by Christine Guaragno
Lucky tells us all anthills lean north. “If you are ever lost in Kruger National Park, follow the open mouth of the anthill towards the land of Baobab trees.” The trees are thick-trunked, like a child drew them with her hand curled fast around the crayon. We are driving through Kruger National Park in South Africa, and Lucky, a twenty-something man from a local village, bobs his head, giving us a tour from the safety of our van. “Animals are better than us,” he explains. “They can smell fear.” His nostrils widen as if showing that he too could smell it. Lucky smiles, turns toward the open window, directs our gaze toward the mountains.
We came to Africa with the intention of learning a new culture, two weeks of total immersion. Since the plane lifted off several days ago, we, a ragtag group of college students, a professor and his husband, have traveled together like kindergarteners on our first field trip. Our hands holding onto a proverbial rope, afraid it would fray and we’d be lost forever in the African wilderness.
The mountains are women. Their arms wrap around villages and shelter children from the open sun. They sing through the mornings, their tabletop head flattened and wrapped in cloth or cloud. Even when men fall, mountains preserve.
Chauke Riuoningo Light sits cross-legged against the curved wall of the rondavel hut. We talk as she rakes her fingers through my hair, grasping at the fine wisps, trying to braid them to look like hers. We giggle, listening to the tinny sound of Justin Bieber coming from a dusty cell phone. The phone belongs to Tebogo, the young woman who owns the hut, and she dances around under the faint glow of the overhead bulb. Like with friends from home, the conversation drifts towards boys, and Light begs to see a picture of my boyfriend. I power up my phone and flip to a picture—unimpressed, Light leans back.
“Is it true that when girls start to menstruate they must have sex with their fathers?” she asks. “We have been told that in America this happens.”
“No!” I say. “That’s untrue.” I cringe. Light looks undisturbed by the shift in tone. She grins, “I have a boyfriend, but we don’t have sex. Although I can do abortions if you need one. There is a clinic, but it cost too much.”
She shrugs again and leans forward, placing her hand on my arm. “I think that white men are better than black. Black men drink and are lazy, but white men are…” She smacks her lips and raises her arms toward the roof of thatch and gestures, “…wonderful.”
I want to grab her shoulders and shake. I am afraid of what could happen to Light. I imagine her curled and shaking. Washing herself over and over in the small Rubbermaid tub, the inch of water doing little to get the smell of man off her. I try to explain that not all white men are wonderful, that there are good black men out there, but Light is too starry-eyed with possibility. The following day she offers her cell phone number to the male students on the trip.
According to the guidebook, South Africa is the country with the statistically highest number of rapes. Before I left home, my boyfriend expressed his fear. He hugged me, his eyes sopped with worry and anxiety for my trip. I did not falter, but at night, I practiced kicking and punching and pushing the fear from my head.
The children in Lucky’s village are named after English nouns. This is untrue, but they translate their names for us because we are tourists. I share an orange with little girls named Beauty, Faith, Intelligence. I asked them to use the toilet, and they brought me to the mud and dung house with no door and giggled watching me hike up my skirt to pee.
The women stand around the cooking fire and gossip. They tsk at the children for grabbing at my skirt, but I don’t mind. They teach me a game called Fire in the Mountain, where the main objective is to find a partner to “save you,” and anyone without a partner dies in the mountain fire. But the girls are fair, so no one is left without a partner.
The spirit of this place howls through the openness. It settles in the mountains and blesses everything so matter-of-factly. Even the children have old souls.
From the bus window we watch a man beating his wife with a belt. Like water under a well-skipped rock, the shock ripples around us. The road is paved with our silence.
N’Come is the first village we visit. We are kilometers from the closest town with electricity, and at night the Milky Way swirls above us as we take our first late-night trek to the outhouse. We have split into small groups, three to four students per family. DuDu, our house mama, lives on a plot of land with her mother, grandmother, daughter and a few other relatives. She is heavyset but light on her feet, and in the candlelight of the guest-hut she ruffles her skirt while clapping along to our earnest cover of “The Cotton-Eyed Joe.”
Later an elder of the community explains, “These people are different [referring to the Zulu villagers]. They sing when they go to war, they sing when they celebrate.” The Zulu people dance, lifting one leg high in the air then sending the foot down, raising dust. The children are so flexible that their ankles rap against their collarbones.
That week we travel by bus toward the Indian Ocean. The forest of trees on the highway to St. Lucia is planted in dizzying straight rows. Each tree stands tall, with smooth bark and trimmed lower branches. There is nothing natural about this. From the bus window, I peer through the rows looking for a wayward tree, crooked, gnarled, but I find nothing. In town, we watch two boys dance, their feet clapping against the ground. The hands of other tourists reply.
Tebogo’s English pronouns need work. At first when she talks to us, she refers to her daughter as he or him. Tebogo, Cynthia, her sister, and Trust, her daughter, live alone on a plot of land with three huts. They no longer have a father, and the girls earn income through a government welfare project and taking in travelers. Tebogo can’t be older than twenty-five, but she runs the household, cooking, sweeping the cow dung floor, laundry, cooking. When I ask where the outhouse is, she walks me past the chickens, the garden, and the clothesline to a well-constructed brick outhouse with a real toilet seat and door. This is a luxury I have seen few villagers own. Tebogo smacks a stick against the outhouse door before I step inside and grins, “Beware of the snake!”
“The Zulu word for cow is ingomos,” DuDu explains, pulling a picture from a worn notebook and placing them close to the candlelight. The photograph shows DuDu in an expensive traditional-style yellow dress. Beside her is the man she will soon be married to.
“For a man to marry you, he must give your family cows.” She clicks her tongue and smiles. She shows her teeth, tilting her chin forward. This is the smile of a woman in love. After DuDu turns over to sleep, the students whisper about lovers, and I long for the moment when I will smile like her.
Outside of Johannesburg, the one square mile Alexandria Township contains two hostels, large brick buildings that form a square with a campus of grass and dirt in the middle. The men’s hostel, originally a miner’s hostel, is full of broken things. Our professor Glen Retief, a native South African, looks up in disbelief as we enter into the men’s hostel. He gazes up, his eyes scaling the building, the broken windows, bent metal bars, the graffiti. I trip over a flattened rat and breathe in a lungful of dust. This is not the South Africa of the brochure.
“Oh, gosh…” Glen says, “I can’t believe I am coming in here.” Uninformed, someone prompts Glen to explain his reaction. He explains that supporters of the ANC party were attacked with machetes in this hostel, and as an ANC supporter, he could have been killed here during Apartheid.
We look around the campus. There are bashed up cars, a herd of billy goats, men smoking and eating, it is not hard to detect an uneasiness in our faces.
The women’s hostel smells of antiseptic and urine, and we first arrive during a brownout, so the windowless hallways are unlit. A woman explains that brownouts are common in Alex because “people tap into the lines to steal electricity which causes fires too.” Fires are common in the shantytown. The women’s hostel is a better living situation, although not by much. There are droves of children running in the grassy center of campus, and the old women gather around in groups of two or three hanging laundry on railings.
The kitchen of the hostel is a large open room with a few tables, several metal utility sinks, and rows of gas burners that stay constantly lit. Two women sit side-by-side unraveling sweaters into balls of yarn, their hands thick from arthritis. Only one pair of needles sits between the two of them.
There is not much work and little resources in Alexandria Township, so the women sit and bide time until a cleaning job comes by. Several women came in the ‘70s looking for work and, never finding any, had to stay because there was no money to go home and no home to go back too. This hostel is full of women displaced in their own country.
But the women are like woven roof thatch. Community makes them strong.
Lucky tells us about a South African brood parasite, a category of bird that lays eggs in another bird’s nest. He says the original bird’s eggs are often pushed out of the nest to make room for the new brood. I wonder if the fallen eggs ever survive, if they grow stronger wrapped in the grassy undergrowth. I think of the hostel women, pushed out of their villages to find work, pushed into unemployment by the city. Women who have lost their children and homes but still have the faith to move forward. I think of Light, the little girls of Lucky’s village, Tebogo and Trust. How they thrive in the dusty African sun, dancers whose arms rise toward the sky. Beads and cotton wrapping their bosoms, the cloud of dust they pull up from splayed feet. Their voices gather strength and billow tall.
Previously published in Essay Magazine