Cate Roser

Being lactose intolerant never stops me from indulging in dairy-filled treats — all except for one. Yogurt — yuck! — is a plague on my senses. The rancid aftertaste and the “pseudo-pudding” texture are just a few things that make me sick to my stomach — only back home, though — because the yogurt I had in South Africa this summer was damn delicious.

The Yale Summer Session health and film course, “Visual Approaches in Global Health,” allowed me to spend six weeks in Rivonia, a suburb near Johannesburg, South Africa. Thirteen other Yalies and I made the Rivonia Premier Lodge our home and for me, it was also where I decided to surrender to my singular dairy enemy. In my usual self-destructive style, I prescribed myself two daily yogurt cups to remedy all the years I missed out. I would have one cup during breakfast and another during lunch. This probably was not the best arrangement for my roommate, because most of the time our bathroom was occupied by moi. But despite the persistent abdominal discomfort and the awkward excuses from meetings, I could not get enough of the only yogurt that pleased my senses. However, South Africa did more than add a new layer of complexity to my relationship with yogurt. Even other things that used to make me nauseous started to leave a different taste in my mouth.

I have spent most of my life trying to find some footing in a colonial landscape that I was supposedly free from 60 years ago. Jamaica and South Africa share a history of British colonialism, and through that common past have fostered an incredibly positive diplomatic relationship. My country was the first to declare a trade embargo against apartheid South Africa, and less than a year after Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he was awarded one of Jamaica’s highest honors. References to apartheid, Mandela, and Desmond Tutu could be heard in many reggae songs growing up, and like many Jamaicans, I felt deeply connected to the struggles of our South African family. These feelings were so complex that I dreaded the emotions that would arise after I visited the Apartheid Museum and Soweto, an apartheid-era township, long before I boarded the flight to O.R. Tambo International Airport.

The story of colonialism is a harrowing one of genocide, slavery, classism, racism and cultural erasure. But the agency of the people that these systems aspired to destroy is often hidden when the story is described like this. Whenever I think about that part of history, I am overwhelmed with tormenting anger and an assaulting uncertainty because of all that has been hidden, destroyed and preserved to embellish the past. I experience a similar sickening feeling whenever I think of apartheid, and so before each museum excursion, much of my time was spent trying to trauma proof my brain, regulating my melancholy and of course finding other things to be angry about. However, the presentation of narratives from 21st-century South Africa back to over 2 million years ago, along with the reflections of our tour guides unexpectedly gave me feelings of clarity, hope and an opportunity to move on with my anger. For too long I have been just stuck in one place, feeling angry about all that I knew and all I know I can’t know about what happened to those who came before me. The possibility of ever being somewhat at ease with my country’s history was something that I could have never imagined for myself. However, this was the reality for many of the Black South Africans I met who were stripped of their humanity at one point in their lives. I recognize the unique intersectionalities of all the people I had the opportunity to talk with and can see the ways certain privileges manifested in where their lives are now — they did not claim to speak for all South Africans. But these encounters were profound, and I just want to thank all the people who made me realize that my anger could peacefully coexist with the love, and pride I had for my culture which itself emerged from colonialism. 

During my conversations with tour guides and the staff at our bed and breakfast, I found myself asking, “Why aren’t you angrier?” I could not understand how they were able to live, work, and care for some people who less than 30 years ago were not even allowed to sleep under the same roof as them. The tolerance, and spirit of forgiveness were inconceivable, and how they were able to get to that point was even more alien. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or TRC was constituted in 1995 after the end of the apartheid regime, and in my opinion, is a success story for restorative justice. The TRC validated the experiences of many non-white South Africans and gave people a chance to come face to face with their assailants as they confessed their crimes. This was very empowering and gave many people a chance to put a name and a face on their trauma. This was essential in the reclamation of their lives and allowed many to free themselves from their pain. The TRC showed me the power of intent and transparency, tools that countries like Jamaica and the United States could potentially use to begin to rectify the ramifications of slavery and racism, and maybe give society a real opportunity to heal and transform. 

After hearing these stories, I began invalidating my anger for just a fleeting moment, because nothing I have ever faced could even compare to the human rights violations perpetrated on the South African people. Yet it was because I was mistaking contentment for passiveness — I was so used to a narrative where people were just victims and not agents of social justice. The South African people fought to have the choice not to be angry and fought to move on from the constant violence that clouded their lives for nearly 50 years. It made me realize how not being able to put a name, face or place in the few broken stories of those who came before me has prevented many like me from feeling any closure. Although my past did not happen to me, I still feel like I am somehow living in it. A large part of me feels like I owe it to the ones who came before me to be upset as they never had the chance for their pain to even be recognized. However, the people that I met in South Africa made me realize that carrying these burdens served nobody, and helped me change the perspective through which I viewed my history. The colonial story of murder and exploitation was also one of active and quiet resistance, creativity, community, sacrifice and resilience — a story about how we were able to survive and develop a complex culture and society despite the political war against our blackness. South Africa inspired me to go out to discover fuller, more nuanced, narratives about my history so I could direct my anger instead of being shackled by it. As my weeks in this beautiful country expired, I began to ask questions about what counts as historical knowledge. How can we expand our archives to include the stories of ordinary people? How can we transform the same institutions that are at the source of people’s trauma into ones that can help them heal? 

All my life I have been consuming so much of my history from textbooks, biographies and ethnographies but I have failed to digest any of it. I always felt uneasy because of how muddied and incomplete the past seemed — a plague on my senses. Although I found yogurt that I could eat digesting it is another story. In South Africa, there is no new recipe or artisanal brand in the flavor of my history that I can consume. However, I left with innovative ideas and tools to cut, stick, stir and scoop at my history so I can at least get something out of it to soothe my anger and fuel my goal to curate an archive told by the people who came before me.