We sat in deep shade in a South African restaurant, with Sibongile. We first met her in a baked homeland village. Our daughter had taken us up there to have supper with Ben, who worked at a local NGO.
The heat blistered on the scuffed dirt yard. Ben's family sang their hearts out, the women swayed their padded bums rhythmically and the music beat. I sat, hot and feeling uncomfortably Western, aware that we have lost something vibrant in our frenetic “civilization.”
“Why doesn't your father live with you?” Asked Ben who had met him the summer before.
“He wants to be independent,” I replied feebly,
“Why?” I could not explain why an old man would prefer to be isolated, alone and independent. Looking into Ben's warm brown eyes, I was silenced and ashamed.
Later, a small hand slipped into mine. “Will you be my friend?” she whispered in broken English. It was Sibongile.
Now, three years later, we sat together, an unlikely family, born of our desire to help with her education. She had been at the local village school, with broken windows and few books. She was taught in Sotho, not English. This would make it almost impossible to get a job. Now she lived with her cousins in a nearby town and attended an English speaking school. We had guaranteed her tertiary education.
Sibongile sat with us, nervously, her first time in a restaurant. I searched for something to say and found myself telling her, I don't know why, about the Holocaust. Her eyes grew round, “White people did that to white people?”
“Oh, Sibongile, it isn't black or white. It is people hurting people.” I wanted her to move beyond the apartheid polarity.
Now looking back, I ask why we always take sides. We are rewatching the original Forsyte Saga, torn between Irene and Soames. Instinctively, we try to take sides. But why do we make life black and white? Can't we see that we are all people, each with our mistakes, fears and hurts. I am not right, nor are you – neither are we wholly wrong. We are people, Sibongile, just people.
After note: Sibongile picked up the ball and ran. In three years, she learned to work in English and Afrikaans and graduated second in her school. She qualified as an accountant and works for a major bank. With her first earnings, she bought a kitchen cupboard for her mother.
Further reading: Just after reading this, I downloaded from Amazon Your Best Year Yet: 7 simple ways to shift your thinking and take charge of your life by Kelly Exeter. Talk about synchronicity, her first suggestion linked straight into the idea in this entry: that I am not better than you, nor you than me. She describes the difference living with that belief made in her life. Kelly's site: a Life Less Frantic