The Bohemian Experiment

A White Magician in Africa

Posted by beckert10 on September 29, 2009

White Wizard 001

The first time I spotted him I was lounging on the lawn, writing in my journal.  He wore the same clothes as the plumbers who worked for my girlfriend’s parents, so I assumed he was one.  I walked up to him and introduced myself.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“James” he replied in a thick accent.
“My hot water isn’t working,” I said.  “Can you take a look?”
He gazed at me for a moment then said “Alright.”
I assumed this meant: “Alright, I’ll take a look.”
A couple of days passed and my hot water remained out of order so I again approached him.
“Come on, have a look.” I said.
I led him into the kitchen and showed him under the sink.
“I don’t know what the problem is.  I’m sure you do, though, right?”
“Alright,” he said, followed by something in Afrikaans.
“Sorry, I don’t speak Afrikaans.” I said.  “Only English.  I’m American.”
His eyes registered slight amazement.
“America?” he said.
I briefly explained who I was and why I was staying on the plot.  He repeated certain words back to me with slight bewilderment.  I wasn’t sure if he really understood what I was telling him so I said it all again, very slowly.  He appraised me carefully, as if trying to confirm the veracity of my story.  After that he left, I assumed to get the materials for the job.  He didn’t return.

I first came to South Africa to travel for a few months with my girlfriend. We’d laid down plans to tour her home country for a month or so then expand outwards to see Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique…maybe even go as far Tanzania or Madagascar… perhaps beyond…
The African continent appeared in my mind as on old, faded map of the land which had inspired some of Hemingway’s best work, opened up a new songwriting catalog to Paul Simon and prompted Kurtz to face the horror of mankind’s darkness. My ambition was to let myself loose upon the sprawling landmass and bridge the narrow chasm between inspiration and insanity. If not, at least I’d get to see Africa.
All of that changed when my girlfriend’s father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. We were camping somewhere outside of Cape Town when she got the phone call. My sympathy was matched by selfishness. I saw a map of Africa, my map of Africa, with crisscrossing lines marking my travels, with a match put to it, bursting into flames and blowing away as a piece of ash. Goodbye, Green Hills of Africa. So long, wistful dreaming Under African Skies. Not meant to be, confrontation with madness. Hello cruel, untimely fate.
When we arrived back in Pretoria it was decided I would stay at the family plot. My girlfriend grew up there but the family has since subdivided the house into apartments and relocated. There was an unoccupied unit at the back of the property which used to be a horse stable but has been renovated to suit human needs. With one glance at its faded brickwork, cobweb-infested corners and lizard-strewn walls, all nestled on the edge of an expansive piece of bushveld, I fell in love. Jesus was born in a stable. Surely if the savior of mankind came from such humble beginnings I could at least find personal salvation. It was the perfect place to work on my writing. If I couldn’t be Hemingway, perhaps then Thoreau. My fantasy began to rewrite itself. Goodbye, macabre tragedy. Hello, my own, personal Africa.
My days of simple bliss were a stark contrast to the sorrow at my girlfriend’s house. I lived in willful ignorance, arising to multiple, leisurely cups of coffee, almost daily sunny skies, completely new flora and fauna to explore and the mental and physical space needed to put thought into print. I decided to grow a beard. It would symbolize my shirking of the world at large.

A few more days passed without repairs or in fact without even a glimpse of the little black man in blue fatigues. The following Monday I spotted him doing some landscaping. I asked him why a plumber was doing this kind of work.
“I am the gardener,” he said, almost defensively.
It at once dawned on me that he wore the plumber’s uniform only for practical reasons. I felt stupid for going on about the hot water. Wanting to make small talk I turned to that old standby, weather.
“At my home in America it’s cold now, lot’s of snow, like this.” I held my hand up to about waist-level. He let out a sound of shock.
“It’s too much, too much,” he said.
“Here there’s never snow, right?”
“No no, never snow.”
After that we fell into awkward silence so I left him to his work and returned to the stable to do my own.

I made it a goal to get comfortable with James. I figured that if we were the only two people on the property during the day we should at least be on good enough terms to exchange pleasantries. It was with this end in mind that I invited James in for a tea one afternoon. He approached tentatively and when I handed him a cup of green tea he drank it quickly, seeming eager to get the affair over with. I took out a map of America, pointing to my home state. I also showed him some of the places I’ve traveled to on the world map.
“You lucky man” he said. “You see many place.”
I opened up my laptop to show him some photos of my travels and a website I was working on. His faced registered disbelief.
“How can you do this thing?” he said. “Is magic.”
I assured him using a computer was simple and anyone could learn. His wide eyes indicated he didn’t agree.
I couldn’t help but note the disparity of our circumstances. I was living off of my savings, scribbling in a notebook, trying to do what? Write stories? Discover meaning? Such pursuits seemed superfluous at best when I thought of James toiling all day in the yard only to earn just enough money to survive. To me, it was obvious why our lives were so different. I was from a good family, educated and well-traveled. In short, I’d been given all the opportunities in the world to find out what it is I wanted to do with my life and the means to pursue those goals. But what reasons, I wondered, would James cite? Was he aware of the sort of things which separate the haves from the have-nots, or was the world simply divided among magical lines where some men were wizards, free to grow beards and push the keys on a little machine while others were condemned to don a uniform and dig in the soil all day?

Later that week I went to my girlfriend’s house for dinner. I’d adopted the position of, while not purposefully ignoring her ailing father, avoiding direct confrontation. Looking at him was peering into the face of death. It instantly plucked me out of my private world of contentment and transplanted me into a gloomy realm where living and dying were divided by an uncomfortably thin margin.
While we ate I mentioned my encounters with James. I found out that he earns a little less than 400 Rand per week, the equivalent of about fifty dollars. I did a quick calculation and worked out that it equaled scarcely more than $2500 a year. While such an amount was enough to survive on in South Africa, it barely covered the essentials. James was, by any reasonable standard, a poor man. I also recounted anecdotally his description of my computer work as “magic” and was told it used to be common in South Africa for blacks to refer to technology as “the white man’s magic” and the reason why they were able to control society.

Throughout history technologically superior cultures have been able to exploit less advanced ones. Racial explanations have been dispelled, most notably in Jared Diamond’s, “Guns, Germs & Steel” in which the author explains how environmental advantages allowed certain peoples to progress, culturally and materially, at a greater pace than others. The result was that people from some places were able to dominate others through their superior advancements.
I entertained the mind state of those exploited by non-natives. I imagined myself as a hunter-gatherer suddenly confronted by Europeans arriving on ships, bearing guns, navigational equipment and other modern technology. The only logical explanation for somebody who knows nothing of science is that such devices are the product of a supernatural force…of magic.
I wasn’t so naïve to think that in modern time many people still put forward arguments of magic to explain such differences. James didn’t actually think I was casting spells in the stable. However, his choice of words was telling. It would be like me encountering an alien from an unimaginably advanced culture. Their possessions, while certainly not magic, would at least seem like science fiction. Magic in this context represents a world that, while commonplace to some, others are not a part of. It is a symbol of alienation and ignorance.

The following day James came around again.
“Today good. Sun shine very much.” he said.
“Too hot for me,” I said.
“May I have some China tea?” he asked.
I obliged and after serving him a steaming cup he promptly walked away.
This pattern continued. Having labored for several years of my life I knew a simple pleasure like a cup of tea could make the day infinitely more tolerable. However, he soon began to ask for tea every day. Without fail he’d come by and strike up a conversation that was only a lead-in to his real prerogative. I kept telling myself it was only a cup of tea but it still bothered me. While I’d wanted James to be a friend, an equal, his daily request rendered this impossible. By asking for tea everyday he was subjecting himself to my will. Our relationship was one of command.

One of the benefits of a reclusive lifestyle was that I was spared the disparaging sights of urban South Africa. Once a week I borrowed the car and went to the supermarket, at which point all illusions of paradise were shattered. Alongside every road were scores of men who waved at passing cars, hoping to be picked up for work. At stoplights beggars approached the car asking for money, some of them dragging children in tow to soften up potential givers. When looking for parking men whistled loudly and directed me into spots, then assured me they’d look after my car while I was shopping. Many of these self-purported ‘car guards’ were just unemployed men looking for handouts, and even after insisting I didn’t need my vehicle washed I’d come back to find them buffing it and expecting money. On the streets and even inside the stores people would start conversations that, while posing as friendly chit chat, always ended in panhandling. Some, while not begging, would want me to buy shoddy hand made goods.
It was impossible to leave the house without being pestered by one or all of these types and it resulted in sympathetic futility. It was impossible to not feel bad for people who had to stoop to such lows. At the same time, how should one react when they are harassed from all angles by outstretched palms? The dilemma boils down to the following: Should those who have a good life feel bad about it when confronted by those who don’t?

My girlfriend’s father’s condition rapidly deteriorated. It was now at the point where he couldn’t walk on his own and he mostly remained in bed. It was because of this that a Sunday brunch was arranged at the plot. I’d come to understand the place was a great source of pride and happiness for him and it was with great regret that he’d moved away. Still, much of his life had been invested in the property and the family wanted to take him there while he still had enough strength and mind to appreciate it.
We cooked over a gas stove on the lawn while my girlfriend and her family recalled memories from their former home. It felt a bit strange having my world penetrated by them. The notion was undeniably selfish and yet I couldn’t help but acknowledge it.
At one point they went for a walk to look at something on the property and left me to keep an eye on the father. His eyes darted around with a clarity I’d not seen in weeks. Something caught his attention and he pointed at it while trying to rise to his feet. I had no choice but to assist him. He staggered onwards under my support. I was dancing with the dying man.

All at once he stopped, grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me towards him with surprising strength. His eyes locked onto mine and we stared at each other like slow dance partners sharing a tender moment there on the lawn. Then, as abruptly as it had come back, the life was gone again from his eyes and I was forced to stare straight at death. I couldn’t turn away. I couldn’t hide.
My girlfriend walked up and asked if I needed help. I let her take over and I went back to the stable. I closed the door and sat down with tears welling up. As I let them flow I was accepting the sadness as my own. By avoiding him I’d been avoiding the unavoidable: Death. It had found me in my sanctuary. I cried not so much for him or this particular sadness but because I knew I couldn’t hide from the tragedy around me. Even if a man tries to it will eventually find him, and then not on his own terms. This place was never my own personal Africa. There is no personal anything. Only things, personalized.

Just as one can’t hide from problems in their life, so it is with the problems of the world. This became clear the next morning as James came around with his usual prelude to a panhandle.
“Is good today. Not so cold.”
“It’s never cold here, man. You don’t know what cold is until you’ve been to my home.”
When we talk about the weather we’re really trying to set the stage for those deeper things which penetrate our lives but are difficult to broach. It is a reach for that which is unspeakably true.
I knew my choices were to give James the tea and send him on his way or not. A cup of tea or no cup of tea changed nothing. But at the same time a cup of tea meant everything. It meant ships full of Europeans with beards and compasses touching down on African soil. It meant subjugation and intellectual hostage-taking. He was taking not a cup of tea, but a coin pulled out from behind the ear of a magician. Because as long as some people can use magic and others can’t, equality is a fantasy.

“Come in for a cup of tea, James.” I said. “I’m going to show you how to use a computer.”
As I prepared the tea I recalled my first meeting with him.
“Remember, I thought you were a plumber. Those guys never did fix my hot water.”
James stood up and stepped around the corner to where the circuit breaker box was.
He opened it and said “Sir, is because the switch is off.”


2 Responses to “A White Magician in Africa”

  1. Alet Ferreira said

    I absolutely LOVE it!! Makes me long for home.

  2. Alet Ferreira said

    It is an interesting thing to note the James angle and him being able to ‘fix’ the plumbing – BRILLIANT

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