Day # 9,476: Years before South Africa hosted the World Cup in 2010, we armed ourselves with a copy of The Rough Guide to South Africa, Lesotho & Swaziland and a map and headed off in a rented jeep for Kruger National Park wildlife reserve.
As we drove through towns and villages and brilliant expanses of brick-red land, I read blurbs from the guidebook about places of interest in the area.
Towards the bottom of one page, I noticed mention of a village inhabited by members of the Shangaan tribe, where visitors could stop by for a walk-through, a meal, or a night. So with map unfurled, off we went.
Despite the painted wooden sign, we weren’t entirely sure we were in the right place.
There were no tour times, no glossy brochures, not even a cash register inside the thatched roof hut alongside the road.
We were met with a very friendly young girl who nodded and smiled and gestured for us to wait while she ran to get the village’s lone English speaker to meet with us.
A girl around our age showed up and greeted us warmly, announcing that we were a little early for lunch (sure enough, one of the chief’s wives was busy gutting a chicken when we walked through), but that she was happy to take us through the village and show us around.
While we made our way down a narrow red dirt path, she asked us where we lived.
I’m still never sure how to answer this question while traveling; answering with “the United States” inevitably begs more questions (and sometimes invites more problems)… but “San Francisco” could occasionally yield blank stares, depending on how far off the beaten path we were. We’d settled on “California,” which seemed to appease both the curious and the geographically unfamiliar.
And “California” is how we answered our lovely guide.
“Kah-lee-for-nyah?” She smiled graciously, displaying the whitest teeth I’d ever seen. “Where is this place?”
“It’s in America… the western coast of America.”
“Ahhh… I see,” she smiled again and very clearly did not see. “Is this place near to here?”
“I—-” I blinked a bit too fast and smiled helplessly. “America? It’s… pretty far… we flew like, 24 hours to get here!”
“Ahhh… ahhhh!” And as a vague understanding of ‘flying 24hours to get somewhere’ began to take shape in her mind, she stopped walking and doubled over, starting to laugh. “Fly?! Oh… my…”
And then all three of us started laughing because there was nothing else to do having come together in the middle of southern Africa from such very different roots.
The walk through their village was surreal.
We met our guide’s mother and younger siblings… while one of the village chief’s wives tended to lunch over a communal fire pit, others invited us into small huts serving as living quarters… we watched older girls making beaded jewelry to sell along the main road… young children approached timidly, offering us some sort of peanut-paste snack eaten with bare fingers… and after our guide requested permission in her native Tsonga, we met the chief himself.
Wrapped in a worn leopard skin, he shuffled out to a large chair near the entrance to his sleeping hut and shook Mr. M’s hand, welcoming us to the village. (Women were not permitted to sit near the Chief or shake his hand, so Mr. M was our appointed representative.)
Our guide translated as the chief told us about his family and asked about ours.
He told us how he was lucky to have many cattle as a young man, which allowed him to have several wives… and how he was trying to teach his sons the importance of farming the land despite their insistence on focusing on tourism… and how he was lucky to have had so many daughters because this would allow him to amass more cattle when they were sent to other villages to marry… and how he made his robe after killing a leopard many years ago… and then he gestured to an impressive battle scar on his left forearm that instantly made his leopard story less Tall Tale and more Fact.
He invited us to stay for the night, but we had places to be and adventures yet to have. So we bowed again and again in thanks for his hospitality and for allowing us to meet his family, and he shook Mr. M’s hand once more… because somehow through the translations and gestures and laughter, we had become friends.
That trip to South Africa, halfway around the world, was my first passport-requiring voyage. I expected culture shock.
I didn’t expect to lay the roots of my wanderlust.
**In writing this post, I did a cursory search to see if this Shangaan village was mentioned somewhere on the web and could not believe what I found.
It looks like the chief’s sons were victorious in convincing their father that tourism (rather than cattle) was the wave of the future. No doubt in large part to the huge influx of tourism brought about by the 2010 World Cup, the village- or part of it- is now “Shangana Cultural Village,” offering a paved parking lot (large enough to fit tour buses!), buffet dinners, and 3-hour performances telling the story of the Shangaan people.
Is it wrong that I feel protective of this place?
I wonder what Chief Mukuni thinks.