March Madness, April Fools’ and the Cuteness Overload that was Boom-Boom’s Party

I didn’t do anything tricky. I didn’t try to convince Jenny that we won the Mega Millions Lottery. I didn’t tell Indie that her arch nemesis, Mr. Nasty Tinkerbell, was hiding in the bushes. I didn’t even write a blog post confessing that this whole time you thought we were living in Pretoria and going on safaris we were actually living in Peoria and going to Steak ‘n Shake.

OK, I did trick Indie with the cat thing.

But, I didn’t do anything for April Fools’ Day this year, mostly because I was up too late with March Madness the night before. It’s a crippling disease, being a Kentucky basketball fan. I caught the bug in 1998 when we moved to Lexington and the symptoms get worse every year. Even Jenny has a mild case from time to time.

Saturday night’s game started at just past midnight here in Peoria Pretoria. By the time the adrenaline wore off, my heart resumed a normal rhythm and every possible recap and analysis piece was read, it was 3:00am. Which is approximately the time the national championship game will tip off on Monday night Tuesday morning.

I’ll be there! #BBN

March Madness. For real. Where did the month go?

UK's Anthony Davis & Doron Lamb after beating Louisville

I know it began with the music of the night because I remember that Jenny and I saw a quite nice performance of “Phantom of the Opera” at the gaudy Montecasino. And, I know it ended with a performance of the Kentucky Wildcats beating Louisville in the Final Four. But the rest?

Well, one of the major highlights was an all-too-short visit from Jaimie and Zach – a visit that fooled the daylights out of Indie, who seemed sure that the pack was back together again. We’ll have more of an update on that ASAP.

What I want to tell you about now, though, is not the wild night of pasta making, not the multinational cocktail party, not the book launch, not the breakfast with the old gang at the guesthouse, not the exhaustive quest for a pair of real basketball shoes in a country that knows only rugby, soccer and cricket…No. Those are fine stories, but what I really want to tell you about is Boom-Boom’s party.

Boom-Boom is a girl. She is now six-years-old. She has an older sister, Dimakatso (or Katso, 15), and a younger brother, Siboniso (2). The father figure in her life is a sweet man from Swaziland named Alex. Alex lives in a shack in Mamelodi with Boom-Boom, Katso, Siboniso and the children’s mother, the one and only Ephney.

Of course, Boom-Boom isn’t her real name. Her real name is Vuyokazi, but she got the nickname “Boom-Boom” when she was a chubby little baby. See, “fatty boom-boom” is the not-so-nice name given to the overweight in South Africa. Even though she’s now a skinny six-year-old, the Boom-Boom moniker seems to have stuck.

When Ephney told us that she was planning a party for Boom-Boom’s birthday, we were excited. Jenny had been thinking about sewing a little dress or outfit for her, and the birthday party would be the perfect occasion, and deadline, for her work.

Jenny consulted with Ephney on style and color, shopped for the perfect fabrics, cut out tiny patterns on the dining room table, spent many nights hunkered over the sewing machine and had a very fun fitting session with the client one afternoon in Mamelodi.

As the day approached, we coordinated with Ephney on logistics, helping to deliver payment to the municipal park where the party would be held, driving down to the central business district to fetch the giant birthday cake and making an early, day-of run out to Plasticland for additional party buckets. It was all coming together.

With Ephney’s friend Kate, Kate’s daughter and niece, we arrived at the park ahead of schedule and began to organize the party site. There was just one problem: The minibus taxis Ephney arranged to transport the partygoers from Mamelodi were late, very late. We only had the tables and chairs rented for two hours, and the five of us were already an hour into the “party.”

Eventually, the party arrived at the park. Not party as in a group of people, though that is accurate enough. I mean party as in more than twenty screaming, singing, dancing kids who somehow managed to cram themselves into a 12-seat minibus.

It was a sight to behold. Here were a couple dozen, excited, free township kids arriving at a public park in a white neighborhood in Pretoria. Awesome. Sure, the other kids at the park were mixed and playing well together, but this was just so fun to see.

And then…

And then there was Boom-Boom.

Boom-Boom (left) looking too cute in her new outfit (by Jenny) and wings

In her polka-dot top, pink stretch pants and matching headband, she was cuteness personified. Jenny’s outfit was a success. And so was the party.

Boom-Boom's birthday party at Zita Park

Boom-Boom getting ready to cut the cake (which she did, with a giant knife, to the horror and delight of the other kids)

Our little buddy, Andries

What Andries will look like as an adult, the never-smiling Kendrick Perkins

Just kidding,'ve got a great smile

As you can see, I served as the official photographer. Ephney wanted to make sure we shot each kid individually. But, by the time we started doing that, most kids were in swimsuits, as there was a nice pool at the park. So, I now have a computer full of photos of kids in swimsuits. I hope I can clear customs on the way home…

Boom-Boom & friends on their way to the pool

Happy family

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

An Affair to Remember. Twice.

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.

The cakes! Lemon poppy seed w/lavender icing, red velvet w/cream cheese frosting

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.

Jenny's birthday at Moyo

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!

Whew. Yes.

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.”

Ephney cutting cake for Jenny's birthday

The kids hold their cake in napkins so they can brag about it to their families


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.

Front door to Ephney & Alex's home in Mamelodi


Living room

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.”

Storage space ("filled with 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.

The gogos of Mamelodi

Visiting with Ephney's neighbors

Inside the gogos' house

Photo of photos in the gogos' house (how meta)

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.”

Tabula Rasa, or “Shoot me!” at Itsoseng Family Fun Day

Toothless smiles from painted faces. Tiny thumbs-up from bounding bodies. Squeals of joy from the mouths of babes. Saturday.

Ice cream and jumpy houses. Slippery slides, soaked soapy sudskins. Water hoses, soccer balls, paintball guns. Mamelodi.

In the shadow of the shacks, on the edge-of-Pretoria-slash-edge-of-the-world, took place one of the happiest events I’ve ever witnessed. On the day Jenny and her family said goodbye to the last of a generation, I said hello to the promise of the next.

The event was a Family Fun Day sponsored by the Itsoseng Clinic, a mental health and counseling center affiliated with the University of Pretoria and housed on UP’s Mamelodi Campus. Itsoseng provides psychological services to the Mamelodi campus as well as people in the broader Mamelodi community.

I went as a volunteer. Our friend, Hannah, an American and fellow Fulbrighter from Kansas University, connected with Itsoseng as part of her amazing work in South Africa, and invited me to lend a hand. Though I was willing to do whatever was necessary, it turned out that they had use for a photographer. I have a camera. Volunteer match.

Itsoseng Family Fun Day in Mamelodi

Though the event was scheduled to start at 9:00, the first group of children arrived shortly after 8:30. In Mamelodi, as in disadvantaged areas everywhere, a day like this offers access to food, entertainment and an opportunity to play that does not exist on a daily basis. They were ready for anything.

Over the next hour, a couple hundred kids ranging from 2 to 12 were unloaded from taxis or walked through the campus gates, and they were followed by an inflatable slide/jumpy house and several blow-up pools. I helped set up a mini soccer pitch with chairs for boundaries and traffic cones for goal posts. The older boys hit it like a magnet.

Also like a magnet: my camera. At first, I was just the oddity. A white guy with a weird accent and a whatchamacallit around his neck. Besides, it usually takes kids a while to warm up to me; they can sense that I am an only child. (Dogs love me, kids hate me.)

Soon, though, little ones would walk up to me, grab my hand and ask for the toilet. A start.

Then they would come up and shout, “Hello! Howareyoudoing?” Then run away before I could answer.

After a while it was, “Hey! Shoot me! Shoot us!” They figured out I had a digital camera and that they could see themselves on the screen after I took the photo. Great fun for all.

One boy, the one on the left in the photo below, wanted to take my picture. I put the camera in his tiny hands, showed him which button to press and stood back. His composition was “creative.” An artist for a day.

With South African flags for faces, these two are Mzansi fo sho...

The boy in the yellow Bafana Bafana soccer jersey, pictured below, approached me at one point with a smaller friend, also clad in the same shirt. They wanted to say hi, to talk to the giant freak. “Hello! How are you? I am fine! Sharp, sharp.”

Little soccer dude

Following the other kids’ lead, these two removed their shoes, socks, jeans and shirts to fly down the inflatable slide, which was now covered with mild detergent and water, creating a super slick surface that shot the sprogs towards a sudsy stop.

Some time later, I saw the little dude sitting on the ground, with tear-stained cheeks and wells in his eyes. Had someone pushed him down? Unlikely, as these kids got on incredibly well, even when tackling each other on the soccer field or accidentally knocking each other over on the slip ‘n slide. No. The problem: his feet were too wet from playing in the water and he couldn’t squeeze them back into his tiny, double-knotted, generic Chuck Taylors. He was trying to go to the dance competition, but he couldn’t get his shoes on. Tragedy.

I bent down to help him, his tears and herky-jerky sobs slowing now. I untied each shoe, dried his little bare feet with my hands and put the shoes back on. First left, then right. I tied the laces, double knots, patted him on the back and said, “OK.” Without a word, he sprang up and ran off towards the dancers, pausing once to look back at me with thankful eyes. That said enough.

Just try to write a caption worthy of this photo...

Tabula rasa, man. Tabula rasa. That kid, all these kids, most kids everywhere are blank slates. They are born into conditions, yes. Some into poverty, some into wealth. Some into peace, some into war. Some into stable nations, some into a young democracy facing yet another fight for its life. South Africa needs these kids to retain the same sense of joy, wonder and “Ubuntu” that they displayed on Saturday. And, South Africa needs to make that possible by filling them full of good and protecting them from evil.

Typically, I must say, an event like the Itsoseng Family Fun Day with hundreds of screaming kids and face painting and yada yada would have sent me in the other direction. But I’m so glad I went. Every once in a while, we need reminders like this that there is hope in the world, and there are few better reminders than the looks on these kids’ faces.

More photos available on Flickr; short video of the slide on YouTube.

Mandela Day Cleanup in Mamelodi

Nelson Mandela.

Image via Wikipedia

As noted in a previous post, Nelson Mandela International Day was July 18, and people all over the world – especially South Africa – were encouraged to spend at least 67 minutes in service to community. In this spirit, the University of Pretoria organized a group cleanup event on Saturday in the township of Mamelodi. We were excited to be a part of it.

The morning started early. We woke at 5:15 to eat, walk Indie and get to campus by 6:45, when the buses were scheduled to depart for Mamelodi. Like university/student events everywhere, things were running a bit behind. By 7:15, though, we were on our way.

We were definitely the only Americans in the group, which numbered about 100, but the group was otherwise fairly diverse. Disappointingly, though, I was one of only three white men.

The ride itself was slightly longer than expected. I’ve been studying maps of Pretoria in anticipation of driving around the city (no car yet…thanks Bank of America!), and I thought Mamelodi was a bit closer to town. The distance further underscored the disparity of the apartheid system that forced most blacks to live so far away from employment, decent education and equality with their fellow South Africans. Mamelodi remains part of that dark legacy.

When we did arrive, we saw the familiar sights of township life: impossibly tiny, one-room houses of corrugated tin; minibus taxis idling bonnet-to-boot, waiting to ferry local residents to jobs in the suburbs or CBD; cinder block shops and shebeens with hand-painted signs declaring their names and touting their wares.

Our bus pulled into the University of Pretoria Mamelodi Campus and we soon found our way to the Arena building, where there was to be an address by UP’s vice chancellor. We were joined there by members of the Mamelodi community, the woman who represents Mamelodi in the Tshwane city council and several dozen school children (“learners”) from the township. Following the address, which outlined Mandela Day and our role in it (recycling!), we were split into groups to receive our cleanup assignments.

Jenny and I – and our new friend, Isolde, a lecturer in the UP law school – found our way into Group E. Also in our group was a quintet (or more) of young, enthusiastic UP students wearing Tuks Football jackets. They proclaimed their arrival by dancing and chanting, “We…are here! We, we are here!” It was to become a familiar cadence.

Group E was tasked with picking up glass. OK, we thought, easy enough. We each took a large plastic bag and a pair of Smurf-blue rubber gloves and followed the herd into the community to begin our 67 minutes.

But, oh, what did we find?

Picking up recyclables in a vacant lot in Mamelodi with others from UP during the Mandela Day cleanup

Yes, there was plenty of glass in the vacant lot across the street and adjacent to the entrance of the tin-roofed township. But there was so much more: plastic bags filled with rotten food; unspooled coils of rusty wire; single, lonely, mangled shoes; used, disposable diapers; dead rats; what appeared to be the skull and assorted bones of a dead dog; both mandibles of what was likely a dead donkey; the hide and fleece of a dead sheep; and all manner of things not meant to be so close to a community, to a school, to a child.

Don’t misunderstand: this vacant lot was not a sanctioned dump, per se. It was simply a place that collected the remnants of people’s lives, lives that are more difficult than can easily be imagined.

The smell of the place was…not as awful as you might think. It was an assault on the olfactory, to be sure, but it wasn’t the full-on landfill smell you might expect. Again, the place wasn’t a landfill. I suppose the best way to describe the smell is as a combination of many smells. There was the putrid smell of rotting food. There was the dank smell of decomposition. There was the charred smell of recently burned grass. And there was the dusty smell of the dry, red soil that was, by now, tinting our shoes and covering our faces.

The fully intact, green and brown beer bottles were easy to handle and bag. We quickly learned, though, that most of the glass to be recovered and recycled lay in the form of shards – broken bottles, shattered plates, etc. Our 67 minutes was spent avoiding lacerations and other hazards inherent in walking on, picking up and carrying broken glass.

(If our mothers haven’t completely freaked out by this point, this little nugget will put them over the edge: While overturning a pile of brush to uncover more bottles, I found a used hypodermic needle. It was capped and no needle was protruding, but it gave me a bit of a start.)

Jenny and I each filled two bags with glass, or at least as full as possible given that the shards easily made holes in the plastic and compromised its strength. Then, before we knew it, our 67 minutes was up and we were walking back to the Arena. The Tuks Football quintet continued with chants of, “We…are done! We, we are done!” and “We…are walking! We, we are walking!” 

Following a brief performance by the UP Chorale, the group we saw at the sociology conference, we boarded the buses and headed for home.

I didn’t know how to feel.

On the one hand, we did right by the spirit of Mandela Day: we volunteered in service of our (new) community, we cleaned up a blighted area in an impoverished neighborhood and we raised awareness about recycling. On the other hand, we showed up in this community for an hour, made what is probably just a small dent in the overall appearance of the area and demonstrated that “recycling” requires an army of people with special gloves and individual assignments.

So, did we make a difference?

I was conflicted until we saw the news. SABC TV News ran stories in multiple languages about the UP cleanup day in Mamelodi. One of the managers of the guesthouse even said she saw Jenny on TV, though we must have missed that bit. She seemed happy that we were part of the effort.

Later, our housekeeper (and Indie’s buddy) Maria told me that she thought what we did in Mamelodi was “a great thing.” She saw the news report, too, and felt like we showed the community that people care enough about them to come and help. We also showed, she thought, that it is possible to keep the community clean, and to recycle. It was really nice to hear.

At the end of the day, both literally and proverbially, it seems to have been 67 minutes well spent.