The small university town of Grahamstown in South Africa’s Eastern cape has a reputation for many things.
It is known as a town of Saints and Sinners since it has the highest number of churches and drinking holes per capita. It is a hop and a skip away from Nelson Mandela’s rural home of Qunu. It is the venue for the annual national Arts festival. Home to the famed coelecanth and a leading icthyology institute. And it sits between two weather fronts which means the morning could be warm and sunny, and the afternoon threaded by an icy wind that cuts to the bone.
But the true lifeblood of this little town – which has a distinctly English and not an Afrikaner personality – is its reliance on academia since Grahamstown is home to Rhodes University: one of Africa’s leading tertiary institutions.
But beyond all these characteristics, as a journalism student at Rhodes, I was extremely aware of how highly reported this little town was.
The campus had a radio station (RMR), the town had a newspaper (Grocott’s Mail), the arrival of the Arts festival every winter generates a special publication (Cue). And this was in addition to the provincial newspapers (the Herald, the Daily Dispatch and the Afrikaans publication Die Burger), and the national papers (most important for the journalism students was the Mail & Guardian).
If this wasn’t enough, every student in the journalism school was hard wired with the news hound instinct and forever scouring for a story, eager to make a mark in the highly competitive department. Grahamstown as a result was thoroughly over run by hungry journalism students, and in our craze for the next big headline, we pimped out every one we knew.
My sister was one of my best.
As a microbiologist, she belonged to a completely different faculty that was based in a different corner of the campus – which meant she had access to campus gossip that rarely trespassed into my world.
And I was thoroughly unscrupulous about following up on her leads. When she mentioned that one of her lecturers was moving across the country to another university, I had no qualms about asking the lady whether her decision to move was motivated by professional growth, or whether it had something to do with how she was getting a divorce from her husband who was also a Rhodes lecturer.
The memory of that discussion still has me squirming in my seat, but these little tidbits meant everything in a class of 500 students where only 80 would graduate, and the only way to stand out was to get published as often as possible.
In her Honours year, my sister moved out of residence and into a digs on High Street officially expanding my network into the Oppidans – a group that lived a half and half existence since they mysteriously hovered between town and campus.
One evening, she introduced me to Ethan (name changed to protect identity). He was the digsmate of a friend, and believed he had been born in the wrong body. That is, he believed he was a woman in a man’s body. So one chilly Grahamstown afternoon, Ethan and I soaked some sun in the garden outside his digs while he told me his story.
It was probably my first interview for a feature profile, and in hindsight Ethan was open and forthcoming which made the experience easier for me.
I am from a relatively sheltered background in the Islamic town of Mombasa, and Ethan was the first transgenderist I had met. It was a new experience to meet a man who had polished pink fingernails, a blemish-free skin and long blonde hair which he flipped over his shoulder. And who in spite of all the resistance from family and friends was determined to undergo a sex change operation.
I wrote up the story the same evening, and began looking for a publisher. I instinctively knew this was not something Grocott’s would be interested in, so I went online and after I filtered out all the porn related to alternative lifestyles, found a few magazines and emailed them.
I received one reply. From Rod Amis who was the editor of an ezine called G21 in the US. And he agreed to publish my piece. I was thrilled: at being published in an international magazine, and one that was based in North America. After that, every time I had a story that wasn’t right for Grahamstown, I sent it to Rod.
I didn’t know it then but that article about Ethan started me on a journey which ensured I continued writing even after I completed my degree. In Grahamstown, I sent him articles about liberal topics like the racism conference I attended in Durban; in Kenya, I wrote about the difficulty of adjusting to life in a country and a community that was difficult to cleave to.
I never met Rod and only spoke to him on phone a couple of times – both times, his accent was so strong that half the time was spent asking him to repeat himself. But our friendship – odd as it was – strengthened and I never questioned how I, a Kenyan Asian in her mid twenties living in Kenya, was friends with a Black American in his late 50s who lived in New Orleans.
Rod was the professional mentor I returned to time and again, and he was strong and direct in telling me what I needed to hear. He criticised my need to self-censor – a habit I fell into after one of my more personal pieces attracted a barrage of criticism; questioned the anger I continued to harbour towards my father and his missteps in my childhood; and strengthened my resolve to be myself even if it meant always being seen as the Other at my mosque.
Through his magazine, Rod had created an online community of writers who all shared one thing in common: a disconnect with their own society and a need to belong to something bigger.
For many years, we talked about meeting up, being in one room together, sharing face to face conversations and adding tangibility to our online relationships.
Sadly, we never did. Rod passed away in 2010, and for a man who had taught us, his writers, so much about community and togetherness, the greatest tragedy was how he died.
Alone, lonely and without even his memories of a life lived to keep him company.
As his memories of us faded, the gossamer web that had held his writers together did too and with his passing we lost each other completely. But his favourite quote, with which he ended every issue of The Glass House, stayed with me:
“Work like you don’t need the money
Love like you’ve never been hurt
Dance like no one is watching”