“…every book I had every read about Africa contained long passages and sometimes many pages about enforced delay… It sometimes seems as though Africa is a place you go to wait. Many Africans I met said the same thing, but uncomplainingly, for most lived their lives with a fatalistic patience. Outsiders see Africa as a continent delayed – economies in suspension, societies up in the air, politics and human rights put on hold, communities throttled or stopped. ‘Not yet,’ voices of authority have cautioned Africans throughout the years of colonization and independence. But African time was not the same as American time. One generation in the West was two generations in Africa, where teenagers were parents and thirty-year-olds had one foot in the grave. As African time passed I surmised that the pace of western countries was insane, that the speed of modern technology accomplished nothing, and that because Africa was going its own way at its own pace for its own reasons, it was a refuge and a resting-place, the last territory to light out for…”
–Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari
“Humanity acquired the label Homo sapiens in 1735, courtesy of the Swedish naturalist, Carl von Linné. In a work which applied his newly devised binomial system of biological classification to the animal kingdom, von Linné listed all known animals by genus and species according to their perceived relationships and gave a brief description of each. In the scholarly fashion of the time, the work was published in Latin, the author became Carolus Linnaeus and the genus Homo was described with the single Latin phrase: “HOMO nosce te ipsum,” meaning “MAN know thyself.”
–John Reader, Africa: A Biography of the Continent
One thing I’m reminded of each time I return to Africa is how quickly I come to take for granted the conveniences of living in the world’s wealthiest country. I often wonder whether we are overendowed with convenience, expecting ease and perfection from a challenging and flawed world. It is here in Africa that I have seen those challenges and flaws in full light, for it is here in the birthplace of humanity that we are allowed to act our most human. On this continent, I’ve witnessed the most egregious cases of laziness, subversion, boredom, and greed; it is also here in Africa that I’ve seen people endure back-breaking work on a daily basis, give humbly and selflessly to those in need, laugh and smile readily and honestly, and feel content with little, or with nothing. Man, know thyself.
The taxi driver was a man past his prime, with grizzled hair shaved close to his head and a spot of grey mustache on the center of his upper lip – a style made infamous by Zimbabwe’s notorious dictator, Robert Mugabe. His dark skin hung loosely, as did his knitted, black and brown Norwegian sweater. His black pants were dusty but his leather shoes gleamed. Beneath soft eyes, he smiled politely as he helped me to load my luggage into the trunk. The most notable part about him, though, is that he arrived five minutes early – unlikely, here.
I chatted with him about his roots, and he explained that he was born in Pietermaritzburg, but later moved to Johannesburg with his wife. Though they lived in Jo’Burg for 18 years, they eventually returned to Maritzburg because living in Johannesburg during “that time” – Apartheid – proved a challenging existence. As a black couple, they couldn’t own a house, only “Rent and rent and rent,” he explained, “never ending – finding work was hard, and when you have no more job, how do you rent?” We then transitioned into talking about the World Cup, and he explained that as much as he loved soccer, he wouldn’t be able to attend a game, because the nearest ones were being played an hour’s drive away. “I work at 6 in the mornings – how could I go to work the next day?”
When we reached my destination, a hostel where I would be picked up by the backpacker’s bus, I offered him a 100 rand bill (about $15) for the 30 rand fare and asked if he had any change. He said no, predictably – many drivers will decline, hoping you’ll leave them with the whole amount. I have twice been insistent enough that a driver with “no change” suddenly, by some miracle, finds some in his car. This driver had been kind, sincere, and early, and I told him to just keep the R100 note. He scoffed and shook his head.
“But you’ve been so helpful,” I insisted, pleading with him to take it.
“No, it is too much,” he responded, frowning. He stepped around to the back of the car and extracted a worn wallet from behind a flap of fabric lining in the trunk – for safekeeping, in case the taxi was robbed, I presumed. He handed me an R50 note from the wallet, and I was happy to leave him the remaining R50 for the R30 fare – still a good 65% tip, but less than $3.
I had called the bus company the night before to confirm my seat.
“We’re in the process of moving office,” the lady on the line told me. “I will call you later when the computers are back up.”
“You’ll call today, right? Because my bus is tomorrow and…”
She interrupted with a kindly laugh and said, “Yes, of course.” And then, in the manner of an old friend, “I’ll call you, okay?” She drew out the second syllable of “okay” in the South African way that is meant to reassure.
She never called. After the taxi dropped me off in the morning, I waited for the bus in the courtyard of the Prince Alfred Street Backpacker’s. It was situated on the shady suburban road that lies just off the main Chief Albert Luthuli Drive, between the Shell station and the McDonald’s and just down the road from the KFC. The backpacker’s had the rainbow LGBT flag painted on the gatepost, and I remembered reading that this hostel was advertised as LGBT-friendly – not a common occurrence on this continent, though South Africa is making swift progress in its acceptance of homosexuality.
The bus was half an hour late. I couldn’t reach anyone at Baz, so I just sat, hoping they were really coming to fetch me.
The owner poked his head out the front door. “Still here?” He quipped good-naturedly. He was a tall, kindly man with a long, red face and drooping blue eyes. He was dressed casually in a black skullcap, a blue fleece, white sweatpants, and brown leather sandals.
I laughed. “Yep. Did Baz change their number?”
“They did,” he replied, “I’ve got it in my email.” He retrieved the number for me, and I called and confirmed that the bus would be picking me up. “It’s already left Durban for Maritzburg,” the representative told me.
I sat back and watched a pair of Indian mynahs, sleek and intelligent (and invasive) city birds that are capable of incredible mimicry, hop across the weathered cement stepstones, They weaved in and out of the withered and stunted fruit trees as they foraged on the lawn inside the 10-foot high, red-brick-and-iron security fence, their sunshine-yellow bills, feet, and eye-rings stark against their smooth brown, black, and white plumage. I was reminded of last year, at the end of my stay in South Africa, when I was standing in the back yard of a beautiful backpacker’s in Nelspruit called Old Vic’s. I had been peering into a spacious aviary, watching the finches flit about and a tortoise amble slowly beneath them. Suddenly I heard a garbled “Hello?” I looked around, but didn’t see anyone. It came again: “Hellooo,” high-pitched and strangled. I fidgeted nervously, glancing around, wondering if someone was playing a trick on me. It came again, this time followed by two clicks and a whistle, and an Indian mynah hopped out from beneath a wooden shelter in the aviary, its head cocked and a mischievous gleam in its eye. “Ohhh, hello,” it said, as though surprised to see me.
My reverie was interrupted when flock of grey pigeons burst from the neighbor’s yard as a heaving and sighing semi passed on the road. Two boys walked by, blaring Justin Bieber from a crackly cell phone; the poppy tune momentarily drowned out the drone of a leaf blower coming from down the road.
Soon the bus arrived. I went out back to say goodbye to the hostel owner. He was sitting on the stoop smoking a cigarette. He waved me off cheerily and continued blowing puffs of smoke into the morning air, a pair of shaggy, cream-colored Afghan hounds sprawled beside him on the dirt, lying beneath cool white linens strung up to dry on a kinked wire.
It was about 2 hours to Winterton, a tiny town that was the gateway to the Central Drakensberg. From there, I would head to the valley beneath Cathedral Peak in the Ukhalamba-Drakensberg National Park, to follow up with some old friends of both the two- and four-legged sort.
The smooth highway between Pietermaritzburg and Winterton cuts across a largely open landscape, filled with long yellow grasses and occasionally dotted with stunted, thorny trees – the classic image of the African savanna. At the toll gate at Mooi River, the open grassland is interrupted briefly by another classic African image: a township on the outskirts of the city, cinderblock huts topped with gleaming tin; fires bursting from trash cans; brown dirt yards interlaced with brown dirt roads, throwing their dust into the air in great obscuring clouds; barefoot children; aproned women; and a smoky brown haze lying over it all like an itchy woolen blanket. Just beyond its fenced fringes lay fields with tightly rolled bales of hay, brown cows with sagging ears and great humps for shoulders, leaning posts burdened with low-hanging telephone wires, women laboring in dry, brown fields.
From this angle, a passing snapshot glimpsed from a speeding car, it is just an African cliché. No assessment that I could make of it would be fair. This is something I realized only recently, as I read Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, an account of the author’s overland trek from Cape Town to Cairo. His view of Africa – dim, though not without the occasional truthful sentence – is one of decrepitude and decline, poverty and tatters, a labored existence with no hope for or view of the future. This he weighs all too often from the window of a train or bus, spending mere days in each country. “The visitor usually brings a sharp knife,” a man in Malawi says to Thoreaux, quoting a proverb. Thoreaux takes this to mean that “the stranger was known for having the keenest perceptions.” What he fails to note is that it is possible for even a sharp knife to miss the board entirely; especially when it is moving at the speed of light through this “Dark Star” of a continent. Everything is bound to become a blur, especially in a place where scenery and situation change more quickly than in a flip-book with missing pages, as it would for me over the next few days.