Her name was Lola. She was a showgirl.
These are the lyrics competing for my attention as I sit on a hard, faux leather chair at OR Tambo International Airport. I am here awaiting the arrival of IB 6051, the flight from Madrid ferrying my mom and my Mike to Johannesburg. They should land in a few minutes.
Meanwhile, the airport’s very own radio station is blasting Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” throughout Terminal A, which just manages to drown out the harmonies of more than 60 white-clad Christian pilgrims arriving in South Africa from across the continent. It’s a small world after all.
But this is not what I wanted to tell you. I wanted to tell you about Jenny’s birthday celebrations. They were – yes, there was more than one, as per usual – affairs to remember. Obviously, the mere fact that we are celebrating in South Africa is different, but it’s more than that.
With multiple gatherings in mind from the get-go, we ordered two fancy cakes from a little shop called Isabella’s. Stella introduced us to Isabella’s in our first days here, for better or for worse. One cake was red velvet with cream cheese frosting (of course), and the other was a lemon poppy seed with real lavender icing. Serious frou frou.
Jenny and I, the two cakes, and seven of our pals – including Stella and Mokubung, Nikki, Dave, Hannah, Anna, and sheRyan – drove out to Moyo restaurant for dinner under the stars. Good food, good wine, good conversation and great cake! A couple of the musical performers even came over to play their mbiras – Zimbabwean finger xylophones – and sing “Happy Birthday” to Jenny. It was a lot like a birthday at Olive Garden, if Olive Garden was a pan-African restaurant inside a nature reserve in South Africa, rather than a microwaved pasta joint inside a mall parking lot in the South Suburbs. But then, Moyo doesn’t have endless salad and breadsticks. Advantage: push.
What was endless that night was the cake. Whoa. We barely made a dent. Which is what we had hoped, as we made plans to take the remaining cake to Mamelodi the next day for an afternoon party with Ephney and her family.
And so we did.
Mamelodi is about a 35-minute drive from our place, which makes us appreciate all the more how Ephney and others like her who have jobs in Pretoria but don’t have cars actually get to work. Trains, buses, minibus taxis – some crazy combination each day, plus miles of walking, is usually what it takes to get here. It’s a schlep.
We met up with Ephney at the Mamelodi campus of the University of Pretoria, where Jenny and I had participated in the Mandela Day Cleanup shortly after we arrived in South Africa. The campus was the best landmark for us in the turbulent traffic of the township, but it is a 20-minute walk from Ephney’s home.
With Ephney now in the passenger’s seat to guide us, we drove up the “tar road” and through a couple of “anything goes” intersections before cutting across traffic to jump a small curb and join a dirt path on our right.
Soon, Mamelodi was closing in on us. Just outside the driver’s side window, nearly within arm’s reach, was a small tuck shop selling foodstuffs and beverages from a high, brown counter. On the left, four women stood talking, so close to the road I thought I might clip them with the side mirror. Up ahead, women, children, and some men queued at the communal water tap for their turn to fill up an empty plastic jug that once contained cooking oil, fuel, or possibly even industrial sealant.
At a fork in the ROAD track, Ephney directed us to the left, towards a large mud puddle maybe three cars in length. Already a bit nervous driving on a road infamous for blowing out car tires, I tried to steel myself for this next adventure. It can’t be that deep. I’ll just inch closer to that makeshift fence on the side of the road. C’mon, Rio, you can do it!
But wait. There’s more.
Bouncing slowly along the furrowed path, we came upon a small shebeen, immediately past which I was to turn right, Ephney said.
“OK, if I am to understand this correctly,” my brain said to me quickly, though in an inside voice, “I must execute a 90-degree turn on a rutted road not much wider than the car itself, and I must do this while all these people drinking outside the shebeen – people who can now clearly see that one of their neighbors has white people visiting today, well lah-di-dah – are now quietly watching.”
“Yes,” I replied to myself. “That about sums it up.”
Once we – team effort – squeaked through the turn, it was just a few more meters to Ephney’s house. When I say “house” I mean home. And when I say “home” I mean shack.
But what’s in a name? A rose is a rose, after all, and Ephney grows beautiful roses outside her home. She takes pride in her place, was eager to show us around and implored me to “shoot the rooms” with my camera.
First, though, it was cake time. We sat outside around a small table as Ephney cut the cakes, her husband Alex served Cokes and the kids – including her younger daughter and her friends – alit in the grass. After we sang “Happy Birthday” and Jenny blew out the two candles on her piece of cake, we began eating. Except for the kids, that is. They all had their pieces wrapped in the fall-themed napkins Jenny brought along for the occasion. Why?
“They want to take the cake and napkins home to their mothers so they can brag about it,” Ephney explained. “So they can brag that they got a nice cake from a white American’s birthday party. They want their mothers to see the cake.”
The rest of us didn’t hesitate. Soon, we were touring Ephney and Alex’s home and neighborhood.
Their home is simple but neat. The entry leads to a small kitchen, where an electric hot plate and a little gas burner serve as the range. They pay to borrow electricity from someone else so they can power the stove, a small refrigerator, a TV and a single light bulb. There are two bedrooms in the main house, one for Alex, Ephney and the baby, and one for the two girls, aged 15 and 4.
A detached, second unit holds a spare bedroom, for guests, and a storage space. This is where they usually bathe, using large plastic tubs, but warned us to be careful as the rooms have “many rats.”
With no indoor plumbing, it follows that the only bathroom is an outhouse, a rickety drop toilet. One. For five people.
Walking along the dirt path, we notice all the trash at our feet. Crushed beer cans, plastic bags, candy wrappers, broken bottles. We meet a few neighbors, some excited to meet the Americans, some indifferent. I’ll let the photos do the talking from here, for the most part, but the final highlight of the day was this:
One “street” and narrow path over live two elderly women, “gogos” as they are called. They were keen to meet us, to try to speak with us in Afrikaans, the white person’s language. A younger woman was there making a sort of home-brew beer from water, yeast and rotten pineapple. Did we try some? Yes, stupidly, we did. A moment on the lips, a potential lifetime of dysentery on the…well, anyway.
The two gogos, the brew master and another friend really wanted me to shoot their photos. Outside the house. Inside the house. Be sure to take a photo of our photos. I would shoot and show, shoot and show, each time the ladies laughing louder as they viewed the images on the camera’s small screen.
After another visit, with some guys “just chilling” and drinking beer, it was time to head home. As we drove out, and before negotiating another right-angle turn, a group of kids yelled hello from behind a fence. I reached my hand out the window to give high-fives and to say, “I’m fine! How are you?” to each little greeting. We were now celebrities.
You can imagine that there was much to discuss on the half-hour drive home. Can you believe the place? The people were so nice! We should not have tasted that beer.
And then we got home. To our three-bedroom, brick home. To our yard. To our patio. To our dog who flew here from America on a plane and eats expensive food and gourmet treats.
“Just another day for you and me in paradise,” Jenny sighed.
“Yeah,” I said. “Happy birthday.”