Over the past while I’ve been reading Resident Alien, a collection of articles written by Rian Malan (author of My Traitor’s Heart, a book I bravely tried to read in my angst addled teens, but gave up after chapter 1) spanning twenty-something years. It’s been an education. I think as South African’s, we forget, or at the very least, are blasé about what we’ve been through, and what we managed to achieve. Has it all been good? No. But has it been exciting? Without a doubt. What I really love about Malan’s writings is that he isn’t afraid to put it all out there; sometimes messy, often negative, but always honest. But then he’s as brave to admit when he was wrong, and when his white, male South African-ness was just a tad too quick to judge, too quick to expect the worst.
I remember sitting in a bus, on the way to the beach, in 1994. It was one of those perfect Durban summer days, and the beach was calling. The bus was full; whites standing alongside blacks, jostling against Indians, swaying against all of humanity. Next to me sat an old white man, in fraying shorts and leather sandals. As he watched another black passenger embark, he turned to me and said, “I don’t think you’ll ever quite understand how hard this is for some of us.” And to be honest, at the age of 14, I didn’t. I’d grown up in a fairly liberal household, with a black sister, attending an all-girls, ethnically mixed Catholic School since Std 1. And before that, a multi-racial primary school. This was a pretty normal experience for me. But for this man, who’d been raised to believe in an ideology of superiority and separation, it must have been hell. Every fibre of his being must have been screaming out in bloody protest. Nearly 20 years later, and I still have moments of utter revelation at how far we’ve come. I see it when I sit in one of those wonderful Woolies café’s, sipping on a gingernut and honey cappuccino, and at the table next to me is a young black family; little girls in frilly dresses, mom looking like she just stepped off of a catwalk in Milan, dad looking every inch the successful businessman. Or when I head into the more unsavoury parts of Jozi and find, in an old parking lot, a roaring food market and a completely racially mixed crowd, chomping on oysters and chucking back glasses of champagne, tucking into steaming plates of paella and waiting for handfuls of exotic mushrooms to roast and layer onto their freshly baked sourdough loaf. It’s amazing. Here we all are, together, merging and actually enjoying it. Who would have thought.
In Malan’s article, Kind Words for a Mean Town, he talks of his fondness for his hometown, Johannesburg. And how, though strangers and foreigners will probably never understand it, he loves it. It’s a city of contradictions and surprise; of old Africa and the new world, “witchdoctors entering one building, accountants exiting the other” (p.268). And I feel the same way, not necessarily about Jozi, because it’s not my hometown, nor do I feel particularly drawn to it, with its beige and tan coloured gated estates, and its obsession with money and status. But it is how I feel about South Africa. As broken and dangerous as the rest of the world may perceive it, I love it…it makes me feel alive. I’m rarely bored, hardly a passive spectator, always a participant in some aspect of life (often someone else’s). Malan says to foreigners, and I’ve thought it enough times myself: we may not live as long as you, and we may never be as materially wealthy , but man will we live on the edge (p.269), on the cusp of something wonderful and dangerous and exciting. And I don’t know if this in an unhealthy way to live, but I couldn’t think of anything worse than being perpetually safe, nanny’d and unchallenged by the sheer ferocity and unfairness of life, which is dished out in a seemingly random lottery in our neck of the woods. Because as Malan says, “it’s a jungle out there, the most dangerous city in the world. But also the most interesting, if you have the courage to go.” (p.267). And courage we have aplenty, and go we did, into the heart of darkness.
Myself, and two friends, recently returned from our bi-annual cultural pilgrimage to Jozi; South Africa’s crime-ridden den of iniquity – and it was awesome! Durbanites are considered lazy, backwards and far too cool to actually buy a ticket to an international concert or play 8 months before the artists arrive. Instead, we find ourselves excluded from virtually every tour, spending three times the amount on accommodation, and flying or driving up to Jozi. So, to make it worth our while, we really go out of our way to explore the city. This time, we stayed clear of trendy and “safe” Parkhurst and Greenside, and headed straight into inner Johannesburg.
Our first find was the Maboneng (place of light) Precinct, which can be found under a freeway, just off of Fox Street. It’s part of a regeneration plan for the less than desirable parts of the city, and has been upgraded to encourage urban artists to flood the inner city with their creative spirit. We headed into a courtyard of pebbles dotted with lemon and olive trees, and walked through to an old building filled with art galleries, edgy clothing stores and photographic exhibitions. It was a Friday, so it wasn’t exactly humming, but apparently the weekends are great, with a little market pulling in the crowds. We walked up the street, past gritty walls covered in graffiti, and were greeted by private security guards standing on each corner; letting you know that you are safe here in this once unloved section of the city.
At the Main Change building, we took a lift to the fifth floor, to check out a rooftop venue called Living Room, an eco urban café, and walked into a fresh, green oasis of calm, succulents hanging off of and out of every available space. Nedbank was hosting a “green” event, but no-one seemed to mind our intrusion, so we sat and drank revoltingly healthy fruit and vege smoothies, and watched as small succulents were tenderly separated and replanted, as take home gifts for guests.
The next day we made our way to Braamfontein, to find the Neighbourhood Goods Market. The market, can be found inside a building on 73 Juta Street, and is based on the successful Cape Town version. It’s apparently a landmark building, and again, the concept is based on regeneration of urban areas; getting people back into the city, claiming space that had fallen prey to misuse and crime. As we walked up the street, we passed a little corner deli and coffee bar; the scent of roasted coffee beans spilling out the door. Next to it is a retro camera shop, selling lomograph cameras and showcasing an exhibit of images taken on an iphone across South Africa. If you look closely enough at the detail, you’ll find small cement turtles making their way up the sidewalk, ready to cross the road, and explore the great beyond. You’ll also find a bustling, noisy, wonderful crowd of hipsters, students, foreigners, locals, buyers and sellers, all under one roof. The market has the feel of an underground car park; cement floors, harsh overhead lighting, and pools of water bought in by sodden feet and dripping umbrellas. But inside it’s also alive, with the scent of community spirit and optimism.
I left Jozi feeling a little less uneasy about the city, and more inclined to continue our exploration on our next trip. Walking those streets, I got the strong impression that the people that now inhabit these formerly avoided areas, did so with confidence and with sense of belonging. They were staking their claim and creating a new space, filled with movement and purpose, and a love for their city.
Posted in Sanibonani - I see you (all) | Tagged Joburg, Johannesburg, Jozi, Living Room Johannesburg, maboneng precint, neighbourhood goods market johannesburg, resident alien, rian malan, rian malan resident alien, urban regeneration, urban renewal | Leave a Comment »
She sits alone on a bench of roughly hewn timber; her gaze sweeping over the vista before her. From her perch, high in the undulating folds of petrified rock and long grass, she watches the world unravel below. To the untrained eye, the land is mostly silent and empty. The only signs of life — the most obvious: the belching roar of a baboon troupe bouncing off the quarry walls, and the swoop of a hawk as it flies in low to catch a scurrying mouse. But to her the land lives and breathes, and in it, she finds comfort. She has sat on this bench, for months now. Her time spent learning the habits and patterns of the creatures that live in it, on it and above it. She has sat from sun-rise to sunset, and this is her favourite time of day, that magical hour between the suddenly rapid descent of the setting sun, and the onset of the darkest of nights; it is called the gloaming, and with it comes a sense of another time and place.
It’s not that she’s been lonely, up here on her hill. For each day He joins her and they sit together; sometimes talking about her life and her dreams: both realised and unfinished; sometimes sharing the hopes she has for her family as they continue without her. And He tells her that she was always loved, even when she felt so separated from His presence. No, she has not been lonely, but she has grown restless of late; a sense of longing wells in her chest every now and again, which she does not quite understand. There is something deep within her; a memory perhaps. A feeling of expectation, that she knows must soon be resolved. She lets the spiced scent of the veld wash over her like the gentle eddies of a lazy stream, and she watches.
Across the veld, caught in that soft light, a long line of elephant sway gently as they make their way home from the water hole. When she first arrived, the smallest elephant was fragile in its bumbling gait; she feared for its safety against predators. But now, these many months later, she can see he has grown in confidence as he chases a small warthog, trumpeting with glee as his quarry flees into a burrow. His trumpet unleashes a flock of tiny birds, which move as one in a wave of flight, their bodies swerving in and around the acacias and lala palms.
It is then that she notices she is not alone. There is a subtle shift in the density of the air, and she feels a presence add weight to her own. Her gaze moves across the breadth of the veld, and then down into the depth of the quarry. At the base she sees a small knot of people, who look both familiar and foreign. She stares hard at each one, trying to place them in the landscape of her mind, which feels like it is no longer her own. And slowly, the memories start to filter through; a vivid reminder of a life once lived, a life of colour and character, of love and friendship. It is a motley crew, for this small band of warriors have all fought a war of body and mind – some for months and years, others for but a few minutes. Their bodies display the scars of battle, and their weary heads are bent low as they make their way up the rocky path. She is standing when they reach the top. She understands now why she has been waiting here all these months; waiting for something she couldn’t quite explain. But now she knows that she is here to welcome them home, to have them sit their shattered souls upon a bench of roughly hewn timber, to have them rest from their fight for life, and the fight to convince their loved ones to feel strong enough to let them go. As the six of them sit, facing the soft orb of light that sets their hair alight; their bodies begin to mend, their souls begin to heal, and hearts — destroyed by sadness and loss — begin a beautiful reconstruction. And all the while He sits there, the heat of the day radiating from his open hands, and suffusing them all with His glorious light and enduring love.
(This past year has seen many dear and wonderful friends and family lost to us. When my mom passed away from cancer in August last year, we scattered her ashes over one of our favourite places on earth. High up on that hill, the wind swept through, carrying her spirit over the land and into the heavens above. I like to imagine that she sits there, watching over her domain, welcoming in the new arrivals, as they are born into life ever-after. This post is in remembrance of my mom - Geraldine McCarthy, of our dear Aggie’s sister – Tiny Sheshange, of Simi Harrison – friend to so many, of our childhood American dad – Rowan Caderet, of the wonderful and soft hearted Joyce Samuels – friend and helper to Kate, and most recently of Mrs Searle – my long-time friend Kerry’s mom.)
Tonight the moon is bright, throwing the shadows of acacia trees across the bone white of the veld. The wind is sighing, and bats skim low over our heads, chasing each other through the dark. We don’t often get to do this, us city-dwellers; lie back on the grass and look up into the domed canopy of the night sky. There is something wonderfully primitive in being still, watching the stars multiply as our eyes become accustomed to the blackness. Out in the veld, past the safety of the fence line, the fiery necked nightjars wail over and over again, “may the good Lord deliver us”.
This night reminds me of the many we shared as children in a magical place called Bonamanzi (which means see water in isiZulu). We’d pile into the family kombi, perhaps with a childhood friend or two, and make our way to our small piece of wilderness. Yesterday I returned to that childhood haunt, where as kids we’d stare up into the bright glow of the milky way, barely able to keep up with each other as we plotted out the fall of shooting stars. Tonight we see but three; either our childhood eyes have dimmed, or the light is creeping in from the nearby town.
Lalapansi (lie down), Bonamanzi’s bush camp, is no longer that childhood garden. The old beehive huts, made of reeds and thatching, have been replaced with proper little houses. The island on which our small human shapes morphed into mermaids and pirates, is now a grassy knoll on which future husbands and wives can declare their lifelong commitment to each other. The kitchen, which stood on stilts at the water’s edge, is now a gathering place for guests to relax and while away the hours, as the sun seeps crimson across the rippling water.
Though much has changed in 20 odd years, I could still catch glimpses of myself and my sisters as we hunted for tree frogs, running wildly through the dark to the fire at the boma; we treated the camp as if it were our very own kingdom. Here I am reminded of family and childhood, and the happiness of being totally unaware of anything other than the freedom of the bush. It’s been less than a year since my mom passed away, and as I walked through the camp, I felt her presence; watched her walk ahead of me, turning to call out to us girls — urging us to hurry as we headed to the car for a night drive in search of crying bush babies and other small creatures of the night.
When I walked the trails of the bush camp, I had to remind myself that I don’t own this place, even though it feels very much like it is mine. I felt an intense sadness for all those visitors who will never know the true Lalapansi, that wild place of a bygone age. But then I think about my own future family. And I can see my children running through the bush, seeking out strange insects, learning the names and calls of birds, and living a life filled with the sheer wonder of nature. I can see my dad, with a grandchild on his knee, pointing out a yellow-throated longclaw, as he imitates the phooooooeeeet of its call.
When I returned home, I dug out all our old family photos; boxes holding moments in time, captured in all their innocence, untainted by the perfection of technology . There are my grandparents, out from Ireland, standing next to an old beehive hut. They loved South Africa, but I can well imagine they thought my parents were quite mad; living in Hluhluwe (a name they simply couldn’t pronounce), holidaying in an old hut with no electricity, dirty brown river water filling the bath. There is my dad, looking very much like a raven haired and moustachioed mercenary, sitting on his haunches, gun in hand, proudly holding onto the giant tusk of a warthog. On the back, my mom has written, “Don’s great moment of truth!!”.
And there is my mom, grinning wildly as she swims alongside her three water-winged mermaids, in the cool and magical waters of our youth.
Sometimes I get to experience a day so wonderful that I feel I might spontaneously combust with the type of joy that makes my body TING from the roots of my hair to the tips of my raspberry painted toenails. February 1st was one of those days; when living in South Africa just makes sense, and the idea of being anywhere else, doesn’t.
My day started off with a visit to the local high school which my non-profit, I Learn to Live, works in. We met with the life orientation teachers to discuss the programme we are implementing this year. Our programme is essentially about teaching high school kids in rural areas that they are valuable, that they are unique, and that they have a destiny. Our intention is to create a new culture in the school; one of working hard, putting your head down, and focusing on the task at hand (learning) in order to construct a better and more productive future. I have to be honest and tell you that it is hard work.
Not only are we working against a culture of apathy and disinterest in the learners, but also the very same culture within the teaching cohort. I can assure you that the two LO teachers were not exactly thrilled to see us. However, we persevered and brought out the teaching material we have the great privilege of using this year. Quite simply, it is awesome. The facilitator manuals are weighty and substantial and each learner gets a book with work sheets to do in class. The material constantly reiterates how valuable these kids are, and how much they have a part to play in ensuring that they can have a different future; one which does not have to be a mirror image of the life their parents/caregivers have led.
We handed over the material to the teachers to have a look through and as they flipped the pages, it was as if a tiny spark lit up from within and their demeanour became ever so slightly enthusiastic. They liked what they saw, and they wanted to incorporate it into their classes. This is important to us because if we don’t have the buy in from the teachers, they aren’t going to encourage the learners to grab hold of the wonderful opportunity they are being presented with. We left that meeting with the hope that as the teachers read through the material, they too will be encouraged to see value in themselves and their role as teachers in a rural school in South Africa. We know the task ahead is daunting; we don’t see this as a short term project but rather as a long term commitment. Changing learnt behaviour is incredibly difficult and we know that it might only be in 5 years time that we see significant change. But we are committed and we are excited to be part of changing a small part of the social fabric of South Africa.
The night before, Empangeni experienced one of those awe-inspiring storms that flood your home, damage your car and litter the road with strange artefacts. As we headed up to Hluhluwe, the rain continued to fall in torrents, and we weren’t holding out much hope for our weekend at the game farm. However, by the time we arrived, the sun had emerged and flooded the veld in the soft magical light found just before twilight. We headed off in the jeep out into the veld to see what we could find, and our first sighting was a male cheetah; fat and lethargic, resting in the open space of the airstrip. Just up the road we came across a large nursery herd of delicate impala, posturing male nyala, and five small wildebeest chasing each other in the open veld as their mothers ran rings around them. There was such life in that small patch of land. I was reminded of August last year when the earth was dry and dusty and the animals were skin and bone. I remember feeling like we would never see the rain again or that a shoot of tasty green grass may never pass the lips of an impala. And I thought of the seasons in our life and how change is always around the corner, waiting for us.
On the wind came the sound of reed frogs chirping, so we followed the calls until we came across a small pond and were deafened by the chorus of frogs in the fading light. Never before have I heard such a concentration of frogs serenading. The air pulsed with energy and we felt almost hypnotised as they sang in unison (click to hear sound – takes you to another website which is also mine). As we headed back past the airstrip we saw the cheetah dragging the very mangled body of an impala out into the open space. We went in for a closer look and realised he’d been feasting all day on that carcass and the whoop whoop of the hyena told us they were already encroaching on his territory. We ended the day watching him eat the last of his impala under a yellow fever tree, a double rainbow arcing across the sky. That night we stood out in the open veld, heads lifted to stare into the cavernous depths of the sky studded with millions of stars. I glimpsed a shooting star track its way across the sky and knew that it was just one of those near perfect days in South Africa.
(I submitted this for a short story competition last year, 2000 words, title: the secret. I never heard back from them, so will assume I didn’t win! Seems a pity to let it languish in a folder on my computer, so here it is).
As I stand at the foot of her open grave I can hear them, their words a coven of crows, squabbling as they scavenge at my feet. They think they are discreet as they stand at a distance beside the lone acacia tree; their broken umbrellas, spokes fractured and draped in torn black fabric, drip onto the parched grass. Standing close together, barely a sliver of sky appears between the spaces left by jutting elbows and skirts, which cling soddenly to legs and thighs. Their anger and fear flows in a torrent across the space which both divides, and connects us, to the one thing that we are bound by. For we know something, these women and I; it swirls around us like smoke from a fire, and we carry its scent wherever we go.
The smell of the earth rises up to meet me as splashes of water streak against the dark chocolate of my skin. How long I stand here I do not know, my mind blank and unresponsive. The rain continues to fall, softly and at an impossible angle, so that my umbrella proves a useless shield against its presence, and tiny drops settle weightlessly onto my lashes. I am wearing my mother’s only jersey, for it is the first time in many months that the air is cool and the rain is whispering around us. In this place the days are bone dry, the air steeped in a heat so overwhelming that it is nearly impossible to breathe. It seems right that today has softened, the edges smoothed and the air inviting, as if preparing the heavens for my mothers arrival. It was not a large gathering; my siblings and I, her few faithful friends and of course, the onlookers. Those that refused to pay their respects, but circled like vultures over a kill, waiting patiently for us to leave so they could weave their stories of hate and slander.
Out of the corner of my eye I see her move away from the women sheltering under the acacia tree and make her way towards me. She is a large woman, moving slowly but determinedly. I lift my head and stare her straight in the eye; let her come, let her try and rile me. For today I feel bold enough to fight back, to voice the many thoughts which have swarmed in my head like locusts these past months. As she nears I prepare myself, my body tenses and my mouth opens to respond but before I can say anything, she spits at my feet, leaving a yellowish foam on the shine of my school shoes. I am so shocked I can barely contain the tremble which flies through my body. This woman’s hate is greater than anything I have ever experienced, greater even than the force which took my mother.
I feel small hands plucking at my skirt; tentatively, shyly. It is my littlest sister, my mother’s favourite, and the one who is most lost in this time of uncertainty. Together we leave my mother’s grave and wander down the dirt track towards the home, which I at fifteen, now run. My siblings, all four of them, are waiting for me, expecting from me, a way forward into this unknown future.
It is a new day and we wake under a haze of sadness; I hurry the children, forcing them into their school uniforms, giving mine over to my sister who has outgrown hers, and anyway, I have no need for it. School and education is now a dream from my old life, in this my new life, I am mother and provider. I take hold of my mother’s homemade broom and begin to sweep the dusty floor of our hut. As I sweep images of both my past and my future float before me, and I think carefully about who I can trust and who can help me raise this family of mine. My situation is not unique, I know of many girls, girls I went to school with, who one day did not arrive at the gates, who did not sit next to me in class. They simply vanished from our realm of existence. You would see them from time to time, girls who had become women under the weight of their new responsibility. I am that girl now, that new woman, so I face the day and look out across the huts which slowly emerge as the mist burns off in the morning heat.
Something is happening in the village; there’s a sense of excitement but also a hint of fear. A stranger has arrived and behind him trails the pollution of the outside world. He is a tall man but terribly thin, his skin drawn over the sharp bones of his face, pulling his lips up and revealing large white teeth. He takes slow and measured steps and it’s as if he knows this place, our little village. No one has spoken to him, yet his path is set. He stops at the entrance of a hut I know well, only because I avoid it daily, taking the long route home so as not to invite the wrath of the woman inside. He waits, his hands fluttering by his sides, and then he propels himself up the sandy path and enters the open doorway. Suddenly a horrible wailing, a feral keening, can be heard clear across the village. A sound so primitive my heart almost bursts through my breastbone as it beats a furious tattoo in my chest. I have to sit on the bed as my legs have grown weak and a sweat has broken out on my brow. For all the agony and torment she has caused me, I cannot find even a hint of pleasure in the pain this woman is unable to contain; for I know this pain and it should not be borne alone.
For what seems like days there is no movement in or around that hut of agony. We all watch secretly as we go about our daily chores; sweeping the path for longer than necessary, slowly hanging the washing out to dry, or tending the vegetable garden in the midday sun. Many days go by and we are not rewarded for our efforts, soon we grow bored of watching and waiting, and village life resumes, the hut and its occupants forgotten for now.
I am sitting up late one night mending a tear on a shirt. My eyes strain as I try to thread the needle by the dim light of a candle. The children are fast asleep and I feel comforted by the steady exhalation of breath, and the occasional murmur. Before I even hear the noise my body has responded to the change in atmosphere, my skin pimples and prickles. It happens so quickly I am not sure I really heard it. I wait, my body angled and my head titled, hoping that I imagined it. But as I relax into my seat, the sound returns, a soft shuffling on laboured breathing. There is someone outside. I rise slowly from my chair, the needle and thread held high, ready to complete their loop. I’m not sure what to do so I blow out the candle and immediately regret it for now I cannot see where I am going, the darkness is so complete. The shuffling stops at the door to our hut and a tentative knock against wood can be heard. That simple act calms my frayed nerves; surely a robber would not be so polite as to knock. My hand pats the table in search of the box of matches and as I light the candle, a glow floods the small space and I take a few quick steps to the door. I grasp the handle and push the door outwards, shielding myself behind the frame, just in case. In the triangle of light a familiar form stutters, moving back and forth on unsure feet.
I let her in; what else can I do. It is late and the cold air seeps in through the open space, so I hurry her in and shut the door behind us. She sits heavily on the only chair we own and looks up at me with haunted eyes. She is a shade, a shadow of her former self. As I stand before her I realise she is no longer a woman to fear; the hatred which enveloped her like a cloud ebbs away in the soft light of the candle.
“Ma”, I whisper, “why did you come?”
Her eyes slide down to focus on her knees and I must wait some time for her to gather her thoughts, and her courage. Eventually she takes a deep breath, her body preparing itself for what she is about to say. She begins to talk and a rambling tale unfolds, describing the life of a favourite son, the apple of her eye. I did not know this boy; he had left our village when I was still a child. He left in search of a better life, like so many of our young men he packed his bags and headed for the city, hoping to make something of himself. Every year she would wait for him to return, to bring back a wife and to start a family. She hoped he would return a rich man, a man of means who would provide for her in her old age. She dreamt of a bigger house, a velvet sofa and a full set of pots and pans. Every year she waited, but he never returned. He never wrote nor sent a message with relatives. He simply disappeared. Her loneliness turned to sadness which in turn gave way to bitterness, a black stone of anger grew in her chest, replacing her soft heart. Over time she allowed herself to forget about her boy, never mentioning him again, pushing him into the dark places of her mind.
She looks up at me, tears slowly falling onto brown hands clenched tightly in her lap, and the words trip off her tongue, “I was jealous of you and your mother; I would watch you each and every day and my jealously turned quickly to a kind of hatred. I was angry that she had a daughter like you, a daughter to share her life with, while I had a nothing but a son who was dead to me. When your mother became ill I felt a surge of gratitude, I felt like I was no longer alone.”
When she talks of my mothers illness she holds up three shaking fingers; for no one calls it by name, no one invites it in. Those three fingers speak of the shame and secrecy that surrounds this illness, an illness which takes our young men and women, our mothers and our fathers. It robs grandparents of their twilight years as they now raise tiny grandchildren and sullen teenagers who no longer want to live a traditional way of life.
She is gazing into the distance; no longer sitting in my hut as she continues to speak,
“I never imagined he would come home at all, I had dreamt about it often but I never truly believed he would return. I have buried him many times in my head; I have cried at his grave and thrown sand on his coffin. So I wasn’t prepared. I did not expect it. He walked through the door, a skeleton of a man, and I knew two things: here is my son, my favourite boy, and that he is dying.”
Three fingers suspended in the light cast long shadows against my wall. My throat is tight with tears and the agony of loss and sadness. This woman will bury her son, this golden child who did not share his life when it was filled with hope and happiness, but instead came home to die, an empty husk, in the arms of his mother.