Anthropomorphism, WhatsApp, and Normalizing Danger

Growing up watching nature documentaries, I always thought it was remarkable that an ungulate could appear so cavalier standing next to a bloodthirsty carnivore that it knew wanted to tear out its jugular and dine on its warm intestines. I always thought it was because animals of prey were dumb creatures of instinct that only had their fight or flight response triggered when they were actively being chased. I simplistically concluded that food chain bottom dwellers were reactionary and lacked the foresight to prevent the initial chase from occurring. Looking in from the outside, animals of prey always appeared to function on a pre-set course. Driven by hard-wired instinct and not emotion, intuition, or cunning. Animals for which Free Will was out of the question and Fate, as a guiding principle of the universe, became entirely plausible. I always thought if I were that wildebeest, I would never be so careless to graze next to a lion. I figured that, as a predator, my will to survive was greater than the wildebeest’s. Top of the food chain. Fewer in number. Because predators are not mass-produced (longer gestation periods, smaller litters, etc), the overall health of the biome rests heavier on the shoulders of their personal survival. They fight harder to survive because they are mandated to want it more. It made sense. All of these assumptions were reinforced by observations of my pet rabbit who crawls into the corner to hide and die at the onset of a tummy ache. My husband has spent evenings massaging the cramps out of his belly and whispering into his long ears that he needs to fight. It takes a lot of convincing.

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After living in Johannesburg, and more specifically, Westdene, I now know how that wildebeest feels. Westdene is a diverse neighbourhood within Johannesburg proper with a good mix of whites, blacks, coloureds, families, and students who attend the University of Johannesburg. Westdene borders Westbury, which is a coloured neighbourhood regarded as a “hotbed for gang violence.” A statement that is both true and a stereotype built up around coloured neighbourhoods post-apartheid. You can walk down my street during the day, but that is not the case just two blocks away in Westbury. One day I was talking to a coloured man from Westbury in the park next to my house. He was playing with his two kids who were enjoying softly prodding my rabbit with reserved curiosity.   Quiet kids.  Quiet eyes.  When I told him I moved here from America he shook his head and said, “Why would you come here? The people here are not good.”

When we first moved in, I accidentally took a wrong turn on my run and found myself in Westbury. You can feel the air change. The sounds change. There’s more commotion and more eyes following you. Things that should feel welcoming, like parameter walls growing shorter and kids playing in the street, are somehow menacing. Symbols that once represented cohesion and community now represent a corrupting poverty. Poverty that puts security of property and self just out of reach. Poverty that fosters a desperate opportunism. A culture of taking by force the income you have no means to earn. You can’t tell if the men carrying the refrigerator down the street are helping a friend move or have just made off with the neighbour’s belongings. Not that Westdene is much better. The houses just look nicer.  The streets in Westdene are lined with giant shady trees overflowing with more bird species than any layman can count, which is in direct contrast to Westbury’s dry, sun exposed breezeways.  Westdene gives a false sense of comfort and security. There have been instances of burglaries occurring in Westdene just to discover that the perpetrator was a neighbour a few houses down or a discreet squatter from the house across the way. Trees and ivy make convenient cover for covert activities.

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My street, 5th Avenue, is lined with cottage style, middle-income homes. Each one has a high, gated parameter, barbed wire, an electric fence, an alarm system, a team of guard dogs, and a private security company on the payroll to respond in case of emergencies.  All the extra security measures required to make one’s house safe result in a street full of bleak prison looking structures.  Some people have had the ingenious idea of transforming their homes into canvasses by contracting local street artists to do pieces on their front security walls.  Individuals who can afford it employ private security companies because the South African Police Service can’t be trusted to respond on time or appropriately. Corruption and bribery are too entrenched for government police officers to be dependable or act consistently in accordance with any set of moral or cosmetic departmental standards. This can mean picking up an individual suspected of breaking and entering only to release him or her an hour later in return for a few hundred rand. This can mean not prioritizing an urgent call quick enough if there is a more lucrative opportunity elsewhere, like implementing an illegal roadblock. Unfortunately, I have no electric fence, no guard dogs, and no private security company. I just have a husband, a rabbit, bars on all my windows and doors, and extra padlocks on all of those. I have 12 house keys.

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The wildebeest feels exactly what it appears to feel. Nothing. A hollow totem to what fear once felt like. Tired. Frustrated. Ready. An ability to recognize fear and mimic going through the motions, but the gestures are empty… up until the moment that the danger has been actualized.

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I now know how the wildebeest began to feel nothing. When you are constantly in danger, the body doesn’t have the resources to feel afraid all the time. It’s too exhausting. It’s impractical. You have life to attend to. On an almost daily basis, I drive by a man who sleeps on people’s lawns until he is almost politely shooed away. I know, through my diligent monitoring of the neighbourhood watch WhatsApp group, that this man is actually scouting for opportunities and has been breaking into houses in our neighbourhood for the past few weeks. When I drive by him, I don’t feel fear. All I think is, I see you. It’s simple. It’s all surface, with nothing underneath. Still waters do not run deep. I’m that wildebeest. When it’s time to run, I’ll run. But there’s no point sitting in a constant state of anxiety waiting for that moment. I know he will wait until I’m not looking. If it’s not him, it will be someone else. You can’t always be looking. You would drive yourself mad. To really fear something, you have to be far enough away from it to feel separate from it. To see it coming. When danger is constant, normalized, and close enough to reach out and touch, you start walking around exhibiting an unreadable expression of ambivalence: to run or not to run. Expressionless not only because you have learned that displays of fear make you more vulnerable, but also because, over time, the sensation of fear stops feeling so acute. It becomes dull around the edges. Then flush. Then nothing. Sometimes it makes you look careless. Sometimes it makes you look brave. It depends who’s looking.

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My neighbourhood watch Whatsapp group is a strange glimpse into this phenomenon. It’s full of archetypal nosey house moms and unfulfilled dads that are always spying on their neighbors and trash talking the street art on each other’s parameter walls. It’s full of people that are stereotypically privileged and should be stereotypically fearful. But the thing is, they aren’t fearful. Danger is too present for them to feel fear anymore. They are obnoxious, entitled, nosey, full of false pretenses, and react to danger in an oddly cool and collected manner. Crime is such an everyday occurrence that people express their automated sympathies or disgust in the form of emojis.  The community watch Whatsapp group is interspersed with comments about the dog at number 15 that keeps escaping, the Christmas Carollers that will be coming down the road collecting donations tomorrow at 1 pm (don’t forget!), and the 3-year old that was found murdered in a nearby field this afternoon. Or the older man that was found tied up in his home after being robbed at 11:30 this morning. Or the man that was found strangled with his hands bound in prayer in the neighbour’s yard on Tuesday. Or the fetuses that were discovered decomposing under a carpet last week. It’s all happening within a 5-block radius. It’s like watching the most horrific version of the nightly news, but it’s not happening over there in the part of town you would never go. It’s right outside. You can hear it. Then you check your Whatsapp group where a speech bubble has just appeared followed by the text, “Did anyone else just hear those gunshots?” But you don’t fear it. You just put extra padlocks up and drink enough wine to stop wondering if that’s a rat in your rafters or someone getting creative.

The things I read in my neighbourhood Whatsapp group never make an appearance in the nightly news.  You can only imagine how horrific something would have to be to actually make the cut.  Here’s a taste: (No pun intended. I’m sorry.) last night I watched a story about man who was recently released from prison and decided to kidnap and eat the three-year old from next door.  That’s right.  Eat.  The week before it was a story about a taxi driver who raped a woman who was 5 months pregnant while her husband watched, then lit them both on fire.  Are you feeling sick yet?  The good news is that the nausea eventually subsides.  The bad news is that the barrage of horrors never does.  It just becomes normalized.

If we’re being real, I think most of the wypipo (look it up) in my neighborhood cope by placing more value on the life of the pets in the neighborhood than the people.  Everyone chooses to cry louder about the supposed mistreatment of the dog that has been barking next door all day (and must be lonely!) than the homeless man that was found dead in front of the corner market.  I guess animals are easier to help than people.

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Here are some sweet life hacks I’ve picked up along the way to protect your property and stay alive:

  1. Put a baby monitor in the garage so that you can hear when someone is trying to break the lock on the garage door
  2. When placing padlocks, use multiple brands. If an intruder knows how to break or pick one brand, he or she may not have the tools or know how to pick the others
  3. When peeking out a window to investigate a strange sound, keep the lights in the house off to remain concealed and give yourself the element of surprise
  4. When walking toward someone on the street, walk in the shadows if they have not yet seen you and avoid streetlights. If they see you at the last minute, they likely won’t have time to plan on how to rob you
  5. If someone sees you walking from afar, come out of the shadows and walk in the middle of the street to take away their ability to conceal the act of robbing you
  6. Once you have pulled into your driveway and the gate is still closing, hit reverse and start slowly backing up until the gate is fully closed. This confuses high-jackers who are trying to follow you into your driveway
  7. Cameras, cameras, cameras
  8. If you are asleep in a dark house, having a well-lit yard and sheer curtains allows you to easily see everything going on outside without an intruder being able to see inside.  This may feel frightening, but having heavy curtains that you are unable to see through is the equivalent of pulling a blanket over your head when you hear a spooky sound

It’s a strange world.

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