Family road trip in South Africa

By Abigail George,


“As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.” – Virginia Woolf

When I was a teenager my dream holidays were always spent in Johannesburg. My Swaziland-cousins would come and visit. My mother’s brother and wife had three sons, a swimming pool (we swum until our eyes were the colour of paprika), and a peach tree that bloomed ripe fruit in December. At that time of year we’d also gorge ourselves on watermelon and jaffles (a kind of mince sandwich). Sunday lunch at my Aunty Babs’ (my mother’s oldest sister) house was always roast-something. Roast leg of lamb or roast chicken with potatoes, with a green salad and pudding like trifle or custard and jelly.

Her mother taught her everything that she knew about comfort food. So, Jozi became my hunting ground. I never thought of New York. It just seemed too busy for me, as did the beaches of Bali and Phuket, Thailand. I’m not really a beach person. I couldn’t fit travelling to India, learning about the meaning of nirvana, enlightenment and meditation into my bucket list. Prague was where my sister wanted to be, teaching English. I still remember the crazy days of the summer of the year 2012. Somehow I survived (I didn’t think I would survive) those heady first months of living in Jozi.

The people seemed carefree even though they lived in dire straits. Back to reality, I didn’t see myself anywhere. There was no one else who looked like me. There were few Coloured people in the city early in the morning at the taxi rank. I was just a slip of a girl then, a girl of mixed race descent struggling to find myself, my life’s purpose and meaning in my life. Jozi, the city would come to life in the mornings. There was a lot of buying and selling. Vegetables were dirt cheap, could get them for next to nothing.

You could buy popcorn, a hot meal, magazines, chocolate, books, phones, cheap jewellery, and pornographic material. There were pirate DVDS on sale, fruit, for example, like apples, candy, homeware and the vegetables were dirt cheap, you could get them almost for next to nothing. People, mostly Black mamas with expert cooking skills, but there were also men frying meat in the centre of town plying their trade, would be found preparing, and braai-ing meat. The women would prepare food, mostly vetkoek on the side of the road.

People bought and moved on, going off to their destination, eating on the go, stuffing their mouths or keeping the precious parcel of food for lunch. That year I learnt that I was a tough cookie. I didn’t suffer fools gladly. Back to reality, a boyfriend (now ex) took me for ice cream one Sunday at a Wimpie at the Carlton Centre. This boyfriend was a decade older than me, of another race. I am thankful to him because he taught me much about my own sexuality, spontaneity and how to let go, not be so serious all the time and to have fun while living.

“Abigail, you need to relax into the moment, we’re meant to be happy,” my sister is always telling me. The Carlton Centre is no more and so is the boyfriend. In those days, I had a lot of boyfriends from different cultural backgrounds, Afrikaans, Black and Indian. Night-time in Jozi and the people move like ghosts on the streets. I soon discovered that I had a talent for talking, finding out of the way cafes to buy slap chips, a 2 litre Coke and rolls. I met warriors in Johannesburg; the other film school students, lecturers.

I even found God at the Salvation Army. On Sundays we would have a church service in the canteen. The chairs would be moved around. We’d even sing a few hymns. I fell in love in Jozi for the very first there with a brave, young and handsome Afrikaner. In 2012, that year I had taken a room at the Salvation Army in Simmonds Street. I traipsed up streets and down streets discovering charity shops, Hillbrow’s Windybrow Theatre, Yeoville, flea markets, cafes, slap chips, Pakistanis and COSAW’S (Congress of South African Writers’) office.

I discovered the Zoo Lake, shortcuts to film school, Jan Smuts Avenue and Rosebank’s Public Library and so much more. I loved discovering libraries. I loved that time, my time in the ‘country’ of Johannesburg. It was simply put, a charmed life living on next to nothing. Eating, surviving on takeaways. Johannesburg the city was big, a rumpus, a holy, living, breathing thing, a soft animal, or a ferocious, hungry lion that could eat you up and spit you out again and her people were . I remembered I was full of brio.

I would step out on my own in the mornings with confidence; assured that I could study anything my heart desired, become anyone I wanted to (in other words become cooler, more popular than the high school version of me). Poof! Abracadabra. I only had to believe in myself. I soon learnt to travel around by your self was a privilege, a luxury. I learnt that strangers could be kinder to you than your own family. I remembered school holidays travelling with the Translux from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg to Park Station where my Uncle Ernest or Aunty Babs would come to fetch me, precious time spent with maternal family that seemed to slip away all too soon.

Aunts and uncles full of family meetings, energy, lectures on why I wanted to study film. All I wanted was to keep the peace. I knew in my heart of hearts that they wouldn’t really understand my reasons for wanting to forge my way ahead in that direction. I wanted to be my own person. I wanted to answer to no one. Only my father understood me. I was a film and media studies student at Newtown Film and Television School opposite the Market Theatre in the hubbub of the city. The year I turned 22 Johannesburg was my stomping ground, my playing field.

My mother was my moral compass. It was my father, the intellectual in the family, who encouraged my creativity, my sensitivity, my artistic temperament and the pursuit of filmmaking. I first had to make up my mind what I was going to be. Producer, writer, director, cinematographer (I knew then of no female cinematographers). I could wrap my brain around any of them. I had fond memories of summer holidays spent in Johannesburg with my cousins and me swimming at the local swimming pool in Coronationville, eating peaches, roasting marshmallows, reading my brooding and romantic cousin Vincent’s books.

Raiding his bookshelf for treasures like Gary Zukav’s The Seat of the Soul (discovering truisms as young adult searching for the purpose and meaning in my life via self help books), Wuthering Heights (as a pensive and moody teenager). I ate, and ate, and ate up the few copies that Vince had of Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five (as a pre-teen). Over the years I found appropriate reading material on his bookshelf at different stages of my life’s development, from my teens to passing out of youth into young adulthood.

Solo, I had to learn quickly to fly by the seat of my pants, rely and take responsibility for myself. I was on my own in a big city. I could do anything I wanted; stay up as late as I wanted, had to answer to no one. I was never one for following the crowd anyway. I made connections with strangers. Lecturers became mentors and then friends. Soon it was the end of another summer; and another family holiday behind me. I was leaving behind joy and returning home and I felt grateful for time spent away from the mess of sibling life.

Grateful for the time spent away from a tired mother and harassed father. My time spent in Johannesburg had also given me a wealth of ideas for short stories that would in years to come in my late twenties and thirties be published online in e-zines from Australia to Finland, the United Kingdom, the States, and closer to home countries like Nigeria and Malawi. And then I remembered. It was my family that motivated me to write in the first place. And in the ‘lovely bones’ of writing I was always somehow dedicating language to them.

I became devout, devoted in writing about my family’s adventures, and my family at their very best served as source material for my future writing.

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