Thursday, August 12, 2010

Finding My Way

My, how time flies! I can't believe my 3-month stay in South Africa has reached the home stretch. With less than 3 weeks left in the Motherland, it feels like the World Cup was about a year ago, and every now and then I find myself forgetting that I'm not actually from Jozi. But who knows, maybe I am! Actually, this month my cousin, Myra, is going to visit our oldest living relative, Lucy Chandler. Aunt Lucy turned 108 this July 4th, on the same day that my new nephew, Gabriel Louis Williams, was born—talk about the old and the new. We are hoping to get a swab of Aunt Lucy's cheek cells, which may help us determine what part of Africa we are actually from.

In the meantime, I've been finding my way as an Black American in Africa—yes, Unity, we could argue about this all day, but I tend to agree with Smokey Robinson's spoken word piece. While I'm not qualified to start writing any how-to-survive guides, I still thought it would be fun to share some of my insights about how I've settled in and found my groove here. Here goes:

Getting Around Town

My first bit of advice about asking for directions on the streets of Jozi is... DON'T. Most likely, you will be told that "you must just go sttttrraaaight past the robot and you will get there just now." Whether or not you reach your destination depends entirely on which direction the person happens to be facing when you ask them. The other problem is this uniquely South African expression, "just now." But we'll tackle that, as well as the local definition of "robot," in later paragraphs.

Public Transportation? Mass Transit? Fahgetaboutit. There's a beautiful new light rail called the Guatrain (pronounced How Train). It's clean, quiet and fast, but it costs about $12 USD one-way, and for now, it only runs between the Sandton shopping district and the airport (just in time for the World Cup!). The region is also developing a solid Bus Rapid Transit system, which is great in the areas where it's up and running. Unfortunately, the "Rea Vaya" stop in front of the UJ Auckland Park Campus where I'm staying is still under construction.

The bigger issue is dealing with the minibus taxi "cartels," which became entrenched during the Apartheid era, when only whites were allowed to ride the public buses and trains. Eventually, the informal system grew so large that it completely displaced all other public transportation. The drivers (and their "bosses") are none-too-eager to be displaced by any new mass-transit system. This is understandable since the taxi's, which cram up to 20 folks into one van, can rightly be considered mass-transit. I won't lie—I have yet to ride one of these deathcabs. First of all, my health insurance plan is extremely bare bones. Second, you have to know the special hand signals to flag them down in the right direction. It's no consolation that they always honk and pull over for me when I don't need a ride.

The Shop

As a black man, I don't play when it comes to my haircut. Yes, many of you laugh as you remember my afro, but I took that quite seriously too. I've been going to Center Stage West Salon on Lake Shore since the store next door was selling red black and green Cross Colours overalls. And if it's not Center Stage, then I cut cut my own hair, so it's no surprise that I travel with my own clippers. Unfortunately, the difference in electricity currents here shorted out my clippers—the same thing happened in New Zealand—so I was stuck like Chuck. Everyone says the first words you should learn in any language are "please" and "thank you." I would add "skin-tight fade" to that list. After a couple of tries, I got my cut correct in Downtown Jozi for only 20 Rand. This was a very happy medium between the shop at the mall that charged 50 for the chiskop (baldhead), and they guys sitting at the bus stop with their clippers plugged into a portable battery (I didn't ask how much that treatment would cost).

A Few Good Words
I've mentioned some of the drama that not having the right words can cause. I'm a linguist at heart, but I am no match for South Africa, a country with 11 or 12 official languages, depending on who you ask. My strategy has been to pick a few choice expressions that seem to transcend all language barriers. Here are some of my findings:

- "Now Now" vs "Just Now" - One of the most important things to understand is the difference between "now now" and "just now." Apparently, "now now" means really soon, and "just now" means kinda soon. Ironically, neither expression means "now," and either one can also mean never.

- "Eish / Aysh" - My new favorite expression. According to a slang guide that Sonja provided, it is a "common term that denotes a wide range of emotions from joy and surprise to confusion and anger... when in doubt, use it." I've found it to be most effective when said while shaking one hand off as if you just touched a hot stove.

- "Is it!?" (pronounced uzzit) = "fah real?"

- "Robot" = traffic light (yes, a traffic light—don't ask me why).

- "Lekker" (pronounced lacquer) = nice

- "Organize" - Jelly hipped me to this excellent expression. It means pretty much the same thing, but here it's much more versatile. For example, when one guy approached Jelly on the street begging for change, he said, "hey, can you spare a few Rand? I'm tryin' to organize a pie." Brilliant. It wasn't long before we were talking about "organizing" everything from some chicken to a spare world cup ticket.

- "Hectic" - Like, "organize," this is not a term that is uniquely South African. But you can't live in Johannesburg for too long without realizing how important this word is. In a word, Joburg is "hectic."

- "Sharp" - A few months ago in this blog I wrote about how each culture and language has a magic, multi-purpose word—in Fiji it was "bula." The magic word for South Africans is clearly "sharp" (pronounced shop or shaaaahp). By my count, it has at least 5 meanings, including hello, goodbye, thank you, your welcome, and O.K. Occasionally, if people really want to get their point across, they'll double it up, as in "sharp-sharp."


Without a doubt, the key to finding my way has been to have an amazing set of hosts. Ernestine has been my ultimate plug in Jozi.
She's brought me into the Office for Community Engagement / Strategic Partnerships Unit at UJ, where the lovely team of ladies (Monki, Juliet, Bella, Natie, Lucretia, Lucia) have put me to work. On the first day I met Ernestine, she took me to the Wits F.C. Juniors training grounds, where here husband, Grant, coaches the U14 team. From that point, Grant and the Wits F.C. Juniors family have become my futbol home away from home—thank you!

On top of that, Ernestine also connected me with Adrian Carter, who has opened up his home to me for the past two months. Adrian also introduced me to Niamh Faherty and the team at the UJ Sports Bureau, who were nice enough to take me to Moçambique last month—massive thank you!

My very first hosts in Johannesburg were Sonja and Moiketsi, whom I met through my stateside cousin, Joe Hurd. Sonja and Mo handed me off to UJ, but they never forget about me. Last weekend they took me along with them for a long weekend getaway in the province of Mpumulanga. After a beautiful and relaxing weekend, I get to add Nana and Craig to my list of greats hosts. They let me pretend to be part of the extended family as we celebrated their 5th anniversary and Nana's birthday in style. Moiketsi and I pulled up to the cottage at Walkersons Estate on Friday evening, and for the second time in my life, I was treated to Craig's deluxe braai with delicious chimichuri. Bright and early the next morning, a small group of ambitious folks (that didn't include me) braved the bone-chilling cold for a fly-fishing expedition. When I say "bone-chilling," I do mean that literally—in fact, we came across some "Willie Warmers" at one store when taking a stroll through Dullstroom later that afternoon.

On a more savory note, I finally found a good South African beer while in town—not suprisingly, at a microbrewery. Also not surprisingly, it was a porter, just like my personal favorite from back home, Black Butte Porter (Deschutes Brewery).

After a short helicopter ride (another first for me!), and a few hours in town, we geared up for the main event. The food was delicious, though not as good as Craig's braai the night before, or Gail's french lamb recipe that would follow on Sunday. The company was excellent, and if I had known Craig and Kelly for any more than one month I would not have been able to hold it together during the beautiful toasts from their friends and family.

This coming weekend, my list of great hosts will only grow longer, as I travel to the North West Province. The people of Royal Bafokeng Nation have been supporting me from afar throughout me trip, but this will be my first opportunity to spend some quality time in their neck of the woods. I'm looking forward to it! Until then...

Pura Vida


  1. I swear you do more in a week than I do in a lifetime. And I was wondering how you were keeping your hair cut in all of these photos. Enjoy!

  2. I know, I think you are the most thorough traveler I have ever known! You know how to make the most of it! Thanks for sharing, you are a terrific writer! Have a great rest of your trip

  3. cant believe the afro and formal wear. No one in Manica would recognise you!!!

  4. Drew,

    Awesome piece... It was good fun having you over the week-end and thanks for being the resident DJ for my party! u rocked!

    Take care,

  5. You are an inspiration Drew.
    Tom and I are back in Wellington house sitting a cat called Pig, a kitchen mouse apparently...he wont come out and play with me...and a shit load of amazing records.
    Check out something called QI on youtube when you get a chance.
    A user called quite 1nteresting has all the episodes.