|The story of Elderliness in Hangberg is a story of deep humanity. We may have heard it before. We may even feel we have recognised it before, but not often. While the story is situated and uniquely localised, it offers deep insights into how we all might otherwise live our lives with others, across linguistic, cultural, and ethnic divides, and beyond the differences of/in lived experiences. The stories from the people of Hangberg come together to curate the story of Elderliness in this historical, mixed-race fishing village on the imposing slopes of the mountain of Hangberg in Hout Bay, in Cape Town, a brooding presence that in silhouette appears ready to fall into the sea of a beautiful bay that has been depleted of fish on which so many livelihoods in this historic fishing village community deeply depend. It is a story that defies conceptualisations of ‘dementia’ and the ‘care’ of ‘seniors’, and particularly of Western biomedical thought and understandings of aging. It offers a deeply somatic and resonant range of realisations of what it might mean to live well, meaningfully, ‘in community’, with dignity and grace, and with poignancy of wisdom(s), while ‘growing old’, despite the seemingly simple, humble ways of living and being that might otherwise be constructed, dominantly, in deficit terms and as epitomising ‘dire poverty’. It undoes everything we might have come to understand about how the material world works, of what it means to be human and what it might mean to grow old with others. The play on the word ‘Elderliness’, which I have used to replace ‘old’ and ‘demented’ and ‘senile’ and even ‘vulnerable’, speaks to a process of aging, but also of becoming spiritually wise, of being an ‘Elder’ in the indigenous South African sense of the word. This matters because words matter, and the way we come to interpret, speak of, and think of others, and indeed consequently treat others, counts. This is because the way we speak of, think about, and engage with the people of Hangberg and with Elderliness in Hangberg, counts – and, it concomitantly counts for the world and how we choose to live within it – personally and with others.
The journey into Hangberg changed my life. It forced me to confront the whiteness of my body, the whiteness of my privilege, and my general lack of understanding of whiteness as a socio-political construct. In the middle of the night, when I hear the Southeaster wind tear through Hout Bay, I grapple with the realities that racially-constructed binaries, so historically endemic to and recognisable in the South African (post)apartheid context, have exacted on the lives of so many.
The journey I have taken is not an easy one, and the writing will likely not be an easy read. But, I am hoping the reader will feel and see and hear and taste and smell with me on this experiential, narrative journey that I am inviting them into. The stories being journeyed, lived, and curated along the way are neither mine, nor fully the stories of the people of Hangberg. They are relational stories, stories in the in-between, stories of connection, interpretation, pain, resignation, contentedness, ‘inter-reliability’, community, possibility, and hope. The rhizomatic threads and tendrils feel out the stories and their interconnections with themes of loss, illness, death, grief, dislocation, shared apartheid history, shared material circumstances, but also of a living/lived Ubuntu, of shared food, shared language, and the joys and pain of communion with family, neighbours, children, pets, friends.
The storying of Elderliness in Hangberg draws on critical rhizomatic narrative methodology (Swanson 2004, 2008), with its ‘moments of articulation’, rhizomatic conversations, and highly reflexive engagement with storying lived experiences. But this post-qualitative, post-foundational narrative methodology also offers provocative entryways for grappling with embodied, ethical dilemmas, contradictions, and conundrums in lived context of inquiry and, in this methodological rendering, in my engagement with the people of Hangberg. My journey to and through Hangberg has resulted in peripatetic writing that is as digressive as it is inchoate, transforming me as I go deeper into the unknown. The rhizomatic points of entry and many “moments of articulation” (Swanson, 2004) create ample opportunity for conjunctural analysis as the researcher is thrown from theory to philosophy in being confronted by these many moods.
Alongside the storied entries to ways of being that are not dominantly Western in their assumptions and the ways of life they offer, I have grappled with decolonial thought, drawing also on critical poststructuralism. Decolonising views are important to this inquiry, and offer a unique contribution and crucial intervention to the ‘gerontology’ field, especially in troubling the mindsets, paradigms, and interpretations that give rise to Eurocentred, modernist, biomedical, and deficit views of people, such as the people of Hangberg.
There is a strong linguistic element to the inquiry, and language plays an important role in the narrative renderings of the lives of the people of Hangberg in ways that begin to extend the methodology of critical rhizomatic narrative to one that might be considered critical rhizo-linguistic narrative. If the reader does not know Afrikaans, then I invite them to learn a few Afrikaans words that I feel, from a deeply ethical place within me, need to stay woven within the text. In the context and places in/of which these words speak, they are untranslatable. Language also offers a deeply creative element, which aligns well with the literary and poetic invitation offered through critical rhizomatic narrative. I have embraced this invitation to imbue the thesis with my and others’ poetry, and through the effects of literary devices, deepened the meaning, interpretations, emotions, and philosophical mood of this inquiry. It has facilitated understandings of Elderliness and the people of Hangberg in new ways, in ways that foster relational knowing and being.
The structure of this exploration and pilgrimage does not follow the expectations of a conventional social science undertaking, or one that fits the description of a specific paradigmatic category of social science design, for that might pose a further injustice to the people and their stories. As I kuier en gesels, a method of engagement relevant to the way of life of the people of Hangberg, a ‘method’ I embraced for this inquiry, I tally at the meeting point, knowing that much of what I experience in Hangberg remains a mystery. I am part of the expression of the stories being-in-the-world, and can but hope that in the spaces in-between, new stories that give meaning to the experiences I describe and to new understandings of Elderliness through the lived experiences of the people of Hangberg will be brought into being.