It was going to be a long day.
Mother and I left Pretoria for O.R. Tambo International Airport at about 10 in the morning. It was hot, the sky blazing blue and cloudless, as only Highveld summers can be. Patches of green stubbled veld and sprawling boxy new developments spread on either side of the highway.
Traffic was light. It was Monday, a mere four days from Christmas. The annual South African migration to the coast had begun over the weekend already, but the airport itself was busy, busy, full of excited families, small children hugging their favorite toys, scurrying as they followed moms and dads intent on making it to the departure gate in time.
Mother’s flight was a few hours before mine. I didn’t mind hanging out at the airport. I enjoy people watching and my own inner dialogue.
I had passed through the bustling melee at security – a breeze compared to what I we are used to in the US – and strolled to the gate. I happened to glance through a window and noticed a lowering sky, so dark it seemed as if night had fallen. What had happened to the blue sky, I wondered.
Thunder shook the terminal, determined to ruin everyone’s timetable. Our flight was delayed. I sat down next to a wizened gentleman, his skin the color of aging apricot. An aquiline nose that flattened into broad nostrils; smiling eyes. Wrinkles like a Khoisan mapped his features. He laughed at the antics of one of the little toddlers who was running up and down. The kid was oblivious of the adults, the patience we were all trying to display blurred by the joy of his laughter. It lightened the mood of apprehension that hung in the air.
I heard the gentleman say, “Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself…”
I turned to him, and completed the quote: “They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”
His eyes seemed surprised. Kahlil Gibran’s famous poem On Children was oft-quoted by my late father. I even had those lines written down somewhere in a notebook that I had saved from my school days.
We chatted briefly, then I got up and began to wander around, restless. Our flight had been delayed by at least three hours, it was announced. It turned out to be longer than that.
When at last I boarded the plane, I discovered to my great surprise that I was seated next to the old gentleman I had been chatting to.
His name, he said, is Don Mattera. A poet. A freedom fighter against the white oppression during the Apartheid years. A man of mixed race, a Colored man: that was how he had been classified. His grandfather had been Italian, his mother a Xhosa with Khoisan blood.
He had been placed under house arrest twice during the years of The Struggle.
I was fascinated. To my shame I had never heard of him. We weren’t allowed to read works of banned people during those years of oppression. We didn’t even have access to the writings.
He recited from memory a poem he had written when he was 17. I was blown away by the depth and grace and power of his words. I wanted to hear more, but he was tired. He wanted a chocolate, but the service was slow. He confided that he was diabetic, so I gave him a cookie I had in my purse, and a candy, probably an after dinner mint from some restaurant that I had saved for some unknown reason.
“You are a very beautiful, kind woman,” he said. “A beautiful soul.”
I smiled. I wanted to hear more about his life, but he was very tired.
“I am a Muslim,” he confided.
“How did that happen?” I asked, curious. He had mentioned being raised Catholic.
“I saw it as the religion of the white man. The faith of the Oppressor.How could God condone the way they treated us?”
“I understand.” I said.
We disembarked in Port Elizabeth and I shook his hand and said goodbye, and that it had been a pleasure talking to him.
He walked away, a bent figure,struggling against the wind, towards the lights of the airport building, carrying with him all the years that had been written in his face.
On his death
It was our suffering
and our tears
that nourished and kept him alive
their law that killed him
Let no dirges be sung
no shrines be raised
to burden his memory
sages such as he
need no tombstones
to speak their fame
Lay him down on a high mountain
that he may look
on the land he loved
the nation for which he died
Men feared the fire of his soul
I found this wonderfully enlightening interview about this great man: