Yesterday morning, I drove out of a chilly Grahamstown with a cup of black coffee in my hand, it had no milk but the aroma of chicory nostalgia wafted sweetly through the car. It was pretty early, the time of day when the sun is facetiously playing peek-a-boo, so the weather forecast remains elusive, yet everything seems possible and the narrow tar road, wide and boundless. The coffee was good, but as I exited the tiny student town I once called home, back to Port Elizabeth, I was distracted by something I’d seen on the side roadside. I found myself swerving unexpectedly, almost spilling my coffee.
What was I looking at? I looked once, I looked twice at what I was convinced were giant; I mean huge, oversized, Jurassic Park-type birds, pecking their breakfast lazily, right there in broad daylight on the side of a narrow Grahamstown road. The third time I looked, this time swerving away from oncoming traffic, and realised with relief and a little childlike disappointment that what I had seen were not cinematic glitches in evolution; they were in fact just a bunch of happy cows grazing their breakfast on the side of a quiet Grahamstown road.
My realisation triggered a wry smile and dialled up ten notches to a hysterical and knowing deep belly laugh. I turned the radio down so I could focus on the road but couldn’t stop laughing. This may all sound pretty absurd to any sane person, but for me, it was a significant moment in my life journey. Besides being pretty darn relieved that I was safe and not really crazy, I revelled in my deep exhalation, realising slowly but surely that my mind had shifted. I was awakening to endless possibilities- the possibility of endlessness. The almost tangible notion of multiple stories and realities playing out in my tiny lifetime, the creative dash on my tombstone was extending its reach. My own brand of creative intellectualism was at my fingertips, I was looking at it, right there grazing at the roadside.
I wasn’t crazy, I was disembodied. So I gathered my thoughts, smiled and held firmly to the steering wheel, careful not to exceed the speed limit and ruin a perfectly good morning with spilt coffee.
I’m a Development Communications specialist who loves writing expressive poetry. An averagely good student that doodled a lot in class. I can spend hours ruminating and sifting through quirky ideas, thoughts, and concepts in a serious and sombre meeting with middle-aged men with receding hairlines. I’m a dreamer who wears dresses but has both converse feet firmly on the ground and 3 years ago I registered for a PhD at Rhodes University with Professor Anthea German as my supervisor. I took a break this year to collect data through video interviews that will ultimately become a documentary for a development agency, but part of me also knows that I took a break because though the creative stuff comes easy, the idea of academic writing scares me shitless. So when Professor Garman sent me an email requesting my presence at her inaugural lecture, “Confessions and Professions of an Accidental Academic”, I knew I had to go.
The first time I met Anthea Garman was in 2014 when I moved to Grahamstown to manage a small NGO based at the Rhodes School of Journalism and Media Studies where she serves as Deputy Head. It was only my second job ever, and an Executive level position—a fancy way of saying, you do the work of ten people in half the time. I took the job and moved to the tiny, yet highly political town of Grahamstown, now known as Makhanda. For me, Makhanda was a student town with adult aspirations. Everything was possible and nothing plausible, everything was hyper, the politics—race, gender, class, education. These were topics that were constantly dissected and discussed, not just in lecture halls, but over coffee, a glass of red wine or at the numerous dinner parties I found myself attending in the two, short and sweet years that I lived there.
Back to how I met Anthea: I was new in the building, and needed to do some “stakeholder management”- meeting lecturers and students, drinking tea and coffee, making plans, smiling. So, after a few work-related meetings in Anthea’s office, sitting nervously at her consultation desk, staring at the endless rows of intellectual books on her shelf, catching the tail end of animated conversations with excited first-year students, reading the quirky postcards stuck on her door, and being privy to many, many conversations about her and with her, I got to know Anthea. But I was confused—Anthea was not an academic, well not in the way that I understood the cold boring halls of academia to be, with their straight-laced and tight-lipped professors and endless presuppositions.
Anthea was a comma in a world of full stops and I swear if I could steal her entire wardrobe, I would. But it was not her colourful and sometimes quirky clothes that got me, it was when she started speaking about things like Listening Theory and the Politics of Marginalisation, Fluidity, Subalterns, and Gender all in the context of Media that I knew I wanted her to support me through my next stage in life, I wanted a PhD.
I could relate to Anthea’s politics, her ways of doing and being. She is a doer who brings corporate excellence to the otherwise fluffy, murky, confusing and muddy politics of academia. Sitting in her inaugural lecture at the Eden Grove hall on Wednesday night, her talk resonated with me deeply. As she spoke about her full career as a journalist, being a female who always had an opinion and something to say and navigating political and cultural change in a post-1994 South Africa, I closed my eyes and flicked through the pages of her life with her, guided by her emotional, yet steady voice. She was had every reason to be proud of her journey. She was now a full Professor!
I saw a big red footnote staring back at me. The footnote read: Its not about the destination, its all about the journey.
She said most beautifully in her introduction:
“A series of accidents brought me to this place today where I get to address those who’ve become an important part of my life about what my life’s work means and adds up to. Many people don’t get such an opportunity, but the academic community believes in the values of history and reflection, so such an opportunity is afforded to me, and I count myself fortunate (and a little bit terrified) to have it. Those accidents (which I will talk about a little more) have meant that I have had a whole career (as a journalist) before I became an academic and so I am a little older perhaps than most professors standing in the same spot. I am close-ish to the ending of this career and I intend to have another one (as a fully-fledged writer) before I finish altogether. What I want to talk about are the deep preoccupations of my life which are: the personal and the political, talk and listening, and of course, writing.”
Professor Anthea Garmans articulation of the inextricable relationship between the public and the personal, the intellecttual and the emotional, the creative and the academic blew me away. I realised then that Intellectualim does not have to come at the expense of emotions but emotions, unsteady as they are, can rather be seen to enhance the process, to make it valuable and beautiful. Hence, my new definition below (I did the edits in Paint incase you were wondering):
I want my preoccupations to be well articulated in a 200-page, beautifully bound document with references. But I am by no means an academic, I am empathetic, emotionally driven and a creative who cannot draw. So my internal conflict has always been one between my aptitude and attitude; how do I marry my left and right brain without it ending in divorce. How does one do the serious academic thing and still see oversized birds on the side of the road? (cows, those were definitely cows!).
I think I’m now moving towards being ok with seeing cows, and I think I’m ok with seeing birds and if anything, I’ve come away from Anthea’s lecture with a renewed understanding of my journey, what I call the pleasure and pain of life. The things I see on the side of the road, what I choose to pick up and leave behind and how these choices sum up who I am. The beauty and intellectualism in art, our opportunities to “Speak poetry to power”, to be disembodied for a moment and quieten the voices that scream “You are not an academic!” and respond with certainty, “Shut Up, I’m an intellectual!”
I am so grateful that I got the opportunity to attend an amazing lecture that has now, not only got me comfortable with oversized birds grazing on the side of the road but also triggered a release of flocks of meditative expressions that I can use to define my own brand of intellectualism.