On September 24th, people celebrate Heritage Day in South Africa. On this occasion, everyone in the country is invited to re-connect with his/her own roots and to show for the whole word to see that despite its differences, this patchwork of tribes, races and cultures has finally learned to live happily together.
Heritage Day has soon turned into Braai day, the braai – local barbecue – being the common denominator bringing people of different layers of the South African society together. On that day, right before noon, the acre smell of burnt charcoal rises from every house, every garden, every park, striking eyes and nostrils equally while opening a long awaited perspective to your tastebuds. You feel “yummy” inside before you can even see the shape of a braai in your horizon.
This year was the first I participated to Heritage Day, and as excited as I was, I must admit that the memory of it is still bitter-sweet to me.
My friend Ryan from the Bang Bang club invited me to join him on a trip to Magaliesburg in a steam train. I remember thinking: “Is there a better way to celebrate South Africa heritage than hopping into one of his glorious locomotives to relive the golden age of railways?”. He then added that he and some friends , involved in foster care, would bring along children they are looking after. No need to say more. I was in with all my heart.
We left Johannesburg from Park Station early that day. Our locomotive, a 3046 Jeanine, was a stunning thing to see. Drapped in her shinny armour, she was both delicate and powerful, and we soon started to spend our time peeking through the window to see her glistening in the September sun, a big dark column of smoke rising above her protuberant chimney.
The kids were all excited. Most of them hadn’t been on a train before, and the sparkle in their eyes was bright as a diamond. Screams of joys were running through the wagon, under the complacent eyes of the adults looking after them. It was a joyful trip, we all enjoyed it very much.
Of Magaliesburg, I didn’t see much. From the station, we went down to the river, laid a few blankets there and started sharing the food everyone had brought. We ate quietly, enjoying the sun and the lively company of our little fellows. Air balloons had been brought, and I was soon tacitly assigned the demanding task of making dogs out of them. Blue dogs, green dogs, red dogs of every shape but a that of dog soon popped out of my incompetent hands. Fortunately, children are quick to forgive anyone crafting their fantasies. They played around for a while; it was then time to go back to the train.
There is not much to say about our way back to Johannesburg. It was all the same, and yet utterly different. Excitement had turned into nervous weariness, the complacent eyes of the families around were now saturated with alcohol. People were loud and tired, and the trip lasted forever. Fortunately, our kids were still as sweet as before, and I was having a great time with them. When we arrived to Johannesburg, I remember asking one of them what he wanted to do when he is older. With his eyes starring at the wagons we were passing by, he replied in a very confident tone: “Train driver”. Rugby player only came second in the list on that day.
It was a great day overall and I had lots of fun with the kids and with my friends. But in the evening, when I started putting the dots together, I realised which kind of heritage we had been celebrating all day long. An heritage that leaves kids with no family around, with no clear future, with a rising poverty waiting for them to fall into its claws. I felt sad thinking about it. Sad for all the bruises this country is recovering from. I couldn’t see the point in celebrating all of this. It’s only after a while that I started to realise how wrong I was. Heritage Day is of the utmost importance indeed: because forcing us into pondering about the true weight of heritage is the first step that makes us want to create a brighter future for these kids. I don’t know what the future, as it stands, holds for the kids I met that day. But what I know is that it’s only up to us to make sure there are trains for them to drive one day.