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Posted by Tim on Nov 22, 2010
The Reason We've Never Been to South Africa Before

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.

A Real African Boy

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.

Facing the Fear

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."

A Part of Us

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.

'The picturesque rondavels of NqileniA 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.

Something Close to Home

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.

Maggie (Tim's sister)
November 24, 2010 at 9:24pm
You and Kate will forever be "real African children" whereas I will be this warped mixture of British-American.

I envy you and Kate, but I'm nevertheless happy you two got to have an experience I'll never get to have. I can live the adventure through your photos or your blogs, but I will never be blessed with being a "real Afican child."

Tresure your heritige my brother for at least you have one. Be proud of your roots and of who you are. Keep traveling and learning, but most of all keep the sense of adventure alive.

I love you "real Afican boy."

November 24, 2010 at 11:36pm
Aw, thanks Maggie! I love you too!
November 25, 2010 at 8:20am
Hey guys,
Love the site in both design and content! And this is a great story. It's refreshing to read a good narrative like this – I definitely got a sense for the emotion involved. Eager to follow your journeys.. B well, Phil
November 26, 2010 at 4:43pm
Thanks so much for your kind words, Phil! I have to admit, Jessica had to talk me into posting this after I'd written it – I wasn't sure whether or not it would be interesting to anyone but me! I'm so happy to hear that you enjoyed it. :)

We've been just loving following your adventures, too. And needless to say, your ebook on how to draw camels was an absolute watershed event in our lives. The world will never be the same. ;)

Happy travels!

November 29, 2010 at 12:46am
Such an interesting background you have, and you explained it so well in light of your travel. As someone who loves SA (I visited many years ago in mid-90s) I can't imagine how someone might not think it's the most fantastic place. Looking forward to reading more of your adventures there.
November 29, 2010 at 4:46pm
Thanks so much, Mary! Yeah, we just couldn't have had a more amazing time in South Africa – we're definitely going to be rather evangelical about what a fantastic place to visit it is. And have no fear, there are many many stories to come! :)
November 30, 2010 at 3:22am
Visiting SA may legitimize or bring to heart the stories of your family. You just tied another knot in the family ties! It also helps you realize how small we are individually and how huge our "families" are.
I felt at home in Dublin and on the lava field on Hawaii. I've had ancestral family in both places and it brought a "feeling" I couldn't explain. Not quite de javu but still a sense of belonging.:)
December 1, 2010 at 4:50pm
Hi Janet! :)

Exactly! That's it precisely – a powerful feeling of belonging that's difficult to put into words.

I've been to Hawaii twice when I was younger, and absolutely loved it. But Ireland calls to us like few other places do. Maybe it's the family connection we both have there, or maybe it's just that they have perhaps the loveliest accent in the world… or maybe, just maybe, it's the beer. :)

December 2, 2010 at 6:41am
Click:Click: oh remember when Click: and Timmy Click…That was a good time
December 3, 2010 at 4:51pm
Psst! Philsie!

*furtive look around*

You wanna buy a sandwich?

♫ …it's a movie… ♫

Muff aka Fenella
December 9, 2010 at 2:21am
I was so moved by your story… the comments about the visit was so fitted our feelings arising from our visit in March this year.Thank you for saying it for us.
Aside from the wonderful time we had on our wilderness trail, another high point for us was the 70 mile bike ride round the Cape peninsular on the 'Argus ride' – just magnificent!
love you lots.. how about a visit to Oxford? A bit tame I know but beautiful too!
December 9, 2010 at 6:55pm
Hi Aunt Muff! :)

I'm so glad you enjoyed it, and am fascinated that it so resonated with you. South Africa really is a special place, isn't it?

Wow, the Argus Ride sounds really amazing, what an awesome experience! :)

We love you too! We were just reminiscing the other day about the lovely time we spent with you and Phil during our RTW trip, and talking about how much we'd love to see you again. :D

May 3, 2011 at 8:35am
We've just returned to our home in eMonti (East London, South Africa)after 5 days at Bulungula Lodge with friends from Rhini (Grahamstown, South Africa)and Maastricht (Netherlands). I stumbled across your blog during my on-line reflections of the great time we'd just experienced. This post is really great! Come back to SA & The Wild Coast soon!
May 7, 2011 at 6:20pm
Hi Cliff! :)

I'm so glad you enjoyed it! We just could not have loved South Africa more, and can't wait to go back! :)

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