Not sorry at all—Review of “Sorry, not Sorry” by Haji Dawjee

Some papers are in the review pipeline for longer than they ought to be and the travel-part of conference attendance is a good opportunity to read books. So, instead of writing more about research, here’s a blogpost with a book review instead, being Sorry, not sorry—Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa by South African journalist Haji Mohamed Dawjee. It’s one of those books I bought out of curiosity, as the main title intrigued me on two aspects. First, it contradicts—if you’re not sorry, then don’t apologise for not doing so. Second, the subtitle, as it can be useful to read what people who don’t get much media coverage have to say. It turned out to have been published only last month, so let me break with the usual pattern and write a review now rather than wait until the usual January installments

The book contains 20 essays of Dawjee’s experiences broadly and with many specific events, and reflections thereof, on growing up and working in South Africa. Depending on your background, you’ll find more or less recognisable points in it, or perhaps none at all and you’ll just eat the whole spiced dish served, but if you’re a woke South African white or think of yourself as a do-gooder white, you probably won’t like certain sections of it. As it is not my intention to write a very long review, I’ve picked a few essays to comment on, but there’s no clear single favourite among the essays. There are two essays that I think the book could have done without, but well, I suppose the author is asserting something with it that has something to do with the first essay and that I’m just missing the point. That first essay is entitled ‘We don’t really write what we like’ and relates back to Biko’s statement and essay collection I write what I like, not the Writing what we like essay collection of 2016. It describes the media landscape, the difficulties of people of colour to get published, and that their articles are always expected to have some relevance and insight—“having to be on the frontlines of critical thinking”—rather than some drivel that white guys can get away with, as “We too have nice experiences. We think about things and dream and have magic in us. We have fuzzy fables to share.”. Dawjee doesn’t consider such airy fairy stories by the white guys to be brave, but exhibiting opportunity an privilege, and she wants to have that opportunity and privilege, too. This book, however, is mainly of the not-drivel and making-a-point sort of writing rather than flowery language devoid of a message.

For instance, what it was like from the journalism side when Mandela died, and the magazine she was working for changing her story describing a successful black guy into one “more Tsotsi-like”, because “[t]he obvious reason for the editorial manipulation was that no-one wanted a story of a good black kid. Only white kids are intrinsically exceptional.” (discussed in the essay ‘The curious case of the old white architect’). Several essays describe unpleasant behind-the-scenes experiences in journalism, such as at YOU magazine, and provide a context to her article Maid in South Africa that had as blurb “White people can walk their dogs, but not their children”, which apparently had turned out to cause a shitstorm on social media. There was an opinion-piece response by one of Dawjee’s colleagues, “coming to my ‘rescue’” and who “needed to whitesplain my thoughts and sanitise them with her ‘wokeness’” (p190). It’s a prelude to finishing off with a high note (more about that further below), and illustrates one of the recurring topics—the major irritation with the do-gooders, woke whites, the ones who put themselves in the ‘good whites’ box and ‘liberal left’, but who nonetheless still contribute to systemic racism. This relates to Biko’s essay on the problems with white liberals and similar essays in his I write what I like, there described as category, and in Dawjee’s book illustrated with multiple examples.

 

In an essay quite different in style, ‘Why I’m down with Downtown Abbey’ (the TV series), Dawjee revels in the joys of seeing white servants doing the scurrying around, cooking, cleaning etc for the rich. On the one hand, knowing a little of South African society by now, understandable. On the other hand, it leaves me wondering just how much messed up the media is that people here still (this is not the first or second time I came across this topic) seem to think that up in Europe most or all families also have maids and gardeners. They don’t. As one Irish placard had put it, “clean up your own shite” is the standard, as is DIY gardening and cooking. Those chores, or joys, are done by the women, children, and men of the nuclear family, not hired helps.

Related to that latter point—who’s doing the chores—two essays have to do with feminism and Islam. The essay title ‘And how the women of Islam did slay’ speaks for itself. And, yes, as Dawjee says, it cannot be repeated often enough that there were strong, successful, and intelligent women at the bedrock of Islam and women actually do have rights (unlike under Christianity); in case you want some references on women’s rights under Islam, have a look at the essay I wrote a while a go about it. ‘My mother, the true radical’ touches upon notions of feminism and who gets to decide who is feminist when and in what way.

 

I do not quite agree with Dawjee’s conclusion drawn from her Tinder experiences in ‘Tinder is a pocket full of rejection, in two parts’. On p129 she writes “Tinder in South Africa is nothing but fertile ground for race-based rejection.”. If it were a straightforward case of just race-based swiping, then, statistically, I should have had lots of matches with SA white guys, as I surely look white with my pale skin, blue eyes, and dark blonde hair (that I ended up in the 0.6% ‘other’ box in the SA census in 2011 is a separate story). But, nada. In my 1.5 years of Tinder experiment in Cape Town, I never ever got a match with a white guy from SA either, but plenty of matches with blacks, broad and narrow. I still hypothesise that the lack of matches with the white guys is because I list my employer, which scares away men who do not like women who’ve enjoyed some higher education, as it has scared away countless men in several other countries as well. Having educated oneself out of the marriage market, it is also called. There’s a realistic chance that a majority of those South African whites that swiped left on Dawjee are racist, but, sadly, their distorted views on humanity include insecurities on more than one front, and I’m willing to bet that Dawjee having an honours degree under her belt will have contributed to it. That said, two anecdotes doesn’t make data, and an OKCupid-type of analysis like Rudder’s Dataclysm (review) but then of Tinder data would be interesting so as to get to the bottom of that.

 

The two, imho, skippable essays are “Joining a cult is a terrible idea” (duh) and “Depression: A journal”. I’m not into too personal revelations, and would have preferred a general analysis on how society deals, or not, with mental illness, or, if something more concrete, to relate it to, say, the Life Esidimeni case from whichever angle.

 

Meandering around through the various serious subtopics and digressions, as a whole, the essays combine into chronicling the road taken by Dawjee to decolonise her mind, culminating in a fine series of statements in the last part of the last essay. She is not sorry for refusing to be a doormat, saying so, and the consequences that that will have for those who perpetuate and benefit from systemic racism, and she now lives from a position of strength rather than struggling and doubting as a receiver of it.

 

Overall, it was an interesting book and worthwhile to have read. The writing style is very accessible, so one can read the whole book in a day or so. In case you are still unsure whether you want to read it or not: there are free book extracts of ‘We don’t really write what we like’, ‘Begging to be white?’, and ‘And how the women of Islam did slay’ and, at the time of writing this blog post, one written review on News24 and Eusebius McKaiser’s Radio 702 interview with Dawjee (both also positive about the book).

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‘Problem shopping’ and networking at IST-Africa’18 in Gaborone

There are several local and regional conferences in (Sub-Saharan) Africa with a focus on Africa in one way or another, be it for, say, computer science and information systems in (mainly) South Africa, computer networks in Africa, or for (computer) engineers. The IST-Africa series covers a broad set of topics and papers must explicitly state how and where all that research output is good for within an African context, hence, with a considerable proportion of the scope within the ICT for Development sphere. I had heard from colleagues it was a good networking opportunity, one of my students had obtained some publishable results during her CS honours project that could be whipped into paper-shape [1], I hadn’t been to Botswana before, and I’m on sabbatical so have some time. To make a long story short: the conference just finished, and I’ll write a bit about the experiences in the remainder of this post.

First, regarding the title of the post: I’m not quite an ICT4D researcher, but I do prefer to work on computer science problems that are based on actual problems that don’t have a solution yet, rather than invented toy examples. A multitude of papers presented at the conference were elaborate on problem specification, like them having gone out in the field and done the contextual inquiries, attitude surveys, and the like so as to better understand the multifaceted problems themselves before working toward a solution that will actually work (cf. the white elephants littered around on the continent). So, in a way, the conference also doubled in a ‘problem shopping’ event, though note that many solutions were presented as well. Here’s a brief smorgasbord of them:

  • Obstacles to eLearning in, say, Tanzania: internet access (40% only), lack of support, lack of local digital content, and too few data-driven analyses of experiments [2].
  • Digital content for healthcare students and practitioners in WikiTropica [3], which has the ‘usual’ problems of low resource needs (e.g., a textbook with lots of pictures but has to work on the mobile phone or tablet nonetheless), the last mile, and language. Also: the question of how to get people to participate to develop such resources? That’s still an open question; students of my colleague Hussein Suleman have been trying to figure out how to motivate them. As to the 24 responses by participants to the question “…Which incentive do you need?” the results were: 7 money/devices, 7 recognition, 4 none, 4 humanity/care/usefulness, 1 share & learn, and 1 not sure (my encoding).

    Content collaboration perceptions

    information sharing perceptions

    With respect to practices and attitudes toward information sharing, the answers were not quite encouraging (see thumbnails). Of course, all this is but a snapshot, but still.

  • The workshop on geospatial sciences & land administration had a paper on building a national database infrastructure that wasn’t free of challenges, among others: buying data is costly, available data but no metadata, privacy issues, data collected and cant ask for consent again for repurposing of that data (p16) [4].
  • How to overcome the (perceived to be the main) hurdle of lack of trust in electronic voting in Kenya [5]. In Thiga’s case, they let the students help coding the voting software and kept things ‘offline’ with a local network in the voting room and the server in sight [5]. There were lively comments in the whole session on voting (session 8c), including privacy issues, auditability, whether blockchain could help (yes on auditability and also anonymity, but consumes a lot of [too much?] electricity, according to a Namibian delegate also in attendance), and scaling up to the population or not (probably not for a while, due to digital literacy and access issues, in addition to the trust issue). The research and experiments continue.
  • Headaches of data integration in Buffalo City to get the water billing information system working properly [6]. There are the usual culprits in system integration from the information systems viewpoint (e.g., no buy-in by top management or users) that were held against the case in the city (cf. the CS side of the equation, like noisy data, gaps, vocabulary alignment etc.). Upon further inquiry, specific issues came to the surface, like not reading the water meters for several years and having been paying some guesstimate all the while, and issues that have to do with interaction between paying water (one system) and electricity (another system) cause problems for customers also when they have paid, among others [6]. A framework was proposed, but that hasn’t solved the actual data integration problem.

There were five parallel sessions over the three days (programme), so there are many papers to check out still.

As to networking with people in Africa, it was good especially to meet African ontologists and semantic web enthusiasts, and learn of the Botswana National Productivity Centre (a spellchecker might help, though needing a bit more research for seTswana then), and completely unrelated ending up bringing up the software-based clicker system we developed a few years ago (and still works). The sessions were well-attended—most of us having seen monkeys and beautiful sunsets, done game drives and such—and for many it was a unique opportunity, ranging from lucky postgrads with some funding to professors from the various institutions. A quick scan through the participants list showed that relatively many participants are affiliated with institutions from South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda, but also a few from Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Angola, and Malawi, among others, and a few from outside Africa, such as the USA, Finland, Canada, and Germany. There was also a representative from the EU’s DEVCO and from GEANT (the one behind Eduroam). Last, but not least, not only the Minister of Transport and Communication, Onkokame Kitso, was present at the conference’s opening ceremony, but also the brand new—39 days and counting—President of Botswana, Mokgweetsi Masisi.

No doubt there will be a 14th installment of the conference next year. The paper deadline tends to be in December and extended into January.

 

References

(papers are now only on the USB stick but will appear in IEEE Xplore soon)

[1] Mjaria F, Keet CM. A statistical approach to error correction for isiZulu spellcheckers. IST-Africa 2018.

[2] Mtebe J, Raphael C. A critical review of eLearning Research trends in Tanzania. IST-Africa 2018.

[3] Kennis J. WikiTropica: collaborative knowledge management in the field of tropical medicine and international health. IST-Africa 2018.

[4] Maphanyane J, Nkwae B, Oitsile T, Serame T, Jakoba K. Towards the Building of a Robust National Database Infrastructure (NSDI) Developing Country Needs: Botswana Case Study. IST-Africa 2018.

[5] Thiga M, Chebon V, Kiptoo S, Okumu E, Onyango D. Electronic Voting System for University Student Elections: The Case of Kabarak University, Kenya. IST-Africa 2018.

[6] Naki A, Boucher D, Nzewi O. A Framework to Mitigate Water Billing Information Systems Integration Challenges at Municipalities. IST-Africa 2018.