I love living in George. It’s an old city fighting to find a new identity. What makes George such a popular place to settle and raise a family are the same reasons that the semi-nomadic Khoisan did so for thousands of years before European settlers “discovered” the area and put their permanent stamp on it. The weather may be mercurial, but it is never extreme. There is access to fresh water and ocean. The soil is so fertile that you could throw a shoe in your backyard and a sneaker outlet might begin to bud three weeks later. And the night sky…there’s something about the topography of the land that brings the stars closer and makes them shine brighter. Yet for all this, George can be an extremely isolating place to live as a middle class Black woman. I often tout the benefits of living here on my social media pages, but the quiet part that I rarely say out loud is that it can get very lonely here if you are privileged and Black.
Historically George has been a very Afrikaans town, steeped in Afrikaans culture and tradition. To illustrate, the city, founded in 1811, didn’t get its first English speaking high school until 1975. When the Group Areas Act was enforced in 1950, George was already ahead of the plan, with a long history of removing people of different races who’d once lived (relatively) harmoniously together into segregated residential areas based off of (assigned) race, often by force. George’s local government had no plan to integrate Africans (Coloured people were not considered ‘African’) into the fabric of the municipality – often denying them basic or adequate service such as housing and sanitation – and prompting the creation of squatter camps and informal settlements (also known as the ‘kasi’ in vernac). Once known as Sandkraal, Thembalethu is the largest and only Black settlement George’s district. In 2011 43,000 people lived in a 2.5 sq mile zone. Estimates are that the population has doubled since then. Despite the dismantling of the apartheid regime, much of its vestiges remain intact: Overcrowded, filthy and overwhelmingly Black, there is only one way into Thembalethu and only one way out. 30 years after freedom, there is no political will or interest to integrate the kasi into the larger workings of the main city.
These are some of the things I discussed with Vuyo*, one of the few classed Black women I’ve encountered in the four years I’ve lived in this city. She moved from Johannesburg with her three children after a divorce and works as an attorney. For perspective on how exceptional she is, there are only 6064 Black female attorneys in the whole country. Vuyo and I met at an equestrian club. Her daughters had been riding for a year and Liya had just begun that summer. This is all very petit bourgeoisie, I know, and I can see my friends rolling their heads and shaking their heads right now because I’ve been accused of never just doing “regular Black folk activities” with my kids. You’ll be gratified to know that Liya didn’t take to horseback and the classes ended after two months. Still, I was stoked that I’d met Vuyo and her lovely girls and certain that I had found a comrade – if not a friend – in a woman who had also expressed her misgivings about George’s entrenched racial hierarchy of which we found ourselves outliers.
When Liya quit horseback riding my interactions with Vuyo came to an abrupt halt. I wouldn’t say that we were friends, but we were friendly enough. I mean, how much of a person’s deep inner workings can you tease out in 30 minutes, once a week? Besides that, we were too laser focused on willing our girls not to fall out of their saddles to take up any sort of meaningful conversation. I thought I’d missed my chance to construct a relationship with a sista-girl…but then I recalled something that one of my managers had said at one of the hundreds of jobs I’d held before.
“If you want to make friends as an adult, you have to be like a kindergartner. How do pre-schoolers make friends? They run up to a kid that’s wearing the same Elmo jacket and say ‘Hi! My name’s Mark. Wanna play with me? Let’s goooo!!!’ and then the two are friends forever.”
There was some debate about whether that would work romantically as well. Like, “Hi! My name’s Malaka. I see we’re wearing the same brand of penny loafers. Wanna sleep with me? Let’s goooo!!!”
Anyways, the point of said manager’s soliloquy is that if you want to create adult friendships, you have to put ego aside and make the big ask. Making friends after 40 is incredibly difficult. Most of us are stuck in our ways, in bed by 8 and have lost tolerance for general nonsense. But the quiet part we rarely say out loud is that we crave the camaraderie that comes when you’re in the struggle with someone else – whatever form that takes. It could be school, dealing with a crazy boss, getting through a gym class…we generally form bonds with people whom we identify as trying to overcome a similar set of challenges.
When MX5 and I first became friends, it was because we were Black stay-at-home moms raising nine children between the two of us. We were an anomaly in Atlanta. Any honest SAHM will confess to the loneliness you are often left with, and for MX5 and I, the Thursdays from 10am – 3pm we spent together were more than adequate to recharge and energize us for the week. Similarly, Vuyo and I – both Black and bougie – were anomalies in George. With this in mind, I sent her a text message to invite her to coffee. But only after thinking about it for three months first.
She was immediately receptive, saying that it was good to hear from me. I noted her lack of use of emojis and exclamation points in her communication, but remembered that not everyone is as exuberant as I. It felt a little chilly, but sometimes ice burns with greater intensity than fire.
Whatever! I now had my first friend date.
When the day came for coffee, we met at one of the numerous swanky cafes that have sprung up in George over the past 3 years. I knew that Vuyo wouldn’t want to go anywhere too blue-collar, because when I mentioned earlier in the year that we were renting a house in George South, she asked with surprise (and a tinge of disdain) “Why would you want to live there?” My explanation about the housing market and our budget was replied with a curt, humph. But now that we’ve since moved to Loerie Park, I would of course be delighted to meet her at either Fat Fish or The Deacon. Neither was too far from me. Her repudiation of my previous lodgings felt a little chilly, but that was ok. People from Joburg are accustomed to the best.
She refused my offer to try any of my crab cakes, though I was mindful not to touch it before making the offer. That was ok. Even in Ghana when we say, “You’re invited” everyone knows that the offer to share food is more out courtesy than an actual desire to share said meal.
I found our conversation about race, class and the city in which we now found ourselves truly invigorating, but there was something in the way that she looked at me that made me feel…weird? Stupid? Uninformed? Gosh…what was this sensation was I was feeling.
Our date lasted for just over 70 minutes, at which point I thanked her for coming and admitted that I knew she had to get back to work. She thanked me as well for setting it up.
“We should do this again sometime,” she said flatly with an even flatter smile.
And that’s when my little optimistic heart ran off the track and slammed into the guardrail. If I’d learned anything from my relationships, platonic or otherwise, the declaration that an activity should repeated again “sometime” is a polite way of saying that while this was not the worst time I’ve had, it is not time that I’ll waste again in the future. If you really want to see someone in 2023, you pull out your calendars, see when you’re next free and be intentional about scheduling a date.
I bared my teeth and squeaked back, “Yeah! We should…”
And then we got into our respective vehicles and drove to opposite sides of town. I have not heard from Vuyo since. It’s been 2 weeks as of today. I’ve been ghosted by my first friend date. You people who date: How do people do this month after month? Are you not tired? I only tried this once and I’m very ready to not try friend dating again.
Are you a Black woman who exists in overwhelmingly white spaces? Is it easy for you to make friends with other Black women who filter into those spaces? If you have tips on how you’ve made friends in a new city, please share them here! EYE won’t be risking my fragile heart again, but there might be a fellow lurker who will.