In our era of high-tech gadgets and high rolling entertainment I’m struck by how prominently small, simple, and insignificant past events figure into consciousness and identity. An example of mine are memories associated with checking the mail or post. I’m not referring to the typical U.S. residence mailbox, situated right outside most front doors, but the mailbox you rent on a monthly or yearly basis at the post office. I still remember distinctive experiences, sights, smells and sounds of many post offices in places I lived in Kenya and Tanzania as a child, and in South Africa as an adult.
For instance, when we lived in Thohoyandou (= “head of the elephant”), Venda, South Africa, our post box was a ten minute drive up the hill to a mostly white suburb called Sibasa. The reason I reference “white suburb” is that my family’s experiences in Venda included both “apartheid South Africa,” as well as a free Nelson Mandela, yet pre-1994 constitutional democratic South Africa. Thohoyandou was a mostly “black” town in Venda.
Immediately adjacent to the Sibasa post office was an OK Bazaar (grocer) and a PEP store (comparable to a Dollar Tree in the U.S.). In deep, traditional Venda culture, when a young girl or a woman greets a man, especially an elderly man, she shows formal respect by at minimum kneeling on her knees, averting her eyes and head away from direct eye contact with the man, positioning both hands together and with them outstretched and curled upward “losha(ing)” (greeting) with the Venda feminine greeting “Aaah.”
The man is expected to cup his hands together, perhaps, even, softly clap them repeatedly (if you’ve seen the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, the bumbling scientist, Marius Weyers demonstrates this when greeting the Bushman Xixo or his given name Nǃxau ǂToma), and with them on the outside of his right thigh, respond with “Ndaa.”
One day as I exited the Sibasa post office, a young girl in bright and beautiful Venda traditional dress and I encountered each other face-to-face on the sidewalk. Each time we tried to sidestep and get out-of-the-way of the other, we simply kept moving in the same direction and impeding each other’s forward momentum. I won’t forget what occurred as we both simultaneously saw the humor in our respective and awkward positions. I simply smiled and greeted her in Tshivenda. She, on the other hand, immediately prostrated herself full-length on the red clay-dirtied and people congested sidewalk, and extended to me the highest and most respectful of Venda greetings.
Yes, one could read into her “respectful display” a racialized political context, from which she merely acted out of abject fear of a white man. On the other hand, I’ve chosen to remember it as a memory snapshot of how a young Venda girl chose to acknowledge and respect me, a stranger (the “wow effect”). I wish I could inform this young girl today, what an impression she made on this “mutshena” or “mukhuwa” (white or white person).
As a transition story from post office to coarse cultural language memory is a post office and coarse language memory I have from my childhood years in Kisumu, Kenya (the same place I reference in my blog “Fly fishing for sheep and slingshotting for ‘ndeges.'”
A daily family ritual, as it were, was to drive downtown to the post office and check the mail. My favorite “check time” was evening after dinner – in the absence of TV, the drive to town served as a surrogate. I recall how my five siblings and I competed for who got to check the mail, much as we also competed for who got to have their piece of pie in the pie pan, instead of a dessert plate, because then it meant you might have a few extra crushed graham cracker crumbs or sweet pie filling residue.
Lest you mock the importance we placed on the mail event, and its lasting place in my memory hard drive, is the fact that this occurred prior to the age of internet and email, and therefore mail was our primary means of news and “goodies.” By goodies I mean American food care packages from family in Texas, or even a letter from my aunt, who used to send me envelopes stuffed with stamps for my stamp collection from places all over the world that she collected from work. Or as I’m told by my parents, the first and only letter written by my dad’s dad, who worked for decades at an agriculture and feed store, and wrote to inform me – an aspiring fourth or fifth-grade millionaire chicken farmer (I sold my broiler chickens to my parents) – the prices of chicks, feed, and poultry supplies, from which I then devised my get-super rich-schemes.
On one particular night time mail run, I recall sitting in the front across from my dad, and as we neared and rounded one of Kisumu’s many traffic roundabouts, belting out for all the car’s occupants to hear Neil Diamond’s “High Rolling Man,” specifically the refrain “Hot damn, hot damn, hot damn, you know that he could.”
My parents, well, especially my mom, but on this occasion my dad, too, clear their throats when they’re undergoing and experiencing uncomfortable situations (an example of my mom’s quick onset of throat obstruction was at a viewing of the movie In Her Shoes, which my wife and I watched together with my parents at Bedfordview Mall, South Africa. My mom’s throat clearing occurred during Cameron Diaz’s toilet stall sex scene). By the way, in case you’re wondering, yes, despite any ribbing of my parents I’m very grateful to them for the examples they were and continue to be. They will celebrate sixty years of marriage in 2013.
When I started belting out loud the refrain to “High Rolling Man” my dad first cleared his throat, then proceeded with eyes averted straight ahead, to say something to the effect, “Uh, um, son, do you know what you’re singing?” It says something as to the Puritan-like sensibilities I grew up with, as well as to the time period of my childhood, but I honestly was naive to the possible inappropriateness of the words I was singing. I don’t remember us laughing about it then, nor was I punished, but it’s humorous to think back upon now. Especially in light of the following two “swearing stories” that occurred in South Africa years later.
During postgraduate studies my mentor and primary instructor was a South African, but of Scandinavian descent. He could regale people with stories, both historical, as well as with a combination of “creative thought” and energy. Of the latter, possibly, he frequently told students that the Zulus had to create words to fit mostly British sport and culture. For instance, when soccer arrived on the scene, they simply called it “e-football,” and when cricket arrived, “e-cricket.” Golf was a particular problem since few if any non-whites played the sport. What the Zulus consistently heard white players saying during rounds of golf was “dammit.” So, according to my professor, golf came to be referred to by Zulus by the “Zulu word” “e-dammit.”
When my family and I moved to Johannesburg in 2003 we, like the majority of South Africans, urban and rural, rich and even poor, employed a part-time outside yard worker. “Eddie” was from Tzaneen, a city in the north-eastern part of the country. He spoke Pedi (northern Sotho) and little English. I spoke mediocre Venda, but not Pedi. Due to rampant crime, my wife insisted we get a few dogs. We found a few “township dogs” (mixed breed) on the outskirts of Soshanguve township, situated 25 kms north of Pretoria. Both dogs were less than one year old, and despite our efforts to prevent them, they chewed up everything, including a large dog bed made from sisal, which was advertised as “dog chew resistant”! Hah, I have pictures to prove the fallacy of that marketing assertion.
One morning I went outside to water the flower bed and could not find the attachments for our water hose. Eventually I asked Eddie if he knew where they were. His face told me “yes, ” but now the difficulty was telling me where or what happened to them. I do not presume to know whether what I am about to tell you is a culturally and socially accepted expression among all South Africans or not, but I can tell you it is very common, nor is it looked aghast at, as it would be, and is, among conservative and “Christian” American. Eddie spoke hesitantly and communicated this short and very clear message: “dogs . . . fucked up.”
You see, in South Africa “f#@ked up” is an expression that unambiguously communicates that something or someone is “beyond repair.” So Eddie was telling me that our dogs, who were capable of destroying even a purported to be indestructible dog bed, were the culprits responsible for destroying my water hose attachments.
About a year later, I was advocating for a group of young women, who were part of a HIV/AIDS home-based caregiver support group, started by a retired Zulu school teacher, Thokozile, or simply “Thoko,” as a service to her community of Emdeni, Soweto. These ladies were remarkable in their compassionate care and commitment to help people and families infected and affected by HIV/AIDS for little financial remuneration. One day a year or so after working with them, I received a call from Thoko. Her voice didn’t sound itself, but at the same time I was not immediately concerned or alarmed. I answered the phone “Hello?” She replied, “Scott?” I said, “Thoko, is that you? How are you?” She answered, “Oh, Scott, I’m f#@cked up.” I had never heard that expression used by persons referring to themselves before, and so did not immediately clue in to its implied severity. Sadly, Thoko passed away before that week ended. She was telling me, in effect, “Scott, I’m beyond repair. Goodbye.”
I end this blog with two thoughts. Why is it that many North Americans, in particular, especially many among my former community of meaning – “Christian America” – still chafe so painfully under the discomfort of swear words, when many to most of them frequently or regularly use slang or “Christian cursing” themselves (e.g., effin’, dang, frickin, darnit, gosh dangit, dadgummit, heck, shoot, shitzu, fudge, etc.)? And, why do sensibilities about coarse language loom so disproportionately large compared to far more serious “real sensibility” issues like child and wife abuse, hunger and homelessness, child trafficking, racial bigotry, ad infinitum?