A few years ago while driving up north from Windhoek, I had an innocuous encounter with a fairly underrated South African poet Mario D’Offizi. Although we’d only met six minutes prior in the backseat of the company vehicle, our conversation flowed as if we were old friends inside a local dive, mostly because Mario lived an adventurous life filled with meandering stories which formed the basis of his two poetry collections: Bless Me Father and Banana Crates & Wire Mesh—the pith of which was his relationship with his dear wife Carla.
“In the eighties,” Mario said slyly as we cruised past Tsumeb, “I deserted my post at Grootfontein and smokkeled myself back home.”
I knew then he was one of the good guys.
At Boys’ Town, in Magaliesburg, South Africa, Mario was left to rot by the education system, molested and violated for three years without emotional support or legal recourse. Yet the pain endured through years of sexual abuse at the hands of a beloved Catholic Bishop, explored in Bless Me Father, only seemed to have left Mario with enduring hope. At times, looking at him and hearing him speak, I thought he was an “arme boer” with an Italian last name. But the dude quoted Nietzsche and expertly operated the pricey Nikon glass around his neck. Mario’s father, D’ Offizi Sr, was an Italian prisoner of war, captured in the then-Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) and sent to a refugee camp in Durban, South Africa, after 1942. Decades later, his son, Mario, would be conscripted to participate in what the South African Defence Forced termed The Border War (also known as Namibia’s Struggle for Independence).
The irony didn’t stop there.
Mario was a former enemy soldier in a time when my parents were considered freedom fighters (or terrorists if you asked Ronald Reagan). Yet here we were, sitting around a fire in Etosha National Park, discussing whether children were deliberately used as perfunctory target practice.
The conversation steered to white guilt.
I wasn’t met with the usual defensiveness, nor prevarication of the truth which usually follows the topic. I was in awe of his blunt honesty. “How did you develop such a high level of empathy, Mario”? I asked. It was unusual for me to meet a man, never mind white, who openly wept at the mere thought of a thought. Earlier I learned that traditional masculinity did not define who he was, he was emotional and that was okay.
It occurred to me that Mario was an anomaly. He was intuitive and poignant with every sentence he uttered. I took a sip from my glass and exclaimed, “Imagine, you were a soldier fighting a war I was born into, in a country neither of us knew.” His eyes welled up as the memories of Angola flooded back.
“I know brother, I know,” he said.
After our second bottle of Chardonnay, Mario leaned in and said, cryptically, “Remember to ride the donkey—never let it ride you. I’m the same advertiser who conceptualised the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s slogan, shared a line with a Harlem Globetrotter, and still became an editor.” I was floored and thought, “perfect imperfection.”
A month later I received signed copies of his books in the post, along with the latest edition of Sawubona Magazine (which he edited for South African Airways). Although the cover story showcased Namibia’s touristic offerings, the article was largely an ode to our introspective conversations and intensely spiritual experience in Etosha.
It was also the first time I was featured in a magazine.
Meeting Mario precipitated a shift in thinking that allows me to enjoy a purposeful existence today. Years prior, I had joined my company’s talent attraction program with hopes of accelerating my corporate career. The rewards of company perks, bonuses, and status were soon replaced by misery. The long hours took a toll on my health. I was depressed and nobody knew it—not even me. Yet somehow, I felt compelled to open up to this complete stranger sitting across me on that night. Our conversation was cathartic and liberating. Many who met him would say, “Mario brought me to myself.”
For me the trip North would represent a turning point in my young life, and I quit my job within a few months of the encounter.
Full credit to Mario D’ Offizi for changing my life. Over the next eight years we developed a genuine brotherhood and stayed in touch.
Our final encounter was at his home in Cape Town in May, 2016. We picked-up where things had left off in the Namibian wild. It soon became apparent Mario was nursing a broken heart—his wife, Carla, had passed on in July, 2014. As his health continued to deteriorate after the sudden passing of his wife, poetry remained his sole solace.
Although he may have been underrated, Mario was certainly the real deal—an enigmatic poet no longer haunted by the ghosts of his past.
On 13 September 2017, Mario D’Offizi took his meandering journey off-world and was reunited with his beloved Carla.
Mario D’Offizi was a Cape Town-based South African poet, writer, and writer. He wrote Bless Me Father, an autobiographical work of fiction which exposed the Boys’ Town founder, and then Archbishop of Johannesburg, as a sexual predator. He also wrote Banana Crates & Wire Mesh, a collection of poetry dedicated to his late wife. D’Offizi was the managing editor of Sawubona, a South African Airways in-flight magazine.
Kavena Hambira is a Namibian writer and the chairperson of the Namibia Institute of Democracy, an independent institution promoting civic education, civil society development, socio-political surveys, and research in Namibia. Kavena is a former Fullbright Scholar from Golden Gate University in San Fransisco, USA. He is also a consultant working in the institutional capacity building, skills development, corporate affairs, civic education, and training fields.