Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Africans meet Afrophiles at the Treehouse

When I told Vaki we’re Afrophiles, he said he’d never heard that word. For years I’ve loved the writing of African-American writers. Years ago I took a course at UVM in African culture and even learned a few phrases in Swahili. A writer friend wrote a beautiful novel called The Hissing Tree about a girl growing up in Rhodesia and her fascination with Zulu warriors. My stepson Will has been to Ghana several times, and his best friend married a Ghanaian woman. I’ve never been to Africa, but it claims the first humans and its cultural and geographical diversity entice me.

Vaki brought Africa to Fern Forest. He wanted to do something special for his wife Laurel, and a night in a treehouse was just the thing. Laurel is tiny and sprightly and reached out to us with gregarious warmth. Vaki is imposing. He stands a few inches taller than H, who is well over six feet. He has dark wooly hair and a wooly beard, but his smile lights up a room. The youngest of eleven children, Vaki was born in New York City after his father moved the family from Zimbabwe. In the 1960s Vaki’s dad led the Zimbabwe African National Union whose aim was to overthrow Rhodesia’s white ruling party, and he hired a young activist named Mugabe as Secretary General of the organization. When war broke out, Vaki’s father left Africa and Mugabe was taken into custody and held as a political prisoner in Rhodesia for ten years.

In 1979, when Vaki was born, the war was coming to an end. Mugabe had been released from prison and was hailed as a hero for many Africans. He was elected Prime Minister the following year and called for reconciliation between white Rhodesians and rival political groups. Vaki’s father eventually went back to Zimbabwe, but Vaki moved to San Diego, where he met Laurel.

Vaki missed his sisters, who lived in D.C., so he and Laurel moved back across the country. Laurel runs a B&B in D.C.’s Adams Morgan area, and Vaki works for an architecture firm, doing sustainable design for schools and businesses. In his off time sings lead with Honeyguns, a rock group described as a cross between Led Zepplin and Otis Redding. Their visit to the treehouse was a part of the celebration of Laurel’s thirtieth birthday and their second wedding anniversary.

In the last ten years, the Mugabe-led government has undertaken a land reform program to correct the inequitable land distribution created by colonial rule. Mugabe's policies have been harshly criticized by British and American governments for often violent seizure of land owned by white Rhodesians. The economy of Zimbabwe has suffered as a result, and a million and a half Zimbabweans have migrated to South Africa to find jobs.

Chalk it up to irony that the very next Fern Forest guest is from South Africa. Lexi came with her Swedish boyfriend, Otto, a software engineer in New York City. Lexi works in marketing for hair care products but hopes to enroll in a doctoral program to focus on literature or cultural studies. She was born in South Africa, but when she was a toddler her parents moved to the U.S. to escape growing violence. She has been back to Johannesburg a few times and tells about homes surrounded by high fences topped with coils of barbed wire. Theft is commonplace, both in the markets and in homes. People who can afford it hire bodyguards. When I asked if the crimes are racially motivated, she said they are economically motivated. More and more people are homeless and out of work, and the government can’t keep track of immigrants who enter the country illegally, crossing unguarded borders.

Otto, on the other hand, depicts Sweden as a fine place to live. “It’s in the Vodka belt,” he says and flashes a blond Swedish smile.

Every time I hear the national anthem of South Africa, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” I get a little choked up. The stanzas are in alternating languages, Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English. Its lyrics can apply to all of Africa and perhaps to all the world:

From the blue of our sky,
From the depth of our seas,
Over our everlasting mountains,
Where the crags resound,
Sounds the call to come together,
And united we shall stand,
Let us live and strive for freedom
In South Africa our land.

From Fern Forest, we say—Amen.

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