KAROO STORIES: NEW NORMAL IN NIEU-BETHESDA
Sunday, 5th May 2019
Morning. 31 December 2016. I’m in a hospital bed in a private hospital in KZN. A breast and many lymph nodes were removed from my body two days ago. I don’t yet know but I suspect, correctly as it turns out, that I will also soon lose my hair. In place of the breast is a large plaster. It’s only now beginning to feel painful. For the first 24 hours or so it just felt numb. I’m not complaining about the pain. I’m not asking for help with showering or anything else. I’m determined not to give the doctor any reason to keep me in hospital for another night. I’m afraid to spend New Year’s Eve in hospital, even a new, clean, private hospital. I want to be allowed out to go to my parents’ house. I want to sleep in a place where there aren’t people moving around and people moaning throughout the night.
Evening. 31 December 2017. I’m in Nieu Bethesda. I’ve learned the term ‘new normal’. That’s apparently a way of talking about life after cancer treatment. Nothing yet seemed normal to me. I had decided while still having treatment that I wanted to spend New Year’s Eve in a way that was as different as possible from the previous year. I wanted to do something I’d never done before. Something symbolically appropriate to this start of a new stage in my life. I’d decided to travel to Nieu Bethesda for the Festival of Lights. That seemed like an appropriate way to start 2018, a year that I could only hope would be better than 2017 had been. And an appropriate way to start to develop a new normal of travel and of adventure and of doing new things I hadn’t done before.
I’d arrived in Nieu Bethesda the previous day to go to what had been described on the website as a ‘lantern making workshop’ at the Bethesda Arts Centre. It wasn’t really a workshop. And I didn’t really make anything. I got to choose a lantern that had already been made by the people who know how to make them because they make them every year for this event. I was the only person at the centre for the ‘workshop’ though I had been told in an email to arrive at a particular time. A woman cut out bits of paper for me and more or less told me where to put them. It wasn’t a very creative process. But I didn’t want to object or ask to make my own lantern. Not because I’m shy. But because the Arts Centre and the Festival of Lights is run by coloured people from the town. And I didn’t want to impose my white woman demands on them. Because apartheid ended many years ago but there is no point in pretending that I don’t have privileges that this young woman doesn’t share. And because part of my new normal surely had to be learning to go with the flow.
On the evening of the 31st I returned to the Art Centre. The place I was staying was next door and I’d heard activity and rehearsals going on for most of the day. A stage of sorts had been set up and there were lots of plastic chairs. There appeared to be two kinds of people at the gathering. The one kind of people were people like me. Almost all white. Mostly South African though there were some other accents and other languages being spoken. Middle class. A range of ages. The other kind of people were local people, almost all coloured, mostly children and young people. Though there were also some parents, almost all mothers, with the younger children.
We were told that the Festival of Lights was set up as an alternative to the kinds of New Year celebrations that tend to take place in the coloured part of Nieu Bethesda. The kinds of celebrations that involve a lot of alcohol. And possibly, though the woman who welcomed us didn’t say this, some bruises. I realised that how the Festival worked was that the one kind of person (my kind) bought tickets for the festival and that the money was used so that the other kind of person (the young coloured kind of people) could make lanterns and eat at the Art Centre. Away from the alcohol and thepossible bruises.
After a short ‘show’ that involved quite a lot of singing and a little dancing, we were called to collect the lanterns we had made or chosen. Names were called for people to go forward to collect their lanterns. I recognised a couple of the surnames of the young coloured people because I’ve taught slightly older coloured people who have family connections to this small town.
After I collected my lantern I walked towards the gates on to the road and was given a candle and this was lit for me. As I walked out the gate I was given a long stick with a metal hook on the end to carry my lantern on. The man who handed me the stick had been at the Centre when I decorated my lantern. He had also sung and danced in the show. All the people, both kinds, had sticks with lanterns on them.
Immediately ahead of me I could see the people and their sticks and lanterns, but further ahead, because there were so many of us, all I could really see were the lanterns themselves. Shapes of light swaying in the night.
And then we walked from the Arts Centre through the part of town I was familiar with. What a student who has family connections in Nieu Bethesda calls the white part of the town. And then we walked from there into the coloured part of Nieu Bethesda. This was my fourth visit to Nieu Bethesda but the first time I had left the white part of town. The white part of town doesn’t have street lights. The coloured part of town does. All the better to see you with, my dear.
And as we walked through the coloured part of Nieu Bethesda people came out of their houses to see us. We were part of their evening’s entertainment. The entertainment was two kinds of people, both with lanterns on sticks. The lanterns were not the only lights. Many of their homes had lights on, so we could see into their homes. Their homes in this part of town I’d never visited before. Their homes that are so different from my own. I’ve never been on a ‘township tour’ and probably wouldn’t want to. I don’t like the idea of people’s lives being on show. But this felt fair because I was both observing and being observed.
So we walked from the white part of town to the coloured part of town then back to the white part of town where we returned to the Art Centre. I had been walking towards the back of the group so I was towards the back of the line of people waiting to get back into the Art Centre for our meal. It seemed that there were two lines to get back into the Centre. One for the one kind of people and one for the other kind of people. I had, without realising it, joined the ‘wrong’ line. Some other people in front of me had also done so. Staff from the centre came down the line and told one kind people to change lines so they could go in and get their food sooner. Some people took up the invitation. The two men in front of me and I declined the invitation. We didn’t think that the fact that we were white, or tourists to the town, or even that we had paid for our tickets, should result in us getting food before the young coloured people.
And so for me the Festival of Lights was part of making a new normal for myself, post cancer treatment. And also an observation of the not so new normal of small Karoo towns, post apartheid.