The Art of Walking

Have you ever noticed that your surroundings influence or change the way you walk?
And I’m not talking about something too obvious like from one second to the next performing a moonwalk but rather the more subtle changes in movement like straightening your posture or altering your pace. These slight adjustments may even occur unconsciously and can easily be overlooked by passers-by. They are, however, very significant as they can tell you a lot about how people assess situations, literally, in passing. Why have I decided to take up this topic now? Because one night while walking home on my own, I noticed the huge differences in the way I walk at home in Konstanz as compared to walking in South Africa.

One major aspect is of course security (see blogpost). While I do my best not to walk around on my own in Pretoria after dark, I really don’t mind a twenty minutes’ walk home in the middle of the night in Konstanz. Here, I’m mostly lost in thoughts, wandering around, paying just enough attention to what is going on around me so I won’t be hit by a car or a bike. When I walk the streets in Pretoria, I am always very alert, paying very close attention to my surroundings and the people in my vicinity. Becoming ‘streetwise’ is how this is called. Also, the way I walk, my body language, is different – or at least I try: when I am walking somewhere in Pretoria, I try to look ‘local’ which means walking confidently and by no means leaving the impression of being lost, confused or self-conscious. Even when I am. That is, especially when I am. With good reason.

One day, a social worker of a women’s shelter located in Pretoria Central (CBD), a crime-ridden part of the city, asked me to accompany her to a meeting which was taking place at an office only a ten minutes’ walk away. As I was getting ready, she advised me rather not to take my bag with me, to leave any valuables locked in at the shelter and to store my phone in my bra. Better safe than sorry (a saying I’ve come to hear so often that it should be South Africa’s official slogan). Equipped with only a pen and a paper I walked next to the social worker into town, being alert and focused and, at the same time, trying to appear casual – which of course is easier said than done. “Have you noticed what’s going on in front of us?” I hadn’t. Right in front of us, an elderly couple was strolling.  Their trainers that were not in line with their otherwise conservative look gave them away as tourists on first sight. While he was walking around two meters ahead of her, she was looking around, clearly fascinated by the inner city’s hectic atmosphere. In her right hand she was carrying a camera. So far, nothing too unusual to me. Only when the social worker whom I was accompanying directly pointed it out, the situation suddenly became visible to me: on the other side of the road, two younger men were eying the couple and gesturing to another guy at the end of the road who promptly changed to our side of the street and then waited at the next crossing. It became apparent that the elderly couple had been identified as a target and was about to be robbed. All this had happened from one minute to the next. When we arrived at the robot (South African term for ‘traffic light’) the guy who had already been waiting there approached the couple. Totally overwhelmed by the situation and not knowing whether to interfere or not, I held my breath, paralysed. Luckily, the potential thief – being less than a meter away – changed his mind and took a turn to the left – probably because the elderly couple was standing amidst a larger cluster of people which would have made the situation more risky. All of this, they had not even noticed.

This incident makes it very clear that walking is not just a way of getting yourself from A to B but is also a way of communicating – whether you are aware of it or not. To me, this makes walking around in Pretoria an entirely new and demanding undertaking as I am not only constantly checking my surroundings but also the way I walk. I’d even go as far as claiming that walking in Pretoria calls for a different “Bewusstseinsspannung” which might be loosely translated as ‘mode of consciousness’ – a phenomenological term that was coined by Alfred Schütz. Following William James, Schütz argues for the existence of multiple ‘provinces of meaning’ that form parts of people’s lifeworlds. Schütz names for example the dream world, the world of play, theatre and the paramount everyday world that each stipulate specific modes of consciousness and attention towards one’s surroundings.

However, how you perceive your everyday world can be dramatically different depending on the social, political, cultural etc. context. Although at the beginning, living in South Africa surely was extraordinary for me, now after having stayed there for more than nine months in total, I have found my working and living routines and become accustomed to another way of life. The extraordinary (at least most of the time) has made way for the ordinary, the everyday. And yet, my South African everyday world requires a very different mode of consciousness and attention than my everyday world at home which even becomes obvious in the seemingly small differences in the way I walk.

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