“This is not the real Africa,” she said, peering over the tops of her glasses—as if her eyes were searching for the real thing, somewhere out there.
“It’s not?” I wondered aloud, tired of this clichéd slant against Cape Town. “What is it, then?”
“This is more like the Riviera—La Côte d’Azur,” she motioned vaguely with both arms, this blond English lady in a booth in a market on the wharf, in the rain.
It had been raining for two days straight—ever since I arrived in Cape Town. For an hour or so, I’d seen the sun—the blasé Mediterranean sunshine that earns the Cape its reputation for glistening beaches and good wine and pleasant outdoor living. Nobody who knows the Cape can forget those perfect days.
But then, out of the blue sky, a wall of dark clouds slammed the city like a locomotive. Table Mountain disappeared into white, and the streets turned black with rain—long sheets of cutting rain that sliced across the pavement with each breath of the wind.
Gone were my dreams for swimming with penguins at Boulders Bay or sunbathing on Clifton Beach. Instead I explored Cape Town indoors, wandering through the market stalls of the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, and engaging in this little spat between two white people about the real Africa.
“Nothing is like it used to be,” she continued, reminiscing about her own youth in Kenya, when people had etiquette and self-respect and conversation, “None of this constant texting,” she nodded at some imaginary phone n her hands and tapped away.
“But that’s all gone now,” she sighed, folding her glasses away and blinking blue eyes, then invited me to buy some of what she was selling—white salt from the Kalahari desert.
“Collected by the San!” said the signs, and she crushed a small sample for me to try—tiny shards of clear crystals that melted on my tongue with a friendly sting.
“It’s very nice,” I smiled.
“It’s more than very nice!” She corrected me, “It’s remarkable!” And then she explained the whole process, how the San—(the native bushmen of Africa), have collected salt from the pans of the Kalahari for milennia, but now they are business owners who benefit directly from their salt which she sells to tourists, like me, stuck indoors on the Cote d’Azur.
Over tiny tastes of salt, we talked about Kenya, where she’s from—the Africa that once was, and the Africa that is today. Like so many white Africans, her world had turned upside down, but she had never abandoned the continent—she simply retreated back to a beach house in Cape Town and started anew.
“I’ve lost all my money three times,” she pulled a wisp of yellow blond hair from her face. But she didn’t seem to mind. In fact, her resilience was the most African thing about her—she knew the ups and downs of life better than I, and now, in the dusk of life, she had launched this new enterprise, trading salt, as it were, not unlike the Moors and their camel caravans to and from Timbuktu.
I bought a bag of salt and she told me her name—Dee, plain and simple.
“It was the War—1944. My father was fighting in Europe and I was born on June 4th!” she lit up and laughed. “My mother sent him a telegram, telling him he had a new daughter and asking what he wanted to name her.”
“Well, back then it took two days for the telegram to reach the front, so all she got back was a one word answer that said ‘Dee-Day’. And so my mother named me Dee.”
Dee smiled with pride, her first name the symbol of one of the greatest victories in our time. We shook hands and parted, but not without her sincerest wishes for my safe travels through Africa.
I was grateful—for the night before, the storm had almost thrown me from the coastal road and into the sea. It’s a scary thing, when any situation turns from a mere nuisance to something more life-threatening, and as I struggled in my car against the wind, I felt a more urgent sense of danger.
I had imagined a beach holiday, and instead, I had met the Cape of Storms. Flash floods gushes across the road, and huge gusts shoved me into puddles and cliff edges. That night, I saw no other cars on the road, other than the police, who were busy clearing the area and setting up road blocks.
And so the next day, I remained in town, touring Cape Town’s wonderfully strange pick of museums, starting with District 6. Once upon a time, this patch of the city was a mixed, working-class neighborhood, where different races, religions, and languages lived side by side. And then, they were separated out and the buildings bulldozed, leaving a scar on the city that lasted some 50 years.
Today, the District 6 Museum is like a bank vault of memories, written and recorded, of all the human lives that once filled this blank space of the city. It’s a beautiful place—but painful, too. If anything, it is a museum of regret, memorializing all the bad policies, bad decisions, and horrible results in this one African city.
But the story of oppression and division, sequestration and control, is not unique to District 6 or Cape Town. It is the story of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Japanese-American internment camps, the Residential Schools of Canada, and the Berlin Wall. It’s the story of my own country—where my own father grew up in a state with signs that instructed water fountains and restrooms and swimming pools were for, “Whites Only”.
District 6 stands as an instruction manual on how to kill a city—take away neighbors and friends, limit travel, and the trust of a community fizzles into fear. Less than a mile away, the South African National Museum tells the story of how to build a country—with lots and lots of different people, arriving in waves over millions of years.
For ten minutes, I stared at the line of human skulls under glass, each one slightly larger than the one before. Australopithecus was the smallest—one of our oldest human ancestors—gradually growing larger until Homo erectus and eventually to our species, Homo sapiens.
In another room, I walked past exquisite ochre paintings that dated back some 2,000 years—this is the rock art of the San, and these etchings of zebra and eland and elephants, warriors and dancers, are more than just ancient representations. They are spiritual narratives, spelling out the magic for making rain.
Long before the English, or the Dutch and the Portuguese, or even the Zulu and the Xhosa, the San lived here in the Cape, surviving and making it rain through their magical rituals of trance and incantation.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
In San, the verb, ≠K”Anna means, “To call to the rain”, and standing alone in a dark room at the back South African National Museum, I read the translation for the rainmaking ritual of the San:
Call out to the rain, keep calling, standing in the rain: Oh friend, oh friend, oh friend, hold still, rain gently for me.
When did we stop talking to the rain? I wondered, thinking upon that row of skulls that once held minds who wanted rain. In the millions and millions of years of human history, only now, in the last few decades did our civilization turn away from the magic of rainmaking, while the “real Africans” never stopped having that conversation with the sky. The San believed certain animals invited the rains to come, and they performed elaborate dances or voiced specific prayers that would bring water. The rain was their friend—they called it their friend.
And yet today, in Cape Town, the rain was not my friend. It kept me from playing on the beach or hiking in the mountains. It closed the roads, kept people trapped in their homes, just like the secrets of rainmaking are now kept indoors, behind glass, in the darkness of a museum.
For me, the rain was bad luck—an unfortunate turn of the weather. Driving back from the museum, I listened to the tragic reports on the radio—stories of people drowning in the flash floods and rough seas during the two-day storm.
Depressed, I switched radio stations, and now a farmer was talking in the clipped vowels of an Afrikaaner, exuberant and ecstatic that his land had been doused with some 22 mm of rain. “This is really marvelous for the veldt,” he said, talking about how he’d laid awake all night, listening to the sound of the raindrops on the roof, hoping and hoping but never imagining so much rain would come. The farmer was content—his cows would be happy, his crops would grow, and it was good for the whole community. Everyone on his farm was rejoicing in the rain—rain is money, and now it would be a good year.
I remember my first trip to Africa—was it 12 years ago? I, too, longed for mud huts and barefoot natives and beating drums. I found them, in turn, and I still find them as I explore places like Malawi and Rwanda and Tanzania. The old ways remain in South Africa, too, but to reduce this country to a picturesque placemat of mud huts and silhouetted giraffes is to ignore the larger story of the least understood continent on Earth.
Had it not been raining, I would have never meet Dee, and had I not met Dee, I would have never bought the small bag of salt, a token from the only real Africans remaining. Nor would I have ventured into the void of District 6, or into the National Museum, or taken the time to read the secrets of the San and their rainmaking.
Such is the duality of the everyday—obituaries on the radio versus the laughing farmer, how some call it bad weather and others good, that a million or more of us were cursing the weather on TV, while somewhere out there, in this miniature Africa of the Western Cape, speaking a language the rest of us have forgotten, a real African was calling out to his friend.