Pee-pee, the Deaf Guy

One of the characters at the afterschool program is a dude missing all kinds of teeth The ones he is left with have been browned by years of poor oral hygiene. His name is Pee-pee. Rumor has it that Pee-pee was born deaf, and gained part of his hearing late last year after he was prayed for. Pee-pee bears all the hallmarks of a guy with a disability (or in this case, former disability), meaning that he over compensates for that deficiency by striving to be ‘cool’. He walks with an unnatural limp, sags his pants and never, but NEVER, leaves his home without a cap perfectly slanted to the side of his oblong head. He is also very eager to show his affection. The first time he was introduced to us, he snatched Liya from my arms and to her surprise (and I think horror), planted an enthusiastic kiss on her cheek. I thought his mouth was going to engulf her head. She seemed unsure what to do next, and met his slobbery, gap toothed smile with a wary stare.

Pee-pee, being hitherto 100% deaf, must not know that you don’t have to shout to get one’s attention – at least not at the decibel that he employs. I wonder if the clicks were the only audible sound he was able to make out as a child, growing up among Xhosas. Pee-pee uses the same inflection for the same words in the same pattern every time he wants to express himself.

He says:

Ooo goo *click*!

The then does an exuberant pantomime to accompany his sentence, to illustrate what he’s trying to communicate. Generally, one of the township kids will try to interpret what he’s saying. If you don’t look him directly in the eye while he’s talking, he’ll thump you in your chest: or in my case, my breast.

The first time Pee-pee used his fore and middle fingers to poke me in my cleavage, it was the day of the welcome performance. I was alarmed, to say the least.

“What the – ?!?!”

Happily, I caught myself before I finished the sentence. This might have been a theater/library, but it was still a church.

“Ooo goo *click*,” he exclaimed.

“Huh?”

“Oooo goo *click*! Ooo gooooooo *click*!” he repeated.

After a 3 minute game of township charades, we deciphered that he was asking if Michael was my husband.

“No, no,” said Michael, pointing to Marshall. “That’s her husband.”

“Ahhh…,” said Pee-pee.

Then he did something that can only be described as revolting. He covered the side of his mouth with his left hand to hide it from Michael’s view, stuck his massive tongue into his cheek and forcefully began to stroke it.

“Oh! GROSS!” I screamed. “Eww Pee-pee…ewww!”

He stopped making the gesture and looked at me blankly.

“Oooo goo *click*!” he shouted.

I took the liberty of interpreting that as “I’m sorry”, however I’m willing to wager he meant “What? Everyone does it.”

Ugh.

Heroes

As I said before, South Africa is the kind of place you can come and find a feel good story on virtually any corner. You know why? Because where triumph abounds, tragedy equally abounds. (You can use that.) This week, my feel good story is incarnated in the form of Celia, a woman who runs an informal orphanage in Kwanokothula.

Celia is my type of woman. She sees a problem, and doesn’t wait for approval to solve it. She’s in her early 40’s and previously worked as a maid (from what I was able to gather). There are 8 kids that she keeps in her home in Kwanokathula where she feeds, clothes, educates and mothers them from a 4 room house.

I discovered in talking to Celia that the orphanage started under what I deem ‘abnormal circumstances’. She was sitting in church about 3 years ago when 2 police officers walked in with a set of twins. They said that the twins had been abandoned and would anyone take them – they had nowhere else to go. She said she felt a tug on her heart that wouldn’t let her be free, and she offered to take in the twins. The only problem was she wasn’t working because she was sick. She had no income and her house had not been finished yet. (It still isn’t.) However, she determined that even though she was ‘not strong enough to work, perhaps she was strong enough to take care of two kids’. And that’s what she did and still does. Everything she has has been miraculously donated by equally kind-hearted locals and foreign charities.

I was terribly impressed by her house. The kitchen, living room and kids bunk-beds are all in one 12 x 12 room. The toddlers sleep in cribs lined side by side in a space no larger than my kitchen at home, and her room is adjacent to theirs. It has a bed, a dresser, and an enormous hole. Scratch that: It’s an escape route that was created by the blow men in The Expendables. I gripe about our rented house here in Plett, but at least all the walls in intact! And we’ve had so much rain and plunging temperatures…it’s a wonder she gets any sleep at all. All that aside, she showed of her children and her house with pride and a weary smile. The brick layers keep promising to come, but this is Africa. They’ll come when they’re good and ready.

The kids aren’t really orphans at all. As it turns out, most of them have just been abandoned by their parents. Drugs and alcohol have claimed the lives of many women in this country, leaving most of them little better than waking, walking corpses. The littlest girl in the orphanage is called Cynthia. She’s 3 years old, and half Stone’s size. She was born underweight with fetal alcohol syndrome and left by her mother in the hospital in the incubator. The social workers in the area are all familiar with Celia’s program and approached her about taking in the child. They had located her mother, and it turned out that she lived no more than 100 yards from Celia’s house. Celia dropped in on her one day and found her sitting outside her shack, drunk.

“Why haven’t you gone to see your child in the hospital?” Celia asked her.

“Tsew. The hospital is in Knysna,” the woman scoffed. “I don’t have money to get there.”

“Ahhh…but you have money for booze, eh?” Celia mocked.

She took Cynthia in the moment she was discharged from the hospital and has kept her ever since.

A number of the other kids have similar stories. The police found one little girl was found crawling at night in the filthy streets of the township at 8 months. Her mother (also a drunk) sucked her teeth and said she has no time for a baby. Her grandmother also sucked her teeth and said that it was ‘not her baby, so why should she care for it?’ Two brothers from Zimbabwe were abandoned by their parents as well. Both were drunks. The father has recently taken steps to get a job and try to be more responsible, their mother hasn’t.  He drops in to see them every so often.

Sometimes, with no warning, when the parents have cleaned themselves up, they come and claim their child(ren) from Celia. She says those days are never easy, because some of them have been with her from their infancy and she is the only mother they have ever really known. I can’t imagine that those are good days.

It’s true what they say: The strongest super heroes don’t wear capes.

The Good Stuff

I’ve discovered that it takes about a week to settle into any new environment, and I’m happy to report that we’re finally settled! But can I confess one thing before I move on to the ponies and rainbows? My confession is this: I dread rainstorms in South Africa. Previously, the thought of a night spent with raging winds and the rain pounding against my window inspired romantic feelings of longing and a desire to cuddle. Now the thought of rain terrifies me. All I can think of is those colossal spiders seeking shelter from the deluge outside – in my house. Last night we had a wicked storm, and when we woke up, there were no ghastly critters in the house. Nuh uh. Instead, the girl’s room was flooded, the kitchen was flooded, and the foyer was flooded. The roof leaks all over the house! (Money Pit.)

Anyway.

The best part of the trip so far has been working with the kids, which is why we’re down here. We have 3 townships that we’ll be working in for the summer: Kurland, Qulwayne (pronounced click-waynee) and Kwanokothula.  The kids in Kurland are in the Learning Center and are on track to go to university after high school; we will be working at an orphanage in Kwanokothula; and the kids at Qulwayne are my pet project. I’ve taken over the 4,5 and 6 year olds (because I don’t spend enough time with that age range at home.)

Reader, if you’re not familiar with South Africa’s history, in which education is a synopsis:

South Africa was colonized by the British, became a republic under the Boers, who brutally oppressed the natives and provided them with just enough education to become a field hand, gardener or a maid. This was Bantu education. South Africa hasn’t gotten much better, 15 years after apartheid. (Google the gaps.)

Here’s an example of what makes my days so good: Today, I pulled the grade R kids (kindergarten) aside and tried to find out who knows their alphabet. In a “class” of 15, 2 kids knew the majority of their letters, which is what I had been told to expect. Well, since I was going to be playing teacher, I had to know my students’ names, right? Xhosa names are sooo different from (simple!) Akan names, so I put on my listening ears, wet my lips, flexed my tongue, and started from left to right. The kids are very particular about their names, so I did my best to get it right. Fortunately, they were all wearing name tags, which should have made my tast even easier.

Sovuswe is about 6 years old, and is one of the kids who knows his alphabet. He is eager to show off. He repeats his name twice, and I finally get it right. So-VUU-zwe.

The cute little girl with light brown eyes sitting next to him name tag read Okhusle. Ha! Simple enough.

“My dear…what is your name?” I asked, furtively reading her tag. “O-koo-sle?”

She looked up at me, smiling with missing teeth.

“O-qlick-swqlick-le,” she said.

Damn.

“O-click-le,” I said confidently.

She shook her head.

“O-qlick-swqlick-le,” she repeated.

“O-cleeck-le,” I said with finality.

Her smile faded. She looked annoyed. If she coulda cussed me, I’m sure she would. Look you dumb mutha f*cka, I already said ‘O-qlick-swqlick-le’ like 6 times. It’s real simple! 2 qlicks (not ‘click’) and roll your tongue like THIS. Oh MY GOD, you dumb, fat sow!!

After reading her thoughts, I stopped trying; which is just as well, because it was time for the kids to eat. The lunch lady interrupted our oral spar as I fixed my mouth to try again. We eyed each other measuring one another like 2 boxers going to battle knowing that we would have to have face one another again soon. We were stuck in the same lot until August.

Kicks and Clicks

I wanted kicks, and I was not disappointed.

First of all, let me go ahead and admit that every day that I have spent in the Western Cape has been akin to a goofy, feel good, B Christian movie. When we pulled up to the after school facility (which doubles as a church/community center/anything you want it to be), about 60 kids were milling around at the entrance with a red haired, rosy cheeked White woman sitting among them. When the engine of our car quieted down I heard her yell “Okay! Okay! They’re here!”

All the children then said in unison “Yes we can! Yes we can! Yes we can!”

Search me to find out what they were self-affirming to, but I nodded and smirked with as much benevolence as I could muster. This felt so weird.

“Yes, Marshall, apparently they can,” I whispered.

“Yup. They sure can…”

There were some other visitors assembled there; a motley crew of Caucasians from Australia, England, Holland and the off white South African. A bubbly blond called Henneke had got the kids painting “their dreams” on some card board and a silver haired guy was shooting their activity. She works with high profile local artists in impoverished nations all over the world, and gets them to incorporate the children’s art into their work. Whenever a painting sells (and usually in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range) part of the money is redirected back to the town where the kids are from to make their dreams a reality. Most of the kids had painted a big fancy house as their dream. One had painted a church. No one had drawn a new school. Kids are the same everywhere I guess.

I don’t truly possess the gift of gab, so when I am thrust into awkward situations like this, I make myself look busy by busying myself with the kids. Unfortunately for me, they ran off at the first sight of their numerous age mates, and I was left defenseless. However, because we were abysmally late, we were ushered into to the church/community center/theater and aggressively instructed to sit on the first row. Plastic lawn chairs – the kind that I only ever seem to come across in Africa – were assembled in the middle of the room. The “stage” was directly in front of us.

It’s funny, but children everywhere all have the same theatrical aptitude; meaning they all shriek their performance. After the 4 to 6 year olds “treated” to us a heartwarming song with a repeated refrain of click click tschlick, the older girls did a traditional dance that would have put the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders and Marquita the club freak to shame. I never saw such high kicks! And the one of the traditional dances had the girls freaking and gyrating so hard that I thought they would break their bony little waists. Fortunately, the only mishap came in the form of a wardrobe malfunction where one of the flat-chested prepubescent’s lost her tie around top. (Pictures to come shortly) I tried to appear unflinching and composed as 2 of the girls came dangerously close to giving me a toe jam sandwich as they threw their bony little feet above their shoulders.

The boys did the boot dance that originated in the mines. This sent an immeasurable amount of dust into the air, into my eyes and into my nostrils. Once the traditional dancing was done, all the performers convened to do some street dancing with yet more freaking and shaking. Two boys stole the show with their “township Crip walk”. One of the invited guests in the motley White crew was a woman with an Aussie/South African accent that reeked of money. She clapped her hands enthusiastically. Her turquoise Yves St. Laurent sweater sat unnaturally in place, unmoving even though the rest of her was moving vigorously.

The show closed with a medley of What a Friend we have in Jesus and 3 or 4 other standard hymns, with Laura strumming along on her guitar. Then it was over.

“Thank you all for coming,” said Laura, the red head who runs the operation. “It’s not often the kids get to perform for an audience. They don’t get to show off what they’ve practiced very often, so it was good of you all to come.”

The kids got off stage and we were left to our own devices. There was no finesse in the finale. It was like I had been dropped in Baghdad with nothing but a butter knife and a bottle of water. I felt so used…so very used.     

They usually ask the VIPs (meaning me) to give some sort of speech at these things don’t they? I mean, not that I would have given one, but it would have been nice to ask – so that I could then refuse.

Over all, it was a really good performance and I was by all accounts still a stranger, so I meekly gathered my dusty children and went home.

Waka Waka? ‘Cause this is Africa

On Monday morning Marshall and Michael went down to the rental agent’s office downtown to give them our list of “observations”. She was aware of all of them. When Marshall asked if someone could come in to repair the water damage and paint over the mold, he was told ‘no’. But she at least made an attempt to assuage Marshall’s fears:

“The mold you see on the walls here is different than what you have in the States,” the agent said.

Que???

 “All the same, I’d like someone to come by and take down the under curtains,” said Marshall. “They can leave the top ones.”

Apparently, the guy who owned the property was aware of the cracks, water leaks, flooding dishwasher, special African mold and everything else that was wrong with the house. He wasn’t willing to do any repairs because he has plans to renovate the house in the future, so he’s just going to keep renting it out as is until that day comes. However, he instructed the agent to buy us anything we needed for the house. That was really fortunate, because there is no central heating in the house. Why would one need central heating, or any heating at all in Africa you may ask? Because it’s frikkin’ FREEZNG down here!

When we were told that we were coming into winter, I thought maybe it would be 70*, perhaps 65* at the coolest; nothing too drastic. Naw man. It sometimes gets down to 30* at night down here. It’s so cold I’m afraid to get up and pee. Foolishly, I packed stacks of summer clothes, thinking that if I prepared for summer, it would actually be summer when I got here. Now I and the kids are reduced to rotating the same 3 outfits day in and out. (Fortunately, I found the washing machine. It’s in a separate room outside of the house. The second night we were here there was a torrential storm, which meant that the laundry stayed where it was after I’d washed it: safely tucked away from the dryer, 40 yards from the front door.)

Living in Plett has given me a false sense of what Africa can become. I look around at the opulence and the modernity and wonder if Ghana could ever achieve this on a mass scale? It’s possible, but highly improbable. Corruption and incompetence are far too prevalent in the places that matter most. Not to say there isn’t corruption in low places either: Just3 days ago, we were flagged down by a guy on a bike as we were riding in the car with Michael. His back left tire was low on air and looked about flat. Michael thanked him and rolled up his window. The guy tapped on it, using his body and a bike as a buffer to prevent us from leaving. He said something in Afrikaans and made an eating gesture with his hand. Michael gave him 2 Rand for the “trouble” of telling us our tire pressure was low.

Apparently, good neighborliness don’t come free.

What impresses the most so far about South Africa is that you see a lot of “Made in South Africa” ware and fare at the store. That’s evidence of a country that’s moving forward! Never mind that the guy who is currently running things in the country has a third grade education, takes a new wife every full moon, or thinks that taking a shower after having sex with an HIV positive woman inoculates him from the disease – never mind any of that! South Africa is a place where people can plant their hopes in the ground and watch them grow. It has ‘American potential’.

Potential and hope is everywhere in South Africa. For instance, I saw a guy on TV the other night who was anchoring an entertainment segment on cable TV. In America, this guy wouldn’t have made it alive past the 3rd grade, let alone gone on to earn a successful career in television.

His name is Aubrey Poo.

“Poo” probably means “strong and mighty in battle” in Xhosa, but in the rest of the world it means a hot stinkin’ pile of…well…POO.

Tomorrow we’re going into Kwanokothula to be honored with a presentation by some of the township kids. I’ve never been the guest of honor at one of these things, so I’m pretty excited about it. I hope they do that ‘kick dance’…The one with the legs real high like in the movie Shaka Zulu? Google it.  At the same time, I have to confess:  It’s hard for me to have sympathy for the living and working poor in South Africa, because their living conditions are slightly better than those of our poor in Ghana. The road in the township that I drove on just the other day was better built and maintained than that of our most posh residential area in Accra. And these folk have a pretty good stretch of land to work with if they so wished. They could plant gardens or create a community park. They could have pavilions or anything their imagination could conjure up. Add to that, every wooden shack in every township I’ve come by so far has a DStv dish hovering over rusty tins roofs so that the occupants can be entertained as they shiver in frigid nighttime temperatures.

Why?

‘Cause this is Africa.

Honey! We’re home!

Marshall had been researching properties for us to rent a few months before we left Atlanta. Of course the nicest one we saw had a pool and hundreds of square feet per person; and the worst had 1 toilet, no sink and we’d all have to sleep in the closet. Fortunately we found one that was modest and still really affordable. Okay, it was better than modest…it was AWESOME! The pictures online showed ocean views, crisp white sheets, crisp white walls, a nice backyard…everything was perfect.

“That’s the one I want, Marshall,” I told him over email. “The one on Taromonto.”

Michael and Brittany, who run and work the Learning Center where we were supposed to be working, picked us up from the Airport in Port Elizabeth and drove us to our house in Plett. The house was alarmed, which instantly made me feel safer. When we switched on the lights, I was delighted by what I saw. It was everything the pictures said, and even better in person. My eyes were fixed on recess lighting and the marble counter tops in the expansive kitchen, when I heard Marshall shout “WHOA!!”. Michael echoed him.

“What? What is it?” I asked. I walked into one of the bedrooms where they were standing and looked up in the upper right corner of the room.

“Hey! Hooo!!”

I felt my skin turn cold. There, in the corner, sat that spider from Harry Potter. You know, the 8 foot one that could talk? Yeah – him. The spider sat watching us, munching nonchalantly on a small rabbit it had captured in its web. “Yeah fool. Come and get me if you want,” I heard it say.

I backed out of the room slowly.

“That’s called a rain spider. We’re going to need to get some Doom for that one,” said Michael.

I didn’t know what Doom was, but it sounded good to me. Liya was fidgeting and crying, preventing me from enjoying every aspect of our new short term housing.

“Awww man!” I heard Marshall say.

“What is it now?”

“There are cracks all over the house.”

“Yeah,” said Michael. “Here’s another one.”

Oh, what are a few cracks in the wall? I thought. We have cracks in our…Oh. WHOA! That’s not a crack – that’s a fissure!

All over the house, there were 3-5 foot cracks lining the walls. Marshall stuck a quarter in one of them. It sat perfectly balanced in the gap. Yikes.

“Well, the house hasn’t fallen down yet; so I guess we’re safe.”

We began to put our bags in everyone’s intended rooms. Marshall pulled back the curtains and looked at the walls.

“Mold. There’s mold on the curtains and walls!”

“And look. There’s water damage on the floor. We can look at other properties on Monday,” offered Michael.

“If they can change the curtains and paint the walls, we can live with it,” said Marshall, looking at me for confirmation.

“Oh yeah. That’s no problem.”

I was too tired to think and afraid of what else we might discover. But to my pleasure, I found that we had steaming hot water and enormous bathrooms, stocked with towels, soap and toilet paper. Which was good, because I had no idea where all that stuff was in the 10-12 bags we had lugged from the Northern Hemisphere.

That night, we slept 2 to a bed, shivering against the Antarctic winds pummeling against the walls and windows.

Learning how the house works

Every house has its quirks and rhythms. For instance, in our house in Atlanta, you can’t take a dump in the master bathroom because Aya dropped her toothbrush in there 3 years ago, and I never fished it out. I just kept flushing it, hoping that gravity and water pressure would eventually dislodge it from the main pipe below. Sadly, that has not come to pass yet.

Our new home in Plett has special ways in which it works too, which I discovered on our second night in. Our kitchen has been outfitted with modern conveniences, which from my experience in Africa is not the ordinary. We have a toaster, microwave, dishwasher and a dryer. Wait – where’s the washing machine? Was I going to have to wash our clothes in the tub? Oh God. This is Ghana all over again! I resolved that I was not going to bitch and moan about it. Unlike Ghana, I COULD have someone come over and wash my clothes if I wanted to.

The instructions on how to use all the appliances were posted on the fridge. After I fed the kids lunch on our first afternoon here, I loaded the dishwasher, poured in the soap and turned it on. Man, it was silent! Our dishwasher at home sounds like it’s giving birth every time we switch it on. This one was quiet, and held a lot more volume too. I could just TELL it was a green machine.

I turned my attention to my beloved counter tops. Suddenly, my socks felt really wet. What the heck? I looked down, and to my amazement beheld a river of dish water snaking its way towards the living room. Marshall was making his way around the corner into the kitchen at that exact moment.

“What the heck!”

He grabbed one of the dish towels and held it up with a question in his eye.

“No, no,” I said. “We can’t use their kitchen towels to mop the floor!”

My eyes darted around looking for a mop. None was to be found. Crap. Marshall made the decision to use one of the bath towels to wipe up the mess. I shut off the machine, furious at the prospect that I might have to wash all those dishes by hand. Brittany showed up within minutes of the fiasco.

“What happened here?”

“The dishwasher flooded,” said Marshall.

“This place is like Money Pit!” I cried. “I’m just waiting for us to go up on the roof and fall through!” (There’s a tanning roof on top of the building, by the way. Great view of the neighborhood and the ocean from there…)

Marshall laughed and Brittany smirked. She was there to take Marshall to go do something (I wasn’t paying attention), and after they left, I tried the dishwasher once more. This time, the water didn’t trickle out – it surged out instead. Frantic, I put towel after towel on the floor until the drainage had been sucked up.

Then I left the kitchen, vowing never to return.

 

 

Those Fashionable South Africans

We spent our first night in the country at a bed and breakfast called The Lily Pad. The owner’s name is Mandie, who incidentally shared the same name with Aya’s pre-K teacher. This pleased Aya to no end, and she spent a good part of the night asking Ms. Mandie as many questions as she could conjure.

The next morning we were ferried back to the airport by a guy (whose name neither Marshall nor I asked for) with a tribal tattoo in each earlobe and an impressive tan. Nadjah and Aya made it a point to let it be known how weird they thought his ‘ear coloring’ was. He looked every bit the reformed bad boy, and told us he had (reluctantly) moved up to Jo’burg from Cape Town for work with his wife and 2 kids. He gave us a brief history of South Africa from the perspective of a modern White South African, which was quite refreshing. He said that race relations in Cape Town were very different than they were in Johannesburg. The Blacks in Cape Town were different (I assume he meant less hostile) than the ones in Jo’burg. He chalked it up to tribal differences. He also mentioned that a lot of the Black guys that he works with are really unhappy with the ANC, but they are afraid to vote for any other party for fear that things would return to the way they were before. (I assume he meant apartheid.) It’s a legitimate fear, but an unrealistic one. The system of apartheid as it was enforced before would never thrive in this age. Any group wanting to become an oppressor would have to be far more creative than that.

As we said our good-byes to Tattoo Dude at the domestic flight terminal, I took a look around. Everyone had bundled up in boots, coats, scarves and hats. I looked down at the slacks and short sleeved shirt I was wearing. Was I missing something? I mean, it was cool – but the weather didn’t warrant the attire the masses had garbed themselves in…like some epic winter storm was going to hit the city ANY SECOND now! It was 60 degrees at the least.

However, if one is to dress for winter, they might as well do it right. 7 out of 10 women had the latest in winter footwear, from riding boots to classic black stacked heels. (The other 3 were airport workers and vendors, so they didn’t count.) For the most part, their outer wear was simplistic with natural make-up to match. As in any public place, there is always that one woman who manages to materialize in an outfit that makes you wonder if she has any friends, family or a loved one who had the kindness to advise her to go BACK to her room and take that –ish off. And like all those women, the superior look in her eye read that she was confident that she looked damn good – any advice to the contrary would be ignored. This woman was wearing red…from head to toe. And not the same hue either.

I didn’t feel bad about myself until I noticed other women doing the same thing to me as I was doing to them: people watching. Fortunately, I’d had a fresh change of clothes and neither Liya nor Stone had had a chance to smear me with their grubby little hands. I felt a little better.

Until…

We boarded our BA flight to Port Elizabeth. Being a domestic flight, it was a small plane, and held perhaps only 100 passengers.

“Where’s the TV?” Nadjah demanded.

“Yeah! Where’s the TV??” Aya echoed.

“There is no TV,”Marshall said calmly. “This is a short flight…only 2 hours long.”

The girls were appalled at the thought of having to spend any time in the air without in-flight entertainment, but they bravely soldiered on.

The crew came around and quickly dished out our snacks in a bag and coloring books for the kids. Suddenly, I heard Nadjah shriek above the noise of the engine.

“Mommy! Guess what? The girl that’s sitting behind me is called Malaika too!”

“Uh huh. That’s nice.” The child’s name is probably ‘Monica’. I thought. Who would name their child ‘Malaika’, unless they were a South Af…Oooooh!

“Oh Malaika, we have sooo much to chat about,” Nadjah gushed.

And that’s precisely what the pair of them did. I re-settled Stone in my lap and prepared myself for pleasant, enjoyable flight. As I closed my eyes, my nostrils were assailed by the foulest pong.

Oh sweet mercy.

Some of the people in our quadrant began to gag. The elderly Indian women in the seat opposite mine used a napkin to cover her nose, but I know it was to no avail. The stinging stink of Stone’s ill-timed diaper blow out permeated every pore of any fabric on that plane. These were the moments I hated as a single woman: watching and waiting for that harried mother to change her oily little rug urchin and giving the rest of us some reprieve.

Gasping for fresh air, I made my way towards the lavatories in the back of the plane. My progress was blocked by the meal cart in the middle of the narrow aisle. There was no hope for it. I would have to wait until the flight crew had served all the food, and they would have to wait to eat it until I had Stone’s stench locked away in the toilet.

“Oh…so you’re the culprit!’ cackled one of the male flight attendants mercilessly.

“Yes. This is how a man takes a poo. That’s man poo,” I said, feigning pride in my son’s ‘accomplishment’.

“Yes well, we’re all fortunate that this man is going home with you,” the attendant said.

Oh.

“Let me get the changing table for you,” he offered, pulling the table down. “Oo-ish. Look at how small it is in there! And you have to stand there alone with all that stink? Tsk, tsk, tsk…”

Heh. This guy was wicked oh!

“Yes…well…,” I started; but then I stopped. I needed to conserve my strength to fight off the fecal tempest awaiting me in my son’s shorts.

When I made my way back to my seat, Marshall was smiling. Better you than me, his face read.

Fortunately, the plane landed with no further surprises…that is until I looked back and saw that Nadjah was waiving ‘good-bye’ to her new friend Malaika – a little blonde haired, green-eyed South African girl.

What is the world coming to?

…and even more planes

Jo’burg As far as airports go Oliver Tumbo is pretty nice. As far as African airports go, Oliver Tumbo has to be the nicest by far. It modern and well planned. I compared it to Kotoka in Accra – the ‘Gateway to Africa’ – with its leaky roofs and cramped quarters, and was happy to be arriving into an establishment that proved that Africans can indeed do some things right. The fact that this airport was probably built by white South Africans was completely irrelevant! As we approached customs, a bio scanner read each of our vital signs. Marshall had a fever, and it was recommended that he go to the clinic before he enter the country. Fair enough. We were the last to deplane on the last flight into ORT, and only a few customs agents were left at their posts. A colored agent was idly stamping our passports, as two other agents engaged in a supervisor-employee conversation; one that takes place in work places all over the world. The supervisor was a massive colored guy, and the employee was a petite black girl with metallic blue eye-shadow and braids. “Kevin,” she said, getting his attention. “What do you want?” he snapped. “I have to talk to you.” “Talk to me about what?!?!” “I have Thursday off,” she began. “And what’s your day off got to do with me?” he quizzed. “If you wait, I’ll tell you!” she snapped back. “I have Thursday off, and I come to work Friday. But my mom is going to the hospital on Friday and I want to work Thursday instead. I have to take her.” “No,” said Kevin. “Ah!” “Get Shauley(?) to take her,” he ‘recommended’. “I don’t live with Shauley,” she countered. (Must’ve been her boyfriend) “Then get your sister to do it,” Kevin said dismissively. “I don’t have a sister!” she cried. “I’m an only child.” “Oh. Then fahck (f*ck) your mother,” Kevin said, turning his attention to some paperwork on his desk. “Eh? Fahck my mother?” She laughed in disbelief. “Those are two words I’ve never heard together- ‘fahck’ and my ‘mother’.” I don’t know if she got her day off or not because we were done and had to go claim our bags. I’m guessing not. Welcome to South Africa!

Getting Here – Planes, planes

Atlanta

I left Atlanta on a really sour note. I was still enraged by the bumbling incompetency of my church, and further enraged by Marshall’s apparent nonchalant attitude toward that incompetency. When my face silently, but plainly bore the evidence of my displeasure, I was informed that at some point I would have “to get over it”. In addition to that, I had wanted to lend a friend of mine my car for the time that we were away so that she could have transportation – and was flatly ‘informed’ that she was not going to be allowed to, even though I had emphatically promised to let her borrow it. This only served to anger me further. Granted, she is an uninsured driver and had no job to cover any possible damages should an accident occur, but I did not see the logic in the refusal at the time. All that I saw was that I had made out to be an unsympathetic friend and liar, and that I had let my friend down and in a great state of inconvenience. I did my best to bring this to Marshall’s attention.

“She hasn’t had an accident yet Marshall…why would she have one now?!?

“I’m not saying that she will,” retorted Marshall. “I didn’t plant to hit that guy the other day, but I did. That’s why it’s called an ‘accident’”

Failing to get him to see my point, I ceased talking to him, went to pick up the girls from school and got ready to drive to the airport.

I had only found out a few days before we left that we would be flying on Delta for the first leg of our trip. Bloody Delta airlines…those rat bastards. I immediately eradicated any service expectations, so that I would neither be disappointed or angered by their consistent lack of customer service. The check in process was arduous, but we got through it. Fortunately, we arrived at the gate just as they had started boarding, so we didn’t have to spend an hour trying to entertain the kids in a cramped area with dozens of other passengers glaring their disapproval. We each had 1 carry on bag, which meant that Marshall and I were handling 3 a-piece, plus a child needing to be carried or shepherded. As we walked down the tunnel to get to the door of the plane, the complexity of our situation became even more apparent. A skinny Black girl was standing by the door with some newspapers. She must have been part of the ground crew waiting to take extra strollers, tripods and such to stow in the belly of the plane.

“Is  there any way we can get somebody to help us with the kids and these bags?” Marshall asked.

Nigga is you crazy? This is Delta Airlines! No one is going to help…

The girl spoke up, interrupting and confirming my thoughts at the same time.

“No,” she said. “I’ve seen people handle the kids and bags just fine. I’ve seen them do it.”

“Come on Marshall,” I said. “Just tell Stone to follow the girls. We can figure it out some how.”

We were seated in the back of the plane on the same row. After we had gotten settled, a flight attendant walked up to us with her brow furrowed but lips smiling, in that practiced manner that they’ve only the most seasoned crew members have perfected.

“Did you guys request a seat change?” she demanded in greeting.

“No,” said Marshall (I was quizzically staring at her.), “these are the seats we were given.”

“Oh.” Her face relaxed. “Well, you can’t have 2 infant in arms on the same row. There aren’t enough air masks in the event of a crash,” she said pointing to the space above us. “I’ll have to move you.”

5 minutes later she returned, putting Stone and me in the back seat next to the window and leaving Marshall with the girls in our original row. This would have worked out well, except Stone was horribly unruly and Marshall had to come handle his son once we were in the air, leaving me with Liya – who slept a total of 1 hour of the 8 hour flight to Amsterdam.

Ugh.

Amsterdam

We got into Amsterdam at 9 in the morning. Our flight was taking off at 10. An hour and a half weather delay in Atlanta got us into the country with just enough time to spare, as the gate stared boarding at 9:20. I was grateful that we had gotten there with any time left at all, as we could have ended up spending the night with 4 exhausted kids. We raced to our gate, where my gratitude evaporated into exasperation upon the discovery that we had been fisted by Delta Airlines, once again.

It appears that the ticketing agent in Atlanta had removed all our connecting tickets at the gate, and the only person with a confirmed seat was Liya, because she had an e-ticket. As the lanky Dutch guy with the soft voice explained that we would have to pay a $50 (per ticket) administration fee to reprint the tickets, I felt Stinkmeaner rising in me. I breathed a little faster to suppress him. (Incidentally, Delta had done the same thing to me when I was coming from Ghana last year, leaving me only with my stub and not my return ticket. What a group of douche bags!) Irritated, I watched Marshall plead our case and trying to calm Liya and Stone at the same time, I had finally had enough with the hold up. I piped up from where I was standing 5 feet away – apparently out of earshot.

“It’s not our fault the people at Delta made a mistake…!”

Marshall spun around and waved his hand, indicating that I should stop talking. Dutchy started speaking a little louder.

“Yes ma’am, I realize that; but without a ticket I cannot let you on the plane. It makes it hard for us to do our job. I see that you have many children, and it is possible that you misplaced your ticket in one of your bags during the journey. But because you have so many kids, I have sympathy for you and am going to let you through.”

(Marshall later whispered that the guy was doing us a ‘favor’ by not making us pay for Delta’s mistake. I was supposed to be, so I smiled like a happy field negro, removed my shoes and yassa-massa’d my way through security and got on KLM heading directly for South Africa.)

This flight was so much better. KLM knows how to treat its customers. (Unless they’re flying into West Africa.) They gave the children activity books and special child meals to suit their palette. The flight attendants were older, and had a gentler way about them than the Delta Airlines crew, the worst of whom was the mulatto gay guy who told me there was ‘no water left on the plane’ for me to make a fresh bottle for my baby. I looked around at my fellow passengers. There were a good number of 20-somethings in t-shirts that read “Answer the Call” and many obvious hipsters. This was a plane full of young evangelists, ready to go offer salvation to the heathen hoards in South Africa (since Americans no longer needed saving). Two young men with buzz cuts discussed dead languages and the bible and debated something that quickly began to bore me. As I tuned them out, an enormous girl with brown hair and an equally enormous heart informed me that she would help me carry any one of the kids if I needed it.

I looked her dead in her eye.

“Look. I’m the type of person who takes help if it’s offered,” I warned. “I will ask you to watch one of these kids.”

Wide-eyed and slightly dismayed by my seriousness, she promised that she would really help. She was going to be working in an orphanage for the next 2 months, and this would be good practice. She took a special liking to Stone, who also took a special liking to her. Liya did not care for her too much, and screamed as though the girl was pouring boiling acid on her whenever she came anywhere near her. So loud were her protests when Lara (the girl’s name) was holding her that it got the attention of one passenger in particular:  An elderly white man with a hard face and an old slate grey suit. He looked like he passionately loved God and aggressively hated humanity. He grim stare at Lara and the baleful Liya seemed to ask why this pretty plump white girl was bothering with this nigger/keffer baby. ‘Give it back to its momma’, his eyes said. I obliged him by going to collect my child and restoring calm to the cabin once again.

It was now 6 hours into the 12 hour flight, and I had not slept a wink since we left Atlanta the day before. My fatigue (and my banana/cereal/egg and cheese covered shirt) was plain for all to see. One of the hipsters, a mixed boy with a Sanskrit tattoo on his right wrist and horn-rimmed glasses, made his way to my seat and offered to carry Liya so that I could get some sleep.

“You wouldn’t mind?” I said deliriously. Stone and Lara were hamming it up in the back of the plane.

“Not at all,” he smiled.

He took Liya and bounced her around. I took a blanket and covered my face, preparing to sleep…until her shrill cries roused me before I had even gotten settled. Sanskrit came scurrying back.

“I tried,” he said sheepishly.

“I know,” I smiled wearily.

I looked over at him as he made his way back to his seat, proud to have done something sensitive and paternal. His girl-friend snuggled her face into his chest and clasped his bicep. Depending on their level of Christian devotion, someone was going to get booty that night…or something close to it.

Finally, we arrived at OR Tumbo Airport in Johannesburg.

Thank God and Oprah Winfrey.