The Color of the Mother

I’m as steaming as the sun and as glowing to boot. Effervescent heel to toe on the warm cobbled street. The color of Bo-Kaap.

The kids on the streets are brown and red and black and bronze, dark and dirty against their bright, bold homes. The kids look at me because I am a small white girl who doesn’t open her mouth to betray her homeland, but whose eager steps, bouncing up and down in excited glee, give her away anyway. They are too eager, too optimistic. Too idealistic. I give myself away and everyone says to rein it in, to shield myself and wear the veil, but I don’t care. I am the wide-eyed wanderer come to the motherland through the Gateway to Africa itself, and you can’t stop me.

I know they are looking because my friends tense up. Their arms fold across their chests and their footsteps hasten. But slow down, I want to say, because look where we are! Look where we’ve come. Stroll down the rainbow road. The children on the steps, they’ll go back to their soccer. Their football, I mean.

The houses in Bo-Kaap are multicolored, like the sherbet selection in an ice cream store, like the 64-count crayon boxes everyone boasted about having in grade school, sitting them atop a dented wooden desk like a Lombardi trophy. Maybe Crayola came to the Malay Quarter of Signal Hill, to look at these Cape Malay homes. There is mustard yellow next to sunshine gold, there is fuchsia next to French violet. Sea foam green and robin’s egg blue, Clemson orange and Nebraska red. I want my future home to look the same. I’d pick cerulean, the color of the skies above Cape Town.

My flip-flops catch in the cobbled streets occasionally, and the children in the streets giggle. High-pitched, happy giggles, innocent where their eyes are not. They smell like the homes surrounding them, a sweet scent of ginger and marjoram, of curry and lemon rind. Pots of bobotie stirred at a stove next to a window. Foil-wrapped mutton rotis. A slender boy sits on the stairs before his house, tamarind sauce dribbling down his chin. He wipes it from his face with the back of his hand, and moves to the children playing with a makeshift soccer ball. A football, I mean.

The ball comes my way and I kick it back to them. It’s a poor kick, with a draw, but a skinny girl grabs it anyway and waves. They laugh and look at us some more, but turn away thereafter. We’re white and foreign and think we can change the world. They’ve never seen us before, but they’ve seen others like us. We continue down the rainbow road, south now, Table Mountain in the distance beyond Signal Hill. The ocean to the west.

“It’s like California,” says the sun burnt girl from California.

“It’s like Hawaii,” says the bronzed boy who’s vacationed there twice.

Well to me it’s unlike any place on Earth, and I’ve never been to every place on Earth and probably never well, but where else can you walk on a rainbow road? And at its end isn’t a pot of gold but a mountain wide and tall and then flat at the top, brown the color of topaz, green the color of emeralds—and just beyond its western facets, the sapphire sea.

I stop on the streets and take in a breath. Science says Cape Town has less wind than San Francisco, but I’m blown over by the gusts come down from Table Mountain all the same. A saving grace, the lucid wind from the jade mountain, a cool splash through my hair as the sun beat down still. If I could I’d slide down the rainbow and splash into the ocean, and the kids next to me would look at me and shake their heads and say, oh, that crazy foreign white girl. We see this every day. We see this beauty and we live on the rainbow but we live in black and white here, I think they’d say. Silly white American girl. You don’t really belong here. Soak up the sun and walk down to white-sanded Clifton. We know you can. The rainbow road will take you there, and once you’re off it, you’re colorless and dark.

But they can say it all they want. The truth rings clear, and I’m no fool. But it’s the color of Cape Town, of the mother herself, and we’ll all take the steps ’til we reach the golden end.

Jillian Thaw