I was a kid during the era of big old bulky television sets with wooden vernier, extended tubes at the back and huge bunny ear antennas. We had one just like that at my grandparents’ home, which was my home in the week when my folks were at work out of town. The African middle class was slowly emerging then, in the nineties, and children were blessing their parents with status purchases – houses, cars and appliances like TVs, VCRs and then trendy bulky hi-fi systems. My youngest uncle had gifted one of those wooden vernier TV sets to my grandparents, replacing the tiny black and white set that had knobs on either side of the screen. This fabulous colour TV was nestled in a clunky wooden wall unit heavily decorated with porcelain dogs, cats and swans which somehow always came in threes, a gigantic punch bowl set which if I remembered correctly, had never been used, and a little too many artificial flowers.
My grandpa’s chair, the rocking one, was deliberately placed so that he sat directly across the TV. He was proud of his upwardly mobile children, and them blessing him, well, that was the cherry on top, especially with this colour TV set. It was a Philips and there was prestige in that name. He was the envy of his cronies and we, the envy of the neighbourhood kids. Most evenings, the kids we were friends with came over to ours to watch Sgudi Snaysi, Yizo Yizo, Hlala Kwabafileyo, Ubambo Lwami amongst other nineties classics. We would all sit on the Cobra-polished screed floor in the living room, because no child was allowed to sit on the couch, and we would all watch quietly. We would laugh in hushed tones, and maybe even do some back chatter. Just before the news bulletin, the kids would leave to play outside, in the verandah or in the kids bedroom. I would remain with the adults, getting my generous dose of smart and adulthood, watching the news.
Fast forward decades later, the TV became smarter, slimmer and wider and clearer and without knobs. More than anything though, the TV (read: media) has become noisier. We are consuming lots more content, content which is relatively more emotionally draining – have you seen the news lately? Yet with all this content, with all this activity, media consumption has evolved into a relatively solitary activity. No longer do we gather around like we used to, to enjoy our favourite shows at designated times. No longer do we have those moments of satisfying silence shared between families and friends when watching TV together. No longer do we commune.
I guess I am nostalgic for the comfort of communal living; living in a community the old fashioned way. Because in that community, we took care of each other. We shared the burden of negative media reportage because we consumed it together. We laughed together. We were shocked together. We exclaimed together. Yeah sure, we experience media as a community through social media. It’s great, but it’s not the same. And yes, we also have communal gatherings on occasion like movie and series nights. We deliberate and plan them. We RSVP and potluck on food, drinks and snacks. It’s great, but I do feel the organic charm of close-knit community is a bit lost.
On the other hand, we can easily choose what we consume. Mostly; and the options are vast. Regardless of this wide array of options,things can get a bit much. There are times when we get confronted by our reality and it outweighs the very ability to choose what we watch. We witness lived experiences, other people’s and sometimes our very own, and there is no way to ignore them or turn a blind eye. In those experiences we witness demagogues for leaders, haters for neighbours (haters = racists, sexists, homophobes, xenophobes, transphobes, ableists, ageists), violence for conflict resolution and apathy as a response to everything. It’s a lot, and it can get difficult to face the world.
Without the comfort of community like we had in those moments when everyone sat in front of the TV watching Emzini Wezinsizwa or Surban Bliss (remember Sylvaine Strike starring as Kubi’s daughter?), it’s even tougher. So taking care of oneself, creating a temporary but necessary bubble of and for self preservation becomes necessary. It’s even more necessary when you are part of a persecuted class like women, the LGBTIQ community, disabled people, etc., because you empathise easily, knowing your own experiences. The cradle of community is necessary. But the way our lives are set up, community is not always there. So how then do you take care of yourself?