Christie Shary

Traveler's Tales - Thanksgiving Remembered

Thanksgiving Remembered

I hurried home from writing group that night, anxious to watch a special on CNN titled "Oprah's Hope." It featured a land and its people that Tom and I have come to love-South Africa. The program introduced the new school for bright, impoverished girls that Oprah has built in Gauteng Province, South Africa, a few hours from Johannesburg. It told of the hope and education that Oprah has given to these young girls at The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy.

We, too, visited Gauteng Province several years ago. It was Thanksgiving weekend. Here we spent several days, driving through the sugarcane and eucalyptus groves, visiting its powdery white sand beaches and sea turtle reserves, and the incredible green-clad Drakensburg mountains. But we also witnessed the dire poverty and suffering of its people, and it made us feel so sad. Needless to say, we stocked up on a bunch of wooden souvenirs that villagers had carved and sold all along the roadside and we shared the two box lunches that the hotel had prepared for our journey with a group of women and children who were weaving grass mats beside the road. Never had we seen such a bright smile on a young boy's face as he clutched at the can of orange soda from our lunch box. We only wished that we had had a dozen more. We did end up with a rug that we could never carry back home, but decided it would be a nice gift for one of our South African friends.

Then we headed back to Johannesburg where we would spend Thanksgiving day.

I have to admit that I was not very happy about being away from home and family on Thanksgiving. But we were living in London and, for the first time in three years, we would not be spending our favorite American holiday there with friends and our niece and her husband. Instead we would celebrate Thanksgiving about as far away from America as one could get.

Just as I was complaining one more time, Tom said: "I think this will be a Thanksgiving we will always remember far above others."

I was later to admit that he was correct.

For early on Thanksgiving morning we arose from our down-covered bed at the five-star Palazzo Intercontinental Hotel in Johannesburg and breakfasted on fresh exotic African fruit, pastries, and cappuccino while we planned our day.

We had decided to hire a car and driver and go see the 'real' Johannesburg, far away from the leafy suburbs where we had been staying.

As we drove along, our black driver told us the history of South Africa and of the new future of its people, now free from the burden of apartheid, but still plagued with poverty, AIDS, and lack of good education.

"There are many hungry people in South Africa," he told us. "But they have such a spirit to survive. They want so much to learn."

Downtown Johannasburg was pretty much what we had expected-lots of tall run-down buildings with broken windows. They were filled with migrants and street people-garbage strewn everywhere. It was a city that was only a shell of the vibrant city it had once been, complete with shiny office towers, hotels, parks and the purple blooms of jacaranda trees.

We were not allowed outside the mini-van because the driver felt it would not be safe. Yet the lives of these people looked so hopeless as they stood on street corners and watched us drive by. But we felt the need to interact with them, as stupid as that may sound. We wanted to meet them, understand their dreams and needs.

Finally we persuaded him to stop at a small medicine shop-a Zulu witchcraft store, actually. It was filled with bones, skulls, powders and all kinds of magical potions to cure one's ills, and to provide miracles and such. We could certainly tell that many miracles were needed in this part of town.

But the man and woman inside were smiling and polite. They welcomed us to their shop and showed us their wares. We ended up with a powder to keep us well and happy. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take it out of Africa, but I really do think its spirit and those of the African people accompanied us back home. I know that we never forget them.

We told the driver that we wanted to visit with more South Africans so he suggested that we go to Soweto, the largest black township in the world, home to several million people.

We knew its name well and the role it played toward ending apartheid. We knew it was once home to Nelson Mandilla and Bishop Desmond Tutu. We had also been told by our white South African friends that it was a very dangerous place and to stay away from it-that they had never been there and would never visit Soweto.

But we decided to go anyway. We'd been around the globe a time or two and we had found during our travels that when we got out and really visited the locals in their villages and homes, that these experiences turned out to be our most cherished memories.

It was unbelievable how large a community Soweto was, stretching for mile after endless dirt mile. And we were really surprised how economically divided it was. There was a rather nice section where the likes of Winnie Mandella , Nelson's ex-wife, lived. Here the streets were actually paved though filled with potholes. Next to it was a section where the middle-class blacks lived. No, the houses were not large or fancy, but they were built out of cinderblocks and had floors and a roof.

And it was here that the Apartheid Museum had been built and where Nelson Mandilla and Bishop Desmond Tuto had once lived. In fact, here was the only street in the world where two Nobel Peace Prize winners had resided, right there in the middle of a South African ghetto!

Soon we pulled up in front of a simple wooden house-the former home of Nelson Mandilla. It was such an awesome and humbling experience to visit he and Winnie's first home, and where he had returned after twenty-some odd years in prison for trying to end apartheid. It was complete with his shoes still on the floor beside his bed, much of his early writings and photos, scattered across the small desk. His spirit was everywhere.

Next we moved on to the heart of Soweto, where the 'real' Africa resided, a huge area filled with plywood huts with tin roofs, cardboard shelters and such. It was almost overwhelming for us when we thought of the perfect Orange County, California perfection that we were used to living in. There were no swimming pools here, nor street lights or paved roads for that matter. They was no Starbucks or a Gelson's supermarket; only severe poverty as far as the eye could see.

"Let's get out and take a look around," our driver said, stopping on the rutted dirt road beside one village.

Tom and I looked at each other, nodded.

"Would you like to go and visit a family?"

"That would be great. We would be honored."

Soon a crowd of skinny barefoot children dressed in barely more than rags began following us. Their smiles were as big as the sun as they waved and chatted to us in Zulu, with a bit of English and Afrikan tossed in. Of course, we waved and smiled back.

"Please don't give them any money," our guide said. "We don't want them to become beggars. We want them to do something more with their lives."

"But we'd like to do something for the children of this village," we told him.

"I have an idea," he said. "But first let's visit Matheba and her family."

She was out sweeping the dirt courtyard with a twig broom, her hair tied in a printed bright yellow scarf. The area in front of her shack was surrounded by a rickety piece-meal wooden fence. Three young barefoot children scurried to hide behind her skirts as we approached.

We waved and smiled at them and they all smiled back. Matheba smiled, too, and invited us into her house. Inside the floor was also dirt, the plywood walls bare. A bed with a tattered blanket stood in the corner of the one-room shack. It was shared by the entire family. On the other side of the room was a stool with a rusted dishpan on top. There was no stove nor sink, nor running water, only a small charcoal hot-plate. There was not even electricity and certainly no sign of a furnace. I thought of our shiny big kitchen back home, complete with its dishwasher, built-in microwave, and Sub Zero side-by-side refrigerator.

As if the driver could read our minds, he said: "They don't have water inside their houses like you do, nor a bathroom either. They go to the pump down the lane to get their water and share an outhouse with thirty other families."

Both of us lowered our heads down in shame, to see a part of our human race living in such conditions. But despite it all, we noticed how happy Matheba and her children seemed, even though their father had recently died of AIDS.

"Sometimes they don't eat for several days," our guide told us, really making us feel bad. To think of little children going to bed hungry each night, was beyond our belief. In all our world travels, we had never seen 'really' hungry children. Even in the many Mexican villages that we visited while living there, the children seemed to have enough tortillias to eat, or in the villages we visited in Morocco and Egypt, there was always some rice. It was totally overwhelming.

I noticed Tom press some money into Matheba's hand as we departed and I smiled at him and mouthed 'thanks.'

The group of children was still waiting outside, but it had grown considerably.

"I thought of what you can do for them," our driver said. "As you can see, they are all hungry. They probably haven't eaten today, and maybe even yesterday. And there will be nothing in their bellies tonight. But they don't need sweets or cookies, they need something nourishing."

"Of course, what would they like?"

We walked a bit until we got to a little fruit market, actually only a shack, which had several buckets of apples, bananas and oranges, not at all of the "Gelson's supermarket variety that we were used to. But they would do just fine. There were no other options. So we bought out the entire store, which left a huge smile on the proprietor's shiny black face.

We could tell that the children were getting excited as they clamored more closely to us, sensing that we would share our abundance with them. Of course we would.

Our driver spoke to them in Zulu and suddenly they formed a big line that wrapped around several shanties, their small hands upheld in front of them, close to their chests. It was hard not to burst into tears, looking at all those little children with up-turned palms.

One by one they came up to us and we placed a piece of fruit in each one's hands. They accepted it like it was a pouch of golden nuggets, sharing the biggest smiles and nods of 'thank you.' But the fruit did not last very long as the group of children kept growing and growing as word got out of our visit. We did not have enough for all of them and it was heart-breaking. But such is the way of life in Africa-never enough for the masses-always so many in need.

We did manage to buy several hand-carved African masks on our way out, however. And for these we paid a ridiculous price, but it was all about helping the children on this very special Thanksgiving day. And to this day, as these small wood carvings adorn our house, they remind us of our special day in Soweto.

Yes, it was a Thanksgiving day to be long remembered. No, we didn't have a fancy turkey dinner with all the trimmings when we returned to the hotel, nor was our family gathered around us. But it was one of the most special and memorable Thanksgivings of our life. Tom was right. It is the one Thanksgiving that I remember with such clarity-a day when we were especially thankful for the many blessings and abundance that we have in our lives. We could only hope the same for these brave and loving Africans in their most beautiful of lands.

Oh, and by the way, thank you Oprah for doing so much to help these wonderful children. Please, keep up your generous and loving work! Your people need you.