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  • Jo

Searching for Vusi

Knock knock. I waited patiently outside the corrugated iron shack, hoping I’d finally found Vusi. I’d been to six homes with an address that sort of resembled the one on my weathered note. At the previous house, the man I’d spoken to was ‘100% sure, sure, sure’ that the guy I was looking for, lived in this house. We were in Soweto, a township just outside of Johannesburg; a place built in line with apartheid’s Urban Areas Act. In the past it kept black people close enough to Johannesburg to feed the mining industry and the city’s labour needs, yet far away from other racial groups. Somehow in the present it still did all that. The door opened to a wide-eyed man far more advanced in years than the man I was looking for. “Sanibonani” I greeted him in isiZulu, using the plural to show respect as he was older than me. “Le kae?” he responded in his language, seSotho, using the plural too, potentially because of my paleness. After exchanging a few niceties, I sheepishly asked if it was ok to speak English. I had a headache from going around the township in dusty circles all day in the heat with no water, and from searching for multilingual words in my head. He released a wholesome chuckle and happily switched our conversation to English. “Does a Vusi live here?” I asked. “He does,” he replied. I let out a sigh of relief. After hours of searching, I’d finally found him, my guys would be chuffed! I’d been working with a group of ten inmates at a correctional facility outside the city. During our time together they’d created a poignant piece of theatre that we were all really proud of. On inviting my old university professor to view their production, he supported us in finding a stage and pulled some strings with the justice department - we were going to play our production to a live audience, against all odds. It meant everything to us. However, a couple of months before ‘curtain up’ one of our actors completed his sentence and was (happily) released. Vusi still wanted to be involved so we gained permission for him to visit the prison grounds with me every Saturday and Sunday morning to rehearse. All I had to do was find him. “Could you get him please?” I asked excitedly, “He’ll be happy to see me, I promise.” “You’re looking at him” answered the slightly tickled man who was definitely not my Vusi. And so I learned that the Vusi I was looking for, not only had an address that didn’t technically exist, he also had a name that seemed as common as sand in the Kalahari. After a short, friendly chat with not-the-right-Vusi I walked back to my car feeling completely hopeless. I slunk into my seat in the knowledge that I’d have to go back tomorrow and tell the guys that we’d need a new Vusi. A friend of mine had tagged along that day but stayed in the car through most of my enquiries. I wasn’t quite sure why he’d insisted on coming but left me to it. I sense he was mindful that 1) I didn’t know my way around Soweto (which turned out to be true) and 2) that I wouldn’t be able to find the person I was looking for and that it would be a challenging day for me (also true). This uni friend had grown up in those very streets and had experienced parts of township life that I could never understand or experience. Both his father and grandfather had spent years incarcerated on Robben Island, alongside Nelson Mandela and others, as political prisoners – a fact he shared with me while I rubbed my temples and declared that I was done with Soweto and that our 'irreplaceable Vusi' would need to be replaced. “We can still make this day worthwhile,” said my friend. “How’s that?” I asked. “Well, my grandparents live two streets away from here. They’ve never met a white person like you before. It would be quite a curious experience for everyone.” “I just don’t think I can deal with that kind of emotion today” I told him “I’m sure they’re lovely people but they’re bound to hate me on account of the awful things people who look like me have done to them.” I offered to drop him at his grandparents to say ‘hello’ and I’d wait in the car – as he’d been doing all day with me. We had careful words about it and a few minutes later, I found myself uncomfortably stepping into his grandparents’ home. The anger, accusations and judgement I expected, never came. Instead, his ntate-moholo (grandfather) a well-rounded man with an aura of grace and a broad grin, walked over to me with much amusement. While I couldn’t keep up with the pace of their conversation, I felt instantly welcome. A few moments later, he put his arms around me and gave me a big bear hug. I was then ushered to a seat in the corner as all sorts of activities commenced. Young children were brought in then sent out and soon my friend was translating all sorts of questions. How old was I? Where did I go to school? What was my childhood like? What was my house like? Had I been to Soweto before? Isn’t it wonderful? What was it like to live in the most expensive part of the city? What things do I like? What things do I not like (I should have replied "meat" to that question). Soon there was clanging, sizzling and commotion in the kitchen. Small, sweet cupcakes arrived on a tray and we were to enjoy these while our feast was cooking. The cakes were simple but delicious and they settled my grumbling belly. A little while later my heart dropped as I watched a large assortment of meats brought to the table in front of us. In that moment it became clear that in not partaking in the feast, I’d be rejecting a special moment with this family. A lifelong vegetarian, I found myself chewing on the flesh of well-cooked beef with pap and spicy tomato sauce. “I’m full, thank you” I offered, putting my hands over my bowl as second helpings came round. On leaving, ntate-moholo thanked me for my visit and told me that having me, a white person, in his house was better than Christmas. He’d never met a white person who wanted to know anything about him, he told me. And he encouraged me to keep visiting Soweto and other places and to keep learning about people different to me. He welcomed me back anytime and wiped his wet eyes with the back of his sleeve as we waved goodbye. “I told you it wouldn’t be bad” laughed my smug friend as we climbed back into the car. I felt overwhelmed that an action as simple as visiting their family, would mean so much. I also felt hugely inspired by the love and acceptance shown to me by someone who had lived through such pain. I reflect on that day often. Everything had gone wrong. I was upset, frustrated, angry, worried. I was then pulled into a potentially fraught situation - in my perception. I expected a man who’d spent over a decade incarcerated, doing hard labour away from his family, ruining his health, to hate a privileged, uninvited young white woman. My unconscious bias, personal experience and perceptions stopped me from being open to the possibility that his empathy would be far more developed than mine and that his emotional intelligence would be supernatural. He'd studied under one of the greatest leaders and teachers of our time, Nelson Mandela, after all. It was a life-changing experience to feel a touch of Madiba's magic - the power of his legacy - through this wise man. Ntate-moholo's desire to heal others, forgive, lead and be a good example to his children and grandchildren was everything to him. At times when my resilience runs low and I find my empathy isn’t what it usually is, I think of my friend’s beautiful grandfather. It’s natural to feel tired, to jump to conclusions and fall into assumptions when we don't feel ourselves. As I cast my mind back to our special interaction, I hope to live his lessons. I hope to be able to see the difficult things I experience as nothing more than experiences that shape my path and make me wiser. I hope to show kindness to all who arrive on my doorstep – with warmth and acceptance. I hope to be a bit more like ntate-moholo in everything I do.

(As always, I'd love to hear from you. Get in touch on: email, LinkedIn, Facebook or Instagram.)

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