As I embark upon the last leg of what has turned into an eighteen month tour, I realize I’ve only shared scraps of what I’ve experienced this past year. During the big moments I feel inspired to share each story in total detail, but by the time I settle down I’m either too exhausted or busy to type it all out. I suppose that’s why I’m a songwriter instead of a blogger. My songs are not linear play-by-play accounts of what I experience on any given day. Often they’re composite sketches of experiences I’ve had some time to reflect upon as I try to make sense of the big picture. Well, whoopty-frickin’-doo. Heh. A lot of memories get lost in that process. As much as we believe we’ll never forget the precious stuff, time fades the brain. Maybe that’s why our culture has become so picture-crazed. Photos help transport us to specific moments and they help us remember the sights, sounds, scents, etc… I should take more of them, but they never really tell the full story.
As many of you know, I was invited to South Africa in 2011 to partake in a program that was meant to assist HIV+ orphans receive treatment. That trip didn’t turn out to be anything like I thought it would be, and I’ve never been able to properly explain what I witnessed during that period, but I made a strong connection to one particular group of kids. I’ve been fortunate enough to stay in touch with them over time with the great help of my Durban friends, Ewok & Karen. I felt ill-equipped to take on the macro problems (some of which I address in the “Water Into Wine” song,) but Ewok has been instrumental in helping me focus on accomplishing smaller goals — many of which were tackled through the “Ubuntu” fundraiser that I organized once I returned home. With the generosity of your donations, we were able to fix the roof of the kids’ home, purchase bunk beds so they didn’t all have to share the same bed, and we were able to get them things like clothes, school supplies, and food with the remainder of the funds.
When I shared my goodbyes with the kids that first time around, I promised them that I’d return. “Probably next year,” I said. Once the van drove them away, I stepped behind a building to shield myself from the sight of others. Had a little breakdown that day. Had a fair share of breakdowns ever since. I’ve been haunted by many things I witnessed during that first trip, and, yeah — maybe all of this is coming across as melodramatic. Well, la-di-frickin’-da. Heh. I need to keep writing before it all goes away. For now I’ll spare you a bunch of details and skip forward to 2015…
The only break in my tour schedule was during August, so I purchased a flight to South Africa even though I had been unable to lock down a single show in the past 3 years. Thanks to the help of some quick-acting promoters I was able to get gigs in Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town. The main purpose of my trip, however, was to reunite with the kids and make good on an old promise. When I was finally able to visit them at their home, it was clear that they tried to look as fancy as possible. Adorable, adorable, adorable. Hair all made up, faces all made up, clothes all crisp and freshly laundered. It was like a little fashion show. I’m not sure I looked any different than I did four years prior, and it’s possible I appeared a bit disheveled after all the traveling I had done. They didn’t hold it against me.
Ntokozo, the first of the kids who I made a special connection to in 2011, is 15 years old now and beautiful as ever. When I asked what she’s interested in doing once she’s out of school, she said that she wants to be a singer and an actress. “I’m not shy,” she proclaimed. This is true. I saw her own the stage during a theater performance the first time I visited Durban. When I asked her what songs she likes to sing she didn’t answer. When I asked again, she turned her head away from me as tears streamed down her cheek. It was such a sudden change of mood from the cheerful vibe I’d been enjoying up until that moment. I became concerned that I was being invasive or insensitive somehow. When I asked her what was wrong she said, “I didn’t think I’d ever see you again.” Ah. Straight dagger to the heart. Trying to explain why it took so long for me to return wasn’t worth the excuses at that moment. It was nice to just hold her for a while as her siblings made fun of her for crying. Kids will be kids. I’m sure she’ll survive.
When I returned to see them the next day, I felt like it might be for the last time. Maybe so, maybe not. It’s obviously not the kind of thing that can be promised (though, I fear that I did.) Ewok and I discussed what types of stuff could be fixed in and around their home to make day-to-day life a bit more pleasurable. A bit more safe. The kids were more casual and comfortable overall on this day. There was a return to normalcy and silliness. We made fun of each other’s accents while attempting to speak in each other’s tongue. Their English remains to be a lot better than my Zulu will ever be, but they can’t make the round “R” sounds. I can’t make their click/pop sounds. It’s always a fun exercise for cheap laughs.
When it was time for us to say our final goodbyes, the kids decided to tag their names on my arm. Ntokozo wrote her full name, pointing out her surname, and then she told me when her birthday was. Because I keep missing it for some reason. Zakheni, the older brother, was too cool and reserved to interact much, but that couldn’t save him from a departing hug from “Big Show.” His friends pointed and laughed. I’m sure he’ll survive. Zinhle, one of the elder sisters, put lipstick on me without warning. I didn’t fight it. I’ll survive.
Clearly, it was my turn to be fancy.