April 27, 2009


There’s a Xhosa expression that is, alternately, “nguBold” or “nguDays.” They are rooted in the names of soap operas. Both mean, essentially, “it’s a long and complex story” and is used when you don’t want to or have time to tell someone all the details of a particular narrative.

I thought of that expression on Wednesday when I invited my friend Noxolo over for lunch. She is probably my closest friend in Itipini but it had been some time since we had had time to catch up with each other. Plus, I wanted to tell her I am leaving Mthatha in the not-too-distant future and didn’t want to do that in the midst of a busy day in Itipini.

Noxolo is a self-identified born-again Christian, who is devoted to her small church in Itipini. She once told me that she gets so tired and frustrated living in Itipini, mostly with its crime but also with the people and their pettiness. But she said she isn’t making plans to leave (even though she probably could pull it off) because she thinks the best thing to do is to live her life in Itipini as an example for everyone else to follow.

But I have never heard from her the story of how she became Christian - and left behind what she frequently describes as a dissolute lifestyle - and so before I broached the subject of my impending departure, I asked, simply, “How did you become a Christian?”

The floodgates opened. For the next 90 minutes or more, she sat and quietly told me her life story. I prodded her along at times but mostly it was just her talking and talking and talking. It is a remarkable story and my head was spinning by the time it was over. I don’t think life is reducible to individual experiences or moments but if the only thing I take away from two years in Itipini was Wednesday’s conversation with Noxolo, I think it alone might have justified the entire struggle of these past two years.

Here’s the thing: I’m not going to tell you what she told me. It’s not my story to share and besides, nguBold. It would take more space and time than I care to spend detailing all the nuances and details of a story that drew me in fully and completely.

I hope you’re not offended. I’ve told you a story about a story when the story itself is much better. (For those of you saying now, “But you’ve told us about other people in the past!” I want to note that in those posts I was primarily writing about my interaction with those people and not their backstories. Here, the story is all Noxolo and no me.) But I think my experience illustrates a couple of important things.

First, Noxolo’s story is not unique. I am sure there are many other similar stories among people in Itipini. I’m fortunate that Noxolo chose to share hers with me. A Xhosa-speaking Studs Terkel could do wonders in a place like Itipini.

That leads to a second point. This is not a story that Noxolo would have shared with me the day after I got off the plane. The time we shared together on Wednesday afternoon is the fruit of a relationship we have been building the last nearly two years. I’m fortunate that Noxolo is now comfortable enough to struggle with English around me. I notice she is unwilling to speak English with other, newer white people even though by the standards of Itipini her English is quite good and didn’t really hinder her story-telling. With most people in Itipini, I probably don’t have enough vocabulary in common to hear their stories the way they deserve to be heard.

The third point is that as I spend more time here I became aware of all the many complexities influencing lives in Itipini. That is paralyzing and it has been making it really hard to write for this blog lately. It reminds me of The Dude’s line in “The Big Lebowski”:
"This is a very complicated case, Maude. You know, a lotta ins, a lotta outs, a lotta what-have-yous. And, uh, lotta strands to keep in my head, man. Lotta strands in old Duder's head."

By the time it came for me to tell her I was leaving, it all seemed kind of anti-climatic. And she heartily approved of my post-Mthatha plans, which eased the potential pain of the moment.


Judi said...

So glad to hear about this extended convo with Noxolo, Jesse. My few encounters with her in Jan. suggested she is something special, and it sounds like you will treasure this friendship long after you leave in June.