/ 5 October 2018

​Learning to trust curiosity over fear

Milisuthando Bongela
Milisuthando Bongela (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy/ M&G)

Two days before, I had had lunch with my 77-year-old former English teacher. I try to see her every time I visit East London. Actually, she did not eat. All she ordered in the hours we spent together was a chocolate milkshake and a glass of water with a lot of lemon. “Is this how you stay young?” I joked.

She has a snow-white bob and I’ve never seen her in a skirt or a dress. I ordered breakfast and two black coffees, one after the other. Both times, our waitress placed the coffees in front of my teacher even though they were for me.

Something about our relationship confused her. The first time in happened, it did not seem accidental. I dragged the cup and saucer towards me while the waitress stood over us. The second time it happened, no words were needed to correct this well-exercised South Africanism, but my teacher kind of inaudibly began to utter the words “But I didn’t order it” and, upon this utterance, the waitress placed the coffee in front of me, as if she was waiting for a command.

There was no malicious intent in her eyes. She did, and she did not mean it. I read the situation with interest rather than judgement. I’ve become good at not being offended and instead read small encounters like this as I would a book.

This moment created an opportunity for my teacher to say, much later on in the conversation: “When a young black boy walks past me in the street, I’m sure he thinks of me as an old white woman and of course to him I was involved in apartheid. What he doesn’t know is that I am so interested in getting to know him and him me.”

What a funny sight it would be to see power dynamics neutralised by something as ordinary as friendship and a mutual knowledge of and interest in each other.

Two days later, when a white boy of about 10 sat next to me on the plane going back to Johannesburg, this familiar atmosphere became apparent — on my part at least. I felt a prohibited desire to know and be known. White boys usually ignore people like me, so I readied myself to close up by looking out the window at the dull scenery of the old Ben Schoeman Airport. I’m not one to start conversations on flights but I get on really well with children in that age group, so it was strange and a little sad to have to actively anticipate emotional withdrawal because of our dynamics: I am a black woman in her 30s and he is a white child from a small town. I am not his caregiver, so there is little else that could connect us. My South African mind is certain.

He was in the middle, an unaccompanied minor, and on the aisle seat next to him was another black woman in her 30s.

“Whew, I’m so nervous,” he whispered, not speaking to anybody in particular.I took a deep breath and turned my head towards him after about a minute.“Is it your first time flying”? I asked. “No, it’s my second, but I’m not used to it yet,” he replied.

He was more excited than scared. On his left wrist he wore the Samsung equivalent of the iWatch and on it his heart rate was 100. “My heart is beating really fast,” he said.

I studied his face and the earnest look of it began to pull my guard down. He kept leaning into my aura while looking out the window at the dull scenery, which to him was to be mined for conversation.

“Wow, the people who live here must be so tired of the noise,” he said about the houses that are separated from the vast runway by a “stop-nonsense” stone wall.

“What’s that?” he asked. We studied the wings of the plane and I explained to him what little I understood about aerodynamics.

He asked another question and another question and I found myself having more answers as the melting of expectation helped the real me emerge.

He told me his sister was on the same flight, sitting across from us on the other side of the aisle. “Why didn’t they put you guys together?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders and looked outside. We were taking off.

He showed me his heart rate again; 85. “Whoeee, it’s lower,” he said with a smile. As the plane turned towards Gauteng, I showed him the coastline. “Look at the sea.”Later. “Look at the crop circles.”“Look at the tiny river.”

But as soon as we were well into the air, I fixed my gaze out the window, nervous that he would have more questions and that I would have to extend myself more to this kid, whom I very much liked. I would have to accept the treatment he was giving me before looking at the historical implications of this interaction. How much trust had been lost between my people and his people. I didn’t say anything else to him but nudged him when he could play on his phone when the seat belt signs were switched off. He had wondered when that would happen.

An hour later we were preparing to land. The questions began again and I responded this time with a little less reserve. OR Tambo airport was more suitable for our aviation talk.

“Do you see that plane written Lufthansa?” I asked him.“Can you see there are two rows of windows?” “Yes, why.”I told him about the double-storey Boeings on long-haul flights. Aeroplane food.TVs on the plane. His eyes widened.

“What is this hole?” he asked. “It’s an ashtray. People used to be allowed smoke in aeroplanes,” I replied. “What are those green ropes?” “I don’t know.”“ They must be connected to the ladder, for when we go off the plane,” he said in what I then noticed was an Afrikaans accent.

We didn’t get off the plane when everybody was disembarking. I was subconsciously waiting for the stewardess to come as I had overheard her say he must stay in his seat until she came.

But as soon as he realised I was waiting for him, he unbuckled his seat belt and said: “Don’t worry, my sister is here.”