The BirdCage: A place Where Dreams Come True

the Birdcage and the Magical Table
the Birdcage and the Magical Table

“I have cold feet too, how’s that going to work?”

This quaint restaurant has been my sweet little secret until just now, because I’m going to tell you about it.  It’s a place I haven’t thought  of or been to in a very long time, until this morning in my parent’s guest room while making the bed.  I saw them, bird cages, everywhere, all over the duvet cover and all designed in different variations of my favourite colour grey. It is only then that I remembered the BirdCage.

I didn’t want to go there, with my feet, mind or heart.  In fact I haven’t been there in years. Ladies and gentlemen it’s a funny thing this not wanting to go there, because at the BirdCage is where I watched dreams coming true. Like magic.  Let me try to paint you a picture:  It’s like a fairy tale, a little alcove of delicate flowers, birds, butterflies; of course bird cages abound, hung on trees which create a canopy of heaven at the outdoor restaurant.  It’s on Jan Smuts Avenue, somewhere between Rosebank and Zoolake,Saxonwold.  I think I missed  the entrance the  first time too – it is well hidden between a spa and other diplomatic office.  It’s small, an intimate magical  garden where they serve the most delicious bouquet of organic food. And it’s quiet – not silent – but peaceful. Please don’t be disappointed when you go there, and it turns out to be a run of the mill outdoor restaurant or not your version of a dream because it was my dream.

You see the first time I went to the Birdcage; I was in love and quite frankly didn’t know what hit me. That morning I woke up to a Johannesburg summers’ day that made everything shine and glow with life. I was walking on sunshine, glistening under the suns golden rays. I was happy. I sang in the shower and smiled often at the marvelous miracle that I was simply alive. But I had an appointment. I was going to Soweto pride that day and my friends and I were going to convoy to Meadowlands where the Pride march was taking place. With Michael Jackson full blast in Black Panther, my car, I arrived to disapproving looks and admonitions from my friends because I had kept them waiting. I apologized with a smile wondering what had taken me so long to get ready anyway. I was wearing white tennis shorts, a white t-shirt, a grey waist coat and a straw top hat I had bought on recent trip to California another dream space. I was literally giddy with excitement. It was to be my first Pride March, though no one knew this. It was also personally significant for me because I was going back home, to my childhood playground in Meadowlands. At the same park where my older sister and twin sister Lebo and I would play, freely without restrictions until dark during school holidays.  It was an emotional walk for me, I was thinking of my relatives who were no longer with us. My uncle Jopi who was more like an older brother to me, who first taught me about men and my great-aunt Mamani who raised me. It was nostalgic yet beautiful.

In moments like those I really become selfish.  I was thinking of me that day and only me, my history, my future and present, which at the time seemed all together wonderful. Then a close friend introduced me to this woman at the park after the march. Tall, Skinny with shoulder length dreadlocks, quiet, confident, at ease. She was wearing a red-protest T-shirt, blue jeans and navy All-stars. She wore glasses. I thought I was with my friend throughout the march following her, doing funny things on the road, screaming, running, gosh. I wondered: where the hell did she come from?

We shook hands in greeting, and I was suddenly at peace. What? Anyway, I continued to mind my own business, but my eyes kept wondering over to this woman, who looked so simple, but had such an overwhelming presence, deepness, grace and strength I had not quite experienced with anyone before. I tried to ground myself, but kept thinking that maybe I should just get into my car and drive home, and sleep. Now, because she was just too much for me. But I decided that, that  would be a silly thing to do.  I hardly knew this person and would probably never see her again so I shouldn’t take myself so seriously. Besides, apart from the brief handshake and a hello, no more words were exchanged.

Until she asked me if I could offer some elderly women standing on the edges of the park some seats, I was incredulous. Why doesn’t she ask them herself? Who does she think she is ordering me around? Then I remembered that I wasn’t listening when we were introduced, she was not South African. So I asked them and they politely declined, so much for that.

When it was all over I was literally running to my car, to ground myself and listen to Michael with Black Panther, I was sure of those two things. Until my friend asked if I could give this woman a lift. What? There was no space in other cars and since I was alone in the car, could I give her a lift? Sure no problem. I was panicking. I was beyond excited, she was in my car! Sitting right next to me! The music was loud, did she mind? No actually, it reminds me of my daughter she said, who was also MJ obsessed like me. Cool then. I was relieved. The Destination was the BirdCage via my house because I had forgotten my cash card.

We sat next to each other at the Bird Cage around a table full of friends and smiling faces.  I was so excited I couldn’t eat. She called me babe and the sound of her voice sent shivers down my spine, pierced right into the center of my heart, like cupid.  I had goose bumps. But I was no one’s babe or baby. She called everyone she met  babe, she already had a baby. There was no room at the Inn.

Later that night we said goodbye. I was torn – open – by that meeting. I had never met someone like her before and was sure I would never meet someone like her again. There were words exchanged. But they all seemed to lose their meaning the moment they were uttered, as light as dandelions, they just floated away. Like mist they seemed to vanish. I don’t remember what was said.

I went back to the Birdcage a few times after that incident:  to celebrate with a friend who was expecting after years and years of trying  and praying for a baby. We had Champagne and it was beautiful to see her so radiant with joy. It rained that day.   I went back again, for lunch with my sister this time. It was a celebration of her dreams coming true. She was engaged to be married, she had found love. Our conversations were full of dreaming, we were bubbling over, imagining a radiant future, full of love, family and babies.

That’s the last time I went to the Bird Cage.  I think I stopped believing in (my) dreams coming true, in fairy-tales, in magic,  love that can never be explained or contained in letters, in words, but the kind of love that only dreams are made of.

I think I’ll reserve a table for two.

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Anti- Xenophobia Protest March 27 May 2008
Anti- Xenophobia Protest March 27 May 2008

11.  May. That date brings so many memories. I recall them today because it was a day of paradoxes which I am now only aware of ironically in hindsight.  The 11th of May 2008 was a day of new beginnings, a day of some kind of a fresh start. I walked into the walls of the largest Buddhist temple in Africa, dehydrated, hoping to come out refreshed, energized and ready to live a peaceful life. We  ( I and three others) were going to spend a weekend in silent meditation…connecting with our inner chi and though we were not disciplined enough  not go out the night before we still made it against all odds, half way on a Saturday the 11th of May 2008.

It was a meaningful occasion, especially for me  because I had attended high school just a street away from where the majestic temple now stands, oddly isolated from the once sleepy town of Bronkhorspruit. You can see it on the highway from Pretoria to Witbank.   Back then when I was 13,  learning Badminton, practicing Kung-fu and reading Miles Munroes’ in Pursuit of Purpose between selling pies at break time,  sweeping mounds of hair from my mothers Hair Salon, watching the Lion King and having “debates” about the existence of God, race  and Homosexuality with my class mates… the temple  whose foundations were still being dug seemed like a faraway dream. Like something that would probably never happen. Or even if it did my choice of faith would prohibit me from walking through those gates.  But in May 2008 I drove through Nan-hua Temple with Chris  and Black Panther (my car) two of my then best friends.

One of the T-shirts we made. With Christiane  Dankbar and Carole Chauvin.
One of the T-shirts we made. With Christiane Dankbar and Carole Chauvin.

 

We joined two friends Mali and Fumi? Our masters were at pains to explain that men and women were not allowed to share the same room. A rule which was for once,  all in our favour. We couldn’t have wished it otherwise.  Our first lesson after lunch was learning how to plan and be prepared  for life by learning the art of  making tea.  Then we did Tai Chi, Kung fu stretches , walking, sleeping, eating meditation, we practiced being grateful for everything, between bites  of noodles and greens and suppressed pious laughter…..shhhhh…silence was encouraged.  It was beautiful. On Sunday we bought music to keep meditating on the  way back to the busy buzz of the city of gold.  We were floating on repeated chimes of the Chinese flute and violins when at the petrol station; Mali leaned on black panther and said d through the window “You guys are busy meditating while Johannesburg is burning!” I had never heard anyone say that before “Johannesburg is Burning” what do you mean? We asked perplexed as if waking from deep sleep. Turn on the radio, it’s on the news.  I immediately switched to SAfm, and heard the shocking news that there had been wide-spread  violent attacks on foreign nationals in the city center, some people were dead some injured, shops had been looted it was just mayhem.  I called my boss to ask if they needed extra hands. He said it was fine they had it covered. What was covered? But by the next morning I was walking through the deserted streets of Jeppe’s town on the outskirts of Johannesburg’s city CBD… trying to piece together some kind of a story a sequence of events. Who – What – When – Where – How and Why? The streets were eerily empty… the shops abandoned… broken glass, black soot, the only sign of violence…. shop owners gingerly trying to salvage what remained  of the weekends’ carnage”.

On of the T-Shirts in the Making. We hand made more than 20 - and gave them away for free.
On of the T-Shirts in the Making. We hand-made more than 20 – and gave them away for free.

A far and distant  memory seeps to the surface like a mirage…. one day in Bronkhorspruit we woke up to news of a terrorist attack… the Indian shopping center had been bombed…. there were TV news journalists asking people questions. Did you see anything. I wanted to see. I was a street trader, selling hair clips, lipstick and nail polish( it helps grow your nails, makes them strong) A better option for me compared to knocking on people’s homes  like Jehovah’ Witnesses.  I had to go to the loo near where the bombs had exploded… I didn’t bargain on a platform of pit-toilets and large half-naked women balancing precariously between the dark manholes…with yellow water falling from even darker hidden places. But I saw the damage… and heard the word.  Terrorism. The market was busy, teeming with people  who continued to shop as if nothing happened.    The last time I had been in a deserted town  in a place where clothes, money and possessions lost all their value… where people left everything behind was…. was in the Hot Summer of June 2006 in Lebanon.

But the  xenophobic violence quickly spread across the country… like wild fire and became daily headline news.  The police were becoming desperate to find the ‘criminal”,” third force” element that was quote unquote responsible for the violence. They had a list of names and were now knocking on doors, shacks, banging them down,  barking “where is so and so? we’re told he lives here? Are you hiding him? I don’t know who you’re talking about . A woman would respond  peering fearfully through a corrugated iron door “Hhey mama, we know he lives here”….. “mkhiphe” take him out… where did you buy this TV, this DVD? You steal? Where are the slips?  All of it sounded too familiar, so close to me…. I know a time like that in my life…. Years ago…somewhere in Orlando West Soweto  on the kitchen table… my uncle Thente was getting a  Tjambok’s  hiding – a lesser punishment for whatever crime he was    at the time, white soldiers in full army uniform stood around our   faded green enamel  kitchen table. My  great-aunt watched on helplessly as he flinched and groaned with every lash, his lips and eyes blood-shot. Do you Know him? What would I have said peeping through my bedroom door.  He died a few years later. But not before teaching me how to draw, and introducing me to the joys of eating ‘is’khokho’.

The front-lline. Anti-Xenophobia Protest march, Johannesburg, South Africa.
The front-lline. Anti-Xenophobia Protest march, Johannesburg, South Africa.

“black bags meant for  garbage are prized possessions here” was the line my colleague Sherwin  and I  used to open  our radio story on scores of refugees returning to their countries of birth following the aftermath of the Xenophobic attacks.  “You hesitate when you ask questions” he says to me taking the microphone and showing me how it’s done.  I was overwhelmed.  I spoke to refugee after refugee…. I spent days on the side of the road…. In Lindela  …. In the corridors of the Methodist church in downtown Johannesburg. None of it made sense.  We Printed T-shirts. We marched in solidarity.  Slept behind bars.  Appeared in court.  Until someone asked – How does a victim become the perpetrator? It was just a play. The line. I knew then that the events of 11th May 2008/2007/6/2004/1993 etc had changed my life. I’m still trying to find myself in the ashes of the burning man.  I just cannot believe it’s happening again.

BLACK POWER MIXTAPE (1967-1975)

Angela Davis in The Black Power Mix Tape

A friend asked me over the week-end where my car is. I almost cried. I had been thinking about Black-Panther (my car) in the last few weeks because I miss her.   I even got to thinking that maybe I lost her because my mother changed her name to Faith. We were talking about her – when she asked who is Black-Panther, when I told her she decided t re-name her Faith – because Black Panther had been faithful. Sometimes I think my mother through the christian lens  equates black with evil or the Devil.

But Faith has always been Black-Panther to me, from the moment I laid eyes on her.
We went through a lot together, Black Panther and I, we both loved music, she was my home when I didn’t have a place to lay my head, we were always together, there were times that we were separated and re-united again, thanks to friends, but this year, I knew that unless a miracle would happen I would have to let her go.  She was my cushion through some of the bumpiest rides of my life, always there in the middle of the night, during day, always there waiting for me to come.
Our last trip together to the  Eastern Cape province of  South Africa, we both survived yet again  a near death or serious injury experience together.  It was dusk and we’d just left Grahamstown in June. The biggest Bull I had ever seen appear as if out of no  where, I was on the front left passenger side and the bull was on my side too.  There was a split second moment where the bull and I looked each other in the eye and I thought it had beautiful eyes, as I raised my hands to my face waiting for it to land on top of me. That was it.  I really don’t know what happened.  But all I know is I opened my eyes, and I was surprised – no incredulous  that I was still in the car, and it was still standing, and I looked back and the Bull had already crossed the road, languidly, elegantly. Luckily I was not on my own so I could not have dreamt that one up. The driver was shaking with disbelief, we stopped for a moment,  and she broke down and cried in tears, I was too happy to be alive and well the Black Panther, the Bull the driver and I survived.    Black Panther had lost an ear (the left side mirror), My mirror, as if to say don’t look back.
On the day I had to let her go, I thank her for having been my friend for the past   6 years. I could not afford to keep her, even though I wanted to with all my heart.  I could do nothing about the situation, I couldn’t save her.  I had to have faith – that I we would both be ok. The only person that made me feel better that day, was peace – my brother.
I don’t think I ever mourned her loss,  never allowed myself to because  I have to keep moving, survive, live, stay alive in every possible way.
So I feel nostalgic a little bit today. For Black Panther and the Black Power movement after which I named my  car.  And Perhaps you will understand my grief better by watching THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE documentary directed by  Swedish film maker  Göran Hugo Olsson..  The docu-film has been on circuit for the past few weeks and will be screened for the last time on Thursday the  29th of November.  A very special day for me. My play Lindiwe Premiers.  I don’t know if it is ironic or not and  I’ve decided not to over-think anything.
It it a collection of never seen before interviews with some of the prominent leaders of the Black Power movement in the United States of America,  though it has at its core a universal message everyone to stand up for their rights.
So  Please go and see the BLACK POWER MIXTAPE,  if you haven’t already seen it already  the Bioscope in Downtown Johannesburg. My good friend and scribe, Katarina Hedren   writes elegantly about it on her blog  InthewordsofKatarina.
I guess it would take a lot of faith and something close to a miracle for Black-Panther and I to be re-united again. And then again, black panther is a state of mind.
love
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THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE 1967 – 1975
LAST SCREENING 29TH NOV.
The Black Power Mixtape examines the evolution of the Black Power Movement in the black community and Diaspora from 1967 to 1975. The film combines music, startling 16mm footage (lying undiscovered in the cellar of Swedish Television for 30 years), and contemporary audio interviews from leading African-American artists, activists, musicians and scholars.
Writen and Directed by: Göran Hugo Olsson Music by Ahmir Questlove Thompson & Om’Mas Keith. Including appearances by: Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, Huey P. Newton, Emile de Antonio, Angela Davis Including commentary voice by: Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, Harry Belafonte, Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis, Robin Kelley, Abiodun Oyewole, Sonia Sanchez, Bobby Seale, Questlove.