And then I knew that if I had even a fraction as much courage as Zim, I’d be just fine.
Zim walked over to our table, she smiled as we started clapping and she took a small curtsy. We clapped so strongly. She was laughing for modesty’s sake, but our admiration and awe were real.
We were clapping because we had just seen one of the most beautiful things we had ever hoped to see, something made even more incredible by its unexpectedness.
Dr. Keasley, Lorien, Paul and I were having dinner at the Africa Cafe. It’s a two-story restaurant squeezed into a city block in Cape Town. There was never anything more authentic, and still acutely touristy. The walls were painted light yellow, like powdered dirt clay. On a few of the walls were intricate patterns painted all the way across and spiraling downward. From the ceiling hung spirals of thickly-coated red wire that blossomed into more spirals, and at the end of each of these was a light fixture, a sculpture of a tea cup and saucer with painted metal feathers exploding out of the back of them, and loose colored spiral lights bursting from the mouths of the teacups. On the walls hung a few framed paintings. Zim was our waitress.
While the Africa Cafe mainly serves tourists, in a rare moment it felt like we were truly in Africa, not in Europe or North America. A connected global world often feels homogenous, branded, and inauthentic. The Africa Cafe was not that, theirs was a sincere attempt at authenticity.
The restaurant serves a fixed menu based on what’s in season. They serve strictly traditional African dishes in a table-sharing style. There were bowls of curry-filled roti, steaming plates of sticky honey glazed chicken, lentil sauces, fried tapioca cheese bread, thick beef stew, crispy sweet potato balls, spinach and maize patties, juicy chickpea-sautéed fish. For dessert there was poppyseed cake. I wasn’t sure I would be able to eat more, but just as unsure that I would ever be able to stop. They brought out a little of everything at once, and we could request more of what we liked.
It was delicious, all of it. I don’t say this for dramatic effect. It was what we’ve been hoping for, every day, for the past three weeks: some glimpse of traditional South African cooking that you’d have to be in South Africa to have.
I mean, as great as KFC was.
All of the waitresses wore colored, patterned aprons and headbands or head wraps to cover their braids. Each girl had a painted face design, white dots around the eye and temple or flowers along the side of their face. One of the girls came around to our table with a wooden plate and a mirror to adorn each of us. The flowers she saved for Dr. Keasley.
One guest was celebrating his brithday in the small, high-ceilinged room where we sat. We started hearing drums and singing in the next room and eventually the entire staff, close to 15 people, was next to us. The room was small so the tables hugged the walls. The drum and their voices filled the space between us. Zim started with hearty cry, banging with wild, heavy arms on the drum. One of the boys had his arms wrapped tightly around the drum, hugging it to his chest. The rest were clapping, with their whole bodies, their voices colliding and harmonizing and enveloping us. A man sitting in the corner with his wife started dancing in his seat and Zim motioned for him to get up. They danced and they sang like they were pushing the sounds out through the roof and through the rain.
I thought there might only be one song. But nearly six times, Zim paused before she bellowed out the first notes of the next song and the drum slowly started again. Every time, I hoped that she would start again and was glad when she did. It was during the second song that I started looking at each of their faces. One of the cooks, a woman in a red apron and head wrap was smiling, consumed by joy. I looked at her and the beauty of it, the happiness of it, made me want to cry. When I looked at her face, and at the boy next to her and the girl next to him, what I saw were their parents, their grandparents. I saw, in them, a culture that was fully alive. I saw songs that refused to stop being sung, through slavery, through colonialism, through apartheid. They would not stop being sung now.
I’ve never known people with so much to hate. Instead, they looked as though there could be nothing more they could want than this beautiful moment. What they have are these songs that are their parents, their grandparents, their great great great ancestors, and now them.
They finished with a tune that resembled “Happy Birthday” and slowly filed out of the room to the petering-out of the drum. Zim came over to our table and we started applauding. Zim kept surprising me that night, first with every song she started when I thought she was finished, and then with what she told us next.
We told her that her voice was beautiful. She winked and laughed so deeply. She told us that it had always been difficult to answer the phone and have people say “Hello, sir.” She never had the light, girlish voice she had wanted. For years, she said, she had cried and cried and held knives up to her throat threatening to cut her voice out. She was nervous to sing in church while her mother sang often and sang beautifully. Zim would behind her and whisper.
One day she told her grandmother why she hated her voice and her grandmother was outraged. She told Zim to stop being so silly because she, her grandmother, had the same voice, and she was the best singer in the whole church. Zim’s grandmother stood up in front of the church the next day and said, “This is for my grand daughter who thinks her voice is ugly.” Zim’s eyes laughed as she did and said, “Do you know what I did? I got up there and I was like YAAAAAAAAAH and I sang so loudly and everybody went crazy.”
Zim surprised me for the third time that night when Paul asked her how long she’d been working at the Africa Cafe. She said “Oh Lord don’t ask me that question,” and said it had probably been 6 years. She said that she had been studying at a university in Cape Town, “But in my first year, I fell pregnant.” She had had to drop out and then started working at this restaurant. She had to raise a child.
Zim’s sister kept telling her that the world was waiting for her talent. Zim eventually began taking some courses in a theatre program. And then there was an audition and everyone in her classes was in jitters talking about The Lion King production in London. Zim said it was the only thing she truly knew she wanted. She made it to London and auditioned. “They told me to sing, I sang,” she said. “Then they had a callback and they called me back. They told me to dance and I danced. And I knew that I had it. But I was feeling very sick, and I went into the bathroom and I saw that I had fallen pregnant again. And I cried. I cannot tell you how I cried. I walked out of that bathroom and I saw the director of the musical and he told me how incredible I had been, and that the casting director wanted to meet with me. I told him what happened. And they sent me home.”
She told us that she would never say that her kids were anything less than a blessing, but that it was so sad, such a shame, that she had lost that chance. She looked off to the side and then she looked at us again and said, “You know what? My dream is still out there, it’s one of those things that I’ll have to reach out and grab. But it’s there.” She reached out her arm to demonstrate. And then she was finished.
I walked out of the Africa Cafe that night feeling raw, as the rain poured down exactly as it should and the three of us bumped shoulders in the back of the taxi. My heart was ripped jagged and cleanly full all at once.
We left Zim a card. On the front it said “Hakuna Matata.” Amazingly, it was some card Lorien had happened to buy that day. Inside we wrote, “Your dream is waiting. We have the utmost confidence that you’ll reach it. Thanks for singing and sharing.” We left it propped up on the table and when she saw it she came running to hug us, wailing and teary. We posed for a picture together, smiling huge.
That was the Africa Cafe.