South Africans have a curious habit of celebrating the beginning of a season on the first of the month, rather than towards the 21st, like we do in the States. There’s been a lot of talk about the coming summer, and while a warm Christmas is not new for a Californian, it is a bit strange to hear all about the upcoming summer. I keep thinking of the Irish rebel song “Óró, Sé Do Bheatha 'Bhaile” which was sung during the Easter Rising against the British in 1916. The chorus and first verse go:
Óró, sé do bheatha 'bhaile,
Óró, sé do bheatha 'bhaile,
Óró, sé do bheatha 'bhaile
Anois ar theacht an tsamhraidh!
'Sé do bheatha, a bhean ba léanmhar,
Do b' é ár gcreach tú bheith i ngéibheann,
Do dhúiche bhreá i seilbh méirleach,
Is tú díolta leis na Gallaibh!
This is what it means to be a strange, post-colonial historian. You hear enough times that “summer’s coming” and your mind jumps across space and time to the Irish War of Independence. Yet so much of the song seems relevant for southern Africa and for thinking about colonialism as well. The problems of making an entire nation understood as an afflicted woman notwithstanding, there’s a lot that feels similar, and it does give me much to think about as I ponder what it means to ‘come home’ to a land recently claimed ‘by foreigners’ as summer arrives.
And summer has arrived. Thursday, saw the first day of December and a breaking of the rainy days in favour of a deep and heavy humidity that settled like a blanket over the city. Fortunately, earlier that week, my friends Mark and Shela and I had made an impromptu plan to….head to Swaziland and Mozambique. I’d never been to either country, but I’d long wanted to visit. We planned to leave on Thursday afternoon, stop at the northern KwaZulu-Natal coastal town of St. Lucia at a backpackers, and then continue on Friday to Mozambique through Swaziland. Last minute delays in acquiring malaria medication and uncertainties with visas had us unsure if we’d leave before Thursday morning, but on a steamy Thursday afternoon saw me meeting Mark and Shela at their workplaces at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Westville (sister campus to my own campus at Howard College in Durban), where they work with HEARD (Health, Economics, and HIV/AIDS Research Division). They were still finishing up, so I took a walk around campus, and stopped in front of a giant mural about HIV/AIDS. It was 1 December—World AIDS Day—so I stopped and looked at it further. Surrounded by a wide circle that said “Phansi Nge-AIDS, Phansi!” (Down with AIDS, Down!), people were seen being tested, observing safe sex, and as part of a larger community transformed by the disease. I stopped to think about how much the disease has transformed the landscape and the reality of life in this place. When you’re a historian of the nineteenth century, there’s a strange privileging at times that allows you to imagine a southern Africa pre-1977, before the mysterious strain swept through the landscape, laying waste and drastically changing a world around it. Yet I think of the people I know in South Africa who have changed by it, as well as those in the States, and I am humbled and angry. I don’t’ understand how we can continue to let such devastation happen, and at such disproportionately insane levels according to power and wealth.
We piled into Shela’s car in the afternoon and made it to St. Lucia, where we stopped at a backpackers called Stokkiesdraai . It was run by an amazing woman named Debbie, who looked up laconically when we arrived, her eyes rolling up slightly like a lizard, who’d been interrupted basking on a rock. Debbie, who seemed to be in her mid-fifties, was clearly the missing sister of Patty and Selma from the Simpsons. With a voice roughened by the sandpaper of a million cigarettes, into a flat dry tone that rasped and rustled with a deep Afrikaans accent against her English speech, Debbie was hilarious. And dirty.
“We like to keep it all cheap and simple here. Everything is itemized on the inventory,” she rasped. “But I am not on the menu,” she added with a lascivious wink.
“Your place has five beds in it,” she added.
Gesturing to show that of course there were only three of us, I looked at her with a half-smile. “Clearly that’s not enough. We’ll need at least five more.”
“Well aren’t you a kinky bitch,” she retorted without missing a beat.
We ‘medicated’ with gin and tonics (what? Tonic has quinine—that’s why they drank it!), and chatted into the night. Then we woke up far too early, and headed across the border into Swaziland, the other little landlocked kingdom in Southern Africa. Swaziland has some of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world, and everywhere was plastered with posters about HIV awareness. We stopped for lunch halfway through our short trip through the country, and were rewarded afterwards by spotting an elephant by the side of the road. It was amazing. When it came to cross into Mozambique, the border crossing agent looked up at me, looked at my afro, and pointed, saying in broken English—“You are the man from LMFAO.”
That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. I am party rocking. Because I look like these guys (http://www.sweetslyrics.com/images/img_g
Small border troubles notwithstanding, we made it to Mozambique. We arrived in Maputo on Friday afternoon and were immediately enchanted. The country is strangely familiar and at the same time so very different from everywhere I know. The Portuguese influences on some levels made the place feel immediately like Latin America, yet it was also so like the rest of southern Africa. On top of that, people in southern Mozambique tend to speak either Portuguese or Shangaan. I speak Spanish and Zulu, which are close enough to both languages to be confusing.
Maputo is a land filled with impressive art deco Portuguese colonial artchitecture left over from the occupation of the country. Under the Portuguese dictator, Salazar, Mozambique was declared an integral part of Portugal and a lengthy independence struggle ensued until 1975. Following independence, the country suffered through a two decade civil war that only ended in 1994. Like South Africa, Mozambique is a country with a lengthy, twisted colonial past and a relatively recent point of transformation. It is vibrant, beautiful, confusing, and wonderful.
I sipped espressos and ate pastries while wandering old colonial buildings, fumbled badly with Portuguese and Shangaan, and ate my weight in fresh prawns and sizzling hot local peri-peri hot sauce. Yet there was never a point I could ignore the intense poverty around me, or the awkward relationship between visiting a foreign land and the privilege that allowed me to do so. There is grinding poverty in Maputo, and conversations would quickly drop from an initial light banter to a refusal of an offer to purchase something to a directly asked, “why won’t you support me, patrão?” Patrão is Portuguese for boss or patron, and it stung and felt heavy to be addressed in such a way as I carried Mozambican money (25 MZM to the USD) in my pockets.
In our final hour in town, we stopped at the legendary fish markets, in the north of the city. They were utterly amazing. To be in a tight cramped space, filled with Zulu, English, Portuguese, Shangaan, French, more….while fresh prawns, clams, crabs, crayfish, red snapper, and more all hissed and steamed and moved around you is amazing and terrifying. So many bodies. So many words. So much yelling. So much all around you. I felt overwhelmed, terrified, delighted, hopeful, excited. I felt the cacophony all around me—I felt confused and relieved and anxious after picking out food, and then paid for it to be grilled and sautéed and roasted and made deliciously. It was the best thing I’ve eaten since I’ve arrived in Africa, but I was humbled by how lucky I was to eat it, and part of the weight hung around me like the smoke of the fiers and the smell of the fish.
We returned late last night, and I’m still exhausted, honestly, but I got up early to go about my daily routine of coffee and archival work. As I did, I remembered that today was December fifth, and I stopped short on Esther Roberts Road at seven thirty this morning.
Today would have been my grandfather’s eighty-eighth birthday. Gentry Howard Tallie was Texas at the height of Jim Crow-era segregation. In many physical respects he and I were nothing alike—he was nearly 6’4”, with a commanding height, dark brown skin, a deep throaty laugh, and a booming voice. He worked for the L.A. government, did security work for Dodger Stadium, and stood as a strange testament to the ability of African-Americans to obtain middle class economic respectability during the Cold War. He was a singularly masculine figure: powerfully built, good with machines and numbers, imposing in size, and radiated an easy, mastered authority in his younger years. I will always remember a picture of him from about 1960: he stands in dark slacks, and buttoned down shirt, clearly posing for the camera, but looking the picture of authority—legs set wide apart, looking into the distance, Gentry Tallie was the epitome of cool manliness, and not the ironic stuff I trade in every day.
I can see other aspects of my grandfather that feel less remote. He was the first member of our immediate family to learn to read, and it was he and his older brother John Henry who standardized the spelling of our last name to the unique and vaguely French spelling of Tallie; previous generations had used whatever spelling they could manage, and I’m absolutely certain that there are a host of Tallys and Talleys that I share genetic heritage with in the Lone Star State. He was incredibly welcoming and kind; at his funeral in March, I sat, dark shoes pinching tight as I sat somberly in the wooden pew, as person after person described the way that Gentry Tallie had made them feel a part of their family. His loud laugh welcomed people in up and down Neptune Avenue in the harbor town of Wilmington, California, and a multicolored tribe of people—Latino, black, white—saw themselves as part of a chain of community.
This is what most people tell me of Gentry Tallie. When I remember my grandfather, it is most like looking at the ruined temples of an ancient civilization, and squinting as you try to imagine what the place must have looked like brightly painted and before ivy started to climb ruthlessly over its sun-bleached walls. My grandfather—and family in general—never recovered from the death of my grandfather in 1982, two years before I was born. If my grandfather was the heart of the Wilmington experiment, she was the soul—and when she died suddenly everything seemed hollow. My childhood visits to Wilmington always seemed a house in muted colors, with people living simultaneously in past and present, remembering what was as they were consumed with the day to days of living.
And yet, when I remember my grandfather, it is in those squinting moments of half-imagining. I see in his smile, dimmed with age but still bright, radiating warmth. I remember his loud raspy voice—so loud, in fact, I frequently had to hold the phone a good six inches from my ear when I called him—twanging in a determinedly remembered Texas accent WEEEELLL HEEEY THERE GRAAAAANDSSON. I called him last year on December 5th, while I was living in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Winter was already beginning to spread her cold tendrils across the land, and I rushed out of the warm café I was in, feeling the heat slowly drain from my fingers and face as I called and stood with my phone at the requisite length from my ear. “I hope I go to South Africa next year,” I said, after wishing him birthday greetings.
“To study some more?” he boom-drawled, despite having lived a half-century in Los Angeles.
“That’s the goal, Pa-pa. I’ve got to go back and read more,” I said, trying to translate the semi-complexity of my work while stamping my feet in the twenty-five degree weather.
“Well you go and do it. Make us proud. I’ll see you soon, though?”
“Yessir. At Christmas.”
“Well then, thanks for calling.” Pa-pa always abruptly ended phone conversations, about three minutes in. For him, phone calls were more about the act of remembering a person rather than the need for conversation.
As I walked down the street this morning, on my way to the café and then the archive that marked my daily routine, the warm breeze caught me full in the face, and I thought of that conversation. I started to cry as I rounded Glenwood High School, brushing tears brought by remembrance, tiredness, a selfish missing of a lost weekend, and the simply ridiculous thought that two generations linked a small black boy raised in Jim Crow Texas to a self-conscious multiracial nerd speaking isiZulu in the streets of Durban.
Óró, sé do bheatha 'bhaile, Welcome home, indeed.