A journal of travels

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January 16th, 2012 · 3 Comments · Adventure, Road Less Travelled

Novelist Margaret C. Murray returned in December from a journey to South Africa. The things she brought back will not fit in any backpack or suitcase.

I just returned from a trip to South Africa with my two sons. I wish I could do it over again, not to change anything or do it differently, but because I still want to be there. So today I’m bringing back Africa.

First, I’m bringing back tolerance for myself. I’m really talking about bringing back if you will,  the tolerance – the forgiveness – shown by South Africans I met, a freedom and lightness I saw in their eyes. It was everywhere – in the malls we stopped at, the restaurants we ate at, in the small stores in Ladysmith and Durban. Often I was asked where I came from. When I answered “United States,” or “California,” I was asked if I minded being hugged. Of course not! I love being hugged! “If I could only put my foot in America once,” I heard one young grocery clerk say.

I visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, a work of art and monument to “Life by Skin Color,” a different life for each. As you enter the museum, you randomly pick a ticket that identifies you as “white,” “coloured” or “black.” Then you go through the door that matches your ticket. A few years ago, while teaching English composition to college students, I had shown the movie, Invictus, about South Africa’s dismantling of apartheid during the 1995 Rugby Cup. The movie title is taken from a Victorian poem meaning “Unconquered,” which Nelson Mandela committed to heart while in prison. My one visit to the Apartheid Museum taught me so much more about his vision of democracy for all.

It was amazing to see so much faith and tolerance in light of South Africa’s legacy of apartheid, colonization, imperialism, and slave trafficking by people of every color and background. And this terrible legacy is amplified by the present AIDS/HIV epidemic.

Still, I’m bringing back happiness, the feeling you had as a child, the kind that makes you laugh at anything, like when you turn the corner and come upon a group of six young African maids in crisp, laundered uniforms at the foot of the stairs in a Polokwane hotel. They laugh aloud when you tell them they look pretty, and say you look pretty, too, making tears come to your own eyes then and whenever you remember that hot morning, that corner of the stairs, those lovely faces laughing with you.

I’m bringing back peace too from Africa – the peace that happens when there is nothing you have to do except watch a hippo slowly walk across the sand, one huge foot at a time, and slowly lower itself into the Letaba River. The hippo will stay submerged in the cool water  like this all day with only its two round humps of eyes showing and you can stay too, just watching, just being there, watching hippo eyes.

And awe, the majestic sensation of watching a pride of  lions saunter by in a line. You count them one-by-one, ten lions in all, pacing intentionally and very slowly along a grassy ridge at dusk. “They’re hunting,” says the expert Kruger Park guide. “The females are taking the young males out for their first hunt.” You realize you aren’t breathing and make yourself take a breath. You can do it now. Just breathe.

How close we are, all of us, to each other and to the animals. How amazing to realize we all love and protect our offspring. You know that when you repeatedly see adult elephants, giraffes, and white rhinos in the bush hover over those fabulous curious babies of theirs. You watch the adults stay close to their young, guiding them away from the road while you, privileged Americans, sit in rented cars, jeeps and SUVs, exclaiming and holding out your cameras or cell phones, attempting to capture it all forever.

© Margaret C. Murray, 2012. Used with permission. Margaret C. Murray is the author of Sundagger.net. Her new novel, Dreamers, is a coming-of-age love story set in the Sixties (WriteWords Press, 2011). 

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Margaret

    Souvenirs–Ah, what an ironic term for my deep experience of South Africa. In comparison, I feel like my life here in California has taken on the attributes of a cheap, disposable souvenir.

  • Shelley Buck

    Margaret, It sounds like the Apartheid Museum uses a very effective means to help visitors understand more fully what South Africa’s recent history must have felt like. Can you tell us more about the museum and its goals?

  • Margaret

    Sure, Shelley. The basic idea of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa is to allow visitors to experience segregation by color pure and simple. Your ticket begins the process by randomly defining your color. Then you proceed through divided doors and see what your life would be like in the Apartheid Era from 1947-1994. Even the benches you sit down on are segregated. Through images,sounds, atmosphere, gardens and a powerful history, you feel how any form of racial inequality leads to destruction. And still, you walk away free! All this takes on great irony as you hear the squeals and shrieks of the happy amusement park crowd right next door to the museum, and just 29 minutes from the brand new Johannesburg OR Tambo Airport. See http://www.apartheidmuseum.org for more.

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