His voice takes on the demonstrative cadence—even if it’s these things too—more than recollection, different from a live statement of thoughts, more than sharing information. The events of the uprising in 1976 where the boy was shot and then more were, the trembling to roiling in protest of Afrikaans being mandated for school instruction, without doubt a turning point in a recent history with more than a few angles. Our taxi driver’s voice has a pride, pride of Soweto as the place but also the pride of being able to tell the tale to us, anchored in factual details but with the welcome animate emotion of myth. It’s a story that we will hear again in a few hours from a second driver, and then from a 20-something neighborhood guide during our visit to the township. That third time it will contain more bravado and stomp: that Soweto is and has been the source of so much that leads culture, ideas and art and music and fashion, and it’s fashionable to live there. Thomas has us call him that so we won’t mangle his actual name, all grin and mirrored specs and earrings.
There’s a dirt field with trash, a shack with a sign that improbably says “hair salon,” a lane with a sewage trench crossed gingerly, ten dozen high fives and thumbs up from little kids at least one of whom will pluck at my arm hairs to check their reality as I’m riding him on the top tube, there’s a stereo playing with a barbecue in a front yard on a block of houses that remind me of maybe ones on an economically trounced but tranquil street in Miami or Southern California, there’s a hill with rust bent wire fencing, a series of brick buildings girls’ school, there’s Nelson Mandela’s house and then Desmond Tutu’s around the corner, a neighborhood density of Nobel Peace laureates unrivaled. We drink local brew from a clay pot while kneeling, 2% alcohol so leaving us liters away from danger but very near to jolly, a man stops his car to thank us for visiting, older women waking home all in green from a religious service beaming hellos.
We are collecting and distributing (the latter inadequate) kindnesses as we pedal through. Tomorrow at the wrenching apartheid museum we’ll be emptied and filled, and I’ll think about how the stories, transmuted through heartbeats, really did get the essence.
These first hours in South Africa under a pearl winter sun’s warmth.