Jonathan Field - Maker of Random Stuff

I wake up pretty late, probably around 10AM. Though on some days I work hard, I still think of this as a vacation, and I feel good lazing around. I don’t feel like getting up so I stay in bed and watch Hotel Rwanda. Wow, what an excellent film. As generally compassionate and world aware as I am, I think I must be picking up an extra connection by being on this continent, as this film brings me to tears more than once. The closing credits song which asks “Why can’t we be the United States of Africa” echoes a sentiment I’ve felt myself here several times. We may feel deep divisions at home, but we are lucky as hell to be as together as we are. On the positive side, South African Zulus, Sotho, and Xhosa people seem to get along with each other, as well as the Indians and Afrikaners too. I mean, there are little tensions at times, but in comparison to the Hutu and Tutsi of Rwanda, it’s a rainbow paradise.

I step out into the yard to get a little sun and exercise. It feels good, though I’ve still got a sleepy head and I almost pass out at one point after stretching and standing up too fast. My body knows it’s on vacation. I enjoy the African grass under my bare feet, the perfect air breezing by, and the gentle fall sun.

I make a tuna sandwich for lunch with the last of my bread and onion. Then I write for a bit and take a nap. After I awake I decide to do some real planning for Sophie’s visit. I start with trying to find a place at Drakensberg park. There are a variety of accommodations there, and since we’ll be going low rent here in Dundee for the second half of her stay, I figure we’ll start out someplace nice. I find a nice place with what looks to be excellent views and activity options, and verify that we’ll be able to get a massage. I feel like I could use one today, and I’m sure I could benefit from one next week as well, after we do some hiking.

Alan comes by and we talk about the plans for tonight. Donna spotted a sign at the Pick-n-Pay that indicated a singing show at the Glencoe town hall tonight, performing isicathamiya (is-CAH-tah-ME-ah), which is traditional Zulu acapella music as I’ve heard a bit of here and there.

I agree to meet them at the trailer in a few, right after I complete making reservations. When I get there, Donna has made another lovely rice and bean salad. I love the stuff, and have grown to think of it as a sort of ultimate food. I must learn to make it like she does. We enjoy that and then drive off to the show. We grab Zenzo first.

When we arrive at the Glencoe town hall, there are no cars, and only about four people standing out front. The show is scheduled to start at 8PM, and it is 7:30. So we wait in the car and chat.

Actually, there is some confusion about the start time: the sign said 8:00 to 23:00, which taken normally here would mean an all-day event. However, talking to the other folks waiting, it sounds like they really meant 8PM, which should have been written 20:00 to 23:00. Good thing we didn’t come any earlier… we had considered coming in the afternoon!

By 8PM one other car has come by, and now there are about eight or nine people waiting out front. We decide to head into the hall and look around. There is nobody else inside, but the stage is set up beautifully with white and yellow sheer fabrics and plants. There’s over 300 chairs.

Since it’s quiet, Alan jumps up on stage and leads the four of us in a few rounds of Roseanna. Then we take our seats.

We wait for a while, and some of the people out front walk through and say “hi”. Interestingly we meet the young computer teacher again, the one we bumped into a few days ago in Dundee center when I was buying my guitar capo. It does seem like we bump into people we know pretty often.

The four of us chat, and Alan tells us a little more about the Dundee Voices of Joy, which is really how he got connected to this area in the first place. Here is my understanding of the story:

Sometime in the early nineties, when Ladysmith Black Mambazo had achieved great success in the US, someone in the Dundee area came up with the idea of sending the local singing group, Dundee Voices of Joy, to America to do a tour. They were a talented group of 18 at the time, and the idea was that they would be able to make good money doing this. So the project began to bring them to the US.

Many Dundee people loaned money to fund the project. It was an amazing and wonderful thing for these small town folks from such a disadvantaged region to come together and send their local music group to the US. It was however partly fueled by an over estimation of the opportunities that were available in America. I think that they may have viewed, and largely still view, America as a land of limitless opportunity. Though perhaps the US is one of the closest nations to that ideal, we know well enough that not everyone has a wonderful life there.

Nonetheless, they came. They ended up in New England, and were working with a small time choral leader. Alan and Donna were part of the American choral group that this fellow led. He recounts how he first saw them. His group was all in the church for a rehearsal when the Voices of Joy arrived. They had just traveled by plane for probably more than a day, then taken a bus from New York to Boston, and finally arrived at this church filled with white people and not knowing anyone. They were tired, out of their element, and having just come from a nation where Apartheid was a very recent memory. The 18 of them took seats in the church and formed a little huddled group by themselves. They were in their early twenties. They must have been pretty scared.

Alan thinks back now, that he wished he had gone right over and broken the ice. But he was just a member of the chorus and didn’t really know what was going on. I think he’s more than made up for not breaking the ice on that particular occasion.

The group traveled around New England and performed, but was only attended by small numbers of people. Money was coming in, but not enough. Often they could not afford rooming so they’d sleep in the pews of the churches where they had sung. It certainly wasn’t the immediate road to riches that they had probably envisioned.

At the end, Alan described a scene where he came by and found the choral leader talking with the group. He was telling them that they hadn’t made any money, but they didn’t understand how that was possible and were convinced he was ripping them off somehow. Alan was on the sidelines, and knew the choral leader well; he certainly wasn’t ripping them off, and was in fact infusing money into the tour out of his own pocket to keep things going. Alan was quiet for the moment, though.

Eventually the choral leader lost his patience with being accused and burst out with expletives. He yelled at them that he wasn’t a thief and he even took a small musical keyboard and smashed it on the desk. It shattered and a piece went flying, hitting the cheek of one of the Dundee singers, causing a small bleeding cut. He then stormed out of the room, and Alan was left there standing against the wall with the group.

I joked that at that point I’d probably apologize and get out of there.

But Alan engaged them and talked with them and tried to find some way to smooth things over. He assured them as well he could that the choral leader hadn’t swindled them, and that they just had to work with the amount of money that they had now. It wasn’t even enough to pay back the loans they had taken in Dundee, and certainly not enough for any of them to get paid. Some of them didn’t have the money for a return flight home.

Eventually they came up with a plan to pay back the loans 50%, and for each member to get a small payment of around $150. Surprisingly, they were able to sell this plan to the people back in Dundee, and that made things a little better.

Three of them weren’t able to fly home at that time though. They stayed with members of the choral group and did odd jobs to save up for a return ticket. Alan says that the people they worked for were quite generous, and that for those few, a tiny bit of the American Dream of easy money seemed true, however unrealistic and unmaintainable it was.

One of the boys decided to stay; it is unlikely he had a resident alien card, so he was probably just lived as an illegal. He took to performing in the Boston subways, and eked out a living as such. Alan said he sees him every few years and they catch up. The last time he saw him was in the subway, they spotted each other, Alan in the train and the fellow performing on the platform, just as the doors closed. They waved and the train took off. That was a few years ago. Alan says the fellow moves a lot, so it’s hard to stay in touch with him, but last he heard he was doing alright. He managed to go to the Berkley School of Music, in fact. He has a kid and is married to a Boston Latina.

The Voices of Joy disbanded sometime after they returned home. I’ve met a couple of them, and I imagine I’ll meet more tomorrow night at the little reunion that Alan is trying to pull together.

It is now almost 9PM and still there is no show and basically no audience. A security guard comes in and asks us to leave so he can lock up. He says they are going to the location to check on the head guy who is supposed to be running this. Alan and Donna say that it’s not a good sign that the show will go on, so we decide to leave. They say it’s not uncommon for events to be late or cancelled. It seems very sweetly sad that all this came together but didn’t come together. Someone put up the money to rent the hall, but without a show there was no admission collected to help cover that. Looking at the bright decorations on the stage now makes me feel sad.

Before we go we make pretend we’re enjoying a rousing concert. Then the four of us sing a quick round of “This Little Light of Mine” in improv harmony, and head out. The last handful of people by the front door heard us, and they laugh and applaud as we go by.

We drive home and note that we enjoyed ourselves anyways. We’re an easy crowd.

To keep from breaking off too early on a Saturday night, I suggest we hit the 24 hour shop and get some ice cream. Everyone agrees and so we do. Much like at home, the 24 hour shop becomes a bit of a hangout for the local youth on a weekend night. We go in and get some tasty frozen snacks. The place also has a little deli counter that serves curry and such.

As we eat our goods out front, a sudden bit of drama: a young security guard who has been standing by the front door suddenly takes off like a bolt. He is waving a rubber whip over his head and sprinting after a teenage boy who must have been shoplifting or something. They dash across the parking lot at a truly astonishing speed. Just as the runner pulls ahead and the security guard slows in defeat, the runner trips and tumbles over the pavement. The security guard picks up his pace again and comes after the boy swinging his whip. They disappear around the corner of a building. I look around and all the folks hanging out are watching. A moment later, though, we’re all back to normal and the security guard returns shaking his head and wrapping up his rubber whip.

As we leave a little later, Zenzo identifies a couple of the ladies as being prostitutes. Alan asks where they do their business, Zenzo says they just get picked up here and take care of things right in the car.

We drop off Zenzo, who tells us that tomorrow Sunday won’t be a good day to come to the church. They have decided to have it off-site and so it won’t be in Dundee or Sibongile, in fact he doesn’t think he’ll be able to go himself. So we decide we’ll go another time.

Before Donna and Alan go back to the trailer, we chat for a bit in the car. This weekend there was the Endumeni fair here in Dundee. Basically a small set of rides and attractions, including a small firework display. It ran Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. They recount going on some earlier year, and watching the ferris wheel being repaired with an arc welder between rides.

The tell me that Thabani and his friend were supposed to perform at the fair. They were given admission all day (which does not include rides) in exchange for doing a musical performance. However, they ended up not performing because the lady organizing that bit didn’t get them into the schedule properly. She ended up yelling at them for getting free tickets, which they then returned, though at that point they had been there for the better part of the day anyways.

Alan muses how disappointments like that are very common here, and that folks must build up a tough skin, or less optimistically a bit of self delusion to keep from getting discouraged.

I head back to backpackers and turn in.

Some random things I learned in our chats today:

Zenzo’s full first name is actually Zenzozabapostole (ZEN-zo-zab-ah-post-OH-lay). It means “Acts of the Apostles”. But even his ID card just says Zenzo because it is just too long.

Zenzo, in Zulu tradition, is not able to go to his girlfriend’s house since they are now more or less engaged. One normally cannot spend time at the house of a girl you are interested in, only with platonic friends. This seems odd to me since at this point, with a baby on the way, they’ve already been spending non-platonic time together. But such is tradition: it doesn’t have to make sense or even provide a clear benefit to stick around. People just seem to like traditions.

Turns out that the girl is allowed to visit the boy’s place before marriage. I guess it is based on the idea that when they get married the girl is moved from her family to her husband’s. That’s what the labola is for, to sort of “buy” the girl from her family.

On one of the school rosters that Zenzo saw this week, there was a kid named, literally, “plastic bag of sand” in Zulu. This gave Zenzo and us a good laugh.

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2 Responses to

  1. Good African Movie

    Have you seen The Last King of Scotland? It’s all about Idi Amin and his regime. A common theme in African movies is the new guy promises reform, and then turns out to be at least as corrupt as his predecessor.

    • Re: Good African Movie

      I haven’t seen it, but I’ll check it out. That theme is disappointingly common. Taken in context, the South African government’s success is nothing short of astonishing. So as much as there are some terrible policies and small scale corruption, I have to give them credit for doing what seems to be better than nearly any other post-colonial African nation.

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