la-donna-williams-story2.jpgThere is a tree on the corner of a street. The vein-like roots encompass the trunk, like tendons. While the red vines that hung down like hair blow in the cool breeze. I am mystified by the tree; it is majestic and eerie at the same time. It is what I imagine Billie Holiday saw as she sang the lyrics to “Strange Fruit.” These trees, sporadically growing throughout the city center of Cape Town, are known as Bayaun trees. Bayaun trees are parasitic in nature, engulfing their hosts until all that remains is a hollowed trunk. I was mesmerized by the appendages sprouting from limbs and ligaments. For me, these Bayaun trees stand as a metaphor for human suffering and colliding of worlds.

I struggle to find the right words to define my experience in South Africa. I can tell you what we were studying, the people who accompanied me and everyone we met. I can define in great detail what we learned and discussed. But to say what this trip meant and find a way to make the indescribable a profound editorial has been a task. I am struck by the radical hospitality I received from my group and those we encountered, but I am also “struck” by the depth of pain that exists.

The question then becomes one of identity and understanding who I am culturally. My journey to South Africa is framed by a series of conversations. One of hopes for the journey, an invitation into history, and words reminding me to remember.

My journey began with a question: “What are you hoping to gain from your journey to Africa?” In the middle of the crowded atrium at Candler I was floored by the question and attempted to conjure an honest answer. Through the laughter and the conversation, my mind thought back to my deepest desire. “I want to feel that sense of home, a place to belong.” Being Black in America, I feel as though I am continuously locked in a sense of liminality. Though life has been made and culture birthed in the place of my ancestors’ enslavement, Blackness has yet to be fully accepted.  

I had my fears and doubts about flying around the world. Though I’ve flown thousands of times before, domestic flights are vastly different from flying thousands of miles away from home, crossing waters and worlds unknown.  Traveling to a continent that is locked somewhere deep within my DNA. I am taken by the myth and mystery surrounding its history and people. I only longed to place my feet on the land my ancestors were so violently ripped from. I was curious about what I’d find and who I’d meet. After being cautioned on the dangers I would potentially face, from pickpockets to disease, I wondered if the trip was worth the risk... and the pain I endured from vaccines.

la-donna-williams-story3.jpgLanding in Johannesburg after a long 16-hour trip, I took in the sights of the architecture and the difference in street traffic. Ever city you visit has a rhythm, and it’s easy to find if only you take the time to look around. Johannesburg felt familiar, though. We later learned the city went through many face lifts throughout the years, in hopes of keeping with the trends. At one point, the city’s design modeled Paris or London. To me, the downtown area reminded me of Underground Atlanta. Johannesburg’s rhythm isn’t found in its buildings or scenery, but rather its people. 

From our meeting with the staff of Kaya FM, to the beautiful voices of Regina Mundi’s congregation in Soweto, the people in Johannesburg were full of life. It is here I had a meaningful conversation with a young woman at our hotel who I had come to know. On her last night of work for the week, she approached me and another classmate to express her love for us. She said, “I will never forget you. Because we have met, we are part of each other’s history.” Her words are a piercing reminder of our interconnectedness. We had just come from the apartheid museum, learning of the horrors that took place during that time. And in the midst of seeing all the similarities between Jim Crow and apartheid, her words were deeply profound. I was adopted into her family and given this special place in her mind and heart. I had found my home. In that small but powerful moment, she had fulfilled my hope.  

At the Hector Pieterson Museum, standing amongst the names of the students killed during the Soweto Uprising, I spoke their names so that their lives and legacies continue on. Looking over the square at the memorial, seeing the large picture of Hector’s lifeless body carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo and the line that marks the place the officer stood as he pointed the gun that would steal Hector’s breath. Binding histories is much deeper than my friend and I meeting—it’s also the fact that dialogue and images can be exchanged and the only things that would change are location and time.

Flying over the mountains as we flew into Cape Town, I was in awe of the glory of God. The beauty of creation is what gave Cape Town its unique rhythm as the mountains stood in the background all along the coast and the cool breeze from the sea swept through the land. As I stood on Table Mountain overlooking the land, I felt as though I could stay in this place forever.

To feel a sense of home and welcome in a place, not having to apologize for my blackness or feel the gaze of a mistrusting store owner as they follow me around aisle to aisle. Not having to carry the weight of the awareness of the color of my skin for a few moments in time. This is what I long for every day, just to live free in a place that accepts every aspect of my being.

Maybe the Bayaun tree is not a predator, but rather a master of adaptation. We are 500 years removed, but we are also the master of adaptation, creating a new culture and life in the face of captivity.  Like this tree’s interlocking roots, no matter what continent you and your ancestors are from, our shared experiences of pain, sadness, love, and joy can remove the barriers that keep us apart.