While We are Here

by Abriel Newton

 

We are leaving tomorrow, and the sky is so open I lose my breath when I see it at night, coming backwards out of our hut. Oh. This is the sky, here. And I don’t want to leave it. We are in Ncome South Africa. The Zulu village is outside of Johannesburg, the ground here hard-packed and dusty, the smoke sweet and sharp.

Jenna, Steph, Christine and I are in Dudu’s empty hut, which we assume is the guest hut. It has linoleum mats, a tapestry hanging on the back wall that says “Jesus is the Way,” and a door we keep shut with a stray nail. There’s a wardrobe with blankets inside and a bench near the window. I think the hut is made of concrete, and the ceiling is so intricately connected, the beams crisscrossed and almost basket weaved. Christine leans in to Dudu, “You floor is very pretty,” she says, pushing her hair behind her ear. Dudu smiles at us, “Yes, very beautiful.”

She lines up mattresses on the floor, and the first night, she makes us sit and watch her and her mother prepare our beds, and in the morning she brings us bath water and corn biscuits. The second night, we help set them, and she tells us not to be scared, that the cows are crying. The third night, I make Dudu’s bed by the wall, as one of my only ways to show gratitude, but I make it wrong, and she redoes it.

The last night we are writing, and Dudu pushes the single candle closer to our mattress, and we circle it, writing close on the floor. We are silent. Dudu shifts around on her bed and after a while asks, “Switch off?” snuffing out the candle with her fingers when we say okay. We are covered in thick blankets, and the flowers on these are the ones that I will continue to see. They are the same blankets from village to village, as we travel, a group of fifteen students from Susquehanna University. We are here to get to know the people we meet, herded by leaders that grew up here. Minutes pass and I wonder why Dudu is sent out here to sleep with us in this empty hut when the rest of her family is in the surrounding huts in the compound.

Dudu gasps, and my eyes fly open in the blackness. “Christine. Will you pray for us?” she asks, leaning over her mattress.

Christine comes up onto her elbow. “Out loud?”

“Yes.”

Christine opens her mouth, but then Dudu is lighting the candle and curling up on her knees on the mattress, and laying her head in her folded hands. We all copy her, and she prays for us in rapid-fire Zulu. And it is so fast that I know she prays every day, she has the words for her questions and wishes memorized. “I asked God to protect you tomorrow,” she says, “I have a pain in my heart because you are leaving.”

She smiles, and we cannot say anything. None of us were expecting that. She is a stranger and we are in her house and she is praying in a language we do not understand. I lay still and blink at the back of Jenna’s head. I’ve never heard anyone pray like that before, so fast and quiet and vicious. Where does this seemingly honest and genuine care come from? Would she pray like this for the people in this village, or would she pray harder? Embarrassed that I’ve never seen this before, I am silently crying.

+

I am thirteen. I am in confirmation class in the attic of the church, tapping my fingers. I have to get home in time to watch America’s Next Top Model. John is the pastor of St. John’s UCC in Shamokin, Pennsylvania. He’s round and bald and always has white dried spit in the corner of his lips. His teeth are twisted, stalactites of saliva exposed whenever he speaks. He narrows his eyes.

We’re going over answers in the book, and I’m regurgitating what I find in the Bible, what I hear him say. Yes, I agree with that. Yeah good point. He reads off of his papers. He offers nothing. Last Sunday, he preached that we should all give more money to the church, because then we’d have a better chance of getting into heaven. We cannot be selfish, and keep our money to help us stay living and comfortable. Give to God, give to the church and to the pastor, and then weep when you see Jesus. I prop my feet on the chair in front of me, reclining, watching the boy with blonde hair across from me. The hour drags, and finally, he dismisses everyone, patting my feet dismissively. I wince.

“Is something wrong?” He smiles tightly, gathering his books.

“I just twisted my ankle at ballet.” I say watching the ground, making to get out of my seat.

“Do you want us to pray for you? Is that what you’re asking?” He seems too eager. He looks around at the rest of the students.

The uncertainty comes down hard, bodies shift in seats. “I have to go,” someone says, slipping out. I look to my friend Jess, who shrugs and frowns. Everyone else wears nearly the same expression. “Sure.” I smile weakly. The students and Pastor John gather around me, his hand hot on my ankle, their fingers brushing my head and shoulders.

“Okay everyone,” he begins and as he says whatever it is he does, I watch my ankle. The heat could help it, a hot stone, a flax-seed bag, things from the earth. Asking some spirit in the sky will do nothing, and his hollow voice reflects this, confirms it. I might believe it if his energy was real, if I could feel sincerity or intent.

I leave as quickly as I can, hobbling down the stairs and out into the grass.

+

We are in Lucky’s village, and Dallas, Christine and I are playing a game with the children in the yard, Fire in the Mountain. I don’t know who these children belong to, but they are a force of around six. We sing with them, “there’s a fire in the mountain, fire, fire, there’s a fire in the mountain fire fire. Group of…” And we rush to cluster in groups, the children clinging to our knees and fingers.

Sometime, we are told to go join the rest of our group. We walk along the road with the kids holding our hands until we get to the other girls’ compound. A few women are in a line on the ground near the fence, drumming furiously. We sit and we watch with children on our laps, and I’m wondering if this isn’t for show. There is snarl, a snap of a growl and howling, and I look behind the group to look for an animal, a woman throws back her head and I realize that it is her, heaving. She runs into her hut to pray, and I am told by Lucky that they are drumming for her, to carry her to her trance, so the ancestors can bless our visit. The children are silent and watching, and the women in the line watch for her to come back out. No one is shy about the situation, no one wary or self-conscious, and I feel a scrape of envy.

The woman stumbles out, stomping her ankles with shells, singing, hooting and fidgeting in a circle. She does this until she falls down on her hands and knees and starts to talk faster than before. And this is when the ancestor of the mountain is in her and he speaks through her and I am fascinated. I want to go over and hold her face so I can watch her eyes and see if she is genuine, like how badly I want her to be. I want to stay here, where this sense of being lost inside a dance or a trance is natural and normal and feels right. And I wonder if she put her hands on my feet and I felt the heat from them if my muscles would heal.

I keep watching the streetlight and how it casts her body harsh and how unnatural it is in this world, this practice that comes before Christianity that comes before industrialization. Her trance is validated for me by the idea that she is not doing this for God, but for the spirit in the mountains, for something older, and so I believe it. At home, on every corner dirtied with coal soot, is a streetlight, a bar and a church.

+

I am in elementary school, maybe sixth grade. I rush up the basement steps to the cramped living room. My father’s friend, Al, watches his wife as she pontificates about her “amazing experiences” to my parents, lumped together on the couch in the half-double.

“Lisa you should come to the church, bring Mike and the kids,” she nearly shouts, leaning in close to my mother, who imperceptibly shifts backwards.

Stacey. She says she speaks in tongues every week; that the spirit is so strong, the people are amazing and the pastor is wonderful. I don’t remember my parent’s reactions, so I don’t know what this means. We leave, and my parents talk in low tone and upturned lips.

I have heard of the Pentecostal snake-handling churches, the Holy Ghost people lapsing into glossolalia, men and women, overtaken, holding poisonous snakes, snapping and shaking. Mark 16: 17-18 tells them God has given them this power: “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” I do not believe this because, coincidentally, I do not believe in a God, but something earlier, and so this feels less real.

+

We are in Matiyani. Our host family is taking us to church with them, a three hour service. I can’t imagine three hours of silence, monotone singing and a sermon that puts people to sleep. Dallas and I take turns carrying D, Winnie’s daughter. Gift is Winnie’s sister, and they are both Mama’s daughters. There are so many girls in this house that we can’t keep them straight. Gift is the favorite, and she sings in church, so we are going with her. The rest of the family stays.

The church is not as extravagant as my mother’s church with the beamed cathedral ceilings and tiered altar. This church is filled with plastic chairs, open doors, and lilac cloth that doesn’t reach the entire way around the bright airy room. There are no cushion-covered pews or organ pipes that stretch to the ceiling. This is not a church built to be impressive so much as functional, and for this, it feels more real.

They sing so many songs, and Gift is at the front, screaming into the overbearing microphones, most people sing along. Sometime in the service there is an upbeat song, and people start gathering in a loose circle at the front. They start dancing. We join in, and my face is red from laughing and I’m holding hands with people I don’t know, spinning faster, and I don’t feel this comfortable at home. At the same time I am wary of this. I feel like I am missing something crucial when I go home to church with my mother. Maybe I’m missing what came before a concept of God that I was so raised to believe in.

+

St. John’s has a Valentine’s Day Dinner Dance every year, transforming Fellowship Hall in the basement into a soft glowing dance floor where the After Hours Big Band comes to play. I am sixteen. The kids from school don’t dance. They hug the walls when someone tries to drag them out. “It’s swing music,” I say, “It’s fun.”

A few elderly couples get up to sway when they play “My Funny Valentine” but otherwise they sit with rigid backs and straight teeth, tapping their feet in time. I want to run around and slide all over the floor, but no one else is and so I feel constricted. I grab my brother and drag him out onto the floor and move his arms around, forcing him to dance. He grimaces and runs away, and I’m left awkwardly in the middle of the floor. People are watching and I can feel the outer edges of my body and know that I am very here and very present and I cannot get lost in this “Moondance” because everyone is also so very much here and aware.

+

At the church in Matiyani the praying throws me. People stand, and the keyboard goes, and I think this will be a silent couple minutes and they will talk to God inside. But people start speaking, pacing back and forth, their faces all screwed up and lined. Gift hasn’t left the front, and she is swaying. And her mouth is open with her white teeth and her lips are going fast. The man from the circle with the yellow pants is pacing at the front, gesturing at the ground over and over. There are people on stage, facing the walls, shaking their heads. Everyone is crying and conversing with God, absorbed. The younger ones pace, the elders sit, but their faces are just as concentrated, just as lost in their prayers. They are not here anymore, and I’m annoyed that my mind is so present, and I am embarrassed by my American sense of self that I cannot let go.

I am jealous because I don’t have this confidence, this unabashed passion. I don’t have the opportunities to lose myself like this. And this sounds backwards, me coming from the West, thinking I am lacking in any form of opportunity. Still, I am jealous of the way these people interact with each other, how they understand something I don’t seem to get. I don’t know what it is that I’m not comprehending. How can I be jealous when every person we meet says they want to come to America? It is the great dream. I accept this passion towards, this near possession of, the spirit in this church as more genuine than the one at home. I don’t believe in a God anymore here than I do in America, but the sense that there is a realness about belief here cannot be denied. No one is pretending to sing.

+

At home, in my mother’s church, the UCC, I don’t sing, but I stand with my hymnal open and move my mouth. Sometimes I say “watermelon” or “peas and carrots” like they taught us to do in elementary school if we forgot the words. I wonder how many other people are whisper singing and going through the motions. At home, Pastor Bob speaks of swallowing a bottle of Vicodin and how the cleaning lady of the motel found him. The elders in the church whisper, how inappropriate. How real. They shun him, talk about him after the service and at meetings. He shouldn’t bring up something like that when addressing the congregation about getting closer to God. Bob is more honest and open than John, and for this baring of himself, the people of the church do not like him. What would they say if I got up to speak, looking at me like they do, like my mother does when she tells me I can’t wear those clothes to church, these people that won’t dance when there is music.

There is too much small talk. Oh how is school / I haven’t seen you in so long / You’ve gotten so grown-up / How are you? Fine of course, of course.

+

One of Gift’s sisters looks at me in Matiyani outside the church. “What do you want?” She is direct and serious.

I balk, startled. “I don’t want anything.” I say, gesturing around like that’s supposed to mean something.

“What do you want?” She steps closer, watching me.

“Um, to get to know you.” I squint in the sun.
She pauses, considering, then her face changes, opens. “Oh. Okay. Thank-you.” She turns and walks purposefully into the church, like she actually wants to be there, and I am left to follow her.

 

 

Read an interview with Abriel here.

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The Mountains

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

Where I Left my Heart

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.”

Quo Vadis?

by Sarah Beyer

 

In 2014, I look at the hundreds of mopeds and motorcycles lined up around the perimeter of the grass and think to myself, “This isn’t like the other school at all.” It’s the end of May and I’ve been in South Africa for two weeks. As my professor, his husband, and fourteen other Susquehanna University students and I walk the long path from the gate to the main building of the school, I laugh and complain with my friends about how much we don’t want to have to talk to these rich white kids, assuming the stereotypes from back home applied here, too. I tug at the bottom of my shirt that I had thought was fancy enough, but I still feel underdressed in my jeans and flip flops. I hope no one notices the dirt under my toenails.

+

In 1948, a system of racial segregation called ‘apartheid’ was introduced in South Africa. People were classified into four racial groups: “black,” “white,” “coloured,” and “Indian.” From 1960 to 1983, 3.5 million non-white South Africans were removed from their homes and forced into segregated neighborhoods, making it one of the largest mass removals in modern history. The government segregated education, medical care, beaches, and other public services, almost always providing non-white South Africans with services that were inferior to those of white people.

We’re ushered into an empty room full of tables and chairs, everything blanketed with pristine white cloth. The room is dimly lit and we’re instructed to sit two or three at a table. Everything in the room seems to signal the wealth of the school, which is why I find the laminated placemats with pictures of elephants amusing and out of place. I sit with my fellow Susquehanna University students Liz and Meghan at a table in the very front, too close for my comfort to where the principal of the school stands to make an announcement.

“I would like to start by saying welcome to all of you here today,” the principle says with an accent that I’ve grown accustomed to over the past couple weeks. “We’re very excited to have you here to talk to our students.” She smiles and we smile back, but I don’t think anyone actually cares. This isn’t the first welcome speech we’ve had to endure. I notice Liz biting her nails,  and I can’t stop bouncing my leg up and down.

“What are we doing after this again?”

“Going to that monument thing, I think. At least, that’s what Peterson told us on our way here.”

“Right,” I say with a sigh and nod of my head as I use my fingers to straighten my placemat. I am tired of fake smiles and shaking hands. I’m tired of feeling out of place and knowing that I don’t belong here with these people. I want to go home. We hear voices from outside getting louder and then through the door come a large group of uniformed students. They all wear navy blazers and pants, and I’m reminded once again that this is their winter season. They cluster together by the door, waiting for instructions

“Alright,” the principle says, “we’re going to have everyone take a seat at one of the tables where the American students are already sitting. Our goal here is for all of you to ask each other questions about either America or South Africa. Notice how much you all have in common, or how much you don’t.” She turns to the high schoolers and speaks to them in Afrikaans to which they all nod their heads in acknowledgment, like children who were told to be on their best behavior. It bothers me that Afrikaans is a jumble of sounds that I feel I should be able to understand but don’t, and I feel a heaviness in my stomach when the principal speaks.

Two girls sit down at our table, all smiles and seemingly eager to talk. When they introduce themselves, their names immediately escape me, and it doesn’t occur to me to feel bad. These past two weeks, I’ve been in a whirlwind of names and faces, towns and villages, and Zulu phrases that I’m too self-conscious to actually use. I will never see these girls again.

+

In 2010, the census of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania reported that 42.8% of its population was non-Hispanic White, 7.2% Black or African American, 0.4% Native American, 0.8% Asian, and 3.3% were two or more races. 48.8% of the population were of Hispanic or Latino ancestry.

I remember when I was old enough to walk around the store by myself, the freedom of walking unaccompanied was exciting. I had been to the Walmart in Kennett enough times to know where everything I needed was, but finding my mom after we parted ways in different aisles was another story. I scanned the entire ladies clothing section, where she’d said she would be. I looked at the coats and at the display of tee shirts. I backtracked to the racks of dresses she had me look at earlier with her.

I felt like the strangers who passed by, concentrating on their shopping, could tell by my wandering that I was a lost little kid looking for her mom. My head was permanently stuck to the side as I walked down the lane, making it easier to look in every aisle I passed. I wiped my sweaty hands on my jeans and blinked as merchandise popped in and out of focus.

I turned down the ladies underwear aisle, sure that it had to be the last place I looked. My mom wasn’t there, but two men were. They had tan skin and black hair and wore what looked like dirty sweatshirts. I assumed they were Mexican because all my friends in school who looked like that were always Mexican. They were pointing at all the pictures of the barely dressed women on the packages of underwear, giggling and nudging each other with their elbows. It made me feel uncomfortable, but I didn’t look away. I didn’t move. I felt like I had just walked in on the pair of them looking at a dirty magazine. It made me nervous, as if they would have no qualms to do the same for me–to stare and point and giggle at me in my generic underwear and badly shaved legs.

I was thankful to the woman who pushed her cart down the aisle, scaring off the two men. My mom found me soon after that. Nothing happened, but for some reason, I have never forgotten that moment.

+

In 1990, President Frederik Willem de Klerk began negotiations to end apartheid. A year later, apartheid was officially abolished with the repeal of the last remaining apartheid laws. Non-white South Africans were not allowed to vote until 1994.

“How are you enjoying Pretoria so far?” one of the girls asks us. She has blonde hair that she wears in a ponytail, but, my eyes are constantly drawn to her slightly large nose. She leans slightly forward in her chair towards us. I appreciate how she leads the conversation when the rest of us don’t know what to say. The brunette next to her is quiet like the rest of us, and her face reminds me a porcelain doll.

“It’s nice! Just very different from a lot of what we’ve seen while being over here,” I say.

“Oh? How so?”

Together the three of us try to condense a whole trip’s experiences into a comprehensible story. How our stays have been spent mostly in villages, sharing huts with families who had never experienced interactions with white people in such depth, or maybe at all. How we bathed in buckets and learned to dance. How on our first night in the country, we stayed in a house in Alexandra, considered to be the most dangerous township in all of South Africa. How this was really one of the first times that we’ve seen so many white people since being here. This seems to shock them, and they lean close to each other and start to talk in Afrikaans. Liz and I look at each other, unsure of what to make of this, of them.

“Wow. That sounds crazy. I don’t think anyone in this room has been to any places like that. Especially Alex! That must have been scary,” the blonde says, all attention back on us.

“Nah, it wasn’t that bad. The people there were really nice actually,” Liz says.

We speak over the sound of everyone talking at once, explaining that yes, there is crime in America no matter where you live and that no, America is entirely too big a place to easily travel and see every part of it. I hold my teacup in both hands and feel the warmth of it sink deeper into my palms. The taste of the tea lingers on my tongue, and with every word, I lose a little more. I wish for silence.

Eventually, the principal calls us all to attention once more and asks if we could all prepare one statement about either South Africa or America that we wished for each other to know.

Someone from my group stands up and explains that finding a job in America is still really hard to do, even if you have a degree. Students shift in their seats, unsettled.

“You may have gotten that question a lot from the students here,” the principal laughs. “Students here are encouraged to think about going abroad and getting employment in places like America because there are so few jobs here for them anymore.”

A few other people stand up and speak, South African and American alike. It isn’t until my friend Jade stands up that I really take notice. “Um, yeah, I just wanted to say that in America, it’s really common for different people to mix. Like, it’s actually normal for a white person and a black person to get married, and so there’s a lot of different ways people will identify themselves. For example, you probably can’t tell by looking at me, but I’m half Dominican.”

The students all start to talk at once to each other, and the principal has to reign in their shocked chatter. I wonder if I’m only making up this tension that I feel creep throughout the room. I try to imagine how the conversation at my table would have been if I were black, if for them the white color of my skin wasn’t an indication for a mutual hate of those who are different. I stop, because I don’t like how it makes me feel. For this, I hate them.

+

In 2012, the American Community Survey accounted Mexican immigrants coming to the United States made up 28.3% of all U.S. immigrants. Nearly 11.6 million immigrants are from Mexico.

When I began my first job at fifteen, I learned quickly that the convenience of being in the same room with a man encourages his eyes to linger and follow you, to smile with too many teeth, and make jokes that aren’t funny. It was at this job, selling newspapers to old men and lottery tickets to the hopeful middle class, that I was first asked for my number by a stranger.

“What’s your name again?” asked a Hispanic man with an easy smile before he pushed open the door to leave.

I smiled at him like a good employee, fully aware that he had never known my name in the first place. This was the first time I had ever seen him come in the store. “It’s Sarah.”

“Ah Sarah, that’s right. It’s a beautiful name.”

“Thank you,” I said, always second-guessing what he said around his accent.

“Can I have your number?” he said, his fingers running over the plastic bag he held.

“What?” I was shocked. I felt my face turning red, and I hoped he wouldn’t think it was because I was flattered.

“Can I have your number? To call you sometime. Get to know you a little,” he said, that same smile never slipping from his lips.

“Uh, no. I don’t think I should,” I said, trying to laugh.

“Oh ok. I understand,” he said, sounding disappointed. “That’s not your thing.”

Later, when I told my boss about what happened, she looked at me with a scrunched nose. “That’s so creepy!”

“I know,” I said with a genuine laugh.

“It doesn’t surprise me though. Especially for one of the Mexicans,” she said, whispering the word Mexicans. She always whispered Mexicans, as if whispering made her judgments okay. “You know how we own that apartment building downtown? Well, this Mexican family was renting one of the rooms and when Greg went down there the other day to check on the heater, he found that there were way more people staying there than should be. He came home all pissed and told me that he told them that they either had to go back to the original number of tenants or they had to move out. That’s so typical. They just hole themselves up in each other’s places like sardines whenever any of them come up from Mexico.”

I nodded my head, but didn’t pay much attention.

+

In 2013, The World Economic Forum’s global information technology report ranked South Africa 140th out of 144 countries in terms of the “quality of the education system.” The CHE, a statutory body that advises the higher education minister, says, “It is common cause that the shortcomings and inequalities in South Africa’s public school system are a major contributor to the generally poor and racially skewed performance in higher education.”

The blonde leads Megan, Liz, and I on a tour of the school, and I’m amazed at hallways that are on the outside of buildings and the amount of book bags on the floor that line the walls. She shows us the art room and a person in the back who I’m not sure is the teacher or just another student waves. We awkwardly wave back. She shows us the courtyard where students walk past us, and all I can think about is what do they do when it rains?

“In here is where we had our big ceremony this morning, so it’s pretty messy,” she says as she holds the door open to a large room I would have assumed was the cafeteria. Streamers and paper littered the floor and she explains how everyone in her school gathered there this morning and prayed. She tells us how beautiful it all was.

A black man in a janitor’s suit comes walking up along the wall, carrying something in his arms. Instantly, I feel my shoulders hike up as I say “Hello!” in an overly enthusiastic way, and my smile is big. He smiles back, not in the surprised way I thought it would be but with a face that told me he appreciated what I did. I watch the blonde carefully, and I yearn for her to turn her head and smile at him the same way I just did. But she doesn’t.

She shows us to another part of the courtyard where you can easily see beyond the huge chain-link fence that surrounds this part of the school. “Do you see that other building over there?” We all nod our heads, but I have no clue what she’s talking about. “That’s an English speaking school. We had this fence built around us to separate the two schools to make it very clear about the difference.” She stands a little straighter when she tells us this and says it with pride. I’m shocked that they even go so far as to segregate the white people into different groups.

It isn’t until later that I learn that her pride may have stemmed from her school’s ability to keep black South Africans from attending. It will be harder for a black South African to do well in a strictly Afrikaans speaking school than an English one because of the language barrier. I couldn’t stop thinking about a little boy named Francisco who I knew in second grade who had to leave for part of the day to go to a special class to learn English. The teachers were worried he would fail.

Francisco didn’t talk much back then. But then again, I don’t remember ever asking him to.

+

In 2012, the American Community Survey showed Spanish to be the primary language spoken at home by 38.3 million people aged five or older, more than double the amount in 1990.

Many times at work people have come to buy lottery tickets who don’t know how to play. It’s the worst when they don’t know how to speak English to tell me so. More times than I can count, a Mexican man or woman will walk over to me where I stand at the register and point at the words with the pen in their hands, looking at me with furrowed brows. I don’t usually know what to say to help them understand.

“You fill in the bubble with the number that you want,” I say, gauging how much they can put together from my words and hand motions. “Five numbers,” I say, holding up my hand like I would for a first grader. “Choose five.”

Many times they just stare at me. Sometimes they get frustrated and go ask someone else, if there’s anyone standing around. I feel helpless and annoyed because I want to help, but I don’t know how they understand what it is and are willing to pay money for it if they weren’t told how to play.

My boss says she doesn’t understand why many of the Mexicans who come to our store bother to play at all. “It’s not like they can claim the money if they win the jackpot,” she says. “You have to be a citizen for that.”

+

In 2013, the sculpture initially known as “In Flight” was unveiled at its new home at the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria. The new name was bestowed in memory of former Prime Minister Dr. D. F. Malan’s closing words during the inaugural ceremony of the monument on December 16, 1949: “Quo Vadis?”

We all pile onto the bus, leaving the school and the students behind. Everyone begins talking at once about how horrible that place was. I sit in the very back of the bus, the sunlight streaming through the window so hot it makes me sweat.

“There was one guy in my group who literally asked us, ‘How do you like our taxis and all the black people who can’t drive?’ Honestly, word for word.” I hear a voice say among the others.

“I just don’t understand how they could be so racist! At our table, they were seriously just trying to tell us how the black people here make it such a dangerous place to live and how crime is such big a problem. Go fuck yourselves.”

“Oh my god, they kept trying to tell me how black people ‘really are,’ and I’m just like, uh, do you actually know any black people that you can say this to me right now?”

“He looked at me like just because I was white meant that I had to agree with him.”

I close my eyes and lean back in my seat. I feel angrier with every story I hear, but I think that some part of me wants to believe that these kids can change. That maybe they can go out in the world and discover that not everyone agrees with this way of thinking and that they would then change their mind about it. I want to see someone break away from this bubble of ignorance and just see for themselves that what they hear every day is nothing more than opinion. That hating someone for just being different is wrong. I fear that I’m just like them.

I don’t believe I’m racist. I don’t think that I’m prejudice or biased or any other word you want to use to describe ignorance. But what if I am? What if, just like these kids, I don’t see how my own thoughts and opinions are sheltering me from seeing the truth? I’m nervous to walk past a group of Mexican men who stand on the sidewalk outside my job because I fear of what they want to do to me or call out to me. I don’t assume that the customers who come asking for lottery tickets speak English, and I hate the feeling of shock when an older Mexican man comes in and speaks without an accent. I hate that I’m this way. I hate that I have to double-check my own thoughts against people who have never done anything to me.

The bus is so hot, and I feel exhausted, though it’s early afternoon and our day has barely begun. What if I’m no better than them? The thought plays in my head, and I lay my head against the window because I pray that these kids will learn. That I’ll learn.

I’m scared of what this blind spot makes me, of who I am when I sit there and let my boss talk because I know that she’s not a bad person, but I don’t know what to call it that could defend her.

No one is really in the mood to go to the Voortrekker Monument and hear about how some white guys came and “discovered” Africa. We aren’t on the bus for very long, but by the time we get there, everyone seems quieter. It’s too hot to put it around my shoulders, but I keep my blanket crumpled up on my lap and take deep breaths of the smell of dirt roads and smoky huts that have clung to it.

When we get off the bus, we’re introduced to our guide, a short white man with glasses and a walking stick. He stands on the steps of the giant square building and points behind us to a sculpture with the words “Quo Vadis?” written on it. While everyone seems impatient and bored, he translates: Where are you going?

I play with the straps of my backpack and my mind automatically goes back to the school. Quo Vadis? Where are you going? I take out my journal and write the phrase down, circling it with my pen till a thick line surrounds the words, giving it the impression that it stands out from the rest of the page.

I want to go home. I want to change from this mindset that I’m any better than those kids. I want to see myself as being a better person because of this. Where are you going? Where are you going?

Quo Vadis?

I shield my eyes from the sun that shines directly over top of us with my hand and repeat the phrase in my head like a mantra, trying to memorize the way it’s pronounced. Standing there on the giant steps of the Voortrekker Monument, I’m not so sure anymore.

 

Statistics and facts from online research.

At the Corner of Give and Take

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.

I’m No Jesus

by Andrew Lawler

 

The first time I’m called Jesus, it doesn’t catch me off guard. I laugh. It’s funny. His name’s Valentine, with a long i sound like canteen—he’s an older fellow, a local. We’re all filing out of the house where we’ll spend the night to go to the shebeen, and he catches me by the arm with a calloused hand and these deep dark weathered eyes that hold such a genuine smile.

“You look like somebody.”

He points at me with a friendly finger, loose, like he’s holding a small imaginary bird. This part’s familiar. I already know what’s coming because I am accustomed to it—he sees my long hair, down past my shoulders, my lanky body like I’ve been fasting in the desert. Still, I play along.

“Well, it’s either John Lennon or Jesus.”

“Jesus!”

We laugh. I walk away, rejoining the Americans towards the shebeen—an outdoor bar of sorts—and I think: Even here I’m called Jesus. In retrospect, it does strike me as a little odd. In America I’m used to friends occasionally commenting on my long hair. When it’s shorter, more compact, I’m usually likened to John Lennon. It’s the longest it’s ever been—going a year uncut—and I’ve been getting a few more Jesus comments, but in America secularism is abundant. Even the most loudly-proclaimed Christian who stubs their toe and shouts Jesus Christ is hardly worthy of a single batted eye, while places that take faith most seriously would file this neatly under Thou shall not misuse the name of the Lord. It’s one of the first of my preconceived notions that is crushed in South Africa. Later I will look back on this moment and shake my head. Of course being called Jesus wasn’t taboo, I’ll say to myself. You’re too used to tight-ass America.

+

Let’s get this out of the way before I go any farther here. I am not a religious person. At the age of five while I still swore I heard footsteps and jingling on the roof on Christmas Eve, I was telling other kindergarteners that I didn’t believe in God, and I debated them, and was outright mean, asking how they could believe in something they had no hard evidence for. By the age of thirteen I had joined an online community of anti-theists. and We would scoff and snort and rant at the hate mail that the head of the group received hourly and published daily, critiquing their grammar, and laughing at the irony of their death threats, citing the Ten Commandments. Something clicked when someone told me they would pray for me—some enlightened sector of my brain realized the irony of my own actions, and an era in my life came to an end. But I am not a religious person. Now I have grown up considerably from my days of preaching godlessness from the crib. I have realized that my questioning of others’ beliefs came from a deeply-rooted interest. I have come to understand that my interest is in greater questions—and like a heavily-watered-down Saint Augustine, I’ve gone so far as to declare a major in religious studies at my university, learning about the answers that various cultures across time have offered. So this is where I stood before traveling to South Africa.

+

The group visits the dual museums, of Zulu and of Voortrekker, cleaved apart by Blood River. Here, even history is splintered. The Battle of Blood River took place between nearly five-hundred Boers led by General Pretorius and a force of Zulu warriors forty times as large. Three Boers wounded, three thousand Zulu killed. We go to listen to the Voortrekker’s version of the story first. The curators speak very little to us. They only show us a short movie on a projector and let us explore the museum ourselves. In the first few minutes of the video I am genuinely impressed. It seems that the makers of the video—while, yes, being obviously biased towards the Voortrekkers—were honest about how horrifying and brutal the massacre was. And then there’s the cannon. Propping it up on bricks and sandbags they tilt the barrel as high as they can, nearing the best forty-five-degree angle for maximum distance they can manage. When it goes off, it flips backwards and the shot travels to a faraway hilltop where it strikes a dozen Zulu chiefs at once and kills them instantly. They go on to talk about building churches and frame the battle as a God-given victory. In their concluding image montage, they say the word “miracle” while showing an image of the historic cannon. I am momentarily transported back to my days as a foaming-at-the-mouth atheist. I am angry, but quickly remind myself of Sodom, Gomorrah, Jericho, the Plagues. This isn’t new. It’s in the Old Testament, this attribution of bloody acts of victory in war to God. I am angry, but I pull back. I can’t let myself be angry like I used to be.

+

We’re driving through Swaziland. It’s the fastest way to get to where we’re going, which is up to Kruger National Park—one of the largest game reserves in the entire continent.
Multiple times I’ll hear it compared to the geographic size of Israel, and it’ll pique my ears each time. I’ll wonder what the significance of such a comparison could be. Is this land as holy as Israel? Could the Bible have been written here?

Later I’ll hear a shitty (albeit catchy) song by Belgian singer-songwriter and white Africa enthusiast Helmut Lotti that calls Africa “God’s final creation” and “the second paradise.” It’s a problematic song because it praises the beauty of the land but ignores the people, the cultures, treats it like it’s a cake that the White Man is entitled to with no mind to the baker or the other guests that have already served themselves and are enjoying themselves. But I digress from this stupid analogy. It’s interesting that so many compare this place to heaven or the Garden of Eden. And yet, so many want to go to America as if it’s actually heaven.

But that’s Kruger. Before we get there, we have to go through Swaziland.

The drive from bottom to top is only about a hundred miles in a straight line, but the potholes make the drive long, bumpy, and sleepless. If South Africa is the Garden of Eden then Swaziland is Purgatory at best. We get a brief history lesson as we wobble through the valley on rubber tires that are waiting to be punctured. It is a hurt country. As we drive, as I listen, I come to understand the potholes as merely scars, cigarette burns on skin. There is much pain dwelling beneath the pavement. As it turns out, the Swazi government is horribly corrupt. For example, this year, 2014, the Swazi parliament allocated $61 million for King Mswati III’s (one of the many children of the previous king whose face adorns the country’s currency) “household budget” while 63% of citizens live on less than $1.25 a day. Obviously very little of the money is going into taking care of the country and its people.
And here we are, coming to the border to return to South Africa. We leave the bus with our passports, my legs finally returning to solid ground after a stint of motion sickeness. We enter the passport office and get in line to have our booklets stamped. I approach the table and I hear the woman at the desk say something in Zulu. My mind is elsewhere, and I imagine she is speaking to the other officer. The words she says only just strike me when she begins to sing in English. It’s a church hymn. Sawubona, Jesu, she had said, I realize, as I gather my bearings. I know enough Zulu to understand she is saying Hello, Jesus.

It’s surreal, having church hymns sung to you by a Swazi border officer. As I’m walking back to the bus, I’m in disbelief at the hilarity of the whole thing. All I can think is You look like somebody!

But her tone was decidedly different from Valentine’s. There was an air of judgment, of mockery. If I had been more alert, I would have been more uncomfortable in the moment of it happening. Perhaps I can at least say that she mocked me out of boredom, to entertain herself. God knows they need something to laugh about in this place.

+

This is Sigagula, Lucky’s village. Matt and I sit down in a small pavilion with a pool table in the middle. We meet a man with dreads; the pool table, plus the large acoustic speakers in a small shed at the back of the pavilion, are his pride and joy. He speaks to Matt, gesturing to me. “Is he cool?”

“Uh, yeah, he’s cool. He just don’t drink or anything.”

“Oh, I see. I have a Bible, you can preach to us if you aren’t going to drink.”

I let out a short laugh, nervous, awkward, to show I’m playing along, that I’m cool. I miss Valentine’s warm eyes in that one brief moment we shared in jest. I am not welcome here, or at least I don’t feel that way. Or perhaps it’s just my hair that’s not welcome here. But that’s not it either. It’s my sobriety that’s not welcome. Drinking is what the men do together, like in many of the places we have stayed. Because I do not drink, because I am so clearly an Other, I am not welcome. I am alone, trailing behind, with nowhere else to go but to follow them to the shebeen and drink nothing.

+

One day we go to a sangoma, a kind of traditional healer popular in South Africa. Her name is Mama Rosa. Cedric, who is a sangoma himself, makes a point to say that he is particularly impressed with her abilities. I go last. After Colin, Dallas, and Sarah.

Mama Rosa instructs me to sprinkle ash over the bones and gather them up. I say my name—my full name, just in case—to invoke the spirits of my ancestors, and I ask them: Why am I so unhappy? I blow on the bones before tossing them onto the mat in between Mama Rosa and I. She speaks in another language—I assume Shangana, but her translator speaks for her to me.

“Your name appears badly.”

Great. They go on to tell me that my ancestors are battling over me, that some want to help me and some want to hurt me. To boot, someone has sent a tokoloshe (an evil spirit) after me out of jealousy. That doesn’t faze me. If anything, knowing I am supposed to have a demon after me is exciting. They also tell me, though, that the reason I am unhappy is because I always tire easily. The say I get very tired but I don’t do much. So far this is (sadly) accurate, but they could look at me, my posture, and deduce that. I get hot a lot—also true, I overheat regularly. They tell me that my blood is sick. This one startles me, since I have a form of hemophilia. They couldn’t possibly know that. But still, these can all be coincidences.

This is when the eerie ones come. She asks if I want to ask anything else, so I ask the same thing for Kimmy, my girlfriend of nearly six years back in America. I go through the rhythm again, say her name, toss the bones. They say that she has a male ancestor that is causing her depression. They use the word “depression” without me saying it first. Something about this surprises me. They go on to say that her head hurts, her arm and shoulder hurts, and she worries a lot, which makes her heart hurt. I am crying. I am in disbelief. These things are all true—simplified, but all true. Her head hurts—she gets frequent migraines. Her arm and shoulder hurts—she is developing carpal tunnel, which affects her work as a graphic design student. She worries a lot, which hurts her heart—she has worsening anxiety and a heart condition, and her anxiety often makes her heart race, causing her pain. They say Kimmy has a recurring dream where she is chased by a tokoloshe, but a female ancestor leads her to water where the spirit cannot follow, and saves her. Later I will tell Kimmy this, and she will cry, and she will think of her grandmother. I don’t understand why I’m crying at this vague truth. I start to laugh a little through my tears. I notice a quick pang of jealousy. Why is mine so void of answers, and hers so rich? Am I not allowed to partake in this height of spirituality? Have I hated, been too angry and confused in my life to deserve to know some insight into this depression other than sit up straighter? They say to bring her back to Mama Rosa as soon as possible.

+

It isn’t fair. I’m not even entirely sure what “it” is. They point at me and call me Jesus and here I am in South Africa as a white American where I’m seen as a giver, a healer, one who can turn bad water into cash or booze. And yet I feel an immense distance between myself and whatever is Out There, be it God or enlightenment or something else. Is this what spiritual hopelessness feels like? I have always thought that people hold tight their beliefs to preserve hope, comfort that they are taken care of on some cosmic level. I have always pushed away from me those tendencies of holding onto the immaterial, what I used to call “silly beliefs”. But now, what if I’ve made a mistake? When will I feel like I am taken care of?

+

It’s difficult to say goodbye to South Africa. To Lebo, to Cedric and Nettie, to Lucky, to Collen, to the stars and the ocean. I tell myself and them that I’ll be back, soon. Maybe I’ll have a family. Maybe I’ll have found God, or become enlightened, or something. What I know is that when I return to America, I believe in spirits. At least, I think I do. The idea of ancestors watching over has always been attractive to me. For over a year after my uncle Gerry—who drove semis around the country—died to 2011, I imagined him watching over and protecting me whenever I drove in the back roads of rural New Jersey at night. In my mind he was, for a short time, the Trucker Spirit of Well-Being. I know I have this hunger to believe in the unknowable. But it seems so barred from me, as if I am already damned to a life of normalcy, and the spirits of my ancestors will only ever argue over me at some distant spectral dining room table and never come to me in my dreams and lead me to water to escape this thing, this depression, this tokoloshe of the mind.

There is some speculation that Jesus traveled the Silk Road to India to study with the Buddhists in his missing years between his childhood working in the temple and when he was baptized at the age of thirty, beginning his teachings. It is a sliver of history we may never know for sure, I suppose, but I have to wonder what he saw, what he learned. Maybe that’s what I need—to travel. To meet new people, to taste new tastes. To see newer stars, to swim in different waters.

 

 

Read an interview with Andrew here.