The Gogos Want a Picture of their Chickens

Some time ago, after we had only been in South Africa for about a month, I posted a description of our “new normal.” Now, nearly five months in, it is safe to say that our new normal is infinitely stranger. It’s just that we don’t always notice.

Until it slaps us in the face.

Take this:

The other day, I came home from work (from a volunteer consultancy position, that is), wrestled with an energetic Indie, and heard the following from Jenny:

“Oh, by the way, the gogos want a picture of their chickens.”

The scary thing is that I knew exactly what she meant.

When my mom and my Mike were here, they observed that our patterns of speech and word choices had already changed, both in subtle and occasionally dramatic ways. We’ve previously blogged about things like “howzit?” and must vs. should, but now we are truly speaking like locals. Well, almost.

I’ve started using “Heita!”, a sort of township greeting, with the security guards and gardeners on campus, and we’ve both started using the phrase, “Is that fine?” (with a necessary lilt on the word fine) when confirming a date/time for a meeting, when requesting an outside table at a restaurant or just generally when asking whether we are allowed to do something.

But the “gogos and chickens” comment takes us to a whole new level.

Fortunately, there is a simple explanation.

You may recall that we celebrated Jenny’s birthday twice, once at Moyo and once in Mamelodi. In Mamelodi, Ephney introduced us to some of her neighbors — two older women, grannies, or “gogos” — who have in their mattress-coil-fenced yard a few (free-range, shall we say) roosters and chickens that became the subjects of some photos I took that day. Because the gogos were so kind to us and had asked me to take several photos of them and their house, I decided to have a dozen or so photos printed for Ephney to share with them, including one of the chickens.

However, as she was riding the train home one day, Ephney let one of her friends peruse the photos. That friend, for one reason or another, wanted to keep the photo of the chickens.

Your guess is as good as mine.

So, Ephney gave the remaining photos to the gogos and told them that there is also one of the chickens. What she didn’t tell them is that her friend took it. Instead, she told the gogos that we have the photo of the chickens hanging on our wall. Yeah…not yet.

“How are your white people?” the gogos asked Ephney the other day. I suppose she said we were fine, but what they really wanted to know was whether they could get that picture of their chickens.

Yes, of course. I will print another one just now.

The gogos' chickens

Purple Rain

Legend has it that if a student passes under a Jacaranda tree and one of the delicate, purple blossoms floats down onto the student’s head, that student is guaranteed to pass all exams. However, given that exams coincide with the end of Jacaranda season – there are so many blossoms falling on campus right now that we are all dancing in purple rain – virtually every student should pass.

Students walk under flowering Jacarandas on the UP campus

From where I sat as I drafted this post (on paper, initially), there was absolutely no chance of any blossom of any kind falling on my head. That’s because I drafted this post in the underground hide near a small watering hole in Pilanesberg National Park. Safari stories and photos coming soon, but for now, let’s talk trees.

While the Jacaranda is not native to Southern Africa – it is originally from South America – you wouldn’t know it by walking around Pretoria in the springtime. Once each of the 70,000-plus Jacarandas popped purple, it appeared as though Pretoria had been the Jacaranda City forever.

Actually, Pretoria is fairly fortunate to still be the Jacaranda City at all. See, beautiful as they are, Jacaranda trees are also extreme water hogs. South Africa is a water-scarce country, particularly in the northern highveld, and many communities in provinces like Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Gauteng – including Johannesburg – were forced to remove the Jacarandas to conserve water. Pretoria (and most parts of Johannesburg, to be honest) was spared, and the city’s treasured trees today survive.

In the older sections of town, such as Brooklyn, Jacarandas line the streets of entire neighborhoods, their dark, twisty branches forming a blocks-long canopy. Early in the morning and again around 4:00pm, these streets become blanketed with a plush, purple carpet, as if the asphalt is not asphalt but a reflecting pool mirroring the arbor above.

Jacarandas line the streets of Brooklyn, Pretoria

For us, and for Jenny in particular, the Jacarandas express more than just the beauty of Mother Nature, they represent the memory of sister Jackie. The flowering, flourishing and fading of the similarly named Jacarandas is a bittersweet parallel to the life of Jenny’s late sister, whose favorite color was, yes, purple.

If Jackie was still with us, I think she would really like to see these photos of Pretoria’s Jacaranda trees. She’d just wonder why the heck we wanted to go all the way to South Africa to see them.

Where is Jay-Z?

So, yesterday morning I was at the Ethiopian Embassy in Pretoria to apply for visitors’ visas. After I signed in at the security gate, I could tell that the security guard needed to wand me to check for weapons, priceless krugerrands, etc. Like most embassy guards, he was a black South African. Seeing me as a white person in Pretoria, he started speaking to me in Afrikaans.

“Oh, I don’t speak Afrikaans,” I said.

“Ah, English!” he replied.

“Yep. I’m an American,” I blurted, for some odd reason, as if that fact would somehow help me at the Ethiopian Embassy.

“You’re an American?!”


“You’re an American? Then where is Jay-Z?”

“Sorry?” I stammered, thinking he couldn’t have just asked me, a weird-looking white dude standing at the gates of the Ethiopian Embassy in South Africa, the whereabouts of Jay-Z.

“Where is Jay-Z?” he quizzed me again, smiling broadly.

“Uhhh…I guess he’s in Brooklyn?” I tried. And as soon as it came out of my mouth, it dawned on both of us that we were standing in Pretoria’s Brooklyn neighborhood, meaning that Jay-Z was, indeed, in Brooklyn and not in Brooklyn at the same time.

We had a laugh. I went inside.

If only my conversation inside had gone as well…