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Pandemic Stories – Puno Selesho

June 3, 2020
June 3, 2020 Kurt Schroder

Pandemic Stories – Puno Selesho

We take a look into the impact on the lives and livelihoods of people during the COVID-19 lock-down.

The unprecedented COVID 19 Virus and subsequent Lock-down has had drastic and differing effects on people in South Africa. This series aims to explore that space, and document a bit of what life looks like during Lock-down in South Africa. All necessary health & safety precautions were maintained in the production of this article, and all persons involved had legal permits to work and travel.

The story is told and was photographed by Bernard Brand.

Puno Selesho is a spoken word artist whom I met in 2013 whilst helping a friend film some video content for Spoken Sessions, somewhere in a house in Johannesburg. I recently photographed her for my “In Rainbows” portrait series and I consider her a friend. You can follow her work here.

She’s fierce and sweet and I loved going for a very cold and early walk with her close to the Union Buildings on a Thursday morning. I was going to post a different story today, but I felt that because of what is currently happening both abroad and in our own country – and let’s be honest – the entire world, I would put out my story with Puno first and also have the first follow up question of the series.

Let’s start with the question I posted to her yesterday 2 June 2020 via a voice note. After this, the photo essay and interview follows. It’s a long one, so buckle up, it’s worth it.

BB: Hi Puno, I wanted to hear what you’re thoughts are on this global issue of racial injustice and how we (mostly white people) but also everyone, can become a voice for black, colored, Muslim, Indian and other minorities who aren’t so different from us in what they want in this life?

How can we help in small ways, in big ways? Basically how can we humanize people and make them feel like people and not things, is what I am trying to ask?

PS: As you’ve noticed I answer questions the long way around. Ha ha. I hope you don’t mind a little story as my answer as I think through what I want to say.
What’s frustrating for me – and I include myself – is sometimes we assume that the matter is far away. We disassociate and then things like this happen that slap us back into reality and we’re like “shucks, this stuff still happens”, but then we forget and again put it as something that’s far out there.

I hope for a a place where my church and friends are speaking on my behalf about race, or let me rather not say on my behalf, but that these people (my church, friends etc.) are fighting for me more than I am.

“People ask, ‘am I as a white person allowed to?’ and yes you are. If you are on the side of humanity, if you’re on the side of love and hope and justice, you’re allowed to”.

I think racism thrives on fear. Fear of loss, fear of loss of social capital, of disturbing the waters. I sometimes struggle to speak up, because I fear losing my friends or upsetting people, or being labelled the angry black girl. We have to speak openly about this stuff and introspectively correct ourselves.

Let me order my thoughts and also say this. Why I was saying that we think this is far away, but it’s actually happening at home.

I want to give two examples from personal experience. Number one: I went to a festival a few years ago. I knew some people in a crowd standing right at the front of the stage watching a band, just beyond the mosh pit, so I had no particular interest in going to stand there to listen. Nothing against the band, I mean you’re at a festival so you’re keen to do whatever and be at the stage and watch a band and feel the music.

For me it was a matter of mosh pits being quite hectic and I didn’t feel like getting stomped on. I navigated my way to the front, found my friends. A guy that became my friend at the festival offered to guide me out, because I was a bit scared and the mosh pit was about to start.

Months later he told me that on his way back after he’d guided me out and I was safe, as he was walking back somebody shouted, “I think that’s him” and they went after him and kind of pushed him around. I don’t want to call them an angry mob, because I don’t know if it was that extreme, but he was specifically targeted and he had to fight back and find his way back to his friends.

We don’t really know why they went after him. The fact that there’s this thought of, “was it because he was walking with a black girl, guiding her out of this white crowd? Could that be it”?
I don’t have hard facts to back this up. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I didn’t speak to those guys.
The fact that, that is a possibility? That a white Afrikaans man was helping me, a black girl out of a crowd shows the fear of race and racism is real. From small micro aggression, to the larger picture where someone died both in America and locally because of someone’s racial prejudice.

“I’m tired of hearing are you okay? I wish the world was more loving. Yes, I have that sentiment as well, but the thing is, what are you doing? Are you having the difficult conversations? Asking the difficult questions? Are you stopping the inappropriate conversations in the WhatsApp group? Are you standing with me or are you saying, ‘Oh look at Puno, she’s doing so well’! Far away and removed from me”?

I’m getting super passionate and it’s because race and racism has been a key component of my work for a long time. The last example. 

This year I went to a bible study group. Three white girls and me. I promise you this happened and if you asked any of them, they would tell you the same. One of the girls were house sitting so we held the study group there.

We were making coffee and there was this dog that was allowed in and out of the house. I’m super chilled with dogs, love them. If there is a dog VS cat debate the dog wins. Dogs rule. 

That dog was fine with everyone in that house, except me. It would growl at me and try to corner me, push me out of the house whenever I came near it, even if I tried to ignore it. It got to a point that it became so bad that I had left to go to the bathroom and when I wanted to go back into the room where the other girls were it barred me from entering the room.

I had been marked as a dangerous thing, because of the color of my skin. That could’ve gone horribly wrong, I could have been maimed. The three girls had to secure the dog in a different space in the house so that I could go outside and we ended up having the group outside.

Now when I process it in the era of #GeorgeFloyd I think I could’ve been #PunoSelesho because that dog could’ve killed me.

That was a very clear sign that the dog had been trained to see black people as something dangerous. Regardless of whether they were actually committing a crime or not. Black means bad. Black means danger. Attack. Protect. Imagine if that’s what the dog has been taught what the kids might be taught?

Sometimes it feels like people of color and black people are out here trying to teach people that this thing exists. I think white people know. They encounter it and see it even when we as black people aren’t there they know when someone is saying something that isn’t right or perpetuating problematic behaviour.

You can’t be ignorant. It’s around us. It’s everywhere.

How can you help? How can you humanize people again? Call it out! Introspect. Engage in the difficult emotions. Go make black friends. Friends from different socio-economic backgrounds. It’s going to be difficult, uncomfortable, messy, awkward, but it will be worth it.

 You will only be able to relate to someone else’s experience when you are in their life and with them. Diversify our churches, businesses, friendship circles. Treat your domestic employee with respect. It starts there. Start small. I’m talking about genuine friendships and relationships and not the one token black friend that is 10 people removed from you.

I could go on and on. We all have issues and prejudices and things to fix, but right now this needs to be highlighted. Lives are being lost because of it.

Anyway, that’s a lot to deal with at 10:30 in the morning. Ha ha.

Editors Note: So that’s what you can do. Start small, with yourself. You don’t need to protest in the streets. I asked Puno if there is anything else she wanted to share and she sent me this video, titled “Swart Gevaar” (Black Danger) and also Daughter. Go watch it please. Our original interview follows.

BB: What has been the biggest change in your day to day life?

PS: It’s interesting because it feels like I was preparing for this, but without knowing. This was the first year I decided to work from home and to design the life I want to live. I was unhappy with how I was living before and I was just so tired, so I set out at the beginning of the year to slow down, change the pace and find a new rhythm that didn’t just have work as the main thing. Then the pandemic hit and it offered me this perfect blank canvas.

“I’m realizing how much I don’t like “busy-ness”. I mean, I like getting things done, but I realized that I don’t like doing more than 3 things a day. Ha ha. Just because you can work yourself to the bone doesn’t mean you should”.

BB: What don’t you miss about life before the pandemic?

PS: I absolutely don’t miss traffic. I cannot for the life of me comprehend sitting for hours on end heading to one place. I love driving, don’t get me wrong, it can be so much fun. I sing, I pray I listen to books.
This might come across as self righteous, however, I don’t miss our approach to people living in impoverished circumstances and who come from backgrounds we as upper to middle-class individuals can’t relate to.
I feel like there has been a bigger awareness and they’ve been counted among the other humans for the first time, which is bizarre. As weird as it was, it was cool to see people being put into vans to be taken to shelters and safe spaces. Their lives began to matter. I hope we don’t unsee the things we’ve seen and unfeel these feelings, not of guilt, but of conviction.

BB: Speaking of hope, what is keeping and has kept you hopeful?

PS: Hope is a huge topic for me.
 I’d like to consider myself a big picture thinker. I think from the beginning I had the sense that there is so much more going on than the threat of disease. You could sense that this was going to be way more significant than we can put our finger on.
Surrendering to the fact that there’s a greater story and narrative at play and to make that more practical. Looking back at things and stories throughout history and the number of things we’ve gone through.

Just that thought makes me know we’ll be okay. And that doesn’t mean we won’t lose people and finances and work. I’m not saying this as a throwaway thing, but we’ve been through tough times before. We’re in transition. The caterpillar/larva/butterfly cliché. There are so many stages and it looks gross and you can’t stop in the middle and that’s where we are now.

Doing things that make Puno a better version of Puno. Eating better, helping people, reading, sleeping, cooking. Things that help me be better are not always easy though.

“Time and space surrounded by trees and nature, that is an essential for me”.

BB: What have you learnt about yourself?

PS: There are so many thoughts in my head. Ha ha. I think there are a lot of parts of myself I have been unkind and unfair to. I realize that I cannot be a good friend, a good sister, a good aunt et cetera if I am not taking care of myself well. That’s been so refreshing. 

I realized how much fear I have and yes I am bold and I am courageous and all those things, but sometimes you are able to distract yourself from realizing there are things that scare you.
And lastly, this year has taught me to really love my introverted side. I mean, I think I am an ambivert, but I really don’t know what I am. I’ve loved being in my house and just being me and realizing how important that is and how much I miss nature and how important it is in my life.

This was rather emotional for me, especially the follow up with Puno. I really appreciate that she felt comfortable enough to be vulnerable and open with me and also give really good, practical advice. I hope you find something in this interview and especially the follow up that confronts you and makes you ask the tough questions and take the difficult road ahead.

As always, thanks for reading.

Editors Note: * Answers edited for conciseness.