This River of Pain!By Daniela Cohen

This River of Pain!

By Daniela Cohen

Published on Sun, Dec 21 2008 by Daniela Cohen

From left to right: Thandi Mkhatshwa, Lydia Ngomane, Linky Matsie, Bongekile Mhlanga, Constance Rahlane. Photo Credit:Briget Ganske.

The day had finally arrived. It was time for the Amazwi volunteers to meet the five journalists we would be working with this year. Briget, Lou and I sat in Amazwi’s outdoor office, watching the five women get out of our director's Land Rover, and talking and laughing excitedly, make their way to us. The scent of perfume swirled around them. Nicely-dressed and well-groomed, they had clearly taken some trouble to look their best. I felt quite unsophisticated in my simple shirt and beige capri pants. They introduced themselves: Lydia, Linky, Constance, Bongekile and Thandi.?It was then time for questions. The journalists were curious to know where we were from. I let Briget and Lou speak first, and when it came my turn to answer, I hesitated, “Um, I’m from here, from Jo’burg,” I replied. Silence. Everyone was waiting to hear what would come next, including me. “But I’ve been living in Canada for the last 14 years.” “Ohhh,” Bongekile said, as if something now made sense. “Ja, my accent is a bit mixed,” I laughed. She nodded. I felt my stomach churn with uncertainty.

Even in that first meeting, I felt the chasm between us, and it hurt. I wanted so badly to connect with these women, to break down some of the barriers that had been entrenched in my being, growing up in a society that was segregated for so many years. Overwhelmed by my emotions, I found it hard to make small talk. I wondered how the journalists were perceiving me in comparison to the two Americans sitting beside me. That afternoon, I cried, feeling the pain of the history I had been a part of and how deeply it had affected me; how deeply it must have affected these five women. I hoped that by working closely together for the Amazwi Villager newspaper, the journalists and I would gradually be able to create an authentic connection that transcended the barrriers of race and history. It felt like we would have to traverse a huge river of pain to get there.

As the journalists began to work on their stories, I helped them by editing for grammar, vocabulary, spelling, and punctuation. During the first week, while we were all eating lunch together in the far corner of the office, Linky asked me, “Which do you like better, Canada or South Africa?” I was unprepared for the question, thrown out so matter-of-factly, and struggled to answer. How could I possibly explain what South Africa meant to me? How could I explain that in spite of some clear advantages to living in Canada, I just didn’t feel connected? I wondered: Who am I in the eyes of these five women? Do they consider me a foreigner or a South African?

The following week, I went out with Lydia, our marketing and advertising intern, to talk to business owners about purchasing ads in the newspaper. Walking around the rural African community of Acornhoek for the first time, people stared at me. I was an anomaly. Some greeted me in Afrikaans. Some asked for money. Both incidences made me cringe. I resented that they assumed I was Afrikaans just because of the colour of my skin. My resistance to the label shows me my own prejudices. These experiences give me some small sense of what it feels like to be judged on your skin colour. I wondered what my experience would be if my skin were the same colour as the people around me.

After Acornhoek, we went to the nearby community of Thulamahashe. It was the first time I rode in a “black taxi,” the name white South Africans have given minibusses crammed to capacity with African passengers, and known for breaking most of the rules of the road. A man gestured at me, seeming to indicate, “What are you doing here?” He spoke to me in Tsonga, and laughed because he was sure I couldn’t understand. I replied: “Avuxeni. Ni kona. Wena unjani?” (Hello. I’m fine. How are you?) He almost fell over in shock. He quickly switched to English, as if I’d now earned the right to have a real conversation. Suddenly very friendly, he offered to take me and the other Amazwi volunteers to see some traditional dancing. I jotted down his phone number as the taxi sped off. As we drove, I observed myself, the only white person in a taxi full of black South Africans, riding without fear. Lydia’s presence was comforting beside me, and it was a liberating experience to be in a place I never thought I’d be, doing something I never thought I’d do.

In early March, Constance, Lydia, Linky, Briget, Lou and I attended Xikuha, the marula festival. Held annually, families in the surrounding villages must bring a five-liter container of marula beer to the local chief or pay a R10 fine. The event took place at the house of the induna, second-in-command. Outside, a circle of chairs surrounded different sized containers of beer. Men of various ages occupied these seats, and a few women sat on the ground outside of the circle. An older man took a small sip from each carton of beer that arrived to make sure it was safe to drink. “We don’t trust each other,” Linky explained with a laugh. Lydia and I approached the women cooking. They were standing beside huge pots, stirring the meat inside with oversize spoons. They greeted us with smiles, happy to explain what they were cooking and pose for a photograph. Lydia then went up to the induna’s daughter, sitting on the steps outside the house. They began singing together, and a lump rose in my throat as I watched their serene faces.

During the induna’s speech, the Amazwi staff sat on chairs, the only women in attendance to do so. He thanked “the visitors” for coming, and asked us to take what we’d seen back to America, so people overseas could see their culture. I was reeling from the fact that our status as whites had earned us special treatment, the opposite from what I would have expected. And our status as foreigners, extra respect. While the rest of the guests waited for their food outside, we were ushered into the induna’s house to eat at his dining room table. The journalists hesitated, convinced that this hospitality was only directed at Briget, Lou and I. Trying to contain my shock, I insisted they come with us. Inside, I quietly told Lydia that I couldn’t eat the meat. She explained to the cooks that I was vegetarian, and they quickly prepared some special dishes for me: butternut, crushed pumpkin leaves, and beetroot. I was touched by their consideration, particularly in a culture where it is highly uncommon not to eat meat.

There was also a young African man in a pink shirt at the table. He had sat beside Briget and Lou outside, and interpreted the induna’s speech for them. It was clear he was fascinated with Briget, as he asked question after question about “America.” His interest dissipated when he asked where I was from, and discovered it was Jo’burg. I couldn’t help but think it funny: how much more unusual would it be for a white South African to be in this area doing this kind of work than someone coming from overseas? You’d think that might make people curious. But Jo’burg is closer to something they know, so the need to find out more is distilled or nonexistent.

While we were eating, the induna’s seven-year-old granddaughter came in. We had met briefly outside, when she had grabbed mine and Briget’s hands and swung them back and forth. She looked around, then pulled up her tiny pink chair next to mine. She ate out of the bowl of food her mother had given her, all the while watching me. I felt my heart burst open at this trusting display of innocent affection. The conversation about America continued around me, but all I could see was this little girl. When we left the festival, we did the three-step African handshake with the many people we’d met. The induna’s wife gave me a hug. I felt her appreciation for my presence there, and I was filled with my own appreciation for the opportunity to take part in this rich cultural experience.

On the drive back, Lydia’s hand rested on my knee. The Land Rover was filled with a sense of contentment. As the car rattled along the dirt roads, I savoured this cocoon of community in the midst of our complex surroundings.

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