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Life in Africa

The first twenty-four hours back in Africa (Cape Town, to be exact) was a sensory overload. A visit with my mum (for her 89th birthday) and two sisters was highly anticipated, nevertheless, the return to the continent where I had been born, and a five-year gap since visiting—from the protected environment of Australian streets—created, at first, a sense of gulping shock at this life in Africa.

Trying to cross a suburban road near shops was one way to catalyse heightened sensory experiences, especially during load shedding (programmed electricity shutdowns of normally two-hour periods, twice daily). There are not many pedestrian crossings on the main road of the shopping precinct in the suburb in which we were staying although those black and white lines are not always surety of safety. Then, there were the two punch-ups (we didn’t participate) that took place on those same roads, within five minutes of each other. As they came into play within our first twenty-four hours of sashaying out onto the streets in holiday mode, these unexpected events were also spine-tingling. The latter one was actually worthy of pulling out a chair to sit and watch, as a driver stopped his car as the fracas spilled onto the road. But then, a punch landed on him too—so much for his kind gesture—and then, three people were involved in the late afternoon spectacle.

Within a few days though, you get used to life in Africa: twice daily load shedding (the one day, apparently Johannesburg power was out for twelve hours straight in many suburbs … with no apology); whistling street-side vendors pushing towering barrow loads of goods on the sidewalk; beggars with hands held out and sorrowful eyes or those that stared at you defiantly daring you to pass by without stopping; work trucks roaring by with (invariably) the ‘white’ boss driving and the ‘black’ workers in the back (no seat belts). Even a visit to a chemist was informative as any form of pain medication is dispensed at a separate counter and locked in a little cage so that you can walk to the payment counter by the front door without the fear of the medication being pulled from your grasp by a light-footed but desperate thief. Ah! Life in Africa, indeed … it is the stuff of which writers dream. In the beginning, there is a sense of righteous indignation at the apparent inequality that still pervades this life in Africa. But then, one starts to scratch at the surface. We are making assumptions, after all, just like our forefathers did, that things should be better. What is better? Maybe the blacks don’t want to sit in the front with the white boss as he wears a seat belt and smokes. The street vendors joke with wide, white-teethed grins, and even most of the beggars look happier than their white counterparts sitting elegantly in the coffee shops and restaurants with serious faces taking carefully measured bite-sized portions of their fancy croissants. Life in Africa is still a conundrum, but life is oh-so vivid and as real as it gets. #lifeinafrica #family

My mother experienced these same eye-widening events when she commenced life in Africa in the 1950s; below is an excerpt from Ciao! We’re in Africa.

Life in Africa
Life in Africa

I’m eager to exit the train when Eugenio tells me we have a half-hour stop. As the porter opens the door, I’m just about to step down when a screeching, tiny vervet monkey appears in front of me. It stops me in my tracks. The monkey’s long tail uncurls from around the black head of the man, as it is unceremoniously thrust forward into my face. But it can progress no further, as a rope collar around its neck keeps it in check. A garble of words spurts out from the African’s mouth as the monkey’s chatter escalates at this indignity. Appalled, I hurriedly step back straight into Eugenio, who’s behind me.

“Cosa succede, tesoro? What’s happening, darling?”

Quel uomo! That man! He’s just tried to throw that monkey at me!”

Eugenio peers around me. Laughingly he translates. “He says that the monkey needs a new mother and you look like the perfect candidate!”

“What on earth would I do with a monkey?” I’m half-horrified, and half-charmed, now that I’ve looked a bit closer at the little primate’s black face. It’s fringed with white whiskers, and his sorrowful brown eyes blink at me soulfully. He emits another stream of gibberish babble.

“It’s a ploy to get some money. Look, there are others over there.”

I cautiously lean forward. At other carriage doorways, I can see the same event is taking place.

“No, go away.” Eugenio flaps his hand at the trader. “No monkey! No!”

The black man shrugs and moves along. Slowly, I descend onto the platform. The noise level instantly increases as other black people swarm around, either dodging passengers, offering some bargain, or their porter service.

“Just twenty minutes and then we must get back on,” Eugenio reminds me. “We should arrive in Johannesburg, this afternoon.”


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