I’m in T’shani Village on the Wild Coast of South Africa and the morning sun is already bright and harsh. Sweat runs down my spine as I stand in front of one of Colin’s five mud huts and I wish I was in the shade of its cylindrical wall. Luckily the wind comes sweeping in from the nearby ocean and it runs across the green hill tops, waving the long grass at us in friendly sweeps. I am not alone here, standing with two other Susquehanna University students and Colin’s small family group, including several teenagers and three small children who giggle whenever we glance in their direction. I wonder if they’re as grateful for the breeze as I am.
“You want me to do what?” I ask Jay, my small group’s translator. The Xhosa people who live in this village speak a beautifully eclectic language full of rich consonants and whimsical clicks. I’m sure that whatever Jay is really asking me to do has been lost in translation, because I’m sure no one knowingly massages cow dung into their floors.
Jay gives me his toothsome smile. “We are going to take the dung,” here he points to a white bucket that might be used to hold chlorine in the states, “and rub it on the floor. Bonawe will show you how.”
He gestures to an older woman with large forearms and a short haircut. Together we enter the small hut and I can feel the temperature drop almost immediately. The mud walls and thatched roof works wonders with keeping the heat out. Bonawe flips the bucket over and a large brown pile drops to the floor and hits with a wet sound. My nostrils are filled with the unmistakable smell of cow poop; pungent and earthy and something I’ve never associated with sticking my hands into. But Bonawe does just this, and with a practiced movement she slides the mess across the clay floor, rubbing it into the corners, before using the side of her hand to scrape the leftovers towards the door and back into a pile. She steps back, holding her fingers out so they look like two dark starfish and grins at me. I look at Jay and he has a matching grin.
“Your turn,” he says, but there’s no need for translation here. I know what’s expected of me. Their grins want me to refuse or better yet, to stick one finger into the steaming pile and run out of the hut to barf in the bushes. I kneel hesitantly on the cool floor, the pile only a foot or two from my face and I immediately start to breathe through my mouth. It’s the only way I can control my gag reflex.
The dung is surprisingly cool to the touch and more fibrous than I expected. I mimic Bonawe, sweeping the pile of dung across the floor, into nooks and crannies and eventually the rest of the group joins me. I hope they are impressed or at the very least, not annoyed by me. For the past three days we’ve been hiking out from Mdumbi Backpackers, the only ‘hotel’ of any kind around here, and visiting this same family. I feel as though I’m a burden, that our presence, our insisting that they teach us about Xhosa culture is obnoxious at best and exploitive at worst.
Earlier I made Jay promise to teach us things that needed getting done. I didn’t want them going out of their way to show us something that they don’t normally do. That way I figure that Colin’s family gets some free labor for a few days and we get to experience a genuine Xhosa lifestyle. I just didn’t expect to be wrist deep in cow shit while I learned about another society’s cultural norms. Xhosa houses constantly have to be rebuilt or else they’ll quickly disappear into the hillside. The cow dung is plentiful and smearing it into floors once a week helps moisturize the clay and keep it from cracking, which would require much more effort and time to fix. The movement is simple and the cool dung is actually kind of fun to play with, provided I don’t spend too much time thinking about what it is I’m actually touching. It rubs against my palms and I imagine I’m getting some expensive spa exfoliating treatment, though I’ve never visited a spa in my life.
In only a few minutes the hut, which serves as the kitchen for Colin’s family, is done and I drag the now small amount of cow dung to the edge of the doorway. I leave it there and back out into the sun, where I gratefully accept the soap and water Bonawe offers me. Her own rough hands are clean already. The children watch me with interest, wrinkling their noses at the idea of touching poop and giggling when I make a face at them. Bonawe is talking in Xhosa with Jay and I get the feeling they are talking about me.
Jay confirms this. “She says you should stay here,” he says with the wide and white grin that seems to be his trademark. “You’ll go back to the States and finish your education, of course. But then you should come back and marry a Xhosa boy.”
I don’t answer, instead I wiggle my fingers at the little kids watching me with bright eyes, and they burst into giggles and run away. I give chase under the South African sun, my bare feet swishing through long grass, the playful breeze pulling at my short hair and I think that Jay’s idea isn’t a bad one at all.
It’s January of 2011 and I’m in South Africa, in a remote part of the Transkei to be specific, on a trip stemming from Susquehanna University, where I attend school in the states. Our group of fourteen creative writing majors has been tasked by its leader, our professor Glen Retief, to engage in cross cultural experiences. Hence the cow shit. Every morning our larger group separates into groups of four – three students and one translator – and we head out across the green hills to meet people and learn about their lives.
I didn’t know what to expect on this two and a half week trip. Preferring to keep my mind open rather than worry or risk disappointment, I didn’t spend much time thinking about how the Transkei would be different from Connecticut or Pennsylvania, the two states I know the best. I’ve travelled before so I knew there would be fundamental differences, but I didn’t spend any time dwelling on these. Instead I waited to see what T’Shani Village and its inhabitants would really be like. When Glen asked me why I had signed up for such a trip, I didn’t know what to tell him besides that I always want to be somewhere different and that I love to travel.
For years I’ve struggled with depression, always strong;arming it beneath the surface. Movement always helped to alleviate the dark moods I’d often find myself trapped in. When I was in high school I’d go for night drives until two or three in the morning and in college I found travel as a means of coping; a week long run to London in 2009 where I crashed on a friend’s floor, a month long stay in Nepal in August of 2010. I never stopped sinking into the dark place, but movement and exposure to new places offered a distraction from these feelings and thoughts that I couldn’t find anywhere else. I take pills to help me with the worst of the symptoms now; the mood swings and irrational racing thoughts. Twenty milligrams every morning. They’re an orange color and every time I take one, I can’t help but imagine that I’m swallowing a sunset. The one thing the pills haven’t really helped me with is my desire to move, to keep moving, to never stop.
So when Jay laughingly suggests that I stay in T’shani Village I want to take it seriously. Everything about this area of South Africa is new and different, from the shockingly green hills to the ragged beauty of the horseshoe shaped beach where my friends and I spend bright afternoons. There is no way to explore this place properly if I give in to my desire to move, to find somewhere newer. This is why I’m happy when Jay continually brings us to Colin’s home, rather than doing what the other groups are and taking us to meet a new family every day. I’m eager to learn about this new place and so when I mention this to Nosipho and Zoleka; Bonawe’s adult niece and grown daughter, respectfully; I’m more intrigued than shamed when they laugh. Culture? They say. These are just chores.
Zoleka and Nosipho were standing close to the salmon colored Rondavels when we made it over the hill by Colin’s home for the first time. Nosipho saw us first and leaned into her friend, cupping her chin and saying something in Xhosa I didn’t understand. It’s just clicks and nonsense to me but the two broke out laughing and I smiled, even though I was sure they were laughing at us. And why wouldn’t they? Our small group has trudged up hills and down hills, across a cold stream, ankle deep in mud at times and we had to have been a funny sight. I knew that my cheeks were flushed and my hair was matted down with sweat and that my shoulders were already blooming with sunburn.
Nosipho and Zoleka are both beautiful and this more than anything turns my tongue to knots. Pretty people always do that to me. I guess I’ve been fed too much Hollywood. Both women are petite, with features to match, and they wear long skirts and headscarves gracefully. Nosipho has skin the color of Cafe Ole and beneath the pockmarks on her face there is mischief. Zoleka hangs back a little and she hides behind a smile and her cousin and this reminded me of myself in some ways. Their laughter made me self;conscious, but it also tugged a matching smile to my own lips.
The whole family took it good naturedly; our curiosity; and the two women, who bumped shoulders and shared jokes the whole time, agreed to show Angela and myself how to balance buckets of stream water on our heads, to crush meal beneath a heavy stone. They are both patient with us, even when I almost drop my bucket, when my shoe gets lost in the mud, when I spill kernels onto the dirt floor. I look at us, with our burning white skin and our clumsy hands, from Zoleka’s perspective. She must think we’re so strange to want to try things that are so every day to her and I can’t help but wonder if she’s ever wanted to be somewhere different.
The second day we come to Colin’s group of five huts, there is a neighbor already there and after we rub shit into the floor and help to weed the sprawling field outside, Colin invites us into his home. The room is one we’ve been in before; with two tables pushed against the left wall, each one covered with a plastic flower;patterned tablecloth. Natural light comes in through the open door and windows. As always, the clay structure and thatched roof keeps out most of the heat. It’s not even noon yet, but the sun is bright in the cloudless sky and I’m sure another layer of sunburn is going to be burnt into me by the end of the day.
“So what do you want to know?” Jay asks and the conversation begins.
We exchange small talk for a while, translating through Jay, before the neighbor breaks into the conversation. His name is Mbyi, pronounced m;oy, and it turns out he speaks excellent English. He is even able to explain the Xhosa real estate scene, including the different by;laws that need to be satisfied before an outsider can buy property.
“You inherit everything around here, everything is done through family,” he tells us. “But if an outsider, such as yourselves, wanted to buy a piece of land you’d have to approach the headman and he’d act as intermediary between you and the family you’d want to buy from. Everything is decided by the community here,” Mbyi says and he takes another sip from his glass of beer.
“So you live around here then?” Andrew asks. Andrew, Angela, and myself make up our small group and we’ve been listening to Mbyi with fascination.
“I’ve moved to Mthatha,” He says. “It is not modern enough here.”
Mthatha is the city where we’ll be flying out of in a few days for our final stop in Johannesburg before we head back to the United States. I ask him what it’s like and Mbyi shrugs.
“It is alright. I have a steady job, which is more than I would have if I stayed here. And I own a house that doesn’t need to be constantly rebuilt.”
“Do you miss it here?” I ask and I’m conscious of how little I miss my own home.
“Not really,” Mbyi answers. “I’m more of a city person, it’s too quiet here. And besides I visit often enough. My brother and his family live on our parent’s land and he takes care of it, but I still come home for traditional ceremonies. Even for non;traditional ones. I’m visiting for the New Year.”
“I’m not a city person,” I admit. “Cities are too noisy and they’re too many people I don’t know.”
“In the city,” Mbyi says and he frowns. “In the city, people put walls up all around their homes with barbed wire and broken glass at the top. They make their own prisons because they do not trust their neighbors.” He shakes his head. “I do not have walls like that. I trust my neighbors. I know they will watch my property for me when I’m gone and I would do the same for them if they had to leave. I know I could not live in a place that was more of a prison than a home.”
On one of the last nights we’re in T’shani Village, I take the short walk down to the crescent shaped beach with the rest of our travel group, all fourteen of us. We have bottles of beer in our hands and dreams of a bonfire in our heads. Over the past two weeks we’ve all gotten close and I’ve come to value their friendship, but tonight I find their noise to be annoying and it grates at me. For the first time in a long while I feel a dark mood coming on and I try to distract myself by building a fire. Nate, a lanky, blond sophomore, and I are the only ones who know how to do this and so while the rest of the group plays a game of Truth or Dare we build what we can in a darkness punctuated only by flashlight beams, the ocean surf, and sharp laughter.
The driftwood burns much faster than we thought and I grab a large piece of wood, half eaten by flames already, hoping to maneuver it into a better burning position. The underside of the tide;warped branch is already burning though and I hiss and flinch away as the orange embers bite into the pad of my index finger.
“You ok?” Nate asks.
“Fine,” I growl at him and stalk away from the rest of the group.
I can’t see the shoreline in the dark, but the waves greet me by soaking the bottoms of my pajama pants, by whispering over my bare feet. The salt water is cold and calms the angry red blister I can feel boiling on the surface of my finger and after it is soothed I look out across the invisible ocean. I think about Mbyi and building our own prisons and I think about my home.
While the rest of the group has found a little time to go onto the one computer here and send emails to their families and to update friends on Facebook, I haven’t bothered. I know that whatever is at home will still be there when I arrive in a few days. It’ll still be gray and cold and snowy. My mother will be late to pick me up at the airport and my duffle bag will sit for days in my small book;crowded bedroom until I get the nerve to unpack it. Everything back home will be normal and I know that a dark mood is waiting for me there. I had felt so light the entire trip, easily forgetting that I take those orange pills for a very good and dangerous reason, but now standing on a foreign shore, I can’t help but imagine what it would be like to be happy to go home.
The connections that I’d seen in Bonawe’s family; in the smiles shared between Colin and Mbyi, in the whispers drifting from Nosipho’s lips to Zoleka’s ears; show me the merits of staying put. I love my family, share similar whispers and smiles with my three siblings, but the town they live in is not my home. Too many dark moods have stained the place for me, made it easier to stop seeing things that are good and to let my depression define who I am. For the first time in my life I feel normal and have normal control over the way I feel, and to return to a place where I’d often surrendered normalcy for deep pits of unhappiness makes me reluctant to turn my mind towards the states. But I also know staying here, with Bonawe and Colin and Zoleka, is impossible and unrealistic.
My finger feels like there is a heartbeat in it and I hear my peers laughing behind me. I wonder if they’ve ever felt the way that I do. All at once, I need to know If my desire for movement is because of my depression or if it’s something else that is wrong with me, that needs to be fixed with more pills and in that moment my mind slips to Zoleka, a girl who is my own age and yet has had such a different life experience than me. I wonder if Zoleka has ever left her village.
Zoleka wants a better education, she told us so, and I wonder if she’ll ever get one. I wonder if she’d ever leave this place for the city, like Mbyi has. I imagine she’s never been beyond high school or Coffee Bay. That she wants to study in East London, but when she lets herself dream she can see herself in Cape Town with Table Mountain on her right and the wide Atlantic to her left. Sometimes she thinks about moving away from her green hilled life, if only to escape the color. She longs for the grays of city life. I imagine that she dreams of an airplane to take her away from the constant weeding and planting, the heavy weight of the water bucket grounded in the small of her back, the rough meal stone in her wet hands.
Maybe she thinks about these things before she falls asleep at night and weighs the pros and cons over and over. I imagine that sometimes the cons; sheer difference of a city, being far from her mother, missing the surf; outweigh the pros and that sometimes the pros; the chance for education, the adventure, the pure joy of absolute change; outweigh the cons. I imagine that she imagines her future in ways all young people do. I imagine it’s a constant across cultures and oceans. I know that I’m projecting onto her, but I need her to want the difference as badly as I need it. I want to know if someone else feels that need for controlled change or if it’s just me. But I also know I’ll never be able to gather the courage to ask. Would she even answer if I did? I’ve known her for less than a week and no matter how many connections I see between Zoleka and her family, I can’t pretend there is any profound connection between myself and the people here that would justify asking such questions.
I try not to think about her or about my feet. They want me to start walking down the coast and see where that gets me, keep pointing me in that direction so the ocean is to my right and the dunes are to my left, but I can’t bring myself to venture into the dark. So I turn my back on the echoing surf and I return to the dying fire.
Christina Harrington is a senior in the Writing Department at Susquehanna University, her work has appeared in two on campus journals; Variance and RiverCraft. After graduation she hopes to continue to write, travel, and be open to new experiences.