Home is where her heart is

2011-02-05 12:00

Home is where her heart is ...or where she chooses to put down her suitcase. Gail Smith speaks to German-Kenyan publisher, journalist and translator Judith Reker.

I first came to South Africa on ­holiday in 2007. I had just left the Democratic Republic of the Congo a few months earlier, where I had been covering the historic elections there.

I was extremely exhausted and wanted to have a holiday in a big African city that offered me choices of places to go.

I wanted an urban experience somewhere in Africa, so I came to Johannesburg.

I speak English, French and German well, and I studied Arabic a long time ago but I do not have enough occasions to speak it. And I speak some Kiswahili.

I work as a freelance journalist for German and Swiss publications looking for stories on Africa. One of the first pieces I did in SA was a profile of Oscar Pistorius for a Swiss magazine.

I’ve also written on carbon emissions in Botswana for a German magazine and did a profile of Lagos for a Swiss weekly paper.

In 2010 I was approached by Indra Wussow, editor at Wunderhorn publishers, which publishes an African literature series in German, about the possibility of translating The Quiet Violence of Dreams.

I jumped at the opportunity because the novel is a milestone in SA literature. K Sello Duiker was a master at writing dialogue and it’s a brilliant novel that deals with so many issues relevant to SA today.

I travel a lot, and so does my co-publisher, and one day we were speaking about the endless possibilities for miscommunication when using hand gestures in different countries.

That is how the idea for Don’t Get me Wrong came about and we thought it was an interesting topic and started collecting the material that eventually became the book.
My enthusiasm for SA became dampened in 2008 during the big xenophobic outbreaks. I reported from Alexandra township at the time and it was horrific to see the complete intolerance and ­hatred for people from other African countries.

I am a freelance writer and my clients are in Germany and Switzerland, so I don’t have first-hand experience of SA newsrooms. I travel a lot on the continent and South Africa is a fantastic base because I can get to other countries quickly.

I haven’t found it difficult to work here. The people I approach to interview are usually quite open, which makes life much easier than when they are closed and paranoid like in some countries.

But getting statements from the police and government officials is a nightmare, South African institutions are not very accommodating of journalists.

The hardest thing about being a journalist here is feeling like you’re running against a wall when you have a deadline looming.

Trying to get a simple piece of information from a government institution means being on hold on the telephone for a long time, and often being told that the person you want to speak to is in a workshop.

I sometimes wonder if whole government departments are in workshops. And when you finally get hold of someone, they say they have to consult their superiors and will call you back. And they never do.

The biggest difference between working here compared to Kenya and the DRC, where I worked before, is reliable internet, which I need to function as a journalist and publisher.

In Kenya I had to have a back-up system in order to meet deadlines and not find myself cut off from the internet.

Living here, I feel like I’m right in the middle of a historic moment. I’m always amazed when people say apartheid ended 17 years ago and there shouldn’t be any more problems. It takes much longer for a society to transform.

I grew up in Germany and it still struggles with the legacy of the Nazi era, and that was 70 years ago. In South Africa ­history and historical processes are palpable and you can feel the country evolving, which I find very exciting.
I call no country ‘home’. I don’t have an emphatic sense of home. Home is where the heart is; it’s banal, I know, but home is where I choose to put down my suitcase.
If I could take a South African anywhere I’d take them to another African country, because there is so little interest here in the rest of the continent.

South Africans are inward-looking and have a sense that they are the centre of the universe, and if they do look elsewhere, then they skip over Africa and look to Europe, America and, lately, to the Bric countries.

The food I miss the most is German bread. It seems the rest of the world does not know how to make bread. We have a variety of breads; its not the soft, white, flabby bread you buy here. You can eat a loaf and not get full.

I have problems being proud of a country. It has to do with growing up in Germany and the history of the holocaust. Lots of Germans of my generation are not able to say they are proud of Germany. It’s not that we are not allowed to, it’s just difficult.

So the concept of being proud of a country doesn’t work for me. I am proud of the achievements of individuals and of groups, but not of a country.

The media and civil society give me the most hope for SA. I listen to shows like Jon Perlman on Kaya FM and am delighted by the fact that everyone is encouraged to engage in discussions on the issues of the day.

I am encouraged by the readiness of South Africans to stand up for a better society.

Yes, South Africans are quite hard to befriend.
I interact a lot with South Africans on a superficial level, but I wouldn’t call them my friends. I have only one South African in my circle of real friends. It’s easier to hang out with people than it is to forge real friendships.

The food I just don’t get is entrails. Tripe just does not work for me. As far as I’m concerned, tripe should stay where it was originally.

The rudest thing a South African has ever said to me
was while I was trying to park. A guy in a big, flashy car who had to stop for two seconds while I parked, leaned across his girlfriend to scream at me and call me a “f**king c*nt”.

I’ve not experienced xenophobia personally here. I have experienced it in Germany, in France, and in Egypt, where I lived for a year.

But in 2008 I reported on the xenophobic attacks
and people told me how many Zimbabweans they had beaten up, and what they would do if they came back.

South Africans still have a completely false perception of why people come here, and how many foreign Africans there really are in SA.

People have this isolationist idea that if only other Africans weren’t here, everything would be fine. That is ahistorical and ignorant.

The thing that infuriates me about SA is the way that drivers treat pedestrians like they are nothing. You see old ladies and women with children forced to run across intersections because drivers think they are the masters of the universe. In Europe, if you don’t stop for a pedestrian they will smash your car. Drivers there have been educated to respect pedestrians.

I’d tell anyone thinking of moving here to come on holiday first, to talk to as many people as possible and not be like expats who live in ivory towers.

Who is Judith Reker
» Judith Reker is a German-Kenyan publisher, journalist and translator who was born in ­Munich in 1967.
» She studied Arabic and Hebrew at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and has an MA in history – also from London University.
» A former political editor at MARE magazine in Germany, she quit her job in 2004 to work as a freelance journalist in Kenya, where her father was born.
» Last year she translated K Sello Duiker’s groundbreaking novel, The Quiet Violence of Dreams, into German, and

also self-published a handbook of global hand gestures called Don’t Get me Wrong!, which became a bestseller in Germany and Switzerland.
» Following the phenomenal success of the book, she is currently developing an app for iPhones on global hand gestures.

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