I hand my burlap shopping bag to the guy at the end of the check out counter without barely lifting my head. “Oh, I like this bag – it reminds me of home”. The clipped and tight accent is a flash of recognition and I look up. “Where’s home?” I know the answer already – South Africa. “Where in South Africa?” “Soweto” he says proudly. Interestingly, he didn’t say Johannesburg. I tell him I visited his country last year and that my best friend lives there. “People think it’s dangerous” he comments. “Well, just some American people – I felt very welcome”. We talk for a while longer, while my groceries end up in my bag and he offers to show me around South Africa if I ever go again and let him know. “I’ll show you all the good places”. I don’t even know his name. It was probably a novelty that someone took an interest in a non disparaging way.
I can’t fault him – I heard it before. “Oh, South Africa – is it safe for white people?” As if I were talking about the Congo and the 13 year civil war that has been ravaging it. For a country who elected a black president not so long ago, America is still full of prejudice at worst, ignorance at best.
Walking around Cape Town, you could not be faulted for thinking the majority of the population was white, until small reminders here and there bring you back to the reality of a country where a vast majority of the black population still lives in poverty, where the government has fallen terribly short of the promises of the early days when Nelson Mandela was President, where immigrants from neighbouring Zimbabwe are discriminated against and where the current polygamist President is unable to keep his pants buttoned up and has been having widely publicized affairs that add more children to his extensive brood. In a country where AIDS has severely lowered life expectancy, you would think its leader would make a concerted effort to use condoms – if we can’t expect to elect moral examples, practical ones would be handy.
Still, in the short time I spent in South Africa, I felt such a warm and welcoming feeling – I will never forget the young girl to whom I taught how to dip chocolate truffles: hesitant at first until a huge grin of sparkling white teeth invaded her face when she finally got the hang of it. The dragonfly made of scrap metal that I bought at a traffic light for a few cents from a guy peddling his wares still greets me every morning, hanging by my bed. If the beautiful countryside could be likened to Napa Valley, the baboons in the middle of the road remind you this is Africa. They say the light in Africa is different: it actually is, the sky seems closer, the colors a little more stark .It’s a country of great paradoxes, trying to find a middle ground – if many of its best and brightest left in protest during the years of apartheid, they are slowly going back home. I hope the grocery bagger will too. I hope his country will give him the opportunities he felt he could have here. I “lost” my best friend to South Africa but I can see why.