Here’s how my New Orleans New Years typically go: I bicycle to Finn McCools Irish Pub sometime around 5pm, meet up with my friends, drink beer, possibly sing karaoke, drink more beer, and then walk one block to 12 Mile Limit to ring in the new year with a dance party.
Finns is fun, because they’ll do a countdown leading into when Ireland would be clicking over into 2018, at 6pm CST. In past years, by the time I get there at 5, I’ve noticed there is a disproportionately large number of South Africans in the bar, generously offering food they’ve made to other patrons. When I wracked my brain for a great adventure to kick off the 365 for the year, this one kept coming up. I wanted to see what they were up to…which also gave me the side benefit of getting to the bar before the tastiest dishes ran out.
So I called my friend, Benji Haswell, who I originally know because he supports my favorite soccer team’s far-inferior rival, and asked him if he would tell me a little bit about himself and the group.
We met up at Finns at 2:30, 90 minutes before the new year in South Africa. As the black and gold of Saints fans filed in for the Week 17 match-up against the Buccaneers (we don’t need to talk about that game — enjoy your vacation, Bucs…), we sat at a long, brown table he reserved for the group of South Africans he co-founded back in 2003.
What Benji might lack in hair on the top of his dome, he more than makes up for with a massive personality, a warm smile, and a sense of pride and intentionality in being the guy who brings people together. “I could have come here in a suit and tie, mate, but I’m wearing an Afrikaner Jack Parrow-the-rapper style cap and a Zulu waistcoat, I cooked an Indian-South African curry, and I plan on celebrating like a true, English gentleman!”
“I was actually born in Baton Rouge in 1971,” Benji corrected me when I asked where in South Africa he was born. “My dad was here, founding the LSU Rugby team. So I’m proud to tell people, I’m African American!” he smiled.
“So when did you move to South Africa?” I realized I had only assumed Benji lived in South Africa. “You — uh — lived in South Africa, right?”
“Yeah, mate,” he laughed. “My family moved back there in nineteen sevennnttty–”
“Four,” his wife, Shawn, said from across the table.
“1974? Was it?” Benji asked. “Maybe ’75?”
“Definitely ’74,” she smiled.
Benji shook his head, as he continued with his story, trying and failing to suppress a grin I interpreted as never-ending amazement with his wife. He told me about how he worked for the end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela. He told me about, after Mandela’s election, how the movement began to splinter into rival parities, and how he became the President of one of those rival party’s youth organization, as the country transitioned from apartheid.
He spoke fondly of a six-month “walk-a-bout” in Europe, which he used to find himself (something I can relate to), and how after that trip, he watched Forest Gump, and couldn’t get America out of his mind. “The trees! And just how big your country was, made me want to move here!” he said. “So I did. In 199– 1997, I believe.”
“1996,” an eavesdropping Shawn, corrected him.
“In 1996, I guess,” he shrugged. “I was working in Baton Rouge in landscaping and Shawn was working in Lafayette, and we met in –,” he paused.
“Benji! 1998!. Why do I know your story better than you?”
Benji turned to greet one of his friends, Mark, from Zimbabwe, who is owner of India House Hostel, in the Marigny. “It’s the best thing about Finns, mate,” Benji directed his attention back to me. “This is a multicultural hub, and that’s a really important thing for New Orleans — but for our group, too. We have a Facebook page, but many of our members learn about us from coming here to watch soccer or rugby.”
“Yeah, it’s one of my favorite things about the bar, as well,” I said. “So, what would be the correct term for you all? Is it ‘expats?'”
“It’s a good question, Matt,” Benji took a sip of his beer, a Stella. “That’s actually the term I’m trying to avoid for this group.”
“Oh, shit, is it offensive?”
“Not at all. It’s not that. It’s just — when I think of a group of expats, I think of a group of white, European men, separating themselves from the rest of the population. As South Africans, I think we can — and should aspire to — add something to the gumbo that is our new home.”
As 3pm approached, Benji and Shawn greeted member after member as they walked in the door, put down the plate of food they had prepared, and sat at the table. They were male, female, black, white, young, and old. And Benji would explain they were actually much more diverse than that.
“South Africa has 11 official languages and 27 different ethnic groups. And we have several of those groups represented here. Plus Americans who have married South Africans. Plus Americans who visited South Africa and love it, or who want to visit South Africa, or who just want to learn more about it.”
Things were getting busy now, as the Saints game was about to kick off, and more South Africans rolled in and found a seat. “Oh yeah, smells delicious! You can just put it on the table right there, mate,” Benji told one member, before turning back to me. “Apartheid lasted so long because the people in power were able to divide black South Africans into all of those different groups. But Mandela taught us those differences were secondary. He said he didn’t want to stop us from being Zulu or Xhosa, or Basotho. But he did ask us to also — not instead of, but in addition to — come together for our country.”
I typed furiously, trying to keep up with Benji, while also considering what he was saying. He told me South Africa was called “The Rainbow Nation,” and I was beginning to understand why. But I wondered how, exactly, did this group benefit immigrants as they found their way to New Orleans? And how did it benefit New Orleans?
“People assume, because America is a predominantly English-speaking country, that the adjustment is going to be an easy one, but I remember moving here — without a community — and how hard that was. Our members include everyone from teachers to dishwashers to college students to an actress from the touring cast of The Lion King. I helped make this group so that — no matter who you are — if you want a community of South Africans to fall back on, we’re here for you.”
When I asked him if the group’s meetings mostly include the New Years gathering and big South African sporting events, he invited me to the Facebook group and encouraged me to look around. In addition to World Cup matches, I saw backyard barbecues, beach trips, a second line they organized to raise awareness for the protection of animals against poaching, and another they participated in when Nelson Mandela died. I saw birthday parties, videos of adults teaching kids how to play rugby, and a lot of smiles. I saw a community I didn’t know existed, in a city I’ve lived in for nearly nine years.
It made me wonder what else I didn’t know.
Earlier, Benji had mentioned he wanted this group to be one that added to New Orleans’ gumbo, rather than one that secludes itself. I asked him what he thinks they can add.
“Everyone can add something, Matt. But I think something unique that we learned, through two civil wars, and through the end of apartheid, is that you can hole yourself up into your minority. That’s the easy thing to do. You can let that divide you. Or we can embrace our differences, celebrate them in the spirit of multiculturalism, and understand that — while our differences are beautiful — we’re also part of something much bigger than them. I think that’s something we can bring to New Orleans and to the United States.”
We were now approaching 4pm and Benji grabbed a microphone from Finns and prepared to ring in the New Year. On his way to the front of the room, Benji introduced me to Brianna, a Mellon Mays undergraduate Fellow, who he taught at Edna Karr High School, and who is now working three jobs to help put herself through a double major in African American Studies and Government at Wesleyan College. I learned that the club was raising money to help her study in Cape Town, South Africa for a semester. She is a spectacular New Orleanian, and the kind of future leader we need, so if you can, I encourage you to help support her by clicking on this link and donating whatever you can!
“10…9…8” Benji led the bar in a countdown to the new year, as dozens of South Africans, and a hundred Saints fans joined him.
While researching earlier this week, I learned that New Orleans and Durban, South Africa were sister cities.
I had learned about delegates traveling between the two cities, and that Essence Fest actually takes place twice each year: once here, and once in Durban, one of Africa’s premiere tourist destinations.
I had learned about New Orleans-based non-profits that support musicians in South African cities, and about a South African business that is making an 11-Billion dollar investment in South Louisiana.
One can find lots of ways South Africa and New Orleans are sharing ideas and culture, but maybe none like this.
I watched a sports bar stop watching the Saints for a few minutes to celebrate a new year taking place on the other side of the world, with a group of people with which they happened to share a city. I watched Benji invite the bar to enjoy the curry, sausage rolls, cookies, cakes, and many other foods I didn’t recognize but was excited to try. I watched conversations between those that were in the bar to celebrate South Africa, and those that were there to celebrate the Saints: a college-aged guy asking a middle-aged woman what kind of food he was about to eat; a white woman asking a black man questions about when the group meets; two people, who appeared to have very little in common, talking — about who knows what.
But Benji knows they have a lot more in common than we realize, and I watched his group accomplishing its goal as they brought something unique to the city they now call home.