Anchoring our days through the senses during South Africa's lockdown

We had been in lockdown since 18th March 2020 when J.’s daycare closed for a break. A few days later, on 23rd March, South Africa’s President Ramaphosa announced a full lockdown, which started on 26th March. Roads in Bloemfontein, the judicial centre of the country, emptied out. The university where I work shut down entirely, businesses closed, and the after effects of apartheid planning were audible.

Our neighbourhood – a student residential area, previously designated for “whites only” under apartheid – was devoid of human voices through burdened choice and decree. Gone. Students had returned home.

At two years old, J. managed the first week of lockdown much better than I did, as we tried to figure out a rhythm between work and care. An anthropologist by training and an academic by profession, I planned and initiated a shift to remote teaching with my colleagues, and J. played.

It’s an eerily quiet Saturday morning. There is no characteristic hum, that persistent hum that characterises life in cities originating from people’s collective breathing, talking, engaging, moving, hustling. Every sound, previously faint and unidentified, is louder, even though it remains mysterious.

I lay immobile, with raised hackles and ears reaching, presaging something unknown. I hold my breath. My son’s “morning mama” slips into the soundscape. I smile and exhale as his voice unravels the tightness of my jaw. I love hearing him taste the words, newly formed, as three-word sentences issue forth. My co-pilot in unchartered waters, he anchors me in the maelstrom of this strange and unknown silence, pregnant with wisdom, yet outside of normal hearing. I listen. Hard.

Pounced on, my playground-body rises slowly. I stretch, and we half walk, half run to the kitchen. I fill the kettle with water. Motionless, I think about breakfast. My breakfast. And maybe Weet-Bix cereal, or “coco-milk” for J. I busy myself as he hovers, assessing what he should ask for. I run the hot water into the pan, add dishwashing liquid, and swirl the water in the pan.

“Maamaaaaaaa”. J.’s urgent voice and his little body knock into me, demanding to be heard. Seen. Acknowledged. He wants a DVD, but which one this morning? Mowee (Moana)? Hiccup (How to train your dragon)? Dawry (Finding Dory)? He settles on Hiccup. I remove the DVD from the rack above our heads and he pumps his little legs up and down.

“Gim-me mama, give me”.
“No love. Let mama do it”.

His bare feet hit the cold tiles, as he flies with his arms outstretched to the couch. I play run behind him. Perched on the armrest of the couch, he eyes me suspiciously, worried that I might slip something else into the DVD player. I did it before. As I unbundle the disc from its cover, the near imperceptible click stirs anticipation. “Wait, J., wait”, I say depositing the DVD into the slot. We wait. The DVD player’s mechanics kick into gear. I switch the source from TV (and its unending coronavirus news) to AV, and the opening credits start to roll. As I return to the kitchen, the familiar, “Welcome to Berk” erupts from the speakers, as Hiccup begins. I turn and see J. settle: our morning ritual is in full swing.

There is no hurry in this first hour of the morning, even on a work day. The slif sloff of my slippers punctuates each step, more consciously attended to than before. A final swirl of hot water and I set the pan atop the hot stove plate. Heated through, I release a knob of light yellow butter into the pan. It melts easily as I prepare scrambled eggs. Three eggs. One by one, I carefully lift them between thumb and fingers, and lightly tap them on the side of the bowl, until they slip from their shell. I add milk. The methodical whisking, light rather than vigorous, ruptures the egg yolks.

“Mamaaaaa, look!”.
“Yes, J.”, I respond.

My hand hovers over the pan, and as the heat caresses my palm, I lift and tip the bowl. While the egg mixture congeals, I have enough time to get the bacon from the fridge, turn the egg mixture, and remove three slices of bacon. Ritualised, each step follows the other without fail.

Even J.’s sporadic return to the kitchen and requests for “up” (which means “lift me up”) and my response, “wait, mama’s making breakfast” is a part of every morning’s settling into a daily rhythm that doesn’t chase us out of the door, our bodies ahead of our spirits. This repeated and methodical form of nurturance – making breakfast – anchors me corporeally through the senses. It becomes a part of the lockdown rituals, far removed from harried pre-pandemic mornings.

Another day, a different psychological time. An alteration of this breakfast ritual brings J. into focus, as he calls for me or seeks me out. Depending on my body’s need for movement, and my mind’s request for stillness, I slip into the home office and follow a five-minute practice of tai chi.

J. looks bemused as I try to follow the instructor. Breathing deeply, moving consciously. The movements feel static rather than organic. Stiff, rather than easy. Novel. Still, every morning for the next while, I step onto the mat and follow.

To follow, rather than lead, is a relief. I am released from initiating and ticking off tasks on the to-do list, a list of the many productive and reproductive demands. The next five, ten, fifteen minutes, intermittently punctuated with the persistent “up, up, up” or “nastix” (Monkeynastix, an online learning programme for children) are a reprieve from my mind, and a settling into my bones.

On the mat, with this in-breath, the ancient link between body, mind and soul reveals itself. I experienced it when immersed in ethnographic fieldwork. I felt it as the lines between my work and my life became interwoven when doing doctoral fieldwork in my natal backyard of Muizenberg, a neighbourhood of Cape Town. Simultaneously home and research space, Muizenberg held memories of my immediate and extended families.

I know this deep connection to be true, as I experience my world with and through my senses. My senses pick up sensory stimuli, and whisper. The mind listens and, influenced by socialisation and training, it searches for meaning, or imposes its own meanings. My world becomes ordered, recognised, knowable, and familiar. As the world abruptly shifts out of kilter in these times of corona, the familiar is sought and hungered for. Disruption is commonplace in this interminable moment, as our interiority is assailed by the spectre of death lurking on the margins of our bubble. An invisible yet forceful threat.

Amidst the anxiety, comfort is found and woven into the mundane through culinary pursuits. I crave my mother’s breyani, a rice dish of Malay origins in Cape Town. Separated from my ancestral home in Cape Town and my mother, I miss the smell of onions frying in “fish oil” (cooking oil) and the sound of her voice as she says “die uiwe gee die flavour” (“onions provide the flavour” in Afrikaans). The aroma and sound of sweating spices. The ancient stainless steel pot and the lid’s broken orange knob. The sound of her pitted, stainless steel spoon, as she taps the edge of the pot. The light yellow of the rice, my mom’s favourite starch. Her singing. Her hum.

To gather all these memories to me, to gather my mother’s arms around me, I make breyani. Measuring the spices, I assess the combination with a quick smell of the mixture. Something is missing. Karamonk (cardamom)! As the onions braise slightly, I add the spices, and lean forward into the past.

The restrictions of full lockdown have been gradually easing since 1st May. In the past few weeks, the city’s hum returned, as students slowly come back to the neighbourhood, as businesses re-open, as life returns to some normality. In an attempt to understand the pandemic I turn to the page, meditating on the difference between “then” and “now”.

During full lockdown, birdsong proliferated. The dogs were quiet. And the moon, she shone louder. My world paused. I became a witness to the easy flow of time, to the erasure of material differentiation between home and work, and to the stillness that comes with living in student suburbs when students are away. I had no loud music to derail the silence. No sirens to threaten the enclosed bubble.

So too, no sounds of children playing in the street, or of parents calling their children home. No voices of the elders chatting across makeshift fences. No bickering between siblings. No material, visible community.

Our feeling landscape embodies a certain rhythm, a beat, a riff to our days. Taken together the sounds, smells, and tastes speak of the containers we find ourselves in – our communities, our neighbourhoods, our families, our intimate worlds. They speak of the terror and the calm. Of the impositions of external forces and of the agency of our choices. Of the fullness and of the emptiness of our lives.

As the lockdown restrictions ease, I am achingly aware that I am losing the soundscape of full lockdown, and the deep resonance with an earth devoid of human chatter. At the height of lockdown, I had become so inclined to take photographs and videos, that the sound of pregnant emptiness, that potential that comes with silence, escaped my recording devices. In retrospect, that pregnant emptiness has revealed itself as the opposite has arrived.

I am aware too of the ways in which J. has tethered me to the material experience of covid-19 and life itself. Its changing rhythms, unanswered questions, its many uncertainties and more. Contemplating the pandemic, this moment reveals the calmness that comes with acceptance of reality. We cannot “outwit, outplay, outlast” the pandemic. We can merely attend to its passage.

J.’s voice reaches out: “maaammmmmmmaaaa, where aah you?”. My response rings true: “I am here”.

Assoc. Prof. Joy Owen leads the Anthropology department at the University of the Free State (South Africa). Her research interests include transnational migration, sensuous scholarship, critical pedagogy and the contemplative life. In 2019 she spent three months at Oxford University as part of the prestigious Mellon funded TORCH Global South Visiting Professor programme. Her monograph Congolese Social Networks: Living On The Margins In Muizenberg, Cape Town was published in 2015 by Rowman & Littlefield.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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