Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Swastikas at a party in Wimpey: Venda Sun 11

Venda Sun 11
The third trip to South Africa - end November 2004 to mid January 2005

Risenga and his mother, Flora Street, Kensington
summer 2012

Rich shows the cat at the window in a shell ravaged school with terrified children, but as the notes at the back reveal, she’s a poet with a commitment to the history of ideas, the world and literature. 

This diary starts, as the others did, on the plane and with notes for a review of a collection of poetry by Adrienne Rich, The School Among the Ruins. Later, in the review for Mslexia magazine, I quote from an essay by Rich: "“My work is for people who want to imagine and claim wider horizons and carry on about them into the night, rather than rehearse the landlocked details of personal quandaries or the price for which the house next door just sold.”

There are many things I don't know about this trip when we're in the air on our way to the stopover at Dubai. I don't know it will be the last time the four of us visit together and I don't know that the next time I am in South Africa, Risenga and I will be separated. None of us knows that it will be the last time Mrisi, Giya and I see Risenga's brother Petrus. He never told us, but when we were there, he knew he had AIDS, that he was dying. 

Mrisi's in year 8 at secondary school and Giya's in her last year of primary school;  I jump through hoops again with both schools to persuade them of the importance of this trip. It already seems too short for what it's costing but as it turns out, the next time Mrisi and Giya visit, separately, they'll both be young adults. Mrisi actually turned 18 during his next trip to South Africa. 

I feel each trip places a different marker, taps into a different area of memory. The first, if it is in their memories, will be deep and probably never rise to the surface. It will live in photos and stories Risenga and I have told them. It will live in my diary, my interpretation, the poems that came out of it, which exist separate to my children. It lives too in the family that we all joined when Mrisi was born, a family from Gazankulu and Venda that ended up scattered, some in Johannesburg, some in the countryside, as were so many South African families. It's a family with strong loyalties and fault lines, a family with gaps in it and mysteries, like all families. But that trip was almost like baptising the children with the atmosphere of the southern hemisphere, imbuing them with sounds, smells, textures of the languages, fruit, giving them a sense of belonging that was tangible and could be located in Orange Farm, Palm Springs, Mashau. 

The second trip is already fading. It lives for me in 35mm photos, in Jackson's wooden fish that hangs in our kitchen, in my continuing love of Venda, my fondness for Grace, Risenga's cousin and an unshakeable memory of the sky at night. For Mrisi and Giya, this trip was their true introduction to the family, an introduction they might remember among the many sensations that this country delivers. If there's a metaphor for that trip, it's like priming wood before painting - it established a surface, I hope, for their own memories, a screen perhaps on which they could play their own thoughts of the country, the other side of their family, their heritage. I was most afraid for my children in primary school that they might feel lost, set apart, because they were so far away from the South African family, their cousins, grandma, uncles, aunts and my family in England was so sparse.

So this third trip feels like a consolidation, like proper travelling into the family and country, a trip they might go back to find solutions in, if they need to in future. It's not as if they are detached from South African culture - Risenga is a musician and they often meet his friends. But there's a seam of sadness in the lives of the South Africans who stayed.

I've just finished a poetry residency in Aldeburgh, read at the poetry festival with one of the writers I most admire, Michael Longley, and spent two weeks in solitude when I started writing my fourth collection of poetry, Commandments.

But in June 2004, my brother was killed in a plane crash and shortly before we are due to travel, my stepfather dies. We'd bought the tickets, Mum persuades us to go and books a trip to visit her brother in Florida, but I am troubled by our decision. The last few months have been traumatic.

30 November 2004

We’re in the air above Africa. We set out yesterday from home at about 4 pm and at 5ish (our time) we're swimming in Dubai airport. God how wealthy it is, gold and so much money. It just oozes wealth and how scruffy I feel. Landing this morning the sun was coming up and the sky was strips of blue and red. We were zombies and the pool was very hot so not quite refreshing.

Today we’ve been spotting spits, villages in the mountains to start with, then rivers in a delta and the Comares islands with beautiful deep blue lagoons, long sandy beaches and lines of surf. Clouds too and trying to decide what’s mainland. Last night we flew over Baghdad and Fallujah – the map was so stark, just names and mountains with a representation of our plane on it. There was an Irish pub and fake palm trees in the airport at Dubai. I was given a chicken roll when I asked for a vegetarian snack. I watched Spiderman with Mrisi and some other dreadful rubbish. I’m exhausted but the swim was a good idea.

Weds 1 December

I sleep on Risenga's mum's floor. Everything’s changed in Orange Farm. It’s like a country suburb with paved roads, space and trees. The wild, loose horses are gone, so’s the coalman. There’s a big smart school and church down the road that opens at 6 am.

Petrus met us at the airport but it was dark by the time we arrived at R’s mum's house. In the morning R looked at the car and realised the front tyres were bald. We took it back today but now we’re sitting in KFC near Southgate Mall and Soweto because the gear stick on the replacement car is broken. It’s ridiculous. The place is packed and we’ve been waiting nearly 2 hours.

The children are with Margaret and their cousins in Palm Springs. But we have to go and get them. In KFC we’re listening to inane house music and sharing a can of coke while the KFC for R’s mum and kids gets cold.

Today is World Aids Day and the South African courts have given the go ahead for two women to marry. So many people here are young. It’s energetic and buzzing.

Thursday 2 December

We’re at Ellis Park Stadium. The replacement car’s a Chevrolet with a scratch down the side but it’s newer than the other two. But the pool’s lovely and the kids are swimming with Diran. There’s a guy in the stands who’s shaking a cowbell. Were were very late back last night so it seems relaxed here, just to do nothing. R’s gone off to the shopping centre to buy an adaptor and phone card. The rand is stronger so it’s not as cheap as last time.  Everywhere we go there’s new building and loads of squatter camps but apparently they’re putting water and electricity into Orange Farm.

Friday 3 December

We went to R’s uncle in El Dorado park. All these housing developments have bizarre Spanish style names and villa architecture….We passed a place called Fun Valley and Mrisi cynically asked what that might be like. There are some amazing shops, barbers and shoe repairers.

Last night there was a terrible storm – water came in through the bedroom ceiling, just as I remembered.

I had a horrendous dream, woke up feeling disturbed and angry.  Mani’s new neighbour told us a story last night about a woman who was so angry with her husband she put sand and dirt in his food, bed, clothes – all over the house. She put a layer of dirt and water under the sheet so when he got into bed he was covered in mud. Another neighbour couldn’t stop talking about his illnesses. There’s a lot of diabetes here - too much sugar, drinking, a change in diet.

It’s hot today. Lunch was for 16, most of them children. R’s aunt, Sarah, has been staying. Thunder and forked lightning. An Afrikaner guy has opened a b&b in shacks in Soweto to give people an authentic experience.

I walk to the park and shop with Sarah and thunder’s rumbling overhead. R’s sitting at the shop with Petrus, local guys and his drum. The skin’s cracked. The rain comes at 5 pm pummeling on the roof and the heat disappears. It’s cool on my back. The children play outside when it calms down. For a while it’s all thunder and flashes, then the storm moves across the plains.

This is seventh heaven for the kids, splashing in mud and the gutter outside Mani’s house not worrying about getting dirty. Clothes dry in an hour in the midday sun.

The horse and carts are still around and the drivers look as if they’re in charge of stagecoaches. There’s something about a man with a horse and cart, especially when the horse is trotting fast, its mane’s out, the head is up and it looks proud and looked after. There are lots of celebrations this time. A wedding in Venda on December 18, Mpho’s 21st birthday tomorrow, Christmas, New Year.

Saturday 4 December

We go into Vereeniging early, I’m up at 6, too hot to sleep and do some washing so it will dry before the rain. The rain didn’t come. Vereeniging has changed totally from being a kind of white frontier town five years ago, the shopping centre’s almost exclusively full of African people. We try and change money at the bank but are told they can’t do it on a Saturday! First National Bank….The first question we’re asked is where we got our money from. So nothing’s changed.

Jo'burg seems different, more affluent, relaxed, but these country areas are going to be horrendous. So while I’m looking forward to peace and quiet, I’m dreading the looks and the hassle. I think Giya’s finding it hard being on show.

I take her to Wimpey after doing the shopping and partly so we don’t have to stand with R while he has a row with a guy making him sandals. We have a meal and I go off to buy Mrisi some mangoes. Come back and have food and then R and Petrus turn up and I go to see if the cashpoint works.

When I get back everything’s changed. A family sitting in the smoking area's having a kids' party and have face paints out. The mother and father paint swastika signs on their children's faces and the woman paints one on her own with a finger on the other cheek.

R complains to the manageress who says there’s nothing she can do about it. When we go to pay, we complain again, but she says they’ve been drinking and she couldn’t confront them. These people terrify us. They are so unpredictable and vile. I only wanted to go there to avoid having to drive into J’burg again. The roads are so busy going into the city and make me nervous.