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More Essays that Worked

There is Something About Africa

By Sorina Seeley
Paris, France

"You say, 'Sawubona.'"

"Sawubona"

"Then the person says 'Sapela.'"

"Sapela"

"Then you will reply 'Sakhona snez wa nena.'"

"Sakhona snez wa nena"

"Remember if someone gives something to you or helps you, say 'ngiyabonga kakhuku.' It means thank you."

"Ngiyabonga kakhuku"

"Got it all?"

"Yes."

"Good, because we're almost there."

My heart skipped a beat, we were almost there, we were just minutes away from the a world that so far, only existed inside my mind, inspired through bedtime stories and faded photographs. I was minutes away from a place completely strange, yet so familiar to me. As we drove through the vast open land, my father rolled down the windows and said, "Stick your head out, smell that? That's Africa."

Despite the many travels that characterized much of my childhood, I had never been on a trip quite like that of my first visit to South Africa. To me Africa existed through my father's journals, letters exchanged between my grandparents, an array of photographs and wonderful stories of what it was like having Africa as a home. However now for the first time, I was actually arriving at the small town on the eastern coast of South Africa where four generations of my paternal side had grown up. Driving through the town of Estcourt for the first time seemed somewhat like a dream. As we passed the small stone church where my grandparents were married, a small black- and-white picture rushed to my mind. The beautiful stained windows over my grandparents' heads were somehow familiar. Jacaranda trees stood proudly between houses and along sidewalks with little blue flowers seated delicately on the top of most branches, so fragile due to the heat that when a warm breeze ruffled the branches, the flowers would float slowly to the pavement.  

Soon the individual trees disappeared into a park in front of which stood a small sign that read: "Drummond Park." "It was named after your great-grandfather," my dad explained. "He was the first mayor of the town." Soon the houses became more scarce and once again the landscape became littered with cows, horses, zebra and small flightless birds. Five minutes into this we had arrived at a house at the top of a hill. Glen Roy was etched on the wooden arch marking the entrance.

My dad's cousin rushed forward to meet us, welcoming my dad home and welcoming my brother and me to our heritage. She guided us around the property, together with my dad, pointing out various places where events had happened: the rose garden overlooking the dam where my father and mother were engaged; under the tree where lunches were eaten when it was not too hot; and the back shed where the half-a-meter-long pet tortoise was kept. That same afternoon, exhausted from traveling yet full of excitement to see everything, my dad announced that he had someone he wanted us to meet. Her name was Josephine and she had been his nanny when he was a child and continued to look after him until he left Africa for London to find a job.

We walked around to the back of the house to the hill that leads down to Wagon Drift Dam. I lowered myself onto the grass, in between my brother and my grandmother, slipping forward as the dry earth crumbled a bit beneath me. My eyes swept the grass around me, yellow from the heat and lack of rain. By the dam at the bottom of the hill lay ten or twenty small huts raised from the earth. Up the hill from the huts marched a figure followed by many other smaller figures. "That's her," my dad said laughing. A tiny woman no younger than ninety reached the top of the hill and embraced my father, both with tears in their eyes they sat down around me. After a moment's silence Josephine started to speak. She spoke so quickly, the Zulu words rolling out of her mouth indistinguishable from each other. Yet the unfamiliar words told a familiar and wonderful story. My grandfather and father were laughing as my grandmother translated the fast-paced monologue into stories of my father's childhood. It was incredible to see my family's history and my father's past told through someone like an aunt to my dad, someone who had been a part of all the stories my father told me. I was seeing a part of me through someone else's eyes that before had only been a bedtime story.  

At first, Josephine's small frame contradicted the image of a strong black Zulu woman I had imagined from my father's stories, but her strength, vigor and powerful presence greatly surpassed my previous image of her. Finally the fast-paced discussion slowed, and the laughter was replaced by a peaceful smile. She said very slowly in broken English that it was her first pilgrimage back up the hill to Glen Roy since my dad left over 30 years ago. Her dignified, serene stature remained dominating as many of the smaller figures came closer, around twenty small children gathered around her, the smaller ones crawling into her lap, the older ones tentatively remaining a few meters away. My grandmother explained that most of Josephine's children and friends had died of AIDS, and she was now the matriarch of the village raising orphaned children as her own. She gazed at the children with such love and care, the same affection that saw my father's upbringing.

As we stood up to leave, Josephine turned her head and looked at my brother and me. "Singabangane," she said. The word sounded so familiar and beautiful. My grandmother leaned forward and whispered translation into my ear. "Singabangane," I replied. It meant we are friends.

"There is something about Africa," my father always says, "something that runs deep in your veins, something that will always draw you back." When I lie in bed at night, I still imagine myself in far-off countries, immersed in exotic cultures, yet after a while my mind always returns to Africa. I feel the hot sun pushing me into the ground, the vast openness around me and the connection to the country that means so much to my family and me. I see the thatched roof of the house where my father spent his childhood and the landscape that makes my heart beat fast and hard. I think of the hot air that wrapped around me and the beauty and mystery of Africa that cannot be put into words, but remains a constant ache in my heart to return. On the plane ride back home to Prague, I wrote in my journal:

In the distance a hot wind
Sways the branches of a lone acacia tree
Giving futile shade to a lonely bird
It doesn't sing or dance, just sits there
Staring out to nowhere
Too hot to move, too hot to think
Just sitting there, staring into the distance,
Into the eternity of Africa.
Jan 2002
 

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