Connecting local responses around the world
Although AIDS Ride South Africa (ARSA) did not officially form as an organization until October 2008, its story began back in early 2005 when I was a doctoral student. I had been working on a moribund dissertation on the rhetoric of reconciliation non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in South Africa 11 years after the demise of apartheid. The South African ten-year anniversary moments of rainbow-ism = reconciliation of 2004 had come and gone, and I had set out to interview both NGO staff as well as former victims of human rights abuses and violations as part of a project to provide a landscape of organizations with similar foci and reconciliation agenda in their work. The more I began to explore South African reconciliation NGOs’ implementation of reconciliation on the ground, I began to wonder how I might one day contribute to this larger project of national healing.
___ I’ll never forget the interview I had with Duma Kumalo (1958-2006) less than a year before we lost him to a coronary at age 48. Duma, as I would later refer to him fondly in my dissertation and subsequent book Wounded Healers, in which I argue for unfinished reconciliation work in South Africa to merit continued national and international developmental focus, and to prioritize reconciliation’s sustainability in a South Africa that is not entirely post-conflict. Inspiration for the book I believe Duma would have written had he survived long enough to chronicle for himself and the world the atrocities he experienced first hand while wrongfully incarcerated with the other Sharpeville Six political prisoners in what was then apartheid South Africa. My interview with him spilled over into extra innings as after three hours we agreed to continue on another day soon when we would both have more time. We met over Nando’s and cigarettes, and Duma and I became fast friends. I was thrilled when he came to New York for a conference—his first and last visit to the United States—at the end of 2005. It would be the last time I saw my brother in this life as he passed on in February of 2006. Though I have since quit smoking, I’ll always remember Duma and I sharing a fag in my wannabe South African heart’s eye.
___ Duma provided some of the most quotable depths of apartheid’s depravations for my work. We discussed the shortcomings of the ANC government’s reconciliation payments of 30,000 Rand ($5000) being as similarly futile as hoping that a one-off Bush-era tax-cut rebate thingamabob of $300 a few years back would ever elevate anyone out of homelessness or abject poverty in the United States. Duma understood unapologetically what he felt the ANC was starting to forget, and arguably what we in the United States also need frequent reminding: that racism in the United States did not end when Barack Obama was sworn into office, and that the Black elite of South Africa were starting to leave their comrades of the revolution behind. In a post-reconciliation climate he argued, the horse in South Africa was still Black; the rider had simply changed color. For once the 30,000 Rand was spent on school uniforms, a big party, a refrigerator, or a bicycle, the money was gone with little other tangible improvement in people’s lives.
___ Of course we all know that apartheid was the big evil, and no one wants to return to an era where things really didn’t work. Duma’s contribution should be well-noted, however, that even though many people are better off than before, there is still work to be done. What is usually mis-perceived to be a middle-finger in the faces of international development officials by local voices of dissent of dissatisfaction may actually just be a matter of having the balls to remind our elected officials and those whom purport to have our primary interests at heart accountable for shortcomings, however intentional or accidental, in their reconciliation work and duties. Duma was brave enough to remind people of the reconciliation gaps that still remained, reminding us that 30,000 Rand was a gift from the reconciliation government but that it came with a price—sacrificing your hope of a better life, free from both racial AND economic apartheid, for a bicycle. And it is in part Duma’s courage to sardonically articulate that people in South Africa today now have “no hope…AND a bicycle…,” that continues to contagiously inspire AIDS Ride South Africa today.
___ I had always loved cycling. Ever since my parents bought me my first bike at the age of six. It would take me another two years of self- & other-oriented persuading and various cycles of the training wheels being attached, removed, attached, etc. before I would set off on my own, down the scary curve in the road of Seminole Drive, over the hill at Mohawk Place to what would soon become my first lifelong intercultural and interracial friendships with Sue and Demian who have been with me ever since. Bike after bike bookended entire eras of my life. There was the bike I got at my 13th birthday party at which it poured a summer thunderstorm and no one came. My red 12-speed Schwinn was the one that taught me the speed and agility with which I cycled the backroads of the New Jersey shore. That agility failed one-day far in the future at Boston University along the abandoned A-line trolley track (now since removed in part due to all of the bicycle accidents) in 1992 as I pedaled to my fraternity’s pledge & Big Brother paddle ceremony, earning me the nickname, for a time, “Patch.”
___ The year I studied abroad in France, I bought a cycle to commute to the University. Little did I know how important this would be in Grenoble, France where I lived. It seems Grenoble was not immune to the various grèves (strikes) by nearly everything, from the truckers, to the Post Office, to the trains, and finally the tram of Grenoble. I enjoyed this paralyzing aspect of France quite a bit, actually, the way I now enjoy days of deep snow in New York when the city comes to a halt. When I left France at the end of the academic year, I shipped the bike to Helsinki via Eurail and after picking it up, ferried to Estonia and traveled via train through Latvia and Lithuania to Vilnius. Knowing barely ten words of Lithuanian did not deter my wonderful relatives, whom I had never even known existed, find me at the dormitory at which I was staying. Keeping in mind this was before Facebook and cell-phones in 1993 post-Soviet Lithuania, so was pretty remarkable under the circumstances. At the end of my stay, I gave the bike to Mindaugus my distant cousin. Though I have never seen him since I think of my family there often, and imagine them cycling around Lithuania. I wonder how they would react to learn I now have dual citizenship?
___ I have had bikes in other towns: Hiroshima, Japan: a country which has the odd habit of depersonalizing bicycles to the extent that in a hopefully very dubiously zen-like way I borrowed the one I wound up using for three years from my neighbors and I don’t think they minded since it was always returned to the same place. The Japanese understand the beauty of impermanence through the appearance and fading of the sakura (cherry blossom) in the spring. My daily schlepp to Numata High School by bike was an inspiration to both myself and my students, and I learned what it was like to pedal a daily dose of gaman (resilience). When I returned to the United States in 1997 I knew not to take the bike with me. Like those Peruvian mummies that cursed dozens of doctoral students at all of those ivy-league universities, removing a bicycle from Japan actually disturbs the wa (harmony), and is not to be fucked with by gaijin (foreigners) like myself.
___ My first bike in New York was stolen when I chained it to the railing in my building (Dorothy, I don’t think we’re in Japan anymore…). I always wonder if people think I’m bullshitting them when I tell them I live in the building Barack Obama lived in when he attended Columbia University. No bullshit. I live two flights up from where he lived with that random guy in his first apartment back in 1981. While I am still working on tapping into the building’s obvious spiritual nexus, I have learned a few more things about bikes. For example, when you live in a 5th floor walkup, try to avoid purchasing a bike that weighs a ton and a half. Unless you are Mr. T, chances are the weight will dissuade you from biking. This bike, which I grew to hate, was fortunately given away to an ex, who pedaled away. I am now in a relationship with my GIANT OCR1. He’s lightweight, 29 pounds, ALL aluminum, and has had me whizzing down mountainsides from California to Cape Town at up to 45 miles per hour. Oh baby, faster. Three bikes in eleven years must make me sound pretty bikogomous. But I remember my days in Japan, and how bikes come into our lives, and then leave them, and we are often always the better for it.
___ My current bike and I first started dating during May of 2008. With little preparation I became inspired by a friend to cycle the California AIDS Life/Cycle 7 from San Francisco to Los Angeles. With little time and training under my belt due to an extremely long winter, I was nonetheless able to minimally train and fundraise $2500 and jumped on a plane to ride with my friends John and Claire on my first AIDS Ride. The longest I had ever ridden prior to that was 45 miles in a single day. Suddenly we were cycling centuries (100-mile days) day after day in camp-side conditions, and the teamwork and camaraderie I witnessed that June of 2008 were truly inspirational. So much so that it inspired the launch of ARSA the following October. Because you see, I had remembered the promise to an old friend—to not simply be one of those researchers that comes to [South] Africa, gathers my data, and leaves, but to be the one who comes and goes, back and forth, and helps improve the situation he saw there, and using what he learned to educate others in his classroom here. I had a bicycle and a dream, or as Duma said so eloquently: “no hope…AND a bicycle…”
___ Understanding that although there have been strides in both treatment and attitudinal acceptance of those living with HIV and AIDS, the global public unfortunately continues to discriminate against those carrying the virus through exchange of misinformation, viral discrimination surrounding both HIV and AIDS, employment opportunities, and other impediments to both personal and national reconciliation in South Africa. HIV and AIDS remain reconciliation issues because they were largely ignored under the apartheid government, whereby the government felt that HIV and AIDS would help cure what the then government viewed as the Black problem. Today, as marginalized groups worldwide continue to bear the brunt of HIV and AIDS, including but not limited to Blacks, Latinos, LGBT individuals, the poor, the elderly, and so on, failing to make this conceptual leap will continue to hinder HIV and AIDS education and awareness in South Africa, the United States, and elsewhere.
___ With 5.5 million HIV-positive people, South Africa remains as one of the sad epicenters of the HIV and AIDS pandemic (33 million worldwide). With a southern and sunny climate and amazing topography and road network, it is also a cycling paradise. I was inspired by Duma who never gave up hope despite being on death row for seven years before he was released as part of the political settlements of the early 1990s. I was inspired by everyone I met in South Africa who survived to tell me their stories, and the amazing folks in peace-building, conflict resolution, lgbt rights, HIV and AIDS education, and other reconciliation work that I met while in the field. And I realized that I had an ability to contribute to something really important simply by using the knowledge, skills, and experience I already had.
___ Most importantly I’ve come to learn what so many people doing similar kinds of work all over the world already know—that helping others helps ourselves, and that it’s unbeatable when we do it doing something that we coincidentally love. Trust me; I have fallen off of this bike many times. But over the last two years, AIDS Ride South Africa has come together as an international grassroots organization with volunteers and riders coming from around the world to raise money and awareness surrounding HIV and AIDS in South Africa. What I didn’t already know how to do, I asked my friends. If they didn’t know, I learned how to do it from someone who did, or taught myself. I feel like I am still making all of this up as I’m going along, but feel okay for having drunk the Kool-Aid of lifelong learning, an essential ingredient to keep your dream going when things seem hopeless.
___ There have been many false-starts. I’ve come to appreciate the need for attempts both large and small in the name of social justice. As Confucius once said simply to be bastardized by me some day in this story, a journey of a thousand kilometers begins with a single turn of the pedals. Our first ride was in August of 2010, and was a great success and blunder of a tale of both what to do and what not to do on a Johannesburg to Cape Town bike ride. Bike accident causing loose gravel, cold weather, and numerous bush-toilet excursions couldn’t stop our collective determination to pedal 1285 kilometers in 13 days. All along the way we met new friends and partners to ensure our second ride in August 2011 is a success, and will take us to even more communities both infected and affected by HIV and AIDS in South Africa.
___ They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. During our time together, Duma also told me about some of his friends that died in prison. He rationalized the reason he survived and others did not was that so he could tell their story someday to others, and by doing so he would honor his brother’s memory. For those you who never got to meet Duma, I hope I have treated his story as he would have mine. I am sure he knows how important he was to me and the AIDS Ride South Africa project, and that he gave me the courage to say that reconciliation can be better than it is or was and to do something about it. Cycle on brother.
___ AIDS Ride South Africa, No Hope…AND a Bicycle: pedaling a dream on semi-bikogomy, can be found in Syreeta Gates’ ebook (2011) Just BE Cause: http://www.justbecausebook.com