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Niq Mhlongo

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Spotting a Sowetan in a foreign city

My diary tells me that this week I’m scheduled to meet with the people that sponsored my recent trip to the United States (United States Culture & Information Centre), where I had spent three exciting months on a Writers fellowship at the University of Iowa. The purpose of the meeting is to ‘debrief’ them on my journey, reflecting on all the sweet memories that still lurk in my mind about that corn mid-west state. As I plunge into the sweet memories and thoughts of my stay there, there is this one particular incident that does not want to leave my mind.

Well, let me start by the trite that most of us black South Africans don’t have passports and hardly travel even from one province to another. But, imagine this for my luck? On the 31st of August 2008 I rightfully spotted a fellow Sowetan in the bus to Coralville Mall in Iowa City, just like one would spot a Durbanite by a gold-platted tooth. The guy that I rightfully suspected was a Sowetan was wearing his sporty hat, a Lacoste T-shirt that was not tucked into his dikkies trousers and a pair of black Converse takkies; and I randomly guessed that he was my country man even before hearing him talk in his tsotsitaal.

Before I tell you how this happened, let me say a bit about Iowa City, which has a lot in common with our own Rhini/Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. The striking similarity between Rhini and Iowa City is that they are both in the middle of nowhere, but in Iowa City you can get fined $100 for crossing red robot. They call it J-walking. Both Rhini and Iowa City are university towns, although Iowa is referred to as the city. Maybe it is because Iowa University, unlike Rhodes eRhini has a large predominately white student population of thirty thousand. But another difference is that Rhodes University in Rhini is full of black students, and it is easier for one to say ‘molo mnfondini’ to anyone at the nearby Joza Township. Iowa University is surrounded by up-market suburbs with wooden houses and at the time when I was there, people were more concerned about the now President Barack Obama or John Mc’Cain winning the elections in November.

Now back to my Sowetan friend in Iowa City- let me first tell you that on Monday the 1st of September, which was the first day of the spring, in the US it was also a Labor Day. Unlike back home in Soweto where one would expect the kids to sprinkle one another with tap water as a way of celebrating, in the US most shops were closed. Most Iowans were at the ‘beach’-which was actually basking on the sand of the nearby Mississippi River, or its tributary, Iowa River.

We had decided with fellow writers, (John from Cameroon, Uche from Nigeria, Glaydah from Uganda and I) to go to the nearest Coralville Mall, which was about twenty kilometers from the city, to do some grocery. The mall is about the size of East Gate Mall in Jozi, and there are lots of shops that are cheaper there. Let me warn you though, that in the US the item pricing in the shops is very strange. If you enter a shop and see something that costs $5 for example, expect to pay more in taxation at the till. Also when you go to a grocery store to buy a beer or cigarette, it doesn’t matter how old you are as you are required to show your ID or passport. In Mzansi, you can only buy these items if you are 18 years and older, but in the US you have to be 21 and above.

Okay, we waited for the bus to Coralville Mall at 11 am in Clinton Street. The bus fare costs 75c for each journey and you must have the correct change in coins, which can be quarters (25 cents), dimes (ten cents) or nickel (five cents). You simply slide the coins into the slot by the driver as if it was a vending machine. The driver’s job is to drive you and not to give you change.

I was already sitting inside the bus with my newly acquired friends when two white guys and a black guy (my Sowetan suspect) wearing a sporty hat boarded the bus. The white guys were walking in the front and they stopped and slid the coins on the slot by the driver. The black guy simply passed without paying and followed his friends. As the seats were all occupied, they all stood near us while balancing on the strip-hanger. There was something about the black guy that instinctively made me pause talking to my friends and looked at him. Instinctively, he just reminded me of home, and strangely, he also nodded at me as if to acknowledge my thoughts. After nodding back at him I whispered to my friend John and told him that I thought the guy was South African. While John was still laughing, we heard the bus driver talking on the speaker that ‘the guy on the hat, you didn’t pay for your fair’, obviously referring to my sowetan suspect. The guy appeared a bit embarrassed and asked his friends why they did not pay for him; obviously he was expecting them to have done so. I watched ‘my Sowetan suspect’ go back to the driver where he apologized and paid. At the same time he was saying: ‘sorry, eintlik I thought my friends have paid for me as well’. It was that sentence that confirmed my suspicion. After he had had paid his fare, he came back to stand next to us again. Out of the blue, I found myself talking to him in Zulu, ‘sawubona m’fethu’. The guy just laughed, and he was so happy to have discovered a brother in this far away corn city. We then talked in Zutho (combination of Zulu and Sotho) until we arrived at the mall. He told me that his name was Tshepo and he was also in Iowa University for six months as an exchange student. Guess where he hailed from? Ndofaya/Meadolands Zone 9-SOWETO.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    February 9th, 2009 @11:03 #

    I understand one hears more Afrikaans on the London tube than in Bloem these days, but how nice to run into someone from home on a bus in Iowa. Glad to know it happens...

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    February 9th, 2009 @11:13 #

    I could relate to this, Niq. I always feel such a strong fondness for fellow South Africans when I'm travelling - even ones I would not normally pay much attention to if I ran into them at home.

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    February 9th, 2009 @16:56 #

    Bump. Never thought of Iowa City and iRhini as similar before. Good stuff.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">dollabrand</a>
    March 9th, 2009 @18:00 #

    Reminds me of 1996. Just arrived in Evanston, Il., I was on an elevator/lift in the university library. a man stepped in. I looked at his rough beard, clothes (I had one too) and said: "You're South African. he said yes."

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">dollabrand</a>
    March 9th, 2009 @18:01 #

    Oh, and that also happened in ljubljana, Slovenia. This time a guy from Soweto.


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