Story walking

“We’ve learned to fly the air like birds, we’ve learned to swim the seas like fish, yet we haven’t learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters.”

– Martin Luther King

Miyere ole Miyandazi  walking

 Here is a story and article written for this blog by a fellow story teller, Howard Drakes:

It was dark when they arrived. The only light in these rolling hills, covered in seas of sugar cane, came from this lone house. The dogs announced this strange presence, but not in a welcoming way.

A ragtag bunch stood before a small gate. Tired. Weary from a long day. Unsure. Looking for a place to stay.

Two had been together for a few days now. The taller was used to walking, many thousand kilometres had passed this way. With a heavy backpack, the other was lost in life, but his curiosity would not go away. The last had joined this journey by chance that afternoon. His intentions, it would seem, were around escape, survival, and new horizons.

Two had thought that one would be the key to unlock the required support. The fates had chosen to write their collective story another way.

A man, suspicious, appeared as a shadow from inside the light. A story was told once again. But in this place, this night, the chance for connection had begun to fade.

Three walked off into the unknown, soon to be followed by a pair of headlights. It led them passed a complex of inviting buildings. Down, they descended to a tidal river, a long beach, and a distant town sparkling bright. 

While one tested the moving water, the shadow-man emerged from a four wheeled machine. Free now from security beams and bathed in a full moon’s light, he was transformed. Human again.

Story is invoked once more.

“I spent many years in East Africa, I know the Maasai. I wish you the best on your travels.”

Invitation. Understanding. Connection. Farewell.

And so, like a flower, life unfolds to reveal itself. Exactly when or how, this is beyond any ability to know.

But story’s spirit was and always is, and forever shall it grow.

***

Walking is primarily concerned with movement, but it is also about story. A journey’s beginning is built on story. Each pair of legs carries its history, a library of tales that bring it to the point of departure. The first step is confirmation of commitment to the writing of this new story, to exploring the others that it will uncover and inspire. Each freshly planted footprint is another paragraph in a living, unfolding narrative. And when tired legs arrive, stories are exchanged, even forgotten, and new ones made.

Past, present, future, become interconnected threads of a living journal in which what was, what is, and what will be play on one another. Walking, fuelled by the choices of yesterday, happens today, to create tomorrow. Story begins, finds the middle, and closes at the end.

Walking, like storytelling, is about invitation – a call to go on a journey. There is vulnerability in venturing into the unknown, not knowing if what lies around the next corner is a pleasant welcome or suspicion, fear, and even rejection – not all journeys find a willing home. But thoughts about the unknown must be balanced by belief, trust, and commitment – to the spark of the journey and to walking towards its desired end.

The literal journey is walking, story the figurative one.

Story, like walking, is as old as humankind. First it was oral, until it became written. It was written until it became audible. It was audible until it became visual. Today, being digital, story can be any and everything. It has the power of any time and every space. Whereas before we walked to experience the world, today we can touch all that was and is, while writing what will be, on the wings of story.

A wise man, whose rich and numerous years have authored countless colourful tales, offered this: “Everyone’s life is a book. Mine might be a thousand pages, yours only one hundred, but each and every life is a story that can fill a book.”

And so story becomes the bridge. Communication. It allows us to cross things that separate. Understanding. To meet with unknown worlds and experiences. Connection. To listen, to share, to know. Exchange…

***

This story was written in footsteps made and left in Zululand. For two months Howard and Miyere ole Miyandazi walked from Durban to Mbazwana, a town not far from the  border. Each day was determined only by the intention to walk, to arrive somewhere and meet people, to connect. In the process, many new stories were made and, as life would have it, a bigger one was captured. The tale of a journey from Nairobi to Cape Town on foot, of walking without paper passport or money, maps or planned routes, a mission to find if the kind human still exited in humankind. Read more…

The Rat Goes Home – a story about belonging

Where the story comes from

Sometimes I dream significant bits of story, but only once in a blue moon do I dream a complete story like this one. I can distinctly remember only three such occasions and this is the first time I write it down. In writing I fleshed out some of the images here and there, as things came to me, but the bulk of it especially after the ‘Ten years later’ mark was all dreamt in clear images, tastes and feelings.  The power of the new frame this story offers is still with me three days later as I write it down. I am still wallowing in its beauty and the peace it has given me.

The Rat Goes Home

They called her ‘The Rat’ from the first day she set foot in the orphanage. It was the street boys hanging like monkeys outside the gates  that gave it to her: “Hey look, today they brought in a rat!” shouted their leader, Big Daddy, a strongly built dark boy of about 12 “Hey Rat, look out  for the Cat!”, he mocked and they laughed.

She was a scrawny thing with sharp eyes, a narrow face and scruffy hair braided into a thin wispy tail in her neck, loose bit standing up and framing her face. She was six then and her father brought her. He must have been her father because he had the same scruffy hair, only his extended to a beard and his eyes were tired and sad. “I will fetch you tonight at seven  he said, and she finally let go of his hand and took the hand of Aunt Rosa, the head mistress of the orphanage.

He never did come back.

Aunt Rosa was kind and strict. She had invented a ritual for all the girls to help them make peace with their circumstances and except their lot. Whether they thought this was a kind thing to do or a horrid thing of her stricter side, did not matter, they had to do it anyway. Before bedtime every single night she would line them up and make them say as a group: “No father is coming for me and no mother is waiting for me at home. I am here, this is my family.””

The Rat had her own words: “My daddy won’t pick me up at seven and my mommy is not waiting for me at home, I am here, this is my family.”

Soon everyone said The Rat’s words and not Aunt Rosa’s.

This did not help to stop children from running away regularly, and The Rat was no exception. But she never ran away to go home. She ran away to walk the streets and play in the fields. Soon she made friends with the street boys – the gang of kids who had homes. But not good homes.

These kids knew about hunger. They would catch mice and grasshoppers to eat and they knew where to find berries and edible flowers. They knew how to steal too. But they also knew how to have fun: chasing dogs, climbing trees, teasing other children and making a general nuisance of themselves.

After some time with the boys, The Rat would end up going back to the orphanage and aunt Rosa would give her a scolding, send her to bed without food and make her say her lines a hundred times: “My daddy won’t pick me up at seven, and my mommy is not waiting for me at home…”

But next morning she would get an extra helping of porridge and a suffocating hug from aunt Rosa, grateful to have her back in one piece.

This constant running away did not help Aunt Rosa to be nice with the street boys – especially Big Daddy. Whenever she saw them outside the gates, she would come out and chase them off with a broom stick shouting insults at them. They took to calling her ‘The Witch’, but not to her face. Only once she actually managed to strike Big Daddy a blow, and he swore that from that day on he was bewitched, although no-one could tell the nature of the spell.

Inside the orphanage The Rat also made friends. The best of these was Cat, short for Cathy. Short for Catherine. Cat was known to bite and scratch especially if she felt some boy was getting too close – which wasn’t very close at all. She was shy and never spoke more than a few words. This was why she made a good friend to The Rat. She would listen and not boss her about. Cat liked The Rat in turn because The Rat, didn’t boss her about either and she often took Cat’s ideas and advice to heart.

Ten years passed.

Then came The Dame to the orphanage. The Dame ran a wash house in the city 3 and half hours’ drive away. She wanted able bodied young girls to cook, clean and wash for other people. She took any girls that were sixteen and ready for such work. The girl would get a featureless grey frock to wear, so as not to draw any attention. She would be given a bed and food and she would get her number. This number would serve as her designation, identifying what kind of work she is doing, what team she is in and what dormitory she belongs to.

Aunt Rosa was always glad for The Dame, because whenever she took a girl, there was room for another baby to enter the orphanage. She was glad too because there were many worse things for a young woman to become other than a washer woman. She knew that The Dame’s girls were not spoilt and had few luxuries, but she also knew they were kept safe and given basic sustenance –even though the work was gruelling and their hours were long.

Some time before the Dame came, Aunt Rosa called The Rat to her small study. She had sent many girls with the Dame before, but this one would take it harder than most.  It will be difficult for her to adapt to the rules and comply to the regulations of the wash house.

After hearing the news, The Rat looked like she was caught in a trap. She moved aimlessly about and tossed her head from side to side, making her braid swish. “Do I have to go?” Can I never come back? Why can’t I help out here?”

Aunt Rosa looked at her. She saw the slender young body now filling out at the hips and the breasts. The untidy brown hair in its ever present braid. Not a beauty queen, but definitely not ugly. Besides, bad boys like that Big Daddy didn’t care what kind of girl they hunted down…

She shuddered. “Better safe than sorry my dear,” she said. Now you have the rest of today and tomorrow to pack up and say your goodbyes. You will leave for the city in the morning day after tomorrow.”

Cat, a year younger than The Rat, didn’t like this a bit. She had been to the city before and had seen the grey clad girls walking with their heads down all over the place. Scurrying like mice from task to task, each with their number printed on their dresses just above the left breast.

“They’re not allowed to talk to anyone while they work. Or look anyone in the eye. You know?”

“So what, it’s all there is. Next year you can join me.”

“Oh no,” said Cat, “I will run away before that”

“You?” The Rat said in surprise, “you’ve never run away. That is why Aunt Rosa takes you into town when she goes there.”

“Yes, and that is why it will work and why they will never catch me. I will go far to a place no-one can find me.”

“Oh”, was all The Rat could answer. She believed Cat and she also believed that Cat would survive anything.

The next morning The Rat did not have to go to school. She did her chores, packed her things and hung about aimlessly. Everything inside her was upside down. In the late afternoon she heard Big Daddy and the boys calling her name. “Hey Rat, we hear you are leaving us. Come say goodbye.”

By now Big Daddy was twenty-two and leading his gang in looking after themselves, though no-one knew what that meant exactly. Lately when The Rat went out with them they would not go chasing dogs, they would just hang around on the side walk talking until Aunt Rosa would shout at them and call her back. She had given up on staying out with them so long that Aunt Rosa would get upset. She did not like to upset the head mistress anymore.

Now she looked at the boys and saw friends whom she had to say goodbye to. She hurried out and pulled Big Daddy’s cap down over his face and laughed.  He yanked her braid and they all laughed at her indignation. Then one pulled at her blouse and another at her skirt and before anyone knew what was happening she was on the ground and they were trying to keep her down, pulling at her clothes.

Suddenly a fist hit the one that was trying to settle on top of her. He toppled to one side groaning. Another wanted to take his place, but a heavily booted foot struck him in the stomach so that he doubled over. Big Daddy pulled her to her feet and brushed aside the other boys who were stunned and angry.

He walked her down the street and into the fields where they used to catch mice. He took her to a grassy spot between some trees and sat her down. Without a word he bent down and picked a purple sorrel (a little edible flower with a lemony taste). Holding it gently in one of his rough hands he walked a little further and picked another flower. One that The Rat did not know. It was a reddish brown colour and bell shaped. Ever so tenderly Big Daddy slid the purple flower into the bell of the rust coloured one. Then, with shy determination he knelt in front of her and offered it to her. “Taste it”, he said.

Delicately she picked up the gourmet offering and put it in her mouth. It tasted fresher than anything she had ever experienced.  It was crunchy, yet delicate and tender, slightly acidic, but with bitter-sweet flower flavour. “Everyone thinks we go hungry,” he said, “but sometimes, we eat like kings”.

He stood up and she rose beside him. His big bulk suddenly made her feel safer than she had ever felt before. His stubbly brown cheek was so close she could smell him. Ever so softly she brushed her cheek against his and felt a kind of tingle all over.  She wanted to kiss him.

He turn to her, took her hand abruptly and said. “Now let me take you home before the witch curses me forever.”

They returned without another word.

That night The Rat could not settle down. Aunt Rosa stayed with her as she paced the small sparse living room from end to end. “No Father is picking me up at seven, no mother is waiting for me at home.” She kept muttering, but it did not help her settle.

Eventually she sat down in a chair and fell asleep restlessly. Aunt Rosa watched her with eyes full of pity and sorrow. She knew it would be hard, but she did not anticipate her charge to be so upset. This girl who had both broken rules and created new ones, who was both feisty and fragile. She shook her head in resignation and went to bed herself.

The next morning, a little van came to pick up The Rat and her single bag. As she drove off, Cat was looking at her with love and pain in her eyes. Then the street boys shouted obscenities and insults to her. She heard Big Daddy shout: “Good Bye, Rat and good riddance!” She heard Aunt Rosa shout at the boys and she heard the familiar thwack of the broom against the gate. Then she cried.

As the van disappeared around a corner, Cat stormed out past Aunt Rosa in to the street. She walked right up to Big Daddy and slapped his face. “You idiot! She screamed. Is that the last thing you wanted her to remember? Good riddance? The last memory of her life here is that she meant nothing to no-one? Is that how you send her off? You selfish bastard! Now go away and think about something else you could have said that could have made her feel better about herself as she leaves everything she knows behind. Something that could have given her courage instead. Idiot!”

Big Daddy did not say a word and the other boys were equally stunned. The other children gathered around Aunt Rosa in fear and astonishment, they had never heard their cat talk this way or this much.

Now Cat wheeled about and walked straight to Aunt Rosa. The kids made a path in front of her. “And you, Aunt Rosa,  why should the last thing she remember be you hitting the only friend that ever looked out for her? Why do you think she would return to us safely every time she ran away? Would she not have like to think of this place as friendly, rather than full of conflict and fear? You were the only mother she ever knew. You find something nice to say to that boy right now!”

Flabbergasted Aunt Rosa looked from Cat to Big Daddy and back. “Thank you”, she said, but it was  not clear to whom she was speaking.

Then the street boys left in a hurry and Aunt Rosa herded everyone back inside. Cat went to her room and lay on her bed, staring at the ceiling.

That night, after midnight, when Aunt Rosa was still sitting at her writing desk, there was a tap on her window. Weary and uncertain she pulled open the curtain and saw the face of Big Daddy in the light from a street lamp. He gestured for her to open the window. She did, and agile as an eel, he slipped through into the study. She gasped and stood back, fearful.

Big Daddy began to talk. “I am going to get her back. But I need a car. I can drive, I just don’t have a car. I can buy one next month from my savings, but don’t have one now. I work at the restaurant, you know. Chef Robert calls me his Sue. Maybe he will let her be a waitress there. Maybe she could share my room…er…later, I mean, not now. Now she will have to come back here. But the car can wait, I mean the one I am saving for… Maybe I can pay a bit for her boarding? Is her bed still open? Maybe she won’t mind sharing with a baby…er…the baby you get in her place, I mean. Please can I borrow your car?”

Aunt Rosa looked at him. Her lips moved, but no sound came out. Her hands fluttered slightly, but made no clear gesture.

He looked at his watch “If I leave now, I can pick her up at seven.”

Then it was as if she found herself again, she picked up her keys from the table and gave it to him. She looked into his face and said: “I will be waiting for her here, at home”.

 

 

 

 

Instead of freedom we got democracy – woza moya

“Instead of Freedom we got democracy” says John Kani, actor, play wright and executive trustee of the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa. He says the word ‘democracy’ like it is a disappointment – like someone who expected cheese and got tofu instead. As Black South African struggling for freedom during the Apartheid years, he did not fight to be allowed to sit next to a White South African on a bench, he fought to live in my house. It was not political equality, but economic freedom he fought for, he says.
Quoting a character from one of his plays (I think it was “Nothing but the Truth” published in 2002) he says: “ I want the white policeman who killed my son to be identified, judged, sentenced and then from his prison cell to ask for my forgiveness” (paraphrased). All these words get cheers from parts of the audience to whom he is speaking at the Drama for Life African Research Conference entitled: “The unfinished business of Truth and Reconciliation” held last week 20 to 21 Nov at the Soweto Theatre in Gauteng.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission made the perpetrators ask forgiveness and made the victims forgive, but it did not give us justice, says Kani. The TRC was good for some measure of transition, but what it mostly did, was allow our economy to be restored and grow. What it did not do, was shift economic power so that Black South Africans could share equally in the country’s resources. Yes, some people say, a handful of Black South Africans gained power and money, but only through the clever manoeuvring of a few white South Africans who even today, still control the economy.
I am touched and unsettled by his words at the same time. I see that many Black South Africans are still yearning for justice, or payment, or recompense in some way. I hear that the ‘peaceful’ transition after Mandela’s release left many dissatisfied. How do we deliver justice 20 years later? Is it even possible?
Almost 20 years after Mandela was set free, very little has changed in terms of economic power. Only now there is 20 years of pent up frustration without a clear enemy. Throughout the conference we hear of the pain of poverty, teenage pregnancy, HIV and AIDS, increasing unemployment, all related to the largely unchanged socio-economic context of South Africa. One example is the izikhotani phenomenon where young people burn and destroy expensive belongings extravagantly to prove that they are rich enough to not care. Izikhotani translates as “The Lickers” and this African language to lick means to boast. Kids from poor communities are pulled into this phenomenon and we are left to wonder where they get the money to buy these things? The ‘bling’ culture is creating an unhealthy yearning for materialistic wealth.
This stands in glaring contrast to the need for spiritual wealth that is so needed argues singer and icon Sibongile Khumalu in her address at the same conference. How do we restore spiritual wealth? Is this something we can do 20 years later? Is it not altogether too late?
I can’t help but wonder, what would happen if these youngsters and the disappointed older generation get political permission to turn their frustration on white South Africans again? Should I be afraid? Am I afraid?
And then I am on the taxi back from Soweto. I am travelling with a delegate from Ghana with whom I had made friends. I feel honoured and a little uncertain in my role as ‘the guide’. Usually I, as white person, need the guidance of other Black South Africans to teach me the ways of the local taxi culture. Now the roles are reversed – between the two of us, I am the informed one, and though she has the right skin colour, she has none of the assumed experience. Fortunately one of the attendants at the Soweto Theatre takes us to the taxi pick up spot and sends us on our way.
The taxi driver who is supposed to drop us at the Bree taxi rank so that we can catch the taxi home leaves us on a corner with a finger pointing in the vague direction where we will find the taxi rank. We get off and soon discover that we are not near the rank at all. The first man we ask for help points in the same vague direction and asks money for food. He speaks to my Ghanaian friend in a native tongue, but she smiles and explains that she does not understand. “They all just presume I am one of them”. The second man shakes his head uncertainly, but asks another to show us the way. He also points in the same vague direction. Then a short stout but amazingly energetic woman appears in a powerfully pink jacket. “Come, i will show you.”, and then when she hears our story: “Some people just take your money. That driver should not drop you there it is not a good part of town.” Her name is Phindisile (translating as ‘the one who comes again’, or ‘another one ‘ as if to say a repeat of either another daughter or even the coming again of a grandmother who has passed).
We walk 5 blocks this way and that until we get to the taxi rank. She takes us into a very large very dark space reeking of sweat and petrol. Taxis and people everywhere. I hear my friend behind me suck in her breath anxiously. After making several enquiries Phindisile gets us to the right taxi. On the way there she keeps turning back to check that we are still with her (she is moving fast and with purpose). “I am not going to lose you in here, I take responsibility for you, I make sure you get to the right place.” When we get to our taxi, I thank her with a squeeze on the arm and words of deep gratitude. She smiles and leaves – she is obviously in a hurry to get home herself.
On the taxi I look with different eyes at my fellow passengers: there are some who look from me to my Ghanaian friend, seeming to wonder what the connection is, probably thinking she is ‘one of them’, other passengers who simply ignore us completely and some who smile politely, and go back to their own conversations, or thoughts. Again I wonder what would happen if they were given political permission to turn on me. How would their attitudes change? Which of them harbour the same disappointment John Kani mentioned? Which hold the same deep yearning for wealth in the face of economic disempowerment? What assumptions would the curious ones make and will they go from curious to disapproving? Will the ones who ignore me now, become openly hostile? Would I be safe to get onto the taxi with them? Will the smilers now ignore me completely? And the Phindisiles of the world, what choice would they make? Will Phindisile ‘come again’ to my aid?
With Sibongile Khumalu I want to agree: let us call on the Spirit of Africa and seek, no SHARE spiritual wealth before we seek ‘bling’. We need the spirit of ubunthu (togetherness) to flourish, not the every-man-for-himself spirit of unconscious capitalism. I recall the counsel of my friend, fellow speaker and mentor Ingrid Roberts who said that financial wealth only amplifies your level of spiritual wealth. Spiritually rich people who also have money make their society financially and spiritually richer, but spiritually poor people who have money make their society poorer both financially and spiritually.
Phondisile, may you win the Lotto!.
Sibongile Khumalu said: Let us put back the lost parts of the original song Nkosi Sikelela Africa that did not make it into our national anthem – and I want to invite Phindisile, Ingrid and all others like them to join in – as we sing : “Woza Moya” (Come Spirit).
Woza Moya (woza, Moya)
Woza Moya (Woza, Moya)
Woza Moya, oyingcwele
Nkosi sikelela
Thina lusapho lwayo

If you liked this, you may want to read:

‘Making friends in Jozi’

‘Stereo types come from somewhere’

Traveling on Trust’ and

‘Skin Sisters’

Making friends in Jozi (Johannesburg)

Imagine a 40 year old white woman on the side of Republic Road trying to hail a minibus taxi. Not too much of a stretch? Now imagine that this same woman just moved to Jo’burg. She does not know which taxi sign to use to indicate that she wants to go to Randburg, she does not know where to stand exactly so that the taxi expects that she may want a ride and finally, she only has about 40% vision, so she cannot really distinguish a taxi from a four by four family car. How likely is it that she will be able to get a taxi to stop?

Yet, there I was, hailing every token blonde mommy with her 2 darlings in her 4 X 4 hoping against hope… It did not work. I corner the first likely guy (young black guy walking purposefully down the street) and ask him to help. He teaches me about the downward pointing finger to show I want to go to Randburg, he tells me to wait just past the corner after the robot, which is where the taxi might expect me and he walks on. Yet 2 taxi’s drive by without picking me up. I look up and my helper is back.

“No, no, no, they are all showing you that they are full”, I will help.

As we wait, he tells me that he is a cleaner at Cresta and is walking home after his shift ended at 8am this morning. I tell him that I do not see well and that I am new to Jo’burg, having just moved here from the Cape. The taxi comes and as I get in he says: “here is my cell number, tomorrow you call me and tell me where you are , then I will explain the sighns to you. You now have a friend in Jozi”.

I am still smiling touched by this man’s generosity of spirit when my taxi pulls into the road with gusto exactly in the fashion that most irritates my husband when he is behind a taxi. “Don’t they look before they turn into the road?” I can hear him saying.  Behind my taxi a 4 X 4 family van swerves out of the way and honks loudly. The taxi driver honks back, leans over to me and says: “It must be a friend”.

“Everyone in Jozi is a friend it seems”, I muse to muself.

Eight months later and I am travelling a different route in a different taxi. I am now a seasoned traveller and far less confused. This time I am on my way from Empire Road via Emmerentia back to Randburg to take a taxi there to Nicolway to meet my husband. I have an hour to make the trip, but my cell phone is flat (yes, bad planning on my part, but for some reason I let it happen to me often). I seem to be the only passenger in the mini bus taxi – they usually do their best to be a full as possible.

‘You came just for me today’, I joke with the driver and get in.

He grunts shyly.

We are well on our way when he leans back and explains to me that we are taking a detour because there is a traffic cop ahead of us.

A part of me thinks like my indoctrinated white heritage demands: “what does the driver want to hide? These cabs are never properly roadworthy – trash cans on wheels the lot of them”. But I check that voice and ask: “Why is that a problem?”

“It’s weekend and he wants extra money.”

I deduce the rest of the explanation: He will pull us over for nothing and make us pay.

“Okay”, I say and smile. Five minutes later we were still trying to get back on the original route, but as Jo’burg roads go, we have turned to many times in the wrong direction and now we are lost.

I imagine that the driver knows his own route well, but doesn’t explore much off it. He has no idea where we are and how to get back. I look at my watch… The driver is stressing markedly and he feels embarrassed on top of that. Also, he has no way of filling his cab if he is on the wrong roads. Al this I gather from his body language, because, shy as he is, he does not talk to me much.

Don’t worry, i say, “ask someone for directions, everyone in Jo’burg is a friend.” He looks at me doubtfully, but finally slows down to call to a guy walking on the opposite side of the road. They converse in their mix of isiZulu and other languages and the guy comes over, jumps into the cab and starts pointing.

A few minutes later the taxi stops, the guy jumps off and the driver smiles at me: “I am right now.”

“See, everyone in Jozi is a friend”, I say.

My shy driver says nothing, but his hooter is happily honking away calling for more passengers. Soon we fill up and reach Randburg. I ask my driver the sign for Bryonstone  and I change taxi’s.

But the day is not done. The driver I hailed asks me where I am going and when I tell him he shakes his head: “No, you used the wrong sign, we are going to Sandton not Bryonstone. But we will drop you where you can get the right one.” The clock is ticking. Still, I may be lucky to make a quick transfer. At least they are friendly enough to set me on the right way.

They go on honking and smiling picking up more people. Then, after a while: “We changed our minds, we are taking you to Bryonstone.”

I shake my head: everyone in Jozi is a friend – except perhaps the husband now fuming and fretting because I am 15 min late, unreachable via cell phone and he knows I am travelling these @#$%ing taxi’s.

My Afrikaner identity

Let’s talk about adultery.

At a theatre workshop after introducing ourselves, we were asked to complete he sentence “I am…”  Someone said, “I am gay”, another “I am black”, still another I am “Christian”.  And me?  The best I could come up with was “I am Petro” (ny first name).  Yes I am heterosexual, female, white, Afrikaans, 32, a mother and visually disabled.  Yet, none of these things overpower the others to the extent that I could pick it as a primary identity classification.  The question annoyed me so that even now, years later I still feel my heart rate going up as I write about it.  Why this emotional reaction?  How then do I know myself and describe or live that self?  Why does my blood want to boil at a simple question of identity?

Be warned that what I say here is not new, or academically sound or even completely logical.  It is a rambling about my thoughts on the issue of identity.  I will start at one end and see where that leads me.  I am Afrikaans.  Other members of ‘die volk’ will say:  “I am an Afrikaner”, but personally I think that term is so politically loaded that I prefer simply saying I am Afrikaans.  Yet, for me, being Afrikaans is much more that speaking a particular language.  But, the ‘much more’ can not be defined in terms of something in itself, rather, it becomes meaningful as I live my life among non-Afrikaans speakers.  Among the liberal English academics where I work, I have learnt that I am more to the point than they are in meetings and discussions, yet, I am more blunt and unsophisticated in the way I relate to people on a personal level.  Yet, compared to my Afrikaans husband, I am very “English” in the way I try to be diplomatic and beat about the bush.  Truth be told, my darling man has been described as a real “Dutchman”.  The English folk who said this were ashamed of the derogatory nature of the term, yet I thought they were right.  He can be down right pigheaded and untactful in a way only an Afrikaans man (and maybe a Dutchman?) can..

Becoming the mother of a little boy also brought back a deep sense of what it means to be Afrikaans.  There is a reason why one’s first language is called your “mother tongue”.  I want my son to learn both English and Afrikaans, yet there is no way I could relate to him in any other language than my first.  I am often asked if I speak to him in English as well, and my answer is always the same.:  “only when there are English speaking people around.”  I think it is bad manners to speak in a language people do not understand in their presence.  But I feel insincere and false if I try to speak to him in English.  This is true even in situations where English people are around and so I often find myself breaking my own rule of speaking to him in English then.  What is it about this mother tongue thing?

Embedded in a language, I am sure, is the history of all who contributed to the formation of that language.  With the history come a value system and a certain perspective on the universe that cannot be transferred in another way as through the language.  Yet, after talking so much about the beauty and the deep connection I have to my mother tongue and how it goes beyond language in more ways than one, there is a major glitch. When I am with other Afrikaans speaking people, I discover how different I am from them.  When I am with my in-laws other parts of my identity become highlighted, such as my political persuasion.  I will never be comfortable in the company of people who talk about the old South Africa as though it was heaven on earth.  I will never again be comfortable in a Dutch reform church and as for “rys, vleis en aartapples” (rice, meat and potatoes) which is supposed to be a truly Afrikaans way of eating… I prefer a mix of all and everything that I find to be interesting, healthy or affordable at the time.

Since I have had my son, though, I have never felt more at home with them.  We agree on what manners he should learn, what stories he should be read and told and what songs we would like him to know.  We disagree on one issue and that is:  they find it very disturbing that we are on first name basis with him and that he does not know us as “mamma” and  “pappa”.  Of course, there are many of our English speaking friends that don’t get it either. We feel the same as with the question of identity.  Neither myself, nor my husband want our son to know us only in the role of parent.  We want him to know us as whole people.  No other term like our names can communicate the unique combination of identities that run through each of us.

We are all located on an intersection between many possible identities. These are in flux and they shift in importance from time to time, Sometimes you are with people who have a similar combination of identities to you, and you feel like you belong. Other times, often with the same group of people, you may find that one or more of the other identities feel left out.  We are always at home and lost at the same time.  Depending on what the conversation is about, or where you are in space or time and who you are with you may find your home, but it may only last for a moment or a while before you are at odds again.

In order to avoid the flux and the feeling of ‘being at odds’ we are often tempted into committing to just one of the identities. This means, instead of loving the one and only me, the unique combination of selves that is Petro, or James or Siphiwe, we look for love in a purer ideal demarcated by as few words as possible like ‘gay man’ or ‘jewish girl’. In my view, that amounts to adultery: loving some other ideal person that is not full of faults and history and memory and shade.  So here is the reason for my anger at the question of identity:  there is nothing that brings the blood of a good Calvinist, white Afrikaner to the boil like adultery..

 

Stereo types come from somewhere

I love to thwart stereotypes. When I ride my bicycle into Stellenbosch kitted out from head to foot in corporate gear complete with high heels, while all the other cyclists are heading out of town kitted out in helmets, gloves, tight padded shorts, water bottles and cycling glasses, I get a kick.

On this day, though, it would not be me who broke the stereotype.

As I often do, I drove down to the train station on my bike and chained it inside the station to the outer fence visible from the road, but safe inside. I boarded the train to Cape Town. It was mid morning and somewhat quieter than in early morning rush hour so I checked to see if I would be alone in the first class carriage or not.  To be safe, I get onto the third class carriage.

Even though I had never been mugged in the 5 years of train travel, there is a risk to a lonely carriage.  In third class are always lots of people, but this time of day it is not so sweaty and crowded as during rush hour. Here I break another stereotype usually being the only white woman in the crowd. This often causes motherly coloured ladies to watch over me and warn me to hold my bag close and keep my phone hidden. They make it safe for me here – there are far more people who care than people who don’t. I smile to the folks around me and listen to Daniel Pinks latest book on my ipod shuffle pinned to my collar underneath my jacket.

An hour and 10 min later, I meet a co-speaker friend of mine at the Cape Town station. Together we drive to our meeting in the 4 star lodge selected for its elegance and private boardroom. As we drive, I relish in the idea that I can straddle the two worlds of 3rd class travel and 4 star luxury this way. It makes me feel alive – even though I sometimes curse the late trains and the inconvenience of not being taken to the door of where I want to be.

After our meeting my friend colleague informs me that he will take me all the way home to Stellenbosh – he does not want me to take the train. This has happened before. People think the trains are less safe than their cars, but in truth, the trains are less familiar and one has less control over them. To me they are familiar enough and I have relinquished my control – or rather – I had never had control over my own transport, so I do not miss it.

I appreciate it very much, I say, but please understand that I am happy to travel by train and used to it. And, I think to myself “it leaves me feeling less dependent and indebted to you.” But I keep my thoughts to myself.

He insists and we leave. “You realise”, I try once more, “this will take you the better part of 2 precious hours”.

“If I was your husband and I knew a friend could have brought you home, I would expect that friend to do so.” I smile and think “Tell yourself whatever you have to, but my husband has made peace with the way I travel, otherwise it will take over his life. We both value my independence.”

On the way I tell him about a new client that wants me to work with their bottom level employees. Absenteeism and lack of motivation is writhe. They also feel entitled to all sorts of benefits, but are not willing to put in the hours.

“I don’t touch that level of employee”, he tells me, “it is too difficult to have an impact there.  I don’t think you can change anything on that level, the problems are too complex and ingrained in societal forces.”

“Wow, I would think these guys would have the most to benefit – call me an idealist, but who will spend time motivating them and really listening to their dreams and ideals?”

“No, I don’t touch them.”

We draw close to Stellenbosch and I ask him to please take me to the train station because that is where I left my bicycle. I secretly wish he could just take me straight home. The train ride does not u irk me, it is the long way home uphill at the end of a tiring day, but there is no way out. I shouldn’t leave my bike there overnight, its not safe and there is no room in his car for it (a luxury sedan is no pick-up truck). We are near the station now and we see a guy on a bike.

“We will see my bicycle from the street inside when we stop, unless that is my bike over there” and I point to the guy on the bike driving away.

He laughs and I smirk at the thought. Jokes like this one is only possible because of the stereotypical idea that the people who travel by train are the same people who would steal a bike if they get a chance.  Yes, we both know it could easily have been my bike – stereotypes come from somewhere.

We find my bike where I left it inside the station, but visible from the road.  My friend says he will wait to make sure everything is ok. I can understand his concern: where my bicycle stands a group of workers, or commuters have made themselves at home in a clump on the ground. They are laughing and talking and playing dice – a ruckus bunch of workers waiting to go home. It is the type of group you could find on a street corner congregating on their way from work, or having a smoke and a drink before heading home – but they were ‘not our people’.

For a moment I think of the time I found my bike with the saddle loosened and almost removed – one guy in a group like that can easily fiddle with the bike to see if he can take it apart or remove a piece to sell somewhere. Yet, I choose to  travel on trust not suspicion.

I walk in among the crowd of men. “good evening guys, thanks for looking after my bike.”

“No problem , Madam, no problem.”

I step over legs and make my way through the gazes. As I unlock the chain the front wheel twists and the bike falls over. Immediately there is a guy at hand to help it up again.

“Thanks”.

“No problem , Madam, no problem.”

I smile over at my friend in his car, but cannot see his face. I am so proud of myself. I steer carefully through the group and they make way. I go around and out. I am back on the other side of the fence and my group of bike guards are still watching me as I get ready to mount the saddle and leave, but one of them had followed me outside.

“On no,” I think to myself “here it comes. He is going to ask me for money or net ‘n stukkie brood, Mies (just a small piece of bread Ma’am.” I look up and smile at him, ready to do my usual head shake and disappointed expression. (I am not so proud of myself as I write this. Where is my trust now? Yet, stereotypes come from somewhere.  I look at my friend mournfully: his own misgivings will become justified…

“what do you want?” say my face.

“No problem , Madam, no problem. Just remember to put your pant leg inside your sock so it doesn’t catch in the chain.”

He smiles and waves as I leave.

I smile and wave at my friend. But I cannot see his face.

 

 

Cut Throat Rag doll

Written and performed in Dec 2009 by Petro Janse van Vuuren as part of a life story project with 7 other women. Performed for friends and relatives of the group.

I don’t have any memory of playing with her. I have no memory of holding her. I only remember having her. I don’t even remember getting her, or who gave her to me. I just had her. I never played with her, I never held her. I am her stepmother.

She is like my grandmother (God kom haal my) and her own mother died when she was 3 of the big flu. And her step mother , I am sure, only remember having her and ending up with her, having to keep her safe somehow. Gran was never held or played with.  (God kom haal my)

Arme Ouma.  Arme Cut Throat Rag Doll. (God kom haal my). Poor Gran Poor CTRD. (God kom haal my).

I do remember running into her from time to time as I pack or unpack boxes of old childhood toys.  I most recently remember discovering her in an old metal trunk with some other toys which somehow miraculously escaped all the garage sales and Christmas old toy giveaways. Somehow, I kept holding on to her, but never holding her. Like Gran she just waited for the next time I will find her and pick her up. (God kom haal my) waiting in a frail care space to be remembered and visited.

Then she came to me in a dream, Cut Throat Rag Doll. I was expecting a wise old woman or a fairy godmother, but there she was with her gaping throat and her smiling face and open arms going “hold me, hold me, hold me!” Like Gran (God kom haal my) always praying to be saved, to be fetched. But God never comes and I never hold the doll.

And I know why I kept you but not held you and I know why I don’t give you away. Its your throat with the stuffing hanging out and the underwear that is showing. You’re a disgrace. Look at you. Pull yourself together, fix yourself up.  Every time I see you I feel like tearing at the stuffing, pull it all out and leaving you lying there just an empty skin..

But not today. No more ‘Hou my vas, tel my op, God kom haal my, gee my ‘n drukkie. Mamma, Mamma ek wil jou hê!’.. Today I take responsibility for you. Today I take the needle and thread to close you up. Today I will remove you from your in-between-space. I wouldn’t like to be waiting. I want to be out of this place where people are coming and going, being born and dying. This waiting space in between going up and going down,

Today, I make you whole. It’s time to decide if you are coming or going. I would like to give you to someone who needs to hold you. Someone who will hold you the way you want to be held. I am tired of feeling like a step mother. You need to go so that the step mother can be set free.

Nee, Ouma, dis nie jou netjiese stekies nie. (Not the neat stitching you would have done).

I want to stay, so Rag Doll, you need to go..

Ouma, what will you do?

Post Script

After I performed this story, I gave the doll to Gran. She asked me what it was and if she had a name. I said to her “Call her Monica”. This was Gran’s name. In my head someone still needed to hold Gran the way she was never help. But Gran looked at me and said “I am Monica”. She never liked the doll and never held her. She soon asked my mom to take her away, please. Gran was no longer the step child, she had come into her own. I could stop pitying Gran and begin to accept and love her without guilt.

Skin Sisters: A story for women about making peace with skin colour

About the story

I created this story for a women’s day celebration on a wine farm just outside Stellembosch. In our audience were women with their domestic helper and other women from all walks of life who came to celebrate each other.

Skin Sisters

I was always very embarrassed about my skin. It wasn’t the kind of skin that could tan evenly and become a golden brown in the sun. It wasn’t the kind of skin that freckled evenly like my sister’s either. It was not even the kind of white skin that was milky and smooth all over. It was the kind of skin that was a see through white that turned red in the sun and when the red was gone, there would be the occasional dark large ugly freckle.

When I was around 11 or 12, I found a way to fold my arms so that I could cover the ugliest spots with my hands and spread out fingers without looking too unnatural. I used this hold especially when there were good looking boys around: in the bus on the way home from school mostly.

All through high school I cringed in summer when the girls would line up against the wall sitting with their legs straight in front of them, pulling up their school dresses as high as individual chastity allowed and waited for the tan… Everyone wanted to be as golden brown and gorgeous as Susan, the blonde bombshell 2 years ahead of me.

Having left school and having made peace with most of my teenage demons, I entered the era of sunscreen and umbrellas. If I couldn’t tan, I would bleach. Every morning I would cover myself with factor 40, take up my red umbrella and walk to class or shops and later to work. I would smile and wink at my landlady’s domestic help, Miriam, every morning as she came to work and I left – each with an umbrella in hand. I giggled with my Pedi students about the fact that black girls all wanted to stay as light as possible and all white girls wanted to become as dark as possible. “We all gravitate to the same colour”, one laughed.

Years later when I was in hospital with my miscarriage, I finally found peace. I did not have medical aid then and ended up in the better of the two state Hospitals in my town, Pietermaritzburg. Next to me on the bed was Gertrude, a gorgeous golden brown woman, proud of her half Indian half koi san heritage. She was in for an ovarian cyst removal. We were both in pain after our procedures, we both needed a bath and there was a staff shortage. Somehow we made up our minds to help each other get clean. Side by side we stumbled out of bed, down the corridor to the next bath room, the closest one was out of order, and into the small room. Side by side we removed our hospital gowns, ran the bath and took turns getting in, and scrubbing each other.

I saw with surprise that what looked on the outside like a smooth golden brown skin was mottled in places, rough in others and even speckled here and there. Gertrude remarked that she  had never seen so much white skin in one go. Exhausted from the exertion, we collapsed on the side of the bath side by side clutching our sides giggling at the relief of years and years of unspoken truths around skin colour. And as I looked at the two of us side by side on the edge of the bath, I saw that next to Gertrude’s gorgeous golden brown skin my own white skin had never looked more beautiful

 

Petro Janse van Vuuren.

Travelling on trust

This is a hair raising story of what happened the day I found myself woman alone in a moving car on an unknown road with 3 young African men, one driving, one in the passenger seat and one in the back behind me,  and nobody who loves me who knew where I was…

I was supposed to meet a client who had travelled up 2 hours on the plane from Cape Town for business and on this day he could fit me in between two meetings. I had to see him.  We were at the beginning of the work relationship, so I needed to be on time and looking good.

The plan was that I would travel by bus from Bryanstone to Sandton where we would meet.  The trip would take me 20 minutes. The busses go every 20 minutes, so I got to the stop with an easy 50 minutes to go before the meeting – 20 min if I had to wait +20 min for the ride + 10 min to spare.

Twenty minutes pass and no bus comes. I ask the first passing pedestrian which sign I should use to hail a minibus taxi to Sandton. “No”, he says, “I think they only go into Johannesburg from here.”  He gives me the sign anyway: an Upward pointing finger – in contrast to the downward pointing finger that signifies going to Randburg.

I wait a few more minutes and a young woman walks up hailing a taxi. Santon? I ask her.

“No, Jo’burg, but we can ask the driver.”

“Sandton?” I ask the driver.

“No, Jo’burg” but I can drop you off to get another taxi.” I get in – only 26 minutes left.

I pay the driver with a R20 note. The fare is R11 and he does not have change. He will wait to see if another passenger get’s on so he can give me change. (This is not something he tells me, I know it from experience). Time ticks by. The young man next to me sees that we will get to my stop before I get my change: “What change have you got?”

“ 60 cents”

“Give me your 60 cents, I can give you R1 then the driver can give you the ten.”

I gladly accept: “Where will I meet you to give you back your 40c”, I joke. He smiles: “Some people meet in the mountains”. I do not know what he means, but I smile and say “I’ll seee you in the mountains, then.”

We reach my stop: a large intersection in the middle of a massive highway. I get off and walked to where they indicate I can get the next taxi. 12 min to spare.

If I am halfway and a taxi comes quickly, I will be fine. I am meeting the client at the train station where taxis and busses all go.

The road is deserted. Three minutes go by and not a single taxi. “Please , please. Please let one come”, I find myself pleading. . A minibus pulls up behind me, but no-one gets out and they do not seem to want to pick me up. I know that the taxi’s sometimes stop on the side of the road so the driver can take a nap, or eat a pie, so I walk over to the minibus and round the front to see if the sliding door was open. It was. Inside are three young African men.

“You a taxi?” I ask.

“No”, one guy says, “I just come here to pray”.

“Yeh right,” I think to myself, “in the middle of a large intersection?” I say nothing and walk back to the bus stop sign hoping against hope. “Please, please, please…”

After a minute or two the driver of the minibus come over to me: “you want to go to Sandton, we will give you a ride.” Seven minutes to go.

Now, please understand, at this point I am fully task oriented, all I can see is the client and the job of getting to him. We were building a mutually very beneficial relationship and I was enjoying the work. I could not let him down.

“Really? Thank you.” I get into the minibus and as I close the sliding door, my brain suddenly makes another sum: one Caucasian female, three African men, an unknown road and nobody knows where I am… I freeze and the blood leaves my face. My brain tells me that I must be afraid and run, so i lean over to open the sliding door. All three men do nothing.

“Relax,” one says, “just relax”. I let go the door.

“Why should I trust you?”

The one in the passenger seat takes out a business card from the compartment under the car radio and hands it to me.

“Thanks”, I say, “but I cannot read it, I don’t see well enough. Tell me what it says”. He explains that they have just started a shuttle service that couriers tourists and the like between the air port and other places of interest. I look out the window, we are driving by now, but I can’t identify any landmarks. How would I know if we are going the right way?

They come to pray in the spot I found them in, says the guy in the passenger seat..

“We thought maybe God was telling us to take you to Sandton today.” It is the driver speaking. But are we going to Sandton? Then I think of myself standing by the road going “Please, please, please” and I decide to follow their lead: “I think you heard right, I was pleading Him for a ride back there.”

They smile and we talk a bit more about their work. Where are we, shouldn’t I be scared? But I’m not.

Minutes later we pull up at the Sandton station. The one behind me slides open the door for me to get out.

“So what do I owe you for shuttling  me?”

“No, we are just three guys giving you a ride.” They smile and wave as they drive away. I wave back, in wonderment.

As I turn away from the road, I think to myself: today I trusted these guys and they were worthy of my trust. Today chasms were crossed and rifts were mended. Age old wounds had begun to heal – but I will never ever do that again – not on purpose.

I look up to find my client waiting for me. It is one minute passed the deadline.