The Revenge of Dead Thoughts: A tale

The pressure is now on to finish my Phd! I am now writing it up as a series of four papers with interweaving texts. The University currently known as Rhodes holds an interesting workshop on how to write papers. I have not attended it but fellow Phd students have guided me through how the first step is to write your paper as a fairytale or a symbolic story and craft it from there. This is the symbolic tale that emerged when I took pen to paper and free wrote what I wished to say in the first of these papers which I’ve entitled “The Revenge of Dead Thoughts”.

Once upon a time, before we learnt to cognitively separate ourselves from our environments, the way we thought and acted in the world was intrinsically linked to the environment or context out of which we arose. As we walked and talked and thought the landscape, the trees, the sea, the rivers thought with us and talked to us. This has not changed. We still emerge, as physical and cognitive beings, out of the environment we find ourselves in. We are inseparable from this space but we have forgotten this. This forgetful moment has meant that some groups that are more powerful have taken up the space of naming the language of the world. They name it in one way and so, in the process, un-name it and the the way it is. They un-name all the relationships that people, animals and plants have with each other. In their quest for knowledge and power they name a relationship with the world as one of dominance and subservience. Many human religions enabled this and the earth and all non-human relations were renamed as feminine: the tricky, secretive, un-tamable woman who had to be caught, raped and domesticated to enable the new naming of dominance over all that is not human. This was the case with most of the relationships with nature but not all. Some people remained free from this renaming of ‘power over nature’ and continued to sing and chant and name a relationship ‘with nature’ and to embody the mother as all powerful and all loving.

As with all things there is a choice. As the sages say with knowledge comes great power. Each new thing we learn we have a choice of using it to have power over or power with each other. When the nations of Europe learnt to sail in great wooden ships across the sea, they had a means to create a relationship. What they created was a relationship of taming the seas and taming the savages. As they did this it enabled them to name themselves as hero’s and saviour’s that come to foreign lands and redeem the people there whothey named as half-human, half –animal. As they had already learnt to word their devastation of the forests and the living beings within them as ‘progress’ so they could name their relationship with these other Human’s as ‘the half-human’ or any way they wished. Just as they cleared the great forests of their homeland so they could clear this new land of these half human beasts without endangering their soul or their status as hero. And so they named the people and the land and what was unnamed and silenced went underground and remained hidden from view.

Many years later the tale of dominantion and strength began to wane. There was much to explore and to take but what was taken did not rejuvenate. The relationship with earth began to shift because the Earth also names and sings and whispers. Rivers can stop talking ‘flow’ and instead whisper ‘dust’, the earth can stop anchoring trees and instead belch fire and gas. ‘Hard ice’ can turn to ‘talking water’ and changes can happen that are unforeseen. What was forgotten was that even in a relationship of dominance there is a relationship. The oppressed do not stay quiet and silent. They are not dead. They live and breath and fight back. So it is with the relationship with the Earth. It was not, as was thought, a one way street of simply naming and so owning. What was exchanged became integrated and so changed. No one thought about the changes. No one thought about what would change. No one thought about how, if named ‘poison’, we will eat poison. If we sing destruction we will be destroyed.

To begin naming liberation means to listen for the repatterning. By renaming, reorganising, seeing new patterns in the stories and the songs we may start seeing the moments when some words shut down other words, and when some songs outsang other songs. And we may wonder – what have we lost and what have these choices left us with today? What do we do with this song of dominance, this song that has become the white man’s anthem. But no matter how loud and how crafted stories of destruction are told there are always the struggle songs that start booming underneath the earth. There are the dances of defiance that shudder with the Earth and the soft whisperings that remember, that do not forget, that even create. These are the voices that demand that their words will not be buried and the relationships they create with each other and the world can bring about a new way of Being that is both a tale of the great discoverers and the gentle healers. These are the songs that this paper is listening to. These are the dances that this text wishes to understand. This is the strength, the power with and within us all that could mobilise the songs of defiance and make space for naming the world as our friend, our comrade and our home.

On an exposed rock face

It has been a long time since I have written a blog mostly because I have felt so disconnected from the intellectual task of doing a Phd and rather embroiled in a world or my sense of a world that is eating itself. I had a brief reunion with the Phd in August and then a weary fatigue descended and I suddenly could no longer get up in the early mornings to work. The mind fog, the unbelievable tiredness returned and I thought of my friends, like Nick (now in Cape Town) who battle with chronic fatigue and the surrender that it demands.

So I surrendered (with difficulty). I stopped forcing myself to rise up at 3:45am and slept until 6. I stopped working over weekends and instead took to rock climbing and spent my weekend days in the gym, with Donavan and Taryn, getting over my suddenly discovered fear of heights. We then took the real mountains and I rediscovered that deep peace of being in high places and looking down into valleys and across the infinitely diverse rock faces. I felt rock beneath my fingers and remembered my earlier life where I would escape from all conversation and all stress by clambering up mountains alone, not following any paths just setting my eyes on the top and making my way there through the bush and the rocks. I remember one particular mountain that I scrambled up, on a farm near Cradock in the Eastern Cape, where I ended up crawling on my belly through the undergrowth on a steep slope. This was not rock climbing it was a reckless clambering, squeezing and scratching up the backs of mountains instead of up their sheer rock faces.

I carried on reading a bit. Not much as my eyes and mind would get too tired after a day of work to read other words and other ideas. I did start randomly exploring the revolutionaries. I got tired of reading about the great men and started looking for great women revolutionaries. I made a list:

Aung San Suu Kyi
Rosa Parks
Tawakul Kormon
Corazon Aquino
Phoolan Devi
Angela Davis
Golda Meir
Vilma Lucila
Janet Jaga
Nadezhda Krupskaya
Harriet Tubman
Constance Markieviez
Petra Herrera
Lakshmi Sehgal
Sophie Scholl
Blanca Conales
Celia Sanchez
Kathleen Neal Cleaver
Asmaa Mahfouz
Vilma Lucila Espin
Camandante Ramona
Maria Nikiforova

And I promised them that I would pay them  allegiance and I would find their words and their thoughts somewhere in the world. I’m still doing this. Some would say this is a distraction from the Phd – just get it done Jane – but how can I leave this silence and not find some way to hear the women who gave up their lives to fight for justice especially as I witness the women on the Changing Practice course that in their villages and homes are doing the same thing now.

I also read ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ by Che Guevara. One of the good looking hero type men. I’ve always wanted to read this book. It was both humorous and familiar. It is a story of a young man going on an adventure. Roughing it because his young body can and yet that saturation into the world gives him a perspective that can never be taken away. He describes the poor folk of South America, the women in their shit infested skirts. I remember in particular his description of the mining towns so like the one’s in South Africa.

…the couple who were heading for the sulpher mines in the mountains where the climate is so bad and the living conditions so hard that you don’t need a work permit and nobody asks you what your politics are. The only thing that matters is the enthusiasm with which the workers set to ruining their health in search of a few meager crumbs that barely provide their subsistence.” Ernesto Che Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries

I remember my own journey’s: working in the Kat River Valley when I was 20 years old and how, coming home, I’d lie in the bath and sob uncontrollably so hit by the contradictions of working in an area where water was so precious and where children would shy away from my white skin with fear. I remember traveling up East Africa on public transport, hitching rides at the side of the road and being squashed for hours in buses hunching their way through dusty roads. I would feel the air crushed out of me as another person was forced into the bus and the uncontrollable shared dance of the passengers as we swayed as if one body with multiple legs and rocking heads. A naïve young white woman thinking she was on an adventure until, hallucinating with fever from dysentery that I caught on a train that stopped in the middle of nowhere for three days, I felt how some people would never be able to comprehend the gaps, no the caverns between those who have an economic access that is unprecedented and those who survive and whose means of survival is continually threatened. When I go back to what is perceived ‘normal’ for my middle class society the stories I would tell would be just stories. Just battle wounds of a young woman on an adventure. The emotional pain of the contradictions of this experience is inexpressible. It is still like this today except there are now additional stories and memories and fragments. I can see Che telling these stories as an outsider-insider-never-completely-insider and how this separation is both an agony and, behind the words, relief. But the agony is what drives something else, a small feeling that something else is possible. Che writes about this shift, this moment when he knew he would never forget:

He meets a man who could be a vision of his own future. A man that abandoned his own culture and his own place in society and took to traveling until his bones could travel no more. In a moment he summarized his life’s learning for Che and Che took these words into himself and took up the mantel of the dying man into his own life.

“The future belongs to the people, and gradually, or in one strike, they will take power, here and in every country. The terrible thing is that people need to be educated, and this they cannot do before taking power, only after. They can only learn at the cost of their own mistakes, which will be very serious and will cost many innocent lives. Or perhaps not, maybe those lives will not have been innocent because they will have committed the huge sin against nature; meaning, a lack of ability to adapt. All of them, those unable to adapt – die cursing the power they helped, through great sacrifice, to create. Revolution is impersonal; it will take their lives, even utilizing their memory as an example or as an instrument for domesticating the youth who follow them. My sin is greater because, I, more astute and with greater experience, call it what you like, will die knowing that my sacrifice stems only from an inflexibility symbolizing our rotten civilization, which is crumbling. I also know- and this won’t alter the course of history or your personal view of me – that you will die with a clenched fist and a tense jaw, the epitome of hatred and struggle, because you are not a symbol (some inanimate example) but a genuine member of a society to be destroyed; the spirit of the beehive speaks through your mouth and motivates your actions. You are as useful as I am, but you are not aware of how useful your contribution is to the society that sacrifices you.” An unknown, dying man recorded in Ernesto Che Guevara

Che, in his mind responds: “But despite his words, I now know.. I knew that when the great guiding spirit cleaves humanity into two antagonistic halves, I would be with the people. I know this, I see it printed in the night sky that I, eclectic dissembler of doctrine and psychoanalyst of dogma, howling like one possessed, will assault the barricades or the trenches, will take my bloodstained weapon, and consumed with fury, slaughter any enemy who falls in my hands… I steel my body, ready for battle, and prepare myself to be a sacred space within which the bestial howl of the triumphant proletariat can resound with new energy and new hope.” Ernesto Che Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries.

And he did just that until his body was broken and we are left to pick over his bones and consider whether he was the true liberation hero or a lost man who defied his civilization and made the mistakes which led to the death of the not so innocent. Whatever our verdict there is one thing that stands out and that triumphs – he believed that humanity could be different. He believed it could be more loving, more equal, more just.

In my mind I cannot let go of the contradictions of our time and this life. Some are able to live with these contradictions or live relatively comfortably with them. I have been cursed to wrestle with them and they embody me and flood me. I have never felt the blood thirsty call for battle nor do I feel that this time is the next battle ground although it may be as our earth becomes defiled by the half that will have it all. For me it has not been a battle of bodies on bodies, it is a battle of the mind and of the spirit which manifests in an exhaustion in my body. It is a battle for sanity in, what seems to be an insane world. It is at times when this internal, continual sense making needs to be still and I need to relinquish the role of serious adult in a serious world and abandon the serious tasks of acting as and becoming a professional, well educated being. I then, if I’m lucky, return to spaces where words create metaphors and images and lines and marks on a page. Like shapes in rocks they have no definition, no shape, no content and yet are satisfying. It is only here that there can be some integration as I look back over this year with my list of women liberators reverberating in my head. Paulo Freire writes:

“The more we become able to become a child again, to keep ourselves childlike, the more we can understand that because we love the world and we are open to understanding, to comprehension, that when we kill the child in us, we are no longer.” Paulo Freire, We make the road by walking.

Maybe this is what happens then. To stay open and childlike means to let go of the roles that society prescribes of ‘professional’, ‘learner’, ‘teacher’ and to rather swim in the vulnerabilities and weaknesses and openness of being human in this time. This means, right now, resting in the exhaustion of my own body while in the sea of chaotic contradictions in the world and the gentle innate compassion of the mind – to know it is okay to love and hope and feel too much and to fail. It is okay and imperfectly human to feel fear when on an open and exposed rock face. Can a PhD come to fruition and a professional life emerge from this space? Does it matter?

“..if I do not love the world if I do not love life if I do not love people I cannot enter into dialogue.” Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Opressed

Are people really aware of the danger we are facing?

This blog has been taken from a monthly report on the Changing Practice course which has just started in the Olifants catchment. The first ‘working together’ session was held in Emalahleni – yes, that town that you pass through on the way to the Kruger National Park. It seems like a pretty insignificant town sitting, in what has been entitled by some over zealous marketing department, as the ‘cultural heartland’ of South Africa. If you look more closely you will notice that situated around Emalahleni are mountains of coal, coal mines and the large Eskom power plants. It is known as the Witbank coal fields and it is this area that feeds electricity to South Africa. So as you sit in Johannesburg, sipping on a craft beer on this gentle Friday afternoon maybe spend a few moments thinking of what makes all of Johannesburg possible and who is paying the price.

One of the people paying the price gave this blog it’s title, ‘Are people really aware of the danger we are facing?” She is one of the participants on the Changing Practice course and works for a community based organisation that is trying to hold mining companies responsible for the mess they leave behind them and the communities they devastate. She, along with one of her comrades took the Changing Practice participants on a ‘toxic tour’ of the Emalahleni where we witnessed informal communities, that were supposed to be relocated years ago, existing on top of old mines. Every now and again a shack will disappear into the earth. We witnessed a mountain high pile of coal dust, around which another community lives. We climbed to the top of this vicarious pile of coal, picking our way carefully through the shifting surface. Around us women and young children, some no older than 3 years old sifted the coal dust looking for big enough pieces to take home with them to cook food and heat their shacks. Our guide, with a deep sadness on his face, told us how the people that try and find coal on this illegal heap of coal sometimes find the earth breaking away under them, they sink and drown in the coal dust. We then drove down a road between a big smelter and heard how the smelter dumps it’s waste on the road between the smelter and the township that exists under its shadow. During the rainy season all of this waste washes down into the tributaries of the Olifants river. An old lady bent double on the road searches for bits of metal amongst the waste in the hope of being able to sell it. Another visit past another huge, abandoned coal waste dump. We all sat looking at the stream of acid mine drainage meandering down the hill to the communities and river below. Our guide again took us past the coal dust mountain to a enlarged hole in the ground. As we came closer we started coughing, our eyes watered. Some stopped walking bent over coughing as the fumes became stronger. There were no gates, no boundaries to keep people safe from these massive holes in the ground out of which fumes belched. Some of these caverns were still on fire sending sleepy flames above ground. At the end of this tour all of us had sore throats, streaming eyes and headaches. We had only spent a few hours in the communities that live on the edges of this ‘Mordor’ and yet many people are abandoned to live their lives in this wasteland. Is it worth it, the sacrifice of so many lives, so many children? I can’t believe it is. I can’t believe that the majority of us would believe that anything is worth this. There was an anger in me that I still can’t find words for after this visit, an anger that does not burn but is heavy, immovable and drenched in coal dust.

Below are further reflections on what we experienced during our time together as we explored what it means to Change Practice.


The theme of the first module is ‘investigating context and practice’. The workshop introduces community organisations to what this means at a personal, relational and structural level. This is done by weaving between personal experience to local contextual experience to what this means more broadly for the work of an activist within the current national and global context. There is also a strong focus on what practice and context means materially – as in how does it manifest in relation to the environment and the real outcomes context and practice have on human and non-humans.

As with all the previous Changing practice courses, the learning approach and pedagogy is transparent and the course begins with a dialogue about learning, knowledge and education. We share how the course has been designed as a transformative learning process within an emancipatory pedagogy. We also explore together what it means to learn and our own personal experiences of learning – both positive and negative. These experiences are then related to the kind of learning the Changing Practice course wishes to initiate. Some of the learning experiences that participants shared were painful and demeaning and the conversation soon progressed to considering how learning is not a neutral process but can be designed to be emancipatory or to perpetuate power imbalances and inequality. This is equally so with how we consider our relationship with the environment. The view of nature as something to dominate can be reinforced or challenged through an educational process.

From the previous course we realised that participants have often experienced varied degrees of trauma because of the nature of South African society or in their work as activists. For this course we wanted to consciously acknowledge this and introduce simple processes that could be healing and are, at least, relaxing and centring. We were hoping to do this through a healing process known as ‘working with the elements’ but unfortunately Jessica Wilson, who is trained to run this process, was unable to attend the course due to an illness. Instead we introduced what is known as healing relaxation exercises where participants are encouraged to centre themselves in their bodies and learn to bring themselves back to the present moment. We introduced it as an opportunity to become aware of our inner environment. By noticing our inner environment we begin to see our reactions and responses to our outer environment and each other. On the second day we started off with this practice. Participants were unusually receptive to the practice and found it hugely beneficial.

The rest of the second day was spent exploring context and practice by starting with participants sharing their pre-course assignments which introduced their ‘Change Projects’ to the group. This was followed by an introduction to context and practice and a dialogue about what these concepts mean if we consider our own work contexts. This included some exercises of practicing exploring context and practice. An additional session was added to the day because during the pre-course assignment presentations participants started to see links between their Change Project and others in the group. The after hours session explored these connections and also gave the group more time to give each other advice and contact that may be useful to them.

The morning of Day 2 was a field trip which CULISA and Action Voices organised. It was an opportunity to again practice observing and questioning context and practice. The field trip was called the ‘toxic tour’ and was a shocking experience for all involved. Although extremely difficult to witness everyone expressed how important it was to have experienced it as it showed them the top of the catchment and the horror of what happens here which should the a concern of everyone in the Olifants. We ran a healing relaxation session after the tour as many of us felt overwhelmed by what we had witnessed.

We then moved into a brief dialogue on climate change where participants were asked to consider how they contribute to climate change and how climate change affects them. The intention of this was to both situate climate change within our own lives as well as get a sense of the groups perceptions of climate change – what they understood and what was confusing for them. Most of the group understood the basic facts about climate change. There was  a discussion about what climate change meant in the context of African spiritual beliefs. What was most apparent was a deep sense of disempowerment around climate change, not so much in terms of knowledge but a feeling of not knowing what was happening, what negotiations were being held and how ordinary people and civil society is involved in these negotiations and decisions. Listening to the dialogue there was a sense, from the group, that there are organisations and governments are making decisions which are not communicated to civil society nor do the participants know what platforms exist (if any) for them to participate in. It is the power dynamics of climate change and questions about who makes the decisions and negotiates on behalf of South African citizens that concerns participants.

After the climate change dialogues we ran a gender dialogues using the Freirian fish bowl approach. The question posed to the fish bowl was: how does gender impact on your change project? The participants quickly went to the core of how gender inequalities were experienced in their own lives and in their communities as well as how culture and religion exacerbate gender inequalities. Some strong patriarchal narratives also emerged which were deeply upsetting to some of the members of the group. The dialogues were very challenging for all of us including myself.  It surfaced the perceptions of the group around gender roles and stereotypes, how these manifest on social structure and touched on some deep experiences that the women held of being both dominated and excluded because they are women. Dialogues also started emerging around how women are the most vulnerable when it comes to environmental degradation and climate change although most of these conversations were started by men and in an objectified way whereas the women in the group wanted to keep the conversation at the raw edge of what it meant for women, and particularly the women in this room, to be discriminated against particularly when it came to their desire to be change agents in the world and to participate in, and lead, movements. The implicit violence that sits within the relations between men and women emerged through the dialogues leaving us all shaken. To move the dialogues out of speech and into our bodies we ended off the session by each one of us making an image of how we felt right now. These images were powerful, painful and challenging which some people expressed as being ‘louder than words’. When doing image work there it is very difficult not to be direct and mostly honest. Words can be curated across timeframes (we can use words to distance, other and objectify) whereas the body can only express exactly what is happening right in the moment. We can also, as participants, hear the body more clearly than when we listen to words which we are already forming counter arguments or agreements to. Listening to images forces our speech to be silent and for us to listen to the gestures that are performed in the space in front of us.

The final day started with a check in session where we touched base on how we all felt after the very intense gender session and field trip of the previous day. What was apparent and surprising is that the group had formed a very strong bond by going through a very honest and challenging experience together. The interactions were grounded and real. We ended our check in by getting an object from the external environment that represented our vulnerabilities as change agents and how the group can, in solidarity, respect and be gentle with these vulnerabilities.


Brief notes from four provinces

Two and a half weeks ago I set out on a work trip that took me from the province of Mpumalanga, across to the province of Limpopo, back to Gauteng, down to the Western Cape, across to the Eastern Cape and finally back to Mpumalanga again. This was the second time I took the bus instead of flying as part of my personal commitment to reducing CO2 emissions. It makes the journey long but there is something that feels right about the time taken to consider distance. There is a camaraderie when standing in a queue waiting for the bus with mother’s and children carrying their food and purchases from the big city back home. On the trip down to Cape Town a man upstairs managed to down a bottle of whisky and was half way through his second before the manic bus host noticed. In line with the bus companies policy the manic bus host tried to evict him at the next garage stop. He refused to be unclamped from his whisky or his seat which resulted in the police being called. At 2am in the morning I peeped through the curtains and watched as a very vocal young man jovially pranced off between two overweight policemen. The manic host decided that it was this was an important moment. He turned on all the bus lights and with eyes darting from one corner to the next,  gave us a long lecture about alcohol and bus trips while waving the half full bottle of whisky that he eventually managed to pry from his intoxicated passenger. Taking the bus is a long and very grounded experience.

Below are some brief notes from the four provinces I visited and the work that I did there:

Limpopo Province:

Getting enough work this year has been a challenge with contracts being delayed and potential work drying up like mist on a hot day. I was utterly relieved to get a small contract with my friend and colleague, Lindie Botha. She has been working for a particular organisation for years using her organisational development skills to enable staff to manage and monitor their own programme. This time she was asked to do a summative evaluation of the programmes last 5 years. The intention was to approach the summative evaluation in a different way. Usually summative evaluations tend to focus on the numbers – how many, how much – Lindie wanted to dig deeper and move from just looking for systematic results to looking for the systemic that could tell us more about the kind of change the programme has managed to catalyse in a community which has been devastated by HIV/AIDs.

The Highveld Bushveld is beautiful this time of year and our driving chatter was often fell into silence as both of us breathed in the landscape. It has been a long time since I have done work in the health sector. Way back in the early 2000’s when HIV/AIDS was part of your work no matter what you did I helped direct, workshop and produce theatre for development pieces that were performed in villages and at festivals. The narrative then was ‘AIDS Kills’. I remember that for one play that I had small role in, we hired a coffin from a local undertaker and all the action of the play took place around this strong symbol of death. Now, because of the great work of the treatment action campaign, HIV/AIDS is not a death sentence nor is it such a cultural taboo. Today people live long healthy lives with HIV/AIDS and the attention has shifted towards compassionate treatment and care for communities.

The work of this particular NGO is astounding. Grounded learning action I would call it where facilitators, some of whom have lived through the shadows of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, have become inspirational figures of survival and hope. The organisations work looks at HIV/AIDS systemically and tries to address all the many back lash effects of the epidemic on the communities it works with: orphanage, child based care, farm worker care and education, home care, radio stations, working with churches, traditional healers… their web of care reaches right over all the role players in the community. Their ethic is one of care first. In amongst this awesomeness is the dark face of NGO work – funding drying up, personal wars at the highest level, miscommunication, ego’s. The NGO had to retrench 42 of their staff in December because of a lack of funding due to tensions between the original founders of the NGO. Other tensions seem to be because of a clear lack of understanding of the context that NGO’s work in in South Africa. For example, getting an Memorandum of Understanding from a local government department is an extremely difficult thing to accomplish and yet for people based in England the inability to produce this document is read as incompetence. As this unfolds the last surviving 18 employees have taken a 50% salary cut and face possible dismissal in the next couple of months.

As I listened to the stories of their work I was struck by how deeply the ground staff understand the practice of learning and mediation. More so than any graduate of education or development studies would ever understand. Lindie and I came to understand their approach as ‘informal but structured’ a balance that most educators or NGO workers do not get right. They describe it as follows:

“The approach in the beginning was too formal we started using informal approaches. The formal approach we were introduced to was to bring pamphlets. We gave up on this and we just started talking to people in a normal way. We knew the procedure of how to run a session formally but we didn’t do that. We just greeted people as our friends, we started conversations that made people open up and we were able to learn that these people need options and then we were able to give them options. We did not come to them as if we know better than them. You need to prepare though. People can see that you are prepared. If you are not prepared you end up doing things that don’t help so you need to be structured but engage in an informal way”

Johannesburg, Gauteng

A surprise phone call from the Centre of Environmental Rights and I found myself doing a morning facilitation session for the Mining and Environmental Community Network. This is a group of inspiring people who have gathered together to try and collectively push back against the horrific effects of mining on communities and the natural environment (See the Centre of Environmental Rights publication ‘Zero Hour’). The first part of the workshop was spent listening to the group highlight the major challenges in their areas. It was heartbreaking to hear about the illnesses, disease and suffering that mining has caused and how little is done to alleviate this suffering. In the short time I had with this deeply inspiring group we worked on how to split up the impacts of mining from what causes these impacts. We then discussed how the aim of the group is to focus on the causes: to understand them deeply, to be able to record them and argue for why these causes lead to the impacts that they feel in their everyday lives. Finally we explored what we can do to address these causes or issues. The group then made a decision on what they would collectively focus on as a group. What struck me after this workshop was a conversation I had with a friend. She said she wants to be able to do more than be paid to do research. I was immediately struck again by how different parallel and not integrated processes of response have developed in South Africa and they do not meet. This woman wanted something more hands on, more direct to work with. The mining and environmental community network needed more powerful platforms and better evidence to make their cases. The fact that this passionate woman and these networks have never crossed paths remains one of the tragedies of our work as change agents in the world.

Cape Town, Western Cape

A trip down to Cape Town to work with the Environmental Monitoring Group, AWARD, the South African Water Caucus and previous participants of the Changing practice course. This was such an inspiring and moving engagement that I’m going to struggle to pull out a single kernel of reflection. The whole experience seems to have sunk down deep into my Being while I wait for a quite moment to contemplate and consider what the engagement actually means for transgressive or transformative learning processes. What did strike me was how we ‘secretly’ drew on Bhaskar’s lamination of social life for the course (See blog on ‘Considering the Emancipatory Researcher’). All this means is that the course was designed in a way that acknowledged the individual as emerging from a social structure and that the way towards strengthening agency is to see our own lived experience within the lamination of social life and so lift the embedded and embodied life into the world of structure, such as policy. This was a discussion that emerged from the Solidarity symposium I attended last year. It emerged in relation to the student protest movement and how the movement seems to be stuck in personal experiences of oppression. The desire is to move beyond the personal while still deeply acknowledging this suffering. I do feel that the Changing Practice course that we have collaboratively developed over time holds a key to this expressed stuck space. I think one reason for this is that some of us have started to engage with Bhaskar’s critical realism and the philosophical clearing of the rubbish of Western Philosophy that he has done is now starting to gently emerge in our practices. To quote one of the participants of our workshop who was also a previous participant on the course in response to a question of whether the case studies mean anything outside the local context.

“If it was not for the bigger policy focus of the course and the link to the South African Water Caucus we would not have engaged government and it would have just been a research process. The bigger picture of policy forced us to step back and look at what our experience really means. The Change projects needed it.”

Another two key moments was being able to articulate that the curriculum design and curriculum implementation are also ‘social processes’ and to notice how the participants had not only learnt how to do action research as activism but they had also internalised the principles of social learning and of learning as a process of change and thus activism. This is astounding.

Grahamstown, Eastern Cape

I finally ended up in Grahamstown for the Environmental Learning Research Centre’s Critical Realism School. I arrived tired and pretty exhausted from my two long bus trips and the fatigue of being in so many different contexts in such a short time. Work pressures were also mounting and as much as I tried to ignore the demanding emails the stress became to much and I decided to leave early. I often struggle with purely academic activities. My legs get jumpy. This was a special event though as my friend and Phd supervisor, Leigh Price, was there. As she spoke I was struck by how the critical realism concepts now seem part of my body and my being in the world. I still need to hear them again and again to articulate my practice but the difficult words and complex concepts are only necessary for this articulation –  the work, the practice is being integrated. I presented on my work with WWF – South Africa and my attempts to use Bhaskar’s lamination and theory of agency as a guiding framework for a realist evaluation to make sense of a 15 year long body of work. I loved presenting it and felt a warm gratitude towards Bhaskar for the hard and difficult work he did to give us the intellectual tools we need to do this work. When I came home I had a 3 hour conversation with the manager of the programme that I was working under. It was an invigorating conversation as we worked with what the research had unearthed and took this forward into our understanding of practice. Hopefully I will be able to share this research more broadly once I have integrated this final feedback.

I also final understand the TINA compromise: – the TINA compromise is what the Changing Practice course is trying to address and it is what activists around the world are responding to. When a theory is out of sync with reality it causes suffering and yet often the ideas are still acted upon and impact our lives even though our lived experience shows that these ideas or theories perpetuate inequality and injustice. Our role then is to carefully name this disjuncture as a collective and act against it together because often these theories are very strong and stuck. An example that came to my mind while listening to Leigh was the wonderful work that the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance have done though their Change project. They named the way some water users, like spiritual practitioners, are excluded from catchment management forums and, they argue, from policy. The Department of Water civil servants responded that spiritual practitioners are included in policy under ‘recreation’ and they are more than welcome to participate in forums. The reality is, however, that most forums have been appropriated by large scale users and the view of water as a resource leaves no space for spiritual practitioners view of water as a living and healing being. The Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance along with the South African Water Caucus keep naming this disjuncture between the so called progressive policies and the experience of ordinary South African’s.

Now I am back at home and I can once again focus on the Phd a little every day. It still feels completely overwhelming but as each day goes by I get a little closer to letting it go….

It is no good being free, if others suffer: exploring agency

This post is dedicated to the late Akong Rinpoche who still teaches me and to the brave young South African women who saw the moment and acted to make sure we did not forget.

I took a month off work in July to work full time on my PhD. I spent the first two weeks frustrated and unable to find a way into the theory. Then I remembered feedback given by a fellow participant at a research school I recently attended. She wrote: “I really think if we want to be transformative, we have to look at the approach we take to transformation, because we can bring transformation, but will it be the needed transformation? Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s possible for one to realize the value of transformative/ or transgressive/ or just learning in general if you can’t relate to it through personal experiences and beliefs. Of course we can theorize, but that only produces intellectual property, which is useless to the people that need sincere discussion and engagements.” This made me think of a time when I felt I had no agency and how I relied on my personal experiences and beliefs to get through this time. These thoughts helped me break through my block and start writing.

At the end of the month I felt that nothing that I wrote could be used for my PhD. This made me very disappointed but then I considered that this first attempt at writing may have been a very important process of starting to weave the text. What I share below is a small extract from what I wrote during July. It documents my explorations of the agency of the Self or as Bhaskar calls it, the stratified, embodied personality within the four planar Being.


A few year’s ago I got ME and for three years I was unable to work. When the illness was at it’s peak I was unable to get out of bed. I could not understand conversations and making a cup of coffee was a task that took enormous effort. I lived off my savings and ended up broke living in a friend’s house and barely being able to afford the basics. The one thing about not being able to work, socialise or even have a longish conversation with a friend is that the identity of ‘me’ erodes. There was no ‘work Jane’, ‘no socially connected Jane’ and not even a Jane that could make her own food effectively or drive a car to go the shops to buy the food. What this means is that I lost, what I considered, my agentive power in the world.

The one thing that kept me going through this time was a Buddhist meditation practice called Ngondro. Ngondro is called a preliminary practice. My Buddhist teacher, Rob Nairn, called it a B.A for Buddhists. It consists of five steps. I have only done the first two. The first practice is a practice of contemplation. These contemplations are called ‘thoughts that turn the mind’. For many days I sat and meditated on precious human existence, impermanence, karma and suffering. These thoughts may seem morbid but they are very liberating and agentive. I find these contemplations a useful way in to contemplating what it means to have agency in the world in relation to Bhaskar’s resolution of the dualism between structure and agency: the four planar being (Bhaskar, Dannermark, & Price, in press) and particularly the agency of the embodied personality being ‘I’, the agent that acts.

“First meditate on this precious human body
So hard to attain, so easy to lose
I shall make this life meaningful”

When contemplating precious human existence I turned away from thinking about my pain and suffering to thinking of the context I have been born into and all the privileges that it brought me. I also thought how others do not have this context of privilege, that the day we are born is not a neutral day but a day where we are born into a history of anothers making and from that day forward we have choices of what we do with that history. Bhaskar would consider this moment of entering into the stream of life as a moment to that explains the relationship between structure and agency (Bhaskar, Dannermark, Price, in press). The individual, this I that I am, and what I can do with this ‘I that I am’ is born into a structure. Therefore structure always comes first. This does not mean that we don’t have maneuvering power within this historical space. The choice is whether we reproduce history, context and structure or transform it. Within this contemplation of precious human existence I included a contemplation on what I had done with my choice and what I would like to do if I recovered.

Words that have histories
jane caroline

words that have histories.
words that are soaked in disappointment,
that have scars.
words that when spoken do not come out smooth and clipped
stumble as the tongue collides with the palate
words that could glow and open the chest
words followed by other words
from the left and right hand side of the brain
conceptual towers and bridges and gates and
locks and bars
sentences in mazes
long passageways

Words that have histories
Words that hold theories to hide pain
whispered under the breath
heavy with thought
past images and objects
Clear cut dry concepts
Sharp enough to wound

Words that have histories
Can they be spoken anew?
Can they be light and fresh?
Saying, hearing, soft and tender
Words whispered
Into that cavernous space

Second, the world and living beings are impermanent
Our lives in particular are like water bubbles –
Who knows when we will die and become corpses?
Since Dharma will help the, I practice diligently.

The second ‘thought that turns the mind’ is impermanence. In the belly of my illness noting that each thought, each moment fades to be replaced by something else was both terrifying and liberating. We die, we rot and our flesh is eaten by other Beings and so life goes on. At the edge of this knowledge lies a Self that does not need a ‘work Jane’, or a ‘car driving Jane’ or even a ‘Jane that has friends’. The Jane here is slightly intangible but nonetheless an existence. Bhaskar calls on us to understand our agency as being more than our personal actions in the material world but as the actions that we take within ourselves and the actions we take with others (Bhaskar, Roy and Scott, 2015). When the ego is not so tight and when the needs of ‘me’ are as intangible as the wind what is there but the sound of breath coming in and out and so the sound of all breathing.

jane caroline

The vivid one of mishka dog pressed against my leg 3 days before she died
And the dead pale hue to Bulelwa’s skin as I kissed her goodbye
And the brilliant light of dancing or that song
The memory of that song that was sung as I hung out the door
And the brazen hot jazz and the cobbled streets
And the pot holed streets and the bridges
And the churches
And the building where Marie Antoinette learned she was to die
And the statues to wars
And the statues to pride
And the glass stained windows of light
And the laughing people by the roadside.
And the men who mark me out as I walk
And the smell of coconut and fresh fish on the sweating night air
And the fear of leaving
And the fear of staying
And the delirium of fever
And the fire pain in my head
And the chants of the monks as an eagle flies into the sun
And the screams in the street
And the memories of silence
And the stark white snowed mountains
And trees that have memories that arch upwards and dig down
And each tear that is chosen as each thought that is not
And each moment breathing

Third, there is no freedom at the time of death.
In order to take control over karma,
I give up misdeeds and always do virtuous acts
Thinking thus, I examine myself every day.

The third thought that turns the mind is Karma. This is little understood and the Buddhist teachings go that if one was to understand Karma then this would be enlightenment but they say that about all the thoughts that turn the mind. Karma means action. I don’t understand the intricacies of the Buddhist philosophy of Karma. What I understand is that we have a force of action in the world and that there is a choice each moment as to how we use this action. Action for Buddhists doesn’t start in the world, it starts in our internal being. If there is right action within us then there will be right action in the world. This makes me think of Bhaskar’s quest for an ethical philosophy where he argues that a correct way of seeing the world will lead to the correct way of acting in the world (Bhaskar, Roy and Scott, 2015). For Bhaskar this ‘correct way’ is by challenging the ‘epistemological doctrines’ that are in the world today and that inhibit radical change. For Bhaskar this happens in two ways: firstly, that epistemology and ontology are conflated and secondly that Western philosophy’s ontological position is incorrect because of the first mistake. In the second movement of critical realism, dialectic critical realism, Bhaskar names another mistake in Western Philosophy, that reality can only be spoken about in terms of positive qualities and that negative qualities (gaps and absences) are not spoken of. For Bhaskar this means that there is no possibility for real change as if reality only exists of positive qualities then change means a distribution of these qualities and not an absenting of these qualities or the filling of gaps.

As Buddhists contemplate Karma we often think of the things that inhibit us from being a kind and compassionate person. What are the habits in the mind that obscure the Self that is naturally at one with the world. The way we go about working with these habits is by absenting them and we do this by removing what is not who we are or what we don’t want to be. In Buddhist practice the aim is not to add to your personality or to add thoughts or new habits to your mind. The aim is to negate, take away and destroy that which is not Self. This philosophy accepts that Self is completely fine just the way it is. There is nothing that needs to be added to it. What needs to happen is for things to be taken away. Things that have no place and bring no happiness. This ability to remove is where agency begins. This ability to identify with what you are not, or when a structure or a relationship is not okay is the first moment of transformation. Bhaskar talks to this when he speaks of education. The point is not to add, the point is to engage with what is already present and remove that which blocks an individual or a group from engaging in learning(Bhaskar, Roy and Scott, 2015).

After the first iteration of the Changing Practice course I was reflecting on what it meant to be an educator. One of the mentor’s had made me angry by saying that some of the course participants do not have enough education to engage in critical thinking. I disagreed and argued that critical thinking did not depend on how many degrees you have. Later that day I was having tea with my good friend Robert Berold and he said ‘it is not what we add, it is how we, as educators, assist our participants in taking away the obstacles to learning.’ This lead to this core statement which expresses the ethos of the Changing practice course.
“A lack of critical thinking is not a sign of a lack of education, rather it is a sign of mis-education. The course does not attempt to teach people how to be critical but to remove what inhibits their natural ability to question their world.”(Burt et al., 2014)

Karma and action do not, however, stop in the mind but extend into the world, into the spaces between ourselves and others, into the institutions and organisations and cultures through which we move and in relation to our material world.

For Ilyo, soon to be born
jane caroline

in her womb
you lie
mostly silent
an imminent tingle

when I saw your mothers belly
in the parking lot of the BP garage
wrapped up in that black and white dress
she wears so well
I wanted to kneel down to you
and tell you of the human world
you will be entering

sometimes it feels like the slime here
cannot be cleared
each day a a cut-up sliced half life
a harsh stuttering hicc-ed up
shadow of inner-murk
in some places thin & taunting
in others thick enough to choke

the shape of animal forms
run beneath the surface
a challenge of limbed chase
and victory
raw taste & sounds
breath dominates
hot & wet
life & death are sharp edged lovers
in fired wanton freedom

for a brief moment
raindrops are whole & immaculate
trees have unique shapes & voices
and hold the form of joy

I’m not sure I’m qualified to welcome you
I have to admit that I am almost depleted
from a life of human interactions
from my own internal action
but I sense the awareness
of atomized space in me
ancient beyond time
of which you are still
almost suspended

my rattled vehicle
crest hills this dirt road
and I’m eyeing an image
stretched mountains holding
slate-grey shards of water
a blue cloud scuttled sky
one instant a loerie
all green and red and blue
glistens it’s flight path
in front of me

this the the colour of life
the sculpture of this ancient
crushed & human tortured landscape
covered scars in careful green & rust and bruised blue
an earth-wound
hard & beautiful

what I am trying to say is I am told
we are impermanent forms of eternal presence
if you find the way to Being in this life
you will birth your own freedom.

Fourth, the places, friends, pleasures and riches of samsara
Are always stricken with the three sufferings;
They’re like a feast before being led to the execution
Cutting the ties of attachment, I strive and reach enlightenment

The final thought that turns the mind is on suffering. There is an assumption that Buddhist practitioners have a very negative view of the world because we contemplate suffering. This is not so. The contemplation is about understanding the deep causes of suffering so that we can remove them and be happy. The start is to understand what causes suffering in the Self. As one of the great teachers, Minjyor Dorje writes, “Most definitely everyone experiences suffering, dissatisfaction, and anguish. But actually people do not investigate the underlying causes of these feelings or what perpetuates them, and most importantly, they do not investigate how to bring them to an end. People spend a lot of effort trying to avoid unhappiness – not facing it, not transforming it, but only trying to make it go away.”. This often makes me think of human beings approach to climate change. We have all the knowledge we need to know why the world, and thus people suffer and yet we don’t want to face it, we don’t want to transform it, we just want to make it go away. Naomi Klein gave a talk this year as part of the Edward Said series, she commented that people, especially people in the West think that technology is going to solve the problem of global warming. Scientists are even investigating the possibility of dimming the sun by creating the effect of a volcanic eruption so as to block on the light. What people don’t consider is these actions, although they may solve the problem, don’t necessarily solve the problem for all people. In fact for some countries the dimming of the sun will create more problems. For each solution, Klein argues, there are the unseen that then suffer. This means that we are not facing the cause of our suffering completely, we are just wanting the problem of climate change to go away. As Klein argues so articulately, the problem of global climate change is linked to a problem with our social and economic systems that are based on racial discrimination and patriarchy. Until we address these systems as causes of our suffering then we have not transformed our suffering we have simply turned away from the causes of our suffering. Some of us don’t want to change because the current system of inequality benefits us (Klein, 2016). If it is not climate change it would be something else because the fundamental values of our society have not shifted and those that benefit are happy to sacrifice both places and people for this benefit without realising that in the end, we all suffer.

As Freire clearly stated: It is not just the oppressed that suffer, the oppressor also suffers at the hand of his own oppression (Dardar, 2014).

Like Bhaskar, Buddhists believe that the human being is fundamentally completely fine and that we are all naturally compassionate. What stops this natural compassion is a delusion or, as Freire would call it, a false consciousness, of the way the world truly is. Bhaskar would link this delusion to a false ontology such as believing that the world can be reduced to constant conjunctions or simply a projection of the minds discourse. Freire would see this delusion as hiding from the truth of oppression, in the case of the oppressed this would be a false consciousness of seeing oppression as a natural order and as being the will of God or as simply the way of the world. For the oppressor the delusion is believing that the world and all the people in it are simply a projection of the middle-class way of life and value system. This is the right way and all other ways are just not there yet. Both of these positions are delusional and only once we learn to read the world and know it for what it is, in other words see the truth of why we suffer and make other people suffer, can we all be free(Czank, 2012). This is why facing up to priviledge or discrimination, although hard, is also freeing as it frees us from our false understandings of the world and allows us to engage in the world as it really is.

Now as educators and researchers do we not see these forms of suffering everywhere in the way humanity holds onto old structures and in the way humanity perpetuates a status quo that is unjust? As educators do we ask our learners to either learn how to continually turn away from suffering or do we learn together how to face it and thus transform it? Since I have been doing research the focus on contextual work has grown and grown. This shift has been greatly encouraging as it says that in the world of research there is a wish to know the world as it is. With different research tools and processes researchers set out to read the world as best they can and so face up to what causes our collective suffering.

In the footsteps of Olive Schreiner
jane caroline

She did not walk alone in the veld
The footsteps of the dead tracked her
The actions of the brave living drove her
The gentle wind of compassion
Purified her dark and coarse lesions

She was not alone in knowing
The agony of uncompromising life
Of knowing the dry places
Festering with poisonous insects
And maggot-ridden corpses

Out of which arises
A single rock koppie
Reaching into a stark blue sky

I want to tell one more story from my life as a Buddhist practitioner before I move into the narratives of the intellectuals who are read and spoken about within the walls of the Universities that I learn with.

When I had recovered from ME enough to begin working again. I was confused. The three years of serious Buddhist practice made me think that my time in the world of action was over and that I should give up that life and simply learn to be with my own confused mind and help people to be with their own minds. I had been offered a job at an NGO far away from where I lived but I was slightly afraid to go back into the world of action where I was never quite sure whether my actions were beneficial or harmful. I wrote to my root Guru and asked him what he thought I should do. This may seem strange to people who are not part of the Buddhist education system. I have had many friends say, how can you give up your agency to another human. This is not what a relationship with a Guru is about. Akong Rinpoche was a man of immense compassion and insight. He knew my struggles and he knew my potential. I trusted him and it was this trust that lead me to ask his opinion. For me, to be able to trust in one single human being in the world is a powerful force of agency.

I truly believed when I sent the letter that the reply would be to do retreat, teach mindfulness, withdraw from the world and yet what he wrote back to me was exactly the opposite. He argued that, for me,  working towards the care of water was by far more beneficial than retreating. ‘Your life will be living the Buddhist principles’, he argued, ‘water will overcome thirst and hunger in other beings.‘.. that is your Dharma.’ What this taught me is that an ethical path cannot be separated from the world. Maybe at some point in humanity’s history there was a space in the world to withdraw quietly into contemplation but it is not this time. To be true to my path as an earthwalker it is time to continue walking, to endure what that means and live the Dharma that this time asks me to live.

I have started writing about agency, which is the core exploration of this study, by engaging with a body of knowledge and practice that is core to my being and that is not often spoken of in lecture halls to demonstrate a few things.

To honour the call of a fellow participant who recently attended a research school with me that to know transformative practice we need to be able to relate and narrate our own transformation.

That transformative praxis or transformative agency is more than our actions in the material world and it is more than working with our internal mind states. As Bhaskar argues we cannot ignore the intransitive dimension and ‘collapse the human being to human action and collapse the different aspects of the material world to the level of events’ (Bhaskar, Roy and Scott, 2015, p. 40). There is more at play here.

It is a desire to address, what Klein calls, ‘a failure of narrative’. She argues that the narratives we have told ourselves for decades such as the narrative of growth have failed us and we have nothing with which to replace them. I would agree and also argue that we do. Within each of us is a rich array of narratives which tell a different story to the displaced and violent tale of modern capitalism. Whether the spaces are open for us to tell these tales in many different spaces and so create moments of possibility remain to be seen but it is one of the intentions and desires of the educational work that I have been involved in. Part of the role of the 21st century educator is to create the spaces for fully embodied, knowing people who can bring all their life experiences to the path of learning and change.

Finally, it is an attempt to demonstrate that the meaning and knowledge that drives our actions is a rich weaving of knowledges, experiences, structure and intent. As Bhaskar so clearly describes it “if we look at agency itself this is a most marvellous thing. It depends on a process of intentional causality and agency occurs typically when we intend to do something for a reason. What we have when we are trying to understand social life in the first moment of stratification is to see action in terms of reasons. And then the second moment of stratification is to see how structures and structural change give agents reasons for doing things. That is a typical stratification of action moment.” (Bhaskar, Roy and Scott, 2015, p. 38)

Naming ourselves so we can name the world

I recently attended a conference on popular education entitled ‘forging solidarity’. Popular education has been around since the 16th century. Popular education is not adult education or informal education it is a form of interaction that sits at the crossroads between politics and pedagogy. The aim of popular education is a collective liberation against oppression or to put it another way a conscientisation of individuals and groups who are working together to transform society.

Paulo Freire, a 20th century educator, is most well known for his contributions to popular education and how the educational process can be designed to be liberating both for those that are born into an oppressed group and those that are born into a group that oppresses. What I love about Freire’s ideas is that emancipation is only possible if both the oppressed and oppressor need to be liberated from that which perpetuates unjust practice in the world. This unjust practice is possible because of the way in which we internalise ways of being that enable us to see ‘the other’ as less than us. It is also made possible through the competitive desire for ownership of the means of production and thus the wealth that is gained from this ownership. To justify this ownership, oppressor communities need to create myths of being and acting in the world which make it possible for oppressive practices to continue. One such myth is that everyone has an equal chance of gaining wealth and it all comes down to how hard one works. Another myth is that Western races are ‘more advanced’ in terms of cultural, political and economic structures and this is the reason for their progress and dominance in the world. All that has really happened is that Western structures have been able to institutionalise unjust practices that are now taken as ‘normal’ and ‘right’. The way forward is the myth that less advanced nations to simply catch up. This is obviously not going to solve the inequalities in the world.

What I found very intriguing about the colloquium was not only the diversity of work that is happening in popular education and how the political pedagogy is still (and probably always will be) emerging but also how individuals within the group acknowledged the presence of oppressive structures. This was done by acknowledging their context or should I say the context into which they are born and now live. This is important as the context we are born into may not be the context within which we now live. This has definitely been the case for me at least. As Bhaskar argues, when it comes to structure and agency, structure always comes first. We are born into a context and a historical moment that we have no choice over. What we do within this context and historical moment is where our agency lies. Freire speaks of agency as conscientisation that is both personal and collective. This continual dance between what the context of oppression and the context of the oppressed was very apparent at the colloquium as was the way in which people tried to personally deal with this.

It was a common practice for presenters to start their presentations by either owning their experiences of oppression or confessing their oppressor status. For example, acknowledging that “I have been born into an middle class family from a high caste.” or “I am a black woman who grew up and knows the experience of poverty” or “I am a black academic who has struggled to make it to this point and has to continually fight against the unseen structures of patriarchy and racism in Universities which are environments that make me feel excluded.” This made me think about the conscientisation process and what it means to own an oppressive experience and then see this as an identity or to confess to having grown up in an oppressor context and acknowledging the advantage this has given one. I began to think of how I would engage in my own ownership and confessional process.

I can claim oppression as a woman in an overly hyped masculine society and I can confess to being born to a father and mother that had made it to the middle class by abandoning their home country to come to South Africa during one of the darkest years in Apartheid’s history – 1976. At home they were not part of this class. I can acknowledge that growing up white in South Africa in the 80’s gave me an education that was much better than any of my comrades of colour and I can also say that I experienced the horror of being sexually abused and bullied by male students. I can say that my father, due to scholarship he won for his university education (his parents were not wealthy and unable to afford tertiary education at the time) and his determination to succeed in a foreign country meant that most of my tertiary education was paid for. I am the first person in my family to get a masters (and hopefully Phd) and this is probably due to the South African priviledges I grew up with. I often wonder if I would have received such a good education if my family had remained in England. I can also say that it is due to my fathers savings that he was able to accumulate from his many years of work as an engineer that I am now able to own a house with my partner. My father covered the deposit on the loan of the house. It is these generational payments that have made it possible for me to find work. It is also the colour of my skin that makes people react to me in a different way and open up doors that would be closed to others. So interestingly I was not born into a community of oppressors but, to some extent, a community that was oppressed as my father’s family were working class Liverpudlian’s struggling in the aftermath of World War two. I was, however, transplanted into an oppressor community when the education my father fought so hard for landed him a job in South Africa.

I will always remember wanting to treat a Xhosa friend to a meal at a restaurant. My Xhosa friend introduced me to a isiXhosa dance group called the Masande players when I was 20. I became a member and danced with them for about four years. What he did was more than give me an opportunity to perform he gave me an opportunity to enter a world that was closed to me. He offered me a friendship that was more than a personal sense of compassion for each other. He also offered me the opportunity to be more South African and to learn what it meant to be part of the oppressor community in the context of a South Africa crawling out of apartheid . His only surviving parent was an alcoholic and so during his matric exams I offered him a space to stay so he could study. He suffered for this because this was in the time when white people were not trusted. His association with me led to his family consulting with a sangoma and putting a curse on both of us. I do not understand this and still don’t but I still have the letter he wrote to me before he left town telling me that he was in danger and so was I. He advised me to leave town too but I was not a believer nor did I understand the nature of what was happening in his life. This was all still foreign to me and still is which shows how some doors are still closed to me. But I am getting side tracked. When I offered my friend a meal at the restaurant he became uncomfortable. He nervously looked at the menu and eventually said, “would you mind if we rather buy food for the same amount as this meal at checkers. Then I can share it with my family and it will last longer.”

I have been contemplating is how the ownership of oppression is the ownership of an experience of oppression first and then a slow and often painful process of understanding the underlying causes of this oppression. Freire would call this learning to read the world and therefore understanding how oppression can even be possible. For Bhaskar this is going beyond the empirical or events (the experience of oppression) to understanding the causal mechanisms of how the event and the results of the event could have happened to begin with.

But do we do the same when we confess to being born into a community that oppresses or into a culture of people that are oppressors or into a country that legislates oppression? Do we rather start the other way around and instead of ‘owning our labe’s confess to the structural labels of the oppressors?– I am middle class. I am white. I am man. I am from the first world. I am heterosexual. Why don’t our confessions also start with the experience of being born into oppressor status? This made me think of how it does feel to own oppressor status.

This morning, while I meditated, I conjured up a moment of exclusion, a moment where my privilege was so apparent and I sat with the feelings that arose. All I can say is there was a sense of my chest collapsing inward on myself. I wanted to withdraw, be small, tiny, insignificant. Things were crawling inside of me. My eyes could not look straight but darted around. When I think of a label for this feeling the only one that comes to mind is shame coupled with a feeling of helplessness. There was no agency. There was not a feeling, in the moment, that I could do anything but stand there shameful and helpless. This feeling of having the status oppressor or privileged, if we want a gentler word, makes me understand more than anything that structures of oppression trap all of us, oppressor and oppressed alike. Which reminds me of a very important conversation we had at the popular education conference around why do we act in solidarity or what is this thing we call solidarity which I suppose is asking, is it possible for solidarity to exist between the diversity of our collective experiences of living in this world? Some people spoke of ‘a responsibility’ and others of ‘the struggle to be’. There was a lot of talk about what it means to stand up and stand down, to give space and to leave space. The comment that struck home the most was a comment made by an comrade from India who pushed away the word ‘responsibility’ as if it stung him. No, for him the act of solidarity came from an understanding that even the most privileged are not free in the enactment of oppression. It is not a responsibility to align oneself against oppression it is the core of our humanity that makes us do so because once we understand that we are trapped, closed off, reigned in from experiencing each other and the world then we know there is no other choice but to fight oppression in every which form we find it. This then is the act of love and first and foremost it is an act of self love. If I truly love and care for myself then an opppressor status is unthinkable. To not challenge this and question this is an act of hate towards myself and an acceptance of the prison it puts me in.

Liberation is an act of courage as it means a continual working with contradictions that are both internal and the contradictions that manifest in the external world. As Peter Park remarks in a conversation with Freire, “The structure is one thing, and how we live is another. Daily, we speak the language of racism. We speak the language of sexism. We speak these ideologies in our body language and the ways in which we live and interact with others. So unless we change the way we live, from the inside out, just talking liberatory education or progressive politics is not going to be enough.” (Dardar, 2015, 149).

Freire replies that the progressive movement will not be enough to change a society that is oppressive. The internal work is important but there is also an acknowledgement that the structures that are in place sometimes inhibit us so much that change is not possible. He speaks here in relation to schools and universities and countries, particularly the United States. He argues that ‘internally, there are mechanisms that are set up unwittingly, that stand in the way of practicing progressive education. It’s not because they are bad people, but the traditional structure to which they adhere interfers.” Therefore it is vital that we reach out to others through a willingness to dialogue with the oppressing-oppressive contradictions that emerge in our very being and acting in the world.

I recently went to another academic event, the transgressive research school. There was an opening here in the academy that I have not seen before and a willingness to dialogue. For me it was a welcome surprise as I am very cynical about the current status of the university. For another participant it was experienced very differently. She saw it as a silencing, elitist space that spouted words with very little connection to action and experience. Maybe she saw the ideologies and positionings that we held in our body language and in the way in which the school was educationally structured with too much focus on concepts and models and not the lived, thinking and feeling experience of oppression. She spoke out against this which has placed us in a space or possibility of dialogue.

It also made me contemplate another way of thinking about working together towards liberation which Leigh Anne Naidoo raised at the popular education conference. She spoke of time travel and space travel and how, for some the history of struggle is over and the need for protests is gone whereas others are still living that history and are still moving in spaces where no liberation has occurred and the struggle for liberation is very real (Naidoo, pers comm, 2016). For me, who has a history with the department who held the transgressive education research school, the workshop was exciting, different and opened up new spaces that have not been present at the university for as long as I have had an association with it. For my fellow participant who is new to this space and has a different history to me it was experienced as silencing and arrogant. As educators then who want to engage in the transgressive space we need to learn to time travel and to space travel to open up moments of dialogue (Naidoo, L, pers comm, 2016). We also need to reflect on our own histories and spaces and whether within the movements we make and words that we utter speak to only our space and time or can cross over through space and time and blend a union across difference.

Academic research is often on ‘the other’ which our fellow participant of the transgressive research school clearly identified. She said that she did not hear our stories, the stories of the people in the room. Maybe by labelling this space transgressive the organisers, possibly without knowing it, have invited in some meaningful and possibly uncomfortable conversations. Maybe it is a process of turning the mirror on academy and, on all of us that are associated with it, and watching our gestures and our enactments of meaning. Maybe we need to think of how we would introduce ourselves into these diverse spaces and whether we need to own our experiences of oppression and also our experiences of oppressing. If we remain here for a few moments with deep discomfort we may be able to approach our theories of change differently. We could engage from a place of knowing each other not as people seeking to own identities or attempting to lay them down but people that are trapped together and hold between ourselves an equal opportunity of moving towards something new. As Freire states: “…our movements of awakening to critical consciousness or ‘the breakthrough of a new form of awareness in understanding the world is not the privilege of one person (or one institution – my addition). The experience that makes possible the ‘breakthrough’ is a collective ‘experience’ (Dardar, 2015, 81).

Forging Solidarity – What does it mean?

I’m sitting at the airport in Johannesburg and I’m feeling slightly guilty that I’m taking another flight to another research meeting in another part of South Africa. The excitement of going to meet with the ‘popular education’ crowd in Cape Town is slightly subdued by the fact that I will once again be contributing to the burning of a mass of fossil fuels. I am currently not displaying actions of solidarity with our planet.

Over the last few days I have begun to slowly teeter around the stories I want to tell as a Phd student. Suprisingly it has been an emotional process. I find myself writing pieces and feeling a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. At times I have felt sunk deep into my body with my eyes watching the world from within a heavy mass of matter. The words and thoughts in my mind have taken over and demand attention. It is not a comfortable place to be. When I sit in front of my computer with the lump in my throat or the body mass of me feeling many times heavier. It is uncomfortable. Uncomfortable is not even the right word. It is a feeling that says this is not just an intellectual activity you are about to embark upon. It is, once again, the time of telling and the time of telling is sometimes a painful and vulnerable time when the voices of the people I have worked with, the books I have read begin the long, slow process of meaning making and intention setting. Once these thoughts start forming they will not be stopped until they are said and sometimes what is written is not what I wished to be written or expected to be written. Out of unexpected places the thoughts arise while my body acts as the raw conduit for this mental activity. Yes, I sit infront of the fire or infront of my computer but as the thoughts dance and frame so the emotions rise and fall. My little body sits silent but inside there is another world, another process playing out and I am no longer in control.

Now that I am traveling I have a slight breather from this intense space and I ask, why does anyone write if it is so completely and utterly all encompassing and emotionally taxing. Or rather is it the space where all the emotions of action come to rest and find a place of expression in words that race across the page like little ants following each other home.

I have also been thinking about what to say at this colloquim that Thabo (one of the Changing practice participants) and I find ourselves going to. We have been given 10 minutes and have been sent a request to focus on our pedagogy. The conference title is called forging solidarity and since I’ve submitted the abstract I’ve been wondering what this means.

Forging brings to mind a labour. It brings to mind hard work, a push. It also brings to mind that there is something that needs to be forged a force that we are working with or against. Finally it feels like a moulding and shaping.

Solidarity is another huge word. It is a popular word amongst activists. It is not much used amongst academics who prefer the words ‘participatory’ or in collaboration with. Solidarity demands something more, well more solid. It demands no distance. It is, like the writing process, a vulnerable engaging and it also feels that inbetween the letters there lies a human fraility and a human strength.

So in the context of this colloquium can Thabo and I stand up and say that the pedagogy we have adopted has been an act of love and thus an act of solidarity. That it has been a collective labour around what matters.

And how can we say that this solidarity has been forged? Well first I can say that the solidarity of the South African Water Caucus has been forging long before the Changing Practice course arrived. The SAWC has been around since 2002 in various forms and with various bodies of people. What is core to the group is a deep affection. This is apparent when sitting with the coordinating committee or standing amongst the members at the AGM. It is this affection that is the equaliser between academic and activist and between the priviledged groups amongst us and those that have suffered the consequences of prejudice and oppression. Affection does not remove these contradictions that stand between our lives but it softens them. It makes them workable and real.

The Changing Practice course was brought into this space with it’s core principles of starting with what matters for people. It is the Freirian mantra of starting with the material of people’s lives and of their histories. It introduces stories as evidence and our own eyes and ears as our research tools. Our bodies are our evidence builders. At a recent research school on transgressive learning I was asked to briefly present our little project and I started by saying that in South Africa activists do not have many resources to throw into changing the world. We don’t have a lot of resources. We often don’t have the money for transport to get to meetings that are held for us to participate in. What we have is our knowledge of what we know is happening in our communities and in our lives. This is our power. We know this well. I thought afterwards that the other thing we have is our bodies which are living, moving documents of what we see and what we know to be. As we move our bodies in and out of spaces we bring with us the stories of our past and the reimaginings of our futures.

Which is another thing this small course introduces. The idea that our beings exist within networks and that these networks are the pathways along which knowledge and knowing travels. Instead of having to know it all, like the banking model that Freire so beautifully debunked we can see ourselves as fluid movement within a landscape of networks some of which are currently available to us and others which we can seek out and enter. We are not building our individual knowledge we are building ourselves into knowledge networks which both enhance us and to which we add our bodies and minds as valuable entities in the network. This is described by one participant who talks about tentitively entering the network of the University and seeing this institution that is in crisis as containing people and spaces where solidarity can be build or strengthened.

[As civil Society] Society we now tend to judge, as this is academic, this university does not represent us you know. But the journey has taken us to say there is a space of learning from both sides. (Changing Practice Participant)

Building strong cases, finding our voices, being embodied by our informing has also lead to other dialogues that have been unexpected but potentially meaningful. The cases that came out of this course became the catalysts for conversations with government that are now ongoing and, if we can hold them with integrity, may lead to meaningful processes of change or even, if we can be bold, places of healing and imagining. At the moment we sit around a table unsure of our allegiances like small cats with territory but because of the humanity brought by the cases themselves and the people that embody them this can’t be banished from the dark and sunless room we find ourselves in, sitting across from each other in the warren of a building that is the DWS headquarters in Pretoria.

And then a final contribution is about the delicate dance of shifting the power of knowing which Visvanathan calls cognitive justice. If we are to build solidarity and partnerships there needs to be an understanding and a space where our knowing is seen as a strong tree rooted in our cultures with our branches and leaves stretched out to the sky. Visvanathan argues that a non violent science is a science that recognises people as inventors of knowledge and not consumers of knowledge and where nature is not an object to be explored but is a mode of thought. We understand this to mean that we need to work with learning and knowing as an authentic expression of people and the landscapes out of which learning emerge. This is why we start with our stories and then our stories intertwined with people’s stories, and then these stories intertwined with the stories of the landscapes through which we walk and act. We learn to see these landscapes anew and understand the movements of people within these landscapes because it is only from this rooted place of knowing that we can begin dialogue and begin reaching our branches out to intertwine with others.

To be a woman : A response to the protests at Rhodes University

This blog is not about my Phd but in response to what is happening at the University where I am doing my Phd.

1. A twelve year old girl is bullied and sexually abused by 14 year old boys for two years. They grab her breasts, vagina, spit on her and make her do their homework. Teachers see this behaviour but do nothing. She eventually moves schools and it stops.
2. A seventeen year old girl goes to a night club. A man grabs her breasts from behind. She turns round and slaps him. He pushes her down a flight of steps. Her friends have to pick her up dazed and confused and take her home.
3. A seventeen year old girl gets a job at a restaurant as a waitress. On her second day she serves a family table. As she walks past the father puts his hand up her skirt. This is one of many occasions. She tells the owner who is talking to the chef. He laughs and the chef grabs her vagina and tells her she is lucky to be so pretty to get such attention.
4. A eighteen year old women goes to a Christening overseas. Older friends ask some of their friends to take her out for the evening. She goes. She is with one other woman. The men take her to one of their houses and refuse to take her home. She ends up having to sleep with the other woman in the spare room. In the middle of the night one of the men jump into bed with them. He grabs her vagina. She screams. He curses and leaves.
5. An eighteen women gets a job during her gap year at a hardware store. A manager starts harassing her. It gets horrible and she is scared. He starts threatening her. She approaches the manager of the store. First he doesn’t believe her until another manager steps in and verifies her case. The regional PR manager is bought in. The woman stands trial and is asked “do you wear mini-skirts to work? Have you provoked him? Have you ever accepted gifts from him? Have you ever flirted with him?. The verdict. He is to keep one meter away from her at all times but it is the responsibility of the young woman to stay away from him. A few days later she is in the canteen. He comes in. She gets up immediately to go out. He blocks her and throws hot coffee in her face. She runs to the store manager whose first question to her is, why were you so close to him? Did you provoke him? She resigns.
6. A nineteen year old woman is at University. She goes out to a club. She goes out for fresh air and is suddenly surrounded by a group of men from the army base. They start taunting her, pulling at her clothing. A young man she knows walks past. She calls out to him and he comes forward. The army men move away. This is the last time she goes out to this club alone. She starts staying at home.
7. A 21 year old women works behind a bar to make money while studying at University. One night a man starts harrassing her. He won’t let up. She refuses to serve him. He threatens her grabbing her arm and twisting it. Another man in the bar steps in. She is eventually fired from her job because she doesn’t converse with the men at the bar and would rather just serve them and read. The woman owner of the bar tells her she hired her because she is pretty and she needs someone to be ‘friendly’ to the men. The women is told she is not ‘friendly’ enough.
8. A 28 year old woman asks a male colleague to come to her to a meeting because the men will not engage with her. She updates him on what needs to be said and he has to say it for her. She has no voice here.
9. A 32 year old woman runs a workshop for a woman’s group. They are exploring why it is so hard to motivate themselves to do something with their lives. The woman uses a timeline technique of a fictional character and together they plot the moments in this fictional characters life that could lead to this attitude. The fictional woman is raped three times in her fictional life. The woman running the workshops queries, is this realistic, is this your experience. Women in the room start crying. Each one of them has been raped at some point of their lives, many more than once. They fear for their daughters. They feel they are to blame if it happens to their daughters – they should have seen, they should have stopped it but how can they know? How can they know which men are bad/
10. A 35 year old woman meets a man. The start a relationship. He is aggressive so she ends the relationship six months later. The man starts to harrass her. He comes to her house and tries to force her to have sex with him. She manages to yell so hard he leaves. At advise from a friend she leaves her current house. He continually sends threatening emails, Sms messages and tries to phone. She ignores all correspondence. Then he vandalises her car. Four days later her dogs are poisoned. One dies. She goes to the police. They advise a restraining order. She goes to the courts. The woman behind the desk in an office deep in the bowels of the court room asks, why do you want a restraining order, he hasn’t hit you. The police woman accompaning the woman says ‘ It is so he doesn’t end up hitting her.” She is given a restraining order.

Ten examples of ten woman experiencing what it is like to be a woman in the world? No ten examples of ten events that happened to the same woman and that woman is me. I don’t often share this information because when I do I am treated like a person that is damaged. I am looked at differently. People react to me differently. I am treated as if my life is abnormal. But the older I have become the more I realise that my life is the normal life of a woman in the world. Every woman I know has an experience or many experiences like this spread across their life. At my current age I no longer like going out. I never go out alone. I enjoy getting older because men no longer look at me like they used to – like a piece of meat. When I meet a man my first instinct is fear. My second is distrust. There are about 7 men in my life that I trust and don’t fear. They know who they are.

South African men need to realise that South African women do not live in the same country they do, we do not live in the same world that they do. We live in a world where being a woman means you are at risk, continually, perpetually, relentlessly. If I consider one of the reasons I have not had children it is because if I had a girl I would be terrified of what might happen to her and if I had a boy I am terrified of what he may do to women.

I don’t condone mob justice but women have a right to be angry. How much longer can we take the world’s denial of the lives we live? How much longer are we going to be silenced by society seeing these experiences as shameful, as if we caused them to happen? As if we are responsible?

I express solidarity with our young South African women but solidarity is not enough. I am ambivalent about their current actions. Some part of me doesn’t feel that violence is the way to go. Does oppression ever wipe out oppression? Another part of me feels their rage as my rage and asks, what else is there to do to stop the violence against women and children? We live in a country where young girls are raped by their teachers, their fathers, uncles and friends. What must women do, say, share, expose to make this stop? I will never forget one day in Grahamstown. I was involved in the ‘1 in 9’ production being put in at the Grahamstown festival.  I was reading the local newspaper. On the third page there were small short three sentence news clips. One of them read: “Three men rape a woman to death. The men were caught. One man admitted to being forced to rape the woman after she was dead.”  The front page story was about some ridiculous sports event. This woman died a death that is too horrific to imagine and her tragedy was worth nothing more than a three sentence news clip in a small town newspaper. I sobbed for this woman but sympathy is just not enough.  For how many centuries have women wept in silence? Every action and every word at every level needs to work towards changing what it means to be a woman in the world.

I am a normal South African woman and I don’t want any of the young South African girls of today to have to live a life like my normal South African woman’s life. I want them to have extra-ordinary lives in which they are fearless, powerful and strong.


Genealogies, Foucault and Paris

Yay! This blog is the first few pages of THE ACTUAL PHD text. It will probably change over time but ‘IT IS WRITTEN’. It’s a final position on how Foucault will be conversing with this piece of work.

I have always had a love for roots and rhizomes. We are often taught to think in straight lines. We consider our life as a straight line: from birth to death. But when we dig up a little plant out of the dirt there we find a different pattern. Intricate, delicate tendrils that manoeuvre their way into a relationship with the soil. As the roots sit here in my hand, their trailing mass dangling beyond my fingers I contemplate how without the soil these roots are nothing. They will die. Not only that. They have no meaning. They are one with the soil. They belong in the soil. Roots without soil are a thing without a function.

And so is it with our ideas of life, the universe and everything (To quote my favourite, light hearted sci-fi book, The Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy(Adams, 1995)). Our ideas have roots which are not linear. They reach out and draw deeply from the earth just as a plant roots do. They are bounded to a place and grow out of a space and what they are and their use in the world is linked to this very earth embodiment.

I think Foucault understood this deeply and his commitment to genealogical and historical work is because he did not see ideas and histories as free floating islands but as rooted into the very structures of what it means to be human. These structures are time –bound and space-bound. They have a `they grew just as plants do. We can’t see ideas but we can feel their impact on the world and we can see the manifestation of them in the way we structure socially, in what we do and believe and in how we practice the art of living on planet earth.

So it is worth spending a little time expressing what Foucault’s ideas are and why they are useful for investigating this new idea of trans-disciplinarity that has emerged into the world and that has taken root in the earth sciences.

My first introduction to Foucault was about 20 years ago. I was introduced to his ideas but they were difficult to grasp until I read a biography of Foucaults life. I find it interesting that this weaving of theoretical thought, linked to a living being made my mind open up to the ideas of Foucault. I also remember 10 years later, walking the streets of Paris and having a cup of dark Parisian coffee in a café in Saint Germain and feeling Foucault’s ideas. I understood how he could think the way he did in amongst the cobbled streets and carefully manicured gardens of Paris where nature itself was manipulated to suit the shapes of man. I remember sitting under a tree next to the Notre Dame and being overwhelmed by the fact that this tree had been here before the great cathedral had been painstakingly built on the site of the first settlements of Paris. A probably very Pagan settlement at that.

Foucault wrote many genealogies and kept referring to them but he refused to admit or commit to a method or methodology for his genealogical. Tamboukou, (1999) speaks of an ontology of Foucaultian genealogy she tries to illuminate this ontology of genealogy in an attempt to make it useable as a critical tool and for that I am grateful. I found her paper beautifully written and carefully constructed to present to someone who doesn’t have the time to read through all of Foucault’s published works a starting point from which to launch into genealogical work.

Foucault wrote histories but they were not any old histories, they were histories of ‘the nature and development of modern power’ (Tamboukou, 1999, p. 202) where truth cannot be separated from the way in which this truth has been produced. His genealogies were a process of unearthing the ‘processes, procedures and apparatuses’ (Tamboukou, 1999, p. 202) by which truth and knowledge is produced. This is why I have have turned to Foucault and his genealogical work for investigating trans-disciplinarity as the very idea of trans-disciplinarity is inevitably about the production of knowledge and truth and how this is appropriated and used for activity in a human world where humans are very much facing up to the way the application of knowledge in the past has lead to the environmental risks we face today.

A genealogy is guided by two questions:
What is happening now?
What is this ‘now’ within which all of us find ourselves?

The second question floats above the first. It is the question that is questioning what makes it possible for us to question. For Foucault it was the point where he situated himself as a philosopher and asked the question, what is it in the present that produces meaning for philosophical reflection? (Tamboukou, 1999, p. 204). What Foucault is interrogating here is the how a subject emerges in history – how a subject or person and idea becomes a possible reality because of the interweaving of certain historical and cultural practices and this is not a straightforward and gentle interweaving but a history of resistance, struggle and force. The present is a moment that rests uneasily on these struggles and genealogy is the history of what the present rests on. It is also an attempt to offer a counter memory (Tamboukou, 1999), of what we think the present rests on and in so doing attempts to offer a way of thinking differently, of challenging what is represented as present and offering alternative possible ways of understanding ‘what is happening now?’

For Foucault the very process of writing a genealogy is the process of working out the theoretical questions that face us when we question the present we find ourselves in. Deleuze wrote in his book on Foucault:

To write is to struggle and resist, to write is to become, to write is to draw a map.(Deleuze, 1992, p. 44)

This highlights that Foucault’s project of historical critique is at its heart discursive. Although Foucault would claim to have abandoned the dualism between the discursive and the non-discursive. This does not detract from the project of his critique which are not to criticise the past from the position of the present but to critique the present by highlighting ‘the way in which the discursive and institutional practices of the past still affect the constitution of the present.” (Tamboukou, 1999, p. 205) and the role of genealogy is to dig into these discursive and institutional practices and ask: how they relate, how they struggle and/or resist, how they are institutionalised and how they claim authority.

So what do I bring into this study out of Foucault’s depth of genealogical work:

That like the roots of a plant there is no one linear origin to ideas, situations and events. There is a map, a pattern of multiple beginnings and unearthing these with close attention to detail, to the small things highlights the not so well hidden discursive patterns of power, dominance, struggle and resistance. These discourses take root and veil their emergence with normative and disciplined practices that become institutionalised into the fabric of our presence. Is then trans-disciplinarity a disruption, a defence or a resistance. Is it itself taking root and if so what small unnoticed origins are creating its space and place in the present?

Genealogy is a descent and an emergence.

What does this mean? To cast a genealogy of trans-disciplinary thought is not a task of tracking down past events to this present moment but rather of turning to “what people do.. to strip away the veils that cover people’s practices by simply showing how they are, and where they come from, describing its complicated forms and exploring its countless historical transformations.”(Tamboukou, 1999, p. 209). This is the descent.

Emergence is grasping the moment of struggle. The events that led to a certain state of affairs.

So how to begin this descent and emergence? How to be methodological within a process that distinctively has no methodology. The first step is to re-read a Foucaultian genealogy because what is clear above anything else is that it is the genealogical questions that lead the way. The second is to be clear about the problem and to understand its historical dimensions, to trace the current practices that relate to the problem and to try and formulate the network of relations between the practices and their problems. Part of this work is continually posing genealogical questions. It is these questions that guide the writer into an exploratory territory. What methods or methodologies emerge, what data is needed to investigate these questions are varied and emerge or weave around the questions that are being asked. There is also no guarantee of finding any satisfactory answers as at the crux of genealogy is the questions ‘how have we become what we are?’ and ‘how can be become ‘other’? If knowing what we are is embedded in the Self as emerging out of history and practice, to know what we can become is unavoidably unknown and the journey to it is as unknown. Jolting ourselves through genealogical work, out of the patterns of our existence cannot hold certainties but, I believe, it can hold rigour.

How does this relate to the exploration of the lineages of trans-disciplinarity? These lineages are all attempts at jolting forward, of becoming something ‘other’. An investigation of their emerging presence in this space and time may bring to light what these ideas have brought with them and what whether there are spaces were new ways of becoming, being and acting in the world are indeed present. If so, how are these being practiced and how do we build on these moments. As Tamboukou declares (1999), genealogies are not about the past, they are about the future and whether we can jolt ourselves into a new way of being.

However much I would like to this study is not an in depth genealogical endeavors. I will draw on the ethos of Foucault’s work, his ethical project as it were but the depth and breadth of my investigation will be limited and more defined. To do this I will lean on the way in which Fairclough have taken Foucault’s great works forward into practicing critiques.

For a start and due to the time that Foucault emerged into our collective history there are some things we can contemplate and reconsider as we look back over Foucault’s work. We can learn from his struggles that were both personal and theoretical.

Do cognitive justice movements need to infiltrate ‘Western’ knowledges spaces or just ignore them?

This image is of an activist that has been attending the ‘Changing Practice’ social learning course. He presented a poster of  his case study at a conference. His comment about the conference and the experience of sharing his work there was ‘It made me feel lonely.”  

So I’m frustrated today. Yesterday I was not frustrated and very happy to have more time for my Phd. My hard working supervisor has managed to find some money to support the PhD process this year and I’ve also been able to source some money elsewhere. I’ve enjoyed this past week thinking and planning and even beginning to work on the very first chapter of the Phd. I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed reading more of de Sousa Santos. I was so inspired that I even wrote to him. The thing is the inspiration that drove me to write to him is also part of my frustration which comes down to this…

I just don’t feel there is the time to spend writing a Phd for an intellectual community where knowledge cycles around and around. Ideas are written in the thousands upon thousands of journals that circulate the planet and this is supposed to be our contribution to society. Of course this is not our only contribution but this is what gets me. It is this contribution that is seen as the most valued. Well I just don’t have the time for it. I wrote to de Sousa Santos because his ideas were so relevant for our work as activist researchers and for the community activists that we partner with. I immediately thought how important it would be to share his ideas as it gives us concepts.. real grounded useful concepts around which to mobilise. And yet just the very act of trying to share these ideas in a platform that is more accessible, more reasonably human is almost out of reach or demands of me to develop a bunch of new skills that I currently don’t have and… more out of reach.. create the time.. the unpaid time to learn, create and share.

The reason for this pressure.. well where do we get the money to hold a workshop.. and if I was to write a user-friendly booklet to share with my fellow comrades.. who would design it, who would take the photographs, who will translate it? I could try and do all of this myself but what would it lead to – a sub-quality booklet.. maybe that is good enough but why should it be just ‘good enough’? Why isn’t the democratic representation of knowledge with and in collaboration with others valued as much as the massive body of text that we throw at our supervisors after four years of painstaking torture. How much do our Universities get for one published paper in a reputable journal? The last I heard was it was around R80 000. Now what I could create with R80 000. What I could do with that money in collaboration with the community activists I work with? Now I’m not saying the intellectual thought that goes into those doorstopper of a texts is not useful. It is vital but why the representation in this way and why are we still not thinking more about how, how, how we share knowledge and not only how much of it we can produce. Why is it not important to have a budget for photography, for being able to make short video clips? Sure I can learn these skills myself but isn’t it more important to partner with film makers and photographers who would rather use their skills to develop movements and to fight injustice rather than create another soppy love story movie or another award winning advert that will sell something completely useless.

There are online tools sure but these are so limiting and also amp up the pressure that the researcher activist in the Global South has to become an expert at taking and editing Youtube shots.. and there is nothing worse.. lets face… it than a bad video clip. But we just don’t have the money.. or do we.?? Is it more important to attend a conference or is it more important to collaborate with a local filmmaker to represent growing ideas and practices. I worked it out. I went to a conference last year. It was based in South Africa so I didn’t even have international travel costs to consider. It was close to where I lived so to get there only cost the fuel in my little fiat and yet how much was it all..

R5000 for the conference fee
R1796.20 in fuel
R1500 in accommodation expenses

That comes to R4796,20 the amount a local film maker quoted me to make a 10 minute documentary on a local activist practice.

The university I study at gives us a very small amount of money to attend conferences. It is so small that attending international conferences is completely impossible unless our supervisors have been able to access more funds through their hard, multitasking work.. so I thought maybe this money could be used for something else rather than showcasing our work for 15 minutes in some fancy conference venue but this is not the case. Anyway why go on about it!!! I’ll continue to subsidise myself to do all I can to represent knowledge and learning in a collaborative, interactive and democratic way .. even given the frustrations.. and de Sousa Santos agreed. His email back to me .. a rather gushy, Phd student … was heartfelt and sad. I could hear that he understood the struggles we face, that they are his own and that made me hopeful. I suppose there are spaces we can create and even if we do produce a bad quality youtube video’s from the video camera on a smartphone and a free software package that we find online that only allows us 5MB free uploads before it charges us .. we can work within these parameters. I’m also lucky to have a partner who is a computer programmer and can take one look at these so called free resources and create something better in less than half an hour. It just makes me sad sometimes because I see his skill and I see the skills of the community activists I work with and yet where is this depth of knowledge shared and represented. If universities in the Global South struggle to have the resources to share knowledge more broadly how do community activists find not only the resources but also the money to train to get the skills needed for all this sharing… or do we just give it all up and go back to talking by the roadside, sharing over a nice hot cup of rooibos tea and possibly forget about the noise of the information generation world out there? Do we say who cares about Youtube and facebook and knowledge platforms of this nature that have been presented to us as valuable by the the wealthier, more resourced countries of the world? What we have is between us. It is orally transmitted and held in our bodies and our hearts. It is held in our relationships and our care for each other. Is this enough? Maybe it is. And when, on those rare occasions, we can get together because somehow, somewhere money has become available to meet.. well then we sure make use of that time and share in a way that is meaningful to us.