Category Archives: South Africa

Book review Tuesday: Philida, by Andre Brink

In my effort not to be a complete ignoramus about the country I’m living in, I’ve been trying to read some South African literature and journalistic non-fiction. Being me, I’m doing much better with the fiction than the non-fiction. Whereas I haven’t been able to pick up Country of My Skull – a harrowing account of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission – for weeks now, I finished Andre Brink’s novel Philida easily. Philida was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012, but I actually decided to read it because an American friend of mine, Jon, told me he had just torn through one of Brink’s other books, A Dry White Season, and that I had to read it. I went to my local bookstore to look for it but they didn’t have it – but they did have Philida.

138.Andre Brink-Philida

Philida is the story of a slave woman living in the Cape in the 1830s. The book opens with Philida lodging a complaint with the Office of the Slave Protector against her owner, Cornelis Brink, and his son, Francois Brink. Francois, Philida explains, is the father of her four children, and he promised to set her free. Now, he has reneged on his promise and is selling Philida – and their children – upcountry so he can marry a rich white woman.

The novel traces Philida’s struggle to gain her freedom, and illuminates complex relationships between owners and slaves. Secrets about the Brink family come to light and one begins to understand, bit by bit, why the slave-owner dynamics are so very tricky in this particular family. Philida is set in the 1830s, just before slaves were emancipated in South Africa in 1834 (via the Slavery Abolition Act, which abolished slavery throughout the British empire). The knowledge, shared by owners and slaves alike, that the slaves will soon be set free, complicates matters even further.

The plot has a few twists and turns but, in general, is slow-paced. Much of Philida’s journey happens on foot, with meandering descriptions of the landscape and her thoughts. Even if long-winded, the story still manages to be gripping, and the diversions weren’t enough to make me lose interest. Plus, Brink’s writing is so unique, it was hard to get bored.

When reading Philida, it is difficult not to be impressed by the ability of Brink – a white South African man – to write from the perspective of Philida, a black (or perhaps coloured) South African female slave. Brink explained in an interview with NPR that the story was based on historical records and one of the main characters, Francois Brink, was an actual ancestor of his. Philida’s voice is absorbing; it is easy to forget that she was brought to life by a white man. Brink also tells parts of the story from the perspective of Francois and Cornelis, but it is Philida we are rooting for and whose voice dominates the narrative.

In the end, Philida gets a kind of deliverance, although this is not what one would call a “feel good” book. Still, if you’re looking to read well-crafted historical fiction about one piece of South Africa’s complicated past, Philida is a good place to start.

Rustenburg

Al and I have embarked on a month-long detox from booze and in his case, candy, and in my case, cheese and dessert (which are often one and the same with me). This is necessary. Very necessary. I’ve spent the last month and a half flitting from place to place, eating rich food and drinking fine (and not so fine) wine, and it has been GLORIOUS, but I feel that my liver is about to give out and the buttons on my pants are about to pop, so it’s time to take a break. In this new spirit of healthy living, then, we decided to have an outdoorsy kind of weekend, so we drove two hours to Rustenburg, the “bustling” provincial capital of Northwest Province, to do some hiking and biking.

Kgaswane Mountain Reserve

Kgaswane Mountain Reserve

Rustenburg itself is pretty low-key – the owner of the lovely B&B we stayed in listed the many dining options at the local mall’s food court when we asked her if there were any nice restaurants nearby – but it’s home to a provincial park called Kgswane Mountain Reserve that has hiking trails and bike paths. On Saturday morning, we went to the mountain reserve with big plans to go biking. We had loaded up our road bikes – which have sat gathering cobwebs, literally, on our porch since we moved to South Africa – and a newly purchased bike pump and we were ready to go. Only problem was, the bike pump didn’t work. After a frustrating half hour of attempting to force the bike pump to work, we gave up and decided to go for a hike. We set off on a hiking trail called the “Vlei Ramble,” but we turned around after a few minutes when it became clear that a machete was necessary to effectively break through the underbrush. And the brambles. Oh, the brambles! Al joked, of course, that the trail should have been called the Vlei Bramble. We hiked a trail called the Peglerei Interpretative Trail (huh?) instead, and it was much better. Great views, plus the whole trail was littered with rose quartz. The weirdly rock-obsessed eight-year-old inside me was geeking out the whole time.

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That night, we decided to go to a “nice” dinner at a place we had read about in one of our guidebooks, the Kedar Country House, which is attached to a hotel and a museum devoted to Paul Kruger. There were several clues along the way that this restaurant was not going to be good: when the parking lot in front of the restaurant was dark and virtually empty, when the man in the hotel lobby seemed baffled that we wanted to eat at the restaurant, when we walked into the restaurant and it was empty except for a harried looking family with several screaming children. It wasn’t until we saw that the restaurant was buffet-style, with steam trays full of unidentifiable meat mash and a table of wilting salads preserved under saran wrap, that we decided to try to find somewhere else. We hastily made our exit. All of the employees seemed to understand.

We made the bold decision to drive another 20 kilometers to Sun City, the self-billed “kingdom of pleasure” of Africa. I guess the other kingdoms in Africa aren’t putting up much competition in the pleasure category (looking at you, Swaziland), so fair enough. Sun City is, in a word, ridiculous. It truly is a little city, containing a golf course, hotels, restaurants, casinos, a wave pool (the grandly named “Valley of Waves”), and even residential facilities. That’s right, people live at Sun City. We had heard that there were some good restaurants there, including something called the Famous Butcher’s Grill. After driving around and seeing no such grill, we asked a valet at the casino, who told us the restaurant was in the Cabanas Hotel. We parked and went into the hotel and asked the concierge about the restaurant. She told us the Famous Butcher’s Grill has been closed for “ten years. Maybe four years.” At this point, we had been driving for an hour, we were hungry, and we were nearing defeat, so we decided to give up and eat at the hotel’s new restaurant, which I’m pretty sure doesn’t have a name, other than “Hotel Restaurant.” It was truly the most generic of hotel restaurants: open plan seating in the middle of the hotel, kids running around and playing on a plastic play structure, and – you guessed it – a BUFFET. Resigned to our fate, we sat down and ate our buffet dinner, which was fine. Not great. But fine.

After dinner, being the old farts we are, we were too tired (from the hiking and the driving and the disappointment) to gamble, so we headed back to the B&B. Plus, we all know that gambling’s not fun unless you have a little liquor in your system to make your choices just bad enough to be interesting.

The next morning, we bought a new bike pump and headed back to the mountain reserve. We successfully pumped the bikes’ tires (huzzah!) and had a really nice bike ride. We did something called the Sable Loop (twice), all the time keeping our eyes peeled for sable antelope, which are very rare but apparently live in the park. We didn’t see any (although we did see zebra, kudu, and impala), but it was still a good ride, and we left Rustenburg feeling satisfied, like we had accomplished something. All in all, a good weekend. Who says you need booze and cheese to have fun?

Drakensbergs, revisited

This weekend, fresh off my safari, I went back to the Drakensberg Mountains with Al and some of his McKinsey colleagues for a so-called “team weekend.” Based on past (semi-traumatic) experiences with McKinsey “teambuilding” “retreats,” I feared that this weekend would involve flow charts, PowerPoint, and small-group breakout sessions. To my relief, it just ended up being a weekend away — no brainstorming or teambuilding involved — that McKinsey paid for. Not bad!

The Drakensbergs

The Drakensbergs

We (that is, Al and I, his colleague Mattia and his girlfriend Isabella, and another McKinsey colleague, Martin) drove from Joburg on Friday afternoon, all five of us cramped into a tiny Suzuki Alto. In case you’re not familiar with the Suzuki Alto, it looks like this:

Suzuki-Alto-2009-hd

Don’t let the smiling faces of those Europeans fool you: the Suzuki Alto is not a good car. It is slow, cramped, and most definitely not suitable to seat five adults – and their luggage – comfortably. But we made it. Somehow.

We stayed at the somewhat grandly named Champagne Castle hotel, and it was a mixed bag.

View from our balcony

View from our balcony

Good things about the Champagne Castle:

  • Very close to the mountains
  • Decent buffet with a good cheese selection
  • Meals included in price
  • Many interesting animals on the grounds (including peacocks, parrots, and baboons).

Bad things about the Champagne Castle:

  • Neither a castle nor filled with champagne
  • Confusing and unnecessary “dress code” enforced: no shorts or “slipslops” after 6 pm – unclear if this prohibition also applied to one’s room, but we decided to chance it. Also, what are slipslops?
  • Spa was booked until Monday, and also did not appear to be open/actually a spa
  • Many “strictly enforced” rules about checkout time, attire, meal seating, etc. – one must always be on one’s guard at the Champagne Castle
  • Internet only available in “internet hut” on grounds
  • No fitness center
  • Shrieking parrots, marauding baboons

We were baffled by the many and varied rules enforced at the Champagne Castle, and decided that the boss, an affable Belgian who checked in on us multiple times during each meal to make sure we were enjoying the fettucini alfredo, must have it in his head that “fancy” hotels involve dress codes and dinner bells and assigned seating, whether the guests find those things charming or not. Or else maybe the place is run by Nazis. I could see it going either way.

The Champagne Castle

The Champagne Castle

Apart from abiding by the Champagne Castle’s rigid code of conduct, we spent most of the rest of our time in the Drakensbergs sleeping, eating, and hiking.

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On Saturday, we had planned to do a four-hour hike that ended up turning into a seven-hour death march because the guy in charge of the map sort of didn’t know how to read a map. But we made it back, seven long hours later, a little worse for the wear and extremely hungry, but alive. Then we pigged out on buffet food, so it was all good.

Me, at the beginning of our hike

Me, at the beginning of our hike, while I was still smiling

It was a nice weekend, overall, but it’s refreshing to be back in Joburg. I haven’t really been able to work for a month, so I’m looking forward to bearing down and getting a lot done this week. I do love traveling, but you know what they say: the best part about traveling is coming home.

Elephant Plains

I’m now officially back from my month-long vacation(s); I got back to Joburg from safari yesterday. What a week! My friends and I spent four nights at Elephant Plains Game Lodge, in the Sabi Sand private game reserve just north of Kruger National Park.

Sunrise at Elephant Plains

Sunrise at Elephant Plains

I had been on safari before, of course, so I thought I knew what to expect from this trip, but staying in a private game reserve is a very different experience from staying in Kruger itself. For one thing, in a private reserve, you can go off-roading. Which means you can follow animals and drive right up to them. I mean RIGHT up to them.

Oh, hello.

Oh, hello.

Also, all of the rangers have radios so they can communicate with each other about where the good animals are. Thus, we saw, in short order, lions (including cubs), a leopard, elephants (with babies), a rhino, giraffes, hippos, zebras, buffalo, wildebeest, jackals, waterbucks, kudus, nyalas, impalas, a crocodile, and more. Now, I saw most of these animals in Kruger, as well, and it was a wonderful experience. But at Elephant Plains, we got right up in the animals’ grill(s).

Up close and personal

Up close and personal

To see the above rhino in action, here’s a video I took of him drinking, which gives you a better sense of how CLOSE we were.

A couple of times, things got a little scary. For example, a herd of elephants (with several babies) were not happy to see our van and the matriarch, who was quite large and intimidating already, started flapping her ears at us to appear even larger, which is what elephants do when they’re gearing up to fight. Turns out the elephants were mostly bluster; they flapped their ears and gave us threatening looks and then hurried past us, although one stopped to turn and stare us down before moseying down the road.

Mom was intimidating. Babies, not so much.

Mom was intimidating. Babies, not so much.

Then, a few minutes later, another group of elephants appeared, and one of them – I kid you not – sort of charged the van, trumpeting. I had been drifting to sleep because we had gotten up at 5 am for our morning game drive but the sound of an angry elephant three feet from my face woke me up real quick. Again, the elephant was bluffing, and it trudged off into the bush after scaring the living crap out of all of us, but still. Here’s a short video of the first group of elephants, before the matriarch started getting ticked off at us.

The scariest thing that happened – although, at the time, it didn’t seem that scary – was when Elise, Allison, and I went for a bush walk with our trusty ranger, Louis. The point of a bush walk is to see the plants, insects, and small animals that live in the bush, not to see big game, since it’s not safe to be on foot around predators (or other aggressive animals like buffalo or hippos), since they can, you know, kill you. So we were walking along and Louis was showing us a tree with interesting leaves when we spot, maybe 100 meters away, three lionesses. Unlike all of the other times we had seen lions in the reserve, these ones were not lying around listlessly, full from a big meal of impala or zebra. No, these lionesses were coming toward us. Ruh-roh. Louis calmly loaded his rifle (yeah…) and told us to form a single-file line and back slowly toward the nearest tree. Once we were behind the tree, he told us to keep walking and get behind the next tree, and so on, until we were close to the gates of the lodge. At the time, we thought it was cool and exciting, and maybe a little scary, because we didn’t realize that normally, when lions see people on foot, they stand still and then move off into the bush. These ones, though, were hungry, and one of them even crouched down, which is the position lions take when they’re hunting. Um. Close call?

A female leopard

A female leopard

All in all, it was a fantastic trip, truly an experience of a lifetime, and I feel so lucky to have gotten to see these incredible animals up close (and to have emerged unscathed). This will probably be my last safari for the foreseeable future, and it was a great one. Here are a few more photos, although I took so many it’s hard to choose which ones to share. Hope you enjoy.

Waterbok

Waterbok

Me and a giraffe

Me and a giraffe

Female kudu with bird friends

Female kudu with bird friends

Zebras

Zebras

Two young males playing

Two young males playing

 

Cape Town

Hello there! I must apologize, once again, for the intermittent bursts of blogging. I am still mid-vacay and won’t be back full-time for another week, but I wanted to tell you all about the five days I just spent in Cape Town.

View of Table Mountain from hostel

View of Table Mountain from hostel

After Stellenbosch, I bid my in-laws and Al adieu and stayed on in Cape Town to meet up with two of my friends from DC, Elise and Allison, who were kind enough to visit me in South Africa. We stayed at a somewhat famous backpacking hostel called, appropriately enough, The Backpack. It was named one of the 10 “coolest hostels” in the world by The Guardian in 2010 and has won awards for being sustainable (they use all recycled materials, no bottled water, etc., etc.). It was indeed a very nice place with a cool vibe. The only problem is that I am too old for cool vibes. It’s official. We were put into a room that was right next to the common area, so we were treated to thumping bass, loud bellowing, and assorted screeches for all five nights of our stay. My crotchetiness came out full force last night (or, technically, this morning) at 2:15 am when I marched out into the common area and told the jerks who were playing annoying techno music to please, kindly shut. it. off. already. Youngsters these days, am I right? But, noise pollution aside, I’d recommend The Backpack; if nothing else, it has incredible views of Table Mountain.

Cape Town, seen from Table Mountain

Cape Town, seen from Table Mountain

We got up to a lot of stuff in Cape Town, including some shopping, wine drinking, and delicious dining. We even did some outdoorsy stuff! On our second day in town, we decided to hike stunning Table Mountain, which is the impressive, flat-topped mountain overlooking Cape Town. At the top is Table Mountain National Park, which is a World Heritage site and one of the “new seven wonders of nature,” which may or may not be a made up thing. Although, after seeing the views from the top of the mountain, I’m pretty convinced this is one of the top natural wonders of the world. For real. Check out these views.

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Not bad!

The next day, we went on a wine tasting excursion with a company called Wine Flies (be warned: their website has music — sigh). I had pretty low expectations for the wine trip, since I had just spent the weekend with some veritable wine experts (i.e., my husband and his mom) in Stellenbosch and I figured whatever packaged wine tour we went on would pale in comparison. But actually, the tour was fantastic. The guide was knowledgeable without being condescending, we went to some really good wineries (and had a great cheese tasting at one of them), we met some adorable (and naughty) dachshunds, and we ended the day with brandy and dried apricots.

My new best friend

My new best friend

A lunch companion

She joined us at lunch

Middlevlei winery

Middlevlei winery

Brandy cups

Brandy cups

Needless to say, by the end of the day, everyone on the tour bus had become best friends. At least until we all stumbled out and went our separate ways. Then we totally forgot one another’s names.

The next morning, bright and early, we went on a tour of the Cape Coast, which included stops at an island full of seals, the penguin beach at the nature reserve within Table Mountain National Park, and the Cape of Good Hope itself.  The penguins were my favorite part, obviously. They’re so cute and weird and awkward! And they have a pretty sweet beach they get to hang out on:

Penguin beach

Penguin beach

Nature reserve, Table Mountain National Park

 

We also saw some pretty stunning vistas as we drove down the coast toward the Cape of Good Hope. Here are just a few photos to give you an idea of the landscape:

Cape of Good Hope

Cape of Good Hope

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To round out a trip full of natural beauty and wildlife, we spent our last night in Cape Town stuffing our faces with awesome seafood, wine, and beer, and then dancing at one of the best bars I’ve been to in quite a while, The Waiting Room. The DJ, the so-called Daddy Warbucks, looked like a nerdy, less bald version of Prince William and he was awesome. After dancing for an hour or two, we came back to the hostel and I watched Juno on TV in one of the common rooms, by myself, sitting on a beanbag chair, until I realized it was past 2 am and time for my old bones to be in bed.

Cape Town

Cape Town

This morning, we said goodbye to Cape Town and headed back to Joburg. And even though Cape Town is, by pretty much any standard, way better than Joburg, it still feels good to be back home.

Joburg

Joburg

Stellenbosch

I’ve been lucky enough to spend the past three days in beautiful Stellenbosch in the Western Cape. Stellenbosch has something for everyone: amazing food, outstanding wine, and stunning scenery.

Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch is the second oldest European settlement in South Africa (after Cape Town). It was founded in 1639 (!) by a man named Simon van der Stel, who was governor of the Cape Colony (incidentally, Stellenbosch means Stel’s Bush, so the ever-humble van der Stel named the town after himself). It’s sometimes easy to forget how long the Dutch have been kicking around South Africa, but in places like Stellenbosch, you realize that they’ve been here a super long time, making wine and playing sports and generally being rugged.

Anyway, Stellenbosch has come a long way over the last 374 years and is now a beautiful, touristy university town situated among various mountain ranges.

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Art at Tokara winery

Art at Tokara winery

IMG_4261It’s the ideal spot to launch a wine tasting weekend, since many of the country’s best wineries are right here. We did just that, arriving on Thursday night and setting out bright and early on Friday morning to begin quite the decadent weekend of all-out wine and food gluttony.

Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch

Al’s mom is a sommelier in Canada, so she had a professional interest in going to some of the best wineries to try their wares. I won’t try to summarize all of the wineries we visited (I’ll leave that to the expert, my mother-in-law), but we went to a lot of beautiful wineries and had some excellent wines.

Tokara winery

Tokara winery

 

Some of my favorites, both for scenery and wine, were Thelema, Tokara, Boschendal, and Winery of Good Hope, where we had a private tasting of FOURTEEN WINES with the winemaker. We fairly stumbled out of that one and had to spend the rest of the day recuperating.

The remains of the day

The remains of the day (Boschendal winery)

The highlight of the weekend was probably our dinner at Rust en Vrede (“Rest and Peace” in Afrikaans), one of the top restaurants in South Africa. We opted for the six-course tasting menu with wine pairings and holy crap, it was awesome. It actually ended up being more like nine courses, what with all of the amuse-bouches and pre-desserts and post-desserts and mid-desserts, and every course was spectacular (with the notable exception of the meat course that included beef tongue and sweetbreads, blech).

Cheese course, Rust en Vrede

Cheese course, Rust en Vrede

Everything about this dinner was impeccable: the food, the wine, the service, the atmosphere. Afterwards, we spoke to the chef, John Shuttleworth, who looked to be approximately 15 years old, and congratulated him on a job well done.

Rust en Vrede

Rust en Vrede

Rust en Vrede

Rust en Vrede

Today, we’re off to another top South African restaurant, Jordan, and I can hardly wait. Then Al has to go back to Joburg (noo!) while I stay in Cape Town to meet up with two of my friends, Elise and Allison, who are visiting from DC (yaay!). Should be a good time! I will try my darndest to write another post or two during my vacay. In the meantime, hope everyone’s having a fabulous weekend, and happy Sunday.

Kruger

Last night, I got back from a wonderful weekend trip to Kruger National Park, one of the largest game reserves in Africa. It covers over 7,500 square miles. Parts of the park have been protected by the South African government since 1898 and it became a national park in 1926. Because of its long history of conservation, the park is home to an incredible variety of flora and fauna, including, according to the official website, 336 species of trees, 49 of fish, 34 of amphibians, 114 of reptiles, 507 of birds, and 147 of mammals. Wow.

I went with Al’s mom and step-dad on Thursday afternoon and Al met us late on Friday night. Over the course of four days, we saw a dazzling number of animals, some of which are quite rare in the park (including a leopard – there are only 1000 of them in the whole place). I’m not sure if we just had amazing luck or whether the park is always like this – filthy with animals, I tell you! – but it was awesome. I kept a list of the animals we saw and here it is: hyena, rhino, elephant, lion, leopard, wildebeest, kudu, impala, giraffe, baboon, hippo, many birds (incl. vulture, African fish eagle, various starling, European roller and Guinea fowl), rabbit, leopard tortoise, zebra, Vervet monkey, bush pig, warthog, white mongoose, ground squirrel (we think), and water buffalo. And probably others, but those were the big ones.

Here are just a few of the photos I took this weekend:

Warthog

Warthog

Sunset on safari

Sunset on safari

Wildebeest

Wildebeest

Starling

Starling

Baby zebra and mother

Baby zebra and mother

Giraffe

Giraffe

Elephants in a row

Elephants in a row

Male impalas play fighting

Male impalas play fighting

Mini croc

Mini croc

Baboon mother and baby

Baboon mother and baby

Elephant eating

Elephant eating

Lioness RIGHT next to our truck

Lioness RIGHT next to our truck

Shy leopard

Shy leopard

 

Soweto

Al’s mom (Carol) and step-dad (Gerald) are visiting us here in South Africa and we have many exciting things planned while they are here, including a trip to Kruger for a safari and a visit to Cape Town for wine tasting. But when trying to brainstorm things for us to do here in Joburg, I could only come up with the following activities: eat, drink, or leave Joburg.  We opted for all three today and left Joburg — sort of — to go on a tour of Soweto (Southwest Townships), something I’d been meaning to do since I got here.

Soweto shanty house

Soweto shanty house

First, a tiny bit of background: townships were the peripheral urban areas to which non-white South Africans were evicted or relocated from the cities before and during Apartheid. In Joburg, black people were moved outside of the city proper starting in the late 1880s after the 1886 discovery of gold in the area. What is now known as Soweto began in 1904 with the establishment of a township called Klipspruit, which was created to house black laborers (many of whom worked in the mines). More and more black people were relocated to this area over the years, particularly after 1948, when the National Party took over and began the policy of Apartheid. During Apartheid, starting in the 1950s, the government created separate townships for each of the non-white racial groups (coloured, black, and Indian). Soweto grew quickly (and in an unplanned way) over the years and today is home to around 4 million people.

Soweto "hostels" - housing for laborers

Soweto “hostels” – housing for laborers

Soweto is well-known because of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, which represented a turning point in the anti-Apartheid sentiment in South Africa and worldwide. On June 16, 1976, a group of students began to protest the government’s policy of forcing black African students to be educated in Afrikaans, rather than English. That day, as a group of 10,000 students marched in an area called Orlando West, police were called in and opened fire on them, killing adults and children. Soweto was engulfed by riots and by the end of the Soweto Uprising, at least 176 (but perhaps as many as 600) people had been killed.

Sign from Soweto Uprising

Sign from Soweto Uprising

Today, Soweto seems an odd mix of desperate poverty, well-oiled tourism, and flashy wealth. Our tour started with the part of Soweto where the so-called “black millionaires” have moved in. Our guide explained that some wealthy black South Africans moved back to Soweto and revamped certain neighborhoods in an effort to revitalize the township as a whole. There are truly lovely houses there, with fancy cars in the driveways, swimming pools, satellite TVs, the works. And then, you go a few blocks away and you see this:

Soweto shanty town

Kliptown

The poverty is so staggering that it’s hard to process. How do people live in houses with no running water, no sewage system, no insulation, no cooling, no room to move around or breathe? How do people make this work? I felt dismayed and helpless at the poverty we saw in Soweto, not only because of the depth of the misery but because of its breadth – millions of people live like this.

School wall, Soweto

School wall, Soweto

Within Kliptown, one of the shanty-town areas of Soweto, we visited a nursery school for kids ages one through six called Pastoral Centre. This was the most heartening (and adorable) part of our day. We were greeted by a classroom of six-year-olds who performed several songs and poems for us and it was quite possibly the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. Here’s a very short video I took while they were singing:

We met the principal, Pam Mfaxa, a truly impressive woman who started the nursery school to meet a need she saw in her community, giving poor kids a chance to succeed. The school gives the kids three balanced meals a day, allows them to sing and play creatively, and even teaches them computer skills. They’re intervening in these kids’ lives at a time when brain development is critical for success later in life, so the work they do is hugely important. They also have outreach programs for the elderly and other members of the community (including HIV/AIDS awareness and condom distribution). I was very impressed with the entire operation and it was one of the most hopeful things I saw in Soweto.

Cuteness!

Cuteness!

The tour also included a visit to a shebeen, which is the term for the formerly illicit pubs that sprang up in the townships during Apartheid, since black Africans weren’t allowed to visit bars or pubs for white people.  The shebeen we visited was called, appropriately enough, The Shack. They offered us a taste of the local brew, Joburg Beer, which is made with sorghum, maize, wheat, water and yeast. It had the consistency of chunky milk and smelled like bread. I took a pass, but I did get a photo of the carton.

Joburg beer and calabash cup

Joburg beer and calabash cup

We also visited the Hector Pieterson museum, named after the first person shot by the police in the Soweto Uprising. He was thirteen years old when he died. The museum was fascinating and moving and troubling. One thing that I learned today, which I was not fully aware of before, was how central a role the revolt against Afrikaans in schools played in the entire South African liberation movement. I knew that during Apartheid, everyone was forced to speak Afrikaans in school, but I didn’t realize the difficulties it caused or how hated it was among black South Africans as a means of oppression.

Freedom Charter

Freedom Charter

Although the tour of Soweto was emotionally heavy and rather exhausting, I am so glad we went. I really got a look at a different vision of South Africa from the one that I see every day, which is comfortable, walled-off, a bit boring, even. Soweto was vibrant, sad, difficult, and hopeful all at once. I am not sure what I can do to help, but I will be contributing funds to Pastoral Centre, which relies on donations to stay in operation. I’m so encouraged that there are organizations that are trying to bridge the opportunity gap between the poor and the rich in this country by helping those who are most innocent and full of potential: children.

Pastoral Centre - one-year-olds

Pastoral Centre – one-year-olds

By the way, for anyone considering a visit to Joburg and who wants to go on a Soweto tour, I highly recommend the tour company we used, Themba Day Tours. They were very professional and reasonably priced and they struck a good balance between lightheartedness and respect for the place we were visiting.

Tea at the Westcliff

One of my friends here, Mare, had a birthday tea today at The Westcliff, a hotel with great views of the leafy top of Joburg. The Westcliff, being fancy and a wee bit colonial (awkward), serves a lovely high tea, complete with finger sandwiches, scones, sweets, and, you know, tea.

View from the tea room at The Westcliff

View from the tea room at The Westcliff

They didn’t have the kind of tea I normally go for (i.e., boring, Irish tea) but they did have all sorts of exotic, flowery things, including one tea that opened up into an actual flower when placed in hot water. I went with the least exotic kind of tea. Nothing flowering, blooming, or otherwise germinating in my tea, thank you very much. The serving implements were quite pretty and I felt very fancy pouring tea out of an individual glass pot being kept warm by a votive.

Tea, steeping

Tea, steeping

Tea, steeped

Tea, steeped

I ate some finger sandwiches, a mini quiche, and some fruit salad, and valiantly avoided the scrumptious looking desserts. They even had red velvet cupcakes, a particular weakness of mine, but I resisted.

Toward the end of our tea, it started to get cloudy, and by the time we left, it was pouring down rain, monsoon-style.

Clouds overhead

Clouds overhead

View from inside the car - crazy rain

View from inside the car – crazy rain

All in all, a nice little getaway for a Monday afternoon. Now I’m home, listening to the rain bucket down, and feeling inspired to get back to revising my novel (again).  Sigh. See you tomorrow, and happy Monday.

 

 

Cradle of Humankind and karaoke

This weekend was, and continues to be, packed, hence my lack of blogging.  On Friday, we went to a lovely dinner party at our friends’ house and woke up terribly hungover on Saturday. That afternoon, we bundled off to the Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage Site where they discovered some super old (2.3 million years!) bones from an early human species, Australopithecus africanus.  So I guess it’s the cradle of humanoid-kind, but okay.

We went there for a birthday picnic for a friend. This wasn’t the kind of picnic where you spread a blanket on the ground and eat some sandwiches. It was this kind of picnic:

 

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Schmancy!  The Cradle is very pretty, so it was a nice way to spend an afternoon.

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After lunch, we drove back to Joburg and immediately went to dinner with some new friends, which then led seamlessly into a trip to our local bar, The Colony Arms, for some karaoke.  I didn’t sing (I just wasn’t in the mood, and I’ll be danged before I’ll half-ass karaoke), but Al sung “Friends in Low Places” by Garth Brooks, and despite the fact that he and I were probably the only two people in the entire place who had ever heard that song, it was a hit.

Drinks list

Drinks list – remind me to try the Suitcase before I leave South Africa

And now we’re off again, to a lunch at another friend’s house. Who knew we were so popular, right? As we speak, Al is baking some honey-wheat bread to bring along (whereas I am just bringing my sunny personality).

This weekend has been great, full of new friends and nice food and booze, but it’ll be nice to have a chill night in tonight and, hopefully, to plow through the last two episodes of Season 3 of Downton Abbey (no spoilers, but holy crap, Episode 5, you guys).

Happy weekend to everyone!