|Photo by Carly Bass|
A hulking armored truck fills another room. Its tires rise above my waist. Its yellow hull is weathered. I can’t help imagining it as a movie prop, a replica—but it’s real. Trucks like this would be filled with non-student white males my age or younger. During their four mandatory years of military service they were equipped with body armor and assault rifles. These trucks would lumber onto university campuses and pepper activist crowds with teargas.
The back hatch is open. I climb inside and sit on the cold metal bench. The windows are cracked into rippling webs from hurled stones, but the glass, like the hull, is impenetrable.
Inside the truck I hear the sound of blood gushing through me, like holding my ear against a conch. This is my context for travel: vacation, novelty, a souvenir conch by which to remember the sound of waves. Suddenly I’m considering the random happenstance of my birthplace, the sheer luck that my consciousness was dropped into the body of a straight white male halfway around the globe. I remember my mom telling me when I was a child how fortunate we are to have been born in the United States. “Of all the places,” she said. “What are the odds?”
The next day I fly to East London, then take a bus to Coffee Bay. The landscape skips from city to countryside without the transition of the suburbs I’ve grown up in. There are cylindrical mud huts scattered over the grassy hills. From the airplane, these villages had been tiny flecks glinting in the sun like shattered safety glass, the product of a car wreck. But now, at their level, their milky green color reminds me of charms on a bracelet strung across the unspoiled earth.
The bus passes a handful of unfenced goats and I spot graffiti spray-painted across a low cliff-face, an out-of-place detail in this raw terrain. In bold black it reads: KAMO TUMI. The words aren’t in my limited repertoire of Xhosa—the language spoken in the village I’m going to—but still they have meaning. They tell me there’s no place so far away that I’ll forget where I’m from.
I arrive in the Xhosa village, Tshani, in the evening. For the next few days, a native guide who goes by Tony leads me into the village each morning. Tony is twenty, lean. He speaks English well. One day I meet a woman named Nothusile. She has kind, drooping eyes. She carries her grandson on her back in a sling made from a towel. I ask if she’s ever considered living anywhere else and Tony translates.
No, she says, this place is all she knows.
The village is slowly transitioning into the twenty-first century. If you have a wide enough view you can usually spot a rectangular building, a trace of western architecture. The Tshani sangoma just got a DVD player in his hut.
“Do you worry,” I ask Nothusile, “that the traditions of your village will be lost?”
She wishes the village could remain the way it was when she grew up. She asks with a laugh if I could live in Tshani.
“It’s beautiful,” I say. “I love it.” For a moment I allow myself to envision a humble life like Nothusile’s, a life in which I can slough off my privilege and build a hut from mud bricks, where having nothing means having enough. But I know, like her, I’m forever tethered to the place I’m from.
On the beach my last night in Tshani, the guides build a bonfire taller than I am. They pass around drums and we wail on them and laugh and sing in each other’s languages. I drink too much: two forties of Castle Milk Stout, something called Brutal Fruit—I drink whatever is handed to me. In the morning I recall smiles, the feel of gravel on the soles of my feet, and maybe I vomited in the ditch circling my hut. And there’s one more maybe-memory, like a ghost.
I’m alone wobbling along the path toward the bathroom. Tony appears out of the dark. “What do these words mean?” I ask him, slurring. “Kamo tumi. I saw them on a cliff.”
“Kamo Tumi,” he repeats. “Nothing. They don’t mean anything.”
I feel cheated. Even here, the world is scarred, tainted by someone’s senseless staked claim to the physical world. I go to the bathroom and watch my piss swirl down the bowl, the opposite direction it would spiral back home. Everything here is backwards.
As the plane glides into Cape Town, it passes over a shantytown. From above it looks like a junkyard, acres of shrapnel. The romance of Tshani is gone. This is not the same modest, self-sufficient living—this place is desperate.
I receive a tour of a shantytown called Sweet Homes. Outside a sign reads, “Do not kill your children out of fear or being poor.” The houses are scrap metal, plywood, and cardboard—they’re the size of walk-in closets. Chained outside are dogs beaten bow-legged, their ribs defined. The footpaths are strewn with used condoms.
We come to a one-room schoolhouse the size of a trailer. I step inside to about thirty children under five. They are visibly dirty and seem startled. A guide explains that they expect whites to hate them. I feel guilty intruding, so I smile. I coo. A boy with snot trailed from one nostril to his upper lip smiles up at me. He raises his arms, silent. I plant my palms under his arms and lift him so his eyes are level with mine. He is so light. He is laughing. A line forms in front of me, smiling boys and girls waiting for their turn to be lifted by a white man who doesn’t hate them. I hug them, I hold them, and feel like I’m sinning. I fear I’m deepening their suffering by setting it alongside joy. I think, maybe it’s better if they never discover a world outside their own, if they have nothing to compare their existence to. Maybe there’s comfort in that.
But it’s a selfish thought. I’m thinking of my own comforts, the luxuries I previously found commonplace that now carry a measure of guilt. If these children’s lives have been tinged by joy, mine has been stained by their despair.
When I step out of the schoolhouse, the children follow. “You have to stay here,” I say to a boy pulling at my jeans pocket. The kids smile and wave. I turn away and don’t look back, because I want to lose them. I want to go so far that maybe they’ll forget.
David Joseph lives in Philadelphia with his wife. He served as Co-Editor-in-Chief of Susquehanna Review for its 2012 and 2013 issues. His fiction has appeared in Hobart, Big Lucks, and the W.W. Norton anthology, Hint Fiction. David’s story “Overcast” was named winner of Revolution John Magazine’s 2015 Highlander Fiction Award.