- If you turn on your hazards, you can stop your car wherever you want, whenever you want, for as long as you want. Even in traffic. Even on the highway. Even at night. I’ve seen a guy get halfway into a parallel parking spot (as in, back wheels in, front wheels in the road), decide he’d had enough of that, put on his hazards, get out of the car, and walk away. No problem.
- Mini-bus taxis have the right of way at all times. You may wonder, how can a mini-bus taxi have the right of way if it’s barreling towards me the wrong way down a one-way street? The answer is, have you ever tried playing chicken with a mini-bus taxi? You will not win.
- If a police officer starts to tailgate you aggressively with his lights on, you might think you’re about to be pulled over. Actually, he just wants to get around you.
- When a stoplight is out—and there will be at least one stoplight out on every drive you ever make that goes a distance of more than about three miles—treat it as a four (or six or eight) way stop. Except if a mini-bus taxi is at the intersection. Then observe rule #2.
- Lanes are there for a reason. Unless you’re driving downtown. Then they’re purely decorative and you should feel free to ignore them at all times.
- No left turns on red (unless you’re a mini-bus) and yield to traffic in roundabouts (unless you’re a mini-bus). So basically what I’m trying to say is you should probably just buy a mini-bus.
Once I was sitting in an Ethiopian restaurant on the roof of a house in Dakar, Senegal when I saw a swatch of fabric hanging from the banister. Was it…could it be? Yes. Something I had been wanting my whole life without even knowing it. Fabric with Barack Obama’s face all over it. The friends I was with saw it too, and when the waiter came back to take our order, all we could ask was, where can we get our president’s face made into an item of clothing?
The waiter put it to us straight, “in Ethiopia.”
For some reason, however, we were not deterred. The three of us spent the next two months trying to find someone in the city of Dakar selling Barack Obama face fabric. This wasn’t quite as outlandish of a mission as it sounds, considering we frequently saw people decked out in clothing patterned with other people’s faces (the president of Senegal, Jesus, etc). Mostly this mission meant wandering through a lot of busy markets and having the following conversation over and over again.
Us: Excuse me, do you know where we might find fabric with the face of Barack Obama on it?
Merchant: Barack Obama! I love Barack Obama.
Us: Yes, but have you seen fabric with his face on it?
Merchant: Barack Obama! He’s an African!
Us: But the fabric with his face?
Merchant: Hey everyone, look over here. I found some Americans. From America. They know Barack Obama.
Us: Wait. Uh. I think you may have misunderstood.
Throng of merchants now surrounding us: Barack Obama! Do you know Barack Obama? Will you marry me?
We never did find that Barack Obama fabric. But I came pretty close to making up for it last weekend when I found a woman at Orlando Stadium selling big pieces of this cloth with Nelson Mandela’s face all over it.
What I am I going to do with this fabric, you ask?
The same thing I’m going to do with this gigantic shirt that has the face of Chris Hani, the assassinated former leader of the South African Communist Party, on it. Wear it everywhere I go. Obviously. It may not be Barack Obama, but I’ll take it.
Before God and country I must confess, I am a failure as a blogger. I love reading blogs and so I always think I’m going to like keeping one too. And this one seemed like it had special promise, involving as it does my two favorite subjects in the world: South Africa and myself. But somewhere along the line I seem to have reverted to sharing poorly staged photographs and stream-of-consciousness ramblings. Which I suppose is nice if you’re into that kind of thing. But I thought for a change today I’d actually tell you what I’ve been up to recently. So if you can tear yourself away from a day-long retrospective viewing of Kim Jong-Il Looking at Things, here’s a recap of my December so far.
It started with me waking up one morning and saying, hey, I think I might like to fly across the country next week to look at some old newspaper articles about Nat Nakasa. And then I did. Fulbright is pretty strange that way. Anyway, I flew into Port Elizabeth, a city on the southeastern coast of South Africa, and then hopped on a bus from there to Grahamstown, a university town a couple hours inland. Then I spent three days shuffling old papers around in the archives of the National English Literary Museum and living in an alternate South Africa where there are sidewalks and people actually walk places. Even at night sometimes. It was like being in the Twilight Zone. The archive also had half hour staff tea breaks at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. each day, which, let’s face it, should probably just be mandatory for all people in the world everywhere in all circumstances at all times.
When I got back from Grahamstown, I took a trip to the U.S. consulate to have pages added to my passport so I can go to Mozambique and Zimbabwe in January. This made me feel pretty cool, at least until the consulate people demanded $80 for the highly skilled labor of taping 20 pieces of paper into my passport. Ah well. At least I didn’t have to spend any money on car repairs this month. And by didn’t I mean did.
But not very much. It’s actually been a pretty good month in Ruth The Car’s life. If I could only get her to stop spilling radiator coolant all over the floor of my passenger seat, I’d even be willing to call her a friend.
And she and I have been on some good drives this month. One day I got her up early to take me to Lenasia, a formerly Indians-only neighborhood south of Soweto (which is, in turn, south of Johannesburg, which is south of the northern suburbs where I live. So I basically had to drive to the bottom of the world and hope I didn’t fall off or anything, which I didn’t). Then I spent two hours interviewing one of the fiercest, funniest journalists I’ve ever met. She was one of very few women—and one of even fewer African/Indian/coloured women—who worked professionally as a writer in South Africa in the ’50s and ’60s, and basically the only one at the publication where Nat Nakasa worked, Drum magazine.
“Did you feel like the men you worked with treat you any differently because you were a woman?” I asked her.
“No,” she told me, “of course not. Anyway, I could drink them all under the table. Still can.”
“Were they protective of you?”
“Maybe they would have been if I had looked like I needed protecting.”
I also met her son and two grandsons, whose names were Mohammed, Mohammed, and Mohammed, respectively.
Then suddenly it was December 16.
December 16, you say, I love December 16!
Oh right. I forgot. We don’t have a holiday in the United States that used to commemorate the day that the Voortrekkers (aka the Afrikaner pioneers who settled the inland areas of South Africa in the mid-19th century) defeated the Zulu army in 1838, and has since been repackaged as some hokey New South Africa holiday called the Day of Reconciliation. (holy run-on sentence, batman!)
Anyway, I spent my Day of Reconciliation at a rally at Orlando Stadium in Soweto marking the 50th anniversary of the launching of the ANC’s armed movement, Umkhonto We Siswe (Spear of the Nation), which launched its first attack on December 16, 1961. There was lots of singing, lots of dancing veterans, and lots of rambling by our dear old president, Mr. Jacob Zuma. And then some guy asked me to marry him. The end.
The next day I went to the wedding of one of Nat Nakasa’s relative’s friends (got that?) in the township of Katlehong, which might be even further south than Lenasia and certainly has 100 percent more goats roaming the streets. And the directions I was given to get this wedding, in true South African fashion, were, “drive to the Katlehong exit on the highway. Then keep driving until you’re in the township. Then take a right at the light. Then take the next left. Then turn left at the BP garage and drive until you see a church with its own cross. Don’t turn at one of the other churches that don’t have their own cross. Turn at the one that does. Then drive until you see a tent. Then you’re there.”
I may or may not have gotten a bit lost.
But I finally made it (it started two hours late anyway). I got to witness a very elaborate and very cool ceremony in which the bride and her family entered the groom’s mother’s house and presented the family with a spread of traditional gifts, including a box big enough to fit a person in. That apparently symbolizes the fact that the bride wouldn’t leave this house/family again except in a coffin. No pressure or anything. Anyway, I also ate a lot and danced a lot and pretended to listen intently to a lot of speeches in Zulu. Basically what I’m trying to say is I had a great time.
So now it’s the week before Christmas and all the stores are closing forever (aka until January) and I’m counting down the days until Andrew Walker comes to visit (in 4 days, 6 hours, since you asked).
Life is good. Now here are some photos.
Rally at Orlando Stadium
A dancing granny at the wedding in Katlehong
The groom’s mother giving a speech (and wearing a cloak with the face of King Mswati III, king of Swaziland, on it)
What I was told were “traditional Zulu wedding cakes.” When the tradition of making big chocolate cakes in the shape of huts started is a question we may never have a good answer to.
Groom’s family’s house
The bride being escorted by her family into her husband’s house (she’s the one in the middle in the green dress. She changed out of her wedding dress and into that ensemble so she could enter her new family’s home in modest garb)
One of these things is not like the others…
- Anna: When is this movie due?
- Guy Behind Counter: [long pause] [thinking] I don't know, maybe tomorrow? or maybe Tuesday.
- Anna: Either one?
- Guy Behind Counter: Well, I don't want to pressure you or anything.