Below are the highlights from my 2014 Reading List selection:
Saturday, March 14, 2015
My Traitor's Heart Kindle Notes
Below are the highlights from my 2014 Reading List selection:
My Traitor's Heart: A South African Exile Returns to Face His Country, His Tribe, and His Conscience by Rian Malan
You have 99 highlighted passages
Last annotated on March 1, 2014
Since straying from the Dutch-ruled colony a century earlier, these nomadic Boers had extracted many teeth. At first, the country they moved into was populated by yellow-skinned races that disintegrated in the face of white advance. Those Hottentot not wiped out by smallpox were made servants; and as for the stone-age Bushmen, they were regarded as dangerous vermin.
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They called themselves Doppers because they were deliberately and consciously extinguishing the light of the Enlightenment, so that they could do what they
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There are many truths about Afrikaners, but none so powerful and reverberant as this willful self-blinding. It was the central act in our history, or so it seems to me. The men of Dawid Malan’s generation were the first true Afrikaners; they were the mold, and all who followed were cast in it. They snuffed out the light, and we have lived ever since in darkness. We shit on the altars of Western enlightenment and defy the high priests who would have us behave in accordance with its moral tenets. It was so; it is so.
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What would you have me say? That I think apartheid is stupid and vicious? I do. That I’m sorry? I am, I am. That I’m not like the rest of them? If you’d met me a few years ago, in a bar in London or New York, I would have told you that. I would have told you that only I, of all my blind clan and tribe, had eyes that could truly see, and that what I saw appalled me. I would have passed myself off as a political exile, an enlightened sort who took black women into his bed and fled his country rather than carry a gun for the abominable doctrine of white supremacy. You would probably have believed me. I almost believed myself, you see, but in truth I was always one of them. I am a white man born in Africa, and all else flows from there.
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In my father’s youth, in the twenties and thirties, race wasn’t the central issue in white South African politics. Afrikaners of his generation were less concerned about keeping blacks in their place than tearing down the Union Jack, resurrecting the lost Boer republics, and uplifting the volk from its poor white penury.
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The Mongolian cheekbones of the brown-skinned shepherds recalled the Hottentots, a race long extinct. Ben’s speech was haunted by the brei—a roll of the r that harked back to French, a language unspoken in South Africa for almost two centuries, and his white bywoners spoke an archaic dialect called High Dutch.
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Indeed, the bywoners themselves were archaic. There were three of them in all, Tannie Jeanette and men named Nic and Evert. They were unlike any other whites I had ever met, standing in virtually the same feudal relation to their master as the brown shepherds. They lived in bare rooms whose whitewashed walls were hung with the skins of trapped animals. The men often went barefoot, wore beards that hung to their chests, and sawed through the throats of kicking sheep on a bluegum stump in the yard of the farmhouse. They were the last of their kind, but then Ben’s way of life was dying, too.
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vaaljapie, a crude white wine that
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Broederbonders, members of the Brotherhood, the secret society of Calvinists and apartheid zealots that constituted the spine of the Afrikaner power structure. The prime minister, his cabinet, most Afrikaner MPs, and all senior civil servants were Brothers.
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Fanagalo, half Zulu, half pidgin English.
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They were all goms, or rednecks—common, in my mother’s prim Victorian estimation.R
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To hear me talk, you’d imagine there was no more to life than being white or black and coping with the relevant consequences. It wasn’t really that way. I was fixated on apartheid, to be sure, but I was equally agonized about acne and premature ejaculation.
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concept, connoting kamikaze debaucheries. It was a Cape colored street term, but all races used it, making it one of the pathetically few things we had in common. Divided we stood, united we jolled. Blacks jolled to obliterate their dismal present; whites to blot out the uncertain future. The word is essentially untranslatable, but any tattooed gangster from the colored slums could define its essential ingredients: drank, dagga, dobbel en vok—“drink, dope, dice and fucking.”
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Dollar was a black jazz pianist from Cape Town, and his “Mannenberg” was the song of those times—twenty-two intoxicating minutes of wailing African saxes and shifting township rhythms.
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Most English South Africans had some Afrikaans, but their accents betrayed them as soutpiels—“salt dicks.” A soutpiel was an Englishman with one foot in South Africa and the other in England—a straddle so broad that his cock dangled in the sea. Most policemen, on the other hand, were rocks, or Afrikaners, and rocks were not all that fond of soutpiels, especially those who worked for the disloyal English press.R
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said “ja-nee,” a Boer phrase that means “yes-no”
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Its trains were infested with tsotsis, young gangsters who immobilized their victims with a sharpened bicycle spoke in the thigh, and then made off with their cash or packages.
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How could they fail to empathize with the axman? I was white, but even I had an inkling of the rage that surely drove his ax through white skulls. Was I really on their side? Were they on mine? Or did we meet like soldiers in no-man’s-land, exchanging cigarettes and handshakes on Christmas Day?
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Revolutions don’t break out in times of intense oppression. They come during periods of reform and liberalization.
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my youth, Chevrolet South Africa mounted a hugely successful advertising campaign around the slogan “Braaivleis, Rugby, Sunny Skies and Chevrolet.” It was a good slogan. It evoked all that was finest about the sweet white life in the land of apartheid. The slogan was plastered across huge billboards, across blown-up photographs of sunny outdoor scenes rather like the one we are looking at now.
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but I was unhinged by the terrible image that lay at the heart of Paulina’s story—that quintessentially South African tableau of braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies, and torture.
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There is even a traditional word for it in the Afrikaans language: he died of a kafferpak, meaning a “kaffir hiding,” a brutal beating of the sort whites have been administering to blacks since the day we set foot on this continent.
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That ancient Boer understood that there would be an accounting for his deeds, and yet he was unwilling or unable to stay his own hand. One hundred and sixty years later, his descendants were shedding as much blood as ever, and God’s wrath had yet to descend.
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Ek het vokol. I am black, and I have no power; “I have fuck-all.” In his mouth, that crude word was like a fist in my white face.
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On their deceptive surface, South Africa’s big cities were integrated in proportions familiar to eyes grown accustomed to America. There were blacks in the bars,
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on the buses, and in the universities; token blacks in boardrooms and executive suites; black announcers on white television; little black cricketers on the playing fields of expensive private schools; and yes, blacks at the lunch counter in Woolworth
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Sea Point wasn’t content to be a white suburb at the foot of an awesome mountain on the tip of Africa. It tarted itself up as “the South African riviera,” and even that was a misnomer, because there was almost nothing South African about it. Its restaurants were French, or Italian, or American, like the Seven Spurs Steak Ranch and The Drug Store, or Greek, or Indian, or just dumb hybrids, like American Croissants.
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Breyten Breytenbach, the bad boy of Boer literature.
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In white Cape Town, apartheid often seemed a dim and distant menace. You could ignore it if you chose to.
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In my absence, there had been several seismic changes in Afrikanerdom: The Dutch Reformed Church had withdrawn its blessing of apartheid; the grand apartheid blueprint for a pure white South Africa had been scrapped; and the Afrikaner tribe itself had split into right-wing and ultralight factions.Read more at location 2436
The South African Broadcasting Corporation
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As a white man living in South Africa in the mid-eighties, he would have faced another choice of four paths. The first path, the most rightward path, was the road of eternal, absolute, and uncompromising white supremacy, leading into the arms of the neofascist far white right.
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The second path was the path of P. W. Botha’s National Party, the path of gradual reform, leading to God knows what end.
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didn’t grasp that the only issue was power.
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The third path was the path of white liberalism, which led into the embrace of the Progressive Federal Party, party of choice in the glass-bottomed boat. The PFP stood for Western-style democracy, free markets, and negotiated solutions—ideas that struggled to find support outside the urban enclaves of upper-middle-class English-speakers. The broad mass of Afrikaners found the PFP unpalatable, and so did blacks.
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And that left the left, which forked into two paths. The first was the path of Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness. Most of my black colleagues on The Star had long since disappeared down that path, but a white man could not follow. Black Consciousness organizations did not accept white members. All that remained for a white man’s salvation was the broad faith of Charterism.
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The charter was an ambiguous, poetic document, open to almost any interpretation. Its opening line was “The people shall govern!” and it went on to state that the doors of learning would be thrown open, the land shared by those who worked it, and gold revenues by those who mined it.Read more at location 2538
Nelson Mandela is “our father,” the ANC is our movement, and we stand for black rule in some sort of socialist state.
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East African kikois were in, as were car-tire sandals, African music, African jewelry, African political leaders, and the authentic pronunciation of the word itself, as in AAH-free-kah. All this struck me as a rite of sympathetic magic, performed in the
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First step on the road to redemption was to convince yourself that South Africa was being torn apart by class struggle, not race war. The second was to move into alignment with the black working class and its self-proclaimed vanguard, the nonracial, socialist ANC. Beyond that point, you were born again. South Africa became a country where enemies were determined by class alliance, not race, and since you were allied in theory to the black proletariat, your whiteness was theoretically irrelevant—an enormously comforting thought in an agony of racial polarization.R
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The white left had fought apartheid, and now we were free to go home and crane our necks in the direction of the townships in search of smoke we could never see. We all hated apartheid, but when the chips were down, and it was high noon on the township streets, and the killing started, there were no whites on the black side of the barricades. None. Ever.
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At such times, white skin became a grave liability in the townships.
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The only white civilians who dared venture into riot situations were reporters and cameramen, and they went in on journalistic commando raids, driving fast cars, preferably rented ones. The model of choice was a BMW with a sunroof. In a sun-roofed BMW, a white reporter could shoot photographs and footage without setting foot in black South Africa, and make a quick getaway if necessary.
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When the day comes, you’ll still be whitey. Here was a fine how do you do. I was gifted by a vision of Dan Rather saying, “In South Africa, some whites are stupid enough to believe in civil rights and democracy, and think they can change sides in a race war. Allen Pizzey has the story.
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They had come, as Fabius put it, “to support the fight against apartheid,” but that was more easily said than done. In Johannesburg, Alexandra township had become so dangerous for whites that the Frenchmen couldn’t set foot in it. In Cape Town, they were bold enough to actually go in. Unfortunately, the comrades of Old Crossroads didn’t recognize eminent socialists on sight They saw whites in a van, so they stoned it.
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How did you fight apartheid and build a just society if the people you were doing it for stoned you because your skin was white
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“You have become one of them,” she once told me, meaning that I had become an American.
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In South African resistance circles, this was the most cutting insult imaginable.
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And that’s how it was in white South Africa at the height of the great black uprising. Some of us supported apartheid and some of us didn’t, but we all had something in common with Dawid Malan: We approached Africa in fear and trepidation, or better yet, we didn’t approach Africa at all. It seemed to me that this was surely our central problem. We had yet to come to terms with Africa, and doing so was not going to be easy. I mean, how do you come to terms with something you don’t really understand?R
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In those days, the Zulus knew their place and kept to it, scurrying around on the periphery of white lives, bearing gin and tonics, responding to bells, cutting cane, and minding children.
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Ah, yes, now we’re hearing the heart of the matter. Whites don’t know blacks, or what their rise portends. To most whites, blacks are inscrutable; they can’t talk to them, don’t understand them, and struggle to see them in three dimensions. Blacks are merely black; they are blank screens onto which whites project their own fears and preconceptions.Read more at location 2960
South African blacks, the pass was the single most loathsome aspect of a loathsome control system. A black man had to carry his pass with him at all times, and produce it on demand. Unless it bore the name of his employer, and the signature of his white boss, he was not allowed to be in white South Africa. Blacks hated the pass and the state of virtual serfdom it symbolized.
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To follow the swallows is a Zulu proverb that means to die,
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Moved to anxiety by such tales, my American friends wrote letters asking if “they” were onto me. No, they weren’t. They never came anywhere near me, or Roy, or the white guy who produced Sopher’s documentary, or anyone else we knew. They were out in the townships, torturing black radicals, presumably. We were sitting around Roy’s pool, drinking up the profits of what was privately referred to as “the gold rush.” It was a very good time to be a journalist in South Africa. The outside world had suddenly developed an insatiable craving for images of black suffering, and whites of a certain social caste and political inclination were falling over one another in their eagerness to provide them.
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In such an era, Joe Slovo’s politics seemed absurd, but so for that matter did Botha’s. It was hard to keep a straight face when his government tried to cast itself as the valiant defender of “democratic values” and the Western way. If the white rulers truly wished to thwart the “total Communist onslaught,” why didn’t they invite black democrats like Gatsha Buthelezi into their camp, and make his followers their equal? Why did they continue to bar blacks from white schools and residential areas, and relegate their putative colored and Indian allies to separate houses of Parliament, where they had no real power? As a hearts-and-minds campaign against Marxism, it was the most stupid conceivable, and it revealed the white state for what it truly was: a ruling racial class. In the end, all South African issues merged into one—the race issue, the issue I had come home to resolve.
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I began to understand something quite important about South Africa: My fear of blacks was obscuring my understanding of the fear blacks felt for my white skin.
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We always seemed to miss each other in the murk of our mutually baffling cultures and our mutually blinding fears.
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It was quite often like that, even in the midst of that bloody uprising. I was desperate to win black trust and friendship, to have done with the absurd bullshit, and often thought I saw an answering yearning in black men’s eyes. I hate to inflict yet another contradiction on you, but I think this was a symptom of love. I had been obsessed with blacks all my life, you see, and it was not so different a feeling from that of first love, the truly intense and tragic kind.R
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When people asked why I was researching murders in the midst of a great racial rebellion, I’d always tell them about the revelatory life and prophetic death of Andries Petrus Hendricks. Alongside the raging struggle, his murder was an inconsequential little drama, but it seemed to illumine the subterranean South African issue more clearly than an entire library of books.
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As a tribe, a nation, we are all immured inside a fortress of racial paranoia, jealously hoarding our gold and getting deeper and deeper into a race war we cannot possibly win. We all know that.R
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Moral questions aside, we cannot defeat such an enemy without destroying ourselves.
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White liberals looked down on black victims and said, “Shame.” Steve Biko, on the other hand, spoke to the wounded black heart. He said, Rise up; embrace your blackness; be proud of who you are; grow strong. He scorned the sentimental doctrine of mankind’s unity, and the white liberals who propounded it, and yet this was not done with hatred. He never sounded like Louis Farrakhan. He slapped away the patronizing hand of whites like me, and yet I was not offended. He seemed to be saying, First this, first the black healing, and then we can talk, when we are all fully men. I don’t know, my friend, I am not sure that Steve Biko was really a political figure. I think he transcended politics. I could scarcely believe, in my secret racist heart, that a black man could be so wise and perceptive, and the awe I felt for him had almost religious overtones. I am not mocking when I call him Saint Biko the Radiant. That is how I saw him.
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In a way, Biko was a creation of the oppressive white state, in that its own actions set the stage for his inevitable emergence. In 1960, in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre, the state crushed Nelson Mandela’s ANC and Robert Sobukwe’s Pan-African Congress. Both Sobukwe and Mandela later went to jail, and many of their followers into exile. In exile, the ANC was kept alive largely by Moscow, and the PAC by Peking. Both organizations virtually ceased to exist inside South Africa. Into this absolute vacuum, in the late sixties, stepped Steve Biko. All other leaders had been cut down, and all hope crushed, so Biko was sucked hungrily into the empty, hopeless hearts of hundreds of thousands of black people. In my youth, all the black men I knew supported Biko. All the black reporters with whom I drank in The Star’s fourth-floor canteen were Biko men. All the black universities were aseethe with his ideas, and when Soweto’s black students took to the streets on June 16, 1976, Steve Biko’s name was on their lips. They were shot down, of course, and a year later Biko met his own tragic end in the hands of the secret police.
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When they were finally set free, those men and women regrouped in Azapo, the Azanian People’s Organization.
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A few months later, Radio Freedom, clandestine voice of the ANC, broadcasting from somewhere in the heart of Africa, called on its followers inside South Africa to eliminate “the third force.” What was the third force? On the streets, it seemed to mean anyone who did not pledge alliance to the ANC and Nelson Mandela—moderates, tribalists, apartheid “stooges” and “sellouts,” police informers, but also followers of Steve Biko.
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“The UDF is stealing our struggle,” Hlekiso said heatedly. “They have stolen our sign,” he said, referring to the clenched fist of black power, “and they have stolen our songs.” “What songs?” I inquired. “The Zulu song, ‘My mother becomes happy when I beat a white,’” he said. Well, well, I thought. The “nonracial” UDF steals songs about hitting whites, and the doctrinally pure BC socialists get very upset about it. There was clearly more here than met the eye. The national vice president of the Azanian Students’ Movement must have missed my raised eyebrows. A few minutes later, he cleared my request to interview a rank and file member of his movement.
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Schoolchildren in Mrs. Mandela’s neighborhood grew so tired of being bullied by her thugs that they eventually burned her house down in broad daylight while her neighbors looked on indifferently, none bothering to throw so much as a cup of water onto the flames.
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Everyone had blood on their hands.
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Blindness and lobotomy. These were not metaphors, my friend. They were physical conditions in my country, in the winter of 1986. You could not afford to see everything. You could not afford to go from the grave of Simon to the graves of his white victims, from Dennis Mosheshwe’s grave to Fana Mhlongo’s grave to the grave of Moses Mope. Such pilgrimages made you sick. They forced you to your knees, begging an accommodation with the howling ambiguities; begging for your eyes to go blind. It was in such a state of mind that I set out for a place called Msinga.
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In Neil Alcock’s lifetime, Mdukatshani had been a station on the South African via dolorosa, a place where foreign diplomats and journalists came for a firsthand look at the misery of life in the tribal homelands.Read more at location 5450
Once the cattle were pooled into a single herd, it became possible to fence the communal land and rotate the livestock from camp to camp, allowing the grass to recover. Financed by a grant from the The Chairman’s Fund, charity arm of the gold- and diamond-mining Anglo American Corporation, Neil set the jobless to work, blocking dongas with stones and thorn-bushes. In time, the wounds in the land started healing. Grass returned to the hillsides, and dry springs came back to life. As the grazing recovered, the communal herd was able to double in size. On a continent where most development projects failed, all this was something of a miracle. Development workers came from far and wide to stare at the mission’s lush pastures and fat cattle, and to replenish their sense of what was possible.
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From its rooftops, you look out over a broad floodplain. A network of gravity canals comes snaking out down the distant hills and fans out across the plain. These canals draw irrigation water from the Tugela eight miles upstream, carry it across the plain, past the town, and finally return it to the river—unused. There are hundreds of hectares of rich, irrigable land there, enough land to render Msinga agriculturally self-sufficient if it were farmed intensively. But much of it isn’t farmed at all. It has lain fallow almost constantly since 1928, its ownership a matter of dispute between subtribes of the Zulu nation. A Thembu who sinks a plowshare into that plain will surely be killed by the Mabaso, and vice versa.
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the first order of battle in Msinga. The Zulu nation consists of 250 such subtribes, seven of which call Msinga home. Those seven subtribes are in turn divided into dozens of subgroups called isigodi, each three to five thousand strong. An isigodi is a neighborhood, for lack of a better word.
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Wars that were once over in a day now dragged on for months or even years, un-reported even in the South African press. There was always fighting in Msinga, and always had been.
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In 1975, there was only one school in Msinga, and one high-school graduate. Eighty-three percent of the populace was illiterate. Msinga’s population density is 101 per square kilometer, versus 14 per square kilometer in white South Africa. About 80 percent of Msinga’s people have too little land from which to feed themselves.
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makes complete sense that anyone trapped in such a shithole should want to take up arms and fight. All that’s odd about Msinga’s wars is that Zulus kill one another, instead of joining forces and wiping out the whites across the border.
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it is said that “the only law that counts is the law inside a man’s head.
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Along that frontier, most Zulus obeyed one law, the law inside their heads. Most white farmers lived according to another—the law they wrote with their guns.
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He believed in African farmers, and thought they were quite wise enough to devise solutions to their own problems. Such solutions, moreover, were the only ones that would work—African solutions, using African methods and African technologies.Read more at location 5886
If a boulder lay in the path of one of his furrows, Zulu women built a bonfire under it, heated it until it glowed, then doused it with pails of water. Voilà. The rock shattered. Zulu dynamite, they called it.
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And so ended the first of many bad days in Msinga. There had been wars elsewhere in the district in the preceding three years, but none near Mdukatshani until now. As Neil and Creina understood it, a young man from the Majola faction, a few miles upriver, had tried to seduce the girlfriend of a rival Madondo. Now young men were killing one another in consequence—killing innocent truck drivers, too. In the ensuing three months, the Majola-Madondo war claimed twenty-seven lives.
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And she told me about the time their hut burned down. She and Neil lost what little they had in that fire. As word of their misfortune spread, Zulus started converging on Mdukatshani from miles around. Some were old, some were total strangers, and all were desperately poor, and yet they came to help the white man. Some offered gifts of cash, and those who had nothing offered their muscles, to help with the rebuilding. One ancient man tried to press a tattered banknote into Neil’s hand. He must have been hoarding it for decades, and now he was offering it to a white man. Afterward, if anyone asked Neil why he stayed even though it meant dying, he mentioned that day—the day the poorest black people dug up their buried treasure and offered it to him. He and Creina had yearned all their lives to belong in Africa, and it seemed that Africa had finally accepted them, and returned their embrace. After that, he could not forsake his people, and so he stayed, and Creina stayed with him.
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This was the truly tragic aspect of Msinga’s wars: Nobody wanted them, save the bloodthirsty young hotheads who set them off.
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Once the slaughter was under way, there was simply no mechanism to stop it. The tribal leaders’ power was waning, and the South African Police were entirely ineffectual.
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And Neil was lying on his face in the dust of Africa, dead.
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This was an old Afrikaner philosophy called kragdadigheid, the act of power: You took what you wanted, and held it with your gun and fists. Creina and Neil Alcock had spent their entire lives fighting against whites who lived according to that barbaric philosophy, but now Creina decided to try it their way.
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Creina’s willingness to love, to bear light, had carried her deeper into Africa than any other white I had ever heard of, and she seemed to have discovered that the Doppers were right. If you loved you were vulnerable, and if you were vulnerable you were weak, and if you were weak in Africa, you got fucked, and fucked again, and again, until you could no longer stand it.
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“I think you will know what I mean if I tell you love is worth nothing until it has been tested by its own defeat. I felt I was being asked to try to love enough not to be afraid of the consequences. I realized that love, even if it ends in defeat, gives you a kind of honor; but without love, you have no honor at all.
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think that is what I had misunderstood all my life. Love is to enable you to transcend defeat.
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To live anywhere in the world, you must know how to live in Africa. The only thing you can do is love, because it is the only thing that leaves light inside you, instead of the total, obliterating darkness.”
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set out to confront this thing in a place where I thought it lay: in stories of the way we killed each other.
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“Trust can never be a fortress,” she said, “a safe enclosure against life. Trusting is dangerous. But without trust there is no hope for love, and love is all we ever have to hold against the dark.”
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In the end, the sun went down and the celebrants went home, leaving the horns of the sacrificial cattle nailed to the roof of Creina’s home. The horns were a reminder of the ceremony performed that day, a sign that the household within had honored its shades. In a continent where people worship their ancestors, Neil Alcock had become a god—the first white god in Africa, as far as anybody knows. Aeons after our ancestors walked away, the first white man had come home to Africa to stay.
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