Alan comes by in the morning and asks if I want to accompany him to visit a friend, Lakele. He’s a college aged young man that Donna and Alan helped with tuition. Like so many efforts to help, it met with less than absolute success.
I’ve been away from the day to day of African culture for a while, so I am happy to dip back in. We drive out to The Location and pull up to the fellow’s house. He normally lives down in Durban, but is visiting for the weekend with his family. Though he is still going to college, Alan and Donna have backed off from direct financial help because there was some drama involving his borrowing some money from Simangaliso and never paying it back.
Alan has expressed some displeasure at the situation, as did Simangaliso the other night when the topic came up. Though Lakele had been in town for a few days he hadn’t made a strong effort to contact Alan or Donna, and there was some suspicion that he might be avoiding them. But when we arrive and meet him he seems welcoming and in good spirits, and happy to see us. He is thin with an angular but pleasant face, adorned with a small bit of facial hair; a thin mustache and goatee. He is doing work study at school.
As we come in and sit down, we also meet his sister. She looks in my estimation to be fifteen, judging by her slender form and delicate round face. But she is also in college in Durban doing work study. She is pretty and a touch demure, wearing a tasteful knit sweater and a tight kerchief over her close cropped hair. We learn that she is studying mechanical engineering, and is enjoying it.
The four of us sit and chat for a bit, and it seems they are both doing well, making a little money doing the same type of work they are studying. As we ask questions it becomes apparent that Lakele and his sister don’t talk that much. Despite going to what I believe to be the same school, they aren’t that aware of what each other are doing. I suppose this little chat is catching them up as much as it is Alan and I. But the important bit to me is that they both seem ambitious and hopeful.
There are people singing outside, and occasionally an older family member comes by and greets us on the way out the door. I’m not sure what all that is about until the sister stands up and says “We should probably go out to the church service.” I’ve wanted to visit a church since I’ve been here. Though I hadn’t considered it today, it sounds like a great opportunity.
The church service takes place in their garage; more of an enclosed carport. It’s really just a tin roof and doors supported between the outer walls of their house and a neighbor’s. They have pulled their car out of the garage and parked it in the street. The pews have been temporarily erected out of milk crates, cinder blocks, and a few wooden beams. The whole structure is probably just five meters by four, but it holds about 60 people, to my count.
There are probably twenty children and the rest are adults; they sit roughly by age from front to back. There is a gap in the aging, jumping almost directly from preteens to what I guess to be middle aged and older folks. There are only a handful of people in the 15 to 30 range. I wonder if that is just a matter of social choice or if it reflects the HIV epidemic’s effect on that age group. Perhaps a bit of both.
The service is a lot different than other churches I’ve been to. It is a Christian ceremony, and I see people holding copies of the bible translated into Zulu, but it is far more fluid than anything I’ve seen before. When we come in things are already underway and we sit off to the side. Lakele’s aunt is up front leading a hymn; mostly in Zulu with one phrase of English that I understand, something about giving praise to God. There are no instruments, just the rich heartfelt singing of the people.
When the song concludes, the aunt speaks to the group for a moment, and then Lakele smiles and tells us that she has invited Alan up to say something. He agrees and goes to the front of the little room to thank them for welcoming us into their community. As he comes back to sit, a lady in the back of the church starts up another song with her sole voice. Within a moments the whole group has joined in again.
Then the aunt sits down an older lady gets up to speak. She is from the back row, and as soon as she makes her way to the front she starts yelling with a fiery intensity. Her eyes are closed the entire time and her voice echoes piercingly in the small room. Since she is speaking in Zulu I have only her expression to interpret. Her face is contorted in what looks like great pain, and her tone is menacing. If I hadn’t seen such displays in my own church growing up, I’d think she was extremely angry and full of wrath. Perhaps she is, but I know not to take it too darkly. When she is done with her testimony she starts a song as she goes back to her seat.
After the angry lady sits, a younger lady gets up to the front — the only one in her twenties besides Lakele’s sister. She’s dressed conservatively in a pretty blue dress. She wears glasses and has cute but boyish features. She speaks passionately as well, but with bright eyes and a joyful smile the whole time. She walks around the front and emotes with her arms as she talks. Even without the words to judge, I find her presentation much more palatable. She draws her talk to a close and the congregation opens into spontaneous song again.
Lakele’s sister starts a song and gets up next. As far as I can tell there is no rhyme or reason to who starts a song or when, or who gets up to speak or when. When she gets to the front she is quickly overcome with emotion and breaks down. She continues talking though, through the tears and sobs, her voice trembling and her words coming out in cries. It is amazing to see such a raw display of emotion in front of a large group, from someone who seemed so calm and reserved just minutes ago. Lakele leans over and explains that she is thanking God for her parents and the opportunity she has in going to school, and comparing this to the others in her generation who haven’t respected their parents, who have not been so blessed, and who have come to tragedy.
After she finishes and sits the group sings once more as her grandfather takes the pulpit. He is dressed in a blue collared shirt and smart grey suit. The pulpit is just a tiny folding table. Somehow I pick up from his manner that the free-form part of the service is over and he is here to give the day’s sermon. He projects a kind but serious dignity that I can immediately identify as pastorally. He is bald and heavy set, and I can’t help but see similarities between him and my own late grandfather, pastor Anthony Freni.
As he takes the group through a few passages of the bible in Zulu, I watch his mannerisms closely. He has an intense look of reverence on his face and he speaks with a deep, resonant and trembling voice that reminds me so much of my grandfather’s style it is engrossing. Though he is intense, he isn’t terribly overbearing: he occasionally makes what seem to be little jokes and acts out bits of his message with playfulness. But the overall tone is serious. It is very warm in the garage as the day moves on, and he builds up a patina of sweat on his brow which he blots away from time to time.
I recall the stories of my grandfather preaching in a grungy little shack in South Norwood, later to become a run-down bait shop where I’d buy silverbacks before fishing as a youngster. He likely spoke to a group of Italian immigrants no larger than this. By the time I was born they had moved into a proper church building and expanded to include a wide variety of peoples. I think how important these moments of community are to a struggling group like these folks, providing both both outlet for their frustrations and purpose for their toils.
I also note how the children are strangely quiet and peaceful. They aren’t attentive, but they are very well behaved. The sermon goes on for a bit over forty five minutes, and when it wraps up I am surprised that I was able to maintain my attention to the scene without benefit of language comprehension for such a time.
A last song, performed first by a choir group and then joined in by the rest of the congregation concludes the service. As the group breaks up many of the people shake hands with Alan and I. My sense is that they are honored to have had us as visitors. I also note that there was no collection of offering. I confirm this with Lakele as well: the church is a strictly volunteer effort.
We sit with Lakele back in the living room and his family brings us a big lunch including fried chicken, rice, squash, potato, veggies, beet salad, and coke. He does admit to Alan that he was not doing so well for a while there, alluding to the tension between himself and Simangaliso, but he assures Alan he is doing better now. He doesn’t ask for anything, so I take this at face value.
His sister isn’t in the room and he tells us that he is a bit worried about her: she lives in a way he considers dangerous. Though he doesn’t give details, my interpretation is that she is a bit of a party girl, or is dating indiscriminately or something.
Right before we leave, he shows us a computer that he bought for his little brother. It doesn’t work and he asks if we might have any ideas about fixing it. Turns out it is another ancient x286 machine with a monochrome monitor. It’s probably incapable of running any modern software, and we sadly inform him of this. I wonder aloud to Alan where people find these machines, and I feel bad that they may be spending money on them.
As we say goodbye, Lakele’s sister comes back out to say goodbye. Based on Lakele’s concern for her, Alan takes the chance to give her a little fatherly advice: “We care about you, and hope to see you again. We wouldn’t want you to get into any trouble… like getting raped.” She nods and gives us each a hug.
It’s still only the early afternoon so we stop by Zenzo’s. He and his brother have offered to wash Alan’s car. Actually they more than offered, they sort of pleaded to wash it. I think they see a clean car as a status symbol… most of the people in Sibongile that own cars wash them out in front of the house regularly and keep them very shiny. Alan’s car is a mess from all the dirt roads we drive on. They wanted to wash my car too, which is about ten times filthier than Alan’s because of Sophie and I getting lost in Zululand.
So we leave the car with Zenzo and his brother in their front yard and walk over to meet Zakele. Zakele is the musician that got HIV and almost died a few years back. The one that Alan had encouraged to go to the doctor and got on ARV medication. He lives up in Joburg but is down in the area for the week.
Walking over to the house is the longest I’ve walked outside in Sibongile; it’s only a couple blocks. We pass by a couple groups of people hanging out in the street, and they look at us in a curious but friendly way.
When we get to the house he isn’t there, but his teenage neice is, and she lets us in to wait for him. She is watching a Pauly Shore movie on the TV taht features mud wrestling. Once the mud wrestling is over it doesn’t hold our attention completely and we converse a bit, about her favorite school subject being biology and a embroidered sign on the wall in Zulu that translates roughly to “Mom makes a house a home”. We have to guess at that because his neice translates both Zulu words to “house”, but “Mom makes a house a house” isn’t nearly as insightful.
Zakele returns to the house. His hair is in braids and he reminds me a bit in appearance to Snoop Dog. He is very gaunt, I imagine due to the HIV, because there’s a picture of a healthier looking young man on the wall from several years ago that I don’t initially recognize as him.
At first he is very surprised that we don’t have a car with us. We tell him that we walked over and he seems very surprised by that, too.
He remembers Alan from the Voices of Joy days, but barely remembers seeing him last time, when he was so ill. Alan isn’t surprised, he really believes that Zakele was probably only a few days from death at the time. Zakele agrees that he was completely out of it. He says that he is doing very well now, thanks to the herbs that he is taking. Alan offers that it might also have to do with the Anti Retroviral drugs, and Zakele agrees that helps too. I am amused by that interpretation.
He is well, though, and is still doing music. He plays drums for Rebecca Malope on tour; and though I haven’t heard of her, she is apparently one of the more successful South African artists. She tours the world, and he shows us his passport which is stamped by port authorities all over Africa and Europe.
After a bit of catching up we decide to head back to Zenzo’s to see how the car is coming. Zakele offers to walk us over. My interpretation is that he thinks it unsafe for two white folks to walk around the Location alone. Talking to Alan later he doesn’t think that was it; but I’m still not sure. He just seemed so surprised we were on foot. In any case, I felt safe.
The three of us go over to see Zenzo and his brother, and they are just finishing up. The car is sparkling inside and out, and I honestly almost don’t recognize it as the same car. The carpeting and upholstery inside are spotless, which is extra impressive when I realize they don’t have a vacuum. They just swept and picked up the specks by hand.
Zakele meets Zenzo briefly and then heads back to his place. We thank Zenzo and his brother for washing the car, and then we all go in and fix a couple of their chairs which had started falling apart. They’re just formica covered particle boards screwed onto chrome tubing. The screws in the particle board all pulled out. When we leave they have what should be a usable dining room set again. I feel good about that… it’s been a nice day in the hood.
On our way back to the trailer we pick up Simangaliso, who is going to help Donna and I with some spreadsheet stuff. The three of us work together on making sense of the strange grading formulas that the school board gives to the teachers.
I am pretty amazed at the weird contortions they make the teachers go through: multiple levels of scaling and weighting each test and term that I find difficult to make sense of with a spreadsheet, nevermind the teachers who usually have to do this on paper. Simangaliso agrees it’s a bit crazy, and says he is sure a lot of mistakes are made, causing children to pass or fail erroneously. We do a quick calculation, and given the number of students and grades that are being calculated we estimate that even with a careful teacher probably a fifth of the kids have some type of error in their final grade. I find that a sad thought.
But we manage to come up with a spreadsheet that does most of the work automatically, and it’s great fun. I haven’t done any programming in couple months now and doing this kind of problem solving with Simangaliso is a treat. He has a programmer’s mind and is far better at the math bits than I am, quickly resolving the fractions into multipliers for each score weight. Seeing him work first hand in this practical capacity raises my respect for him even more.
Thabani drops by as we’re wrapping up. It’s getting to the evening now and it’s dark as we all drive over to the Location to drop each of them at home. Since Zakele is in the music business, he had agreed to give Thabani some advice, so on the way we stop by there so they can meet and he says he’d be happy to hear Thabani’s demo CD. They agree to meet later in the week.
For dinner we just stop by the 24 hour mart. I grab a microwave burger which tastes exactly like a microwave burger. Then they drop me off back at the backpackers.
As I go in to sleep, I meet a new visitor, Marco. He’s a roguishly good looking guy, probably in his late thirties or early forties. He’s got short black hair, he is bare chested and wearing only boxers, and is deeply tanned for a white South African. Right off the bat he seems just a little sketchy to me.
He tells me he’s an artist and asks if I have a pen and paper, which I provide. He asks me to sit and have a coffee with him; he seems slightly drunk and gives off a faint smell of alcohol. He starts drawing as I make some instant coffee and then we sit at the little table together. He tells me that his family owns a game hunting park up by the northern border and that he’s on vacation.
The drawing is of a lion coming through the brush, and though it shows some experience, it’s actually a fairly amateurish drawing from someone proclaiming themselves to be an artist. He says as he draws “every animal has a story to tell” but doesn’t elaborate.
At some point in my asking him about what he’s doing here he tells me he’s just had a terrible few days. He says he was on vacation in Durban with his wife and his best friend, and they deserted him. He ended up having to hitch his way up here with nothing but the clothes on his back. He shows me his feet which are covered in blisters. He seems legitimately distraught.
I express my sympathy for his troubles and let him vent a bit. I’m pretty tired and I have to get up for schools tomorrow, so I excuse myself eventually. He thanks me for listening and we head off to our neighboring rooms. “If I snore too loud,” he says, “just bang on the wall.” I laugh and tell him to do the same thing. He thanks me again and then he says “hey, please don’t tell anyone about all this.” “Don’t worry,” I tell him, “my lips are sealed.”