During my freshman year of at West Virginia University I began to get a strong sense of restlessness and un-fulfillment. At the time I was reading a novel called Henderson and the Rain King. A story written by Saul Bellow of a spiritual journey of a rich middle-aged man who feels unfulfilled with his life and travels to Africa to discover his true identity . In the novel Henderson asks if every man has his Africa? This question stuck with me and instead of taking it figuratively, like it was meant to be, I went to my student exchange office and signed up to study abroad in South Africa.
After working all summer to pay for the trip I arrived at Stellenbosch University. I immediately fell in love with the country and the atmosphere. The nature, the people, and the parties were all so different to me that I was thriving off the travel euphoria. But, this soon began to subside after the first month. I began to get into the day-to-day school routine and at the same time the two worlds of Africa began to become apparent to me.
I realized that I was only seeing one side of the country’s reality. The side I was seeing, I call the white side, because it sums up the majority of those that live in it, but I don’t necessarily mean race when I say that. It means more the worldly rich who, although they have their own unique cultures like the Afrikaaners or the British that I learned to love especially the Braii, are more closely reflections of the Western and European world that I was trying to escape. Nearby Stellenbosch, there is a township that has a largely poor black community.
A significant amount of crime comes from these areas as would be expected when people who live in shacks are living directly next to communities that have a substantial amount of wealth compared to their neighbors. This is one obvious remnant of the Apartheid era. As a result, students avoid communication with these people and a large social separation is obvious between the two. I was driven to breach this barrier, because for me these communities held the true African secret that I was not seeing in the community I associated with.
They were disconnected from the world allowing for many tribal customs, languages, and ideas to survive in their culture. I first tried to bridge this gape by working in a township school for a development class. I began hanging out at the local dive bars that were seen as “bergie” hangouts or homeless hangouts. In trying do so, I experienced more interaction with the “other-side” of South Africa than most exchange students ever attempt, but my true African revelation didn’t come until a cross-country road trip towards the end of my exchange.
A few friends of mine decided to rent a car, that seemed like it was built for two dwarfs let alone four boys, and started driving towards the Eastern part of the country. We left without an actual set plan or direction which is seen as a bad idea in a country that has road signs warning of high carjacking areas, but we believed we had been there long enough to have some sense of street smarts and were driven by the idea of T.I.A. or This Is Africa a.k.a. whatever happens…happens.
Our first stop was at a small whaling village near Betty’s Bay. We were staying at a local friend’s beach house that was tucked in between a large green mountain and sat right along the shore in a small seaside community of about one-hundred. We decided to elongate our stay there after we had almost crashed multiple times when we found out our friend from Texas, who was the only one with a South African drivers license, could not distinguish left side of the road from the right being that the roads are opposite of the U.S.
We spent a few days there smoking hookah and drinking rum and coke while laying on the beach with friends. On the third day I woke up to baboons trying to punch their way through the roof of the house and decided it was time to venture on. We moved on to a hostel called Buffalo Bay Backpackers which I recommend to anyone who is looking for the most chill place in the world to stay. The best part was laying on the beach while cooking a lamb on the braii as the sun set.
Up to this point we hadn’t challenged ourselves much and we felt we were stuck in the typical backpacker journey of South Africa. We wanted to dig deeper into the corners of the country. Our friend had mentioned he went on a tour with forty other people to a Rastafarian community inside a township that was a few hours from the hostel.
He warned us that the surrounding township was quite sketchy, but the Rastafarian community was quite worth the risk. One must first understand that in the upper-class communities that we associated with, you are constantly told horror stories of the townships. You are told, many times, that they are violent people and townships are unsafe for outsiders. This may be true to an extent, but I strongly believe from experience that even though townships may be dangerous the stories do not reflect the majority of the people in any way. That being said, we traveled towards the “House of Judah” located inside the township of Knysna.
At first we were tentative of the local community. Most tourist that enter into the community are on guided tours in large groups that have a small likelihood of being mugged, but we were four white foreigners. At first we were unable to find the Rastafarian community. The overall township was large and the Rastafarian community was only a small part of it. Poverty was widespread in the area, but the people seemed to be amused by four lost foreigners driving through their streets.
A few people began to follow our car making us somewhat nervous, but overall the people seemed friendly. In the distance we began to see the multi-colored flags of the Rasta community. It laid on-top of a hill that overlooked the township and a green wooded valley blanketed by fog that produced a strong sensation that I was finally in Africa.
We left our car under the watch of a man we believed was part of the Rasta community. We were led to a house of a man that we assumed was an elder of some importance. Three men stood around him dressed in full Rastafarian regalia like Africa pins, colorful cloaks, and dread locked hair. We sat in plastic chairs or in the dirt outside of this man’s home, and listened to him explain Rastafarianism.
I couldn’t entirely understand everything he was saying, do to his deep accent, but I began to comprehend that this man was a legit community man. He was very adamant on growing his community and helping the young find a path away from the drugs and violence of the surrounding community. He broke down their lifestyle that was so purely self-reliant upon nature that it would have put any American hippy to shame. We were shown the garden which consisted of fruits and vegetables that they used to feed the community, and a large crop of Marijuana that caught our attention quite quickly.
I am not completely sure of the Marijuana laws in South Africa, but it would have had the DEA arriving in helicopters if it had been in the U.S. (I hope this does not run them into any trouble) We were brought into the church which was a stunning dirt floored building full of African drums and religious symbols. I could strongly sense the spiritualism attached to this place. I began to become overwhelmed with a sense of peacefulness and serenity that is now hard to explain. There was sincerity and authenticity in this dirt floored church that I had never felt in a church back home. It was directly connected to nature and, in a way, God in whatever form you may believe. That is when things became even more enthralling.
Our Rasta guide took a pipe from his pocket and insisted for us to smoke. Tentative, I began to decline his offer. I had hardly smoked Marijuana before and I particularly did not want to in that situation. He insisted that “Ganja” was not a drug as we saw it, but a way to meditate and prayer. Understanding its significance I decided that this new way of seeing is what I came for, and we sat down on the dirt floor of the church and passed the pipe. Feeling like I had been put into a new brain, we exited the church and began to walk up a grassy field to another building that sat atop a hill.
This is when things began to become abnormal. Music began to float out of the building. It was a mix of soft reggae and African dance music. As we got closer to the building we were brought passed a huge painting of Bob Marley. While standing there dumbfounded, the guide pointed towards the wall and explained how he is a prophet to Rastafarian. Inside the building a band of Rastafarians played music that was a compilation of an electric guitar, bass, to a whole variety of drums that were made out of animal skins and gourds.
We sat in the rustic wooden building and drifted into the music. It was perplexing that I had to travel to a place, that I was afraid to go, to feel safer than I had on my whole trip. The whole situation was quite enthralling and was added to by the fact that we were the only outsiders in the community at the time. We were lost in it all, so much that when I looked out the window I realized that the sun was setting. Paranoia quickly overwhelmed me . We had to catch a bus that night to go back to Stellenbosch and we were in a township after dark and we had no clue which road led out.
I quickly grabbed my friends and thanked the Rastafarians for letting us tour their community. We ran down to our car, where the man we left it with was still guarding it. We thanked him and gave him a tip and began driving. By this point the sun had set and we were still lost. We were one of the few cars and probably the only people not from the township. But, without incident we made out of the township, caught our bus, and made it home safe and sound.
Overall, my journey did not completely fulfill my spiritual change on an African adventure as compared to Henderson in Henderson the Rain King, but at least for a short few hours I experienced the spirit of Africa and felt I was part of it. I would recommend to anyone to go visit the House of Judah community located in the Knysna township. It is safer than you will be told and it is a rare experience that will make your trip to South Africa. Remember to avoid the tourist trap and go off the beaten path.