A Nod of the Head and A Wink of the Eye
“I’ll pray for your wife,” I lied to him as we shook hands. His face lightened briefly, a small smile flittering across it. “That’s all we can do,” he replied, “I’d appreciate it.” For a moment, I caught a glimpse of the man in the photographs littering the walls of the home I had slept in last night. I saw the august husband, his charming wife and their beautiful children, an entire family – as it once was, hanging on their walls, spread out along the thread of time. “She had cancer; now, with the osteoporosis and arthritis, she has to get injections of pain medication every day,” he said. I told him I was sorry, reiterated my promise, and thanked him again for his kindness. Then I walked away.
Izak had refused to take my money when it came time to pay him. I had ended up stranded in a small farming town, waylaid between the metropolises of Durban and Nelspruit on my return from visiting a good friend, and found myself at a gas station too many hours after the sun had gone down. Izak worked there and offered me a bed at his guesthouse for a paltry R60 – almost R300 less than the next option – so I jumped on it. He gave me a lift to his home, showed me the room I would be sharing for the night, and gave me a ride back to the taxi rank in the morning. He even fed me breakfast, something that isn’t normally included in the price.
And there at the gas station, where the retiree still worked because, as he told me, it gave him something to keep busy with, he politely refused my money. I was unrelenting, insisting that he take my money. He reminded me, “You are doing welfare work in my own country; how could I charge you?” I assured him that I had money, I wasn’t destitute, and that it was a small sum anyway. And then the voice in my head told me to stop spitting in the face of this munificent old man, so I defaulted to the only other way I could think of paying him: I told him I’d pray for his sick wife.
As I walked off, I whispered a hasty and hallow one and threw it to the ether, uncomfortable with the sour feeling in my gut. I was walking a line barely there between betraying my own beliefs for the sake of a quieted conscience and blatantly deceiving Izak. I had led him to believe something about me that was untrue and I had done it intentionally in order to exploit his emotions. If there is a God, I had sinned deeply. And why – because I couldn’t accept Izak’s small act of kindness? We humans are complex creatures and I don’t really know why I said what I did; but I think it had something to do with the conversation we had in his car minutes earlier.
Like so many other white South Africans, young and old, Izak and his wife were incredibly kind to me. They took me, a stranger, into their home, gave me a bed to sleep in, gave me sustenance. They gave me rides to and from the taxi rank and, for all this, they charged me nothing. They were nothing if not good Christians. But they didn’t do any of this for the black South Africans staying at their guesthouse. They didn’t feed them, or give them rides, and certainly did charge them. And in the car, on the way to the rank the next morning, Izak told me he thought his country’s history “began 300 years ago.”
Like the avuncular old Portuguese barber in Durban I had met three days before, his benevolence belied a deeper belief, one that a disproportionate number of white South Africans signal to each other with a nod of the head and a wink of the eye. Their feckless subversion of a post-racial South Africa cripples the country’s ability to genuinely progress past its dark and craven past. And while black South Africans are responsible for their share of feet-dragging, behavior always betrays belief and their guile is anything but anodyne; if not the rough letter of apartheid, then it’s in the exact spirit of it.
As Peace Corps Volunteers, this is the sort of challenge we’re supposed to tackle; but I have no answer for this paradox. How am I to malign a grandfather to his face after he has opened his home to me? How do I thank a racist for his compassion? How can a country evolve in the autumn of its life? The whole thing reminds me of this line from the Bhagavad Gita: “To the work alone are you entitled, and not the fruit.”