A Good Home, Communication, Paintings, Partnership, South Africa

Days Off in South Africa – Part 2

The closer we got to our destination, the more worried I became.  

A paved road took us to a small, whitewashed stone house similar to others in this mountain village.

It was modestly furnished.

I spotted something I hadn’t seen since my childhood in a mountainous part of Jamaica: rubber hot water bottles. They helped keep us warm on cold nights.

Smiling in recognition, I held one against my chest.

“Once a mountain girl, always a mountain girl,” I told Marie.

We laughed for the first time since we’d left Johannesburg.


The housekeeper, a kindly Black woman, greeted us warmly. She didn’t live here – this was an all-White neighbourhood. We chatted with her, relieved to see a Black face.

At the local cafe, we were greeted pleasantly by the White owner-chef.

At our request, she gave us the recipe for her homemade bread, which we ate with delicious squash soup.

I could have hugged these women  for their warm welcomes.

But I was still on edge.


I jumped awake at a sudden sound that night.

The hot water bottles, packed around me for warmth, went flying.

Marie murmured something and I murmured something back.

I stayed awake, tensely listening.

A car drove by.

A dog barked.

Crickets chirped.

It took a long time for me to fall asleep.


Sunday came and the highlight of our trip:  visiting our friend’s farm.

He greeted us warmly. We set off up the hill.

A wafer-thin layer of ice coated parts of the hillside, but Marie and I smiled in anticipation as we climbed.

I stared, mesmerized, at a family of mere-cats, their heads popping from earth-holes in tandem. They’d disappear, then pop up again, movements perfectly synchronized.

“There’s a leopard living over there,” our host said, pointing to some trees on a nearby hill. He was remarkably casual about it.

He had given us sticks to beat the bushes, in case of snakes.

We were near the mountain top.



There they were. 

On smooth, upright stone walls, the paintings.

Protected by the cliff overhead.

Human beings had created them thousands of years before.

Pictures, some of men with spears. And wild animals, some which looked fierce.

Turning my head this way and that, I stared in awe.


Walking downhill, I glanced in the direction of the leopard’s hill and wondered which was more frightening.  Wild animals?  Or angry humans?


We had shared everything, but not this.

Working closely together, Marie and I had resolved challenging situations in both boardroom and training room. I always marveled at this woman’s skill.

As we neared the end of the visit, I knew I had to explain my strange behaviour.  So I did, starting with the warning I’d received.  We finally talked.

As Marie and I talked, true partners again, it hit me: the problem was never mine alone. If I was at risk that entire weekend, then Marie — my loyal partner — was also at risk. It was essential that, in a strange country far from home, we shared what we knew or feared. We would always do our best to protect each other from harm.



Our host had asked us to not reveal the paintings’ location. And that was a secret worth keeping.

We returned to Johannesburg safely, chatting and laughing companionably as we usually did.

We continued to work closely with remarkable individuals at the SABC and some of them became our friends. We, and the rest of our Canadian team, felt greatly privileged to make a contribution at a crucial time in the country’s history.


Marie Wilson was later appointed to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC recently filed its report on the treatment of Aboriginal children in Canada’s residential schools and the impacts on their families and communities. (Click on “What has been the Purpose and Role of the TRC” and other videos to see her.)

54 thoughts on “Days Off in South Africa – Part 2”

  1. What a fascinating story and a privilege to see those wall paintings. But you are brave risking snakes, leopards and even worse; potential racist maniacs – worse than any wild animal.

  2. Listening to your friend Marie speak on the TRC site, I can see what a special person she would be to have by your side. And as the TRC knows, and as you rightly imply in your post, the true horror, the true enemy, resides in the silence, in the things we are too afraid to say, or cannot say. In this part of the world, many of us are disturbed by the new Border Force Act in Australia. “Under the Act, it is a criminal offence, punishable by imprisonment of up to two years, for any person working directly or indirectly for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to reveal to the media or any other person or organisation (the only exceptions being the Immigration Department and other Commonwealth agencies, police, coroners) anything that happens in detention centres like Nauru and Manus Island.” http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-28/barns-newhouse-detention-centre-secrecy-just-got-even-worse/6501086 With such restrictions, one can imagine the need for a TRC for refugees in Australia one day. 😦

    1. Silence can be deadly — some of it we enforce to protect wrongs, and some of it we impose on ourselves, out of fear.

      Amazing what we don’t tell even our close partners across racial/gender/other lines, because we fear that this will lead to something we cannot navigate.

      Marie and I were definitely stronger when we shared and dealt with problems together.

  3. It was an enormous relief to read this. I think I am more scared of angry humans than wild animals, because on the whole animals have nothing against me unless I disturb them or their young. We still have hot water bottles here in the UK!

    1. I like your rationale for being less scared of wild animals! Living in Canada all these years, it unsettled me to realize that I was going to a place where someone could hate me on sight and deliberately hurt me because of my colour. Perhaps part of my ‘bravery’ was just plain obstinacy. I’m sorry I took so long to tell Marie, but I’m also very glad we went.

      Hot water bottles – a great invention!

  4. What a story! I am glad you faced nothing worse than your fears. Though sometimes the fear of something is worse than the reality of it. And you wouldn’t have had to go through such agonies if you had spoken to Marie before you set out. Ah. We live and learn 🙂

    1. That’s for sure. We would have decided to either not go, or to go, but both be super vigilant. But we would have decided together, and that would have been smarter.

  5. What a wonderful reward after the days of fear and suspense. Everything was as simple as a rubber hot water bottle 🙂 Hope the drawings stay safe in this simple world – places like this one are priceless.

  6. Whew! I was getting worried! So glad your adventure had no untoward and/or unexpected surprises. Still, so much of the journey on edge. In the end, fabulous paintings and a lesson thrown in for good measure. 🙂

    1. Yes, indeed. I’m actually pleased that my heart-racing fear expressed itself in my post. (It really was a scary time.) And that my remorse also came across. Thank God for wonderful partners. I have had some great ones in my life and all are cherished.

  7. An interesting story. Our daughter in law, who is Black (biracial) and Jewish lived in South Africa for several months and had several remarkable experiences, both bad and good.

  8. What a story Cynthia. I could feel the tension. The world is certainly becoming a scary place. I hope you’re doing well now. 🙂 x

  9. When we travelled in South Africa, about 9 years ago, our guide, of an Afrikaner mother and British father, took us to places in which she cautioned us, but also disarmed tensions with those who might have viewed us as hostile intruders (I.e. rich, white, tourists). Her technique was to treat all people respectfully, addressing them in a manner which acknowledged them. For those our age or younger, she addressed them by name, especially if they were providing us a service (cashier at a store, cook on the buffet line, petrol station attendant, et al). When they were older, she used titles which indicated that they were our elders. I have found these techniques to work quiet well in tense situations back home, especially in these days when our leaders degrade our civil discourse with name calling, slurs, and insults. – Oscar (notice that I always use my accepted name to sign off)

    1. I can see how that technique would be positive for both visitors and the South African people you encountered. Good to hear from you, Oscar. Hope you and yours are well.

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