Sources of Joy: Reconnecting with South African friends

A hectic reentry and Friday’s horrific shooting in Newtown makes me feel like Dunreith and I returned from South Africa two years ago, but in reality our plane landed at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on Monday.

It was a remarkable trip for many reasons.

We met people from all over the planet who are deeply committed to helping individuals, communities and nations heal.

We presented about our family’s trip to Germany in May 2012 to see Dad’s hometown and received a positive reception.

We stopped in London on the way over and visited with childhood friend Nick Harrison, his wife Lizzie Eger and their lovely children Emily and James.

In South Africa, we did the same, spending time with friends I made during my year as a participant during the 1995-1996 Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program.

I taught and coached at the Uthongathi School in Tongaat, a formerly Indian community with plenty of tall, thick green sugar cane stalks and cane rats around them. A Zulu word for “a place of importance” and “it is something because of us,” Uthongathi was one of the country’s first private, multi-racial schools. Founded in the latter years of the apartheid era, it sought deliberately to have the student body and teachers reflect the nation’s diversity by having about 25 percent of the students come from each of the four major race groups in South Africa.

The student composition was one part of a larger, progressive philosophy that was reflected in an emphasis of student voice and participation and in the absence of a uniform requirement. (Students instead wore blue or white button down t-shirts with the school’s name on it)

Even with this approach, the students and soccer players at Uthongathi and I had some mutual adjusting to do as we got to know each other.

The same applied to the friends of my exchange partner Vukani Cele, the teacher and coach I replaced for the year while he worked in my stead at Brown Middle School in Newton, a Boston suburb.

Vukani and I were almost exactly the same age, and, at that point, neither of us had yet married the single mothers who would become our wives.

He had become particularly close with a group of guys he met in college and told them to look after me like a brother.

They followed his instructions flawlessly.

During my year in South Africa I attended three weddings, sang Shosholoza in the box sections of soccer games, partied in Umlazi township, witnessed the slaughtering of a cow, drank more brandy and coke than ever before or since, coached the guys to two victories over Vukani’s buddies, and listened to countless renditions of “Every Little Thing I Do” by Soul 4 Real during our revelry.

Young, black, educated and professional, Vukani’s friends had come of age after the 1976 Soweto riots and were making their way in the pulpy and fresh “New South Africa.” In addition to their dazzling linguistic ability-they routinely would start a sentence in Zulu, switch to English, throw in some township slang and end in Xhosa-their profound love for their country, despite all they had endured, struck me.

Of course, being a brother means that very quickly you shed the guest label and are treated just like family.

This means that my many cultural missteps were endless fodder for laughter and good-natured repetition.

These ranged from requesting a fork to cut the meat from the cow we had just seen slaughtered and cooked-my friend literally took me around from person to person, saying, “What you just asked me, tell him,”-to rolling down a car window to breathe in some early morning air to seeing how I responded when one of the group turned to me after the slaughter had been completed to tell me with utmost seriousness, “You know, Jeff, usually when we slaughter a cow, we also slaughter a white man.”

Everyone else in the room stopped talking and looked at me intently.

For a half-second, despite my lifelong efforts to avoid prejudice, I could see my lifeless and stiffening corpse being cut up with the same skillful precision as the unfortunate cow in front of me.

I gulped, then said, “Really, I’ll go try and find you one.”

In one of the more memorable events, after learning that they were short one ticket to go to the final of a national soccer tournament, the guys hatched a plan to drug my coke with Valium so that I would fall asleep for the match, then return to upbraid me for having missed the fun.

In short, it was a wonderfully memorable and expansive year at a time in our lives when we were establishing ourselves in family and work, when our mortality was a long distant eventuality and when the gratification of present physical pleasure occupied a substantial amount of our attention.

Fast forward 17 years.

We are middle-aged man, with wives and children and careers and mortgages and ailing, if not deceased, parents.

The rambunctious drive that let us stay up without much toll until 4:00 a.m. has diminished. Our taste for this kind of celebration has faded, replaced by the sobering calculus that comes from accepting finite stores of energy that spent in one area cannot go to another.

But their unstinting hospitality remains undimmed.

Dunreith and I could not have had a more generous reception from our friends and their families, even as this meant that she listened to endless variations of the stories of my misadventures.

So, too, has their passion for their country.

But the feeling among these highly accomplished men was far different than the heady optimism of 1995, and substantially changed even from last December, when I had the pleasure of seeing them during and after covering COP17, the climate change negotiations.

Profound concern about the direction in which the nation is headed emerged during a remarkably frank discussion as we tucked into a delicious dinner prepared by one friend’s wife.

The central target: the African National Congress, the key organization in the liberation movement that has been the sole party in power since the first free and democratic elections in April 1994.

Incompetent and corrupt, ANC leaders have enriched themselves from the public purse while failing to provide the most basic of services, they said. They also have not educated the public how to move beyond a culture of oppositional protest to one of civic engagement, one said.

Jacob Zuma, the current leader, was a particular, but by no means exclusive, focus. Rather the guys saw him as the most glaring example of the “tenderpreneurs,” government officials who help themselves to the contracts they oversee.

Drenched in honesty and pain, the discussion moved from touching on white gatekeepers who are letting a tiny number of black professionals into the fields of medicine and engineering to which they have dedicated their adult lives to the terribly low wages far too many South Africans earn to the 40 percent of South Africans who are unemployed to the ranks of their countrymen who arrive at age 30 without ever having had meaningful employment.

They also voiced concerns about how the patience of the people in these situations can last.

In a way, I heard echoes of 1995, when I heard many of the same worries about where the country was headed expressed by white people.

With my friends, though, there was a different element.

It came from a place of visceral disappointment, even betrayal, that the organization they had supported and the cause for which they had fought so hard and long had arrived at a place so distant from the egalitarian ideals on which the struggle had been based.

With apartheid, the opponent and path had been clear.

Now, both were far less so.

Vote for the Democratic Alliance, the descendant of the National Party? Work to reform the ANC from within? Put one’s efforts into mentoring young black profesionals?

The meal and the conversation wound down. One friend had to leave to drive home, while the others each had work the next day.

We all embraced before we left, more aware than ever before both of life’s finitude and the preciousness of engaging in soulful conversation with the same people with whom we had joyful memories.

The fate of the country remains uncertain.

But the bond of our friendship was fortified.

Grateful.

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