FROG HOSPITAL -- March 2, 2020
Why Are You Walking Alone?
By Fred Owens
Going to Nyanga, as I said, but it takes time. I am writing this story as an email installment serial -- writing in chunks of a thousand words, getting feedback from a panel of dedicated readers who have ideas of their own as to where this story is going, but I know where this story is going, I can see it in my mind, everything but the ending......Is there a hurry? I already skipped lightly through Capetown and forgot to mention that I waved at Nelson Mandela as he rode through the street in his limousine on his way to the opening of the South African Parliament. Nelson Mandela himself. But I skipped that part of the story because I got a message from Fatima Lahrer to go to Nyanga, and I got a boost from my daughter Eva who called me from Ohio saying it was time to move on from Capetown. I didn't fly 8,000 miles from Chicago to Capetown just to lie on the beach --- but the waters of the Indian Ocean were so warm!
It takes 800 miles from Capetown to Johannesburg. You can fly. And the express train serves very well.... but I took the bus because I wanted to look out the window and see the veld. I took the bus for 200 miles going due north, to Calvinia, a nothing town, where I planned to do nothing. Nobody goes to Calvinia, why would they? With ten thousand people surrounded by semi-desert grazing land full of cows. Not giraffes and zebras and ostriches .... just cows.
Calvinia was named after John Calvin, the gloomy Swiss religious reformer who preached the predestination of all souls, that we were doomed to hell or to be anointed in heaven, our fate was decided from birth and we had no choice. Calvinia was founded by Afrikaaners who practiced this gloomy religion amidst their cows, in the veld, in country that looked a lot like West Texas. Except this was really Africa. The Afrikaaners have their own language. They don't like the English. They didn't like me, except for the manager of the hotel who made a completely phony effort to be friendly with me, "Hey, buddy, How's it?"
I went to my room, stretched out on the bed, and started reading the last 100 pages of Doris Lessing's autobiography, Under My Skin about her childhood in Zimbabwe. Then I went out for a walk, through the town, but there is nothing to see in that town and I liked that because I just wanted to walk. Then I walked out of the town into the fields, and why was I walking alone? This walking gave me a chance to think, or really, to unthink, to be in Africa, just breathing and walking and feeling the earth.
I saw the cattle grazing. This is dry country. The first people were the San, the hunter-gatherers. They lived for many thousands of years in all of southern Africa --- had the place to themselves, as it were, occupying some of the dry country but also the more abundant country that got rain. Then the KhoiKhoi came drifting down from central Africa, driving their cattle, because they were pastoralists, and not hunter-gatherers. They pushed the San people aside and took over the greener fields for the cows. Many thousands of years ago this happened. The San people moved deeper into the Kalahari Desert where the cattle could not graze.
In turn, the KhoiKhois were pushed aside by the Bantu people migrating from Cameroon, bringing cows and crops, enslaving the San people and the KhoiKhoi. The Bantu farmed and grew millet and made beer from the millet. Then came the Afrikaaners who whipped and enslaved the Bantus, and drove off the San people because they were unfit for labor. And finally the English came with their Queen Victoria and ruled over all, that is, until Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress took back the country for themselves and now the Bantu people dwell in their own land, and might evict the Afrikaaners and the English. And what do the San people say about all this, when it all used to be theirs? What do I say about all this? I can only say This is Africa and I am here now.
This is what I thought about when I walked alone in the fields, the veld, outside of Calvinia, where the scenery is far from spectacular although they told me people come in the springtime to see the wild flowers. But you see the cattle, spread out to the horizon and the African people love their cows more than anything. They never de-horn the cows but admire the long curves of the horns. Cattle is wealth. Cattle is the bride-price or lobolo. Nelson Mandela finally divorced his wife Winnie because she was so difficult to live with and he yearned for a kinder woman to see him through his elder years. That wife-to-be was Grace Machel, the widow of Samora Machel. who had been the President of neighboring Mozambique until he died in a mysterious plane crash in 1986. But in 1998, to overcome his solitude, Mandela married Grace Machel and his clan sent a herd of cattle to her clan. That is the lobolo, the bride-price. The amount is negotiated. It can be a very elaborate deal. It can be very enjoyable to dicker and all the relatives have an opinion about the worth of this cow or that cow. And the modern bride objects to being part of a bargain with cows. Am I being sold, she cries out. I went to college, she says, I have a degree. And her mother says of course, and because you are educated and earn a living you are worth that much more. Your husband-to-be will have to pay more. This sounds ugly when you think in terms of money, but cows are beautiful in their own right and never ugly to the people of Africa.
But I was walking in the field, not thinking about all that but wondering, what the hell am I doing in Africa? And why am I going to Nyanga because I refused to look it up in the guide book, because it was one of those missions where you don't ask questions or look for details, you just go to Nyanga because Fatima Lahrer said to do that and my daughter Eva said so too.
Walking alone in the veld far from town, not being from there, not being a tourist on the tourist trail, not being a volunteer working as part of a non-profit development project, not having a recognized project to extol. I was a long way from town now, picking up rocks, not to keep, just to examine. I needed time to adjust.
I got back on the bus and rode to Johannesburg. We won't stop long in Johannesburg, just change buses for Zimbabwe. Jo-Burg, violent, dangerous, gold mines, fast cars, weapons -- migrants from poorer countries come to Jo-burg for work.
Too much news these days, the virus, the election, and the stock market ..... Let us all take a deep breath and embrace -- hold it -- embracing is getting kind of doubtful -- maybe air kisses and friendly waves.......