Fabulous South African Story #1
Recently I have felt more inclined to recall and articulate the stories and experiences that make me proud, relieved, elated, excited to be a native South African(while simultaneously ensuring that I am rendered a stranger elsewhere). Here is one such story:
One afternoon not so long ago, I was driving between East London and Port Elizabeth in the (glorious)Eastern Cape. As I whizzed along the N2 distractedly, admiring the typical Addo-like vegetation, I noticed, (to my intense surprise and disbelief), a large elderly Gogo casually hitching in the other direction[one droopy forefingergesticulating languidly while using her other hand to munch on a mielie (mbona)]. What was unusual about this scene is that she was hitching with an enormous double-door fridge. A brand new one still in the box. OMG! I screeched to a halt and examined her (with amazement) in my rear view mirror. If I hadn’t been rushing to an appointment in a small sedan (that would never fit the fridge) I would have simply HAD to do a u-turn and engage with her. Where was she going with that fridge? What did she imagine were her chances of success? I couldn’t get her out of my head for the rest of the drive and was distracted by incessant thoughts of her while trying to concentrate on my meeting. I could barely wait to see if she was still there on my return journey a few hours later. But most of all I was distracted by admiration. I know that if I needed a fridge (of the giant, double door variety) and if I didn’t have a suitable bakkie to fetch it home in, or if none of my mates had acceptable transport for it either or wereunwilling to help, or if the fridge shop* wasn’t able to deliver it to wherever I lived, then I would simply give up the fantasy of owning such a fridge. I would file it in the “too impossible to achieve” file and settle (grumpily) for a mini bar fridge or simply decide to drink my quarts of Black Label at room temp.
Two hours later, when I approached the spot where I had seen her earlier that day, she was gone. There was no sign of her anywhere along the highway and I knew with complete certainty that she had achieved the impossible and was presiding over her homestead or her shebeen, arms folded across her substantial bosom, lips pursed in satisfaction as she regarded that fridge – obediently setting about the business of cooling her crates of Stony, marewu, utywala and Black Label.
She would have seen nothing exceptional in what she had achieved that day.But I was utterly inspired and completely awe-struck. I was speechless (briefly) at how she had managed to operate in a dimension that was in no way restricted by ordinary limitations. I mean jeepers if you can even contemplate the possibility of hitchhiking from someremote rural village to a Port Elizabethmall and home again to buy a giant fridge, you have got to be an astonishing human. If you can actually pull it off, well then you are in a completely different league. The adjectives that spring to mind are: boundless, limitless,infinite…. And the astonishing reality is that where I come from this mindset is not unusual. People are simply not immobilised by ordinary notions of impossibility. They are in possession of a particular brand of indomitable, boundless, practical, “boer-maak-‘n-plan-like” optimism that is not uncommon in South Africa. I am astonished, energized and inspired on a daily basis by this approach to life and challenges. It is part of what I believe will make us great. I need to be around this attitude. Always.
*(I bought a fridge once at the Lewis Stores in Springbok and they happily did a delivery to Koignaason the Namaqualand coast which involved a 300km round trip with much of it on dirt roads. This Gogo clearly hasn’t discovered Lewis Stores!)
Fabulous South African Story #2
I was having a bad day. A bad week in fact. For various unrelated reasons I had been made particularly and painfully aware of the fact that I was now firmly in the middle aged/menopausal/stout middled and therefor (inevitably) invisible bracket. First World problems.I had lectured myself about graciously accepting this phase of life and focusing my thoughts on other more significant and worthy things but had found my lectures to myself particularly annoying all week. (In fact I even felt inclined to try some teenage eye rolling in my own direction). Unusually, even my gym session had done little to restore my habitually robust self-confidence and good humor. Also, the session had left me behind schedule with no time to shower or change into anything more forgiving than my lycra shorts. So, to comfort myself on my way to the office, I darted into a coffee shop to grab a steadying cappuccino (as one does). As I burst through the double doors the person at the counter (short, beaming, spherical, BOISTEROUS) gasped in (what I later established to be) astonished admiration and then, at the very top of her loudhailer type lungs bellowed the following in my direction: “OWHU MHAAI GHO-HOD SISI! I LHHHUUUUVV YHO BHODY!! OHWUU MHAAI GHO-HOD!! (again) UYA JHEEMA? (Do you gym?) DO YHU RHUN?? OWHU I EHM INSPIRE-HUD! *
I was now frozen with confused bewilderment in the doorway and the entire restaurant had stopped what they were doing (pork sausages mid-way to mouths, coffee cups suspended in mid air) and every pair of eyes had swiveled round to fix me with a startled stare. They were understandably perplexed. Who on earth was she talking about? Clearly not the deer-in-the headlights middle-aged chick in lycra in the doorway. In my first genuine effort to embrace my recently acquired invisibility I leopard-crawled as unobtrusively as possible to the counter, pressed myself against the wall and murmured an order to my praise singer (Umbongi= Praise Singer therefor “Bongi” from now on) in a half-whisper. Mercifully the clientele slowly drifted back to their meals and me and Bongi had a chat about the worthy struggle of consistent exercise and the hardship of accepting that wine and cup cakes are not an actual food group. I crept out of the shop a few minutes later clutching my coffee, imagining the diners, collectively, critically rating my rear view.
In the blessed safety of my bakkie I paused to recalibrate and process what had just happened. I was still embarrassed but I was also astounded by the completely spontaneous, fervent, WHOLEHEARTED generosity of Bongi’s engagement with me. Wow. I tried to imagine a similar exchange between two women in Bristol, or Berlin or Brisbane or Boston maybe…but my brain kept buffering from the improbability of it.
Human beings are as a rule so cool, so reluctant to be impressed, so disinclined to be anyone else’s praise singer or cheerleader, so easily made bitter, resentful, churlish at a blessing or good fortune of others.
But that is just not the norm in South Africa. The event in the coffee shop flood-lit the reality that it is not unusual to experience Bongi’s unique brand of impulsive generosity of spirit. I experience it all the time. In fact I had experienced it just the other day in the pouring rain when my daughter and I were sitting in the snug warmth of my bakkie and we pulled up at a red robot behind an open truck full of passengers huddled together under a yellow tarpaulin against the elements. While I was wrestling with my usual privileged guilt which erupts in these situations my daughter was waving and grinning at the passengers. The tarpaulin was pushed back and 20 faces emerged, bursting into enormous cheerful smiles. They waved and beamed and mouthed helloooos at each other until we went our separate ways. And the generosity of their spirit hit me like a sledgehammer. How would I feel if I was those dudes in the rain after a long day? Pissed off? Probably. Bitter? Almost certainly. And here is why this generosity of spirit is important: its not to ease my guilt at being privileged, or to make me feel like a lycra clad goddess (instead of a middle aged matron). Its real value lies in the fact that it compels me by example to become a better, more open hearted person. It inspires me to up the generosity index of my own spirit. It challenges me to be a better human. Every day.
*I intend no disrespect by writing this phonetically – it was without doubt a combination of Bongi’s sheer volume and her fabulous accent which made her outburst so astoundingly wonderful.
Fabulous South African Story #3
These stories are from “Tri the Beloved Country” (my 6772km trip around South Africa on foot, bike and kayak):
My mate Dave and I had been running along the Wild Coast pretty much the whole day, crossed the daunting Mnenu River on a full outgoing tide just as the sun was setting and toiled up the hill on the northern bank hoping to see some sign of the Kraal Backpackers where we were planning to spend the night. Oh dear, nothing but a tiny scattering of huts. Maybe someone could shed light on where we were? We diffidently knocked on a door, interrupted a family having supper and asked if anyone could give us an idea of the distance to the Kraal. They looked at us in surprise. What were these disheveled Mlungus doing on their doorstep? “Eish,” was the response. “Eish. It is far.” “How far?” “Very, very far.”
With an undetermined(but very far) distance still to go in the dark along cliffs and across rivers we felt a twinge of reluctance. Dave and I went into a huddle before deciding that we had little choice but to throw ourselves at the mercy of the folk whose dinner we had interrupted. We asked (extremely apologetically) if there was a possibility that somebody could be found at this late hour to give us a lift (an Uber? Perhaps?), or lend us a headlamp, or offer us a place to stay ‘til morning. All of these were extremely unreasonable requests. (I mean imagine you are settling down to dinner in the suburbs and some mad strangers pitch up at your door asking how far it is to Benoni? You tell them it’s pretty far and then they ask if they can have a lift or spend the night. WTF? Some people would tell them to bugger off or call the cops or at best give them 10 bucks towards theirtaxi fair. And that’s if they even let them in in the first place!) The family was very gracious. But now it was their turn to go into a huddle. Eventually a fellow who introduced himself as “Aas” (Bait?) and who looked about 12,emerged from the huddle and agreed to help us. He led us to what had once been a bakkie and seemed to have been re-constructed from various mismatched parts of a number of wrecks. I felt a distinct twinge of anxiety. Aas respectfully removed(as opposed “opening”) the passenger door for Dave and me to climb into the cab before securing it with wire. He hopped through the window on his side into the driver’s seat and we set off. Within seconds I was frozen with fear – it was immediately obvious that the vehicle had no brakes, no lights and its steering cable was not operational. We lurched along the rutted tracks, which skirted the cliffs and plunged down 45’ inclines weaving and dodging to avoid cattle, goats, pigs and children. In the gathering dusk we could see barely 50m ahead (possibly a good thing) and Aas would flick the headlights on for a couple of seconds to get a quick glimpse of the closest obstacles/hairpin bends. Fortunately his hooter was robust (in comparison to the other vehicle components) and a constant blaring seemed to keep the path relatively clear. He would begin to frantically rotate the steering wheel about 400m ahead of the numerous hairpin bends with zero response from the hurtling chassis. At the last second the desperate rotations would take effect and we would miraculously take the corner as if we were on rails. This nightmare continued for about 90 minutes and I slowly became less rigid with terror as I realized that Aas was possibly the most masterful driver I have ever encountered and that his skill was able to compensate completely for the wreck’s numerous shortcomings. Eventually, after what felt like being on a particularly terrifying amusement park ride for 2 hours, the vehicle lurched to a shuddering halt on the bank of a stream. Aas hopped out, stripped down to his underwear, gesticulated to us that we should follow suit and plunged into the river. He led us for a further 3 or 4km in the dark, across a long beach, up a cattle track, through a sleepy village until we were deposited at the entrance to the backpackers. Our guide then cheerfully began his return journey – a round-trip of about 4 hours just because we asked and because he was anxious that we should reach our destination safely.
Later on the same journey, I was cycling near the northern border between Botswana and South Africa when somebody pulled up alongside me in a cloud of dust. He unfolded himself from his SUV and I stopped dead in my cleats as he revealed his great height and size. We were in a province of giants and I had become accustomed to massive people, but this fellow was in a league of his own. And not just with regard to size! He introduced himself as Peter and then earnestly engaged me on the whole “where have you come from and where are you going?…are you NUTS?” conversation and then started quizzing me about what I needed, where I was going to get water, where we were planning to spend the night etc. When I was able to get a word in, I mentioned that we had hoped to find accommodation in Bray (some 70km away). “Well, leave that to me!” he insisted urgently beginning to punch numbers into his mobile. And “Here, this is my card, phone me when you are approaching Bray and I will have sorted it all out for you!” He disappeared in a vast cloud of dust and energy leaving me feeling slightly bewildered but very grateful. 70 weary kilometers later I pedaled into Bray and was shepherded directly to the house of someone called MC where it seemed we had become the perfect excuse for a party. The neighbors and the dominee arrived lugging a cool box the size of a coffin (full of beer obv) and soon the braai fires where in full swing ready to grill an entire beast and fresh kob all the way from Swakupmond. MC, his Ouma, the dominee, the entire neighborhood and Peter showered us with food, beer and hospitality and regaled us with hilarious stories about the district. What a welcoming, amusing, cultured, eccentric, if somewhat bizarre collection of people.
The next morning, following a night of intermittent sleep because of the non stop BRAY-ing of the local donkey (seriously!) the whole family was up at the crack of dawn under the management of Ouma, to prepare us a world class, stretchmark inducing breakfast of scrambled eggs, mince, cheese, toast, coffee, orange juice and home made fig jam. An elaborate takeaway picnic was prepared for us to avoid the risk of low blood sugar later in the day. We were sent on our way to Askam weighed down as much by kindness as by the boundless provisions.
What these stories so perfectly illustrate is the astonishing willingness (even eagerness) of South Africans to go completely out of their way to help people. Even if those people are strangers to them with nothing in common and no ability to repay the kindness. This Ubuntu is our national treasure. It was conceived and birthed here and it has burnished us all with its goodness, whether we know it yet or not.
Fabulous South African Story #4
We were running along a beautiful stretch of the Wild Coast for a week in July last year in celebration a significant milestone of a good friend. It was early in the morning on our last day of running and we were high on life, adventure and the exquisite beauty of our playground. (It was also the day that our comrade, Neville the Goat Farmer, taught us how to select an “elegant she-goat” from a herd of lessor goats. But that is another story altogether and certainly one worth telling.)Climbing a steep hill near Umngazanawe came across a band of women heading down the same hill in the opposite direction towards the river, balancing enormous bundles of washing on their heads. They were singing together in perfect harmony. With the morning sun behind them it was an uncommonly beautiful sight. We greeted each other enthusiastically and repeatedly and most of the women proceeded on their way, but the Sistah in the picture wasn’t yet satisfied. She seemed particularly curious about us and inclined to deeper engagement. “Where are you going?” she asked in Xhosa. “To Umngazi Bungalows!” we replied. “Yho! That is still very far and there are big rivers to cross!” “Yes”, we agreed “but we have all day and we are young and strong.” (The abovementioned milestone was a 50thbirthday so we needed to make the point about youth to any potential audience.)“Where have you come from?” she asked. “Nqabara River,” we replied. “Hayibo! That is also very, very far. Baphambeneabelungu!” she chortled to herself. (The whiteys are nuts, basically.)“Yes,” we agreed, it was far. We didn’t comment on the “nuts” part. By now I had time to examine our washerwoman and realised that she was ancient. And that the bundle on her head was enormous and looked too heavy, even for her sinewy neck. “Awu, Makhulu, isn’t your load too heavy for you?” I asked, crossly wondering to myself why her lazy young grandson hadn’t been instructed to help. I decided that I should offer to help her. I started to panic about the plight of rural women. I deliberated about the possibility of foreign funding for a village Laundromat (at the top of the hill). For many village Laundromats in fact…My brain went into over-drive frantically making up a story about her life, her circumstances, her (clearly non-existent) levels of contentment and purpose. I decided she was the victim of a tragic patriarchal system. I started drafting an essay in my head …..She was studying my face with keen interest and was now actually (toothlessly) chuckling at me. “It is indeed heavy,” she said, suddenly serious,“ but I am happy to carry it because I am also very strong.” Her words were rich with gravitas. They flipped a switch in my brain and I stood staring silently after her as she disappeared regally down the hill, like a dancer, skillfully, gracefully, balancing the bundle on her head, her hips swaying like a young girl’s, singing in a rich, melodious voice as she went.
I realised with a shock of clarity that I had got her story all wrong. She was in fact content and purposeful and empowered and connected to her community. And I saw in that moment that every person has the right to tell their own story, uninterrupted. And when they do so the rest of us should listen to those stories for all we are worth. I was wrong to make up my own story about her life. I was wrong to jump to conclusions about her story, or to fill in the gaps myself. I was impatient and arrogant and it (almost) robbed both the storyteller and the (very poor) listener of a priceless opportunity to connect.
Our stories are powerful, because fear and suspicion dissolve when we know the whole story. Our stories are vital because they beget empathy and connection and respect. Lets start a story-telling revolution. Today. I want to listen to your whole story and tell you mine.
Singing songs unique to the women of her village