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.”