My Dearest Mam’Khulu…

[ Zulu phrase/noun.  Mam’khulu: Mama omKhulu (mama-mother) Omkhulu (Big, older, eldest, grand) colloquial translation “Big Mama”. My grandmother’s older sister, the first of ten children born to my  great-grand parents, Steven and Popane Zulu]

Sawubona gogo. I thought I should let you know even though it is now only posthumously that my favourite cup of tea is Vanilla Chai.   A beautiful friend of mine from Mumbai India, introduced me to its fragrant intoxicating aroma three years ago and it has been my source of peaceful bliss ever since.  I am sometimes completely consumed by it. Vanilla chai  replaced my all time favourite  Chinese tea  brought for me by a good friend from Berlin Germany,  in Taiwan, the  oolong tea. He said it was the best he could find!  He was an avid tea-collector. I couldn’t replace it and drank it only on very special occasions – on those occasions when I needed to write, to pray. It’s long finished now.  If it is true that there could be a storm in a tea-cup, this Chinese Oolong tea and now Vanilla chai have been my nirvana in a cup. Both my friends incidentally are film-makers.

A Family Tea

I am telling you this story  because since you moved on five weeks ago I have been consumed by memories of my childhood, in our common childhood home in Orlando West. In fact the only home you have known in all your 70 plus years. In fact it’s hard to imagine 7224 without you, because you were always there somewhere, quietly drinking your tea.   I thought I should let you know this because you are the one who enticed me, drew me to the seemingly endless mysteries of tea drinking – to its subtle secretes. I was curious to discover what it was about tea that gave you so much pleasure. In fact your tea drinking is my abiding memory of you. Do you remember the story?

You must remember this story because it came to me right after we gathered to say farewell to you at 7224.

It all started one afternoon, on the rare occasion that we spent time together. I was five doing what I loved best; lying on my belly on the hot slab of concrete in our front stoep and staring at the line of ants working tirelessly collecting food. You asked my older sister Nhlanhla to make you a cup of tea. A few moments later she came out and brought you your tea.  You held the cup of tea carefully in your hands and took one sip of  Nhlanhla’s tea and gulped  as if someone had given you the most delicious beverage on earth. Then you uttered the words  I will never forget. ” Laze la Mnadi itiye Lakho Nhlanhla!” and you finished off with that sound which we all make when we drink or eat something delicious ” Mmmmcha!”  The way you uttered those words with such love and gratification made me immediately envious of my sister’s tea making abilities. I responded, as always, with a question; ” Mam’khulu why  didn’t you ask me to make you a cup of tea?”  Because you are too young to make me tea, you responded with your  gentle calm voice. You smiled and asked. ” Why? Do you also want to make me tea?   “yes” I responded, peering into the dark liquid mixture in your hand wondering what was it that made it so delicious, so different. To me it was just ordinary tea.  “Because I also want you to say to me “Laze La Mmandi itiye lakho poppy… hmmmchah” I said mimicking you.  I remember your laugh and your eyes peering into the distant horizon perhaps pondering my  chilhood simplicity. “Ngelinye ilanga nawe uzongenzela itiye” adding that one day when I am old enough I can make you tea also. So naturally I couldn’t wait to grow up and do just that.

That day was a defining moment for me and it is only so in hindsight. I had managed to make you laugh without intending to. I derived a lot of pleasure from making people laugh through my mimicry and performance(s). I still do enjoy mimicking people and performing even today, though now in my adult years it does not always have the desired effect.  I think  that story brought us closer and highlighted an ingrained need  in me for adult approval. Your approval. You see,  your compliments of my sister’s tea meant only one thing to me, that you liked her.  Nhlanhla had become your favourite girl because she knew how to make your tea, tea that could make you, the quiet one go “mmchah!” and smile.  I also wanted your approval, to make you like me, to say nice things about  me and my tea making abilities. I also wanted a chance to please you.  Not realizing that I already had.

Around the World in search of my Family Tea

I forgot about this story. And now that I think of it, I feel an urge, a need to  apologize for my childhood silliness.  Everyone has their own gift. Everyone makes tea in their own unique and special way. I still admire my sister’s tea making abilities, but I know now that I could never make tea like she does and that it is okay. Looking back I see that this tea story has followed me always even though I never paid much attention to it.  I have been trying to be someone I was not. From observing tea and coffee-making rituals in your beloved church: The Zionist Christian Church (ZCC), to tea making in mainland China and most surprisingly in Senegal. A country I ran to in search of myself. The last thing I expected to find in this country was tea. But I arrived to find that tea and tea making rituals were a defining feature in the country’s daily activities.  In the Sahel region of Africa tea culture is thus:

“In the Sahel region on the southern fringe of the Sahara, green gunpowder tea is prepared with little water and large amounts of sugar. By pouring the tea into the glasses and back, a foam builds on top of the tea. Sahelian tea is a social occasion and three infusions, the first one very bitter, the second in between and the last one rather sweet are taken in the course of several hours.”

This process is repeated two to three times a day after every meal and in each family there is the one person who is chosen to make the tea by virtue of their competence, passion, or talent.

A Spiritual Experience.

I observed this practice quite curiously over weeks and months. Because until then, tea had no real meaning for me. It was a simple common beverage drunk in almost every household. I had never associated tea with real spirituality, even though I had observed the central role tea had in religions. Since I was not religious I attached no meaning to it at all until I tried making tea – the Senegalese way.  I found that it was pure: Alchemy.

First Your Hands Must be Clean.

You must pay attention.

Above all, you must be patient.

Of course I was impatient with the process. I was trying fruitlessly to compete with tea makers in Senegal who had been making tea since childhood and did so everyday of their lives. I found that I had a lot to learn or rather,  to unlearn. Not only about tea culture but about life in general. I was once again that child on the stoep, who craved approval, en-flamed by curiosity, that child who wanted to know everything even though she didn’t  know what she would do with all the information she was  relentlessly searching for. Life for me has always been a kind of game, a challenge, an adventure, a curious, innocent exploration of the unknown.

Since Senegal I have acquired a healthy respect for tea and tea culture and have since come to the conclusion, however reluctantly, that this tea making business, beautiful as it is, is simply not for me.  I did it, served tea to more than 20 people at a christening of a  new-born baby at one time.  But it is  just Not My Cup of tea!

I have tried to make different kinds of tea.  I have tried to acquire the kind of skills of artfully making the kind of cup that would make tea experts smile.  Even my professed favourite cup of tea; Vannilla Chai a combination of lovely ingredients which include vanilla, Cinnamon, Ginger Peppermint Leaves, Cloves and Cardamom is not mine – I don’t make it, I just enjoy it.  I drink it simply because it brings me pleasure – I smile when I drink it. And it smells wonderful.

A Special Blend

I like to think of this tea making story as an analogy of my quest to find my purpose in this life. Of finding this unique gift which I was brought into this world to share. A skill, an art-form, or talent, that no one alive could teach me. I have been actively searching for it, looking everywhere and it has been eluding me for the longest time. I have traveled the world over in search of my purpose. The meaning of my name Lindiwe:  the one we are waiting for.  I have tried, wished, hoped, wanted to be among those considered the best tea-makers, the tea connoisseurs. My efforts did not yield  the desired results. Which, though crushingly disappointing has been a blessing in disguise. In my frustration, I even dared ask God why he brought me here,  and on top of that with nothing. Can you imagine? I had no idea who else to ask.

Today as I write this letter to you, I find it hilarious that I went out to the world, through all that trouble, in search of something I already had. Something I already was. Because  you see, before I left for Senegal in search of Love, Love had already found me. I remembered without trying to how to make my own cup of “tea”. My own special blend without even trying.  It’s not tea even. I woke up one day and just knew that I had to make this “tea”.  I have been making and drinking this “tea” since then and have made it lovingly for myself and anyone who asked for it. I even made it in Senegal while I was busy forcing myself to learn how to make their tea.

Okay it’s not a special talent really haha.. actually everyone can do it. I just have my own special way of doing it.

It’s the tea that love taught me how to make. I didn’t realize then that it was my gift because it was so easy and effortless and I could do it without thinking about it. In fact I have been doing it since that day on the stoep.  I believed for a long time that I  had to work hard to find love. I thought you had to suffer before you can love or  be loved by someone. I thought love is what you earn – a prize and reward for doing something “good”.

I am very happy to tell you that I was completely wrong. You don’t need to be or do anything to become who you already are. Love.

I am honoured each time Love calls me to make this “tea” for myself or for anyone.  Because this one has no additives. It’s simple and contains four ingredients.  Which are easily available. Lemon, Garlic, Ginger and Love. Whose healing properties are well documented the world over.  I wish I had remembered this tea story three years ago, and made you a cup.  But you never asked me to make you a cup of tea, and now I realize that this is simply because it was never my place to.

So even without uttering a single word you have taught me so much with your silence, just by your presence, and being yourself. You have taught me about respect, perseverance and above all the love of God. This tea story has taught me valuable lessons which I will carry with me forever.

1. I cannot be or do everything.

2. Everyone has a their own special gift, and role in life.

3. My role is to remember who I am.

4. Who I am is Love made manifest in this body.

5.  And this, is enough. I am enough.


Thank you for being a blessing.  Ngiyabonga, Gogo.

Kgotso. Kagiso.



Zulu kaMalandela ngokulandela izinkomo zamadoda,
Zulu omnyama ondlela zimhlophe,
Wena kaPhunga noMageba,
Wena kaMjokwane kaNdaba,
Wena wenkayishana kaMenzi eyaphuza umlaza ngameva,
S’thuli sikaNdaba,
S’thuli sikaNkombane,
Wena kasihhawuhhawu siyinkondlo bayikhuzile ngoba ikhuzwe abaphansi nabaphezulu,
Wena kanogwaja omuhle ngomlenze,
Wena kaMbambelashoba,






Communal Eating In Senegal
Communal Eating In Senegal

Last week I found myself dreading meal times. Eating left me feeling emptier than before, I ate. Though my belly was full, my soul felt emptier or the ‘hunger” had not gone away as one would naturally expect after a meal.   I found that to be  a puzzling phenomena.  How is that possible? How can I eat and still feel as hungry as if I hadn’t  eaten a single thing even though my stomach is full of food? Is it the food I choose to eat?  Or is it because I am not  making it myself? Why eat if  the  hunger does not  disappear?

I found that two things happened in this case ;   I either wanted to eat more hoping that the next thing  I eat will fill that gap or I just “forget” to eat.   But because the” full but empty” feeling is stronger right after you eat, it gives the illusion that  a little more food will quench your hunger for good so the  former is much more prevalent.  address

So this “full but empty” phenomena is happening to in the same week that the subject of food and eating in South Africa was making headlines and all for the wrong reasons.   “South African members  of parliament blame fattening food in parliament for their obesity” did not only make local headlines, the story was  covered by most of the major international news agencies. It was a peculiar story to say the least. A parliamentarian was quoted blaming the caterers for their obesity.  Parallel to that story a food services company published research which found that South Africa is the third fattest nation on earth. The study found that 61 percent of South African adults ate more and exercised less. At the same time there is a new global trend of  restaurants catering for people who want to eat alone. The first of its kind in Holland, Eenmall, offers diners a chance to eat completely alone with a single chair and everything. Founders of the  pop-up restaurant say they wanted to prove to the world that eating alone is not a taboo. In addition to that there’s the growing concern about an exponential increase in genetically modified foods in the country which makes  basics such as “maize” and “milk”  not what they used to be.   There seems to be a lot of issues involved in eating!


So through news and current affairs I realized that I was not the only one having  trouble eating;  it seemed that I and 61 percent of our nation simply didn’t  know when to stop, eating. Of course it is understandable, eating is necessary for life – food is our life-source. So often people are more likely to encourage you to eat and eat more instead of advising you to eat less.  It can be a touchy subject  this eating  business. Because the fact remains that regardless of your size – everyone has to eat. Everyday preferably.  So regardless of what the facts are whether you’re  eating too much or too little is never anyone’s fault (really) since everyone has to eat right? Who are you to judge?

So why are we the third fattest nation on earth? How did we get here? Why are we eating so much? We must be stuffed if we are the third fattest nation in the world right?How do we solve the problem of obesity? I  for one am generally a light eater preferring to eat small amounts of food throughout the day instead of huge meals at one sitting. So this new change in me was troubling. I won’t blame winter or anyone for it.  In  an  effort to get to the source of the problem I decided to  experiment a little.  I fasted for two days drinking only tea and lemon water, then I ate what ever whenever I felt hungry, but since I had no food where I stay I had to go out, to cafe’s and restaurants to get food fast. The restaurants I visited were disappointing.   At most restaurants I found there was no love at all in the food, there was no evidence of care  from the moment of preparation to the presentation. There are some exceptions though, which came with equally exceptional prices,  but generally food at most restaurants was treated as a means to an end  and not an event in and of itself.  Tired of  being disappointed, I then decided to cook my own meals at home  and see if that would make a difference to the “full but empty” feeling.  Since I am a minimalist,  I chose ingredients that will be quick to prepare: spaghetti basil, garlic, ginger and olive oil pasta which I found much more fulfilling both to my stomach and my soul.  Through this week-long experiment I found that  eating out at bad restaurants or having ‘take-out” food increases the full but empty feeling while  preparing my own meal at home left me feeling much more satisfied and full  but it did not close the “full but empty” feeling entirely. So what gives?


I found myself thinking often of Senegal when the subject of food came up. When I arrived in Senegal it took a while for me to eat local food.  Non-Senegalese people didn’t offer much confidence in Senegalese cuisine. The food is too oily and bland they said. So I ate chicken and rice which resulted in the same  “full but empty” feeling.

That feeling lingered on until I moved in with a Senegalese family where it was mandatory to eat together twice everyday  2pm lunch and 8 pm supper by clockwork.  There I learnt a new way of eating. A knock came at the door. “Jedi viennent manger” Jedi come eat.  Whether I felt hungry or not.  I arrived to find the entire family huddled around a huge platter of rice and two fish (see picture example above). Spoons positioned in around the tray or platter in a circle. The men squatted or sat on little stools, while women sat on the floor on their thighs, leaning to one side. Each person then began to eat from their section and the matriarch would distribute pieces of fish (a staple) and  vegetables to whoever needed.  It was a much more intimate way of eating which I had last experienced as a child. This brings you closer together in a way that I cannot fully describe using words.

At the “table” it was easy to tell if someone was happy or not,  just by the way they ate. It was easy to notice if someone was not home or deliberately missing meals. In Senegal there are only two excuses for not eating at home with your family: either you are at work or you are not well enough to eat with the family. No other excuse is permissible. At first I found this practice to be too claustrophobic (going against my individualistic eat when I want where ever I want preferably on my own sensibilities).  But soon I found it was the only way I found joy in eating and meal times and eating became something I looked forward to and enjoyed! No matter how hungry I was I would wait until it was meal times to eat with the family or go to town and share a meal with my many friends. I ended up eating much less than I would  eat if I had a plate all to myself. But eating was a more satisfying experience.

Sharing food is an ingrained part of Senegalese life, regardless of class or status. It doesn’t matter who you are or even where you come from, when it comes to food – Senegalese people share.  Their way of eating is not different to one the worlds fastest growing super powers – China – where meal times have been (this is changing) a treasured tradition. There meals are severd in smaller bowls  – but families also eat together as a matter of principle. Meal times or eating becomes a key feature in a persons day.  I’ve shared food with complete strangers in Senegal – eating from the same bowl as them with no fuss. Many of them did not have a lot in a way of material things, but they had food which was almost always shared. Even a tiny cup of coffee is shared in Senegal. To such an extent that those who decide to eat alone in the presence of others have to apologize first  for not sharing before they eat. But those cases are rare since everyone shares. If you had something to eat you shared. My understanding of that was, you don’t know who is hungry and to save people the indignity of asking for food you just offer it.  I have shared food with mamas selling coffee on the street, street traders, different families, domestic workers, and even sex workers.  I ate much less than I do now but I felt fuller and happier, without intending to, just by sharing.


I must admit that even I could not have imagined sharing to be the answer to all our  dietary  problems. I mean seriously? Something so simple right?  So while the amount of fat in your food, GMO content, how much you eat, how you eat it and with whom you eat can contribute towards your health,  eating alone is the biggest factor which contributes to this ‘full but empty’ phenomena which causes people to eat but feel unsatisfied and eat more than they need to.  We only have to look at the American lifestyle that prizes “individual happiness” above community. They are the fattest nation on earth.

The emptiness can not be eroded by more food because it’s not the food that is the problem but what you do with it.  When it comes to South African politicians their problem is understandable:  Their works is largely desk based,  they don’t use up as much energy as they consume and more over one person will eat the same amount of food in one sitting  which a family of ten people in Senegal would share at dinner. One would have to be a construction worker lifting boulders and boulders of rock or some physically strenuous job to eat that much food or spend most of the day doing physical labour which is not the case. Maybe the parliamentarians are depressed ( depression can cause people to eat more), or unhappy or bored with the work they do, so they overcompensate by eating – because something is missing. Eating something with lots of sugar and fat is the quickest ways to get that instant gratification feeling.

Eating is also linked to our emotions.  So it stands to reason that they would increase in size. In fact people in Senegal often joke with each other when they see a man (especially) or woman who has bulging stomach. They say “oh so we see you eat alone these days huh?” Once people get high paying jobs, they start to blow up and become disfigured from eating too much on their own and then end up  paying loads of money for gym memberships and diets they never use.  Eating to fill a gap that food can never fill.

If you eat with others you are unlikely to want more than your  fair share  of what is on the plate. It causes one to be accountable. The eating process is transparent. Everyone sees what everyone else is eating. You will be more likely to consider others around you who are eating from the same plate as you. I know what you are thinking… this will take time but wait…

Haven’t  you noticed how old or  new lovers often without thinking tend to eat from each other’s plates almost subconsciously.. when people are in what we call love, children (toddlers do this too) they want to share more of themselves and more of what they have with others  and food is one of the first places where the sharing happens. So while we all do eat alone at some point by choice or circumstance – we are happier and “fuller” when eat together in the company of  others, and we are more likely to  be filled by much less food if we eat from the same plate.


Now there are always exceptions to every opinion and rule but I think psychologically we are more satisfied with our lives when we can share ourselves with others,  the  little we have becomes more when we break bread with others. If we do this from an understanding that each person needs food as much as you do and the subtle truth we are not made “full” by bread alone,  that we are  happier together than  apart, even if the only time we are together is when we eat unless we recognize the value in sharing:  the food we eat in the privacy of our own homes or restaurants eventually becomes poison.

The  Senegalese (West African way of eating) is not a new Phenomena in Africa or globally for that matter, we just stopped sharing and because of that we have become increasingly bloated, full but empty. There are many things one can do to cure this, but the most simplest of them all is to just share – the most happiest diet on the market and it’s for free. Share. Partage. It’s natural, it’s in our nature to share.  If  I were president  this would be my state of the nation address today. Sharing heals.






The human race and their costumes
The human race and their costumes

Recently my Facebook homepage has been populated with a litany of race commentary from all walks of life. It doesn’t matter what the topic was about. I found that the issue of race keeps coming up over and over again in politics, sports, fashion, education, you name it. First it was a white girl who painted her face black with a permanent marker to poke fun at black people. The commentary there was: the joke is on her  because she will remain black like that forever, which of course in not true. Then yesterday an admission by a Kenyan Socialite that she has deliberately lightened her skin to make money because her body is a business drew much attention from local and international networks. Comments on that story were highly judgmental against “black “women’s general lack of self-worth and self-esteem.

So what is it about race that matters so much? What is it about the colour of one skin that makes it so important above everything else we share as human beings on this earth that we have to kill each other for it?
Why is race important today in the 21st century when we have more than enough scientific proof that there really is absolutely no biological difference between races except of course the colour of their skin. Maybe the shape of your nose and mouth or eyes… but isn’t that different anyway regardless? Why are people judged often solely on how they look?
I met a man the other day who said he often borrows from nature to answer life’s big questions. So I will learn from him and use “nature” to try to explain why I think race matters today more than ever but of course not for the same reasons we have been conditioned to think it does.


To use nature to explain the challenge of race I will not go on a wild African safari. Instead I’ll start at home. Using  an example of an animal said to be the  human’s best friend. The Dog.

Yes I am comparing humans to dogs.

In the world of dogs: there are different types of dogs, different colours, personalities, characters  and  strengths. But they are all dogs though, and the only thing that helps us tell them apart – is their shape/size and colour/character. If dogs were only short and black and didn’t come in any other variety, I’m sure humans would run  experiment testing what would happen if  mixed a dog’s genes with those of cats for example. But ultimately, if that were the case we would not be able to tell the difference between one short black dog to another. To tell the difference we’d have to spend time with each dog  in order to discover its unique peculiarities which sets its apart from the packs in order to  know the difference.

So there you go. Humans are like dogs. We’re the same. And since we are so much alike in every way imaginable, race becomes important. If we were all black and looked exactly like me – exact copies of who I am, Jedi Ramalapa with my history and everything that I am now there would be no US, but only ME or as the Rastafarians like to say, there would only be I and I.  I will be the only person I know because there would be no one else who is different from me. There would be no “other”one who would be me, I would be you. So I need there to be white people, Chinese, Indian people, black people, short people, tall people, all colours because that’s the only way that I will ever know that I exist as a human being . I know I am human because you are human, but I know I’m me because you are not me even though you are, like me, human.
This is where I think where the notion of I am because you are –” umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu “– I am human because you are human comes from. I know I am me because you are not me. If you were I wouldn’t be who I am. I will not be able to tell myself apart from any other human person because we would all be exactly  the same. Imagine if we all had the same thought, at the same time, felt the same, had the exact same families, backgrounds, histories, and training, skin colouring, feelings at the same time what would make you different from me? Nothing. If you were me, the whole world would be sitting at Lucky Bean in Melville, Johannesburg writing this blog post. But there would be no one singing, cooking or making food because the whole world would think like me, feel like me want the exact same thing as I want right now. Nothing else would be happening.
You wouldn’t exist as an individual, because I am exactly the same as you so we are  ultimately,  one.


So race matters only in so far as like the clothes we wear helps us to tell each other apart even though we are all part of the same thing or source. That’s the only thing. There are of course many other things which make people different. Where you grew up,  your  environment and what you were taught. Depending on where you come from and how you were educated about yourself, that  differentiates you from the next person. The differences between humans though are beyond skin. Take for example my siblings and I. We were all raised by the same parents, lived for the most part under one roof.  But we are all distinctly different from each other and we all want to do different things with our lives. My brother has chosen a different life for himself where he feels needed and wanted as an entrepreneur, my younger sister is married with children, my oldest sister has not lived anywhere else but at home with my parents since I’ve known her, I have traveled the world and still have itchy feet to this day. We all love music, we appreciate dance, education and the value of hard work but we appreciate those things in our own unique way. So even though we share the “same” DNA we are all different, even if we may share similar features, even though our skin colour is the same and from the same person. We are as diverse as the vegetation in nature.


So I am Jedi Ramalapa, only because there is a Peace, Victoria, Didi and Immie in my life. I am who I am because no one else is like me, even though we share the same genes. I “wear” my genes differently and how I “wear” my genes changes also with time and the environment. But Victoria the “quiet” one in my family has strengths and skills I don’t possess, she knows things I don’t know, understands and interprets the same facts we both know differently. Her perspective is different from mine. Same with Didi, Immie and Peace. We have the same reference point but not the same perspectives, understanding or way of doing things. And that’s what makes us individuals. The me I am, only make sense in the difference that makes you who you are. I need an Immie,  a victoria, a Didi, a Peace in my life, because they in their difference complete me. They compensate for my shortfalls or should I say make my strengths more visible or are strong where I am weak and vise versa. We all have a role to play in life and our roles are as unique and different as life itself. I need another to be me, you need me to be myself not a copy of anyone else to be you. That is why we’re all, regardless of our colouring, irreplaceable.

Perhaps this is only a notion parents with more than one child can understand, but I’m definitely sure that if I can understand this so can you, child or no child.

So in all the debates about race, the issue is not race necessarily, but the desire to control and have power over another human being or a particular group of people that we decide at some point or other is inferior. They are not intrinsically inferior they just have different strengths and weaknesses to us. In order to control anyone or anything, you must insist on their weaknesses, highlight the points at which they are wrong, more than the points where they are strong and ‘right’.

Needless to say there is no wrong or right necessarily, what exists are the norms which we decide as a community should be deemed right or wrong in order to further perpetuate the notions of superiority, power and ultimately control.

In the cycle of life we are all equal, yet different. What makes nature so magnificent is the one thing we refuse to acknowledge in our human relationships. Difference makes  harmony possible.  There is no harmony without difference.

So yes you matter,  your race or whatever colouring you are matters. But not anymore or less than the next person who appears different from you. They make you who you are. Without them. You can’t be. You.

So instead of focusing on the superficial race arguments, lets talk about how to change the systems that make discrimination based on skin or anything else possible. Why should we fight about the very thing that makes us stronger as a human race. Why should someones skin be the basis on which you decide how to  treat them, when you yourself need and want the very same things as the other person? Food shelter, love, community, understanding, freedom. Why should someone else die for your comfort? Why can’t we use our strengths as individuals, races  and or communities to build a better world. We all need each other. No one is wholly and entirely self-sufficient. Not even the people we label crazy. I cannot exists without you, is the bottom line, and neither can you. Even if we all looked exactly the same,  we’d still be different or find  reasons to discriminate against each other based on other differences such as country or continent, age , gender, sexuality. Race would not matter then.

So why should it now?

What you choose to do with your body or skin, is ultimately up to you and no one else.


A Personal Assignment: Nothing is Black or White in Africa

Ouma Setee and Ouma Tillie Celebrated a 100 Years on Earth this week.
Ouma Setee and Ouma Tillie Celebrated a 100 Years on Earth this week.

Sweetheart I am so sorry to have kept you waiting for so long. See I had some unfinished new business to take care of. Matters of the heart run deep and often pull you unawares back to a place you thought you’d moved away from, made peace with,let go and closed  the door. You see, the personal and the professional coincided last week. And instead of rushing through it so that I can get it over and done with. This time I have chosen to take my time or as much time as I need to be here in this moment. Absorb as much as I can in order to move on from here without looking back. I tend to rush through things, being in a rush and never having anytime to do anything (properly) is a core element of my profession as a journalist.  So since  we’ll be turning a page together, I thought I should fill you in on what’s been going on – so that I can always be fully present when ever I am,  with you.  So this dear one  is a wide glance back in time in order for me to move  forward. I no longer wish to be  entangled in the past though the past is always present. Ironically this unfinished business of mine is about just that, the past and learning to be patient, particularly with myself. In some ways I feel a little bit like the late Wits prof. Emeritus and Paleanthropologist Phillip Tobias, except I am not excavating fossils but human emotions, feelings, hearts from  living beings. To find truths long-buried with the hope of  contributing to an understanding of where we are and where we are going.  Everything in its own time.

So here’s the story baby. I’ll try to keep it short (people everywhere want it short). In the last week of my recent job I was  assigned to a story I instinctively hesitated  to take on. In fact had I known how close it was to my own story I would have immediately refused to do it. But I didn’t know so I accepted the assignment and here we are. Together again unexpectedly.


Okay so I was to meet these two ladies. Both celebrating a 100 years on earth this year in Eldorado Park a township in one of Johannesburg’s South Western Townships – known by the acronym – SOWETO. They said it would make for a great story.”Nice colour piece” nothing at all to do with politics. “Do you want to do it or should I let someone else do it?” asked my grey-haired editor with a hint of a smile in his eyes. I wasn’t sure  what to say or quite how to do it.” Eldorado park is a historically “coloured” residential area.  It was classified as coloured after the introduction of Apartheid laws in 1949. Apartheid was an Afrikaner  political ideology of “separate but equal living” based on the fact that all non-white/non-European people were far less developed and therefore inferior to the white people. Apartheid emphasized difference as a tool to legislate human relationships, behavior and interaction in the country.  So in 1949 they introduced the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act which prohibited marriage between white people and black people including non-white people. It was followed by the Immorality Act of 1950 which prohibited adultery between white people and non-white people, followed by the Population Registration Act which required every South African  to be racially classified  this was followed by the Group Areas act of 1950 which forced separation between  races through the creation of residential areas designated for different racial groups, white, black, coloured, Indian, Chinese  etc. My ancestors come from one of the first racially mixed communities in Johannesburg – Kliptown. It used to be a  “white farm” but there all races lived next door to each other, they were chinese merchants, white farmers, black people , coloured people everyone was living together.  The there ‘s river next to it. Kliprivier.  When the group areas act law was  implemented  the government started a massive re-construction campaign, a physical manifestation of legislation.  Eldorado Park is one of those areas built for people who were racially mixed: not black or white or Indian or any other racial group. These were the people who were said to better than black people on the superiority scale  but not good enough to be white – people who were a combination of both black and white.

I read the word Kliptown and dread came over me. What is it about Kliptown that keeps popping back into my life over and over and over again. ” You’re sending me back to Kliptown” I heard myself whispering under my breath loudly while reading the letter to the editor. I was relieved he didn’t ask what I meant by that because that would have been a whole other story. The story itself sounded simple enough yet I was immediately overwhelmed. How could I tell this story in two minutes? I said I’ll do it.  He smiled and said  “do it  for TV Radio and Online”.  I summoned the  courage to see my mentor, Angie. She has climbed mountains and I admire her work and respect her meticulous attention to detail which can exhaust anyone on a tight deadline. She said ” I’ll give you five minutes for a radio piece” – a relief for me. “I would like lots of Natural sound. Use a timeline from the beginning of world war one, world war two, the 1920s the beginning apartheid in 1942 and so on”. I looked at her incredulous thinking of the amount of work that involved. Seriously? Yes, she said. Get some archives she added then moved on to answer the phone – we waved goodbye. I was on my own, but the timeline suggestion was  the structure  I needed to order my thoughts and it was also a great way of obtaining an aerial view of just how long a 100 years looks like. It’s as if for a long time nothing happened in the world – people and the world lay dormant, quietly sleeping until one day everyone was woken up by some mysterious force calling them to take action, do something, make their dreams a reality. Then people woke up frantically and started doing things, inventing this and that, fighting, loving, creating my world in 2014 even I couldn’t keep up. The 20th century is Amazing! I knew that I had to meet them first, speak to them before I could think about what  event on history’s timeline would encapsulate their story or which archives I would use to visually tell the story. I was nervous. I had never spoken to someone who is a 100 years old let alone two of them in one room – what life changing wisdom would they share? What questions do you ask someone at that age. Would the ladies want to talk to me?.  ” Ouma  Tillie (pictured on the right) can speak but Ouma Settie (pictured on the left) doesn’t speak anymore and is mostly bedridden. Also Ouma Tillie can’t hear in one ear so you have to be loud when you address her” Said Sally Harris,’ Ouma Setties’ youngest daughter. I needed all the help I can get.


Ouma Tillie and Ouma Setie were born in 1914 in South Africa, in the month of May three weeks apart. Ouma Tillie, short, light-skinned and vibrant is the eldest of the two friends. She was born in the free-state province located on the flat boundless plains in the heart of South Africa. Tillie and Settie met in Kliptown, in 1932 in their early 20s. At a time when they still enjoyed going to clubs and dancing the night away. “We could go out and walk at night in the olden days during the day and night and nothing would happen to us, during the day and night. These days you can’t walk during the day or night without something happening” She says repeating walking day and night over and over. This is one of the reasons she offers, life was better in the olden days compared to these days. Tillie is hesitant to make comparisons when asked the big question: how has the life changed. Sometimes I got the impression that she’s made a decision to avoid talking about anything unpleasant in her life. “I’m happy, I’m always happy, I am grateful to God” She says while reflectively rubbing both her legs with both arms in a swinging forward and backward movement. It’s something I’ve observed my own mother do in conversation especially when the subject matter was of an uncertain nature. But it’s also cold and she’s old “I depend only on God, he is my father, my mother, my everything – every day when I wake up I know its God. He teaches me everything, I am learning everyday” She said her pitch cracking into a soothing swooshing sound of an old record player or tape, the cracks in her throat broke through her windpipe into a clear childlike voice which sounded like an echo trapped in a place where time begins. I am blown away by her response, I could ask a million questions and it would all boil down to one thing – God – so I asked him for help in my heart. “my life has always been good,” she says in Afrikaans, a language created by Dutch settlers who arrived in South Africa in 1652. Afrikaans sparked the 1976 Student Uprising in SOWETO in which young white South African policemen and soldiers opened fire at multitudes of unarmed school children protesting against the Apartheid government’s intention to institute Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in all public schools.  This historic event took place a year after Television was introduced in South Africa. The state had until then resisted introducing Television because it deemed it “evil”.  The world woke up to Apartheid South Africa;   through the iconic black and white image of two screaming black school children dressed in uniform – a girl and a boy-  running while the  limp body of a dead primary school boy called Hector Peterson dangled in their arms. Despite all these historical facts, Afrikaans remains the third most widely spoken language in South African households according to the South African Census results of 2011, after isiXhosa and IsiZulu who are at two and one respectively.
In fact Tillie tells stories in Afrikaans, sings Christian hymns in IsiZulu, Sesotho and IsiXhosa and English. Sometimes when she speaks her language is saturated like a fading image and all of the country’s 11 official languages blend in her mouth producing a sound I can only describe as tongues. A language used by many born-again Christians to pray to God. At least I can understand what she is saying. When no one is looking Ouma Settie, tall, dark, regal with with sharp darting eyes leans in closely and Ouma Tillie whispers everything to her. Ouma Settie can talk when she wants to.


This assignment has been a challenge, the more I tried to do it the more I felt like I was losing something valuable. It was draining emotionally, but I tried to celebrate life. Throughout the week I was in a strange mood which I couldn’t explain by the sighting of the location of the moon. the office was louder and noisier than I ever imagined. Eventually I resorted to making noise myself which generated a lot of laughter in the office. That seemed to temporarily ease the tension which was becoming heavy like a wet fur coat, my shoulders were freezing under its drench. What is going on? I kept asking myself. Going out to the field and listening to other people stories was a welcome tonic to the a sadness that kept flirting with me surprising me a the most inappropriate time. More over this particular story ‘Celebrating centurions in Eldorado Park” was talking to me.  I am not going to Kliptown I told myself I am going on a story in Eldorado park. The two might be close to each other but they are different.I had to push myself to do it. When I finally did, on Saturday night, I went on twitter to relax. And found I had a new follower who tweeted “J please get in touch with me urgently” Zakhele Zulu. It could only mean one thing. So I tweeted my number back and ten minutes later he called. Your grandmother Omkhulu passed away last week, its her funeral tomorrow, we were looking all over for you. Are you Ok? Yes I was okay I had just been working. “Are you coming?” He asked “You know I don’t like funerals” I said. Ok. He replied in a tone that said to me, no one likes funerals but someone has got to do it. I didn’t know how to feel. I called my mother to let her know. She already knew. “Are you going to the funeral?” She said in voice which pleaded, instructed, assumed I would go. I said I would think about it. In truth there was nothing to think about. I had to go.


So I went home to number 7224 Thabethe Street, Phefeni, Orlando West Soweto. The first address I had to memorize and know before going to school. There were three things I had to remember before going to school for the first time. My name, date of birth and home address. The house hadn’t changed since it was first built by the apartheid government in 1942. The same gate from my childhood is there. I can still hear the sound of it opening and closing sometimes. I can still hear my grandmother shouting at to make sure I close the gate each time I came back from somewhere. It had a distinct sound. I could hear it opening from my room on quiet days. The white tent pitched on the front of the house, reminded me of pictures I had seen of my mother’s wedding to my father. Dressed in an elegant white chiffon two piece Suit, with a white sun hat and a healthy Angela Davis Afro peeping on the side- she looked to me like a model who has just stepped out of Vogue magazine or a plane from Paris France. She looked so beautiful. I found people sitting and chatting outside, My uncles Zack, Sipho and Velaphi standing in the middle of the street facing the house. The women sat under the trees in the front garden, some under a tent, I was looking for a familiar face. I asked my maternal grandmother, the only one remaining, to tell me about Kliptown. “My grandmother owned a house there, near the railway line. We used to go there during all our school holidays to visit Umkhulu Nogogo Umpiyakhe Mtshali. We had everything we needed because we were the land owner’s children. It was nice. I asked her more questions and decided to do what I do best. Record Everything and everyone in the family and finally tell the story of the Zulu Brand. ” I’m not black I’m african. My my mother is Zulu Sotho, Coloured”. I am a part of every race.

Can you imagine?