The following is the first letter from 7 days of correspdence between myself and Vonani Bila, a 32-year old poet/publisher from the Limpopo province of South Africa. He is my cottage-mate for my 3-week residency at the Caversham Centre for Artists & Writers here in South Africa's Kwazulu Natal province, homeland of the Zulus. Though Vonani and I see each other first thing every morning, spend virtually all day together, and see each other last thing at night, we decided it would be interesting to see what sort of dialogue would happen via good old-fashioned letter-writing. Again, here's letter #1:
TODAY, IN THE 8TH DAY of my first trip to South Africa, I sat on a protruding rock by the rushing Lion River, muddy from all of the recent rain. In a moment of reflection, amid the hornets & butterflies and the various wild grasses, beneath the white sun climbing the great blue ladder of summer sky, I scooped my hand into the red soil and held – I mean really held – African dirt for the first time. It was a moment which I have dreamed of all of my life.
Though its texture is looser, its color is not unlike the red clay of Georgia, the only place I have ever called home. There, the red clay gets into your clothes, writes itself indelibly into your skin. Ask anyone who was born there. It never lets you go. And I wondered if this soil here in Kwazulu Natal - which too has seen more than its share of shed blood - might possess the same quality.
And as this dirt’s redness rubbed off on my brown hands, I contemplated the notion of home. Many African-Americans, including myself, view the trip back across the Atlantic to the so-called ‘Motherland’ – such as this trip which I am presently on - as a trip back home, of getting back to one’s roots, of reaching into the waters of a past which is beautiful, glorious, and untainted.
When I stepped off of the plane in Johannesburg, I must admit that, despite what I knew of South Africa’s brutal suffering under apartheid, I still could not help but expect something magical to happen in this moment. In fact, I think I desperately wanted something to happen in this moment – the moment in which I would inhale my first African breath.
So, I took one, deep, final gulp of plane-pressurized oxygen before I exited the South African Airways jet and held it. And held it. And held it, until I was well into the interior of the airport. I wanted to be alone as I took in this sacred breath as I had no idea how I would react: Would I tremble? Would I shout? Would I be brought to tears?
And in that first inhalation, do you know what I felt? Air.
But I am not disappointed. It was an opportunity for growth. My American upbringing had me perhaps expecting a microwaved experience – that I could set a timer and – voi la!, I’d be transformed by Africa. In fact, it is with each new sunrise, this becomes a more transformative experience – hearing the stories of you all here in the residency, of Lionel’s experience on Robyn Island for 7 years with Nelson Mandela; of the alien, yet somehow familiar music of the Zulu language, the curious clicking of Xhosa, the syncopated rhythms of the crickets and frogs; the muscular African names on public buildings, engraved in stone; the thunder so proud it quakes the bones, the hills so green they hurt the eyes; the Black announcers and news anchors slipping in and out of languages like clothes. It makes me dually proud and humble - this new world, this new existence.
And as I held the red dirt in my hand, watching the Lion River run from me, like tears, I pondered what my role is in all of this - particularly, in light of the arrival of Terri, the other American – a White American – at the residency.
My mind dwelled on the exercise we did earlier in the day – ‘The Gaze’ – in which we had to stare into each other’s eyes, silently gaze into each other’s souls for an eternity of three minutes. Her blue eyes – like two boundless skies, and seemingly just that far away. With this Zululand soil in my hand, I was suddenly confronted with an impossible dilemma. With whom do I have more in common – Terri, who, though White, lives in the same city I call home – who goes to the same theatres, eats at the same restaurants, knows the same music – or you, Vonani, who shares many of my views of the world regarding community and capitalism, who also shares my Black skin, but who I had never even known existed just last week?
What do you think?
M. Ayodele Heath