I heart North Bay: Part I

March 8, 2010

I’ve just returned to New York from North Bay, Ontario where I attended Nipissing University’s conference on Truth, Reconciliation and the Residential Schools. The organizers put together a great program that involved both the academic community and the Nipissing First Nations community. I presented a short paper entitled: The Limits of Testimony: Contextualizing Truth and Reconciliation in Canada.

Because the IRS TRC is still in its early stages, the paper focused on a comparative analysis. In particular, I focused on one specific, puzzling testimony, given to the South African TRC in 1996 by Mrs. Konile, whose son was killed by apartheid security forces in 1986. A recent book has been published about this testimony, co-authored by Antjie Krog (an Afrikaner poet and journalist), Nosisi Mpolweni (Xhosa lecturer and linguist) and Kopano Ratele (psychologist).  The book is entitled There Was This Goat: Investigating the Truth Commission Testimony of Notrose Nobomvu Konile and the authors spend the bulk of the book discussing one particular testimony, given by Mrs. Konile. This testimony was difficult to understand for many reasons – it did not follow a linear trajectory, it mixed her dream life with her waking life, and made reference to cultural and traditional symbols that would have been difficult for outsiders of her culture to understand. Add to that that her testimony was translated from Xhosa to English and transcribed, and one begins to understand how difficult it may be to comprehend one not-so-simple testimony.  The authors of There Was This Goat, which is a line from Mrs. Konile’s testimony, embark on a journey of understanding as they imagine conversations about this testimony and begin to discuss with Mrs. Konile her experience of losing her son, with the truth commission and its aftermath. In one section of the text, where the authors imagine a conversation between two black South Africans, one says to the other:

To fully understand our words you have to understand a whole history of fear, hiding, running, evading, and still trying to maintain a sense of dignity and a life worth something. To truly hear Mrs. Konile’s truth, and the truth of most of the black people who testified at the Truth Commission hearings, you have to work hard to understand it, you have to gain our trust. It’s not going to be given to you just like that, because you may turn and use it against us, as happened many, many times under apartheid (32).

By looking at Mrs. Konile’s testimony and the work of Krog, Mpolweni, and Ratele, my paper explored how testimony is something that must be actively engaged and understood within a much larger historical and cultural context. (I posted a few weeks ago about another of Antjie Krog’s books, Country of My Skull, and There Was This Goat is another excellent, engaging read about the politics of truth commissions.)

Thanks to the organizers and the Nipissing First Nations, who were so generous with sharing their experiences.

4 Responses to “I heart North Bay: Part I”

  1. Mitchell Says:

    Great post!

  2. Martin Says:

    Totally!

  3. tracingmemory Says:

    Thanks, guys!
    Naomi

  4. Jamie Says:

    I agree with Mitchell and Martin!


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