With the weekend arrived and many of the major question marks of my advance scout responsibilities having been taken care of (place to live, car, plans on campus, phone, internet, bank), I found myself with more free time than expected in both Bloemfontein and Johannesburg over the past few days. I opted to visit a couple of museums that I’m not sure we will visit once all four Kiels are in tow – the Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. I also visited Constitution Hill in Joburg, the site of former prisons and the current Constitutional Court. All of this is part of an attempt to piece together a stronger understanding of the stories that give us the South Africa of today. (I’ve compiled a fuller history here)
According to the Apartheid Museum, the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) is “the formative event of modern South African history.” I have gotten that sense as well from my various readings and conversations, and I was interested in seeing how the war was represented in a Boer stronghold like Bloemfontein. (I have never more desperately regretted not having visited the Civil War Interpretive Center in Corinth than I did as I visited this museum as I feel there might have been interesting comparisons to be made – you were right, Warren, I should go!)
For the months leading up to departure, one the most common and surprisingly difficult questions I faced was, “Where are you going to be?” There were several variations on this question, such as: “So, are you going to be in Cape Town?” and “Will you be in Johannesburg or Cape Town?” I answered these questions in their various forms with varying degrees of self-consciousness about the fact that I would not be in Cape Town, or Johannesburg, or really anywhere that anyone I spoke to had heard of. “It’s a city called Bloemfontein,” I would respond, adding some combination of the following:
- It’s about 4 hours southwest of Johannesburg
- It’s a university town
- It’s not one of the big cities, but it was big enough to host games during the 2010 World Cup
- But since I have a research grant, I’ll probably be moving around quite a bit, visiting scholars and schools all over the county
- It is the judicial capital of South Africa. (this was typically Meggan adding this one)
The truth was that I really had no idea where I was going, what it was like. According to one tour book, Bloemfontein is a “buzzing university town when school is in session.” According to another, “Although there is no reason to go out of your way to visit Bloemfontein, its centralized location means that you are likely to pass through at some point during a long visit to South Africa.” The one person I spoke with about my plans who is most familiar with the country responded immediately, “Oooh, you don’t want to be in Bloem,” to which she added, “Well, there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s just kind of a nothing place.” She searched for an American analogue, before concluding, “Maybe like Memphis.” (This person was not from Memphis and knew that I am, so this attempted disparaging comment flows from ignorance – little did she know, my hope was that Bloemfontein would be a little like Memphis, a mid-level city a little off the beaten path and a little off beat, but with a rich cultural life if you are willing to scratch the surface)
Not much human contact during this first week in Africa, but here are some of the people I’ve interacted with (unofficially – i.e., not including people I had arranged to meet with; these folks will be discussed later, as relevant)
- a series of Delta baggage assistants, including one lady with very short black hair and purple lipstick who was the one who found my bag and called me
- the young man who drove me from the airport to my JoBurg hotel and who did not complain (openly) about having waited for two hours at the international arrivals for me
- Thomas, the bellman at my JoBurg hotel who, in the space of 4 minutes, had planned my entire 5 month itinerary
- the ladies at the Vodacom shop (mobile phone) who I waded into an odd misunderstanding with, concluding with a suggestion from one that I return on Monday to take her shopping under the guise of a story to the airline that my girlfriend’s clothes were lost also
- the nurse at the Dis-Chem (pharmacy) who assured me I didn’t have an infection or need antibiotics and that although stuffy, my body temperature was a healthy 37.2 degrees; she did, however, give me a shot for my sinuses – I asked if I needed to remove a sleeve and she replied, “No, it’s going in your bum.”
- an employee at yet another Dis-Chem who helped me find the bottled water and then was amazed at himself that he could tell I was not from SA; I’m not positive, but I think he said I was the first person he had ever met from the United States
- the checkout person at a bookstore who asked me where I was from; when I told her Memphis, she said, “Oh, the home of —“ (and I braced myself for the first in an endless series of Elvis references) “— Justin Timberlake.” A new generation.
- Niso, an Israeli who moved to Bloemfontein for a job 30 years ago and has been here ever since.
- Christian, a potential landlord, former rugby player (and the father of a rugby player), and booster of all things having to do with sports in Bloem and at UFS and really in the whole country who confided that South Africa is “a wonderful country that’s just a little f’d up; though not nearly as f’d up as it could be if we hadn’t changed when we did, which is nice.”
- various car guards, who have helped me find parking spots and say something like “Ship Ship” at the end of each of our conversations
- Phillipe, a UFS economics professor who stuck around and drove me back to my car, and who delivered on the “home of Elvis” comment (as others have)
- the most earnest and eager to please waiter I have ever encountered, a man who I felt like I was disappointing when I only ordered a water to drink; he carried himself with the uncertainty of someone who wasn’t quite sure what the right thing to do was but who was entirely sure that he wanted to do the right thing the best he could (fidgety hands, starting and stopping, clutching his waiter’s pad like a treasure)
- a man at the full service petrol (gas) station who fumbled along with me as I tried to figure out what I was supposed to be doing
I have been listening to Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom as an aid to sleep (aargh! jet lag!). In a fog between wake and sleep, I heard the description below of the Johannesburg-Free State drive from Mandela’s perspective, the same drive I did on Sunday. More on my impressions of the Free State, Bloemfontein, and the university coming soon…
In Johannesburg, I had become a man of the city. I wore smart suits, I drove a colossal Oldsmobile and I knew my way around the back alleys of the city. I commuted daily to a downtown office, but in fact I remained a country boy at heart, and there was nothing that lifted my spirits as much as blue skies, the open veld, and green grass.
In September , with my bans ended, I decided to take advantage of my freedom and get a respite from the city. I took on a case in the little town of Villiers, in the Orange Free State [now, just the Free State]. The drive to the Orange Free State from Johannesburg used to take several hours, and I set out on my journey from Orlando [in Soweto] at 3 a.m., which has always been my favorite hour for departure. I am an early riser anyway, and at 3 a.m., the roads are empty and quiet, and one can be alone with one’s thoughts. I like to see the coming of dawn, the change between night and day, which is always majestic. It was also a convenient hour of departure because the police were usually nowhere to be found.
The province of the Orange Free State has always had a magical effect on me. Though some of the most racist elements of the white population call the Free State their home, with its flecked, dusty landscape as far as the eye can see, the great blue ceiling above, the endless stretches of yellow mielie fields, scrub and bushes, the Free State’s landscape gladdens my heart no matter what my mood. When I am there, I feel like nothing can shut me in, that my thoughts can roam as far and wide as the horizons.
I waited for several minutes in the front seat of my Chevy Cruze, steeling myself for the challenge ahead. This was something we had been anticipating for some time and there I was. Sitting on the right side of the car. Holding the manual transmission shift stick in my left hand. Repeating my mantra, “stay to the left, stay to the left,” which also happened to be taped to the rearview mirror. Speaking of the rearview mirror, peering at traffic through it in this world of reversals feels a lot like looking at the world in a mirror. Backwards.
I eased into first and over the next 4 hours and 400km achieved something that could only be described as success. Didn’t stall. Didn’t get lost. Safely made it to Bloemfontein. That success, though, glosses over some unnerving moments along the way.