Sawubona! Finding Family in Johannesburg

During our meetings in the months leading up to our departure, Sandra, Judith and I decided to identify our three ‘must-see’ places in South Africa. Soweto was on each of our lists.

An abbreviation of South Western Townships, Soweto, is home to about 2 million people. It is recognized internationally as the seat of the Apartheid resistance, and for us, women of African descent, it holds a strong emotional charge. No visit to Johannesburg would have been complete without a trip to Soweto. In fact, if all we got to see was Soweto, we would have been happy. Anything more would be, as we say in Jamaican parlance, brawta, a treat.

We arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, on the last Thursday night in August after a lovely flight via Amsterdam on KLM. KLM’s flight attendants were extremely friendly and attentive, the meals delicious and so attractively presented, I almost didn’t want to damage the package by opening it. (Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, where we had a 2-hour layover and KLM’s service deserve separate posts.)

Thope and Hope, our new friends, were waiting to meet us at Johannesburg’s Oliver R. Tambo International Airport. Thope‘s a friend of my new friend, Montrealer and South African jazz singer, Lorraine Klaasen, and Hope is Thope’s friend and co-owner of Shepherds Court,the guest house where we were booked to stay.

We had met Lorraine earlier in the year, told her about our trip and asked her to recommend places for us to see. When I told her that we didn’t know a soul in South Africa, without hesitation, she whipped out her Blackberry and gave us the contact information of several of her friends and relatives in Johannesburg. We were deeply touched by her generosity.

Sawubona, Finding Family in Johannesburg
Sandra, Marcia, Lorraine Klaasen and Judith

A day or so after, I emailed Thope. Not only did she write back right away, but she had suggestions for a place to stay and a complete itinerary. We didn’t even have to think twice – our accommodation in Johannesburg was decided.

Finally, we were there in Johannesburg being greeted by Thope and Hope. By the time we loaded our suitcases – all 6 pieces – into Hope’s jeep for the 30-minute ride to Shepherds Court, it was as if we had reconnected with friends and picked up the thread of an old conversation. The jet lag that I thought would’ve hit us never materialized and we chatted and laughed about friendships, men, and life in general until after 2 a.m., helped, no doubt by the four (or was it five?) bottles of Tall Horse, one of the local wines that we polished off.

For three people who started out not knowing anyone in South Africa, we felt embraced. And thinking now about the Zulu greeting Sawubona (literally “I see you”) that we learned, and its response Ngikhona (“I am here”), it makes sense that we were received so warmly. You see, it is considered offensive to see someone, even someone you don’t know, and not greet them properly. It would be as if they were not important enough to be acknowledged; that they didn’t count in your eyes.

And we felt counted because in this city of almost 8 million, we not only found friends, we found family.

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