“This is us. Not what they tell you.”
As Dave and I made to get into the car and leave KwaThema, farewells said and thanks given, a voice raised itself above the hubbub of our many new friends. “Remember, this is us. This is us, not what they tell you.” To my shame, I can’t remember the name of the lady I identified as the speaker – but these words, their simplicity and their power, oscillated within my head during our hour-long drive back to Kyalami.
KwaThema is a township, perhaps 50km from Johannesburg, that was built in the early 1950s as an intended model for subsequent developments – successfully so, on the whole, although it hasn’t been without its episodes of social unrest. We travelled there to visit the house of ‘Aunt’ Mercy, a close family friend of the Cubas and a prominent figure in our enjoyment of life and customs in this part of the world since our arrival. Her small property is one of the better-appointed in a tidy street; a couple of dozen friends and extended family – many of whom we’d come to know earlier in the trip - had congregated there for lunch in an event that, while seemingly complex, you suspect happens frequently. Other acquaintances and passers by drifted in and out from the bar across the road as the smell of cooking sausages, mince, pap and chicken legs gathered magnetism. As we have learned so well, when you open your home here it’s open to all.
Before the food, the football. No sooner had we pitched up than we were whisked a couple of blocks away, to a dusty football pitch on a wasteland that was, until we set into action, strewn with chunks of concrete. It’s ten a side – until a swarm of younger kids turns up about halfway through, that is, and things become pleasurably chaotic. My team includes Gift, a beanie-wearing midfielder with exceptional touch and movement, and the powerful, rapid Abou Diaby lookalike Siyabulela. I receive more of the ball than my ability should dictate, with South African hospitality extending from the dinner plate to the football pitch. This game probably takes place weekly, and the novelty factor of two tall British interlopers is clearly significant as Dave and I line up on opposite sides, frequently struggling to keep our footing in unsatisfactory trainers but – learning one or two Zulu football commands along the way – always staying involved as the sun beams down hotly. By the end, the players’ ages range from seven to 27 and nothing needs rationalising – it’s just good fun, with the sublime frequently being countered by the ridiculous. Chatting to our erstwhile team-mates about the World Cup and life in London (the two things everyone wants to know our views on), we head back to Mercy’s for lunch after what we’ll call an honourable draw.
The house is a noise of children and of cooking. We eat, and talk, well. Nobody lets us lift a finger; we’re wrestled, almost literally, away from the pile of washing-up. People see us from across the road and rush over to talk; one guy tells me, at great length, of his short-lived career as a professional pool player. Another laments the lack of football scouts passing through KwaThema to watch him and his friends. One more speaks with passion of how, at 25 and having been out of education – and significant work - for the past decade, he’s doing an introductory course in law with a view to getting into university. He proudly regales me with some of his favourite Latin terms. It’s not the first conversation of this type I’ve had with someone around my age in South Africa; a determination to make up for any lost time is prevalent and admirable. You wonder whether the World Cup bounce factor is helping this along, but hope it’s primarily down to a more general raising of aspirations and facilities.
How do you speak of warm welcomes, of humbling hospitality, of some quite mind-altering kindness and acceptance, of social dynamics that are strong yet so tender, without resorting to cliche? I don’t know whether you can – or, at least, whether I can right now. All I can conclude from the last few weeks is that the definite, proud words that followed us into the car spoke nothing but the truth – and I believe that with all my heart. I’ll craft a far longer, and more observational, piece on this note once I’m back in the UK, or perhaps just before, but all that we saw and heard today merely strengthened every positive impression we’ve gained of this country’s extraordinary people.
The recent lack of activity on this blog came of our trip to Zambia, where internet facilities were either sparse or slow. Our time was spent on safari in nearby Botswana, rafting in the Zambezi (being hurled through a grade-four rapid after our boat flipped was something I’ll remember), experiencing (and in Dave’s case bungeeing) Victoria Falls, and enjoying an Amarula sundowner or three among some excellent company. Livingstone was everything I’d remembered from a decade previously. Zambian people, not least the taxi driver who made the effort to track us down after I’d left my camera in his car, were too. I’m sure I will be back there again in some capacity or other, perhaps reasonably soon.
There’s some football among all this, too. We’re heading out now to catch the third place play-off over at Melrose Arch - before we wake up tomorrow morning in the knowledge that we’ll be at the World Cup Final a few hours later. Even saying it aloud to oneself doesn’t make it seem all that real. It’s going to be a special day – and, assuming I’m up at a decent hour, a post previewing the match itself will be up here before lunchtime. I’m nailing my colours to the mast – it’s Oranje all the way.
(NB – the photograph at the top of this piece is not from today – it’s one of an extraordinary….and gory in places….family of shots I took last week before, during and after the slaughtering of the sheep. Virtually all who helped cook the meat, as shown here, were present this afternoon)