I was in love with a medicine worker. We sat in the mountains at an outdoor café towards the end of my four-month trip to South Africa. We were sealed at that point, two hearts attempting to find a way to gracefully detach. During our meal a station wagon drove up and my mentor got out. I excused myself from my lover and took to my mentor, hugging and greeting him with great joy. This man had coached me in how to ingest South Africa, how to digest Apartheid, on how to determine the nutritional value therein.
I was an activist studying in Cape Town. The more I learned of multiculturalism and social change, as was the goal of my time there, the more my head split and my heart opened and my previous activism platforms felt hollow. This mentor sat with me on the fenced-in porch of a township community center as I cried, “How do you keep going?” The whole weekend we learned about keeping hope alive despite Cape Town’s secret underbelly, the unmarked graves, a city “drenched and built on blood.”
We visited the sites of massacre and of rebellion, a tour of history off the books. And we ended up behind a barbed wire fence for a Rosh Hashanah gathering, challahs hand-braided in Langa, song and prayer with a diverse group including former revolutionaries largely responsible, depending on whom you asked, for the fall of Apartheid. So when months later I saw this man who, despite his own wounds, like hating the one blonde girl in our group because “her eyes reminded him of his former jail guard,” I was overwhelmed and excited.
Everyone in Cape Town holds a story, and more than one story contradicts. I hugged my mentor goodbye and watched him get back into the car, the backseat of a Volvo, cap pulled down covering his eyes, as his wife drove him away. To me, an American thirsty to learn and know any history beyond my own, thirsty to rub up against the most prickly of South African history, to me, my mentor was a hero.
I walked back to my friend and he looked at me as if he had seen a ghost. “Why are you talking to that man?” He asked. “Do you know who that is?”
“Yes,” I replied, nearly giddy. “That is my teacher whom I met during the history tour I told you about. He is very special to me.” From there a story I had not heard unfolded. My lover looked at me at that point like I was crazy and began to tell story after story about a man who was tortured and revealed secrets of an underground movement to save his mother and his sister.
He told me all about how when my mentor gave names to the police they led them to a man, the leader of the coloured resistance movement, who was then killed. “This mentor of yours,” he told me, “is largely responsible for the plight of the coloured people today. It could have been different, but thanks to his actions it is not.”
My lover was a medicine worker, an herbal healer. He had spent years previous to my South African arrival traveling the mountains of the country learning with healers and spirit-workers. After his learning years, he returned to Cape Town, gathered the herbs from the mountains, and proceeded to heal people as best he could. He introduced new secrets to me, like the possibilities of coming off of prescription medication with herbal assistance.
And my lover and another medicine worker I knew, the husband of a well-known filmmaker who happened to be my advisor, they did not believe in each other’s magic. So again, between these two other important men in my life I had to draw a distinction between my ties to their hearts, and the nuance of their contradictions. Before that lunch in the mountains I was in a hostel lobby waiting for my Saudi Arabian friend to finish a healing session with the other healer, the enemy healer. I was caught between medicinal fire, between political memory, and between my own sensations of human connection with each of these men.
The second medicine man confirmed that, in fact, my mentor was wanted dead throughout South Africa, and for this reason, drove with his cap pulled down in the backseat of a car. He was hiding from those who felt he did not deserve to live because another’s life was sacrificed in his place. When my lover sold his herbs in the market, a beautiful man sat next to him selling woodcuts. I loved this man’s presence, often sat and simply smiled with him. It turned out that the man killed by my mentor’s inability to keep a secret under torture was this man’s brother.
After a semester of in-depth learning, after four homestays with families from across the rainbow spectrum, I still left that day feeling confused and contorted from the inside out. Those I thought I knew, and what I thought I understood in that last month, was rocked on its axis. Nothing was as it appeared to be. To “know” a place that is not yours, to truly understand history or people or any of the past and its politics, to me, is nearly impossible. What I left that trip with was a heightened sense of paradox, of how to hold multiple truths in one body, how to love both the healer and his enemy, the revolutionary and his hated other.
In my last month in Israel I find myself drawing comparisons to South Africa. Not in the way that the media does, but along my heart. There are seams inside of me that America reinforces, seams that world travel, last months in paradoxical and severely human cities, rip to shreds. My seams are going unmended here in Jerusalem, like they did in South Africa, and I am left with the most profound sense of humility before a history and a land whose stories are far more numerous, far more nuanced, far more bloody and contradictory, wounded and gorgeous than I could have possibly imagined.