A few hours before dawn on a cold January morning, I closed the book and set it aside. John Carlin's excellent Playing the Enemy told the story of how South Africa's improbable victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup had united the nation. I'd received it from Jessica's mother as a Christmas present, and had become so engrossed in it that I hadn't been able to put it down once I started reading it.
And so it was that I found myself still awake at four o'clock in the morning. Something strange had happened when I finished the book – I'd experienced a tremendous rush of emotion I had difficulty placing at first.
It's been around 40 years since my parents came to the United States from South Africa – the country where they were born, where their parents were born. It's where our family comes from, but it's a place I'd visited before only once, when I was 8 years old. That connection was the reason Jessica's mom had thought I'd enjoy the book, but it wasn't something I really thought about when I started reading. Indeed, I hadn't really thought much about South Africa at all, not in any of our travels. Whenever Jessica had suggested we go there, I'd come up with some excuse, some distraction, some reason to go somewhere else instead. Never once did I admit to myself what was happening, never once did I actually realize what was happening.
I was afraid. I didn't know what I was afraid of – I didn't even know that I was afraid. But the truth is that I was decidedly afraid of going to South Africa. And so we never did.
And then, in the wee hours of the morning, sitting up in bed and furiously racing to finish that book before sleep overtook me, something happened.
Carlin's description of the exuberant celebrations that followed the victory, of blacks and whites cheering together in the streets, of the way a divided nation was suddenly united – it awoke something within me. Something that burned in my chest with an unexpected fury.
Pride. Searing, irrepressible pride.
I felt intensely proud. And, as I realized with a start, I also felt intensely... South African.
My father once made me a CD of his favorite African songs. Sometime after reading Playing the Enemy, I dug it out and listened to it for the first time in ages, and fell instantly in love with it.
One day, I started listening to it during a long drive. I became particularly infatuated with Umqombothi, a song by Yvonne Chaka Chaka. The word umqombothi (in which the letter "q" is pronounced as a clicking sound) refers to a form of traditional Xhosa beer, and the song is pretty dang catchy. I listened to it on repeat, over and over, and (because I was alone in the car and a bit bored) I started singing along. At first the word umqombothi left me a bit tongue-tied, but as I kept practicing I got better and better, until I was just flat-out nailing those clicking sounds. It felt like I'd reached the top of Everest, and I started inserting clicks into everything else I was singing (whether they were supposed to have clicks or not) because I was having so much fun doing it.
I was on the phone with my mother a couple of days later, and asked her to tell my father how much I was enjoying the CD he'd made me. In the process of telling her this, I happened to mention the song "Umqombothi" – clicking properly, of course, when I said the word.
"Listen to you!" my mother exclaimed proudly. "My real African boy!"
There it was, in my chest again. That same searing, irrepressible pride.
It wasn't until some time later that I realized that I was afraid to go to South Africa, or that I realized why.
Jessica and I had just been to see the film Invictus, which was based on that same book that had kept me up so late that cold January night. It stirred in me the same feelings, the same yearnings, the same pride.
In the car on the way home, Jessica again suggested that we travel to South Africa together. As before, I resisted, and as before she asked me why.
This time, I didn't redirect, or give some excuse. This time my answer came out of my mouth before I'd even realized what it was.
"I'm afraid," I said simply. "What if I don't like it? I don't know if I could bear that."
For a moment, there was silence. I was completely stunned by what I'd just said. Rolling the words around in my head, though, I realized that they were true.
"Well," Jessica said slowly, "I think that's a pretty silly reason not to go somewhere."
She was right, of course. And so a few months later, I set foot on the African continent for the first time in more than a quarter of a century.
I was still afraid, I'll admit. We've loved virtually every other country we've ever visited. I was terrified we might dislike the place that held so much of my family history... the place that I'd come to realize meant so very, very much to me.
I didn't know what it was supposed to feel like when we arrived. I had some half-baked idea that it would feel like home or something. I wasn't sure what to expect.
Of course, all of my fears proved to be unfounded. South Africa welcomed us with open arms. I completely forgot about being afraid by the time the sun first set upon us there.
A couple of weeks later, we were in a small village on the Eastern Cape called Nqileni (don't forget that click!). We were sitting on straw mats on the floor of a rondavel (a traditional African hut, circular in shape) and chatting with a young woman named Khululwa. She was asking about my parents, and I told her the story of how I learned to click by singing "Umqombothi." (It wasn't the first time in South Africa that we met someone who thought it was hysterical that I knew that song.)
When I told her about my mother's reaction, Khululwa smiled.
"Of course," she said, gesturing at me. "You see? You are a part of us."
And there it was again, in my chest. Searing. You are a part of us.
Now, a week after returning home, I still find myself struggling to process our time in South Africa. We had the most amazing time there, and we're incredibly eager to return someday soon. But there's something else too.
Returning to South Africa has once and for all vanquished the fears I had that it could disappoint me. I'm not sure what our expectations for this trip were... but whatever they may have been, they were certainly vastly exceeded.
We came home having made so many new friends, having seen so many spectacular vistas, having met so many interesting people, and having had so many wonderful adventures. We came home, as I said before, with our bags packed full of stories to share.
For now, it's enough for me to note that while South Africa didn't necessarily quite feel like "home" to me, it felt like something very close. Something I've been struggling for days now to put into words. If "home" isn't perhaps the best word for what I found there, maybe the closest I can get would be "roots." That's not quite right either, actually, but it'll have to do for now.
I find myself left with the most tremendous affection for South Africa. But perhaps that's no surprise.
I am, after all, a real African boy.
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