This is the third post of a series on a visit to my South African in-laws. Find additional installments in the “South Africa” category.
Despite stout resolutions to stay awake until the proper Jo’burg bedtime, after arriving in Diepkloof, I find that I literally cannot keep my eyes open. It’s a mark of my in-laws’ hospitality that they’ve given us a room to ourselves in a house with four bedrooms and more than ten people. Our bedroom has been decorated with a bright duvet and a framed picture from our wedding. I’m dimly aware of Lala flopping down beside me. Later, a shrieking tumble of voices bursts in, chided by Papa and swept from the room just as suddenly. Creche must be over. How many kids do live here, I wonder before I am unconscious again. It’s something Lala never seemed clear about – with one brother and four sisters, his collection of nieces and nephews is always being augmented, and he took the attitude that we’d be able to count and sort them when we arrived. No point in trying to keep track of these things at long range.
My eyes pop open. Sunshine streams through the lacy beige curtains and the effervescent pounding of kwaito, a kind of South African house music, filters in on the breeze through the open windows. If my life depended on it, I could not tell you what time it is. I grope for my watch and squint at the Roman numerals, turning the watch this way and that as if I’ve never learned to tell time. I have no idea if it says 3:50pm or 10:20am.
Finally, I decide the sun looks afternoonish. I wonder who else makes up the family household, and we open the bedroom door.
Some sixth sense of adult awakening means that the question of the underage population of the house is immediately answered. Three small, brown, close-shaved heads snap to attention, and the biggest one throws her arms around my waist before I can blink. I recognize Neo (pronounced “Neh-woe”, meaning “gift” in Sotho, forget about Keanu), Lala’s great-niece. The other two are probably her first cousins once removed (not that that matters).
“What are your names?” I cry, though the family resemblances have already sorted them out pretty well. The younger two may have been born after our last visit, but they look astonishingly like Mandla, husband to Lala’s sister Nthabi. Perhaps it’s the language barrier, but instead of saying their names, they hold up configurations of fingers and begin to squeal numbers.
“THREE! THREE!” says Njabulo, holding up two fingers. “Three! Three! Three!” his sister Manqoba also shrieks, with three fingers to match. “FIVE! Five, five!” Neo screams, which I know to be a blatant lie, because she was one month old when we last saw her four years ago. Does anyone, anywhere, ever want to share their real age?
The truth is that Njabulo (“n-jah-bool-oh”) is two, his sister Manqoba (the “q” in her name pronounced with a resonant Zulu click high on the palate) is three and a half, and their cousin Neo will really be five in less than a year. I give them a board book about hippos counting to ten, in which the beasts jump, skate, and perhaps most improbably, drive bumper cars.
“One, two, three, five, six, seven, nine, eight, ten, four!” Neo stabs her fingers over the pictures.
“Pig.” says Njabulo. “Pig!”
“Hippopotamus,” I say. “But they do look a little like pigs. Mfuvu.” I try the Tsonga word for hippo.
“Mfuvu!” Neo answers. Njabulo just looks at me suspiciously. Perhaps it’s just the difficulty of coming home from creche one day to an American in his kitchen, or perhaps it’s just that I forgot his father, and therefore he, are actually Zulu, not Tsonga like my husband.
I get a pear from the fridge and the poor mfuvus are forgotten. Untutored in the household’s rules of survival, I allow the pear in my hand to reach the level of the kids’ faces. Quick as a chameleon snatching a fly, Neo sinks her pearly little teeth in, goading, if possible, an even sharper interest in the pear from her cousins. I finish most of the pear, but before I can reach the trashcan, a small hand seizes the juicy core. As they pass the rapidly shrinking core back and forth, I think of cows skeletonized in the Amazon river.
Still sporting the hair that comes with crossing half the globe in one day, I take interest in the immaculate bathtub. During my bath, there is a small commotion in the hall, and “One Hippo Hops” shoots in under the crack of the door.