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Aaniyah joined Advaya and me on A Journey Home. The Beach Co-op grew out of cleaning up Surfer's Corner, Muizenberg, Cape Town, inspiring us all in loving the sea. Intersectionality, feminine ways and a long walk ahead: Cape Point to Hangklip. She’s that kind of woman.

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AANIYAH OMARDIEN


Intersectional environmentalist
Cape Town, South Africa

 

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Portrayal

The legacy of environmentalism and conservation is tainted in South Africa and the world over. This is largely because of the way in which conservation methods and approaches have stemmed from colonial and patriarchal legacies. Nature is conserved and fenced off and people are removed and fenced out. People practising conservation measures in this way are predominantly white, and so conservation and protecting animals, plants and nature gets tagged as a ‘white thing’. WWF South Africa, my previous employer for ten years, was originally founded by Anton Rupert who also founded Distell. Distell is a massive alcoholic brand conglomerate and in addition to this he founded a tobacco company which is known today as the British American Tobacco company. Tobacco and alcohol – the latter in particular – have historically been used as part of the notorious ‘dop system’ on South African farms, particularly in the Western Cape. Farm workers would receive some of their remuneration in the form of a daily measure of cheap wine. This practice caused and exacerbated alcoholism among farm workers, which resulted in widespread social damage among communities, particularly the Cape Coloured community. This was an intentional practice to compound the injustices and inequalities of the apartheid system. A further twist is that the profits made off the ‘dop’ system supported and funded conservation work in South Africa.

 

This historical legacy and narrative that conservation holds today is what needs to change.  Even though I strongly disagree with Minister Gwede Mantashe’s statement that environmental activism is “apartheid and colonialism of a special type”, it is no surprise that he refers to environmentalism in this way given our South African history and the association of privilege and power with conservation at the expense of people of colour. Mantashe is National Chairperson of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy. The ANC is South Africa’s largest political party, the party that Nelson Mandela led in the mid 1990’s and that steered us away from the apartheid regime that segregated people by colour. One of my strongest memories is my dad taking us to the Grand Parade in Cape Town to celebrate Mandela’s release and to listen to him address the nation. I remember feeling nervous, butterflies doing flick flacks in my tummy as we walked towards the Parade, a mass of people heaving with joy. And yet there was an uncertainty and awkwardness about not being at school and what my white friends would make of this, much like when we stayed home to mourn the assassination of Chris Hani some years later. Our lives as we live it today, and particularly our generation of people of colour, need to embrace the pain we endured and suffered during apartheid and also move through it into the joy of being freed. This is not something my parents were able to do and we are the first generation to experience this true sense of becoming. However, we are still navigating and trying to find who we are in the world and what we bring, after so much has been silenced and removed from us.  

 

My journey as a person of colour who pursued a career in conservation is part of this story too. I was drawn to the co-management models of conservation and this was the focus of my master’s research. Even though the models called for a co-management style of engaging with indigenous communities and conservation managers to share and understand how we manage our resources collectively, the top-down conservation management manner was hard to move away from. This is linked to our South African history and our apartheid legacy of categorising people by colour and creating opportunities, privilege, access and power for people according to the colour of their skin, where white people were the main beneficiaries of all of the above. They were and are therefore in positions of power and able to make decisions regarding management of resources based on their scientific knowledge, priorities and intentions, with little regard for the indigenous knowledge from local communities who lived and continue to live in community with the land and sea. 

 

Sadly, I fell victim to this trap and even though my parents were the first transgressors in my life, by taking us to spaces and places that were predominantly occupied by white people (even though we were often not allowed there by law), I aspired to being white. The reasons for this are many, and I am still unpacking them now, but being surrounded by white people mostly made me want to fit in and feel like I belong and this was the beginning of my assimilation. Examples of this include how I changed the way I speak, hiding my Muslim heritage and not explaining why I was absent from school when Chris Hani was murdered. I am trying to understand this process of assimilation now in my forties and it is becoming very clear to me that diversity is key and that assimilation is not. My dad once told us that our school friends – he meant our white friends – were only friends with us because we were white enough for them. In other words, what he meant was that we were acceptable enough as persons of colour because of how we were aspiring to be like them.

 

My connection to nature runs deep, from when I was a little girl, I longed to live with an Inuit tribe! My fascination with living in an igloo still exists today and the rituals and traditions of living in community is something I feel very strongly about; and it is what I try to practise in how I live with all beings in my life through relationships of reciprocity and care. My parents played a crucial role in my life through their care and love for their three daughters, constantly aspiring to provide for us what they were denied as persons of colour in decades past. They nurtured my love for the outdoors and when Mandela was released and schools became accessible for all races, my sisters and I were among the first people of colour to attend Model C schools. In 1990, my first year of high school, I was one of five people of colour to attend Wynberg Girls High School. This environment played a key role in my assimilation years, yet it was also a door to many outdoor hiking experiences – Cederberg, Greyton to McGregor, Kalk Bay caves and so many other beautiful adventures in our Cape Fold Mountains. My geography teacher, Mrs Wilding, was instrumental in encouraging my love and connection with nature. She urged me to apply to the Wilderness Leadership School to train as a guide, and this opportunity connected me deeply to our natural environment and the reciprocity of giving and receiving with others. I became a guide for the Pride of Table Mountain programme and guided youth from the Cape Flats up Table Mountain. I recall this process and the awkwardness of being a person of colour and guiding youth on walks, of sensing that they knew I am more privileged than they are – I attended a white school, I lived in Wynberg considered a wealthier suburb than what most people of colour could afford and I spoke with a white accent. The most challenging experience was asking a group of youth to not play their music off their boom box as we walked along the path that led us up to Table Mountain. Then, the assimilating Aaniyah, had zero tolerance and presumed that playing music loudly in a sacred space meant that the youth from the Flats who didn’t care  or have respect for the environment. Today I have a deeper understanding for the context and history of our country and my privilege as a person of colour, and my response to the youth would be one of compassion and love. 

 

My dad dreamt of studying at university but this could not be a reality for him because of our apartheid legacy. He sits with this bitterness and resentment today, even though he created the opportunity for my sisters and myself, yet making it very clear that we find ways to cover the costs for our tertiary education ourselves. It’s no surprise that he encouraged me to study Environmental and Geographic Science and this brings us back to my interest in co-management as a practice that considers what is good for the people and what is good for the planet. 

 

For my parents, and I feel it most strongly from my Papa, this balance between showing us the world and the opportunities we have but remembering who we are as Muslims has been very close to their hearts. The madressah we attended on a Saturday morning was very strict and regimental. Having had a week of school, the last thing you felt like doing was going to madressah on a Saturday morning. We would practise reading a few pages of the Quraan every evening of the week after Magrieb that Imam Naeim had marked off for us. We would drive from Wynberg all the way to upper Woodstock with big eyes and anticipation, transformed into iconic little Muslim girls. Wearing our white scarfs folded into neat triangles and tied with a simple knot at the napes of our necks with matching salaah tops. We would file into a dimly lit semi-detached home and greet Aunty Nuruh, the Imam’s wife, who was usually in the kitchen preparing something before entering the room which had been cleared of furniture bar a desk and three chairs at the front of the room. Girls would sit on the floor on the right side of the room in neat rows and boys on the left. We would nervously wait our turn and silently practicing our verses, which we would recite out loudly once we were called to the desk for our turn.  The Imam sat behind the desk with two students on either side of him listening attentively as they recited. If we mispronounced any of the letters whilst reciting, he would rap you over the knuckles with his bamboo cane. The nervous tension and pain of it all ensured that we would practice reciting every day of the week to avoid being struck with the cane. Even today my parents remind us of the power of prayer and they encourage us to pray five times a day. I sense that my Papa is disappointed that none of his daughters wears a scarf more regularly as an outward symbol of Muslim piety.

 

The years at the University of Cape Town were strong years of assimilation for me – again I found myself in spaces predominantly occupied by white people – and this continued when I started working at WWF South Africa in 2001. In both instances I found it hard to speak up and out on certain issues or the way conservation was practised because I was in the minority and it was easier to conform and agree with the status quo. The assimilation process continued into the establishment of The Beach Co-op (TBCO) and our early focus on plastics as the problem, without engaging with the fact that the plastic problem is in fact a by-product of colonialism. The work of Max Liboiron from the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR) has helped me understand and vocalise this. Max writes that CLEAR places land relations as the centre of their knowledge production. They explain that pollution is best understood as the violence of colonial land relations rather than environmental damage, which is a symptom of violence. In other words, colonial land relations assume access by settler and colonial projects to indigenous lands for settler and colonial goals. This is the very reason why I contest Mantashe’s statement at the opening of this piece. Shell is a Dutch-owned company and given our history with Dutch colonisers arriving at the Cape, invading, land grabbing and removing indigenous people. It is clear that the “investment and job creation” outcomes for Shell are insignificant benefits for South Africa’s land and ocean relations, in comparison to the impact their oil exploration would have on our people, land and ocean environment, plants and animals of our Wild Coast. Furthermore, the treadmill of industrial and capitalist production is always in need of more land to contain its pollution. The fact that the interdict to stop Shell was successful, based in part on evidence that our oceans are a sacred site where indigenous people’s ancestors reside, is a massive step towards an anti-colonial environmental practice. 

 

This earlier colonialist approach by TBCO was confirmed and became evident when a person of colour working in the conservation space discovered that I was the founder of TBCO. She was under the impression that the founder was white. When she met me, she was flabbergasted to find that I was a person of colour. What this reveals for me is that most of the people attending and volunteering their time at cleanups are white. They have the deepest connection to our ocean space because of having access and the privilege to own equipment that created better experiences and activities at and with the ocean, for example surfing and snorkelling. In my case, my parents transgressed by taking us to places that mostly white people frequented and provided opportunities for us that most people of colour did not have. This sense of belonging and confidence in the marine space which is what I bring, is perhaps what she was sensing and how she came to her conclusion that the founder of TBCO must be white. 

 

We (my colleagues, participants and volunteers) had been facilitating and hosting beach cleanups for six years along our South African coastline, mainly on beaches close to our major coastal cities. This project arose from a need to give back to my local beach at Surfer’s Corner, Muizenberg, that continues to bring me joy because it is where I spend time surfing, picnicking and playing with my family – making sandcastles, jumping over waves and swimming. TBCO, although focusing on plastic pollution initially, uses a citizen science methodology which encourages citizens to participate and engage with a scientific method to capture data regarding our waste. This approach disrupts the notion that science is for scientists alone and makes room for all of us to participate. However, it was only at a cleanup in September 2019 at New Brighton beach in Gqeberha (then called Port Elizabeth) that a crucial turning point was met alongside the beginnings of understanding land and access in relation to our focus on plastic pollution. The life guard on duty approached us and was extremely grateful that we had come to clean the beach because it never receives attention and care from the City. He went on to say that he was particularly impressed that “people like us” were doing the cleaning. I only realised after busloads of people of colour arrived to enjoy the beach that by saying “people like us” he meant people of colour. This experience at a beach that is visited by people of colour and was designated to them since the Group Areas Act (GAA) was the start of our journey at TBCO in recognising that it matters which beaches we clean. A place is often linked to a specific community. Our focus began shifting away from plastics as the problem and instead we are moving towards building communities that care for our marine environment. We have been working with graffiti artists, poets, dancers, indigenous and community leaders to create and build a stronger connection to the conservation work we do. Furthermore, we want to learn and listen to and with all communities, to understand different ways and meanings of caring – trying to understand who is in a position to care is relevant here too. 

 

A key beacon in reclaiming who I am as a person of colour occurred as recently as January 2020. This reclamation arose after an intense misunderstanding with one of my closest friends whilst camping away at Beaverlac. It was the beginning of me trying to voice my feelings around race and racism, something I had chosen to avoid and ignore for most of my life through my assimilation practice. I had finally made the decision that avoiding issues of racism was a choice and a choice I no longer wanted to make. I had decided to move away from assimilating - to stop trying to be something other than myself. I felt that I was in a safe space to share my feelings but in retrospect I learnt that talking about racism stirs deep issues and, in this case, it raised misunderstandings of identity and race. It is not a conversation to be had lightly, without setting boundaries and creating a safe space to be vulnerable. Very quickly the dynamics changed and there were misunderstandings which caused rifts that have taken time to heal; and the time was essential for the healing, learning and growth. In some ways I think it may have even been safer to first talk about it with people of colour only. Later that year we moved into the Black Lives Matter movement followed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Needless to say, it was quite a year!

 

The Beach Co-op emerged slowly from the strict lock down regulation and the closed beaches in 2020. We were more careful about opening our cleanups to the public and encouraged participants to register their attendance and in so doing we gained better understanding and control of the number of people that were attending - we could keep our numbers low because of Covid-19 protocols. I recall hosting our first cleanup after the beach closures in July 2020 as part of our Plastic Free July campaign and the excitement amongst the participants to be at an event and to be with other people for the first time was palpable. There was much chattering and catching up as we all emerged from our cocoons. We observed that hosting cleanups with a limited number of people made it more of an engaging event. We knew most of the people attending and if there were individuals we didn’t yet know we would make a conscious effort to get to know them while cleaning up the beach together. The essence of our cleanups goes beyond removing litter from the beach, it includes the relationships and conversations we have with participants and what we learn from each other and how we can work collaboratively to improve the health of our marine environment. Our team decided that we would continue working in this way, making space for these engagements and interactions with our participants. At the time, this was also of interest to me as I began thinking about my PhD research and how the cleanup events and the qualitative data from our work could be documented and included. 

 

A cleanup in 2020 at Harmony Park tidal pool in Gordon’s Bay surfaced and further confirmed the links between land, access, apartheid and how social justice issues define environmental concerns. My mother attended this cleanup with me, her first cleanup with The Beach Co-op. The reason I invited her was because she grew up living close to the coast at Strand, and Harmony Park tidal pool borders Strand and Gordon’s Bay along the False Bay coastline. We overnighted at her friend Jennifer’s place and I left earlier than them to set up and prepare for volunteers who were arriving to cleanup with us. I am relieved that Jennifer was with my mom when they arrived because my mom describes being completely grief stricken on her arrival, to the point that she could not move her legs and get out of the car. It took her more than thirty minutes to gather herself and attend the cleanup. As she told me about her inability to move out of the car, I became very concerned because my mom has various health concerns from cardio issues to diabetes and an overactive thyroid, and my fears jumped to all of these health restrictions as a result of her not being able to walk. She went on to explain that she had been completely overwhelmed on arrival because this particular beach was designated to people of colour in terms of the Group Areas Act. When this beach was designated to people of colour there was no tidal pool and the jagged rocky shore with rip currents made for a treacherous, un-safe beach which Bassier (her brother) never allowed her to visit. Bassier made it clear that they were forbidden to visit Harmony Park even though it was the only beach they were allowed to attend once the GAA was formalised.  My mom was flooded by all these emotions and became overwhelmed, remembering all their good times with friends braaing, swimming, making music and then having all of that taken away from them and only being allowed to spend time at a designated beach area that was the least attractive, and most dangerous place along the coastline. 

 

The journey with my mom and her attendance at this particular cleanup and what it exposed is significant to my story. It confirms that my role in the world is not only to help facilitate environmental sustainability but to address the human and social justice issues which are intrinsically linked to sustainability and conservation. My mom revealed stories that she had not shared with me before, related to arrests and overcoming her anxiety around not being allowed access to areas she had previously had access too. 

 

2021 was a full year of registering for my PhD, managing the work at The Beach Co-op, participating in the Reflective Social Practice course, being selected and participating in a course for Women for the Environment in Africa, navigating how we live through a pandemic, being a mother to three young boys, a wife (to a husband who has survived two kidney transplants), a daughter and a daughter in law to a recently widowed mother in law.  And I wouldn’t change anything because I’m realising more and more that all of these facets make up the whole and it is all of these facets that keep me alive and that teach me to be a better version of myself constantly. 

 

The process of reclaiming myself as well as the conservation work that I have been involved with and have led has been an emergence and nurturing experience of arriving home. The reclaiming process lives in relationship with my assimilation process. I live in spaces where on the one hand, I feel like I belong because I am with my people and my community that look like me, and on the other hand, I live in spaces where I feel I am in the minority because I am the token person of colour. I am only now beginning to feel comfortable enough to be my true, authentic self rather than assimilating so that I fit in, belong, and avoid conflict. I have a deep connection and empathy for Krotoa (Eva) through understanding and making sense of my journey as a woman of colour in the world right now, and yet I sense that she had similar feelings then. She was a Khoi woman who worked as a domestic servant in the Van Riebeeck house and as translator for the Dutch authorities. Her marriage was the first recorded union between a ‘native’ and a ‘settler’. In the 1650s Krotoa was the only figure possessing an intimate knowledge of both Khoikhoi and Dutch culture; as she passed back and forth between one society and the other, she exchanged her Dutch clothing for Khoikhoi skins, and vice versa. However, her work as an interpreter was not easy, as she was torn between her loyalty to the Dutch and her own people (whose land was being taken over by the Dutch in the late 1650s). Due to this dilemma, Krotoa often struggled to maintain trust on both sides. She was eventually banished to Robben Island and died there.  I hold feelings of both despair and comfort for her life and what she must have experienced and what we as people of colour continue to experience today. 

 

My response to being confronted by racist situations that trigger me, does not come from a place of anger; yet I don’t judge those who are bitter and angry. All of our responses are valid and white people who have had the privilege, power and access are on the receiving end of our post-apartheid lives that remain steeped in colonial ways that favour white people. My response to racism is to pause and be silent, creating an almost uncomfortable silence, and then to respond with a question to the person who has made the racist comment. My intension for responding in this way is so that the individual who raised the racist comment reveals and realises their own racism. 

 

A recent holiday that my family and I enjoyed at Koensrust guest farm highlights this and I chose to write about it by sharing some pictures with text on Instagram. I expressed the feelings of both joy and discomfort – joy for being able to share this space with my family for four days without seeing another soul. I connected to the land and sea – the fish traps were built by our Khoi San ancestors many years ago and I felt their presence as I foraged for alikruek to make frikkadel with dhal and rice. When we spoke of the Blombos cave a few kilometres away and how this area was home to some of our ancestors, middle son Kahlil asked the inevitable question – Where are they now Mama? The email communication I received took pains to assure us that we shouldn’t feel unsafe at night, and sleeping with the doors open should not be a problem as the farm workers don’t live on the farm. The taste of discomfort from the email was hard to swallow, and I chose not to respond to the email and instead wrote a post on Instagram to share my feelings with a broader audience. I am learning that through sharing stories, remembering and connecting to the land and sea we are mending, healing and slowly changing the narrative. There were many responses to what I had written mostly acknowledging the nuances and injustices and thanking me for sharing. One particular comment struck me though, a white woman who seemed to miss the point by commenting on what a great advert my post was for the guest farm. I politely agreed with her but reiterated that it certainly comes with its nuances and redirecting her to read the post. 

 

The slow scholarship of my PhD research and the Reflective Social Practice has aided this process of pausing and questioning through understanding how we remain present and aware by observing with all of our senses. It encompasses a transdisciplinary approach that moves away from categorising and holding scientific knowledge over and above any other form of knowledge making. Liboiron reiterates this by saying “citing the knowledges of Black, Indigenous, POC, women, LGBTQAI+, and young thinkers is one small part of an anticolonial methodology that refuses to reproduce the myth that knowledge, and particularly science, is the domain of pale, male, and stale gatekeepers” (Liboiron 2021: viii). 

 

For me slowness is the practice of not necessarily moving slowly or as a form of resistance but returning again and again, about persisting in the slow movement and through this revealing what is coming into being – much like the RSP  the slow and care-full scholar seeks to create spaces for care and caring relationships amidst the demands of the neoliberal university that tends to devalue such relations and practices. The slow and care-full scholar advocates for engaging deeply and care-fully with texts and her research and co-creating with communities, taking time to think, consider, critique, and create.

 

The practice of both slow scholarship and Reflective Social Practice is an embodied approach. The eurythmy exercises we practised in our third and fourth module of the course demonstrated this physically through observing how the inner self-awareness as well as the outer awareness both play roles in creating the whole. It is an embodied enactment of how we move through the world and in this moment as I type this, I feel the presence of the practice so strongly. For each interaction with another being I feel the need to pause, to reflect inwards and outwards, to observe using all my senses and only then to respond. Through doing the movement exercises it became clear to me that only focusing on the forward motion and the outcomes would not encourage the fullest potential of the situation to emerge and that being centred and aware of the past, and what is behind you, will help lead you forward. 

 

As more time passes, I have come to realise that my parents protected and sheltered me and my sisters from the inequalities and racism which they encountered in their lives. They protected us from feeling othered, from feeling unworthy because of the colour of our brown skin. I realised that by them protecting me I was able to confidently find my place in the world, even if the places I found myself in were predominantly occupied by white people. I’ve always felt that it is my right – like everyone else’s – to have access to a clean, healthy environment. Spending time in nature has always made me feel whole; be it hiking in the mountains or swimming in the ocean. It is what led me to study geography and sciences, but I have always struggled with being tagged as an environmentalist because it does not capture the social justice and human rights issues that I feel are mostly side-lined in traditional conservation and environmental practices. I have finally found my voice in feeling this discomfort and am becoming braver at acknowledging and naming it. 

 

What has become apparent is that for the longest time I have chosen to ignore that the tone of your skin colour matters because my parents sheltered me from being othered because of my skin colour. I have come to realise that representation and skin colour does matter and that having a brown skin, and having lived a more privileged life than most other brown skinned people, comes with a responsibility and duty to reach and give voice to marginalised groups of people.  

 

It is my life’s work to create opportunities and accessibility for all people to experience the beauty of our marine environment, to value it and to protect it.

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