"South & East Africa 2011" story # 19

St. Lucia, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa           June 20, 2011

For a few days following the robbery attempt I'd thwarted, I was very leery around blacks, including those who walked up and down the beach selling carved giraffes to tourists.
     I continued to stay in Sodwana Bay, a village catering to scuba divers and fishermen.
     Just inland from Sodwana Bay was Mbazwana, a small all-Zulu town. Spending some time here, I was surprised to find that: 1. Some people could barely speak English, and many seemed neglected by education. 2. While some people enjoyed exchanging greetings with whites, others just nodded, "Yabo" (Yes), unwarmly. South Africa was indeed different than Lesotho!
     But, the hitchhiking was good in this area, as both whites and Zulus picked me up. I would often be walking to the beach - on a road shaded by coastal forest, where trees raised themselves upon spider-legged roots, where ferns and vines and clover-shaped leaves covered everything, and from whence monkeys led armies of weasely "yapping" mongooses to raid dumpsters - and people would offer me rides, even though I didn't have my thumb out.
     One of those people was Tsokozani, a young man whose speech was educated though thick with a playful, Zulu accent. He invited me to stay with him and his wife, so I wouldn't have to sleep on a sand dune in the forest.
     I accepted. One evening, as dusk was quietly setting, I sat in the courtyard which Tsokozani shared with his mother and youngest brother.
     Their rectangular houses were made out of reeds tied together, or of rubble rocks held together as walls. They had no electricity. Before one house was a tree only twelve feet tall, except for a single stalk that sprouted eight feet straight up from the main canopy; in the distance stood a much larger version of this tree; and directly overhead, illuminating everything, was a bright moon.
     In the courtyard, Tsokozani's wife ground up peanuts and chickpeas. Tsokozani's nieces and nephews, who preferred staying with their grandmother, helped with the women's work and play-fought. Wild grass surrounded the courtyard, crickets chirped, and waves boomed on the other side of the dunes. Sitting here and observing this, I lived one of my finest South African moments.
     Tsokozani's gentle, dark figure sat down beside me. It was Zulu tradition for all sons, except for the last-born, to leave their mothers and make their homes elsewhere. Tsokozani, who worked for the Ubombo Town Magistrate, told me of his plans to build a big house nearby.
     All of his brothers lived nearby. One of them fished with nets in a nearby lake - the same work their father had done. Tsokozani told me, his father had once reached into the lake at night and felt a crocodile's jaws grip his hand. If he would've struggled then, the crocodile would've pulled him in. It was just testing him out at this point. Calmly, while standing in his boat, he reached his other hand into his pocket, pulled out a knife, and stabbed the crocodile in the armpit. The crocodile let go, and Tsokozani's father survived.
     While we talked, Tsokozani's wife worked hard to prepare us dinner. A social worker named Khanyisile, she clothed her dimly lit, vase-like figure in long skirts (which Tsokozani thought women should wear, instead of pants). Her puffy lips contributed humor to all conversations, as she said things like, "Politics is a virus." She served us beef stew over cuscus, a soft grey tuber, huge chickpeas, and an orange squash that tasted like mango. We dined beside candles.
     The candle-light fell on six pots in the corner of the room, which we admired. Tsokozani said his mother had woven these spherical, yellow pots out of tough grass; in places, she'd tied colored ribbons through openings to create simple, zigzagging patterns. I wanted to take their lids off and charm snakes inside, using my beloved flute.
     Or, maybe I would've just kept my dirty laundry in them.
     Tsokozani taught me one other thing about Zulu culture. The word, "mlungu", meant "white man", and it came from the word for: "miracle". It originated when King Shaka, the fierce Zulu warrior, had first seen a white man use his gun - "pow!" - to knock down an animal.
     At one point, Tsokozani's cute niece visited him. She opened the door, casually said, "Hi, Mlungu," to me, and began talking to Khanyisile.

After three days with Khanyisile and Tsokozani, and nine total days in Sodwana Bay, I moved down the coast to St. Lucia. I would stay with another kind host there: a sixty-seven-year-old "mlungu" named Elfie.
     Elfie picked up hitchhikers, hitchhiked herself, took an interest in her black employees' dreams, ran the "Treehouse" guesthouse, fought to get blacks and women included in town meetings, had tons of energy, and was oblivious to danger. "What do you want to do in St. Lucia?" she asked, as she drove me to her town.
     "I want to see a hippo." Hippos from a nearby estuary reportedly roamed around St. Lucia's guesthouses at night. Their huge poop was there to prove it.
     But, I would see a lot more than hippos and hippo poop. Elfie let me stay at the Treehouse for a week. I toured "game parks" and "dangerous game areas" (where all wild animals lived these days) in Eflie's car, on Elfie's bikes, on my own two feet, and in safari vehicles at night. Thanks to Elfie, I saw dozens of animals I'd never seen before.
     And I made the following observations:
     Duikers were small deer with bronze, red-headed fur. With little balls for ears and no antlers, they resembled young shaven-headed women who had large studs widening their earlobes.
     Zebras looked bluish and naked, with muscular rumps that a lion would surely like to bite into. As they watched me meditating near them, one zebra nudged a teenaged one, squeezing him in-between a third. The little zebra freed himself. The bullying zebra playfully nipped his backside. The little zebra glanced backwards, seriously and threateningly.
     Trumpeter hornbills were black-and-white, clumsy birds that sounded like wailing and whining human babies. Their upper beaks ended at two points, so it looked like they had two upper beaks, one welded on top of the other.
     A neon green chameleon hugged my finger with its tiny paws and slender, curling tail. Its eyes looked like a rotating space observatory lens, enabling it to see 270 degrees. It could stretch its body like puddy to reach higher ground. It had a hard head.
     Baboons displayed their pink, padded butts, as they marched on all fours past our car. The running adolescents, tiny babies hanging from their mothers' stomachs, and massive males seated on trees all had curious, black faces.
     An elephant, eating amid green reeds, swung its long and heavy tail mechanically like a clock pendulum. Its sagging skin covered a fortress.
     A baby zebra with the purest black and white facial stripes, and naive eyes, lowered her head to nurse from her mother. "Oh! How sweet," we said in Elfie's car. Suddenly, we realized her tail had been nibbled down to a fluffy stub. And she held one leg in the air, unable to walk with it. She'd been attacked. Elfie's friend said she'd be killed soon. I felt quite sad.
     A vervet monkey - with frosty hair, a grim black face and fiery maroon eyes, a drooping down tail, and spastic movements - stole my papaya on the beach. I'd just looked away for a second, and - zoom! - he nabbed it.
     A nyala bull, unlike all other gazelles and even its mate who were light brown, had a charcoal gray coat. White stripes, thin like claw scratches, decorated his coat. His sailing spine rose and bulged near his muscular shoulders. His black fig eyes shined. He raised his head proudly. Two tall horns twisted upwards and backwards like monuments.
     A kingfisher pointed his dagger-like beak to the side, so he could eye me eyeing him through binoculars. His upper body was off-white, his wings brown, and his lower body a radioactive green like hair gel.
     A baby rhino also eyed me. His puny, black eye feared but wondered. His inflated body sagged a bit. He had a huge nose. His mother's horn was a sharp, curved saber. She hadn't used it to fight with, like adult males commonly did.
     Huge hippo heads peaked out from the surface of a pond. Their nostrils, eyes, and ears formed six bubbles. Their sleek grooved heads resembled brown women's naked backsides. And when they entered or exited the water, their sun-purpled bodies appeared to be walking on it like Jesus.
     Buffalos heard or smelled me. One of the two looked calmly to where I stood, fifty feet away. These were the first potentially dangerous animals I'd seen while walking in the dangerous game area - a permitted activity, if you knew where to access it. (Elfie did it often.) I was a bit scared. The second buffalo tossed its horns around; an annoying bird was on it. I slowly backed away. These beasts, with flapping bats for ears and 1950s salesmen's hair parts for horns, were known to be bad-tempered.
     And a green hawksbill turtle, underwater, way back at Sodwana Bay, had swum through a foggy green sea. I swam after her, and it felt like we were flying in space.

Mlungus and Non-mlungus.
Justin Breen

Thanks to Sthembiso; Ken & Thora Paver; a white family on vacation; Tsokozani & Khanyisile; Nadine & Romy; Bonkosi; Isaac & his wife & daughter; and Elfie for rides!
A big thanks to Tsokozani & Khanyisile; and Elfie for places to stay!

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