Lost and Found in Ka Nyamazane

I usually travel to explore or imagine or forget, but in the winter of 2005 I traveled to remember. I’d published a nonfiction book, grown disenchanted with my day job and suffered personal tragedy. The draft of a novel I’d battled to write had ended up in a folder marked “old” on my laptop, gathering digital dust. Still grieving I was unable to love; restless and confused I was unable to commit to a new job; I didn’t know what I wanted to write. I was more lonely and unhappy than I realized, desperately in search of something but I didn’t know what. I went to South Africa, my childhood home, more to escape New York winter than with any goal in mind.

Soon after I arrived in Johannesburg I contacted Ndolo Mmekwa, the granddaughter of my childhood nanny, Gertrude Maseko, my “gogo,” (short o, like ‘off’) meaning grandmother. Gertrude was in a sense my only surviving grandmother; two decades earlier, I had missed her just as much as my real grandparents when my family moved to America. Ndolo told me Gertrude had retired, and was living in her home near Swaziland. Ndolo had been a little girl when we left South Africa; now she was a poised and pretty young woman, a high school graduate, working for Sony Ericsson‎. Was there any chance we could get Gogo to come and visit, I asked. “No, she’s too old and she hates Joburg. Why don’t we go and visit her?”

And that is what we did. I rented a car, and we drove to Ka Nyamazane, a rural township in Mpumalanga, South Africa, situated between the Kruger National Park and the northern border of Swaziland. When I was a boy, it would have been called a “location,” and it’s where Gogo moved, after winning a tiny plot of land in a regional housing lottery. She built herself a house with her meager savings and was rightfully proud of her accomplishment — and her ability to provide housing for her two grandchildren when they needed a place to live.

She was an early audience, along with my parents, brother, school friends and dog, one of the first people who listened when I had a story to tell. She was a good listener and I probably honed the venerable eight year-old tradition of storytelling by trial and error with my patient listener.

I had no plan, other than to see a part of South Africa I’d never seen before, visit my last remaining grandmother, and lick my wounds. I wasn’t embarking on any writing project, and had no plan to start one or get another job. Unmoored and unmotivated, I’d flown to South Africa on a whim, and a trip to Mpumalanga to visit my old Gogo seemed like a great idea. I was having trouble finding a way forward, and consciously or unconsciously I yearned to connect with my past.

We drove through the sprawl of Johannesburg, then east the N12 motorway, past small and dreary cities like Benoni and Delmas. We listened to P. Diddy and Ludacris and top forty on the radio and ate potato chips and dried mango. Ndolo told me about her boyfriend and showed me a photo on her phone. He was from Port Elizabeth, tall and handsome. He didn’t want to stay in Joburg. She asked about New York, about walking through snow, and Condoleezza Rice and black people in America. She loved Johnny Depp, Denzel Washington and 50 Cent. After a while we passed tractors and open bakkies with farm workers sitting in the back. Beyond the motorway and weathered billboards the land was sparse and green — poorer, emptier and more African than any place I’d ever visited. After a sandwich and a Coke at a motorway diner and a total of about four hours of driving, we saw signs for Nelspruit (or Mbombela, as it had been officially renamed). The provincial capital looked, to my American eyes, like a series of strip malls ringed by lower middle class houses, and a few old buildings that reminded me of rural California. Nelspruit smelled of fried chicken and poverty; a lot of pedestrians — old, young, black, white — went barefoot.

When I was a bit older, Gogo told the stories and I listened. She spoke about her youth in faraway Breyton, South Africa, the first time she saw a white person, getting married, running away from an abusive husband and arriving in Johannesburg. I listened, then imagined, then empathized, or asked questions, unwittingly honing skills I would call upon as a writer many years hence.

From Nelspruit we continued east, towards Swaziland and Mozambique. Soon we were off the motorway and driving along a rutted two-lane road. We passed chugging trucks, shirtless boys on bicycles, goats and goatherds roaming dusty hills. And then, rising out of the craggy foothills, we saw a few, small single-story houses, laundry fluttering on lines. Bigger houses and more and more of them, until we were in a jumbled and provisional looking town. Shirtless children played at the edge of the road. Men at in the shade on dilapidated chairs and milk crates. The majority of the houses were made of cinderblock and corrugated iron, like Brobdingnagian shoeboxes, all with thick security bars. Others were more flimsy, the types of shacks you might see in Soweto or other South African townships; some of the structures looked half-built. Smoke curled into the sky, and the wind carried the smell of cooking and human habitation. The main street, such as it was, was unpaved road. Squat shops with barred windows and wood kiosks sheathed in blue tarpaulins bearing hand-painted signs. Veg/Fruit, Telcom Phonecards, Liquor. A Castle Lager billboard towered above the rickety outdoor stalls. We drove past Jackie’s Beauty Salon, a butcher shop, JaNi Market, Levisa Fried Chicken, and HR Lounge, its turquoise and red sign slightly askew above the door. A group of girls — eleven, maybe twelve years old — waved to us; two of them carried Nike backpacks, one wore a gray plastic bag over her hair.

We stopped in front of a house on Modisana Road, a dirt road high above the shops and stalls and paved roads. It was a simple one-story cinderblock house much like the others, painted blue and white. When we climbed out of the car a little girl, three, maybe four years old, appeared, followed by her mother, Margaret, Ndolo’s older sister and Gogo’s eldest granddaughter. The girl hugged her aunt, waved shyly to me, and scampered inside. I said hello to Margaret whom I hadn’t seen in over twenty years. After a minute the darting little girl appeared again, followed by Gertrude. I hugged my old Gogo, and she called me “my big boy,” just as she had when I was a kid, and she thanked me for coming to visit, stood back to take a look at me and clucked in a happy grandmotherly way. She wore a loose floral summer dress, socks and slippers. She’d been a large woman when she was my nanny, and had gained weight since then, and her hair was mostly gray, but she still had the smooth soft skin I remembered, chocolate freckles and puffy cheeks under high cheekbones. I’d seen photos of her in her youth, and she’d been a stunner.

“Come, sit,” Gogo said, and we sat on old office chairs in the shade, looking at the mishmash of houses below. Ndolo went inside with Dimpho and gave her presents she’d brought from Johannesburg. Margaret sat outside with me and Gertrude, occasionally craning her head to watch her sister and daughter. Margaret had stayed with us in Johannesburg, starting when she was four and I was ten. Initially shy, she’d become my constant companion and liege. My brother and I had taught her English, how to fly a kite and ride a bike. Now she was an unemployed single mother, and a lot of the spark had drained from her eyes. Unlike her younger sister, whom I’d known only a little when I was a kid, Margaret hadn’t finished high school and her English was halting and heavily accented. I could barely recognize the little girl I’d know so well. I asked about her daughter (Dimpho was three, and the father was long gone). Gogo wondered if I was still living in New York, asked about my family and if I was married. “Why not?” she asked, when I said I was not. “It’s a long story,” I said. “Okay,” she said, leaning back, as if to say I’m not going anywhere. “There was a woman I loved,” I explained. “But she died in a plane crash about two years ago.” Gogo shook her head. “Hai, hai, hai.” I didn’t say that Amanda and I had talked about visiting South Africa together, asking for her blessing to get married, didn’t say anything more, just gazed at the sky and trees. There was too much to say and too little I could explain, and I didn’t want to cry.

Gogo stood up. Instinctively, I stood too, and she hugged me, and I felt like the little boy who’d fallen off his skateboard or got the wind knocked out of him by a soccer ball. “I’m so sorry.” She hugged me again, then kissed my forehead and ran a finger around an eye and down my cheek. This was the woman who had comforted me when I couldn’t sleep, whose Zulu lullabies had made me feel safe at night. We ngane ulele eziweni, she sang. You sleep on the hilltop. A few years earlier I had published a story in an anthology called The Literary Insomniac. “Killing, parties, insomnia,” the story begins. “For me they happened all at once.” It’s the story of a boy afraid of the dark, whose nanny comforts him and sings him Zulu lullabies, and that boy discovers there is a world bigger, more sinister and sadder than the one he lives in. She didn’t so much tell me stories, my Gogo, as give me insights into her life, the hard life of a domestic servant in Johannesburg in the Seventies. I loved her, and wanted to know her, and that required patience and imagination and empathy, skills (if that’s what they are) I would carry into the people I would invent and write about many years later.

Later I gave them the gifts I’d brought, vases and bowls from Pottery Barn, and they made a big fuss, and the little girl scampered around my legs and eventually took my hand, as her mother, aunt and grandmother showed me around the house. The sideboard and dining room table, Gogo explained, were my gift, bought with the money I’d given her the last time I was in Johannesburg, when she told me she’d built a house and was going to retire soon. On the sideboard, among the photos of her grandchildren and great grandchild and other family members, was an old photo of me, in my school uniform, smiling a gap-toothed smile. Maybe it was that photograph, maybe the sound of my Gogo’s voice, but I felt like I’d come home, even though I was so far from my home in New York, and far from any place in South Africa I’d ever been.

I stayed for tea, then I drove to the lodge where I was staying, with the promise that they would join me the next day to go swimming. Ehlanzeni Lodge was a twenty-minute drive from Ka Nyamazane, close to White River and the eastern edge of Kruger National Park. Whitewashed buildings with thatched roofs. My room was clean and the bed comfortable, and, most importantly, there was a pool. The Belgian innkeeper told me how much she loved New York, offered to read my horoscope or book a private plane to fly over the game reserve. I said said no thank you, I was just visiting friends in Ka Nyamazane. She couldn’t understand what I was doing, going to a rural township. But she wasn’t from Africa, I thought, and I was.

Dimpho and Ndolo arrived without Gertrude or Margaret around ten the following morning. We were the only ones in the swimming pool, and Dimpho splashed and shrieked happily. I wondered if she’d been in a swimming pool before. Ndolo told me about her job, her sister’s lack of a job, their grandmother’s health (she’d had a minor heart attack but was doing okay). We drove back around lunchtime, stopping at the local Pick n Pay where we bought chicken and rice and vegetables, milk, soft drinks, plastic animals for the little girl, cheap sunglasses for Margaret, a hat for Ndolo. We ate a feast of chicken and vegetables, sitting in the shade outside. We talked about South Africa, our families, New York and Johannesburg.

The next day Margaret came shopping with me, and we bought a plastic splash pool for her little girl. Back on Modisana Road, we filled the pool and Ndolo jumped in and out of the water, bathed her naked Barbie and the plastic farm animals I’d bought her. We ate lunch outside again. Friends and relatives of the Masekos stopped by to say hello. I couldn’t understand what they were saying but caught “Johannesburg” and “New York” in the stream of Zulu. Once, walking slowly home after visiting an old friend of hers, Gogo turned and said to me, “You think the sadness won’t end, but it will.” She had known her share of sorrows; she’d buried her own daughter when I was a child.

The following day Ndolo left for Johannesburg; she had to go back to work. I drove her to the bus. I extended my trip and took long, slow walks with Gogo, chatting with friends of hers outside their houses. “This is my big boy,” she would say proudly, or “my Anthony,” and then go back to Zulu. I extended my trip, drove into Nelspruit, walked in the hills around the lodge, played soccer with Dimpho, went shopping with Margaret. I felt, if not at home, comfortable and oddly rooted in a place I’d never been, where no white people lived, a place few, if any, Americans had ever visited.

I didn’t write, not in my journal, not a story, not a sentence. I didn’t make any plans or tell anyone where I was. I enjoyed being far away from everything I knew, weightless and free, lost and found. Later, years later, I would write about it, about Gogo’s courage, about her house, the rural township she lived in, the paltry shelves of the shops in town, about her great granddaughter running beneath the mango tree, all of it transmogrified by time, recollected in tranquility.

When I wasn’t with the Masekos I mostly wandered the hilly paths around the lodge and sat on my own on in the shade, surrounded by veld and rocks. I remember looking at my own sandaled feet and being a bit surprised at their whiteness. Sometimes I sat at the pool with a book, and a few times I switched on CNN in my room, but mostly I wandered and found a shady perch. It was there that I started this practice of solitude and stillness, as in sitting on my ass and contemplating or not contemplating, sometimes crying or feeling some feelings, sometimes simply staring at whatever was in front of me. It seemed necessary somehow to stop and sit, to be still, to say, if only to myself and the rocks: I am here.

I was less restless and less lonely when I returned to New York. I had been taught that sadness fades even if it doesn’t go away, and maybe it was the teacher and maybe it was timing, but I took the lesson on faith and that was enough. I had figured out that grief is another country, a scary place you don’t recognize and may not want to go, but sometimes you have to travel there, if only to arrive home. I also learned that stillness and contemplation were necessary for an examined life, mine anyway. And I realized that South Africa is my birthright, for better or worse, and staying connected makes me feel more rooted, wherever I am.

Of course I hadn’t figured out that much. I hadn’t figured out that home is anywhere you say it is, or that it’s okay to lean on people, to share your grief. I hadn’t figured out that grief brings in its wake bewilderment and anger, or that I would find love again. I didn’t know that you don’t always understand what it is you’re writing about until you’re deep into a story or novel. If you’d asked me I would have said nothing much changed, except that I felt a bit more rooted or less lost, and was happy to have seen Gogo and her family and reconnect with my past.

Eventually I got another job. And I started writing again, first stories, some of them set in South Africa, some of them about exile and home. Years later Ka Nyamazane and a woman that reminded me of Gogo found their way into the draft of a novel. When I wrote in that novel about the “quiet kind of heroism” of a woman who endured apartheid, sheltered her children and raised a family with love and dignity, I was thinking a lot about her and those hot, happy days I’d spent at her house in Ka Nyamazane. Many years later, I’d think of Ka Nyamazane again, when I read these words of Martin Buber: “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”

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ANTHONY SCHNEIDER has been published in McSweeney’s, Conjunctions, Mid-American Review, and Details as well as several literary anthologies. Born in South Africa and educated in the United States, he divides his time between London and New York. Repercussions is his first novel.