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The simple charms of a plastic cake

My mother always told me as a young child not to believe in fairy tales – and I didn’t.  But every so often, we as humans come across a certain set of circumstances that rub our sense of reality so raw, we can’t help but build our own fantastical adventure, and thus without realizing what we’ve done, we create our own magical kingdom, our own poisoned apple, our own gingerbread house – that so often comes crumbling down upon us. 

Once upon a time in a faraway city by the sea…

I’d been living in Cape Town for three months when it happened – three months in the translucent voyeurism of white Cape Town’s wispy bubble that is.  Once inside it’s fragile shell it was easy to forget that over the mountain and through the n2, away from the sea and into the flats there lived a portion of people that made up nearly half of the city’s population – a population that lived in houses made of corrugated iron and hardened rubbish, a population that had reclaimed this nation as their own only a little over ten years earlier after the fall of apartheid, a population still deprived of opportunity and burdened with the crime and frustration of abject poverty.
And so it was that I could barely contain my excitement when a friend from work, Xolelwa, invited me to her 2-year-old cousin’s birthday in Gugulethu, one of the oldest of the sprawling informal settlements on the periphery of the city that was home to native Xhosa South Africans.

“Steph, she pulled in her shy African accent, as I’m inviting you, it’s very important you come.” 

It wasn’t often a white person was offered an invitation into someone’s home in the townships, let alone a white American with no prerequisite for the conditions of life with which Xolelwa and her friends and family lived. 

I met her at the taxi rank the next week, a tiny batman action figure in tow – any two year old’s dream toy I assumed, especially in a place that had so little room for such extraneous items as in the townships.  We rode in silence outside the meandering highways and bustling streets of city center in the minivan taxis that the Xhosa population used as primary transportation, euphemisms really, for deathtraps on wheels that crammed as many warm bodies as possible onto four bench seats and had replaced safety with pumping sound systems long ago.

We entered the township at one of the two possible entrance points, a confinement mechanism the apartheid government had implemented to ensure control during the reign of the nationalist party.  Formations of destitution rolled out from the highway like dominoes.  The ragged and endlessly wandering unemployed searching through heaps of garbage, houses on the verge of collapse with one strong breath from the mighty wind, ravines and rivulets of toxic sewage circling down into the unpaved streets and bubbling dangerously behind homes.  But most noticeable, the absence.  Gone were the movie theatres, the umbrella lined outdoor cafes.  Gone shopping centers, gone sidewalks, gone ice cream, gone ease.

We arrived at Xolelwa’s home, a modest government built brick home that had been extended with any available discarded material of  permanence.  Inside the small and sparsely decorated space, three of the biggest mamas I’d ever seen were laughing raucously, doubling over in amusement above large vats of rich smelling food.  A folding table near the end of the small area that was kitchen, lounge and dining room had a beautiful iced cake, soda pop and presents piled meticulously on top. 

Suddenly, as if some silent whistle had been blown at some special frequency or the bat symbol had been released high into the air, child after small child crowded into the warm space.  The floor was swimming with noisy smiling infants, toddlers, kids of 8 going on 18.  I sat quietly on the couch with Xolelwa’s father, the only man in the house, and three mothers protectively holding their toddlers – their morphosis into maternity having begun at a much younger age than my 23 years.

Xolelwa’s grandmother lead us in prayer, and then each child presented the gift they’d brought.  Nearly all of them had given the young boy warm clothing for the upcoming winter, some gave small envelopes filled with money, other’s proudly displayed spanking new speakers. 

And then it was my turn.  I walked awkward, self-conscious behind the table, only then realizing the cake that had looked so delicious from my vista on the couch was in fact plastic. 

“I want my son to have a picture with the white lady,” exclaimed Xolelwa’s cousin’s young mother. 

I opened the present I had brought for her son, my small embarrassing, nonsensical batman.  What place did this toy have here.  It fulfilled no necessity, it offered no comfort, it was a worthless possession in a world where everyone must necessarily share.  My ignorance felt hot on my face, I must have been glowing only slightly less bright than the full moon watching over us that evening.
But everyone clapped and cheered and smiled like I had just brought that very moon into their small barren home.  The mama’s passed out plate after plate of intoxicating fried chicken, potato salad, stewed onions, seasoned vegetables, sweet baked beans, and homemade cornbread that melted sure as sugar on your tongue and between your cheeks. 

We ate with our hands, myself and what I swore was every child in a ten kilometer radius.  We licked our fingers greedily, sprawled on top of each other in the pure comfort of lovers or family that you’ve known forever and for always.  I couldn’t stop smiling, despite the crowd, the noise, the chaos, I was more comfortable than I’d been in weeks, warmed from the outside in and the inside out. 

And so my fairy tale unfolded.  No magic spells, no carriage’s with vegetable qualities, no prince charming on his noble steed.  But in the company of people with wills as strong as iron, human kindness as genuine as each and every warm toothy smile I received that day, and a community close as kin I had an ending happier than any I’d read before. 

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