Africa, a romantic name. A
name that brings to my mind the color of rich brown creamy chocolate. Africa is the land of heat and dust, but also beauty, nature, and endless possibilities. The land of great diversity, of great riches and great need, devastating sickness, and political instability. A land that produced many orphans.
Africa…the name has always held an appeal on me…Mary, my friend and I were both intrigued by the open “apartheid” (division between white and black people) in South Africa and by the justice struggles. We were determined to make a trip to the black town city SOWETO where Nelson Mandela was said to live after he was relieved from the prison.
We arrived in the hustle and bustle International Airport of Johannesburg at 10 o’clock on a Friday night, bone tired after more than 24 hours flying. Airports all look alike after some time. The International Airport in Johannesburg is no different than many other big ones and it did nothing to prepare us for the culture shock that we were walking into.
The combination of friendship between my very blond, blue eyed, white skinned friend, and my humble chocolate color skin is something that South Africa people didn’t know and certainly did not appreciate. I could have been Mary’s companion, her nanny or her cook but not her friend. This put us in sometimes in circumstances in the streets that were barely safe. The verbal hostilities that we endured escalated sometimes in throwing of bottles or stones to us. We could prevent worse only because we run!
Johannesburg is a huge city. The streets are always full with people. The black part of the city is worth your time to visit. Big black men dressed in blue or orange overalls, carrying picks, or other tools for their jobs. Tall black women, on their head big baskets filled with fruits, vegetables or beats thronged the streets. Some slender brown girls had their babies wrapped on their back in a colorful sling. They were dressed in beautiful African dresses. Everybody walked quickly going to their destination it being the market or the job that they had. The street where full of busses. All kind, all colors and all ages. Most of the busses did not have windows or even a door. They were piled with people, luggage, market stuff and even some goat and chickens.
When we walked the pave ways most of the people stepped off to give Mary the way of the pass.
We stopped to eat the rich thick tortilla filled with curry chicken and cooked potato. We purchased beats and handmade earrings. The kaleidoscope of colors, smells and noise mingle with the dogs and with the buses fighting for the same streets. The dust of the street filled our eyes and ears.
We took the bus-for-blacks and endured the stares of the people going on with their daily routine. Later that day we took the bus-for-whites. In this bus, I could only stand in the back while Mary could sit in the front. Out of solidarity, Mary stood with me. I could feel the eyes of the other black people applauding us. But from the front seats emerged a silent scorn while they scoffed at the “Americans”.
Living under the pressure of apartheid was not easy and soon we joined a group of other young people from all over the world and we ended up in the country Lesotho. Lesotho, with his capital Maseru, has a unique feature that as far as I know no other country has. Lesotho is a country surrounded by South Africa. It is a country within another country with an independent government. In the time of my travels, it was a King! I met his son the Prince once when we were drinking tea in the only hotel that Maseru had.
The streets of Maseru were not so good and clean as downtown Johannesburg. Arriving at the airport we tried to get a taxi but there was none to get. An older man offered to drive us to the youth house. It was dark and icy cold since it is winter time in South Africa when it is summer here. The paved street had finished sometime before. We followed a muddy bumpy side road to come to the ill illuminated YMCA building.
Our friends were there.
We talked until the middle of the night. Talking politics was a popular pass time activity in Lesotho. People would stand in the streets, around burning fires, while talking the latest in politics. South Africa’s laws and regulations where the hottest topics for discussions. Most of the men from Lesotho worked in South Africa but commuted to Lesotho on weekends to be with their family since the black families could not live in the city.
Some of the men were gold or diamonds minors (horrible jobs being for weeks on the time under the grounds, sleeping and living in barracks not fit for animals.)
Then we met a local church youth group.
We decided to join them to go up in the mountains to build a bakery for the women of a village named Semonkong. I never build anything in my life before but we decided that it would be ‘fun’ to serve in that way. The church would provide food and lodging so even though we were not making money we were not spending either. And we hoped to find a way to go into the black hometown Soweto just outside of Johannesburg to try to find Mr. Mandela.
By now we knew that a white and a black friend traveling together in South Africa would not be safe without proper preparation. Not on the white-only-streets of Jo-Burg and certainly not in the Hate-All-White-Culture of Soweto.
We met with the two project coordinators of the youth group, their African names being; Mbale, Unkutu. But we quickly baptized them, James and John. We prepared to travel the next day. The truck would leave at 6 o’clock in the morning. Mary and I discussed what the probability would be of the truck actually leaving on time. We decided not to take any chances and just be there.
With pain and suffering, we made sure we were out of the YMCA at 5:45 to walk the distance to the church where the truck would be waiting for us. It was COLD…
The homeless still stood around their burning trash fires and we wish we could join them, but this particular group was not our regular young group. We shuffled passed them, hiding Mary’s blond hair as good as possible while a shawl was draped over her face.
We reached the church on the strike of 6. And to our surprise we saw that the truck was already there. Who would have guessed? It looked like this time we had judged correctly. We would be leaving soon.
But we rejoiced too early. We did have the truck but not the driver. James and John showed up and left again to find the driver. At 8.30 they came back without the driver.
They took off again. We just hang around, waiting and waiting. Before noon, sure enough, all the parties gathered around the truck. And the truck was ready to roll.
Mary and I were hungry, but we didn’t dare to walk away to find something to eat since we expected to leave any moment. Lesotho doesn’t have a fast-food restaurant on every corner. Or on any corner for that matter. You could buy from the street vendors if you trusted them or cook your own food. Neither of these possibilities was available to us this morning.
James and John assured us that we would be in Semonkong in two hours.
That was good news. Just two more hours and we would get food.
The truck started to circle the mountain and climbed slowly. The top looked awfully high to us and we dared not think of the brakes under the truck or conditions of the tires. We noticed however that after two hours we were just on the second circle around the mountain. After 4 more hours and excoriating pain in our legs, (we were sitting on top of the tools and there was almost no legroom) we dared to ask again about the arriving time. We explained that we were very hungry.
“Oh, I have some great food,” offered James beaming. “It is a specialty in Lesotho, you will love it.”
“You have food?” “Where?” We haven’t seen any evidence of eatable stuff in the car.
“Here!” Said James triumphantly. “I have it right here, next to me.” And he held out a package folded in the newspaper. When he saw that we hesitated he opened the package and presented us with a smoked sheep head. It was a whole head. The skin was gone but other than that it looked complete. It was hacked in two. The original eyes, brains and tongue were smoked in the head.
When he saw us backing off he laughed and gave John half of the sheep head. Both talked and laughed some more while picking the bones clean.
And we paid dearly for our choices. We had to fast that day. It was 11 o’clock at night that we arrived in Semonkong. Almost 12 hours after we started driving. And it was too late to expect the people to cook for us.
Semonkong turned out to be a small village, high in the mountains. The small round houses were organized around a big open space where the bus stopped once a day. Everything was walking distance. There was one small store on the mountain, but the people would grow most of what they needed to eat. There was one car, owned by the doctor. Most people had mules or an occasional horse. The kids run free over the streets and seemed to find games to entertain themselves all the time. The women in this village kept their garden and were in the process of building their first outdoor big oven to be able to bake the tin bread that was so popular with them. The church was providing most of the funds and some free labor. Hence the group of young students that came to work. Winter is the only time they can do such a big project since they plant and tend to the fields in summer to provide enough to eat for the harsh winters.
The snow laid down in thick layers. I sunk unpleasantly until my knees in it when I came out of the truck.
I tried to ask a woman for a bathroom but could not make her understand my needs. I did not want to ask James and John knowing that this would have been inappropriate in their eyes. When one of the ladies saw me jumping up and down in the universal sign language she pulled me to an out of the way small building high on the top of the mountain. It was clearly the outhouse. I was relieved that somebody understood my dilemma. She waited politely for me to go in.
To my surprise, it was not a building, but just two walls giving the impression of a building. As far as the eye could reach I could see the mountains stretching in front of me. With the moon shining and the white snow, it was a gorgeous moment. But my predicament was bigger. No walls, no privacy, and no toilet. The hole in the floor was all there was. I decided for the 100st time that day to make the most of it. And relieved I walked back with Umm-Bassa, the pretty girl that took me under her wings.
She took the other girls and me to the house of the major that had agreed to house “the Americans”. There was no way I could convince any person in South Africa that I was a black Dutch. In their eyes, Dutch people were the oppressors. Dutch people were white and they were the enemy. Accepting me as a (black) Dutch would make me an enemy to and at risk of being attacked or killed. So for the sake of friendship, Mary and I settled on being a black and a white American.
We slept in a concrete house that night in our sleeping bags and on the icy floor. We were frozen and huddled together. But we managed to sleep well.
The next morning we saw for the first time this beautiful landscape of the mountains. What a fabulous part of the world have we arrived in? We had no eyes to take in all the beauty. Even the mountains in Switzerland would be jealous.
We received our breakfast consisting of steamed cabbage while enjoying the view.
The women of the village circled us, politely looking us over. We smiled to them and with signs invited them to come closer. They looked at Mary with distrust but shuffled to me. The boldest one of them touched my hair and skin. When it proofed to be the real black thing she laughed out loud encouraging the rest to touch me. They had never met a real black lady that behaved as a white person and even befriends whites.
We made friends for life in this mountains working together to get this bakery going.
That first day was spent mostly in getting used to each other, developing some hand motions that would work and gathering stones (under the snow) to build.
When we finally stopped for lunch we huddled together in the clubhouse. The heater was provided by two piles of burning trash inside the building. It was nice hot in the clubhouse but also very smoky. My eyes were watering and scratchy. I accepted my portion of stewed cabbage and gulped it down. It was warm.
My new friends came to sit around me and we started a conversation with the help of James and John’s translation. They started to eye Mary from up-close and I took a golden lock of Mary’s hair and offered them to feel it. Squeals of laughter followed as even the boys came around. We resume working for just a little bit after the break because it was getting darker and none of the houses had electricity. We arrived at our host house to receive our portion of steamed cabbage. And we called it a day as soon as it was too dark to see. Candles were expensive and we did not want to misuse our hostess supply.
We continue with this rhythm for two more weeks. With our new friends, we worked and played a lot. We build snowmen, something that they did not know how. (What a shame with all that snow lying around.) Also, we originated a snowball fights. Girls against boys. Some of the courting couples used the snowballs to express their love for each other and we enjoyed being part of the romances.
When we left Semonkong it was with tears and a promise to come back ‘one day’.
For now our goal was to find a way to sneak into Soweto to locate Nelson Mandela. With the help of our friends-for-life James and John we hired a professional taxi driver. He knew his way around in Soweto and even to Mandela’s house. We took off, in the backseat of the taxi. The tinted windows of the taxi screened Mary. But we were prepared to lie down if the taxi driver requested it.
To our surprise, we reached Mandela’s house in less than 30 minutes after we arrived in Soweto. We got out of the car and started making pictures. I don’t know what we expected but certainly not a regular brick building with a big open inviting porch. All of this behind a low brick wall that I could peek easily over. No special protection! No cameras, no guards, nothing! A regular house for a fabulous man.
At the gate, there was a gatekeeper if you could call him that. He was a young boy. Not older than eighteen years. He was dressed in cut off old jeans and slugged t-shirt. A second gatekeeper appeared when he heard our voices asking to meet Mr. Mandela. This one was not much older and not better dressed. Young or not, the doormen would not budge. We could NOT see Mr. Mandela, and if we came from a Dutch country (as our passports showed) CERTAINLY not.
We were devastated. All this effort, all this planning, so close and then not be able to see Mr. Mandela? Mary came short of offering the boys a date when the biggest miracle happened. Mr. Mandela stepped out of his house to say goodbye to Mrs. Mandela that on that moment was leaving the house. He was casually dressed in a gray pants and white long sleeve shirt. His sleeves were rolled up and he was carrying his almost 2-year-old grandson. He looked relaxed and at peace although I did not know what I anticipated. How should somebody look after 28 years of unjust prison time? I had no idea.
He glanced at us and then proceeded to wave out his wife. When she left he came over to talk to us. I need to say that again, TO TALK TO US.
We were excited. Actually we were so thrilled that we could only stare at Mr. Mandela. We were completely ignoring his questions. I looked at his beautiful face. What a charisma radiated out of that man. What a peace. The lines in his face made it more interesting and told a story all by themselves. His eyes shone with interest. He smiled softly and knowingly. He invited us on his porch…
The taxi driver almost slapped us to get us moving. We snapped out of it and started answering some questions.
Mr. Mandela said: “Why don’t you make some pictures?” Our camera hangs forgotten on my neck. The taxi driver snatched it and started making pictures of us with Mr. Mandela and then demanding that we took pictures of him with Mr. Mandela too.
Ahhhhh….Africa…a romantic place. But a place to take as it comes. That is how it is best enjoyed.