South Africa, seen through a maize cob!

I remember a friend telling me that he was fed up with everything modern and wanted out of it all. He’d go to the village: no newspaper, no radio, no TV, no watch, nothing. I quietly wondered if his nuts were not getting loose and said nothing. In the end, he went to Canada but, judging by the frequency with which his name appears on the internet, I guess he didn’t carry out his ‘threat’!
By Pan Butamire
By Pan Butamire

I remember a friend telling me that he was fed up with everything modern and wanted out of it all. He’d go to the village: no newspaper, no radio, no TV, no watch, nothing. I quietly wondered if his nuts were not getting loose and said nothing. In the end, he went to Canada but, judging by the frequency with which his name appears on the internet, I guess he didn’t carry out his ‘threat’!

Towards the end of last year, I felt the same: opting out of it all – but not going haywire about it! Not going back to the Stone Age but going to a place with only good things and where I could be in a good mood and, especially, give a break to my abused readers….. Remember, readers of this angry column, you have the right to reject being infected with my anger at the self-proclaimed ‘experts’ who think they know better than ordinary Rwandans what’s good for Rwanda…..

Anyway, having in mind a place where I could find an emerging multiracial democracy that was increasingly and equitably sharing out its affluence among its people, I chose South Africa. I knew the country to be on the African continent and yet able to compete with any of the well-to-do countries of the Western World, as far as the living standards of the ordinary citizen were concerned.

And I wasn’t disappointed. I hadn’t been to Johannesburg in 7 years and the change is simply mind-boggling. The fast expansion that the city is registering puts to shame the chest-thumping claims by some of us when we praise the puny growth of our country. The hurried steps to and fro virtually by everybody everywhere are testimony to a country on a fast-paced path to development.

I watched in amazed admiration as South Africans went about their business. At the airport or in shopping malls, everybody is in a rush to finish whatever they are doing, or reach wherever they are going, before whoever it is they are competing with! 

On some six-lane roads, I had to close my eyes because I could imagine Rwandan drivers and the way they have no idea about keeping to their lanes. Imagine a South African driver racing at more than 120 km and suddenly another driver swerves into her/his lane without having bothered to indicate!

I wanted to just watch and let my imagination run wild. Luckily, perhaps aware that there are people like us with nerve problems and, no doubt, considering also that there are many aged persons in their society, constructors of all public buildings in South Africa have provided public seats everywhere.

And so I watched as workers, shoppers and even tourists swarmed around one another,  everyone preoccupied in their mission, seemingly unaware and, perhaps, uncaring of the other.

Even those on escalators did not want to stand still and be conveyed across or up to where they were going; they had to supplement that with walking or even running! What a difference from our immobilized, staring children and, often, adults when there is somebody or something unfamiliar to them!

What fascinated me most, however, were the transactions going on. In shops, restaurants, tourist spots and other business areas, the volumes of money exchanging hands were unimaginable. At the Sun City, 2 racing hours from Johannesburg, how many millions do they count from the visits that are unceasing year in, year out? And the money is from Whites as it is from Blacks.

Unfortunately, the long and apparently unending queue meant that I could not go beyond the balcony that looks down onto the artificial ‘ocean wave’. Which made me think: maybe those omnipresent queues are good for South Africans. Only at the queues did I see people standing still and taking a breath: at counters in shops, fast foods, everywhere. I felt like I was going to suffocate.

And then, on our way back to Johannesburg, I saw life, à la Rwandaise: roast maize by the roadside! I shouted to our host’s driver but by the time he stopped, we had raced two km past the maize stand and had to make a long detour to come back! To my question as to how much one maize cob was, the vacant- and hollow-eyed vendor shouted: “Teh Reh!”, as he brandished the oversized cob in my face.

The driver ‘translated’ it as ten South African Rands but by then it was too late: the vendor was holding the maize with his dirty, bare hands and I had read ‘GMF’, genetically modified food. The vendor could not think of holding the maize in its sheath, the way it is done in hygiene-stickler Rwanda (where they are still being sold), and I wasn’t going to add to the junk food that seemed to have become my daily diet.

Looking out, I asked: “What’s that?” At our high speed, I’d not noticed them: tin- and cardboard-shacks that dotted the roadsides at different points.  The driver explained them as the dwellings that housed those vendors and their parents which, in turn, explained the vacant-eyed looks of those vendors. I’d seen what in South Africa they call ‘townships’ but squatters on their own land? That’s something else. Imagine the heat in summer and the cold in winter.

The following day, I was back in Rwanda, where one ordinary citizen in a grass-thatched house means a national crisis.

butapa@gmail.com
butamire.wordpress.com @butamire

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