Category Archives: The South African Series

Guest Post from Field Ruwe: Independence: African Lazy Day

By Field Ruwe

I could go to prison just for the title; for dampening the spirit of commemoration, and yet I would gladly go. This is a title that befits the occasion. Google the world and see what I am talking about. We are at the very bottom of the totem pole stuck neck-deep in the primordial mud. We are too languid to use our intellect and figure out how to clamber out of the “dark continent.” The world is saying indolence is our virtue. It has turned us into bloodsuckers. The world is right.

“Yes it is,” quipped a cynic Dole.

I bumped into John Dole at the American independence celebrations at the Esplanade by the Charles River in Boston. I spotted him out of the crowd because of the T-shirt he wore. It bore the map of Zambia with words “Northern Rhodesia Worldwide” running across. He was a six-footer Caucasian with an indelible African sun tan, more like Ian Douglas Smith.

“This looks familiar,” I said, as I approached him.

“Yeah, this is Zambia as I would like to remember it,” he said. “Are you from there?”

“Yes,” I gladly replied.

“I don’t think much of Zambians, I can tell you that,” he said rather discourteously. “That’s why I proudly wear this T-shirt. It is the difference between black and white, you and me.”

“Have you been to Zambia lately?” I calmly asked.

“I just came back,” he replied. “It was a heartbreaking pilgrimage. For years I had wanted to return to my birth place, Chingola. I grew up in Twin Rivers next to Kabundi East. Do you know where that is?”

“Of course,” I replied. “I lived there.”

He continued: “I worked as a Safety Engineer in the mines. Together with other basungus, with the help of blacks, of course, we dug the Nchanga open pit in the 1950s. We toiled day and night like ants and created the second largest open cast mine in the world. We also built what became known as the cleanest town in the country. I mean it was clean, even the black compounds were well kempt with lawns and hedges well maintained and manicured.”

I knew where he was heading, I could tell from the sudden tense hush. When he lowered his voice I readied myself for the assault.

“It makes me upset to talk about Zambia,” he said. “I lived in Zambia up to 1970. When I felt unwanted I went to Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and eventually ended up here. For years I yearned to return to my childhood, to Nchanga Mine Hospital where I was born. Friends who had been there warned me, but in January this year I went anyway. When I got there I openly wept, right in the middle of the town center. The town in which I was born was a heap of rubble. You guys have destroyed all our work—buildings, roads, everything white is deplorable—Chingola Primary School, the Vestra Cinema, Tennis Club, Nchanga Swimming Pool, Racquets Club, the cricket fields, rugby, everything. You’ve added nothing new of significance.”

As he spoke, my mind gazed out beyond Boston, across the Atlantic, to my country. I saw not only Chingola, but Chililabombwe, Kitwe, Mufulira, Ndola, Kabwe, Lusaka, Livingstone…I saw them, dilapidated structures; I saw broken windows, stained bathtubs and toilets—I saw broken souls; hungry, diseased—I saw people used to poverty because “that’s what God meant it to be”—I saw graves; I saw my beloved Zambia. With teary eyes I looked at Dole and allowed him to hit me with the words—to whip me; to flog me as hard as he could.

“Nchanga mine is a catastrophe,” he said in a raised voice. “You’ve turned it into a pyramid and allowed treasure thieves to loot and ransack you. What’s going on there is daylight mine-robbing. What is wrong with you people? What planet are you from? Are you all so damn you can’t see ticks are sucking your lifeblood?” He paused and for a second held his breath. “What the heck, it’s a waste of time talking to you. I mean all of you Zambians. Anyway, I had planned to spend a week in Chingola, but I decided to leave that very day. I tell you, another day I would have been arrested for assault because I was as mad as hell.”

He continued: “There was one Zambian who really pissed me off. He gave me the usual bull about white civilization taking hundreds of years. I told him to shut his dirty mouth and keep dozing under the mango tree. You all must do that, keep eating those rotten mangos on the ground and get the diarrhea you deserve.”

He shook his head. “My God you guys are lazy. If we, white people had remained in Chingola, we would have pumped some of the profits from copper into modern infrastructure and build some skyscrapers. Roads would be excellent and Chingola would be adorable. That’s the difference between black and white. Give both of us the Sahara, I’ll turn it into a paradise and you’ll die like a rat.”

He looked me in the eye. “Let me tell you something, as I boarded the plane back home the following day, I felt proud to be white. When I got here, I had this T-shirt made, and I wear it without shame.”

Suddenly fireworks rang in my ears. The sky lit up to the brilliant marriage of thunder and music by the Boston Pops Orchestra. John watched with gratification. He wanted me to see him celebrate the achievements of his race. I, on the other hand was battered; deflated. What I had thought would be a night of fun, turned out to be a disaster. I was trying very hard to bear humiliation without losing heart, but couldn’t, the celebration was overwhelming. The colors in the sky—aquas, lemons, chartreuse, orange, pink were captivating. They left me with failure as my undertaker. When the last cracker went off there was an afterglow of satisfaction in John’s eyes and those of many.

“That’s how you celebrate independence,” he said, beaming. “The people here are not only remembering their founding fathers, but are proud of their sacrifices and achievements. They are proud they have not let their ancestors down.”

I had about enough. I extended my hand to say bye because it was futile to be in Dole’s company—too painful. I did not have any defense mechanism. There was nothing to cling on to—not a state-of-the art hospital; not a research or technical university; not a car, bus, tractor, plough, television set, computer; not even a razor; none of my inventiveness.

“It was a pleasure meeting you,” I said.

As I walked away, I was thinking John Dole was lucky I was not King Cobra. He would have spat in his face: “You bulali (bloody) fool, you empty my pockets then you start saying fyo, fyo, fyo. How do you expect me to build with no money, eh? You imperialist, get out. Leave us alone to remember how we defeated you white people on October 24, 1964.”

Yes, it is on October 24 that freedom was attained, and laziness came naturally. No martyrs of sacrifice showed up; no daredevils or geniuses that could illuminate our country like Thomas Edison, and reveal its endless talent. Like poison ivy laziness warped our minds and condemned us to third-rate life. Yes, we sat under the Mango tree and let aliens pick our best fruit.

For all I care we might as well call October 24 the “National Lazy Day,” a day we take a rest from being lazy. What I am saying is that we do not deserve the Golden Jubilee; we have not earned it. Without achievement the world sees our Golden Jubilee as hailing laziness. On October 24, 2014, we shall be celebrating fifty years of free of responsibility and void of creativity. In other words, we shall be reveling irresponsibility and laziness.

Admittedly, freedom was hard work, but it is our accomplishments over time that we should be celebrating. The efforts of Kaunda, Nkumbula, Kapwepwe, and other freedom fighters should climax with contemporary achievements. That is what independence is all about. It is not only self-governance, but also self-sufficiency, and self-reliance.

To all energetic, gifted, intelligent, learned youthful Zambians reading this article, please hear me. Zambia with its abundant natural resources; with all its minerals, flowing rivers, fertile soil, and tourism potential has just been declared the poorest nation on earth with 86% of the population in poverty. If this does not hurt then there is something wrong with you.

Wherever you are, whatever you have achieved, whatever your ideology, pause for a moment and think about how you can salvage our country from shame. Start by taking this beautiful country away from old politicians. For fifty years they have suffered from chronic and contagious laziness and have been riding on other people’s backs like parasites. They are not in it for you, but for themselves. Many are thieves. Please take this country away from them and lead us on a Third World-to-first path.

I know I am flogging a dead horse, but it is worth trying. A few more strokes might just trigger a pulse at this very critical moment in our existence. Remember, it is in the next fifty years that you shall become extinct if you don’t get up and do something about it. Remove the wax in your ears and listen to your heart. Tap into your innate intelligence, the ingenuity that we all possess, and create an over-arching strategy that will save your relatives from dying of hunger and disease.

Reach out to your friends and peers in the country and form one body and one heart. Create a mosaic of talents and dare mighty things so you can taste and celebrate triumph every October 24. By doing so, you will be giving the color of your skin some glitter and respect.

You should have seen the sparkle in the eyes of the Americans as they the sung “God Bless America,” as a symbolic conclusion to their independence celebrations. They deserve it. It is in creative toiling that they have found the joy of achievement. Why not us? What have we done wrong? Why can’t we endure and enjoy hard work? God why? I can’t write any further, I just can’t…I can’t…

 

Field Ruwe is a US-based Zambian media practitioner, historian, author, and a doctoral candidate. Learn more about him on his website www.aruwebooks.com. On it you shall access his autobiography, articles, and books. Contact him, blog, or join in the debate. ©Ruwe2012.

 

Open Letter to Nelson Mandela

*Disclaimer: One of the possible side effects of meningitis is temporary insanity. And yes, I am aware that Nelson Mandela cannot read this letter on the Internet. Unless… Wait! Is there Internet in the afterlife? I certainly hope so. Wouldn’t it be nice to have Hulu in Heaven?

 

Dear Nelson Mandela,

Molo! I trust the ancestors and the Lord of Hosts have greeted you all properly by now? Good, good. I remember when I heard the news of your passing, and how I felt. It was light off in Adenta, so I didn’t get the full pundit/commentary/analysis of your passing from TV news. All I got was a crude Facebook announcement that “Madiba has died!” What was that? I must confess, I was relieved when I heard the news. You had been sick a long time, and I don’t like it when people suffer for prolonged periods of time. After all, what else was there for you to do on this earth, after all the years of hard work? I hope it was peaceful and that you are resting comfortably on a cloud near you.

Do you remember earlier this year – just before your birthday – when the world was “praying for Madiba”? We were all encouraged to submit supplications to the Most High for your prolonged life. Your 95th birthday came and went and within a week there were no more “pray for Madiba” hashtags on Twitter. You should have seen how they spoiled your name.

#Manriba

#Mariba

#Maniba

Ah! I wanted to scream. What’s all this? Just say #NelsonMandela and be free!

I must apologize to you, Nelson. I have never written to you before, and I know that that is a great shame. A girl my age should have written to at least one of the heroes of her life time at least once, but I never have. I suppose I still have time to pen a greeting to Mugabe in the coming days. I swear that man will never die. And you know what else is strange? The older he gets, the less villainous he appears in my eyes! Imagine that. Robert Mugabe may have been right all along. Considering Bill O’Reilly’s recent tirade on Fox News proclaiming that YOU, Nelson were “A great man…but [he] was a Communist!”, and that American democracy was no real friend to Black Africa for centuries, I understand old Bob a bit better.

danny gloverIs it true what they say, Nelson? (You don’t mind if I call you by your first name, do you? You see, I never knew you as ‘Madiba’ until that movie Invictus came out. And prior to that, I thought you and Danny Glover were the same person.) Is it true that God downloads your transformed spirit with all the mysteries of the universe, unlocks them and instantly releases full wisdom and understanding? If so, there is something I’d like you to do for me, although I know you probably won’t.

Shogun_(TV)There was once a TV miniseries called Shogun that was released while you were still imprisoned. You would not have seen it. Anyway, in one of the opening scenes, the European explorers step off of their vessel and were met by the Japanese army. They were ordered to lay on the ground prostrate before the general. They complied. The Japanese general steps over to the captain of the ship, hovers above him, and promptly proceeds to piss on his head, much to the captain’s ire and dismay. Mr. Mandela, would you kindly ask God for a hall pass into Hell and piss on Hendrick Verwoerd’s head, Shogun style?

I know it’s a long shot, but I thought I’d ask anyway. You’re so down with forgiveness and reconciliation and all. No? Fine then.

Ei. Did you see the antics surrounding your funeral? My word. Over all, it was well organized and nicely done. There was an incident involving Mr. Obama and a cell phone camera that didn’t go over too well. That was contrived controversy, as it turns out. What was NOT contrived was that dolt they had standing behind 80% of the world’s leaders doing fake sign language. Eruade Yesu! I know you saw it. He said he was suffering from schizophrenia, and that’s what made his hands go crazy. I would have rather he told a better lie and said he was signing in Xhosa.

The real reason I’m writing to you is because I’m very upset about one thing in particular, now that you’ve passed. And that thing is the pervasive perception of your personhood. They are doing it again, Nelson, and it is vexing me. They are turning you into a Messiah.

They did the same thing to MLK, you know? Bundled the entire Civil Rights era into one man and buried it with him. It’s become all very mechanized now, this Black Messiah Manufacturing process. That way, they can neatly bring up the struggle on an appropriate/convenient day for celebration. Second Monday in January usually works well for the American government. Civil Rights gets a bank holiday and we are all supposed to eat our government rationed cheese and chicken. Now they are doing the same thing with the apartheid struggle. Western media has dubbed you “The Father of Freedom” or some such nonsense, and now they want to bury the struggle and all the impending issues with your body on a grassy hill in the Eastern Cape. Not so, I say!

Have you ever considered how liberation movements are treated in the West? The French Revolution, as was the American Revolution, was borne of the people.  There is no one individual that has been afforded the crown of singlehandedly bringing about the end of tyrannical bourgeois or colonial rule. It was an effort carried out by the masses, and we have all grown up understanding that. THAT idea unites the masses, and births the belief that change is affected as a collective. But with BLACK liberation and struggle, they want us to believe that we must have ONE leader, ONE head… and when those heroes emerge, our entire struggle must be bound up in their personhood. What happens then when they die?

Yeah. I know. You guessed it.

You as well as I know that YOU alone did not end apartheid in South Africa, but that is what they are selling us. The struggle against White minority rule began as far back as the Anglo-Zulu war. It has been a continuous fight, and you were a cog in the wheel of that machine, not the machine itself. This is what they are doing, Nelson! They have turned you into a tank!

Hei! Now come and see. They are now having stupid debates about “Who was Africa’s greatest liberator: Kwame Nkrumah or Nelson Mandela?” What kind of divisive nonsense is that? As I understand, President Nkrumah wasn’t too keen on the ANC. He considered your organization too “bourgeois”. They say he was more in league with the Pan African Congress , because PAC supported armed resistance. In short, he said you talked too much, your clothes were too nice and you were ineffective.  However I’m certain he changed his tune when you were caught returning into the country carrying weapons of mass destruction in the late 60’s. Perhaps he’d died by then, so maybe not. I’m a little fuzzy on the dates.

I’ve said a lot, and I still have so much more to say. However, my husband has accused me of being pedantic at times, so I don’t want to overburden you with my plenty thoughts. In closing, my hope is that the media will do better honor to you memory by encouraging us to read about and remember the masses who were involved in the liberation movement in South Africa:

The 67 children shot in Sharpesville.

Ahmed Kathrada.

Miriam Makeba.

Walter Sisulu.

Steve Biko.

Oliver Tambo.

Even your own once beloved Winnie.

Don’t let them turn the struggle against injustice into the life of one man, Nelson! I beg, tell God for me.

 

With respect,

Malaka.

“I Spy” on the Garden Route

There are many beautiful places on the earth, but I am convinced that South Africa is the Queen of them all. Considering that I am neither God Almighty nor Dora the Explorer and that I neither created the world nor certainly have not traversed the face of it, I realize that this is certainly a bold statement. However, I have watched countless hours of Nature on PBS as well as The Discovery channel and am completely persuaded that my view is absolutely correct.

I have only visited The Garden Route in South Africa, but the natives tell me that the rest of the country is no less stunning. The Garden Route stretches from Heidelberg in the Western Cape to the Storms River. I’ve written about the drive along the N2, the national highway that takes you along The Garden Route. We took the N2 to Cape Town where we spent 3 nights in the city. The last time we went, the fields were blanketed with a yellow plant that we were told was canola, but it is very similar to the rapeseed we saw in Germany during our 11 hour layover, so I don’t know who to believe. In any event, they were not in bloom on this trip; which was probably just as well. It gave me a chance to pay attention to things I missed during our last trip.

It’s hard to focus on one thing when you have so much beauty assaulting you in the face. Watching the gorgeous Garden Route landscape whiz by while trying to take it all in at the same time was like running face forward into a hail storm. My mind and my eyes were in pain, trying to decide what to pay attention to first.

cloudsRegal mountains lay to north of the shore like an army of ancient giants that laid down for a rest in a time before men and beasts roamed the Earth and refused to awaken from their slumber. Their peaks kissed billowy clouds that hovered over them, and they in return caressed the mountaintops with delicate touches as an attentive lover might do.

sheepFattened, wooly sheep grazed contentedly on an abundance of verdant grass, now dewy with recently fallen rain. Every once in a while, an egret might invite himself for a drink from their watering pans. Never once did I see them bother to drive him away.

Even the desolation is beautiful. Felled trees and scorched earth dotted areas of the terrain where someone may have set a bushfire or cut down too much wood for kindling; but shrouded in a gossamer mist, the lifeless patch of earth looked like a haunting painting that took your breath away.

By chance you might see – as I did that day – a traditional Xhosa man wrapped in a black, red and white blanket sitting comfortably by the side of the road, watching traffic go by. Perhaps he had just gotten off work for a lunch break. Perhaps he had no job at all and was merely wandering about the country. Only he and the road know.

As they were in years past and will be in years to come, the vineyards at this time of year were plucked bare, yielding fruit for unique wine of the most acidic quality.

sunsetFinally, hours later, you arrive in Cape Town via Stellenbosch and all that rural magnificence gives way to urban sprawl. Try as they might, the buildings will never topple the heights of the mountains on which they rest, and the fro-hawked city chick with a pea coat and pierced nose is not quite as interesting as the rural wanderer. Regardless, the city is impressive in its own right, for I have never seen a sunset more beautiful than one that settles over the ocean horizon of Cape Town.

 

Table Mountain In Very Simple Terms

Greetings, members of the MOM Squad and other Random Readers dropping by. You’ll have to forgive me this morning. This post will not be completed with any elaborate eloquence. My body is wracked by pain, but it is my duty to report the events as they unfolded as I made a fatuous attempt to climb Table Mountain yesterday – and drug my poor husband along as I did it. In fact, I’m going to write this post as if I’m talking to my sister. In fact, feel free to stop reading now. It’s going to be ugly.

table mth 

Chaaaley. A-Dub. Why? Who sent me to go there? Eh? Why?!?!

First, let me say that Table Mountain is not the type of place you go in order to get fit. You only venture there if you already are fit. I can admit that now.

When we came to Cape Town last time, at least a handful of people asked if we had ‘done’ Table Mountain. I told them no. I’ve climbed several mountains as you know, and come out tired, sure… so why shouldn’t I climb Table Mountain as well?

Humph.

We made some simple inquiries and some guy told Marshall and me that it was like climbing stairs.

“It should only take an hour and a half,” he said. “It’s like climbing a bunch of stairs.”

Oh fine! I can walk for 90 minutes; no problem.

Then when we arrived in Cape Town, the inn keeper at our B&B said that that was not exactly true. It would take more like two hours. Still; no problem!

Humph.

And then we arrived at this foolish mountain. We had to park 20 minutes from the base of the trail. They told us to look for a brown shack.  The trail begins then. I had romanticized images of our ascent. The mountain looked very green from a distance, and I fabricated images of a wide, green valley leading to the summit. Perhaps I might frolic in wild flowers along the way. Feeling very confident about our impending ascension, we finally reached the bottom of the mountain. That’s when I heard it speak to me. I spoke back in defiance.

lions headHeh. Black Woman. What are you doing here?

What do you mean?! I am Malaka Gyekye and I have to climb you!

Have you seen any other Black Women here?

Mtseewww. Nonsense. Am I every Black Woman? I say I am Malaka Gyekye and I have to climb you!

I’ll punish you ooo.

Shut up! I say, shut up over there! The Bible says if I say to the mountain “be thou removed” I can move it! Do you want me to send you to Singapore?

Then the mountain was silent. I took that as an indication that it acknowledged my superiority.

Up we went, into the mouth and bowels of Table Mountain. It looked as though we were going into a rocky version of Hell.

Forty minutes later, when we had climbed 300m (about 984 feet) we came to a sign that said we had two choices: either go down the ravine to the lower cable card of go up to some guy’s gorge.

“Malaka. This is no longer pleasant,” Marshall breathed.

I know what he meant. He wanted to quit. He wanted to go back like that American woman who admitted she couldn’t finish the climb and had to go back down. I was not having it.

“You can go back if you want to, but I’m getting to the top!”

“But the sign says not to split up.”

“You have the cell phone. You back without me. I’ll be fine.”

Now of course my husband wasn’t leaving his wife to climb some treacherous mountain all alone without a cell phone. How would that look? He took a seat, cleared his head and said he would continue on with me.

I was eager to get a move on, because 3 other couples had passed us by as we were debating our next move.

The sun was very bright, and it reflected off the white and grey rocks. Fortunately I was wearing sunglasses, which I seldom do. Also, and perhaps more fortunately, I had a bottle of water. We were encouraged to take one by the parking attendant. I will be forever in his debt. I was absolutely planning on making this climb with no water. (Remember this part A-Dub. It’s important. Marshall and I had ONE 12 oz bottle of water to share between us.)

There is nothing to report about the beauty of Table Mountain. I couldn’t see it. I saw razor sharp rocks and my impending doom if I took one misstep. Unlike our national parks in the States, there were no guardrails to protect you as you made your climb… only barbed wire fences that stood as a barrier between you and the ravine below.

We climbed and climbed, A-Dub. And when we thought it could get no worse, it only got worse still. To keep my spirits up, I sung spiritual songs and hymnals in my head.

Jesus! Be a fence, all around me e-ver-y day!!

When that didn’t work, I muttered curses under my breath.

This is some f*ckin’ bullsh*t.

In time, we made it to the middle of the mountain… or so we thought. We were informed by an elderly White man making his way down that the middle was still 2 hours way.

“Are you okay?” Marshall asked him with concern.

“Oh, I’m fine,” he replied nonchalantly. “You see when you get old, you skin gets very soft. I cut myself on a branch and these are the results.”

What were these two talking about? I looked in the direction of my husband’s gaze and saw the reason for his concern. The old man’s arm was gushing blood. Dear God!

He left us with some parting words of wisdom: rest when you need to and drink water. I looked at our bottle of water, which was now more than half empty. Two hours in and we had not even cracked half the mountain…

Eventually we go to this enormous rock where there were notes left by climbers of yore.

Just keep walking, one exhorted!

rock encourage

Humph.

By this time, there was no choice. We had to go up. If we chose to go back down, it would have been a disgrace. Marshall later revealed that his pride would not let him go back. Good man. Good, foolish man, following his foolish wife.

What more is there to be said about terror, barbed wires, slippery slopes, spritely blond men and their brunette girlfriends running past you as you make a tortoise pace up to the apex and the theme song from Lord of the Rings and Gollum’s demented cackle playing in your head? Not much. You get the hint by now, I’m sure.

Let me tell you now about hope.

Eventually I had to leave Marshall behind. He was stopping every few feet and frustrating me in the process.

“The longer we stop, the longer it’s going to take us to get to the top!”

“Then you go.”

So I did. I got to the top a full 30 minutes before he did. But before I got there, I was serenaded by the softest, most beautiful music. I was going mad, I thought. Turns out I wasn’t. There was a Xhosa man sitting on a ledge playing a homemade xylophone. He told me the traditional name for it, but of course I’ve forgotten it. I had only had room for two ambitions at that moment: getting to the top and finding more water.  Neither seemed like they were going to be my reality any time soon.

“Eiii. Sistah! Don’t give up,” he said, trying to encourage me. “It’s only 20 more minutes to the top!”

(But because he was Xhosa, he said “*click*wenty”, not “twenty”. God’s honest truth.)

“Really? 20 more minutes?”

I was desperate and so tired. And I needed to pee ever so badly.

“Yesss sisi. At this pace, *click*wenty more minutes.”

“And if I was going faster?”

“Ten,” he said with a genuine laugh.

That gave me all the power I needed. I thanked him and told him my husband was some ways behind me.

“When he comes up, please tell him it’s only a few more minutes to the top!”

He promised he would, and went back to playing his xylophone. That’s when this South African and English couple behind me over took me and stopped to take pictures. As I took the opportunity to rest while they commandeered the path way I looked over the ledge for my poor spouse. I didn’t see him anywhere. I didn’t hear the couple speak to me over the sound of pounding blood in my ears and my worried thoughts. Maybe I never should have left him…

“Will you snap a photo for us?”

“Huh? Oh! Yes! Of course!”

I took a picture of this happy, fit 20-something couple with their tight bodies and grinning faces. We chatted for a bit and then they said they had to dash. They were in a ‘race’ with another couple.

Whores.

“Would you like me to fill your water bottle?” asked the girl with manic blue eyes and a grin to match. “You look a little low.”

“What? Oh no… I couldn’t. I can’t take your water.”

“We have two bottles,” the man assured me. “And they’re both full.”

Look closely on my cheek.

Look closely on my cheek.

I passed them my bottle without another word. You see, by this time I was so dehydrated I was sweating salt. There were actual, literal, granules of SALT coming out of my pores.

I talked to a few more people as I waited for Marshall to show. A gay guy with hipster glasses and perfectly coiffed hair and a married couple from Phoenix who sympathized with Frodo’s trek to Mordor as I did.

“Shoooot. Cast ME and the Ring into the fire,” I snorted.

They laughed and wished me luck. Marshall still had not made it. It was getting cold in that part of the mountain so I needed to move. Finally the end was near. The mountain split at the summit like a giant labial fold, and I emerged dripping wet like a newborn calf. For you see, in its final act of degradation, the mountain dehumanized me by drip-pissing on my head as I struggled up the final 80* incline.

It was now 1:14pm. At 2:05, Marshall appeared. I was elated.

“I saved some water for you babe!”

“Thank you,” he heaved, chugging it down. “Let’s go find some more.”

And so we did. In a bathroom. I drank BATHROOM water. And when I finally did take that piss, it was the color of week old Guinness. Though they rhyme, the two should not look alike.

And that’s it. I climbed Table Mountain, and I sweated salt. I will never do  either again.

The Pursuit of Chocolate is the Pursuit of Happiness

Whenever I feel down, I medicate myself with food. And whenever I feel especially down, chocolate serves as my one true panacea. The range of emotions I’ve felt in my first few days in the country – which included elation, disappointment and despair, all finally culminating in a certain ambivalence – have forced me to seek out culinary and confectionery healing.  Now that I have absolved myself from any duty towards solving any problems, no matter how miniscule, I am finally free to enjoy my vacation and that means eating, and eating in abundance.

There is no better place to feed oneself than in this corner of South Africa.

The portion we stay in is part of the garden route, and that means an abundance of wine, cheese, meats of all kind, fresh vegetables and chocolate of all designs on your plate within mere hours of production. As anyone who has lived close to their food source will tell you, there is absolutely no replacement for fresh fare. It makes eating a delightsome event, rather than an obligatory one.

I personally began my quest for an oral orgasm at Sedgefield Market earlier this week and have not stopped since. My first indulgence was a traditional farm breakfast, which included a rasher of bacon, a side of sausage, scrambled eggs, cherry tomatoes, and nutty toast. I then moved on to freshly squeezed lemonade and samosas prepared right in front of me. Once I had satisfied my savory senses, I moved on to the sweets.

cheesecakeStall after stall, sat all manner of brownies (as big as your head!), fudge of the dark chocolate and caramel varieties, pies, pies, and yet more pies, and cheesecake, each begging to be ravenously devoured. Oh the things I did to that cheese cake. That four inch deep, 3 inch in diameter, topped with strawberry shmear cheesecake…

Of course all this eating has wreaked havoc on my waistline; but I couldn’t care less. I could help my cause by drinking water, but that has proven difficult seeing as there is so much rooibos tea to imbibe. And not that imitation crap we get at Publix either! You can taste the earth in this tea. It’s warm, hearty and filling.

This might look better in Instagram sepia, but trust me, the was the TRUTH.

This might look better in Instagram sepia, but trust me, the was the TRUTH.

Did I mention the ostrich, by any chance? Not only do they make excellent belts and purses, but it turns out ostrich makes a delectable fillet as well. I had mine with some sort of squash pie, chips and cabbage. Everything comes with chips in South Africa. That’s the Dutch influence I suppose.

The face of a woman who's eaten way too much

The face of a woman who’s eaten way too much

Speaking of influence: one of the most positive things to come out of the Indian Ocean and Dutch slave trade (when they brought a few million Asians and Indians to South Africa as slaves and conscripted soldiers) has been the cross-cultural influence on food. You’ll find some of the most authentic Thai food you could ever stuff in your face in this part of Africa, peppers and all. Last night, we ate tapas at a Greek restaurant in Cape Town, and Mexico (strangely) has a pretty substantial influence here as well.

But even better than the eating is the shopping.

South Africa has quickly emerged as one of the finest and most luxe fashion centers in the world. I have the personal belief that there are as many fashion magazines and editorials as there are citizens. One pleasure that I indulged in, and that Marshall financed, was a genuine red ostrich leather handbag. I can’t show it to you yet, because it’s being specially made direct from the factory and will be ready for pick-up this Friday. They’ve even promised to personalize it with the letter ‘M’ somewhere on the bag. *Insert high-pitched, girly squeal here.*

The factory, called Der Lederhandler, was an accidental find. We happened upon it on our way to Oudsthoorn, which exists as both ostrich and ‘Klan’ country. Apparently, it’s one of the oldest and most historically racist cities in the nation. Like George Wallace was an icon in these parts. We didn’t see any racists though. I guess they had shut up shop for Sunday.

Anyway, I met three wonderful colored women at Der Lederhandler: Jocelyn, Ophelia and Anne-Marie who made absolutely sure that I did not walk out of that factory empty handed. In addition to my special order purse, I got some brown leather sandals that fit my foot like… a glove? Do we wear gloves on feet? Whatever the case, my foot slid right in. I felt like Cinderella with size 10 boats.

IMG_3174Later today we are going to attempt to ascend Table Mountain (which is a lot taller and bigger than I remember from last time; But then again I wasn’t considering a climb, was I?) and then taking a tour to Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned for 20 years. Did you know that he spent an additional six years at Pollsmoor Prison after being transferred from Robben Island? Apparently, he and other senior ANC leaders were having too much influence over younger activists who were being ferried into the prison camp. What a crime…

Okay MOM Squad! This post is coming to you early so that you can begin your prayers. Pray that neither the mountain nor the Robben Island tour breaks me. And pray that if either of them do, that I would make it safely to one of the three chocolatiers I saw on Kloof Nek Road last night…

It’s Da Furst o’ Da Month!

You need this song playing in the back of your mind. It makes the storytelling so much more arresting.

South Africans like to think they are immeasurably different from other Africans; when in fact, they are not. There is a wide spread and indoctrinated belief that all Africans north of the Limpopo are savage, ignorant things. It’s what they were taught in school. Even amongst themselves, there are elitist clusters, each declaring superiority over the other. English whites are better than Boers; Cape Coloreds are better than other Coloreds; and ANYONE is better than Blacks. It’s simply modern day tribalism with more tribes, some fancy gadgets and a treaty or two in the mix.

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And like the rest of Africa, life is very (very) good if you’re rich and really (really) sucks if you’re poor.

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What does make South Africa unique is the way it treats its poor, however. There are no safety nets ‘up in Africa’ for the poor, unless you have some benevolent relative who is willing to send money back home until his/her good will runs out. The government does not get into the business of caring for the country’s destitute. It truly is every man for himself. In South Africa, the uneducated, the sick, the poor and the unfortunate in general are eligible for a grant… which is essentially what we call welfare in America.

The process for keeping the poor in a state of deprivation and still content with the deplorable workings of the government work the very same way they do in America: you give them access to minimal education, feed them garbage, keep them in barely sufficient housing and throw a few hundred dollars (or Rand in this instance) at the masses every month, while drilling in that the welfare-facilitating state is not the enemy.

“Those racist conservatives who want to take away your benefits are the enemy,” they proclaim. “They are the ones who deserve neither your trust nor your vote!”

But the people are not satisfied.

“We want jobs!” they cry.

And what does the government do? Send in community leaders to assure them that jobs are coming. Good paying jobs too; as street sweepers! And in their ignorance, the less educated feel it is their mandate to assist in ‘job creation’ by littering their own environs and never thinking twice about picking up rubbish if it blew in their path. At least that’s what they say in the colored townships… that and it’s not their duty to pick up trash in their neighborhood anyway.

And so a sheepish population is created, milling about doing this and that to survive, dependent on a government that has kept them barely literate and semi-skilled. This is where a little boy named Kweikwei and a feeding frenzy at local ATMs that comes every first of the month.

I’ve only heard of the fabled feeding frenzy in snickers and whispers in Atlanta. Every first to third of the month, swarms of people descend upon big box stores – usually Wal*Mart – and attack the bread, milk, cereal, meat and cigarette aisles. This usually happens after midnight, from what I’ve heard. The result is a store wrecked and stripped bare of the essentials that usually sit in plenty.

So this Saturday when we drove through Knysna on the way to Sedgefield market, I was intrigued. By the thronging crowds slowly making their way in one direction. Was it a street fair, I asked.

“No,” replied our host. “This is the first of the month. Everyone with a grant gets their debit cards reloaded and they go to withdraw their money.”

How nice.

Actually, not really.

The grant system is rife with charlatans, scoundrels and thieves. I discovered that the downward spiral into poverty starts with a promise. Men from larger townships will venture into the Transkei with their taxis and lure villagers with the promise of housing and good jobs in the Western Cape. Don’t have a car? Not to worry! For as little as R1000, I will ferry you back to the Western Cape with me. I’ll even allow you to come on credit. Just pay me when you get a job.

Now of course, you city slicker reading this knows there is no job in the big city, and you already know what happens to our hapless villager. He/she is now drowning in debt to the taxi driver, who collects his money in interest. To get the loan shark off his back, the villager seeks out a Big Mama, who advices the villager to seek a grant and again loans him money to pay the taxi driver.

“But I will hold your bank card until I have been paid in full,” she says with finality. And that is that.

And so every month, at an ABSA or StanChart ATM, you will see a Big Mama with five or six ATM cards, withdrawing her portion and giving the remainder of the money to the grantee until next month or whenever her loan has been paid in full.

With no work, a structure that can hardly be called a home, and no purpose in life overall, our villager turns to one of two things: God or drugs.

Unfortunately for him, God wants him to work in some respect, and usually offer his service for free. Paint this building, weed this lawn, and so forth. Also, and even more unfortunately, the church (or God) is destitute, and hardly able to pay for the upkeep of the church. At least with drugs he can create an alter ego and a virtually reality for himself. Fortunately, tik (meth) is plentiful and affordable. A few smashed out car lights and a hand shake later, our villager is hooked… and there are no services – at least for free – to help him successfully break his habit.

This story repeats itself, again and again, like bad rash that won’t heal, no matter what kind of balm you rub on it; and in the midst of this canker sits a frail 6 year old boy named Kweikwei, who suffers daily abuse from his mother’s drug addicted boyfriend and who herself will not allow him to stay with an adoptive mother who genuinely cares for him all because of hopes of collecting a piece of welfare money via his scarred flesh.

The Prodigal Sister

In my bathroom at home we have a three foot tall stack of magazines. Architecture Digest, Essence, Relevant, Time, you name it – it’s in there. And in one of these magazines, it was suggested that readers venture off the beaten vacation path and give a try to ‘serving vacations’ or whatever the term was. The idea was to vacation like a “Hollywood star”, and in doing so, you could spend six weeks of your life pretending to be Angelina Jolie or Madonna by handing out bottled water to orphans or digging trenches for widows in war-torn areas. You could see the world and still “make a difference”.

In a completely different issue of a completely different magazine, I the columnist decried the notion of these ‘serving vacations’ because they did very little to affect lasting change in the area that the vacation-monger found him/herself. To paraphrase: these Westerners, usually green-minded American college grads or backpacking Europeans get the benefit of feeling good, spending a few dollars or Euros here and there, but do not have the necessary (government, corporate, etc.) backing to affect any sort of real change. In some cases, it’s better that they never came to the village at all.

So which is it? Is it a good idea to go on a feel good mission in impoverished areas or eschew the notion altogether, rather spending ones money on liquor and hotel bills in Miami or Ibiza? This is the quandary in which I find myself, now that I’m back in Plettenberg Bay, South Africa after two years. Did I make things worse, better, or have no net affect at all those three months I spent here in 2011 on a short term mission’s trip? (Which is the Christian equivalent of these vacations spent in service.)

When I walked into the church/clubhouse/soup kitchen in Qolweni, many of the people were surprised – and pleased to see Marshall and I again. Mavis, a big woman with an even bigger smile hugged me tightly.

“Ohh sisi, I never expected to see you again!” she giggled.

“Ah. But why not? I told you we would come back!”

“But that’s what many Americans say. They say they will come back, and they never do.”

All of my favorite ladies were there: Thandiswa, Fezi, Mavis and two other women I’d never met. I was eager to pass out gifts that I’d picked for them individually, but as I understood it, I couldn’t do it just then because they were not all the same gift. If I didn’t time it right, it would only serve to breed discontent amongst my friends.

Why did she get a hat and an umbrella, and I only got a pair of shoes?

(If you’re thinking that this line of thinking is juvenile and asinine, you’d be right. But that’s village life for you.)

That’s the point though, isn’t it? The first thing I failed to realize during my initial trip was that I needed to truly understand nature of whom I was working with, and what the mindset of the people was/is. And that’s an endeavor that needs a hefty investment of time. Had I spent more time developing proper relationships instead of busying myself with “work”, perhaps I would have been less crestfallen when I enquired after my favorite kids, most have who had not shown up for the big ‘gala’ (traditional song and dances performed by the kids, and refreshments provided by me.)that the ladies had planned for us.

“Where is Camagu (pronounced ts-a-mah-goo)?” I asked eagerly, peering through the crowds of third graders and younger. He should be in 7th grade by now.

“Ahhh, Camagu? He doesn’t come for after school anymore. His attitude has changed.”

“I think he even stopped going for music lessons,” chimed in someone else. That was a pity. Camagu very truly loved to sing. He had a lovely falsetto.

“And what if Siya?” I asked eagerly. She was 15 last time we were in the country. Beautiful and bright, she talked wistfully of visiting Paris one day and becoming a lawyer, perhaps.

“Ahhhh… Siya? She is now pregnant. She is going to have a baby.”

That was a shame, I said with genuine sadness. The ladies in the circle didn’t seem to share my grief. That was the way life was in the township, after all.

“And she is so skinny, so the pregnancy looks cute with her small body!” one said enthusiastically.

I was scared to ask about my next pet-child, but I did, nonetheless. Kweikwei was the four year old boy that Thandiswa had rescued two years back in a pseudo adoption. This is where Thandiswa’s face finally curled up in a deep frown.

“Kweikwei’s mother came for him last year,” she spat.

“Really? Why?”

I was alarmed. If you recall, her boyfriend was hooked on drugs and would burn then-four year old KweiKwei with cigarettes and glowing metal pokers that he stuck in the fire at night. His mother never bathed him and rarely fed him. Thandiswa huffed in answer to my question.

“Well, she thinks maybe I got a grant, so that’s why she came to take her son away. I told her without his birth certificate and ID card, I can’t do anything with him,” she said, speaking quickly. “She talked and talked until I told my husband to get her away from my house! But I told Kweikwei even if it’s midnight, he is welcome in my house.”

I nodded and told her I was proud of her, and that I hoped God would bless her.

By then I realized that Charlotte had not yet arrived. You may remember Charlotte? She was the prettiest of the bunch, with honey brown eyes and caramel colored skin. Her hair was always crafted in curly braids or some sort of weave. I inquired after her whereabouts. They said she was coming from the Shell station. When she arrived, I was taken aback. She had aged 15 years, if not more. And her two front teeth were missing. Had her husband knocked them out? I dared not ask.

I reached out to embrace her and told her how great it was to see her again. She smiled wearily and replied in kind.

“Here are some things for you and your girls,” I grinned, passing her two big bags.

“Thank you, Malaka.”

“How are the girls anyway?”

“Oh they are fine,” she assured me. “Have you seen my teeth are gone?”

“Yeah. Yeah! I saw that.”

She laughed ruefully and I didn’t press for an answer.

(I later found out that she had lost her teeth to cavities and opted to have them extracted.)

I went home that night with a heavy heart, and those were not the emotions I was expecting to harbor after all this time. I expected to feel elated – at peace, perhaps. But instead, I felt like a failure. Like I had come and preached hope and not followed through to make sure that hope was realized. I had paraded my “perfect” family in front of this lot, and quietly implied that “you could have this too, if you worked hard at it”, and not provided the tools. Sure, I could join some NGO or other organization and slap some contraceptives in the girls’ hands and some tech device in the other and call that “progress” – as many of these groups in their hubris are prone to do – but that still doesn’t cover the real need for a lasting, dedicated relationship with the people. And they know it too.

Besides, the mother in me would never allow myself to go down that path. She knows you need to be there every day with your child, to nurture and watch over them with vigilance.

I never thought I’d see you again, Malaka. I’m so happy to see you again…

That cut me, and it cut me deep.