Laboring up Buitenkant Street after school in the evenings is a privilege, as Table Mountain towers ahead and above, beckoning and repelling. The cloud layers change frequently. At times, it is a giant granite cauldron, oozing potion upon the city.
The mountains that encircle my home in the City Bowl District of Cape Town are all marked by evocative “Where the Wild Things Are” names. Devil’s Peak, Lions Head, and The Twelve Apostles all take their seats around Table Mountain, the landmark of the city. They’re helpful when navigating your way around the city, and I like to picture them personified (or animal-ified?). Sometimes they come to life at night as chess pieces strategically surrounding the checkerboard city. Other times, they are an epic-sized Davinci painting. What do they talk about up there?
The more I pondered, the more I thought that somebody somewhere should have illustrated this by now. To the rescue…
This is becoming a trend. I may not finish another paper all year.
They say that the best thing a preacher can do is end on time. Apparently, I’ve forgotten my training as my first of ten Rotary presentations went about 10 minutes over on Monday. Therein lies the problem of telling time by your cellphone.
My presentation was about three things: Who I am, Why I am in South Africa, and Where I am from (United States, Kentucky, Louisville). I enjoyed the opportunity to talk about each. For years, I’ve been telling anyone who would listen about how great my hometown is. Summing up who I am in a few slides is a bit more difficult.
Here’s what I did: 1) My family. 2) My education. 3) My Life’s Mission (summed up with in hebrew scripture). 4) Vagabonding. 5) My program in South Africa. 6) My goals for being in South Africa. (I also tossed in a Walt Whitman verse, but will cut it next time.)
If you had 5 slides, how would you tell about yourself? Let me know in the Comments section below. I’ll insert the best idea into my next presentation…
To their credit, everyone seemed very interested in what I had to say and asked a lot of questions. The most popular slide, judging by the number of questions, was an ancestry map that I obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau. It assigns a color to each county based on the ancestry with the largest population. For example, Suffolk County (Boston) is purple for Irish (we must assume green had been taken).
It’s a pretty fascinating representation of the ethnic/cultural smorgasbord that is the U.S. Which image presents a better analogy: the popular melting pot ideal, all cultures blending into one, or the salad bowl, each culture remaining distinct in a pluralist society?
The lowlight was when I showed a clip of Muhammad Ali, and someone asked whether it was Julius Malemma, the embattled ANC Youth League leader.
After an average day’s drills of chucking the ball around and seeing who can kick it furthest, we split our group of 10 kids into two teams to play a match. Now, I know very little about rugby tradition or pre-game preparation, but it seems that my team (who named themselves the Stormers, after Cape Town’s team) had an organic sense of how it works.
First, you stand around in a circle and talk about whatever comes to mind (as long as it has nothing to do with the game), then you take off your shirt and start taunting the other team.
Pre-game taunting has a long tradition in rugby. For those of you who are either American or have not seen the movie Invictus, there is one team in particular that is well known for their pre-game intimidation: the New Zealand All-Blacks. The Haka is a cultural tradition originating with the Maori people that the New Zealand rugby team performs before important matches. Simply put, it’s a war dance, and pretty intimidating at that. Watch a clip here.
Spontaneously, the Stormers began what I can think of no better name for than the Khayelitsha Haka. They all began moonwalking, grabbing their crotches, singing and dancing like Michael Jackson.
I wish I had had my camera, because my boys were pretty impressive. Lacking that, I’ve photoshopped (instead of working on a paper) what I imagine it must have looked like:
No matter where I go in Cape Town, the question is on the lips of everyone I meet. As soon as they find out that I am American, they immediately turn to it, sometimes interrupting all prior conversation to have their concerns addressed. It is inexorable and slightly predictable: “How is your fantasy baseball team?”
Fortunately, I no longer need to struggle over an answer. My fantasy baseball league, The Diaspora, now has its own blog page. Yes, apparently we are just that dorky and ridiculous. Or, to take the positive view, committed to fostering and maintaining community from worlds away. A couple of my friends from grad. school have begun doing weekly podcasts to get ready for the upcoming fantasy league draft (you all knew it was close, right?). I’m set to appear on this week’s podcast via Skype. It should be available soon, here.
On the mountain, he was like a springbok, quickly darting ahead of other hikers and bouncing to the top. On the descent, the shoes came off and he stopped to make jokes and/or playfully insulted everyone we passed. He’s the type of guy who gets away with saying anything he wants because he is so eminently personable and charismatic. He’s the perfect guy to show me Khayelitsha, not least of which because he wrote a book about it.
When I first moved to Cape Town, a former housemate described a book he had bought at the airport when he arrived. “Khayelitsha,” he said, “It’s about a white South African who moved to the largest township in Cape Town. I was instantly enthralled. Two weeks later, my head was filled with the stories of his experience and my spirit was buoyed by the idea that it was possible to break the extant color lines and transcend the barriers between the two distinct worlds of South Africa. So I did what anyone would do, I stalked the author.
I had a few minutes before a Thursday evening class, and I felt a peculiar inflection in my stomach as I pressed “Call” on my phone. I chastised myself for my timidity. “What is wrong with you?” A dropped call, a series of text messages, and a few days later, I’m riding in the car toward Table Mountain with Steven and a Scotsman named Ray. After setting the Table in the morning, we were headed to Khayelitsha that afternoon.
A book is a powerful thing. Steven’s story of his friends in Khayelitsha is no different than if I were to write one of mine. But reading about Steven’s friends in a book transforms real people into mythological characters. Visiting Khaye was like visiting Narnia. My imagination had turned everyone into celebrities. I had a recurring desire to ask for autographs.
Yet, the initial celebrity awe was only a tiny part of the experience. As we walked the dusty streets and alleyways past metallic shacks, I felt liberation at the annihilation of cultural safety zone of Cape Town. As we sopped up meat sauce with white bread, shared liters of Coke and beer at the shebeens, and met the families of some of our new friends, I was overcome by acceptance and community—community that quickly transcended the superfluities of normal day-to-day interactions.
Steven’s friends were quick to become our friends. They shook our hands, gave us hugs, bought us beer. One gave me a bottle of wine from his house to take home with me (turning western etiquette on its head). My phone is loaded with new phone numbers. Occasionally, strangers even approached with questions or just to shake my hand. The banana vendor at the fruit market gave us a bunch to welcome us to the town. A random guy purchased us beer.
Playing pool in a shebeen barely large enough to hold the table and hot enough to fry meat, I am overwhelmingly hopeful. Compared to the shopping malls of the southern suburbs and the clubs of Long Street, this is a deep, satisfying, life-giving breath.
I am prone to romanticize, especially regarding this type of context. The level of poverty cannot be exaggerated, and I am sure that I was shielded from the depths of it by the nature of my time there. The shacks were precariously built, some teetering at the edge of destruction. The fruit market was constructed completely of palettes. Most homes were without toilets. The informal economy thrived. But it is instructive to note that I didn’t sense poverty. The only thing greater than the destitution was the determination of individuals, through their community to rise above it. In much of my previous experience, the poorer the people in material wealth, the greater their net wealth and consequently, their kindness to others. It makes the words of Jesus ring true, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” I have much to learn about community.
Walking in the city at night is like a giant game of Pac-Man. You’re keenly aware of the stories and the hair on your arm raises as you turn the corner. That person lurking in the shadows is a purple ghost that chases you onto the next screen. You make hard ninety degree turns and rush up an alleyway only to abruptly do an about face and hurry back the way you came. If a child were to trace your route, it would look like scribbles on the paper. Diagonally across the lawn, speed walking to the corner, a spontaneous choice to cross the street to take advantage of the streetlight. If only you could find a power pill for that burst of invincibility to escort you home.
The sun is hot, the air like an oven. It pools around your head and rains sweat. Thoughts rustle and swim in the pool of heat: articles to read, essays to write, decisions to make about cars and housing, grocery lists, phone calls and presentations and vocation… A stiff breeze pushes the heat through the gate as I perform the familiar song and dance to pacify the numerous locks and alarms…. And I’m free.
Like Michelangelo working with a stone to set it free, sculpting it to become itself as eternity has determined it to be, there are certain places I have to find for a city to become home. That special coffee shop. The local pub. A quiet place for meditation. And a running route.
I have found my running route. And I’ve never been so content with running. Typically, running is a chore, something I know that I need to do, and should do, but don’t enjoy. In Cape Town, I crave my daily jog. I’ve become an addict. Sometimes, I use a new route to explore a new part of the city. Just as often, I cut across town above the city to my favorite path, the one that circles the giant Molteno Reservoir and shoots off into De Waal Park where dogs frolic and chase tennis balls.
Behind me, the cable car climbs Table Mountain its wire with alacrity and speed, racing in front of a burst of yellow as the sun makes its last charge behind the mountain. The city expands below into the bay and I can read the corporate names on the buildings. The waterfront is hazy from this distance, disguising the large freighters and dark blue bay.
I have begun to know even the cracks in the pavement. Its quite the yeoman’s tour of Cape Town: