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.”

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.