Low on money, high on life, myself and my Brazilian travel partner thrust ourselves into the depth of the country that is South Africa. Chasing a story, running off spontaneity, with only our youth and wits to guard us from the harshness of this foreign land we had stumbled upon.
And so here we were in the middle of nowhere. Surrounding by virtually nothing – and practically everything. Not quite sure of what the day would bring we got up and made our way towards the vast bar of a nearby safari lodge. We collapsed upon the nearest bar stools and called for two beers. We perched, sharing a light conversation with a young but wizened barman. Slowly we drank, seeking comfort from the teat of our bottles, but before long I realised:
We were surrounded!
We sat in amongst the chirping and chattering tones of the colourful North American and European visitors as they decorated the watering hole around us. They laughed and languished lazily in small groups, all the while silently stalked by the lodge manager who was hovering just out of sight following the movements of her prey, waiting to pounce. Ah yes, this is Africa.
After some time we got up and walked about and before long we met a man by the name of “John”. Now I’ll be the first to admit that’s not the most unique name, but trust me ol’ John was one of a kind. He greeted us warmly and introduced himself. A heavy British accent gave away his origins. We had caught him on his way home, and home happened to be a village just across the road.
Now he had my attention. What was a white British man doing living in a village here in the “outback”? He agreed to walk with us through the village.
As we left the lodge compound we crossed the tarmac and stepped out onto the dusty roads into a whole new world just a few heartbeats away. As we walked along I could feel my shoes sink ever so slightly into the river sand. Leaving my imprint along the path we walk towards the local tavern, or as we like to call it the shabeen! What a rare sighting we were out here in the wild:
A young Zimbabwean child, an Englishman, a Brazilian and a Brian.
So we arrived. We marched in to the shabeen with ol’ John, where he was now in his element. We promptly got him a beer for his troubles and he began to speak with me about his life here in the village. He spoke fluently and fondly of his time here. His stories flowed from one to the other effortlessly, only punctuated by his steady mantra “I’m the only white man living here you know. Bloody hell, I love it.”
Haha, ol’ John.
As time went by many young men would walk through the shabeen door greeting ol’ John warmly and looking at our pack with curiosity.
Their gaze followed my movements as mine did theirs. I’d have emptied both my pockets to know what they were thinking about us.
We now got up and walked over next door to a corner shop. Our underage compadre needed some old-fashioned Coca Cola. As we entered the store we were greeted by two young Pakistani men. Their faces lit up for a second upon seeing my face but their delight disappeared quickly when I spoke and my accent revealed my origins.
As we walked back to the shabeen, ol’ John shared with me the story of the shrewd Pakistani family that had moved in just over six months ago. He told me tales of the work they had been doing for the community, and explained how they had quickly gained a working command of the language.
And then he paused.
He lamented, because he wished he had picked it up the local language by now but for some reason everyone tried to speak to him in English. For some reason.
Hmm, three guesses about that reason?
Now with all our drinks in hand we made our way to ol’ John’s corner. No, literally. His corner.
Loud music echoed from the speakers overhead. “African” music, with beats and bass so deep that they rumbled in my chest and incited a slight hum from the windows around us. Every so often these songs were disrupted by ballads from Adele (who knows why?) that served to remind us all that we were probably going to die alone and loveless.
From time to time the young men in the shabeen would dance their way to the bar with moves so free and so nimble that they brought an uncontrollable grin to my unshaven face.
Lunch time was now approaching and before long we had lost our tour guide to the almighty domestic call for laundry.
We made our way back to the lodge. As we returned I looked upon the white walls and clean floors of the rondavels they used for accommodation and I wondered… How many mothers and fathers from the village just across the road worked here spending hours upon hours protecting the lodge from dust and dirt while their homes lay vacant and unattended, slowly being painted by the colours of the Earth. Hour after hour. Day after day.
I wonder still.
We had a bite or two, my comrades and I, back at the watering hole.
I had heard rumours of a football match in the afternoon back at the village so after we had filled our bellies we walked back towards the local soccer pitch. It was an early sunset and the sun danced upon our cheeks in all its glory.
As my young compadre and I walked out onto the field a tall towering player strode out to greet us.
He looked over at me with a rather serious look, which I returned as best as I could, before his face erupted into a magnificent grin. He then spoke to me in his deep rumbling voice: “Hello brother, welcome, you are going to join these guys right now, but I’m sorry you’re on punishment!”
“Punishment?” I said with Bambi-like eyes. He turned around and ran to other end of the field to rejoin his team. No luck for Brian.
We lined up, my new team-mates and I. Standing at our goalposts facing the pitch in front of us. We proceeded to run four sets of sprints half way across the field.
To and fro. To and fro.
This was my chance, I thought to myself. I threw myself at the challenge, outsprinting my team-mates by a hair’s breadth.
Victory! I thought to myself as I collapsed into the soil releasing a cloud of red sand around me.
As I huffed and puffed my team-mates sprung to action, gathered the ball, got into position. And we were off!
They danced around the pitch in search of a goal while I struggled to catch my breath still savouring my empty victory.
The game was fast paced. Before long I found my feet and began to gel with the team. They might have spoken a language I didn’t understand with their tongues but our feet understood one another perfectly.
After a few fleeting moments of skill with the ball I was satisfied, though I was no Neymar…
With the sunset now at our backs the game reached its climax.
Our opponents scored. It was tragic.
So we lined up once again to accept our punishment and by now I was finding it even harder to catch my breath. It seemed to be just out of reach. So, with my hands clasping my sides, I waddled off the pitch thanking my new friends. I walked off to the loud chants and screaming cheers of the non-existent crowds that surrounded our field in the savannah.
As we made our way back to the lodge, limping in my case, I reflected on the game. On our interactions.
I felt like I had shared a slice of the young players’ lives today. I had managed to have a dialogue with them in a manner that went beyond what our words could deliver. And I thought to myself as we crossed the road how can we bring together these two worlds?
There seems to be an absence of dialogue in this place.
The road offers a more literal separation than I can stomach. The “African” sun casts a shadow of colonial rule here. It’s plain for anyone to see.
There has to be a way. But where is the space for this dialogue?
At least the football pitch in the savannah had four corners.