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Archive for June, 2012

A short while ago, I applied to do a PhD at the University of Cape Town. Yes, you read that right, I actually sat down, did some careful introspection and decided that I was equal to the task.  You see, where I come from, you are considered to be of very respectable stock if you have a title other than the standard mister or miss. I wanted to distinguish myself in society and this seemed like a good way to try and do it.  I guess this is true of most places.

I therefore set out to get myself a new title, already imagining what my business card would look like when I got through the program and started flaunting the credential.  In the back of my mind though, I did not believe that anyone would take my scribblings in answer to the interrogations about research questions, funding, etc. that you had to answer in the application process seriously. If I’m really honest with myself, I think I just wrote out the application because I had nothing better to do at the time.

Once the applications had all been completed and sent off, I settled back to wait happily in my normal routine of scouring the web for the mundane nuggets that I’ve become very skilled at ferreting out. I was very confident that I would never hear anything about the application again and it was just going to be yet another story that I would add to the ones that I normally use when trying to impress.

“I’ve applied to do a PhD at UCT you know” makes the perfect rejoinder to conversations about things like fluid mechanics that I have recently found myself in the middle of. It brings the conversation back from those heady levels to a place where you can comfortably bluff your way through by saying things like “I’m not comfortable with the traditional methodologies and tend to lean more toward the Actor-Network Theory” which you spent the morning memorising how to say.

A month or two later, however, I was surprised to receive a letter from the chap in charge of PhD applications at UCT. This must be the letter of regret, I remember thinking.  Anticipating the bad news I tore open the envelope and was shocked to discover that it was actually a request for more information about the research area and not the standard letter which usually ended with “we wish you the best in your future endeavors”.

My response, I must confess, was not immediate because I was going through a phase at the time and I had spent the morning repeatedly watching this very nice YouTube video about githeri and could not bring myself to focus on how I might contribute to the knowledge pool for a while after. Githeri, if you do not know it, is a luxurious blend of maize and beans that is the staple diet of the people of central Kenya and it is to this bane that I grew up big and strong. It had been a while since I had had some and a whimsical melancholy had descended on me rendering any serious thought impossible. I eventually did, however, get over my nostalgia and managed to craft together a response to the unanswered questions that had sat on my desk for a few weeks. An acknowledgement of receipt followed the dispatch and back to the web I went.

The date by which a response had been promised came and went without a further word from the venerable professor of screening and admissions but I continued using the fact that I’d actually applied to do a PhD as a social crutch and I imagined that it gained me respectability amongst my peers. “The activity theory is not all that it is cut out to be”, I would be heard injecting into conversations that I knew nothing about before promptly moving on as if in search of someone who could engage me in intellectual debate about it.

I would have quite happily gone on doing this but then I again entered another silly phase. This time it was the desire for feedback on anything and everything that I did or said. Prompted by this new and very strange urge, I decided to write to him and force him to send me the standard letter of regret to which I had already started formulating a scathing response demanding feedback.

Once again I was surprised that the “bugger-off” letter did not come immediately as expected and I even considered sending off the email again, sure that it might have escaped his notice or fallen foul of his spam filter. Surprise, once again, turned to shock when a response requesting a few further details was sent and this shock to incredulity when an acceptance was later offered. All this in the same morning.

They had the wrong chap was my first thought, but then they started sending me additional stuff that soon convinced me that they indeed thought that they had the right chap, but did not really know who they were dealing with.

A few days later and as the process continued, they had already started heading the letters with “Dear PhD Associate”, and the reality slowly started sinking in. So much so, that vanity soon took over and my CV for January 2012 was quickly updated with a bold “PhD Associate” under the education section. Yes, me, a PhD associate and with it even written in black and white on my CV to boot.

“I like the cut of your jib” I already imagined them saying when I introduced myself at the many high society  gatherings that I was sure to frequent as my social standing soared ever higher on the wings of my new title. I might even learn what all the theories that I had been flaunting about in the past few months were about, I remember thinking.

The bubble burst, as it was bound to, when I was later asked to expand on my research statement as a precursor to a two-week intensive induction programme that was to be conducted by a much revered professor being flown in all the way from west Africa to whip us into shape for what promised to be a grueling academic slog of at least three or four years.

“What you have done is not acceptable. It gives the impression that you are not ready to embark on PhD studies.” This was the opening statement from the Nigerian purveyor of knowledge that finally put paid to my ambitions of ever achieving that oh-so-very desirable pre-nominal.  His keen eye had sifted through all the stuff that I had not-so-meticulously put together and saw it for the formless jumble of words that it really was and with one sentence, he stopped that idle pursuit indefinitely. “If you don’t have the time or serious attitude for PhD studies, why enter the program now? You can wait until you are ready to put in the effort.”

I now have my sights set on a Knighthood. Where can I get an application form?

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Squared away in the heart of Cape Town’s southern suburbs is a little anomaly of a place called Banana Jam. I call it anomalous because it is the sort of place you’d expect to find in the more vibey parts of any town – the high streets and downtowns of this world if you like.

It has a markedly exotic theme inspired by the Caribbean that would usually resonate in a more urban setting where choice is king, rather than in suburbs like these where pizza joints, laundromats and stock standard pubs are the norm. Yet there it defiantly stands, in the centre of a middle class residential area with no malls or major businesses around to help it attract the custom that is required to keep most businesses of this sort going and not visibly attempting to appeal to the iterant traffic that spills out of the nearby Kenilworth railway station to fill its tables. Hmmm… I wonder why?

I frequented the establishment directly next door to Banana Jam for a while, seeking the mindless after work camaraderie that our wives struggle to understand, and finding it repeatedly through the endless disconnected conversations that men will have with each other in such places. Hob Nobs, as it is quite appropriately named, exactly fits the bill of the typical neighbourhood pub which is peppered with TV screens everywhere showing the football, rugby or cricket, depending on the season and is filled with locals who all know each other and are in turn also well-known to the establishment to the point that drinks are seemingly ordered telepathically. This was my local until very recently.

In stark contrast to Hob Nobs, Banana Jam does not show any sports at all and does not even have any screens to show them on. It does not even have much of a bar area and instead focusses on being more of a restaurant with many more tables than a typical barfly like myself is used to.

On the way to my local last summer and while strolling past Banana Jam, as was my routine, I noticed a colourful sign at the entrance proclaiming that October Fest had finally made its way to this very unremarkable part of Cape Town and it had found a temporary home in this place that I had so often walked by.

Bemused and much to the horror of the waiter at Hob Nobs who had already ordered for my drink, I decided to break with tradition and walked into the place to sample their interpretation of that most hallowed of German beer festivals. Having been to several such festivals, I must admit that I was sceptical about what I would find in this little place and fully expected to be perched at my favourite corner of the bar at Hob Nobs before long.

I will spare you a long-winded description of what is at best a faded memory of my first impressions of the establishment dulled by the many samplings that I did that day. Suffice it to say that I have never been to the place next door again and I now get my fix of mundane conversations with total strangers from Banana Jam.

I think, however, that the excellent beer that I had that day and my subsequent education on the craft surrounding its brewing and appreciation deserves further mention.

The beer was, and continues to be, outstanding and is largely sourced from the local craft beer movement. If you are unfamiliar with the term craft beer, it generally refers to beers produced by small-scale brewers and it is normally of types outside the ones dominant in the local market.  India Pale Ale (a personal favourite of mine) is, for example, a style of beer that you will only find in the craft beer circles in South Africa and it does not last very long wherever you find it due to the woefully inadequate supply of the stuff.

Apart from the usual fare that can be found on most taps across the land, they also have many other non-standard beers on tap that are always available and that can be depended on to not run out. These by themselves are enough to distinguish the place from most other places within a twenty kilometre radius, but nooo it does not stop there… With names like First Light, Hammerhead IPA and the Ocean Potion, Banana Jam sports a very impressive repertoire of exotic beers with a variety wide enough to suit every palate and which I continuously sample with rare disappointment.

What is truly different about Banana Jam, as I’m sure all the other enthusiasts from across the mother city will attest to, is that they also sport an impressive array of guest beers on tap that constantly change as the craft beer lot experiment with different styles of beer making, fermentation and ingredients that even include fruit. Yes fruit. There was very nice mango ale that did a rather short stint on one of the taps at the beginning of the year. I don’t think it lasted more than a couple of hours to be honest. It had been anticipated by quite a few people while it was still brewing and so by the time it hit the taps, it found a large group of eager samplers waiting to applaud it.

This neatly brings me to the brewing fraternity in Cape Town. Craft beer actually has quite a large following in Cape Town with no fewer than four very well attended festivals happening in the year and several clubs that meet regularly to discuss their various brews and projects around brewing.

There are also a few shops that specialise in the supply of materials for the home brewer ranging from the malt itself, all the way through to sophisticated kit used to test for alcohol levels and even acidity in the water used.  The craft beer movement is, however, a whole other story in itself and the few words that I’ve written do not even begin to describe the enthusiasm with which people are clubbing together, sharing information and producing ales of remarkable variety and quality.

“Big man, what can I get you today?” is how I am now greeted when I go to Banana Jam these days, and it is to this jovial atmosphere that the first beer normally goes down. Many of my friends wonder why I have become so hard to find recently, but I am wont to go anywhere that does not have at least one tap that dispenses something out of the ordinary and because of this I have abandoned most of my previous haunts.

Yes, despite being tucked away in the heart of Cape Town’s southern suburbs, Banana Jam continues to defy most expectations and is already the veritable Mecca for a very niche but growing craft beer appreciation society and it does not, as far as I know, have any competition in this fair city yet.

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