Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
July 8, 1998
Out of a troubled past, melodies for the future
E-mail from: Africa

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 She recently passed along some historical documents detailing Warne's work.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 newspaper.

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 System.

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 friendly city.

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 Elizabeth.

``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. home page   
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