The Tswana Man


My life had become quite ordinary. I was busy driving kids to school, getting my radio shows ready, cooking and cleaning,    ( well, not so much of the latter) and feeling very bored and quite lonely as a single mum.

I was on my own in this little country of Ireland. I had my friends, not too many, but good ones. My radio programme The New Rebels kept me going. It was always a pleasure to interview expats and to get to know their stories,their music, their culture.

I was sure that this was my life now, that of a single mum in a foreign country with children who don’t speak their mother tongue, but are remarkably more continental than their peers.

A woman who works nearly full time in the voluntary sector, I had good memories of a past life and enjoyed my time with my friends. But something was missing.

Then I met The Tswana Man, and everything changed.

We met during a rally, a commemoration of the victims of the Biafran war. I was there, the only white woman in a group of around 100 Igbos and their friends from other African countries. I went because I had read Chimamande Ngosi Adichie‘s book, Half of a Yellow Sun,  because I remembered the images of starving children with big bellies of Biafra, and I wanted to be part of the commemmoration.

I didn’t realise a March through the city was planned, but as it happened, I walked along, I sang along with songs for Biafra and at the city hall I was given a megaphone and forced to make a speech. It was one of those events that will forever be etched in my mind as a funny, remarkable day, the day I met The Tswana Man.

He was walking next to me and started a conversation, asking me why I was there. I told him about my radio programme and how I interviewed the organiser of this event,Uche Chukwu, and then I asked him where he was from. Pretoria in South Africa he said. He pronounced South Africa with such pride, I was stunned. Being patriotic is alien to Belgians, especially the Flemish ones, like me, and it always makes me slightly jealous to see people who can be proud of their country, the Irish are like that, and now there was this proud South African next to me. I was intrigued.

One thing I now realise is that black South Africans have no idea about how much we were concerned about them here in Europe, during apartheid. They don’t realise how we read the books, watched the movies and listened to the news about the atrocious system of apartheid, boycotted the apartheid economy, wore ‘free Nelson Mandela’ t-shirts, marched for Mandela, etc..

So it must have been quite astonishing to this man from Pretoria how I suddenly forgot that I was actually in a march for the restoration of Biafra and just asked questions about South Africa..

I agreed to interview him and did that a few weeks after the March. Normally my interviews take 15 to 20 minutes, this one took 45 minutes, and then I switched off the microphone and we talked an hour more.

We became good friends that day. He came to my house to meet my son who was getting ready to start his mphil in African studies, he stayed over that night and again we talked till the late hours.

He came back to introduce us to pap, the maize meal staple of South African food, with chicken, he introduced my daughter to African cooking ( although I had to object to the amount of Salt used) and of course we talked and talked and talked.

I could not believe Tswana Man can speak 9 languages, me speaking 3 fluently and 2 more OK-ish  suddenly seemd very average. I was surprised and delighted to learn that most South African blacks speak Afrikaans, his own mother tongue,. which is like the early Dutch and so very close to my own  language.( the media and movie industry always made us believe that Afrikaans was the language of the Boers only) I was introduced to South African music from Brenda Fassie to Zahara and Zonke, and I fell in love with the voice and guitar skills of Oliver Mtukudzi, the Zimbabwean who had to flee to South Africa after insulting Mugabe in one of his songs. My life had taken a turn. I had met my best friend.

We spend a lot of time together, he moved closer by, we often go for walks on the beach,I teach him French, he teaches me Afrikaans and a bit of Tswana,  I have shown him around beautiful West Cork and am still amazed at how much he loves the sea, the rain and the wind in his face.

And I have learned so much about African culture and how us Europeans should start eating some humble pie and learn from the people from the continent we so shamelessly robbed of its resources, and where we tried to kill off the rich culture by replacing it with our own..

South Africans are a breed apart of course. The years of struggle and the character of the Rainbow Nation makes them very outspoken and rightly arrogant when needed.

You will not utter any racist comment, stare or sneer at my friend, he will go straight to you and put you in your place.

He taught me some of his philosophy of reconciliation and forgiveness, which can be applied to politics but also to our own private lives. I learned so much about African families, how everyone  is a brother or sister, an uncle or aunt, a mum or a dad. I have learned about the African vibe, and I have witnessed some of it : in the presence of Africans there is always laughter. even in very difficult circumstances Africans laugh, they dance, they sing.

My daughter and I now always play Zahara on the way to school, and we sing happily along, in the Xhosa language, we dance to Brenda Fassie and  South African House.

My friend the Tswana Man will go back to his beloved Pretoria in three years time, once he’s finsihed his second degree, for which he came to Ireland. He loves politics and I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets in government . His passion for and his knowledge of politics and South African history never seezes to amaze me . I can see him talk his way all to the top.

The day he leaves I will go back to my old life,I will miss him dearly, but I will be very proud and grateful that this Tswana man has been a very short but a very beautiful part of my life, and that he made my very insignificant life that much richer.

Ke a leboga rra!  Dankie,Tswana man!

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