Well, we’re kicking off my last week in Africa with an extraordinary adventure: Craig and I have been invited to a shebeen (tavern) in Duncan Village by Craig’s friend and colleague, Dumile. It is nerve-wracking and exciting, likely-dangerous, and a never-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The drive to Duncan Village is short and tense. I am thinking about the balance between caution and paranoia. Craig says that Dumile is very well-respected in his community and that as his guests we will be safe. Still, the townships in general and shebeens in particular are reputedly dangerous and violent places. I brace myself for an explosion of race politics. I am thankful for the opportunity despite the churning apprehension in my stomach.
Duncan Village after dark is… well, really dark. There are no street lights and in the charged excitement of a Saturday night, people are out walking, visiting, talking, and drinking in the moonlight.
Dumile meets us and takes us to Stella’s, a small shebeen near his place. It’s a two-room cinder block building. In the front, people are sitting and drinking. One woman dances in the doorway to music coming from a small stereo in the corner. We order beer through a locked grate; a girl fetches two large bottles of Windhoek from a fridge and passes them through the bars. We walk out into Duncan Village.
Dumile seems to know everyone, so we stop every few feet to be introduced to this or that person. He walks us through a crowd of people in suits and dresses. They are prepping for a funeral the next day. The introductions confound my tongue as I struggle to repeat them back. One guy assumes a high nasal voice and cracks, “Hello Peter, hello James.” Though the joke is at my expense, I think it’s pretty funny.
I recently found out that the firm handshake I am accustomed to giving and receiving is perceived as aggressive in this culture. It is better to offer a softer hand – and the shake has at least three grips, which I have only recently mastered. I am feeling quite chuffed with myself for the near-seamless handshake I am negotiating with Dumile’s mother when she throws me off by adding a finger snap at the end.
Next we go to Dumile’s place, a two room tin and wood shack with two beds, a beanbag chair, a fridge, a television on the counter, and three certificates taped to the wall. There are a few women there, drinking and watching soccer. I miss a lot of what happens next. The conversation is mostly in isiXhosa and I have to rely on Craig to send me cues. I spend a lot of time smiling and nodding like a dashboard Jesus.
It occurs to me that the word is out that Dumile has some unusual guests over because very quickly the place fills up with people. I chat with whoever is interested, but this ends up being only men – the women want nothing to do with me. Eventually a guy shows up who introduces himself as “the Mayor of Duncan Village” and hunkers down in front of me. For the next fifteen minutes we have a conversation that feels a lot like a job interview, in which I confirm that South African beer is good, that Canada is cold, and that their “big five” is better than ours (I suggest that ours includes moose, bear, goose, salmon and beaver – not bad, but they ain’t no lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino).
Finally, Dumile says he will take us to Oud’s – the best shebeen in Duncan Village. As we are getting up the Mayor says something to Craig and smirks, turning to me. “What’s that?” I say. “I didn’t hear what you asked.” The Mayor chuckles again and says, “Well, have you?” I’m no idiot, so I say with certainty and a smile, “Nope, I absolutely have not.” The Mayor winks and laughs heartily. At the car Craig tells me he had asked if I’d yet had a “taste of Africa”. “Dude,” Craig explains, “he thought you were a guy the entire time.” Uh-oh. Experience tells me this can be very dangerous territory and Duncan Village is the last place I want to see go all Boys Don’t Cry.
We pile into the car: Craig and I in the front and 6 passengers in the back seat. Oud’s is a larger building and outdoor space packed with people and loud (very good) music. We walk inside and every set of eyes is on us. I buy another giant Windhoek. A guy grabs my arm and pulls me close to his face. “We are wondering,” he gestures to a small circle of people seated on broken plastic chairs, “are you a boy or a girl?” I smile broadly, warmly, and reply, “I am a girl, but I am from Canada. We all look like this. Weird huh?” The guy grins back and we chat for a few minutes. Yes, Canada is cold, and South Africa has good beer.
Dumile leads the three of us outside, and a small group of other curious folks follows. Craig takes me aside and whispers in my ear, “I’d say this is going quite well… except for the guy who just threatened to slit my throat.” Looks like part of the fun is to wind up the white people – or at least that’s the explanation Dumile gives, apologetically. Craig’s teeth and eyes flash. “It’s not a funny joke,” he asserts and Dumile shakes his head: he knows.
We socialize for another fifteen minutes with a little dude in oversized Nikes who keeps calling Craig “nigga”. They swap lingo: in South Africa his shoes are “takkies”; in the U.S. they’d be “kicks”. A guy approaches me and says in my ear, “We’re going to slit your throat and steal your car.” The additional detail in the threat is almost funny – like the next guy will say something like “We’re going to slit your throat, steal your car and piss on your corpse” – but the overture makes me angry. I swing my body around to face him and ask, “Hey, what do you think my friend Dumile would think about your ‘joke’?” He’s contrite: he was kidding, he says. We leave in a display of a righteous indignation which is better, I guess, than leaving in a flurry of white panic.
In the car on the way back to his place, Dumile repeatedly apologizes. There’s a shadow across his handsome face and his welcoming smile is gone. I turn around in the seat to reassure him – we are fine – and I can see his discomfort. He is embarrassed and I feel terrible for him, for me, for everything the incident suggests. We drop Dumile at his place and then Craig and I drive home, crack open beers, and process the hell out of the whole thing.