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Text Graphic: 'G21 Africa - Drifting Homeward'.

by Mputhumi Ntabeni

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Mputhumi Ntabeni
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East London, SOUTH AFRICA - I used to think the Eastern Cape is a barren land of harsh winters and intolerable summers, living on the innate momentum of its glorious political past crisscrossed by brutal historical scars. That was until a white man from NYC (New York City), Paul, came to stay in our township at PE (Port Elizabeth). You know most of how it is, you never notice the beauty of something you're used to, until someone with fresh eyes comes along.

Paul works for an NGO (Non-Governmental Organisation), Ubuntu Education Fund, "an international organization dedicated to developing grassroots health and education programs in South Africa and promoting ubuntuăthe South African belief in a universal bond of sharing that unites all of humanity". They install computers in underprivileged schools around PE, and teach AIDS education to the pupils. They also build and equip libraries for these schools.

Paul has a surprising streak of tenderness mixed with a boyish mischievous character. He is, without any doubt, my first white friend. What I find most endearing in him is a natural lack of condescention. He's devoid of that irritating exaggerated effort of pleasing endemic to white people when dealing with people of a different race or culture.

I'm told New Yorkers have somehow managed to recuse themselves from emotional attachments to a homeland [the USA] that's often is easily manipulated by the ideologies of prejudice. That their a ttachment is now to identity -- like the dream-life of being a New Yorker, 'living in the best city in the world. Even in the US people are always going or coming from NYC. NYC has become the paradigm of ultimate cosmopolitanism,' Paul tells me.

We woke up early to visit some historical sites in PE. Paul's visiting girlfriend from NYC was with us. We started at Sacramento where some Portuguese dudes, in the mid parts of the seventeenth-century, on their way to somewhere far -- like India or something -- ran into some serious rock trouble which racked their ship. They were on one of those Spanish warships called a galleon. 'They were probably up to some mischief anyway,' says Paul when I showed him the writing on the site.

The Old Seaview Road in Port Elizabeth is cool, enchanting in its wonder of 'the poetry of the ordinary,' Paul's girlfriend says. We stand at the beach and look at the sea. The morning mist falls softly like a memory of a departed one. The wind whistles cold notes to brush the dust of past years. A pompous demonstration of sea waves crash against rugged rocks, evaporating into a steam of jittery nerves. The ancient effort of the sea ebbs and flows, drawing breath now in rage, sometimes in serene overlays. The sun robes everything in golden fire, lending proud colours to a growing day, and enchanting the morning as a lover's promise. It is all beyond the telling of words. I feel sentimental.

We proceed? to a near supermarket before leaving for the dunes in the Sunday's River, which the Xhosas call iNqweba. I remain inside the car, partly to steal a read from my book, Andre Brink's Praying Mantis, partly to give the lovers privacy. I stand outside, leaning against the car to catch precious winter sunbeams. A white lady, in her forties, in the next car is watching my every move, making me a little nervous. She opens the door of her car and comes straight to me.

'What are you reading there?' she asks with what I read to be genuine interest. I close the book on the mark and give it to her to investigate.

'Interesting. Do you understand it?'

Dah! I nod, trying not to be rude.

'The praying Mantis to the Bushmen,' (Dah! They're San people) 'is the God they worship, the way you people worship ancestors.' She is trying to edigy me.

Nothing puts me so out of mood as the term 'you people' in South African parlance, so I excuse myself.

Anyone who knows anything about the history of SA (South Africa) knows that British settlers established PE around 1820, calling it Algoa Bay, until the then acting governor of the Cape Colony, Rufin Donkin, named it after his recently deceased wife Elizabeth. But the history of that part of the South African coast, encountering the distant people, goes much further than the Portuguese and the English, if Herodotus is to be believed.

According to Herodotus, the first ships to sail along the coast of Southern Africa were those of an expedition dispatched from the Red Sea by the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho, which were manned by Phoenician sailors six centuries before Christ. The ships found their way to the east coast of Africa, rounded the southernmost point of the continent, proceeded up the west coast, passed through the Pillars of Hercules, and arrived back in Egypt at the Rosetta mouth of the Nile after an adventurous journey that lasted three years. Herodotus tells us that the ships anchored each autumn at some convenient spot on the coast and the crew planted grain and rested while it ripened. After harvest the sea journey was resumed.

Historians suppose that one of the autumnal sojourns was made on the part of the coast that now constitutes the sea boundary of the republic of South Africa, most probably the east coast where Xhosaland is situated.

There are other apocryphal later versions of ancient history, like the Phoenicians rounding Africa from the likes of Strabo -- the Greek geographer. But we know for sure that Batholomue Diaz's expedition sailed into Algoa Bay, passed to St Croix and Bird Island, eventually anchoring near the mouth of Bushman's River. There they erected a stone column, or prado -- now you know where the silly name of that expensive petrol guzzler made in Japan comes from -- on the rocky promontory. The place is what today we know as Kwaihoek. The date was 3rd of February 1488.

From there they sailed for three days passing the mouths of Kariega and Kowie Rivers until they arrived at the Great Fish River where they reluctantly turned back. On their return journey back to Europe their two ships passed within sight 'of magnificent promontory' which they didn't see on the outward sail, having been unwittingly driven by storm. They named the imposing landmark Cape of Storms, which was changed by King John II to Cape of Good Hope. Vasco da Gama completed Diaz's work by sailing round the Cape of Good Hope in 1497, up the coast of Africa to cross to India.

When the British settlers of 1820 sailed to Algoa Bay exactly three and one third century after Diaz, all hell broke loose in Xhosaland. Those were my thoughts as I stood on the sand dunes of Sundays' River with the sun shooting hosts on my back. On our way back our poor battered jalopy got stuck in the sand. It was getting late and we were panicking. Paul hiked to the nearby garage to get some help. Two Afrikaner guys, bless their souls, came to our rescue with their 4x4. (TO BE CONTINUED)


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