birthday parties.

Don’t forget to call Mrs Schilling.

to you too.

Call Dharmesh.

What am I going to wear today?

Recycling.

Let me repost this random meme.

Maybe I need a new haircut.

The Media.

Am I allowed to not care about what is happening with Jacob Zuma?

Dualistic thinking.

Late submissions.

Writer’s ego.

My ego.

Watering the plants.

Initialling every page.

Simon.

Telemarketers.

Invoices.

Charge your phone.

Quincy Jones. Lol.

The art fair.

The royal wedding.

Intimacy.

Joyful Militancy.

Imvomvo: Ibanga 5.

The Letters of Louisa Mvemve.

The Sculptors of Mapungubwe.

The amazing Jeong Kwan.

Illusions.

Love.

Umhlaba.

The moon.

Dingaka.

Mute.

Rituals.

I usually fall asleep watching something on YouTube. One night it was clips of an Oprah episode in which she spent a couple of days interviewing Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn. I watched those clips over and over, as if I was trying to confirm a distant memory or a forgotten familiarity. Conversations between Oprah and a group of Hasidic women. One with Oprah and a married couple. Another with Oprah and a mother and her two children. One of Oprah visiting a mikvah. And finally, Oprah eating Shabbat dinner with a family of 11. I was transfixed.

The couple and their nine kids — spread out across a large table like little steps — have never heard of Beyoncé, Jay-Z or Oprah herself. Magnificent! They live in the heart of Brooklyn and they’ve never heard of Beyoncé. They’ve successfully managed to live outside the secular world while living at the capital of secularism. How do they do it?

When I lived in Norwood 10 years ago, I would see Jewish people walking on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. Having a Jewish woman as one of my closest friends and having her friends as acquaintances, I’ve learned a thing or two over the years about the Jewish culture, but haven’t really had an in-depth understanding of the religious foundation of the cultural practices. The Oprah clips gave me a glimpse of something that I am developing an appetite for: the practice of spirituality through cultural rituals.

The active and intentional invitation of a God energy and spirit into everything Jewish people do is of interest to me: consciously acknow-ledging a God energy when one washes one’s hands, when one wakes up, when one is menstruating, when one engages with one’s partner, when one is making food.

And, most importantly, I was envious of the ritual that no matter what is happening around them, observant Jewish people, come sunset on a Friday, disconnect from the world and sit down to share a meal with their families during what they call Shabbat dinner.

Here, cellphones, electricity, cars and any kind of “work” is not permitted. They actively disconnect so that they can connect with each other. Since it’s not my culture, I should probably stop here, at a distance of admiration for the fact that family is the foundation of solid community.

In the absence of living on a piece of land with my extended family, immersed in our own ancient rituals, I yearn for this kind of connection in my modern life: to see my loved ones on a weekly basis where we pray and share a meal and are deeply rooted in presence, ritual and something bigger than our decision to get there and participate.

One aspect of our humanity that we share is the fact that we make meaning through culture, which is practised throughout our lives and preserved through the repetition of ritual. Cultures, like us, evolve and change over time to accommodate changes in environment, geography and evolution itself.

So much has changed in the past century that cultures that have existed for centuries have been obliterated as the world has globalised and capitalised to mimic European and American cultures. Or the opposite has happened — people tightly gripping on to cultural practices because of the fear of losing them, and sometimes looking antiquated and intransigent as a result.

I feel like this is what is happening to the Xhosa cultural ritual ulwaluko and why there is such a strong response from otherwise silent “cultural rights groups” regarding the film Inxeba. There’s a sense of “don’t touch me on my culture” that I understand, but one that is steeped in a veiled homophobia, as if sexuality were not part of human culture.

At the core of culture, in my understanding, is a sense of connection, a sense of belonging to and being a part of something bigger than yourself.

I used to think that white people don’t have a culture, which is why they are always studying, examining and appropriating other people’s cultures. But for the past three centuries, we have been living in the crest of European and American white people’s imagination of culture: capitalistic imperialism — an all-encompassing impoverishment of the soul.

My mistake was to think that just because it does not stand out, this culture is not there. On the contrary, it is so pervasive that it has become invisible. And as a cultural practice, capitalism’s most powerful ritual is that of disconnecting us from one other: a disconnection from that “something bigger” and from the ancient and universal traits that, for millennia, have kept us human.

I want to participate in rituals that rigorously keep me human, not just when I go home to the Eastern Cape but every week. Living within the noise that is public life is the direct cause of the emptying of our interpersonal, social, political and cultural relationships.

I keep thinking about how the brother of a woman I know got shot while trying to stop an armed robbery in his family home on Tuesday. But the nation’s attention is primed and timed to focus on our national scapegoat, Zuma. 

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardian's arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project. Read more from Milisuthando Bongela

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