by Dallas Carroll
Standing in the Johannesburg airport like a group of kindergarteners on a field trip, our group of fifteen college students, made up mostly of Creative Writing majors, and our chaperones, meet our guides Cedric and Nettie De La Harpe. The white South African couple doesn’t fit the description I’d created for them in my mind. During one of our prep classes that Susquehanna University has its students take before they venture abroad, we Skyped with Cedric. He was funny with a booming laugh, and I pictured his wife to be a fuller woman, fitting her warmth and love into her face and gut. This is not the case when I finally met the two. Nettie is quiet at first glance with a face that betrays her true self. Standing there with little to say, her face rests in a manner that makes me think she is angry and stoic, while Cedric reminds me of a hippie grandfather. The kind that still talks about that time he went to Woodstock and shares his weed with his grandson’s friends. He speaks with charisma and humor, and I instantly want to be best friends with him. I’m afraid of him disliking me or judging me from his position of knowledge.
As we gather up our suitcases with the finesse of American tourists, I wonder if the people around us feel like we are a spectacle. Looking back, I realize my thoughts during these first few moments in South Africa were driven by the idea that the people of this country are unlike me. An idea I’ll grow away from over the next two weeks.
One memory from the villages that will never leave my heart is the night we stayed in a daycare. We came to this man Judas’ homestead for dinner and a place to rest our heads for the night before moving on. After dinner, a group of us girls go out to the outhouses. It’s already late and the only light besides our flashlights are the stars in the sky. There are three options for toilets. The first is obviously for a child since the seat is far too low for any of us to use, the one next to it has a metal sheet for a door, and the third has no door. The one without the door is facing the daycare which now has a group of men circled together talking. None of us were going to use that one.
As we’re all standing out there waiting for our turn to use the “safe” toilet, a woman from Judas’ family comes out. She’s in a large skirt and head wrap, as most of the women we’ve encountered wear. She’s not heading towards the toilet we’re waiting for. Instead, she goes straight for the toilet without a door and proceeds to have the wettest, loudest, and most likely smelliest session of diarrhea I have ever been in close proximity to. There was no shame in her face before or after using the toilet. While the group of us struggled to hold our breath and laughter it dawns on me that there is no reason for this to be uncomfortable. Other than the fact that we’re American and have been raised to only share the moments when food enters the body, not when it leaves, there is no actual reason to feel shame for experiencing something that all bodies go through.
We are staying in Ncome, the second stop of our two week immersion. Liz, Sarah, Megan, and I are staying with the same family as Cedric and Nettie. Our homestead is marked by the Tea Room, a little shop that I assume our momma owns. Momma is a kind woman with a grand smile. She says little and we say even less. Tonight the four of us are searching for Cedric. There’s a dinner with the chief that we have to get to and none of us know where the van will meet us. We walk to Momma’s bedroom and ask if she knows where Cedric and Nettie are. It takes a few tries before she knows what we’re asking, but then she nods her head with a smile on her face and starts walking us over to what seems like a guest house. The conversation on the walk is little since we all see that she isn’t fully understanding us, just as we are not fully understanding her. Once we are at the house she leaves us.
We walk in and see Nettie in the bed reading. Cedric is walking around getting dressed.
“Are you coming to dinner with us?” one of us asks Nettie.
“No, I’m going to rest tonight.” Nettie says. “I haven’t been feeling well.”
“When is the van coming?” someone asks Cedric.
“We’re walking,” he responds.
The four of us exchange confused glances and are internally freaking out. It is night time and near pitch black outside. Giving the two some privacy, the rest of us walk outside to wait for him. There is another group of girls from SU sitting on the steps outside the Tea Room. We tell them that Cedric plans on us all walking and the terror is now shared. We can all vaguely remember how long the drive was to the homestead. None of us know exactly how long the drive was, but we can assume the walk will not be a casual one. Our chaperones show up while we’re waiting for Cedric. Glen, a Creative Writing professor at SU, seems more willing to walk than his husband, Peterson, does. Peterson is already wrapped up in a blanket rolling his eyes at the idea of walking.
A man shows up with a truck trying to be a van with a lid over the bed and wooden planks propped into benches. He says the chief has sent him to drive us. Cedric, however, isn’t interested in the offer. Sporting a headlamp, his trusty Vibram FiveFingers shoes, and some very tight athletic pants, Cedric meets us by the Tea Room ready to walk and not shy about it.
The rest of us are cold and waiting for anyone to tell us to get into the makeshift van. Even though this truck-van hybrid wasn’t what we all were expecting, it would still be able to shield us from the surprisingly cold South African winter night.
“They sent you because they knew I would say no.” Cedric says to the man trying to get us all into his vehicle. There is a harshness in his tone that seems unnecessarily aggressive for the situation. This isn’t the same Cedric we Skyped with those few months ago.
“You are already late. Cedric, please get in the van,” the driver says. His tone feels like sugar in comparison to Cedric’s.
None of us know why this is so difficult. Beyond the fact that it seems disrespectful to turn down a ride sent from the chief, it feels almost childish to be late because Cedric isn’t getting his way.
“No! I don’t want special treatment. I’m going to walk.”
“Cedric, you can walk tomorrow.” The man is surprisingly good at sounding calm in a moment that is causing the rest of us so much worry.
“No! Take the girls. I am going to walk!”
“We’ll walk with you.” Glen says in an attempt to ease some of the tension.
They walk. To the displeasure of Peterson, our chaperones accompany him while us girls are driven. I laugh thinking back on this situation but, at the time I was nervous. Back at school, on a rather regular basis, Liz, Sarah, and I will say to each other, “You can walk tomorrow” in our best South African accent. It’s one of our fondest memories and like most of my memories of the trip, it stemmed from an awkward and tense situation. We were watching our guide lose his composure and start to become very angry at someone who was just doing what he was told. This was not the Cedric we’d grown to love in the days before and would continue to love in the days after. This was just his stubbornness and luckily, a quality outweighed by his humor.
Matiyani was much like Cedric. After over a week in South Africa living with such warm and accepting families that were painful to leave, I expected this village to be just the same. I expected to meet a Mama that I would hug and feel connected with from our first encounter. A family we would communicate with nonverbally, learning to know each other without words. When we get out of the van at the village that I thought Cedric and Nettie lived in year round, I am grabbed by a woman in her late forties with an eye that was stuck staring to the side. She tells me she is looking for four girls to live with her, putting up four fingers to clarify, so I choose Sarah, Liz, and Abriel to join me in staying with her. Cedric tells us that one of the woman’s daughters, Pinky, speaks English. We later discover this is just misinformation. Not only is this Cedric’s winter vacation village, but this is only his second year staying here. Another thing we learn during our stay here is that Pinky was not Mama’s daughter, just a neighbor who has moved away before out visit.
Once we get to Mama’s home, we find an abundance of children and three or four girls ranging from fifteen to early twenties. One that stands out the most, to me, is Nyico. We are told that Nyico means Gift, which I will grow to find ironic. Gift is dressed rather nicely in comparison to her family. She has what I assume to be a wig of short chestnut colored hair and obnoxious jewelry. Her bracelet matches her necklace which matches her earrings and the same for her clothing. From head to toe, her appearance looks well thought out and reminds me of those girls in high school who would spend hours deciding what to wear and then making sure every part of that outfit matched every other part. They wanted to be a walking piece of art.
We will quickly learn that the select people in Mama’s home that speak English refuse to do so. I’m not sure if it is out of embarrassment or something more sinister than that. One memory that comes to mind is one day after eating lunch we tried to have a conversation with Gift.
“How do you say thank you?” Abriel asks.
Gift looks at the four of us sitting there and responds with, “Thank you.”
I wouldn’t have thought much of it but she followed it with a chuckle.
The only child who ever spoke to us in English and helped explain things to us was Mama’s youngest son, and unfortunately his name escapes me. The sad thing is most of my memories involve children whose names I can’t remember. All I have is their faces and their voices playing over again in my mind.
Towards the end of our trip we are visiting a University. Glen has selected four students to go with him and speak to one of the professors while the rest of us, accompanied by Peterson, wander around the campus. After a substantial amount of time just sitting around people-watching, we get back to the van and wait for Glen and his group. Still in people-watching mode, someone notices a couple across the street. They are standing under a tree, and it is obvious to us that one of the people in the relationship is more involved than the other.
We watch as the girl clings to the boy, constantly going in for more kisses and refusing to leave even though they’ve already said their goodbyes. As we watch, we notice that the boy is far more interested in his cup of coffee than the blonde girl he is currently wearing as a necklace. A few of us on the bus watch and comment on every single action either the boy or girl makes. We come to the assumption that the boy is either gay or just not interested in the current relationship. At one point he takes enough time flipping his hair that we are certain the relationship the girl thinks they are in has died. Throughout this joking and judging fest that we have going on I glance over to find Cedric laughing along with us. This isn’t the first time he’s laughed along with us when we’ve joked and certainly not the first time he’s laughed at my jokes.
Here he is a different man than he was in Ncome. Here he is back to being that hippie grandfather. I can’t say why there are such differing sides to his personality, I can only attest to seeing those sides and how they played out through my eyes.
Winnie is Mama’s oldest daughter and my favorite; Gift is my least favorite. Gift is visibly more concerned with her appearance than anyone else in their home. Most of the children run around with their tummies and underwear, on the days they wear it, in full view. Winnie wears her outfits, tank top and simple bottoms, two days in a row typically and has her hair in corn rows just long enough off her head to be held all together with a hair tie.
Winnie also has a daughter named Dioso, but everyone calls her D. This child becomes my security blanket and one of the few people in the family that I feel comfortable enough to touch and speak to. I would speak to Winnie but she’s not around much. Our first night we meet Winnie and D in the hut where the fire is at night. Many people from Mama’s family are here, as are a few neighbors. The children are chewing on bones and the women are all close together for warmth. D is on Winnie’s lap and refuses to talk to us. She is shy and tiny for her age. I assume she is two but find out that she’s actually four years old. Not much is said in the hut, us Americans are overwhelmed and the South Africans don’t know what to say to us. Winnie hands us her cell phone and tells us her husband is on the phone. He is surprised to speak to Americans. He is working, as many husbands do, out of town. It isn’t until now that I realize the only men we’ve seen are the two that are hosting the boys from our trip. The only boys in our homestead are younger than ten years old.
Through a series of miscommunications, Cedric went to our home while us girls were with Nettie and yelled at our family for not having money to feed us. We don’t know if that’s exactly the situation that we witnessed, but Cedric didn’t really stick around to hear the whole story. Earlier today Gift asked us what time we were eating dinner at Cedric’s, but we told her that we were supposed to be eating dinner with her and Mama. This led to Gift getting money out of her shoe, giving it to Mama, and then Mama asking Abriel and Liz to come with her.
Our assumption that this interaction had anything to do with dinner was apparently wrong and was about the payment of a funeral plan or something like that. Needless to say we felt awful finding out that our misunderstanding had led to Cedric showing up at the hut and making a scene. Remembering his actions when it came to wanting to walk rather than ride in the van made me sad. I really hope he didn’t frighten the family the way he had frightened us. At the time walking to Cedric’s had seemed like the right idea, now I just keep telling myself it was.
An uncomfortable silence stays with us partially throughout dinner. The children, who normally are rather rambunctious, sit still and don’t say anything louder than a whisper. I look at Liz while I play with the food on my plate. She’s doing the same. Sarah and Abriel aren’t doing anything different. We’re all unsure of what to do to make things better. I offer D a sip of my soda. Sarah lets me know how stupid it is to offer a four year old soda.
Desperate for anything to break this mood I attempt to start a conversation with Winnie. We haven’t spoken much before but she’s very open to talk. I ask about ages and names and which children are Mama’s. We find out that Mama has seven children and that most of the children we’ve been spending time with are Mama’s grandchildren. Winnie is all smiles, and I start to see bits of Mama in her face. After dinner is done Winnie gets a tub out, a plastic bucket really, and starts undressing D. I watch as this child I’ve been carrying around for the past two days and considered fragile morphs into something fiery and strong. As her mother is pouring water over D’s head, some shampoo gets in her eyes. D starts shouting, but in a way that suggests that she is in charge, not in a whiny way one would assume a child to sound like. Winnie says she is sorry but does it again. At this point D has had enough. Butt naked with nothing but a thin band of cloth she has tied around her tummy for the bloating, D wipes at her eyes, yells some more, and marches out of the hut, and closes the door behind her. Laughing and not fully believing what I just saw, I wonder how long D’s little body can handle the winter night. Maybe two minutes pass and she marches back in, braces her arms on either side of the tub, and says something to Winnie. Winnie starts bathing her again.
While Liz and Abriel were off with Mama, Sarah and I assumed they were buying food at the store since Gift had just given them money, there is an uncomfortable silence in the hut. Gift and one of her sisters are sitting at the table talking and giving us side glances every now and then. Sarah and I are lying on the floor. I’m trying to nap and Sarah is writing in her journal. We’ve given up on conversations with Gift and most of the teenage girls a long time ago. They talk to us when they want to ask something, but if we try to initiate we’re answered with giggles.
After a while of their private conversation the sister with Gift, who is wearing a blue school uniform, taps Sarah on the shoulder.
“This is my homework,” she says as she holds out her notebook.
“Oh,” Sarah says.
I watch as Sarah touches the notebook and looks at it more out of respect than actual interest. There’s a look on the sister’s face that I don’t trust, a smirk that shows her relation to Gift. Maybe I’m just paranoid. I’m probably just letting my dislike for Gift prevent me from getting close to this family.
“Can you do it?” the sister says. Gift is now laughing and clicking a pen.
“What?” Sarah asks.
“Do my homework,” the sister says. Gift reaches her arm out to hand Sarah the pen.
“I don’t think I can,” Sarah says kindly as she pushes the notebook away.
The laughter that comes from the pair reminds me of people being mocked in High School and those pranks that were pulled to make an unpopular person feel ashamed and embarrassed.
“You?” the sister asks and she reaches her notebook out to me.
“No,” I say. I’m not as patient as Sarah is.
Our last night in Matiyani feels like a 180 from the tense and uncomfortable days that had come before it. The neighbors that were here our first night in the fire hut come back and start teaching us their versions of Ms. Mary Mack, and other clapping games. Luckily, I never learned many of the American clapping games so their games stuck with me much clearer. There are maybe fifteen of us girls all sitting in a circle, Mama is in a chair behind us watching and smiling, and we’re going through any games the girls want to teach us. We don’t need actual conversations. Touching each other’s hands and rooting for winners is the language of the night.
Even Glen and Peterson stop by to check on us since they know how uncomfortable we’ve been feeling, and they get sucked into the clapping games as well. They leave after Peterson beats me at one of the games. I don’t know how long we sit there or how many rounds we go through, but I’m surprised I still have sensation in my hands. In the small amount of time we’re in this room clapping together, I start to feel like I’ll miss these people. As I look around I realize that Gift hasn’t been here all night. She left before we came back from Cedric’s. She wasn’t there for dinner or D’s comedic bath. Sarah tells me that Gift left to go to back to college. I vaguely remember Gift saying goodbye as we were on our way towards Cedric’s.
After all the clapping is over and the neighbors leave, some of the children climb on us and I nickname one of them Little Dragon for her raspy scream. This is the first time that we’ve all felt at home in Matiyani.
The next morning the children grab our bags and help us walk to the bus. They’re all smiles and laughing, even D. I turn to Winnie and ask why they aren’t sad that we’re leaving them.
She says, “They think they’re going with you.”