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

Wow.

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

Kitchen

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.

Outhouse

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.”

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It’s half past. We must revert or be retrenched.

This is a photo of Mandela Square in Sandton, which has very little to do with this blog post except that I drafted the post at a cafe in the square before snapping the picture...and what's a blog post without an image?

Yes, yes, there’s been an uncharacteristic lapse on the blog. No posts for several days? They must have been eaten by lions! The ones that roam the streets at night!

No, fortunately there have been enough warthogs roaming the streets at night to keep the lions sated. We’ve been quite safe, actually.

We have been busy, though; Jenny with her research and now a Fulbright conference in Sandton (more on that later), and me with some new consulting work.

Most recently, and most significantly, I started as a consultant with the Centre for Human Rights, which is both a respected international NGO and a department of the Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria. My role will be to enhance communications, assist with funding proposals/grant applications, support individual projects and analyze operations. I will also attend several of their world-class Advanced Human Rights Courses, the first of which is on Human Rights in Africa in mid-October.

Already, our exposure to South African institutions and businesses is forcing us to develop a new vocabulary:

  • half past — Simple, straightforward and easy enough, right? Then you may underestimate how often you say things like “Let’s meet at nine-thirty” in America. It just rolls off the tongue. To be understood on the first go here, it’s “Let’s meet at half past nine.” Sure, “nine-thirty” is acceptable, but it seems that most folks find it easier to hear “half past nine.” I’m getting used to it, though I still feel that saying “half past nine” requires a British accent, a pot of Earl Grey and crustless cucumber sandwiches on a silver platter.
  • must vs. should — In America, we might say “Should we meet about this again, perhaps at nine-thirty?” Here, we say “Must we meet about this again, perhaps at half past nine?” In South Africa, in this context, must does not have the sarcastic or otherwise negative connotation that can be implied at home. It is used much in the same way we use should. This one really goes beyond business to nearly all service transactions and inquiries. “Must I edit this copy for the Web?” “Must I watch the fly-half to see the true artistry of rugby?” “Must I dip the spoon in the Nutella before eating the almond?”
  • revert — Keeping with the heightened formality of South African business language, revert is a more civilized (or civilised) way to say “I’ll get back to you.” If one doesn’t have the answer now, or needs more time to respond to an email, one might type, “Thank you for your question. I will look into that just now and revert on Monday.” (In this example, “just now” means “whenever” and “Monday” means “Tuesday.”)
  • redundant — This one is tricky as it can have two meanings. In an organization (or organisation) that often deals with Americans, it can be assumed to mean “duplicative” or “excessive” as applied to a process or program, etc. More often, though, the term applies to a position or person. So, if an employee has been deemed redundant, s/he is likely to be…
  • retrenched — The South African way to say fired or laid off. Whenever I hear this word, I think of little Dilberts being escorted by Security from their cubicles out to an actual trench, like something dug with collapsible spades by the German army of the early 20th century, where they would wait to be called up to their next jobs. But, I suppose it is unfair to think so literally. After all, what happens to a person who is fired or laid off? (One might say that both terms involve a burning sensation…)
  • trainsmash — Being retrenched would definitely be a trainsmash. Being two minutes late to the meeting that began at half past nine would not be a trainsmash. Note the difference between “trainsmash” and “train wreck.” Totally different meanings, though it’s likely that either or both could be encountered at any office at any time.
  • thanks a stack — LOVE this one. While it’s obviously just a variation of “thanks a lot,” it’s so much fun to think about what the “stack” might be. A stack of money? Tempting. A stack of pancakes? Now you’re talking…

All in all, we’re really learning how to talk here. Which is important. Because we still haven’t learned that most offices close for the day at 3:30pm 15:30 half past three…

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.

Third Time’s a Charm (plus Zebras on Bikes & Men in Panties)

Last Thursday was Groundhog Moving Day. That’s right, we moved again. Just as we were becoming quite comfortable in the Principal’s Residence (Guest Flat #1), we were required to move down to Guest Flat #3.

While part of the plan all along, it did seem like a bit of a slog to move for the third time in two months. After moving from the guesthouse to campus, we started to feel more at home and started to buy or find more of the things we need to truly live here. Now we are busy arranging those things in our new space.

Space is the key word. We have way more than we need. Guest Flat #3 is a 3-bedroom, 2.5-bath monster. It has a kitchen, living room, dining area, half bath and generous office on the first floor, while the bedrooms and two full baths are upstairs. The master bedroom even has a balcony. Swankity.

It’s the living room, though, that is really coming together.

Our new living room (with pillows by Jenny)

The furniture provided by the university was, shall we say, a bit tired. A family of five from the UK had lived here for a couple of years, and I’m sure those kids weren’t the first to jump on the couches. We decided to start fresh. Thus, the dazzling davenports you see here.

We did scout the classifieds and second-hand stores for decent furniture, but nothing popped. Finally, we found some “modern African” sets and Jenny threw down the negotiating skills she honed as a corporate purchasing agent to get a good deal. (“I think you need to sharpen your pencil.”) As if the orange wasn’t enough, Jenny’s been busy making accent pillows to liven the place up a bit. It’s working.

Jenny’s handiwork notwithstanding, the most attractive feature of the new place is undoubtedly the yard. The front yard is immense and slopes down from the front door to the entrance to our garage area. It has already proven to be a fantastic ball-playing field for Indie, except for that time that the tennis ball went through the fence, down the hill and ended up in the loading dock of an adjacent building. The back yard is really more of a patio, or braai area, as it’s called here. Braai is the Afrikaans word for barbecue or grill, and we have a nice one.

There are more photos of our new place, Guest Flat #3, at the end of this post, but first a couple of additional updates:

Jenny tried to run over a herd of zebras on her bike

Those of you who are friends with Jenny on Facebook may have noticed the post below about zebras and mountain bikes:

Well, as amazing as that sounds, she may have buried the lede: We now have mountain bikes. We each found used bikes (though Jenny’s was barely used) online, threw them in the back of the Rio and took them in for tune-ups. Last Tuesday was the first day we had them out for a spin in the Groenkloof Nature Reserve, which has some great single-track bike paths.

It was on one of the more challenging up-and-downs that we encountered the zebra. We had just come down a rocky stretch and were pedaling hard up the next hill when we nearly ran into a small herd of zebras crossing the path. We both skidded to a stop, but since Jenny happened to be in the lead, I’m saying that she tried to run over the zebras.

We were so close to them at this point that we could smell them. As they trotted back into the trees, we noticed that they weren’t alone. There was also a small herd of wildebeest standing in the shade. We looked at each other, then the animals, then back at each other. Not your typical Tuesday.

For UP freshmen, every week is Hell Week

Since the school term started here at the University of Pretoria a few weeks ago, we’ve noticed that some form of singing or chanting — and sometimes some serious fireworks — spontaneously erupts from the residence halls. Usually, this happens between 10:30 and midnight. It always takes us by surprise.

Apparently, what’s happening is some form of freshman initiation. Because there are no fraternities or sororities, each residence hall has its own identity. On the Groenkloof Campus, there’s Kiatt for the men and Inca, Zinnia and Lilium for the women. Sometimes the freshmen boys from Kiatt have to serenade the ladies or prance around in nothing but panties. Some of the girls must wear butterfly wings all day. We’ve even heard some very tribal (likely Zulu) chanting, which probably means dancing, too. We need to investigate the next one.

Back to the house…

Yes, I know, there are no photos of zebras on bikes or men in panties as perhaps promised in the headline. There are, however, a few shots of our new place:

Principal’s Residence = Principal Residence

We…are here! We, we are here!

Just as our friends from the Mamelodi cleanup day chanted their arrival (let’s be honest, they chanted their everything), we broke into a similar refrain when we opened the door to our new home: The Principal’s Residence on the University of Pretoria’s Groenkloof Campus.

Jenny, Indie & Maria on our last day at 137 Murray

Moving day was Friday, and a helpful Tukkies student named Cloete met us at the guesthouse at noon with a university bakkie to transport our stuff from Brooklyn to Groenkloof. Easy. We were done by 1:15.

We were a little sad to say goodbye to our new friends at the guesthouse, however, as they had taken such great care of us and we had grown quite fond of them. Our primary housekeeper, Maria, even had to stop by to say goodbye and take a photo with Indie before we left. I’m sure she told her family and friends all sorts of stories about the crazy Americans who brought their dog (and a mess of power cords) to South Africa.

The Principal’s Residence — or Principal’s Flat, or Guest Flat #1 — is reserved for the Principal of the university (the SA version of Chancellor or Rector or Provost, depending on the institution) and distinguished guests. I don’t know if we rate as “distinguished” but we are here; we, we are here until August 22, when the most permanent of our temporary homes, Guest Flat #3, is ready.

While the Principal’s Residence is only two doors down from Guest Flat #3, it may as well be half a world away. This place is great. The furniture and furnishings in this 3BR, 2.5BA apartment are all new, the painting and decor is fresh and modern, the kitchen has a full size range and there’s even an en suite master bedroom. Guest Flat #3? Not so much. At least, not right now.

To be fair, we understand that UP is rushing to complete a renovation of Guest Flat #3 before we move in, which is why we are in #1 for a couple of weeks. The renovation had been slated for later in the year, but the schedule was accelerated to accommodate us. From what we understand, the flat will get cleaned and painted, new beds and linens, new “crockery” and new window treatments. And, we just ordered a new living room set to be delivered after we move in, so you’ll all have to come check that out.

If I didn’t sound enough like a realtor in paragraph 4, I’ll make up for it now: The best feature of both flats is location, location, location. We are nestled deep inside a beautiful campus, where it is quiet, secure and convenient to things like groceries & gas, haircuts & hardware, take away & tuisnywerheid. There’s also a free shuttle bus that goes from this campus to the main UP campus in Hatfield every half hour, so getting to work for Jenny (and me, if I tag along) is safe and easy.

So, for at least the next few weeks, the Principal’s Residence is our principal residence. We’ll take it. On principle.

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.

Happy Birthday, Madiba!

Today is a big day in South Africa: It is Nelson Mandela’s birthday! Madiba is 93 beautiful years old.

As part of the celebration, South Africans are encouraged to take part in Nelson Mandela Day activities and to volunteer at least 67 minutes of time supporting a charity or working in local communities. That’s one minute for each of the 67 years of his life Mandela gave fighting for the rights of the oppressed in South Africa and around the world.

For our part, Jenny and I will be volunteering with others from the University of Pretoria this Saturday in Mamelodi. Mamelodi is a township outside of Pretoria that was established under apartheid. In the 1960’s, black South Africans were forcefully removed their homes and relocated to Mamelodi and other townships. While we have visited a township called Khayelitsha outside of Cape Town as tourists, I’m sure this experience as volunteers — and adopted South Africans — will be different and hopefully deeper.

I have to say, the feeling of being a part of anything remotely related to Nelson Mandela is electric. He is one of a select few figures that emit such energy and possess such gravity, whether you are near him or thousands of miles from him. I mean, he is in a category with the likes of Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Dalai Lama. He is an inspiration to all.

Back in 2006, a year after Jenny and I visited Robben Island (where Mandela spent most of his 27 years in prison), I had the opportunity to work on a project to promote the Robben Island Singers during their visit to Chicago. These three men — Grant Shezi, Muntu Nxumalo and Thembinkosi Sithole — were also political prisoners on Robben Island. Now, they sing the songs and tell the stories of the struggle for freedom, sharing a message of forgiveness, tolerance and peace. It was a tremendous honor to meet these men and be a small part of their ongoing efforts.

While today is a happy day and this week will be filled with acts of kindness and spikes in volunteerism, it also reminds me that Mandela’s release did not put an end to the struggles here or elsewhere. There remains an institutional bias in favor of the white minority that will take some time to balance out, just like our systems continue to need balance in the United States.

It also reminds me that the practice of imprisoning political enemies or those who speak out against government abuses continues around the world, even in America. Human Rights Watch in Chicago recently screened a film called In the Land of the Free that chronicles the situation of the Angola 3, three men targeted by prison officials for being members of the Black Panther Party and kept in solitary confinement for decades. Two of the men remain in prison.

So, wherever you are and whatever you do, let’s all wish Madiba a happy 93rd birthday and try to spend at least 67 minutes improving our little corners of the world.