Walking barefoot on the land of Africa

There and then: Places and moments that shaped my here and now – Part I of III

The Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa, 2014

I was surrounded by mountains, layers and layers of mountains. I heard butterflies flapping their wings, and birds singing from far, far away.

Staring at the Amphitheatre of the Northern Drakensberg, I took my shoes off, and slowly, I put my feet onto the wild grass. My feet could finally feel it – the land of Africa; a mystery to the rest of the world, and the very origin of the human species.

I recalled my awkward greetings with the first South Africans I had ever met. A few years ago, on a day trip out of Dublin, I said to a young couple who had just told me Africa was where they came from: “But you are not black?” The conversation didn’t last long.

That was the only human contact I had with Africa until I met Jenna in Hong Kong. On a hot summer’s morning, I rushed into the Human Resources Office at the City University, and sitting there on the black leather sofa was Jenna, who was going to start her teaching job with me on the very same day.

“Did you say that you work for the English Department?” She smiled, and politely reached out her hand to me.

“Jenna Collett, I work for the English Department too. Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you.” I smiled back, and we had a firm handshake.

“I like your shoes.”

“Thank you.”

That was the most professional moment between us. One day later, Jenna jumped into our shared office and shouted excitedly to me: “I saw some grass on my way to work, real grass of about one square meter, and I just wanted to take off my shoes and jump onto it for a minute!”

Jenna became my teacher about everything in Africa. With her stories, I started to see Africa as a lively rainbow country, not a cold name with unfamiliar history. She was the person who educated me about the country where 11 official languages are used. She was the person who taught me the ups and downs of African history and the pains people had to suffer over the past few decades. She was the person who told me about the funky little backpacker place hidden in the mountains where I found myself now, with a thousand people sleeping in tents outside of my hostel room for a music festival.

The night before, I had dinner with Abey Abraham, one of my roommates at the backpackers, the driver of a mobile ATM machine, who drove a car full of cash around so people could withdraw money. I was amazed by his stories of having two kids with one wife and two more children with his two mistresses. I also met a couple who had retired from their normal jobs to run a farm nearby, who were complaining about people from Lesotho stealing their sheep. An old man told me that he was in charge of the security for the music festival but all he did was drink a lot of beer. I just felt that a whole different world opened up to me.

Two days later, I would meet Jenna again – not in Hong Kong, but in Cape Town – and together we would witness the Indian Ocean meet the Atlantic Ocean. I would meet my supervisor at the University of Cape Town, and I would make the most adventurous decision in my life: to come and study in South Africa for a PhD in Anthropology.

Because, although my shoes are all beautiful-looking, I prefer walking barefoot in the wild grass.

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