Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …
Much like America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, South Africa today is the recipient of a great wave of humanity from much of the rest of the continent. In Johannesburg or Cape Town there are car guards, waiters and bellhops who come from the Congo, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Rwanda or Burundi. There are shopkeepers from Somalia and Ethiopia.
But my favourites are the crafters from Zimbabwe, Malawi or Mozambique who make animals, cars, mobiles and more from wire and coloured beads. You’ll see them sitting under trees at traffic intersections or informal markets making their wares with the simplest of tools, usually just pliers, and yet the quality of the craftsmanship is, when you take a close look, truly astonishing.
I love to buy the “new seasonal ranges” when they come out – whales, sharks, World War Two airplanes and indigenous flowers of which I now have a bulging vase. And I love to talk to them, the conversation usually going somewhere like this:
“Where are you from?”
“Yes, but where about in Malawi?”
“I come from a small place called Nkata Bay.”
“Ah, Nkata Bay, I love that place …”
And their face lights up. “You know Nkata Bay?”
And then I regale them with all the places I have been in Malawi, or Zimbabwe, or just about any other country they might come from. If they are from francophone Africa we have a little chat in French and I try to make them feel more welcome than otherwise they might as people of the shadows of society in South Africa.
But I love this diaspora that brings us those, who as my funny mother used to say, “had the get up and go to get up and leave” the places from which they came. Places typically beset by all the ills of the continent – war, famine, pestilence and more. If they had money they would take public transport, if not they walked, often several thousands of kilometres. The lucky ones come with family, the less lucky alone, all to make new lives.
They might struggle, but their children will get a decent education and a better place, and by and by they enrich our society and culture much as how it happened in the United States. When you travel in South Africa you should take the time to engage with them, and maybe buy a flower. Racontours has commissioned one crafter, Dube, or the zebra of Zimbabwe as I call him, to make red disa flowers (a beautiful ground orchid) – the provincial flower of the Western Cape – as small gifts for our guests.