Life in Cape Town has become comfortable. I have begun to know the streets in Obz like an old pair of jeans that always fit, no matter how many doughnuts you indulge in. The constant presence of Table Mountain has become our weather broadcaster and her mood determines where my Levi rain jacket spends the day. Weekday mornings begin the same, sunlight peeping through the blinds of K1. Children’s joyous outbursts, faint yet distinct, are a seven thirty alarm from the primary school on Wrench.
I would rather hear the and hooting of kombis, “Mowbreee, Whiiineburg!!”, than the low rumble of Milwaukee buses. I can’t quite remember if it’s Pick and Pay or Pick and Save that I prefer to shop at, and it’s nearly subconscious to walk on the left side of the sidewalk.
Last week I went to a play, “Flipping the Script.” Auntie Jenni called at 9am: “Hello luv. Listen, are you still at your house?” Her voice is always so pleasant, motherly even.
“Yeah, we’re leaving just now.”
“Is it? Lovely, because you know what? I forgot that the ladies are going this morning to a play and I thought it might be nice if you could come. It starts at 10, do you think you could have your driver drop you?”
“That’ll be nice. I will see you there.”
“Alright. Cheers darling!”
“Cheers!” I echoed. I have begun to look forward to my semi-routine at Place of Hope. I love walking into the krich Wednesday and Thursday mornings, “Môre môre my babas!” I greet their running hugs and sloppy kisses with. Somewhere between July and September they evolved from small adorable bundles with runny noses to little people whose quirks make me smile affectionately. They’ve wormed their way in. I treasure my time with the women on Thursday afternoons, flour streaking my cheek as I teach them how to bake. Relying on the hours spent with my mother in the kitchen to tell me what a cup, a teaspoon or a half-tablespoon looks like in the absence of any devices of measurement. But I like these days too- when the schedule is thrown out the window and once again I become the full time student.
The play stared four women, and their experiences with domestic violence. It was brilliantly done, incredibly well acted. Held in a large open room in one of the women’s shelters just outside Athlone, the lighting and scenery were minimal, but the effect wasn’t lessened. Each woman represented a faction of the rich diversity that exists in South Africa. An old Xhosa woman, raised in the Eastern Cape and living out the last of Apartheid in the Cape township of Langa, told the story of a sexist society in a racist country. She spoke of her childhood in the bantustans, the “homelands,” the “tribe lands,” the Eastern Cape. Two weeks ago we drove through the bantustans along the garden route. Stunning, enticing, and somehow untouchable, the image of her childhood home came clearly to mind. I knew why she would have loved growing up there, childhood always makes a game of the wilderness and low provisions. I knew why she would want to get out when she married, knowing that in the homelands opportunity is as arid as the landscape. As she spoke, her story was comfortable, the intermittent Xhosa words ringing familiarly in my ears.
Next to her, a Muslim Indian woman in a delicately embroidered punjabi sat. She spoke of her marriage and of childhood and then of cooking. As her words turned to food her face lightened. “Masala, curries, jeera, saffron, turmeric”… like the spices in Victoria Square market. Steeping the air with flavor, the colorful powders heaped in bowls and shallow dishes called out to passers by. It was our second day in Durban when we ventured downtown to experience the city. Tropical, humid and oppressively hot, Durban seemed a world of it’s own in contrast to Cape Town. Victoria square market, the largest indoor market in South Africa, was a destination we couldn’t pass up. Driving through the streets, vendors sat in makeshift stalls along the sidewalks selling everything from cabbage to sink parts. Walking into the market, the air hung heavy with sweat and dirt. Stalls were crammed with as many artifacts as possible. African beadwork, ebony carvings, ostrich eggs, drums, bone rings, ivory pipes, saris, punjabis, zebra skins, paintings, tapestries, spices, stings of marigolds, embossed tin, leather products overwhelmed the senses. Durban, a fusion culture, the melting pot of India and Africa, with all the charms of third world. Opposite Victoria Square a mosque stood in royal magnificence, a block away from Vodacom cell offices, and just over five km from the kiss of the Indian ocean. We stopped for lunch along the crowded street, and I’ve never been so happy for paneer; masala paneer. I know why those spices would make her smile.
A younger Xhosa woman stood stage right; strong, independent, afforded the luxury of a white education under Apartheid rule, she was battling to resolve the constant question: “who am I?” This was the first question Chris asked us in Friday afternoon theology. “Who are you?” He posed the question like an egg about to hatch. Apartheid is just a macrocosm of the separation we have inside… The Bible shows us three separations; one from God, the second from each other, and the third from ourselves. As human beings it is our mission to resolve these separations, these apartheids. Antjie Krog, South African poet laureate and my Tuesday evening African literature professor calls this separation modernity. As we work our way through the top ten African novels of the century, the reoccurring theme is a search for coherent self-identity. While her roots were in the townships, her comfort foods pap and smilies on the braai, her education placed her in a world of china and flatware. But, I don’t think this is a problem just for the colonized.
The fourth was a white woman. Eccentric and nicotine addicted, she spoke of an ‘almost’ charmed life. Raised on the slopes of Table Mountain every luxury was afforded her, except freedom. The family image was much more important than her personal happiness. And so, like the others she was caught in the undertow of silently abused victims. Eventually it cost them their lives, all four.
I looked around at the women sitting next to me. Bon looked at me and giggled as the younger Xhosa woman said some profanities in Afrikaans. Kristi smiled nervously, and Angela laughed heartily. Loretta handed me her 9 mo. old and switched her attention back to the scene on stage. I have become a comfortable part of this community, accepted as a sister, auntie and friend. I looked at Veronica. Last week she came up to me smiling with a letter and picture in her hand. “Cate! Look, see this is him.” An 11mo. old baby boy chortled for the camera, and the letter (in 5 pages) explained he was doing well, and they had named him “Denver.” She was proud of him, despite her reasons for giving him up. Only 24, and already a mother of two, she just couldn’t look at the face of this little boy every day without thinking of the rape that created him. She’d told me weeks earlier as we sat watching the children play in the back yard. The bricks of Place of Hope pushing uncomfortably into our backs. I’d held her hand, knowing that often there’s no response necessary. So this was the German couple she’d handed her bundle over to. He looked happy, and she was proud.
It is the warmth of the communities I have enveloped myself within that have become my South African comfort food. Not just the women and children of Place of Hope, but also my housemates. Our third day of Spring Break we stood, toes to the edge of life, and cheered each other on as we all took a leap of faith. Bloukrans gorge was stunning; a perfect place for the tallest commercial bungee jump in the world, 216m. As we walked across the underside of the bridge, nerves boiled and bubbled in our stomaches. Loud house music filled the atmosphere, and for lack of any other way to release our nerves we danced and laughed together. One by one we stepped forward, were strapped in, taken to the edge, and then “1, 2, 3, BUNGEEEEEE!” Amongst the cheers of our comrades we jumped out into nothingness. The air rushed past, and the ground came closer, and silence, as each of us free fell for the longest 5 seconds of our lives. There is a brief, yet passive thought saying, “I’ve just propelled myself off the tallest bridge in Africa”, but then the bungee catches and I swing back up. Bouncing, spinning, taking in the view for the first time upside down. When we were brought back up everyone cheered. We smiled at each other and gave hugs and exclamations of how brilliant the fall was. Our eyes were glazed over with wind and adrenaline, and then we turned to cheer for the next friend. The next night we would spend on the beach in Chinsta, bottles of wine in hand (thanks to no open container laws), recounting the events and laughing as the Indian ocean crashed in the sand.
-“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”- Desmond Tutu