Out of a troubled
past, melodies for the future
Sometimes, travel in Africa
presents strange, unexpected connections to the past. Last year, I ran
across a childhood friend from Ohio who was making artificial limbs for
war amputees in Angola. Ten years since I've seen this guy, and we meet in
Huambo, a town in ruins after two decades of war. A few months earlier, my
friend had served as the guide for Princess Diana for a day when she
visited Angola. He breached some sort of royal protocol by asking the
princess if she needed to use the loo. What does this mean? There are two
degrees of separation between myself and the late Princess of Wales?
As far as I know, Diana never visited the Ostrich Feather Market in
Port Elizabeth, a city on South Africa's Indian Ocean coast.
But I've been there.
I came to Port Elizabeth on assignment. I arrived a day early, so I
embarked on a personal mission to search for the Ostrich Feather Market, a
building that a distant relative helped construct more than a century ago.
What I found instead was a story I had been looking for 2,000 miles
away in the tiny and troubled nation of Rwanda.
First, some family history:
I recently learned that my wife's great-grandfather, Henry Warne, an
English tradesman who traveled the world in the 1880s to places like South
America, Mexico and Ceylon, had worked in South Africa a century ago.
Warne's life sounds romantic, but it was difficult. His first wife died
in Buenos Aires, and their three sons died of diphtheria while sailing
back to Britain. He remarried, and one of his granddaughters ended up in
Philadelphia - Agnes Blackstone, my mother-in-law, who now lives in
Montgomery County. She recently passed along some historical documents
detailing Warne's work.
In 1883, Warne boarded a ship in London for Port Elizabeth to supervise
the construction of the roof over a new market for South African ostrich
feathers, then in great demand for women's hats.
Warne apparently did a bang-up job erecting the elaborate iron-truss
roof, because he left Port Elizabeth in 1884 with a bonus of 20 pounds and
a portfolio of glowing reports from municipal officials and the local
When I arrived in the industrial city of Port Elizabeth last month, I
had the hidden aim of searching for this small fragment of family history.
I understood that the Ostrich Feather Market was in a neglected part of
town, which, like many South African cities, has suffered from white
flight to the suburbs.
I found the Feather Market Centre on the central town square, facing
City Hall. But I was confused. The building was a concert hall, and its
intricate pink-and-white facade was inscribed with the date 1901, almost
two decades after Warne was said to have done his work.
The center was closed, but I found a side entrance that was open.
It was the security entrance. A man wearing a blue nylon jacket
stitched with a Superior Security Guards logo sat behind the desk. He was
reading a text published by the International English Language Testing
Jean Baptiste Ndagijimana, a Rwandan refugee turned security guard,
turned out to have quite a story himself.
Ndagijimana left Rwanda in 1992 when life for his people, the Tutsis,
was getting dangerous. He traveled to Kenya, handed over $1,000 to two
Rwandans to pay for a plane ticket to Europe, sat for several hours in a
Nairobi travel agency, then realized his countrymen had scrammed through a
back door, stealing his life savings.
He was stranded in Kenya, hundreds of miles from home. It probably
saved his life.
His parents and most of his siblings were killed in the 1994 genocide
in Rwanda, so he decided not to return to his country. Instead, he
traveled 2,000 miles south by bus and entered South Africa illegally. His
first night in Johannesburg, he stayed at a cheap downtown hotel where
people were shooting guns from the rooftop.
``This is too much like Rwanda!" he said and left for Port
Elizabeth on the Indian Ocean coast, because somebody told him it was a
Ndagijimana was granted asylum in Port Elizabeth. He made some friends,
who had trouble pronouncing his Rwandan name. They gave him a Xhosa name,
Thamsanqa, which means ``a man with luck."
Now, most folks now call him ``Tami" for short.
Tami is paid about $350 a month for working 66-hour weeks as a guard at
the Feather Market Centre.
As luck would have it, I had just traveled to Rwanda on assignment, and
Tami was interested in my impressions. He is from Gitarama, a province in
central Rwanda that has been engulfed in ethnic fighting, a continuation
of the 1994 conflict.
Tami, pleased to meet somebody who knew a little about his native
country, announced he would go search for some booklets about the Feather
Market Centre. In the meantime, he said, I was welcome to look around.
As I walked through the darkened, ornate building, I gradually
confirmed that this was the place that Warne had helped build 115 years
before (a new facade was added in 1901). There were many old photographs
displayed on the walls documenting the construction of the market, its
decline in the mid-20th century, and its renovation in 1993 into a
municipal concert hall and convention center.
I stopped to see Tami on the way out. He was waiting cheerfully at his
desk with some brochures about the market.
He also had a cassette tape.
It turns out Tami is a singer, just waiting to be discovered. He
invested his savings from his security-guard job into producing an album
of 10 songs, which are mostly about Rwanda and his life after leaving the
tiny country. The album's title is I'll Ne'er Forget, a reference to the
difficulties that he had losing his family. He had 200 copies made at a
local recording studio.
As Tami handed over the tape, I paused for a moment.
It occurred to me that when I was in Rwanda, one of the stories that my
editors suggested I explore was how the genocide had affected Rwandan art.
Now, the story was staring me in the face, here in Port Elizabeth.
Tami, who is 31, said he has been singing since he was young. When he
was a child, he was the only representative of his choir who was sent to
perform in a concert in Belgium. He always hoped to make a career of it,
but the war got in the way.
The songs he writes have a naive, religious quality - the titles
include ``Give Thanks to God" and ``Say Hi." Although his lyrics
and music are sometimes a little light - English is his third language,
mind you - he has a sublime tenor voice.
He sent the tape to the British Broadcasting Corp., and the BBC
recently played ``Biba Amahoro" on its Rwandan radio service. The
song means ``Sow Peace," and it is directed to people in Rwanda to
put aside their endless ethnic war.
Another song is called ``Friendly City." It's an homage to Port
``When it comes to assistance in the Friendly City," Tami sings,
``the service is A-1."
How true. Without Tami's help, I would not have been able to confirm
that piece of family lore. It was just one of those small acts of kindness
from a fellow traveler that keeps the planet humming.
What's the point? Nothing serious. Paths cross by chance. Lives
intertwine, if only for a moment. Sometimes the story one sets out to get
is not as interesting as the story one finds.