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Men Holding Hands | A Tribute to an African Friend

Let me tell you about my former friend Peter Khosa.

Peter was a refugee from Mozambique, who I first met in 1990 in the small town of Malamulele, in what is now Limpopo Province, South Africa.  Peter was managing a non-profit food relief project for thousands of people fleeing Mozambique’s civil war.

Peter distributing food to two refugee children.

Peter Khosa distributing food to two children.

Peter’s English was imperfect, yet eloquent.  He was the hardest worker I have known.  In order to support his immediate family of six, plus, family in Mozambique, including parents, Peter bought an old 4×4 bakkie (pick-up truck), and made weekly trips of 900+ kilometers to purchase bulk fresh produce, including cabbage, onions, potatoes and citrus.  His wife, Rosa, then sold the produce for minimal profit in two local open-air markets.

Peter & Rosa's "bakkie" (truck) and vegetable stall.

Peter & Rosa’s “bakkie” (truck) and vegetable stall.

 

Peter's family

Peter’s family

Peter died in 2007 of brain cancer – a disease he fought for five years.

Peter Khoza

Peter

I take this opportunity to share how Peter affected and shaped my life.  I am a bi-cultural person, who was born in the United States, yet grew up in Africa.

In addition to his ethos of hard work, Peter was extremely truthful and candid.  He didn’t put on airs of niceness merely to please (or deceive). Two cases in point:

One day in Thohoyandou, Venda, my wife and I had several unexpected visitors.  Offering hot tea or coffee, plus something to eat, was a Venda cultural expression of respect to visitors, and my wife did this with our three Venda male visitors.  Not long into their visit, Peter also unexpectedly showed up.  After greetings were exchanged my wife brought Peter something to drink and eat without asking, but upon offer, Peter politely declined.

tea

His “cheeky candor” became a topic of light-hearted discussion among our Venda guests. “Oh, but you have to accept it, Peter!  We have just ‘trained’ Mme a Daniel (mother of Daniel) in the ways of our culture and now you’ve gone and sown confusion in her mind.”  Peter responded, “But I’m not hungry!  Why should I accept and waste food and drink when I have no need?”  Discussion continued over cultural differences between such close neighbors as the Venda and Shangaan people.

A final example of Peter’s candor.  One late afternoon he, along with his wife and a friend of hers, arrived unannounced at our house.  I had spent the afternoon making what I believed to be an excellent potjiekos (=small pot food), an Afrikaaner “stew” cooked in a three-legged, cast iron, Dutch rounded potjie (cooking pot), which is slow-cooked on an open fire.  A hint of what is to come . . . I had been taught the “art” of potjiekos cooking from a fellow American, although in fairness to him, my culinary skills should not be blamed on anyone but myself.

On this occasion I recall making a potjiekos of chunks of fresh beef, white onions, potatoes, slices of mango, and a generous dash of red wine.  A secret of good potjiekos – so I’m told – is in choosing the right ingredients, on correctly layering the ingredients, and on slow and precise cooking.

A potjie on an open fire.

A potjie on an open fire.

We invited our guests in, and despite their insistence that they were not in great need of food, I served them my “delicious” potjiekos, anyway.  My wife and I then sat across from them at the dining table.  We engaged in conversation, all the while I kept expecting them to comment on how delicious my potjiekos was.  Affirmation never came. Food consumed, they excused themselves.

We walked them to the front gate and their bakkie.  As they were driving off and we were waving, Peter suddenly did a 360-degree turn.  He drove up alongside us, stopped, rolled down his window, placed his hand on my arm, and smilingly stated, “My friend, when you come to my house I will teach you how to cook!”  With that he rolled the window up and drove off into the darkening night, leaving a cloud of fine red Venda dust in his wake.  He was true to his word.  Another day, another time, he made me Portuguese style food, including a large steak, topped with two or three medium fried eggs, served with a generous portion of “chips” (french fries), a side salad, and a large glass of Coke.

A Portuguese meal similar to what Peter fed me.

A Portuguese meal similar to what Peter fed me.

In addition to Peter’s candor, what some might mistake for impoliteness, he also frequently demonstrated affection and vulnerability.

One time I spent several nights at Peter and Rosa’s house. One evening, just prior to dinner, he suggested we take a walk in the neighborhood.  As to its relevance, you decide, but know that Malamulele is mostly, if not entirely, a “black town.”  Its city center consisted of a few small shops and cafes. Neighborhoods included a mixture of face-brick homes with tiled roofs, to rural looking thatched rondavels. Needless to say, a white man walking in the community, while not unheard of, was not common.

"Three Rondavels" in Mpumalanga Province, adjacent to Limpopo

“Three Rondavels” in Mpumalanga Province, adjacent to Limpopo

At some point during our stroll, and as Peter pointed out different features of his community to me, several fingers of one hand softly held my own.  It was then him leading me around the neighborhood.

Black,+white+handshake+hands

I’m as “American male” as the next person, and it took a few seconds or minutes, I can’t say exactly which, before I was able to come to terms with this newfound, and highly cultural “holding hands experience.”  After my inner macho man-ness was convinced that the experience did not awaken any latent gay feelings of pleasure, and that no bystanders were aghast, I actually appreciated the feeling that came from knowing Peter took my hand because he felt a close kinship with me – that I had become to him like a brother and family.  Holding hands then became to me something of a badge of honor.

Concluding thought:

All of this is to say . . . I miss close friendships and “connectedness” like what I shared with Peter.  A friend who is kind yet candid, who offers you his best hospitality and troubles himself to walk the neighborhood with you, taking your hand, and showing you what you might not otherwise have seen or experienced.

I’m almost three years into Austin residency and I have yet to feel much connection to this city and its people.  I’m sure the fault is shared by me.

Initially, and as a newcomer, I sought some measure of connection through the tradition I grew up in, that is, church and the Christian community.  In those faith communities my family and I frequented, I did find “nice” people, yet my family’s experience suggests one becomes an “insider” by coming to them, reaching out to them, and it helps significantly if you have disposable and leisure income, which can enable you to participate fully in all social and “ministry” events.

I find it somewhat ironic that in what many people call “Christian America,” my family have had as many if not more invitations to dinners, parties, house dedications, and even offers of job networking from Hindu and Muslim neighbors and friends, including our girls’ school friends’ families, than from full-time pastoral staff of my own faith tradition or members. Obviously, there are a few exceptions to this generalization.

 

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On Being a Problem

I’m currently reading How Does It Feel To Be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America by Moustafa Bayoumi.

Have you ever given thought to what daily life must be like for individual “problems” of society?  That is, have you ever personally, first-hand, or vicariously via imagination shared life with them for a day or more?

If you haven’t, I encourage you to do so.  But do so apart from a “group experience,” where vulnerability of shared experiences are diffused too broadly and minimal transformation occurs in your life.

It seems “problem people” in the USA could apply in varying measures to any or all of the following people:  Muslims, Arabs, the poor or anyone benefiting from a government subsidy, gay, illegal immigrants, the unemployed, someone with AIDS, single-headed households (especially women on welfare), anyone who doesn’t speak “American,” etc.   In the not-too-distant past, of course, “problem people” included Native Americans, Catholics, Irish, Japanese, etc.

During their colonizing administration of South Africa, British officials frequently referred to blacks by the phrase “the native problem” (I do not deny the existence of far more racially derogatory terms used as well).  Although more academic and finessed descriptions could be given as to what exactly was implied by “the native problem,” in effect, it boiled down to this:

There were too many of “them” – specifically, “uncivilized” and “un-Christianized” blacks living in near proximity to whites.  What to do about it since the advancement of civilization depended upon native labor, as well as upon making consumers of them?

Fear, then, became the persistent and pervasive “white burden.”  For example, in 1838 Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, white fear of imminent Zulu attack prompted the usual practice of firing a gun upon arrival of the mail to be discontinued, and in its place was substituted the ringing of a bell.

Explorer Richard Burton wrote in 1861, “I unhesitatingly assert—and all unprejudiced travelers will agree with me—that the world still wants the black hand.  Enormous tropical regions yet await the clearing and draining operations by the lower races, which will fit them to become the dwelling-places of civilized man.”  Scottish evangelist, Henry Drummond, expressed in Tropical Africa that the fertility of Central Africa was a liability for civilization’s advance, because in such a climate it was difficult “to create new wants” among Africans.

My life, personally, and that of my family have been exceedingly gifted, blessed, from knowing many “problem people” over the years.  Miriam is one such person.  Initially she was a South African “problem,” given that she was a refugee from a not-too-distant neighboring country.  Destitute and desperate, with small children of her own, she was given a lifeline through the kindness of a few Catholic sisters.  After regaining her footing, Miriam identified an unfortunate niche in South African society – destitute mothers, unable to adequately care for their small children for economic or health reasons, who do not want to give up their children for adoption or for a government mandated two-year foster care, but merely find a temporary and loving caretaker until which time they manage to reclaim life – and determined to make a difference in the lives of mothers and their children, despite her lack of resources.  This former “problem person” isn’t famous or successful by celebrity definition, yet for those of us who know her, she’s a Mother Teresa of South Africa. Thank you Miriam for mentoring me and my family on how best to be a “problem!”

KH

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