by Steph Heinz
I’ve lost track of how many hours I have been curled into my makeshift bed on the South African Airlines craft that is speeding me away from JFK International, too tired to focus on the collection of in-flight movies or fall asleep properly. Most of my fellow passengers have pulled the plastic blinds of their small oval windows down hours ago in order to comply with the little pocket of African nighttime the flight crew had created by turning off the lights, but I had been too fascinated with the white cotton below to resist the temptation of leaving it open. Just a crack. At last the world outside has caught up with our plane cabin and it is dark enough for me to open the window all the way without worrying about disturbing Andy, one of the other fifteen students who make up our college travel writing cohort, who is seated across the thin aisle from me.
My mind drifts as I watch a lightning storm beginning to brew in the clouds below us, an answering call to the red blips announcing our plane’s location in the darkness. The lighting dances in a wide radius, reminding me of animated videos we used to watch in science class of electrons sparking in atomic clouds. I can’t pull my eyes away as my mind jumps associatively to other images of neurons and flashing and electricity. For a while, I settle on one of the movies I had watched throughout the first half of the flight, Her.
The movie follows a man, Theodore Twombly, in the near present as he forms a romantic relationship with his seemingly sentient operating system, Samantha. I am entranced by the way Theodore was able to receive so much satisfaction from his relationship with something that was technically nothing more that a string of 0’s and 1’s coded in a particular order. I wonder if the director was trying to create a critique of our unhealthy dependences on technology or celebrating the wonders of the way love knows no constraints.
I pull out my phone from the backpack tucked under the chair in front of me and flip it over in my hands, studying its form and its significance to me. Ever since my train pulled out from Harrisburg a few days ago I hadn’t let myself wander more than five feet from it, this lifeline to my boyfriend who lives eight hours away from my Philadelphia suburb, near Portland, Maine. Was Theodore and Samantha’s relationship really all that different from the countless long distance relationships assisted by social media and texting throughout the world?
I am on the verge of a two-week immersion in rural South African cultures, quite possibly in worlds that have no cellphones or Wi-Fi, let alone electricity, and I feel a sudden pang of panic at losing this anchor. I wonder how the people I imagine myself meeting would respond to a film like Her. I continue to stare out at the lightning, the unchained electricity, images swirling of the bounding light, jumping from my plane to the people below to the people I had just left behind to the people I am heading towards, back to my plane, as my eyelids finally droop down.
Hours later, in the rush to get off the plane and feel South African soil under my feet for the first time, I forget to pick up my phone, my anchor and lifeline, from where it fell as I slept.
It is our first moment of actual free time in Ncome, and I have begun to wander with Colin and Chris through this village that has become home over the past few days, although we can only navigate based on a few landmarks. Our own huts, the general store, Shebeen – a sparse rural bar that varies only slightly between villages – and the large building that has become our mess hall. We meander back to where Colin and Chris are staying with Sydney’s family, a man who seems to have gotten caught in a taffy puller as a child, he’s so tall and thin. I have only seen him in passing so far, but the moment we enter the family’s yard he comes to me, greets me with a smiled “Sawubona” and a South African handshake I was still feeling out the sharp wrist movements of, as you clasp each other’s hand first at one downward angle and then one climbing up. I immediately feel as if I have been here before, as if I was simply returning to my Uncle’s house after a long time away rather than formally meeting him for the first time. Sydney has an easy smile and his round eyes never leave mine when he speaks to me, a type of intimacy that feels undervalued in my own culture. If this is how Sydney always listens to people, it doesn’t surprise me that he seems to hold an important role in Ncome.
The moment his wife sees me she clasps her hands together, hurries over and pulls me into an embrace, engulfing me in a figure that is all curves and cushion where Sydney is angles. She asks me to call her Mama, and begins to pull me into the main house by my hand. I glance back at Colin and Chris, unsure of what to do, but they are too busy talking to their Baba.
Once inside, my new Mama explains to me in halting phrases that she wishes to dress me like the traditional Zulu and Tsonga dancers we had watched at the competition the day before as we sat under umbrellas, crowded by children and drinking a mix of large bottles of Castle beers and a communal bowl of the Zulu corn beer.
“Please?” she implores. “You will be so beautiful.”
I give her a series of short nods, my excitement too much to commit to a full up or down swing for very long. She clasps my hands tightly again, giving a loving squeeze before bustling into another room.
When she returns her arms are filled with the intricate beaded netting we had seen adorning the dancers yesterday. It wasn’t until right then that I realize the mesmerizing patterns were made out of clunky plastic, the same beads that I would have used to make keychains and bracelets as a young child at summer camp. One by one, she ties the green, white, blue, yellow, and red pieces onto me: headband, thick necklace that reminds me of the collars worn by Egyptian pharaohs, arm bands, belt, and anklets with shells made from dung that rattled with each step I took. When she finishes she looks over her handiwork and embraces me again, telling me that I am her daughter, her American daughter, and that she loves me. Although I had only met her twenty minutes previously, these words do not feel like the things we had been warned of, the words we might hear villagers say simply because they believed that is what we as white visitors wished to hear. I don’t know if I simply want so badly for it to be true or if all she really saw was me as an American symbol of mixing races and cultures, but I hold her just as tightly. Deep down, I know it doesn’t matter. So far from home, I need the comfort of the exchange.
“I love you too.” I whisper before we pull away from each other.
Photo by Colin O’Donnell
“Come now, Daughter, come show your family how you are an African woman now.”
We walk back into the yard and I am a new person. The first reaction I hear is Colin’s single sharp “Ha!” of a laugh and I look up to see both of my fellow students smiling at me, the corners of their eyes crinkling with the stretching of their lips. Quickly, there is a call for the boys to pull out their cameras as Sydney’s family, my family, gathers around me and smiles into the lenses of their phones. The other children call me Sister and hold me close, asking for photos to be taken with their phones as well so they can show their friends at school.
I remember two evenings back when we first drove into Ncome with Mandla, the principle of the village’s high school. We went to the chief’s hut first for a formal welcoming where all of the important men and women of the village sat with us in a tight circle, traditional blankets draped over their t-shirts. Throughout the speeches and short dance performance phones kept buzzing and beeping, much to the confusion of the American students. I had assumed that the phones were a sign of the power of the people gathered, but now even young teenagers were pulling out their own mix of Nokia’s, Motorola Razors, and iPhones.
Once the photo shoot calms down and our group begins to mingle in a more casual manner, I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn around to see my new Mama.
“My husband says I may give you gifts. Here is one,” she hands me a new type of bracelet, one which is thick and rounded with much smaller beads, “and you pick one of your costume.”
Back home I am overwhelmed on a daily basis as to what type of cereal I’d like to have for breakfast. This decision is too much, this kindness too great, and I insist that simply allowing me to wear her treasures was gift enough. Mama will not stand down and finally decides that I must keep the necklace. I am at a loss of words and can do nothing but kiss her on the cheek to show my gratitude. With her help the rest of the items are removed, and I walk over to Colin and Chris, still unable to connect words together to form full thoughts. We are standing there, talking to one of Sydney’s sons, Derrek, when Mama comes back and holds the headband from my costume out towards me.
“My husband wishes to give you a gift as well.” Once more, words will not suffice. I kiss Mama’s other cheek, accept my present with a bowed head, and scurry over to Sydney before Colin, Chris, and I continue our walk.
I embrace him without warning, too honored by their hospitality to worry over cultural differences and acceptability, falling back on my natural tendencies. He pauses for a moment, before chuckling softly and returning the hug.
“Ngiyabonga, Baba.” I offer him my limited Zulu, the only gift I have to give. Thank you, Father.
Later that night, before I fall asleep back in Dudu, my Ncome host Mama’s, home, I remember what Mandla told me during the dance competition. “When you marry, you must wear beads like those girls dancing. You must show everyone where you come from.” The final images I see before full darkness is of traditional white gowns strung with the colors of South Africa.
Growing up I never really felt connected to my classmates the way I thought I was supposed to. I had friends at school, people would invite me to their birthday parties, there were even a handful of people who I’d chat with on AIM after school. Still, I rarely saw my friends beyond the walls of our school. While everyone else planned play dates and sleepovers, I would sit at my computer and socialize online long before the era of Facebook. I met people through role-playing sites, a kind of global writing collaboration. Some of these people I’ve known for over ten years now, we’ve helped each other through personal tragedies and celebrated accomplishments, but I’ve never once met any of them in person. Still, I know about their families and the things they hope to accomplish in their lives. We are connected.
I don’t know anything about Sydney’s wife, my Mama. I spent less than two hours with her and yet she gave me items that take hours to carefully thread and weave, including one she specifically made for me before we left Ncome. A green belt with accents of yellow, brown, orange, blue, red, and white. I don’t even know her name. Still, we are connected.
All of the students are anxious after a day cramped within our white van as we travel towards the India Ocean. St. Lucia sounds like a tourist trap after our experiences in Ncome, but none of us can deny our excitement for a real bed, hot showers, and a toilet. The heavy blankets and thin mattresses of the village had felt like heaven at the end of each long day of exploring and we had all been surprised at how thoroughly one can wash themselves with two inches of water, but I am not ready to spend the rest of my life hovering over holes in the ground or squatting in the darkness before bedtime to relieve a stretching bladder. Still, there is one convenience that trumped all others.
“Do you think there will be Wi-Fi at the hotel?”
The question circulates the back of the bus but no one is willing to send it up to Cedric or Nettie, our two Afrikaans guides during our trip who would be able to offer an actual answer. No one is willing to give up that tiny taste of hope just yet.
I double and triple check that my small laptop is still where I had slipped it in my backpack earlier that day, nestled between sweatpants and the jeans I had been wearing for the past three days. I have never been very good at communicating regularly with my parents while at school, always taking the fact that they would be there when I needed them for granted, but before the past week I hadn’t gone a single day without communicating with my boyfriend since September. Nine months.
When we pull into our destination the announcement of no Wi-Fi wraps its cold fingers around the pit of my stomach, squeezing tight. I can already feel my anxiety starting to inch upwards.
Instead of our expectations of an American hotel with individual rooms running up and down a hallway, each populated with two oversized beds and impersonal art, we are told to break into groups and divvy up the two floor apartments that surround the central pool and courtyard, the one filled with signs warning against feeding the wild monkeys. I go with Christine and Jenna, two of the girls who had stayed with me at Dudu’s in Ncome. We’re given a few hours of free time before our scheduled hippo and crocodile ferry that evening. The majority of the students stick together, throwing bags into rooms haphazardly and then trekking down the street in search of a place to buy alcohol. We laugh together, already functioning as a family unit after our shared experiences over the past few days and replace our previous excitement of Wi-Fi with chatter about all spending the evening together, no longer spread out across the reaches of the village. What more reason do we need for a celebration?
After the ferry ride our entire group settles into the open air seating of a restaurant between the river and our apartments. For the first time I truly feel the loss of the phone I forgot on the plane a week ago as the news of Wi-Fi at the restaurant ripples through the students. In an odd way I have enjoyed not having the pressure to photograph my experiences weighing in my pocket, but now as my fellow Americans bury their noses in the blue glow of Facebook messengers and tune out the ambient noise of the other St. Lucia tourists I feel it.
The panic that first began to bubble upon arriving at our apartments begins to swirl in my abdomen once more, my absent friends and family aching like a phantom limb. My distress must be visible in my fumbling fingers and shifting shoulders, for after a few minutes Colin holds his phone out towards me, “You wanna let your folks know you’re okay and send a message to Amos?” Few words have ever sounded as sweet.
Over the course of our meal I set a time to talk with my boyfriend tomorrow and mentally begin to compose an email to my parents, uncaring how it might look to take over one of these tables for a few hours the following day with my laptop. This tease of communication does nothing but heighten my anxiety to reconnect with the people I have left behind, and so when we return to the apartments I offer our living room as a gathering space. I do not think I can last the time remaining between now and my planned return to the restaurant without plenty of distractions. Eight students collect around our coffee table as we set about teaching our young driver, Lebo, how to play Kings. For a while the planned distractions succeed, but as we draw the final cards from the first circle some of the students are already beginning to drift away.
Five of us remain after the game concludes: Christine, Colin, Chris, another girl Liz, and myself. We begin to wonder were the remaining members of our group are, the ones who said they would join us for our card game but never did. I’m not sure who first suggests that they must be sitting in another apartment, talking about the rest of us. We all shift uncomfortably at this idea, this assumed betrayal. We begin to feel hurt, frustrated at how we are not all together as we had originally planned.
“This isn’t doing us any good,” I say, “Instead of grumbling over here why don’t we just go see what they’re up to?” The others nod and we exit the apartment.
I don’t know how it happens, but from the moment our group enters the other apartment tensions are high. In less than ten hours of reentering civilization, the calm sense of unity that our group has created over our first week in rural South Africa shatters. We return to our normal perceptions of “us” and “other” and uncertainty. We read too deeply into each other’s words and actions, triggering a realization that we are alone without our standard forms of contact or comfort. I retreat to my apartment with Christine and Colin, curl into a chair and let the waves of anxiety fill my throat and lungs until it spills out through my eyes. When my muscles become too exhausted to keep their tension I rip a piece of paper into three section and hand them out to the others. “Write.” It is a command. When I finish writing I go back to the other apartment and ask to borrow Chris’s lighter. I light my paper on fire outside and watched until the gray is fragile enough to collapse under my breath.
We are in Matiyani Village, an all black Shangaani community in the Limpop Province, South Africa. Christine, Jenna, and I have been living in a small group of three mud huts where a family of young women took us in for three nights. I sit on the floor and watch Teboga, the oldest at the age of twenty-one, throw her arm over her sister Cynthia’s shoulder and pull her in closer as Christine holds out the camera and snaps a selfie. Another Justin Bieber song begins to play on the Nokia flip phone sitting on the stack of mattresses and all of the girls, Americans and South Africans alike, begin to sing along to the repetitive phrases. This is one of the few ways we have discovered to communicate between our handful of Zulu words, similar enough to the local dialect to get a semblance of meaning across, and their uncertainty of their English skills.
Light, a friend and frequent guest of our host family, yanks me up, calling for another photo. The two of us wrap an arm around the other’s back and pucker out our lips in a manner that I would never have done at home unless to mock the duck-billed profile pictures on sites like Facebook and Instagram, but feels appropriate after our snack of raw sugar cane picked from their yard and Rooibos tea. I remember years ago, when I was in my junior year of highs school and was a part of a German exchange program. My partner Sabine, myself, and another exchange duo spent a similar evening of silly photos and dancing to whatever songs someone decided to look up on YouTube. I want to ask our current hosts if this is how they typically spend their evenings once they lock the gate around their rotundas and cloister themselves away from the darkness and whatever might be prowling the dirt roads of the village, but hesitate in fear of complicating our fun with the reminder of our language barrier. Instead, Teboga’s seven year old daughter, Trust, is roused from her half-asleep ball on a pile of pillows and we all try to squeeze ourselves into the frame, no one wanting to get left out.
I lose track of the amount of photos we take or the number of times we all shout along to “Baby, baby, baby oooh, baby, baby, baby nooo” but eventually we feel the fatigue of the past week and a half settle on our limbs and we are all sprawled out across the floor on mattresses and blankets once more. With the early pull of sleep comes a letting go of anxieties and we begin to find it easier to communicate with words rather than actions.
Light, as always, is the most talkative of the South Africans, although all of the girls listen and chatter in response to various comments, first in Shanganni and then summarize in English when pressed.
We ask them simple things, about their school and their friends, whether or not any of them have boyfriends. For the first time when we ask this question we do not receive bashful giggles and denials as we did when talking to the young women and older girls in Ncome. Light and Teboga do, but they both admit to not really liking their boyfriends. They are far away, in Johannesburg or Capetown, wherever work is available. They text and talk on the phone, but neither of the women have seen their boyfriends in a long while and don’t seem bothered by this fact. They tell us that this is the same for all of the women their age in Matiyani. I think back to St. Lucia and worry that one day I will feel the same way about my boyfriend, or maybe with the addition of Skype, Facebook, and reliable phone service we’ll still be able to feel close.
“I would like to go to America.” Light says as she attempts to braid Christine’s short hair with her deft fingers. We have heard this statement so many times since we began our South African experience in Johannesburg a lifetime ago, and yet still we ask her why.
“Because then I can find a white man to marry.” Once again, this comment is common to an uncomfortable degree, I had never been called to personally pay so much attention to race before being thrown into a world where children would be frightened by my appearance because they have never seen a white person before. “Black men cannot love you, not like a white man can.”
My thoughts are halted at the matter-of-fact tone Light uses as she says these words. To Light, they are unquestionably true, and I cannot figure out how to move past this realization. I think back to our first full day in Matiyani, when the three white Americans and the three black Africans were walking in a slowly mixing bubble back from a long trek to the convenience store filled with packaged foods and sugary drinks. It was the middle of the day, the “winter” air warmed by the sun that feels so much closer than at home. We were approaching our gate when a tall, thin village man walked past us. Curious about everything, I glanced up and smiled at this stranger, but my face froze as our eyes made contact. His eyes were mostly flat with wide black pupils, but his eyebrows wriggled at me in a way that makes me flash back to stranger danger lessons in Elementary school or the whistle a local church put in all of our Freshmen Orientation folders as we first moved into college three years ago. As he walked past us, his head swiveled back in a manner that I had previously only thought manageable by owls, his eyes never blinking, never breaking contact with my own until right before he turns the corner when they slip up and down my body, his smile tightening over his teeth as he stares into my eyes once more.
“Not all white guys are great,” Christine begins quicker than I can get my brain to fully process “and I know plenty of amazing black guys too, your ability to love someone isn’t based off of your skin tone. You just haven’t met the right types of guys.”
I don’t know how I expected Light to react to this, certainly she wouldn’t suddenly have a life altering epiphany, although that’s exactly what I feel would have been appropriate at that moment. I certainly did not expect her noncommittal shrug and the casual shift of conversation as if love and race was on par with the weather when it comes to hot button topics.
There are many things I grew to understand during my time in South Africa, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to imagine the type of life that could lead to someone being so mistrusting of their own race. I am thankful for that fact and guilty for my thanks.
I am the second to last person in our group to leave the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg our last day in South Africa. Trailing along by myself, I follow my own rhythm of exploration, pausing where I feel pulled towards and simply strolling past other exhibits. I settle the longest in a small hallway with nothing but benches and pillars down the centre aisle. The red brick found in much of the museum continues here, but most of the walls are covered with various sized black and white photographs and scanned pages of text. Both the text and the images are from Ernest Cole’s book House of Bondage, a book that was originally released in 1967 and exposed life in South Africa, his home country, throughout Apartheid.
Although the images were the first things to make me pause my exploration, it is the text that coaxes me into staying longer. “She was crying,” the page before me reads “it turned out, because her baby sister was hungry, and it reminded her she was hungry too.”
These words are still playing in my mind as I climb a small flight of steps to a different section of the museum. I almost trip up the steps before I can wrench my eyes from the dozens of tan rope nooses hanging from the ceiling. There is a wall in the middle of this smaller room and none of the words etched on it make any sense until I read the title. Documented Suicides in Prison Systems During Apartheid. Name, age, why they were arrested, how long they were there, manner of suicide. The columns and rows create a neat little chart to disguise the chaos. 175 days, 32 days, 1 day. Hanging, cut wrist, jumping from third story window. I read all of them.
I enter the next room with a deep breath that gets caught in my throat once I realize what I am now facing. Small rooms with thick grey walls, heavy gates swung open. I don’t even need to read the plaque to know that these are the types of cells prisoners were kept in, sometimes for years in solitary confinement before they were even informed why they had been arrested or given an official sentence. My feet feel heavy as I walk into the cell, walk to the back wall, and turn around. The walls feel even closer than they had looked from the outside. My throat begins to tighten as I feel my pulse quicken, I am familiar with the early signs of a panic attack.
I understand all those names now, all that desperation even after only a handful of days. Motho ke motho ka batho What type of person do you become when you are wholly alone?
Read an interview with Steph here.