Last Visit With Japhet: Poignant Reunion Of Longstanding Friendship In AfricaJan 24, 2021 10:49AM ● By Tanya Hochschild
The long grass whispers “welcome” to our undercarriage as we ride in the back of our Land Rover. It sings swish-swish, you are here; swish-swish, we are waiting. The vehicle lurches out of a rut and sends our daughter, Claudie, and me into the air. We land on the foam mattress seat we share with sacks of groceries and boxes of fruit, gifts for our hosts. It is the southern hemisphere winter of 1990 and we are visiting the Jhanje family.
We are back in southern Africa, our birthplace. The quality of light and scent of the air sends us into raptures. Dramatic rainstorms are our operas, the awesome roar of a nearby lion sears itself in our memory. We are sentimental about the tastes of local food, of the kingklip fish we catch, of litchis, loquats and mulberries we pick from trees.
The three people in the cabin, my husband, Mike, his mother, Hazel, and Aaron Zhanje, roll around like puppets on an elastic band. Japhet Zhanje, Aaron’s father, who worked for the Hochschilds for more than 40 years, has retired to his farm. He advised us not to come in summer, as flooding often makes the roads impassable. So here we are, smelling the familiar scent of baked potatoes—the veldt in winter.
The national road out of Harare long ago turned into a dust track and little is left. We travel over a sea of grass. Aaron says, “We will be there soon.” African time, we know, means anything from five minutes to tomorrow. In the meantime, we enjoy seeing distinctive umbrella-shaped msasa trees and comical shapes of termite mounds. Suddenly, Aaron shouts, “We are here; this is my father’s kraal!”
We look ahead to see an exuberant crowd rushing toward us. The women are in long, colorful robes, older boys and girls in school uniforms. Except for strings of beads around their necks, waists, wrists and ankles, youngsters are mostly naked. Aaron jumps out of the vehicle and throws his arms around his brother Rodwell.
“Kwaziwayi? How are you?” “Ndakasimba! I am strong like a lion!” Aaron repeats this long-time-no-see greeting with the men and older boys, while women clap, children dance and dogs growl. “The dogs do not know white people,” Aaron explains, “but soon they will get used to you, don’t worry.”
Barefooted children drag us up the hill to round, thatched-roofed huts. Claudie walks with Edmond, a son of Japhet’s, who over the previous three years has become her pen-pal. We are taken into a huge boma, an open-sided enclosure with a concrete floor and no roof, where Japhet and his wife, Mathilda, wait. Shy and formal, in long-sleeved shirt and long pants, he greets us by shaking hands—when all we want to do is throw our arms around him. We haven’t seen him for five years, following his last visit to America.
Stories of Japhet are front and center in our family lore. My in-laws first saw him in a line of men seeking work at the Bantu Labor Office. Terms of employment were agreed upon by both parties; Japhet was driven to the Hochschilds’ home, becoming a member of the household.
Early on in his employment, he’d gone back to Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was then called). After a few months, it was time to return; Japhet discovered he had lost his papers, the hated “pass book.” It was an identity document Africans had to carry during apartheid, to be “legal.” He dared not travel the 400-mile, two-day train journey without papers. He felt his only option was to swim across the crocodile-infested Limpopo River, walk through lion country and tie himself to branches high in trees to sleep at night.
Finally, he arrived back at the Hochschilds’ home in Johannesburg—skinny as a wraith. When asked why he made such a dangerous trek, he answered, “I owed Mr. Hochschild money. I came back to repay it.”
It was during WWII that Japhet truly came into his own as a chef. A Hochschild uncle was senior medical commandant at the Allies’ Zonderwater prisoner of war camp, near Pretoria. Italy had a number of colonies in Africa and it was one of the duties of South African troops to invade and capture these territories.
Most of the captured were anti-war and were only too pleased to be living out WWII in South Africa. Uncle Bill’s rank entitled him to two attending POWs when he visited the Hochschilds over occasional weekends. He always chose chefs. One of them, Francesco, a culinary wizard, taught Bill’s good friend Japhet how to create risotto, lasagna, cannelloni, marinara sauce and many other favorite Italian dishes.
Japhet taught me how to cook. When I questioned him about measurements, he answered, “You take a teaspoon or a tablespoon.” When I asked if that was heaped or level, he answered, “What you like.” “How do you know when the dish is ready?” “You look,” he replied.
After we emigrated to the U.S., Japhet visited us on four occasions. The first time, Mike struggled to carry his suitcase. “What have you got in here, bricks?!” “Yes, to make the bed higher,” Japhet calmly answered.
There is an African superstition that the tokoloshe, a tiny evil spirit, jumps onto your bed at night and slits your throat. By putting bed legs on bricks, the bed becomes too high for the tokoloshe. Japhet wasn’t sure he would find bricks in America.
He loved Thursdays, the day before recycling. He walked around the neighborhood, finding a discarded suitcase, then replaced it the following week when he found a better one. He left with a fine set of luggage. And Japhet noticed the man at the tollgate and repeatedly advised Mike to buy one of those little houses where everyone pays to pass through. We saw our new country through fresh eyes!
That winter of 1990, at Japhet’s farm, everyone files into the boma. Children sit on grass mats, together with some women suckling babies. Others find seats on wooden chairs and sofas arranged in a circle. Hazel, Japhet, Mathilda, Mike and I sit on two sofas. When all are seated, Aaron stands up and announces, “Father welcomes you to our farm. We are beginning our day with a prayer and then the women will sing you a song of welcome.”
We bow our heads and listen to the prayer in the Shona language. Afterward, the women stand up and sing two verses of a Shona song. Their clear tones wash over us and into the hills.
Two young women come in carrying a basin filled with water and place it on the table. “Please wash your hands,” says Japhet, smiling, “and we will have tea.” Hazel looks at the basin, turns to Japhet and says, “That is the basin we used to bathe the boys in so many years ago. You STILL have it?”
We all laugh, knowing this is a special moment, a reunion of the elders of both our tribes. The moment is not without poignancy, the appreciation that despite the suffocating backdrop of apartheid—which legally forbade social mixing, and post-apartheid still a struggle—a deep and lasting friendship has developed between black and white families.
Japhet and Hazel have shared more moments than Japhet has with Mathilda. Mike recalls the day Hazel was crying in the dining room, shortly after her husband had died. Japhet put his arm around her shoulder and said, “Madam, please do not cry—everything will be all right.”
Japhet’s daughter Lucia has baked cupcakes. Hazel, once again, recognizes many of her china teacups, which she gave Japhet over the years. An irritant mars this excellent tea party—flies buzz around, landing on cupcakes and teacups. I notice Claudie studiously ignores them, except for the faintest brush of her hand when she thinks no one is looking.
After tea, many of us pile into the Land Rover to go to the high school to visit the headmaster. He and Japhet are the two most senior and important men in the district. The headmaster takes us on a tour of the school, introducing us to teachers and students.
Younger children suppress giggles behind their hands—they are not used to visitors. We learn much: Japhet acts as treasurer; there are eight teachers for 500 students; the library needs more books; the math class is doing the same algebra problems as their New York peers. Posters in hallways explain the scourge of AIDS.
Back at the kraal, lunch is ready—chickens grilled over an open wood fire in the kitchen hut, loaves of bread baked over hot ashes, salad greens grown on the farm.
My mother-in-law and I need a bathroom. A young woman takes Hazel’s hand and leads us to a newly erected hut the size of a telephone booth. “Eve” has been freshly painted on the door. Another hut stands some distance away; its sign reads “Adam.”
The same woman shows us her sleeping hut and tells us such shelters are considered separate rooms within the kraal. Sleeping mats are rolled up on the floor, made of compressed cow dung polished to a glossy smoothness.
In the boma, the table is set with a crocheted cloth. Several bowls of salad are among the chickens and bread. Kids crowd around the end of the table for Coca-Colas, ginger beer and orangeade bottles. They try their best not to jostle but are like racehorses at the starting gate.
Over lunch, seated once more on mats, chairs and sofas, the children regale us with stories of farm life. One little boy with liquid brown eyes announces that the following year, “National Zhanje/Hochschild Day” will be on a Tuesday. The boma erupts with laughter.
Aaron stands, saying, “Now we will introduce everyone to you.” He goes around the group speaking their name, calls adults in turn, after which the person stands and says, “I am happy to welcome you.” We reply, “We are happy to know you.” Then it’s our turn to introduce ourselves.
After lunch, we exchange gifts. The women crocheted tablecloths and children have woven baskets for us. We have books and toys for the younger children, and transistor radios and batteries for the teens. Japhet brings out photo albums. Most of his photos are of Hochschilds, a record of them growing up, birthday and pool parties, posing through the years with dogs and cats. There are very few of Japhet’s family.
Mike makes a speech. He speaks of how much we love Japhet and he thanks the Zhanjes for sharing their father with us. He tells them of life in America and how much we have enjoyed Japhet’s four visits to us there.
A shy young mother holds her toddler, looks at Claudie and says, “This is my Claudie.”
Our daughter holds out her hands and cradles the young child. For the rest of the afternoon, they are inseparable.
Tears flow from many eyes as we say goodbye in the late afternoon. The women stand by the side of our Land Rover and sing a song of farewell as we drive away. Some of the older children run alongside us for a short while.
Mike stops the vehicle. We walk to a high point and wave back to our friends silhouetted by the glowing red ball of the sun. This is our last time with Japhet.
Tanya Hochschild has been a freelance writer in South Africa, where she grew up, and in the U.S., her home since 1981. She is the author of a historical novel, a memoir, an anthology of poetry, and biographies of nonagenarian residents of Fort Myers-based Shell Point Retirement Community.