Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Grahamstown – The First Week

When I moved to Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa from Brisbane in Australia I expected a few surprises, but not too many because I have after all lived in South Africa before. 9 years ago, I moved from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (Wits) to the University of Queensland, and things have not changed that much over that time. I’ve also lived in a rural area in the distant past. Still, it’s fun to contrast life here with Australia.

So how has the first week gone? Pretty amazing in some ways, frustrating in others.

I arrived a few days before the annual National Arts Festival, a monster event with over 1,000 attractions, from world-class orchestral recitals and ballet, top-ranked jazz performers and the like through to fringe events featuring little-known performers. I went to a symphony orchestra performance featuring a cello soloist whose performance I could appreciate without knowing much about the art. To be able to face an audience without a scrap of paper, and play with extravagant flicks of hair with attitude, while producing sounds which, though no doubt containing the right note, could not be described in such simple terms, is a rare thing to experience. I was also dragged to a performance of Swan Lake. Sadly, I don’t get ballet. Maybe if I’d ever had someone close to me who was into ballet and took the time to explain the vocabulary of the thing, I could make sense of it. To me, it’s just a bunch of people in tights and swirly clothes performing impressively athletic acrobatics to music. Fun to watch, but even with a synopsis of the story line, I battle to make the connections. Then there was a play called The Table, a interesting piece of modern theatre. In a different vein, I went to a talk by Dennis Beckett, an idiosyncratic commentator on politics and life in general, on Democracy Version 2, and met him the next day for breakfast to catch up on old times and new. In the distant past, I wrote a couple of articles for his magazine Frontline, though he remembers me for my interventions on talk radio, a habit I dropped in Australia, because talk radio there is for the mindless chatterati. Next I was supposed to go to some short films but at the time and place on my tickets, there was a panel discussion on the future of the Humanities (the academic disciplines that is).

That’s the first week of entertainments, with more in store, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and some of the country’s best jazz.

All this, in Australian terms, cost two of us about $100. You wouldn’t even get to see one world-class act for that price over there. So that’s the amazing (and the Arts Fest rightly uses “Amazing” in its branding).

Not only that: I reconnected with some of my favourite birds and plants. A hadeda is a kind of ibis unremarkable in appearance but with a loud call, like a musical crow. Some say hadedas cry out in flight because they are scared of heights. Some say anything that enters their heads. Not much I can do about that. Then there’s the wild flowers, including aloes that grow all around this part of the country, and the trees. I like eucalypts, but you can have too much of a good thing. A few varieties of yellowwoods are what it takes to make me feel at home. Then there’s the African hoopoe that wandered out in front of the Computer Science building, and nonchalantly rooted for grubs while I took several pictures.

Shopping is a bit of a mixed experience. The local branch of Pick ’n Pay (a big chain, but this one’s ran as a franchise) is open for absurdly long hours for a full supermarket: 6:30am-11pm every day of the week. And wine is deliciously inexpensive by developing country standards. On the other hand no one in town sells real fruit juice: permissive labeling laws make it possible to sell a (wait for it) 100% pure blend, a hard concept to compete against if you are selling something that’s actually 100% pure.

To continue though with the feel-goods: people here are generally so friendly and welcoming. On our first day in university temporary housing (not too shabby; shabby but not too), the chief administrator of my department showed up with a huge vase of flowers. The tech people in the department are friendly and helpful, and people make eye contact with strangers in the streets.

One final plus: no Murdoch media. Newspapers here may have smudged ink and occasionally be folded a bit off centre, but they don’t print junk as a matter of policy. The Mail&Guardian can be a tedious read because articles are at times excessively detailed, but the paper is not pushing an agenda beyond informing the public and pursuing the broad public interest. The other papers are less serious and can reduce news to gossip, a common problem around the world, but nothing here is comparable to News Very Limited in single-mindedness in the pursuit of publishing drivel.

So the frustrations?

In my first week I had two power failures in the office severe enough to defeat the office UPS. A UPS (uninterruptible power supply: a battery-backed unit between the computer and the mains power supply, designed to keep it going when the power goes down) is not exactly a standard fitment for a desktop computer in Australia. Here, it’s essential. What’s more, many people have generators at home that kick in when power goes down, the kind of thing you’d expect in a hospital. Part of the problem it seems is that the infrastructure can’t cope with full load. But with all the generators around the place, it would be way more efficient if owners of generators switched them on before power failed, i.e., to share the peak load. But if the national power utility, Eskom, was sufficiently switched on (ouch) to get that right, you wouldn’t need private generators.

Then there was my attempt at getting 3G Internet on my Mac. I went to a local MTN dealer. MTN is one of the biggest telcos in Africa, having been wildly successful in countries to the north like Nigeria, and should have decent coverage in South Africa. So I plug in this USB modem, and run the software that’s on it (it shows up as a USB drive), and it crashes. I then can’t get a connection. After talking to two people at MTN, I get a long list of options for what to do sourced from the manufacturer, HUAWEI – none of which works. After a few days of battling with this and looking up options on the web, I try calling MTN again, and end up being passed from one person to another until they dropped the call. In Australia, big telcos outsource incompetent tech support to developing countries. At least here, they keep it local. I eventually fall back to asking a question on a Mac support mailing list set up back in my Wits days by the person who then looked after our Macs, and someone helpfully solves the problem for me. My best guess: the first run of the software that crashed should have enabled data access for the device and since that didn’t happen, I had to do that by other means.

So that’s my first week. I don’t expect the entertainments to continue at the same pace, though there will be plenty in the second week, while the fest is still on. I expect to see more exciting birds and trees. I expect more frustrations. But I also expect to find friendly and helpful people to help work around them.

Is this better or worse than Australia? Yes.