After greeting my beloved Jane, Gabby and I load my few, but increasing amount of possessions into the storage room below the cooperative house on 18th and Alder. We then jump into the dark blue minibus Gabby borrowed, to pick up Evansi from campus. I look at the clock. 15:15pm, there’s still plenty of time. We spot Evansi in front of the Noodle Head where he grabbed his vegetarian Thai lunch, and wave at him to come over. “Hey ladies!” He jumps in the back and reaches over to hug Gabby and me simultaneously. As I manage to affectionately squeeze his hand, I look at the clock again. 15:16pm. “Really? Willemien, you have got to relax,” I hear a voice in my head. Another one responds: “But if she’s late for her Portland flight, she’ll be late for her New York flight, and then she’ll be late for her Johannesburg to Cape Town flight, and then she won’t be on time for the wedding and, and, and. All that excitement for nothing. And all that money wasted!” I guess this is the extra price you pay for saving up to buy your own R15 000 ticket home.
Evansi’s voice sirens through my anxious thoughts. “Are you ready for this? I’m going to miss you!” Miss me. I haven’t even had time to think about how much I was going to miss the magnificent friends I’ve made in Eugene. Some I’ll return to in three months, but others I might actually never see again. The reality that everything is going to change now, as it has many times before, suddenly hits me. I’m speechless. I’ve always been good at running away and I’ve always been terrible at goodbyes. Few times in my life I’ve met friends like Evansi and Gabby, who, despite our very diverse backgrounds, actually get me. Respect me. Understand my beliefs. Value my opinion. Mourn with me my hardships as I mourn theirs. It’s very rare to meet friends with whom and through whom you can become each other’s rocks, each other’s pillars of strength. Friends who help you understand the meaning of strength in numbers, because numbers are what you usually had to overcome. I know how rare this is because I have a handful of them back home in SA, and I’ve never forgotten what it had felt like to leave them.
I reflect for a brief moment on all the support and kindness I’ve received lately. Last night Gabby showed up at my house with a bottle of Dandelion wine to help me pack. This morning she helped me upload and unload all my stuff, without me having to ask once. When I ever need an ear, Evans is barely a text or a Facebook message away. And I can’t even begin to describe how special Jane made my birthday for me. A music concert, a photo board, a movie, lunch and breakfast – that was only half of it. I feel as if I don’t deserve any of this. And then AhYeong, Sachi, Sarah and Jaki’s bday contributions. Can I save all of this beauty into a snowglobe and shake it up and down whenever I feel alone or lost?
I am proud of myself for learning to love and to be loved, exactly the way that I imagine Arundhati Roy wishes me to. Some days when I am confronting myself in my head, to prepare me for the conflict that I know I’ll run into in some parts of SA, I resort to my strongest argument: “All I want is to love and to be loved, is that too much to ask for?” For many it is. For many it comes with strings attached. For many it’s not enough. For me, it seems that simple.
I hug Evansi tight, I squeeze him the way only those born on African soil can appreciate. A hug of joy, of friendship, of longing, of yearning for our homes, of understanding the difficulties that come with that home, of knowing that we wouldn’t want it any other way, and of validating each other’s hopes that everything’s going to be okay. Our people will be okay, just get us back to them. I hug Gabby and I don’t want to let go. This hug says I will miss you, but it also says I have never met anyone like you. It tells her to be strong, yet it tells her to break down. It’s a hug of exhaustion, a recognition of the energy it has taken from her to deal with some of the harsh realities that only a woman of colour really knows. I wish I could give her more – more love, more strength, more hope – the kind that she deserves. But what I have left is what I’ll need for my own road ahead, and I know this is how the world works, in the end the three of us give as much as we can and preserve the rest for our own tough battles.
I want to leave them with a message to remember me by, I want to tell them that all I want is to love and to be loved. I want to explain how I find both of those extremely hard. To love – how do you do that? And how do you let yourself be loved? Yet, I don’t feel the need to say anything as I turn to walk away. They know that I love. I know that they love. It is the perfect balance.
On the flight to South Africa I hear tourists throwing the Nelson Mandela buzzword around like they know the man personally. I shut my eyes and breathe deeply. Please do not trivialize our history by making him a commodity? South Africa is not Mandela and it’s not the World Cup, our people have existed and lived long before Hollywood discovered we’d make a good topic for tragic or feel-good movies. Tata Madiba, I wonder how you feel about all this hype around your health. I wonder how you feel about imperialism and poverty and corruption and nation-building. Tata, is the transformation in South Africa real or are we living in an illusion of unity? And what about equality and justice? I don’t want to live an illusion, I’d prefer to call a spade a spade. Before we end up 20 years later with people who claim they aren’t racist because they’ve got ‘black friends’, or aren’t classist because they ‘totally respect people’s decisions to live in townships’, or aren’t sexist but they find corrective rape funny, and aren’t homophobic but goodness knows ‘being gay is un-African’.
At OR Tambo airport at least six black taxi drivers approach me. “Taxi ma’am?” I must look like a tourist. I am wearing an Oregon Ducks sweatshirt after all. I respond in Afrikaans, “nee dankie.” They smile at me and shout “welcome home!” and then say “but you might need a taxi, and if you do, you know where to find us.” I laugh and tell them I have one more flight to take, but ngiyabonga, salani kahle. I exchange 25 dollars for 200 rand. Out of the machine emerges a bright pink note with Nelson Mandela’s face glowing at me. “Wow!” I say. The woman behind the counter smiles, “Mooi ne?” Pretty, right? I’ve heard about our new South African cash, but I had no idea they would be so striking. Two big eyes nod back at her. Things sure change quickly, I have only been gone 10 months! Right? I laugh to myself, now Madiba literally is a commodity.
I walk to the window and look out at Johannesburg. The winter is fairly warm, but has still managed to put the land to sleep. Between the haziness I see leafless trees and white and yellow bush and grass. I see the many types of familiar faces and I remember the familiar feeling of pain of being South African – saying no to beggars who now stand on every street corner, ignoring the larger than life townships that push back like jumping castles every time they get knocked down. I sit down. I can’t live like that anymore, I have never realized how privileged I am to be able to turn a blind eye when I feel like it stings too much. Privilege, I did not understand you before I left, but now you are clear to me, as clear as the warm bed I sleep in every night. I smile to myself, they all said that the U.S. was going to change me – but they had no idea how much. I left with my hands tied, but I’m coming back with a voice.