Of Wounds and Wonders
10.03.2009 - 10.08.2009 75 °F
Like us, maybe you've long loved South African jazz and choral singing. Maybe you’ve read the country's amazing novelists, poets, and filmmakers, white and black and “colored” (or mixed race), even teaching their work. You have dear South African friends in the States or abroad. You watched from afar and maybe even worked for the ending of apartheid’s cruelty. So you feel like you must have something like a foothold in the place, its history, and its cultures.
Even so, Caroline and I were humbled to realize the enormity of what we didn’t know and to discover how painful and raw that history still feels “on the ground.”
As soon as we docked in the glitteringly high end Victoria and Alfred waterfront, we hosted three writers for a presentation to, and conversation with, a group of our students.
One of these passionate writers, Thembelani Ngeloni, had written a book about having been shot and left to die. We were eager to learn about future prospects for South Africa from him and our other two guests, the talented young novelist Maya Fowler and the distinguished older writer Sindiwe Magone, whose account of the Fulbright student Amy Biehl’s murder by anti-apartheid activists is a new one-woman play. What hope do these authors see for turning the murder and rape capital of the world into a safer place? How do they think the desolate state of education in the townships can be turned around? How could the enormous divide between rich and poor be bridged? Ardent about change though they were, these writers were also bitter about hopes betrayed by an ineffective postapartheid government that has seemed incapable of addressing these and other profound problems. During our stay, we kept wondering how long it would take any government to overcome hundreds of years of injustice and racial ugliness. Fundamental economic change began to seem a lot harder than political democratization.
That first afternoon, we bought some internet time by sipping tea in the fabulously posh hotel just adjacent to the ship. The five of us felt distinctly underdressed and out of place in that waterfront cathedral to white wealth and privilege. From there we walked to the center of town to make our first acquaintance with the nation's legislative capital, stopping for ice cream for the boys.
As soon as we left the touristic enclave of the waterfront, the empty buildings and streets on a Saturday afternoon made us feel no less uneasy than the hotel had--and even fearful. The divide between those Cape Town streets and that hotel made us wonder if we were stumbling between completely irreconcilable worlds.
For us, maybe most surprising about Cape Town was its stunning natural beauty. Few places in the world have that spectacular combination of mountains rising several thousands of feet out of the sea, with a city sprawling at its feet. That was already evident even as we approached by sea.
On our second day we got to know Table Mountain more intimately, hiking up its backside with a hardy SAS group.
The magnificent rocky crags above us were at first shrouded in fog, but as the sun pierced through, they seemed spotlit by the heavens.
I couldn’t stop taking dozens of pictures of the breathtaking views down into the Cape Peninsula, with its many coves and rugged peaks and the shimmering ocean.
The heroic boys didn’t whimper or lag behind for a moment on this demanding trek, despite the steep incline and even some ladders. They loved the challenge.
Our guides taught us about the history of the land and its beautiful flowering protea and other fire-germinated fynbush (or fine bush) flowers and trees and grasses.
The boys squealed with hilarity on the revolving cablecar we took down. Four and a half hours up, four minutes down.
From our cabin balcony, we looked back at the mountain we'd just hiked, covered with its famous "tablecloth."
Once off the mountain, we plunged into the depths of the sea. Well, not quite. But by popular demand, we did visit the Two Oceans Aquarium, where the big tanks made the boys feel as if they were floating in sea currents with enormous fish and tortoises and even sharks.
Our third day, we took the ferry to the notorious prison hell of Robben Island.
I’d been reading to my class from the poet Dennis Brutus’s descriptions of the vicious treatment he and other prisoners endured especially in the 1960s, when beatings and rape by prison guards were common, as was horrific forced labor in the lime pit and stone quarry, the relentless breaking and carting of stones.
Our guide, a former political prisoner himself, took us to see Nelson Mandela’s solitary cell in the maximum security prison.
He talked about his four years spent packed with 40-70 other political prisoners per room. It wasn’t till I asked him at the tour’s end that he divulged why he was there—namely his involvement in the military wing of the ANC in the 1980s, including training other fighters in the use of weapons and planting a bomb in a police station. He was born the same year as me and Caroline, which had to make us think, what would we have done under those degrading and dehumanizing conditions?
Back from the ferry, we spent our afternoon in two museums. The first was the South African Museum, where we saw lots of natural and handmade items, including beautiful cave paintings by the San people.
The second was the Jewish Museum, site of the old great synagogue and exhibits about the hundreds of thousands of Jews who came to South Africa from Europe, some to thrive in its business world, others like Helen Suzman to fight bravely the disgusting apartheid system.
Our fourth day was spent with the Amy Biehl Foundation, established after the young American Stanford graduate, who had come to South Africa to help in the transition to democracy, was dragged out of her car and stabbed to death by four anti-apartheid protesters in a township. She was murdered by the very people she was working vigorously to help. The foundation’s president, an ex-banker named Kevin Chaplin, is a gifted speaker who persuaded us that the foundation is channeling all of its money to the direct benefit of the children who are its focus. Most mind-bending of all was our meeting with two of Amy’s killers, among other staff members. They now work for the foundation, having been transformed in part by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the radiant forgiveness of Amy’s parents. Here's one of them with us, awkward though it was to pose like this together.
Needless to say, it was quite something for the kids, as it was for us, to try to grapple with the multiple ironies and strange twists of this story.
Next we ate a traditional Xhosa meal in a township restaurant, grabbing with our bare hands from platters of barbecued meat and from bowls of a pasty, grits-like cornmeal. Cy couldn’t figure out what to do without a napkin.
After that, we visited three different township schools where the foundation has worked. Our kids mixed with some of the eager students.
In the first, we saw the vegetable garden and green beautification project in an otherwise desolate and nearly leaf-free township. In the other two, schoolchildren performed amazing dance routines they’d been taught in afterschool programs run by the foundation.
Other groups of students included fabulous marimba players, a brass band, poets, and a choral group. So much talent and hope! Despite our misgivings about the foundation’s crystallization around a white American, it’s doing amazing work that we'd like to support.
What’s most unlike these shantytowns? Maybe the abundant wildlife on a safari. Our next day we crossed that divide again, taking a several hour bus ride to the Inverdoorn Game Reserve. We chose it because it was the least expensive of all the SAS safaris (one tenth the cost of some of the several day safaris that others took in the national parks). It was a short two hours or so of safari, but we saw some amazing sights.
As we rode in our jeep, we saw cheetahs lolling about and slowly blinking like big sleepy housecats.
We spotted a pair of white rhinos that looked like giant boulders before they stood up. A herd of wildebeest galloped at furious speed just feet in front of our jeep, as zebras sped along at fantastic speed on the other side of our vehicle.
Gracefully stretching their necks into the trees, giraffes ingeniously wrapped their tongues around the thorns on the native thorn tree to extract leaves.
Our last sighting was of the lions, including a male with a magnificent mane.
That wasn’t all—we also saw a puff adder, antelopes, springbok, etc.—animals thrilling to see at close range, with nothing between us and them except the chilly air.
Yes, strangely enough, we froze on our safari (and Caroline is now sniffling as a result). It’s early spring here, a fact that came home to me with special force when I saw a dogwood tree in bloom. Huh? It’s October, and the dogwoods are blooming and there are new leaves on the trees? My brain folds in on itself trying to make sense of that.
We debated, after all this exhaustion, whether to do anything ambitious on our sixth and final day. Frankly, I pushed a bit, and finally persuaded everyone we should take full advantage of our time here. So we hired a taxi driver for the day to drive us down and around the Cape Peninsula. He had the great idea of taking us first to "World of Birds," a bird sanctuary that's said to be the largest in Africa. The variety of birds was beyond anything we could have expected. Among the most amusing to the boys were the multicolored, screeching turkeys, as you'll see in the video clip below this picture.
We took a catamaran out to Seal Island, where, surprise, surprise, there are hundreds of seals on boulders crashed by waves.
The boys were thrilled to eat much-long-for hamburgers in a restaurant where Caroline and I savored grilled calamari. That place is conveniently adjacent to a large African Penguin colony, a protected site where thousands of these endangered birds waddle amid massive granite boulders.
Finally, we drove all the way to the end of the peninsula to Cape Point, stopped only by some baboons in the road.
Once there, we hiked up to the old lighthouse that overlooks waves thundering hundreds of feet below. There it is, the Cape of Good Hope. There it is, the graveyard of many ships. There it is, almost as close as you can get to the meeting place between two great oceans. The very tailbone of Africa.
I got some grief for pushing and pushing our band of five forward, from site to site, place to place, so that we were half dead by the time we boarded the ship. As we watched the glittering lights of Cape Town recede, the silhouette of Table Mountain barely visible in the night sky, I think we all felt we’d overdone it. But then again, for me at least, it would have been hard to give up any one of the extraordinary experiences of those six very full days. The boys have a new favorite country outside the US: the wild animals, the stunning mountains, even the US-style shopping malls appealed to them. Caroline and I love it too, but with South Africa’s racial tensions, its sectioning off of townships from affluent suburbs, its violent gun culture, and its vast economic inequities, we also see in this nation the twisted mirror of our own massive problems at home. Indeed, for all that we learned about the evils of the singular system of apartheid, South Africa’s resemblances to the American South 50 years ago, let alone the North’s inner cities cheek by jowl with affluent high rises, had us constantly rethinking what we thought we knew about our own country.