Sunday, March 22, 2009

They Had Opened Up Their Home

by Oliver Borzo

I live in an apartment complex in the city of Tzaneen in Limpopo province. If the weather is amenable, the parking lot of my complex will be swarming with children looking for something, anything, to do. One day as I walked home from work, I noticed a steady stream of children running in and out of one of the flats with their faces smeared with frosting and other foodstuffs. Loud music emanated from the flat; music that was neither South African nor American in its origin. My interest sufficiently piqued, I wandered closer to get a look inside the open door. I passed the door and was immediately beckoned in by who I presumed to be the host of the festivities.

Against one wall sat three elderly Shangaan ladies. I knew they were Shangaan speakers because of their traditional clothing—a colourful cloth draped over various undergarments in the manner of a toga. Each woman held in her hands a large can of Windhoek Lager and looked a little flummoxed by the goings on of the party that surrounded them. We were celebrating a birthday, but the birthday boy, who had just turned one year old, was currently asleep.

The parents of the child, and in fact most of the party goers, were East Africans, but I could not tell from what country exactly. Since I felt uncomfortable bluntly asking where they were originally from, I tried a less straightforward tact.

“What kind of music is this?” I asked slyly.

“Yes it is very good”, one man answered with a smile.

“Where is this music from?” I asked realizing my mistake.

“My brother…” the man said warmly.

After some additional back and forth, I ascertained that I was spending my time with a large group of Ethiopians. They had opened up their home to all of the kids living in the complex for this party, which was a brave thing to do. The kids were running around the living room, eating and spilling slices of cake on the floor. The children living at my apartment complex reflect Tzaneen’s diversity—there are Shangaans, Afrikaners, Bapedi, Somolians, and Indians all causing havoc, together.

The host asked me if I eat meat. I answered in the affirmative and was instantly provided with a plate heaping with Ethiopian food. There was sizable piece of injera, the thin, spongy bread traditionally eaten in Ethiopia, which had been rolled up into a sort of bread-scroll. There were also a few different stews, all of which tasted very different than the traditional South African food I had had so much of lately. I looked around and notice that I was the only one with food. Normally I would feel a little guilty about that, but I was also starving.

One of the Ethiopians asked me if I like the music they are playing. He must have assumed that all of my questions about the music indicated some special interest. I nodded enthusiastically. He asked my name and I tell them the answer, which is Oliver Borzo. Something about my name seemed suspicious and a few questions later I was forced to reveal that I am an American. This created a stir and I suddenly felt like a department store Santa who gets caught unexpectedly during his lunch break. In between bites of what was glorious food, I posed for pictures with nearly everyone in the room.

While much of 2008’s headlines focused on xenophobic violence in South Africa, my experience in Tzaneen has been far removed from that. Here, diversity is not viewed as a threat and expatriate communities are able to share their culture with pride.

Oliver is a CHOP (Community HIV/AIDS Outreach Project) volunteer living in the Limpopo Province.

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