In 1975-76, my husband, Don Bell, and our four daughters aged 8 – 14 spent spring and winter terms in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, South Africa. Our children went to the Victoria School for girls; Don taught Southern African history at Rhodes University and I watched the birds flit through the protea along our drive, binoculars in hand.
I took the girls out of school during their Afrikaans lessons and provided a French tutor. Together, the five of us took horseback riding lessons with an Afrikaner who trained in Boston as a farrier. He was generous with his knowledge of the veld’s flora and fauna. I absorbed his teachings like a sponge. Amazing adventures happened to us, the most dramatic of which was an end-of-term Christmas/New Year’s vacation to Lesotho. Our destination was a fishing lodge at the far end of the only road, then unpaved, from Maseru to the Orange River.
Amazing adventures happened to us, the most dramatic of which was an end-of-term Christmas/New Year’s vacation to Lesotho. Our destination was a fishing lodge at the far end of the only road, then unpaved, from Maseru to the Orange River. This trip provided the material for a short story about a racially naive white woman from Kansas and Oklahoma who is terrified of black people in general and of the black South Africas living under apartheid. She also longs to know a person of color and thinks it might be possible in Lesotho which does not have rules separating the races. I set the story a few years ahead, 1980, when racial tension was much increased from the relatively quiet time when we lived there.
The American couple are the McLanahans, Al and Libby and their daughter Alison. Their South African friends with whom they travel are Ian and Helen Coetzee and their 14 year old son Henry.
I enjoyed the effort of creating a sense of increased risk, of portraying opposing desires in the protagonist and of creating a transformation that seemed plausible. I still have an awful lot to learn and could probably spend another twenty hours re-writing.
Here is the Bell/Smith group on our adventure in the Eastern Cape and Lesotho.
Here’s a dramatic scene from the families’ brief afternoon as non-paying guests at the luxury hotel in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho:
They pulled into the Victoria Hotel at the edge of Maseru, the Kingdom’s capital. Helen and Libby had agreed they would act like guests. The mud-spattered Volkswagen van was conspicuous amongst the Dodge pickups and Colt Galants of vacationing Afrikaners. Free State visitors, mostly men, were at the Victoria Hotel for gambling, drink and sex. The strict rules governing interracial contact and the Dutch moral code dissolved outside South Africa.
The six of them slipped into the changing rooms before luxuriating in the crystal clear pool. “How glorious,” Libby admitted to Helen as they sipped lemonade and watched their husbands and children cavorting in the water. Libby couldn’t take her eyes off a tall muscular black man playfully cradling a blond woman. How disgusting, she thought as the couple kissed. Her own rising heat embarrassed her.
Helen and Libby joined their husbands at a patio table and ordered lunch and beers. A crackling announcement from a nearby transistor radio broke the holiday mood.
South Africa Police are rumored to have uncovered a Lesotho Liberation Army training camp in the high valley near Roma.
“Isn’t that where we are headed?” Libby asked.
The radio announcer crackled on. The Lesotho government has requested an investigation by the South African Police.
Silence followed the news bulletin and then a cacophony of commentary erupted from every table.
“Damn kaffirs. What are they doing?”
“This will ruin everyone’s summer holiday.”
“They need the bloody tourist money so what are they doing to themselves.”
“If they lose the season, serves the bastards right.”
Libby thought about the village they left that morning and longed to return. “Why don’t we just avoid all this?” she urged, looking at Helen. Helen laid a soothing hand on her arm. Ian was about to speak when the Afrikaner with the transistor leaned in and told them not to worry. Only seventy or so disgruntled workers from Thaba Nchu, the overcrowded township near Bloemfontein. Nothing the South African Police couldn’t put down. Other beefy-faced men, fresh sunburns coloring pale office-job faces, nodded in agreement. The girlfriend of one of them put her hand on her man’s arm and eyed Helen and Libby. She retorted in such a thick Afrikaans accent Libby couldn’t understand her, “I’m not so sure it’s all that safe around here.”
“Ag, man, don’t worry. Order yourselves another beer,” her partner said, ignoring her.
From another table where a mother was drying off a couple of small children, the father chimed in, “Going to Roma? No problem. Less than an hour. The road is paved to Blue Mountain pass. The turn off is right after that.”
Libby whispered to Al, “Why are we listening to crazy drunks? We need to go back to Rhodes.”
“Now wait just a minute,” Ian calmed her down. “This little uprising is just a reaction to the economy.”
He spoke quietly so as to not attract attention. Assuming a professorial tone, he continued. “You have to understand that Chief Jonathan just threw out the constitutional rule of law to keep his power. Foreign investors don’t appreciate instability, so the economy is in the tank. All they have left is a few old white farmers, some winter skiing and the gambling and whoring that happens in Maseru. And of course the fishing where we are headed.”
“Don’t lecture me, Ian.” Libby hissed at him. “It doesn’t make it any better.”
The pool-side crowd thinned. It was well-passed lunch time. They seemed unperturbed by the news. Looking around at the emptying tables, Ian added that they would be safer going to the fishing lodge than going back. The kaffirs were interested in fighting the police. They wouldn’t hurt tourists.
Al agreed. He gave Libby a reassuring kiss on the cheek. She looked at Helen and could see she was unwavering in her belief that all would be well. Henry and Alison stood dripping in their towels. They’d heard most of the exchange. Henry piped up, “I say, let’s keep going!”
Libby felt a chill as rain clouds billowed over the pass where they were heading.
Everyone else chorused “Let’s go before it starts raining again,” and headed for the dressing rooms. I just want to get us back to Lawrence in one piece, thought Libby as she gathered up their things. No one listens to me anyway, so why bother suggesting a retreat from potential catastrophe?
I’ve sent the whole 6000+ words out to a couple presses. We’ll see what happens. Now, on to the next story!