by Colin O’Donnell
What surprises me most about South Africa is the alcohol and cigarettes. Our bus takes the fifteen students, five-to-six chaperones, more than two thousand kilometers around the country, and everywhere we go, the poorest people spend their money on booze with names like Hansa and Black Label, more familiar cigarette brands like Camel and Marlboros. I spend my money with them. A rand is worth slightly less than one-tenth of a dollar; in 2011, the average annual household income for black South Africans was about sixty thousand rand, around eight thousand seven hundred dollars, a fact that will elude me until I’ve left the country. A seven hundred-fifty milliliter bottle costs me an American one dollar, seventy cents.
My perennial roommate, Chris, is thirty. In socializing with the people who host us, we have a sort of back-to-back stance, a give and take to keep one another afloat in a country that officially speaks eleven languages, even with English as a sort of unofficial blanket. Chris, he drinks. I drink. Raise your can, and so will the rest. This is a language we all speak.
In Matiyani, in the north, toward the end of our trip, we’re hosted by a man named Frank. Frank always wears a snapback cap, always seems to have a pounder of Black Label in hand. He’s stocky but not terribly heavy, beergutted and always laughing. He’s proud of his yard, one of the largest in the village, an enormous fence, a jungled-in dirt walk to an outhouse. We stay in an unfinished building with Lucky, one of our tour guides. We struggle with the lock to our door.
The second night he’s hosting us, Frank and a group of young men who are just about to finish high school are standing in Frank’s driveway. Frank asks us how our day went. Fine, we say, refusing to acknowledge the quarter-ounce of marijuana we’ve smoked on the front patio of our half-home, refusing to admit that it’s been the hottest day we’ve had and that we didn’t want to move. We don’t mention the six-packs we buy that turn quickly into a single beer each for us, the puppy-dog what about me stares we get when we skip someone in the handouts. The town has been good to us, we say.
“Good,” Frank says. “I must go and speak with my wife. Then, we shall go to the store.” He cracks his last can of Black Label. “Then, we shall do what we do”—pause for effect, white-toothed grin—“every night.”
A seven-year-old can drive cattle here. He can swing a cattle whip hard enough that a single whistle from his cracked lips reminds the herd who’s behind them, will keep them moving in spite of themselves. I learn this in Ncome, a town in the Eastern Cape province, named for a nearby river. In English, Ncome’s name is Blood River, for the mythic battle that saw the water ruby-run, the banks awash with musketball-riddled Zulu. That sick feeling I get at the Blood River memorial—the great cast-iron wagon train encircling a field with a plaque at its center, a cast-iron sculpture of the mythic cannon that is supposed to have slain a dozen Zulu generals, the celebration of savage triumph—that violence is washed away by the kindness of the people in the village proper.
We’re walked around Ncome by Derek, one of a set of twenty-seven-year-old triplets. His father, Sydney, has left us in his care. “I want to teach you everything,” Derek says. “I want people to understand what our life is here.” When he walks it’s like his back wants him in constant limbo, a constant slight lean, made worse by the way his right leg can’t help but snap straight after it’s been bent. I wonder if it’s a result of the Zulu dances we’ve seen, people kicking so high and hard you’d swear their collarbones are bruised.
In the grass next to a rondavel, there’s a five-Rand coin, rusted, its value nearly indiscernible. I stand and stare at it in my palm for a moment while Derek tells us about the mountains in the distance, how that’s the farthest they’ll take the cows.
Chris looks over my shoulder, sees the coin. “You should give it to somebody,” he says.
And I do: A little boy, five or six, watches us from a doorway in the next lot. Finger-in-mouth, shy tortoise-shell of a stare. I walk up to him and take a knee. I hold out the coin, and he eyes it, and I say, “For you.” He takes the finger from his mouth and lets me put the coin in his hand. I’ve never seen a face change so quickly in my life.
Then there’s the dancing. People come from miles around to see white strangers, gather at a soccer field to cheer one another on in competition, and they dance and they sing in Zulu, in Sotho, and they shout and blow whistles and stomp like the earth should give way. I take off my overshirt, and the entire village stares at my exposed self under my wifebeater. Children collect around us. I drink three of the large beer bottles, spend less than eight dollars.
There’s a little boy next to me whose pictures I will find in my phone later. He’s in a green shirt, sits with his chin on the back of his hand. He smiles like a father would smile down at his newborn, the wisdom out of place with his overlarge childish head. Without thought: I take a notebook from my bag, draw a poor man’s cartoon of an American flag. I leave him a message: From your American friend, Colin. I pull a ten-rand note from my pocket, and fold my drawing around it. I hand them both to the shy boy. He takes them.
From behind him, a girl who must be his sister takes him by the arm, shakes her head, yanks him away into the crowd. The children all go back to watching the dance. I sit, wallet in one hand, nearly-finished bottle in the other. I do not understand.
O.R. Tambo International Airport near Johannesburg is beautiful. We land in the morning, and already the sunlight coming through the windows feels like the brightest and warmest sun I’ve ever known. Our hosts, Cedric and Nettie de la Harpe, and our driver, Lebo, meet us in arrivals. Cedric tells us we should get spending money from the ATM while we’re still in the city.
I stand at the machine and do my best not to look around as though I’ve done something wrong. It asks me which language I would prefer, and I tell it English, and it tells me I’ve got more than eight thousand rand. When I came home from school a month ago I only had about two hundred dollars—the rest is a gift from my father.
I withdraw two thousand rand, will withdraw some three thousand more in the coming weeks. Chris and a handful of other students are talking about how much money they’ve got. I mumble how much I withdrew under my breath and go to stand by Lebo, all the while wondering where everyone else’s money came from. They probably had to work for it, I think, and feel the guilt weighing down my pocket.
On our last morning in Ncome, Chris and I struggle to decide whether to leave money for Sydney and his family. They’ve given us so much—a rondavel, a massive mattress for the two of us to share, a paraffin-fueled heat lamp. A lock for our door. Morning tea and coffee and cookies. These simple things suddenly feel like such luxury in this place so far from home. They make the mountain air feel that much cleaner.
And Derek, how he gives us his company—he’s stayed with us for three nights. Yesterday, I watched when he came to our door. That limp of his was pronounced a bit less, his back straight, and with a smile, he said, “Colin, my brother.” I tell Chris this, and he agrees: We won’t pay. We leave a note instead, torn from the same book I drew the flag in. The note on our pillows, on top of our three folded quilts, no payment attached. The word I can’t keep from coming to mind, as I re-see that girl shaking her head and pulling her brother into the crowd: Bribeless.
Sydney finds our note as he and Derek clean the hut. The entire family comes to say goodbye, and we hold up the bus hugging everyone. They give us a note in return, Sydney’s and his wife’s phone numbers, and a woven grass mat for sitting. Chris will keep the mat in his apartment. I’ll keep the note tucked into my books.
Once I come home I’ll like to joke that I’m an international smuggler. On the bus in Swaziland, a nation more or less bitten out of the eastern portion of South Africa, I panic—I’ve just used my passport to get into the country, but now I can’t find it, and we have another station to pass through in an hour. In my search I pull a small metal cigarette from my shoulderbag. I stare at it for a moment, wonder who let me through airport screening at JFK without ruining my week. Then I stuff it down into my bag to tell Chris about later.
My passport is under my seat anyway.
When we find drugs, the locals won’t use my cigarette. They look at it like it might bite them. They roll joints with newspaper, and I imagine the newsprint burning headlines into their lungs. I hardly hear any of them cough.
In Sigagula, Lucky’s village, he shows us everything he can about his home, his uncle’s home where he sells discounted Sprite and snack food, and next to his own house the chicken coop recently torn open and emptied by a hungry leopard. Chris, Lucky, another student named Matt, our driver Lebo, a stranger from the village, and I sit around a fire late on our only night staying here. The stranger looks over at the bag of dope in Chris’s lap. He says, “Hey, you. I have a bad day. You give me some.”
Chris looks at me, at Matt, at the spent money on his thigh. I draw through my one-hitter and burn the back of my throat and cough. Chris says, “Sure, man,” and tears a chunk from the buds, hands them over the fire.
“Thank you, man, thank you,” the stranger says. As he picks apart the buds for seeds he thanks Chris again while Lucky practices birdcalls.
In the United States I insist that weed is bought to be shared. I’m not used to hearing anyone demand the gift, but I’m also not used to hearing someone give such eager thanks for it. The stranger tells us a girl has teased him, told him she’ll go and talk to all of the other boys in the village. He says, “I am very stressed.” Then he picks up his box of cigarettes—a box of thirty, something I never saw before I came here—and tears off the laminate cardboard top, and from that, he rolls his joint.
Alexandra Township: Less than three square miles, nearly three hundred thousand people. The people steal their power, clumps of electrical lines like a spider’s suspended egg sac, the houses like jagged tin-and-brick dentures set into the gumline of dirt alleyways. A group of us visits a women’s hostel, where we’re greeted by a collection of aging women in bandanas and dresses that remind me of shower curtains, where that silly, American question leaves my mouth: “Are you happy here?”
And an old woman says back to me, “I do not like it here. When we see Americans, we are excited, because we think, maybe they will help us.” And I think: These women have been here for forty years. I think: At least the women’s hostel smells like laundry, like I’ve been taught a mother ought to, and not like the burning-garbage stink of the men’s hostel.
In Matiyani, Chris and I meet a pair of brothers, Cyril and Collen. Collen and I talk about how we share a name, and he lets me borrow his real one—“Dzunisani,” he says in Shangani Tsonga. “It means praise.” I’m ecstatic to have a new name, gloat to myself a little when Lebo will refer to me only as Dzunisani for the rest of the trip.
I will not remember my conversations with Collen well enough, will lose them in a watery haze of booze and smoke. I will remember Cyril—how he takes my phone to snap photos of himself, how he asks what the phone is worth, and without allowing for customer discounts and phone plans and whatever else, I tell him roughly five thousand Rand, and he holds the phone up and shouts, “Five thousand, man, five thousand Rand!” And I will remember the whistle our professor gives me, which I give to Cyril so that the village will have a whistle for soccer games. I will remember the bracelet he brings me in return, will still be wearing it come February.
The one thing I will most clearly remember that I speak with Collen about comes after we visit a traditional healer, a sangoma, near Matiyani, and she charges us two hundred rand apiece for a consultation, tries to charge me seven hundred for medicine. “That’s bullshit,” Collen says. “That healer was not doing her job.”
I say, “Collen, what do people think of white people around here?”
And he laughs, and he says, “They think you must have a lot of money.”
I laugh, and later I’ll feel stupid for it, but I say like it will explain everything: “Man, I’m a college student.”
Even if they should think we’ve got money, the South Africans treat us like royalty. In the past half-year the Southern African region—countries like Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Angola, the poorer reaches of South Africa—has been under threat of food shortage, and yet we try everything there is to offer: Tongue of the ox, squishy green caterpillar, chewing-gum tough but delicious giraffe. They sell us beer and trust us to make good on our payment the following day. Entire villages stop their routines for a night to give us music, new dances to enjoy and imitate.
Cedric even makes a gift to us. He’s a sangoma, as well, and gives us traditional blankets decorated with totem animals. We pass the blankets around the room and take luck of the draw. I receive a leopard mid-roar, tongue blue like the fabric around his snarl.
The healer near Matiyani tells me, through a translator: “You have a shadow, and it is dark.” I’m dogged by two ancestors, brother and sister. They curse me with anger, cause the stiffness in my joints. The translator tells me I must acquire two sangoma blankets, one leopard-print and one with a leopard totem. I must fold the blankets to leave them under my pillow.
Outside we sit on packed clay-red dirt, crowding into the shade of the thatched roofs in the sangoma’s courtyard. I ask Cedric if the leopard carries symbolic meaning. He tells me a sangoma’s totem is not intended for such things; the blanket he or she wears carries the essence of the animal that brings the sangoma closest to ancestral spirits. “Unless a healer tells you that your ancestors have said to wear the leopard, don’t worry about it.”
I scratch at my chin. “They just did.”
And Cedric smiles, and pats my shoulder, and says: “Wear the leopard.”
This is what makes me look for the meeting place, that point where give and take become confused:
Matiyani, during that hot, hot day. Chris and I come to the rondavel owned by Cedric and Nettie de la Harpe, to find some shade and a reprieve from Cyril’s constant requests for additional gifts, for more photos. A train of young boys has followed us, is watching us cautiously from the shade of a tree in the yard. I get up, go to Cedric’s water tower, fill my plastic one-liter water bottle. I come back to sit in front of the kids again and they watch more intently.
A boy in a yellow-and-grey striped shirt steps forward. He’s older than the others, self-appointed leader. He says, “Give me some water.”
I stand. I hesitate. I say, “You want some?”
Then there are fifteen of them crowding me. They take the bottle and gulp from it like they’ve never tasted something so perfect. I have to take the bottle from them more than once, tell them to take turns, to be patient, and soon they’re shouting, and I shout once, a quick Hey, and raise my hand.
Imagine these kids, all of them hardly at your waist, standing aside like they’re in a movie. Imagine the littlest one at the back of the aisle they form, too afraid to come forward. You get on your knee and you wave him over. You hold the bottle for him like he’s a suckling calf. I have become the Patron Saint of Bottled Water. I am here to give.
Later this day, Glen, our professor, spends half of our reflection time wandering from end to end of the hut. There are kids gathering, begging for money. Glen looks at us and he says, “You must not teach them to beg. You must not give them anything.”
It will bother me, how my memory works. I’ll feel as though I’ve struggled to tally the things given to me as well as I’ve tallied the things taken from me. I’ll look back on Ncome with a warm fondness, but moments like this one in Matiyani will anger and confuse me. I will not understand who is giving and who is taking, who’s been taken advantage of, whether anyone means to take advantage of anyone else at all.
At first I’m convinced that the water was a mistake. But Glen corrects me: Water is fine to give, and so is healthy food. As they give to us, we are expected to give back. In Nguni Bantu, the word ubuntu translates literally to “human-ness,” but is often translated to “humanity toward others.” It’s a philosophy common all over the Southern African region—everyone takes care of everyone, shares what little they’ve got, will receive in kind. This is what I’ve been missing. This is the place where give and take meet, and not only do they meet, they become the same.
The note Sydney handed to me to say goodbye says this:
We thanks to meet you and to be one of our sons. We are so proud of you.
You are so kind and friend. Have a nice journey. We will miss you till we meet you again.
Give and take are the wrong words. In the States, we can say share. We can say selfless or generous. But these words mean too little. In South Africa, they will call you family. What they own, you own. They will call you son. They will call you brother.