Jonathan Field - Maker of Random Stuff

First Day in Africa, Unedited

So for the first several days, I didn’t post because I didn’t have an internet connection. I wrote a lot, though. Now that I’ve got a connection, I wonder how much I should post. See, the problem at this point is that everything is novel, so I write an average of 4000 words per night (yes, this takes a long time). It’s just a brain dump; not well written, unfiltered. But at the suggestion of a friend I am going to try posting the first day anyways. Here it is:

– Getting Up

I woke up this morning at 8:30 AM in Kempton Park South Africa to the sound of my cell phone’s alarm. The phone wasn’t really a phone any more since it wasn’t able to connect to the local network, but it still made a nice portable alarm clock. I had a good night’s sleep but I was jet lagged enough that I didn’t want to get out of bed. The hotel promised breakfast at 9:00, though, so I only snoozed it once before getting up.

Aside from being tired, I felt great. The on-again-off-again illness from the past few weeks seemed to have subsided. There was also something about the air that I liked… it felt like I was in the fresh air even indoors. Maybe because the temperature and humidity were just perfect. I brushed my teeth and took a shower. The facilities were simple but nice. Plenty of water pressure in the shower. I’m a fan of water pressure in the shower. Then I packed my stuff for the day.

It took me a minute to figure out how to unlock the safety grate. For a moment I felt a bit like I had been put in a cage, but in an embarassing rather than a desperate sense.

The breakfast bar had cold cereal, milk, tea, and coffee. I thought that was all there was going to be, but after I had eaten my cereal, a young lady brought out the main course: it was similar to what they called a “Full Breakfast” in Scotland: two egges over easy, a pile of grilled ham, baked beans, a grilled tomato, toast, marmalade, orange juice, and yogurt. It was delicious and too much for me even to finish. Then they drove me to the airport.

I picked up my rental car without much trouble. It was a white VW Citi (which is just like the Golf). Being the cheapest car it had no air and a manual transmission. It also had some kind of automatic alarm system that triggered repeatedly as I loaded my stuff up. Open the trunk, it goes off. Close the trunk, it goes off. Open the driver’s side door five seconds after having silenced the alarm, it goes off. At least turning on the car didn’t seem to set it off.

Ready to go: I’ve driven on the left side of the road before when I was in Scotland. And I’m pretty good with a manual; my first car was a 5-speed. But I’d never driven a manual on the left side before. It did take a little while to get used to, but overall wasn’t as much of a problem as I feared at first. I don’t think I caused any major accidents, though I did get a few honks.

– Getting Lost

I headed towards Dundee, some 400 kilometers to the southeast.

As I cruised along, I saw Johannesburg in the distance. I took N3, a major divided highway, to the south before reaching it, though, and instead cut through some lovely African countryside. After a few kilometers I got on to R23, a smaller undivided but major road and continued south… or so I thought.

I was supposed to stay on R23 for a very long time… hundreds of kilometers. But after about 50 kilometers R23 disintigrated into a city center. I eventually ended up on a tiny road going through some industrial area. There were no other cars going my way, they had all turned off. I figured this was a bad sign. So I turned around and headed back to the city center to find what turn I might have missed.

The city was Benoni, and no matter how many circles I went in, it seemd that R23 basically ended right here. I couldn’t find it on the map that I had. It as a pretty busy little place, with the development level of a smaller US suburban town center. For the first time since I arrived, the population seemed almost entirely black.

Driving around I came across signs for Kempton Park, the same place I slept last night. I found that odd because I should have been pretty far south of there by now. I eventually gave up trying to find my way and pulled over to ask a couple white fellows who were loading up a truck. When I told them I was trying to get to Standerton (a landmark city on the way to Dundee), he looked at me like I’d sprouted grass from my ears.

“That’s a very long way from here,” he said. I told him that I understood it was several hours of driving. He seemed to think it was crazy to take R23 all that way, and suggested an alternate route. In describing it he kept talking about robots:

“You see that robot up there?”
“Yes,” I lied, hoping it would become clear.
“Turn right at that robot. Then you’ll pass four more robots.”

Eventually I realized that they call traffic lights “robots”. It’s even painted on the road sometimes: a big “ROBOT” written in three meter letters with an arrow pointing downstream. I like that.

I only understood the first part of the directions, but I figured it would get me on track, at least. Right before I took off, he said “You sound like an American, yeah? Be sure to keep your car doors locked and your windows rolled up alright?” This is advice I’ve read in several travel books, too. Though driving around town I didn’t see anything that made me feel unsafe, the constant warnings kept me from feeling relaxed. South Africa does have the second highest violent crime rate in the world. In a totally new environment, it’s hard to know when you’re in danger and when you’re not.

I followed the directions the fellow had given to me for a way, but then felt that I’d gotten off track again. So I looked for a gas station. In an effort to be smart and safe, I took my friend Aki’s advice: when in doubt, find places where there were women or children. I spotted some middle aged ladies coming out of one gas station convenience store, so I went there.

Basically everything at this point still looks just as developed as the US. The minimart is exactly as you’d expect. I grabbed some orange sparkling water from the refigerated cases out back and I asked the cashier for directions. He isn’t sure and calls over one of the pump attendants. He is more willing than the white fellow to guide me back to R23, and the directions are simple enough. I thanked him and went back on the road.

After another 30 minutes or so of driving, I realize that I got on R23 going the wrong direction, so basically I had come south on N3 and then gone right back north on R23 to where I had started that morning. It was now just after noon and I was finally on the right track.

– Getting There

Driving through the countryside felt great. The landscape at this point was pretty flat and reminiscent of the American midwest: lots of grain and grass and farmland. Some occasional cattle. The trees looked a little different; they were more squat and spread out than the trees back home. There are also a surprising number of pedestrians walking along the highways.

It was warm, but not hot. Still my back got sweaty against the seat. I kept the window cracked.

The major driving challenge didn’t have much to do with being on the left side. It was related to the fact that the road was just one lane in each direction and frieght trucks drive _very_ slowly, often only half the posted speed limit. What this means is that you have to do a lot of passing. US roads are such that I had forgotten about real passing, where you have to go into the oncoming traffic’s lane, at speeds around 120 kilometers an hour. It’s fairly unnerving to play chicken every few minutes. I would often forget to signal as I was doing the passing, and that caused at least a few of the aforementioned honks, as I’d almost hit the car coming up behind me that had decided to pass because they thought I wasn’t.

As I approached Standerton, I got to see some of the crummier local’s accomodations. I passed by several shantytowns; tiny living quarters of corrugated aluminum slapped together with wire, jammed so close they looked like one contiguous scrap pile. It was a different feeling to drive by them than to just see pictures. I felt more directly aware of all the people who called those little shacks “home”. Lots of those people were walking along the side of the road. Most of them were nicely dressed.

Standerton itself had a developed little center, but felt pretty run down. I got lost there a bit because of some bad signage and I ended up driving by the school just as the kids were coming out. It was mid afternoon now. I circled around and got back on track.

Volksrust was the next city. It was a good bit tidier than Standerton. On the way in there were even some relatively fancy looking track housing, like what one might find in a cheaper US suburb. They had some chain restaurants, including a KFC. I almost stopped, as I was getting pretty hungry at this point. But I decided to press on.

By the time I passed into KwaZulu-Natal province, the landscape had become much more hilly. It was really a lovely stretch of land, with lakes, rolling grassy hills, sprinkled with trees.

A little further on I passed the city of Newcastle, which was set off from the highway so I couldn’t get a good look. Mostly what I could see looked like power plants and factories of some sort. There was a very modern looking rest stop, and my hunger had gotten the better of me, so i pulled in. The local chain there was “Wimpy”, a sort of sit-down fast food place with sandwiches and fries. It looked so incredibly modern it seemed out of place with the parts I had just passed through. I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich with feta and pineapple and chips (fries). After ordering McDonald’s style, you sit down and they bring you the food on a real plate with silverware. They also gave me a newspaper. The meal was quite good for 26 rand… just under $4.

The final leg of my journey from there to Dundee was uneventful.

– Arrival

When I pulled into Dundee, I was a bit surprised how developed it was, and also how white. I really hadn’t know what to expect, but it seemed like an average small American town. I came to the store I was supposed to go to, Dundee Cellular, and parked. It was in what looked like a newer shopping plaza, with several other shops. The white owner, Peter, was there. He called Alan and Donna for me and I waited. His shop looked mostly like a DVD rental shop, including Playstation 2 games. He also sold cell phones and related goods. He showed me his laptop and high-tech cellular modem which seemed cooler and cheaper than anything I’ve seen in the US. US cell phones sucking seems to be a recurring theme in my travels.

Alan and Donna came in and we all hugged, and they took me over to their place, which was nearby.

They stay at a small trailer home in Peter’s back yard. He has this spare little place in his yard and he’s kind enough to let them use it. It’s inside an electric fence with an automatic gate, so it’s fairly secure. It has running water and all that, but it is pretty small and especially cramped with all of the computer stuff they’ve got around.

They told me a bit about the area, showed me the local paper. There is a sense that death is more a part of life. Largely because of HIV, which is worse in KwaZulu-Natal even than in the rest of South Africa. There are also a lot of car accidents (drunk driving), and though crime is not as bad as in Johannesburg, it is still a real problem. As Donna said “life is cheap here”.

We decided that for the first night at least, I’d stay here with them on a little convertible dining table/bed. Donna then sat down to do some work on her computer, and Alan and I went off in the car to take a peek around town.

– Exploring

He drove me to a nearby backpacker’s hostel, as cheap as it gets at only 70 rand ($10) per night. Shared bathroom and kitchen, but single private rooms. I may end up staying there.

Then we drove down Dundee’s main drag. It was dusk and Alan said that he wouldn’t walk through this area late at night. “You’d probably be safe 9 out of 10 times,” he said.

We looked at the Taxi rank, where taxi drivers line up and gather people for trips. These are longer distance trips, to nearby towns, in VW van sized vehicles. The ethos of customer service has yet to take over here, so the taxi drivers don’t have scheduled departures and they don’t drive partly empty vans. What happens instead is that they pull up and advertise where they’re going. Then you get in, and some point later when the van is full, perhaps several hours, they actually take off. Alan said this makes planning meetings with distant schools pretty difficult as the arriving teachers don’t have much control over their arrival time.

At this time of night, the taxi rank was pretty quiet. He said it is very active during the days. We drove through the center a bit more, and then we crossed over.

Driving out of the main town of Dundee there is a area where the modern structures stop. Then there is a couple block gap where there isn’t really anything. Then there is the township. This is where the blacks live.

Roughly speaking, Dundee proper probably has a population of about 5000. The township has another 15000 or so. During apartheid, Dundee was 100% white and the township was 100% black. Now Dundee is about 80% white and 20% black. But the township is still 100% black. These areas are commonly called “the location”. Most of the students to the schools we’ll be working with live in “the location”.

The actual name of the township is Sibongile (SEE-bong-EE-lay). It means “we give thanks” in Zulu. They will probably rename Dundee to Endumeni (EN-doo-MEN-ee) at some point, as part of the re-Zulu-fication of place names. This seems reasonable to me.

As we pulled in, Alan told me that pretty much no white person from Dundee ever comes out here. They’re too scared. There is a stop sign near the enterance, and some of Alan’s white friends from the area have said that stop sign terrifies them; they could never come to a stop there, for fear of being jumped. We stop. Nobody jumps us. We drive on.

As we pull in it is completely dark out, around 18:30, but streetlights give an impression of the area. The houses are tiny and a run down, though nicer looking I think than the aluminum mess I saw coming through Standerton. They are pushed very close together. There are lots of people walking along the streets.

“I don’t understand why the white folks are so frightened of this place, this is residential. It’s a neighborhood. Even at night, there’s kids and couples taking a stroll”. It’s true: though it is a run down area, it doesn’t feel that dangerous to me as parts of Dundee center. I see families.

– Night School

He pulls up to the school, a factorylike brick building. There are adult education classes going on. We go inside and he introduces to me to a couple people. They seem very friendly and happy to see him; he hadn’t visited this school yet on this trip, so it’s been 10 months since he’s come by. This is the first school they worked in, nine years ago now. He and Donna now work in about 30 area schools.

The people in this area are all Zulu, but they all seem to speak English as well, albiet with a thick Zulu accent. We chat with a couple of the administrators and teachers briefly, and meet one of the students too. The student actually has a hard time communicating with us, though he teaches me the Zulu handshake. Alan says later that he thinks that particular student might be a little developmentally challenged, though it’s hard for me to tell when the language and culture are so different to begin with.

One of the lady teachers is very friendly, she tells Alan about some problems they are having with the laser printer. Alan says the lasers always act up. He prefers the old dot-matrix-and-ribbon ImageWriters, which are nearly indestructable. She notices we’re wearing t-shirts and asks if we’re cold. This seems strange to me since it’s probably about 68 degrees out, but it’s all context. She then mentions that it was really hot last month and her chickens died. She jokes that they couldn’t handle the heat because they were English chickens, and that she needs to get some African chickens. Alan jokes back, “no, no, English chickens are the best”. I like that people seem pretty laid back about color and culture differences, despite the troubled past.

We leave the school and drive a bit more around the Zulu township. It’s completely dark except for the dingy street lights. It must be true that Alan is the only white person who comes out here, because even from a distance people spot us and yell out “Hi Alan!”. He can’t even tell who they are most times. But everyone remembers him.

He takes me by a friend’s house — one of the kids he’s seen graduate since he started this project. His name is Simangaliso Mbatha (sih-MAHNG-ah-LEE-soh em-BAT-ah). Alan thinks highly of him, he is a very bright young man who has a knack for calculus. Alan has seen a lot of promising kids crash and burn by this point, but Simangaliso has held it together so far. He’s in his early twenties.

He lives in a concrete block building, about three meters on a side. As we approach we walk between a couple other small dwellings in the dark, we hear talking inside and Alan calls out for him. In the next dwelling over, somebody gasps and rolls in bed, maybe woken from a tense dream, or perhaps caught off guard in some quintessentially human act.

Simangaliso comes out and says hi. He’s a small guy with an athletic build. A younger boy is in the home with him — he tells us he’s teaching his youngest brother some math. Apparently he does tutoring for many kids outside his family too. He’s got a no nonsense manner and comes across as a smart and straightforward.

The recent bad news is that he had to leave his teaching job. He had been working as an assistant at a school a ways from here, but they kept on stringing him along and never paying him. And then the teachers started getting angry at him because the kids liked him better than the main teachers. He ended up fearing for his life. Alan told him about another school, with a better reputation, that he might be able to work at.

Simangaliso says he is also thinking about starting up a lawn cutting business. Alan seems disappointed at this because of Simangaliso’s great talent with math and with teaching. Simangaliso responsds in an unusual way, “I like to cut the grass because I can think about whatever i want. When I’m teaching, I can’t think about anything.” It’s an interesting take, and though he admits teachers make much more than he would make cutting grass, I have to admit he’s better cutting grass if he actually gets paid. He says he plans to do a little of each, though.

– Dinner

We take off and head back to grab Donna before we go get dinner near the center of Dundee. There’s a new chain in town called “Spur” and I’d say it’s the South African equivalent of a low-rent Outback or so. Alan likes it because they have an all-you can-eat vegetable bar (hot and cold) for only 20 rand (about $3.00). Donna and I go big and get half a chicken and a “cheddamelt” burger respectively, for almost double that price. There is only one other group in the restaurant, an Indian family.

Our waitress is a pretty Zulu girl who seems gentle and sweet. Her name is Mbala (em-BA-la), which means “Rose”. Like any chain sit-down restaurant there is the birthday song singing tradition, and there happens to be a birthday right across the room. The staff, all Zulu, run over to sing and clap, except our waitress, who tries to take our order over the noise. “Why don’t you go sing?” I ask jokingly. Her eyes light up and she runs over to sing with the group.

They do two songs, one in English, one in Zulu, but neither traditional, according to Alan. When our waitress comes back, Alan asks if she knows any traditional Zulu birthday songs. She seems shy for a second but smiles and says that she does. Alan and Donna only have to ask once and she breaks right into a lively song right there! After singing to us she laughs and goes off.

When she comes back later, Alan and Donna say that they owe her a song, so they start singing to her — in Zulu! It’s a lovely piece with two part harmony. The waitress is so excited she waves two of her friends to come over. They seem to love that Alan and Donna know one of their traditional songs. Then the three of them, two girls, one guy, sing us another Zulu song that involves three parts. It is passionate and touching, a little magic taking place right at our table.

When they are done, the boy asks Alan to sing an American song, which he does: an old traditional fisherman’s work song called “Rosianna”, which he encourages everyone to sing along on the chorus. Wonderfully, they all do, as do Donna and I. The guy even improvises some harmony. Donna reminds Alan that the waitress’s name means “Rose” in Zulu. So Alan plays it up and replaces “Rosianna” with “Rose”, causing the waitress to blush and laugh. They seemed to like the song, and even after they leave the table smiling, we hear them singing the chorus to themselves as they do their work.

It’s a magic moment that couldn’t happen back home in 33 years. At least in my experience.

We come back to the trailer, and prepare some computers for tomorrow. I write in my journal for a couple hours. Everything today was new and interesting. I have to write as much as I can down right away as it seems like every day will be filled with surprises for a while.

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5 Responses to First Day in Africa, Unedited

  1. That’s a really nice image of everyone singing ‘Rosianna’ in the restaurant. I agree with your mysterious friend, that you should post whatever you can. I will certainly read it all. Everyone should be so lucky that their ‘unfiltered’ thoughts and memories are half as coherent as yours!

  2. Excellent visual imagery. That stop sign in particular sounds troublesome. Don’t worry about coherency right now – it makes for a fascinating read.

  3. Your posts are wonderful to read (with pictures now, too! yay!). I’d been oddly enough reading them backwards; now that I’m online again, I’m rereading chronolgically. *g*

    Anyway, the moments you share give a really nice flavor to the posts (if that makes sense?). Like the others said, nice imagery. : )

    p.s. 4000 words a night? You’d breeze through NaNoWriMo in November. ; )

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