Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The chief in his leopardskin is inaugurated in Nwamatatane: Venda Sun 14

Chief's inauguration in Nwamatatane
2004 - Risenga Makondo
with traditional dancers
Venda Sun 14
A resurrection plant, news of the tsunami and poverty

When I think of Mashau, Venda and the Soutpansberg, I am so conscious of the wilderness and the region's ecological richness. I am afraid when I hear reports of development, of mining, when I see the unregulated development everywhere, old trees being cut for firewood because local government or whoever is responsible hasn't tackled local peoples' basic needs.

Those with money retreat into the countryside and behind high security fences. Those without calculate the profit they might make on a bag of salty snacks or a bowl of tomatoes. Others sell firewood.

I came home feeling confused and angry. It would be nearly ten years before my next trip for Giya's 18th. I wish I could have accompanied Mrisi for his 18th, but now my grown up children keep their own records of what they witness - Giya in photos, Mrisi in music.

Saturday, January 1 2005

Today we’re escaping to Lajuma Mountain Retreat. It takes a while, R has to go to Levubu to buy maize meal for his mum and get fruit and veg. It’s after 1 when we leave, post cards in Makhado and go to KFC then head for Vivo. The further we get from Makhado the more isolated it is.

The Soutpansberg mountains rise up by the side of the road and in front of us. There’s virtually no traffic compared to the road to Mashau through the Luvubu valley. We pass the sign for Lesheba, other game lodges, a healing retreat and see Lajuma, turn off the tar road where Ian's waiting with a 4X4 camper van. A group of men are sitting in the car park. They look after the cars while we’re up the mountain. Up and along a dirt road with wilderness on either side until we come to a lodge, lush grass, palm trees, a garden with fuchsia, hydrangeas, rosemary, feverfew, tree ferns and sprinklers. The house was built in 1946 and they made the bricks. It seems like paradise after Mashau. The night is truly dark, the sky bright with stars. There are rare monkeys in the trees and the ping ping sound of fruit bats a rumble of baboons. The children have their own chalet and it’s so dark and a bit of a walk from ours, that R agrees to sleep on the floor in case they wake up. I have a bed all to myself. What bliss.

A bath, running water, table and chairs, a flushing loo - no wind whipping up dust constantly, no stream of people expecting to be fed, waited on, taken somewhere. We are stranded up here and can’t use the car. It’s fantastic. But in the paper we read about tsunamis in Thailand and Indonesia and Sam Bland was there for Xmas. Phuket was one of the places it hit and that’s one of the top tourist destinations. I hope Sam’s okay. There’s no way we’ll know until we arrive back. It was devastating, a string of tidal waves on December 29.

(Sam, Giya's schoolfriend, survived the tsunami with his family. He was separated from them but swam in open sea, alone, to a small island until his mother, brother and father also made it there. I will always have an image of him, standing on the beach in Brighton in the summer of 2005, watching as his friends laughed and swam, edging into the water, his arms wrapped around himself.)

Sunday 2 January

It’s cool to start with but we go for a walk to find the rock pools with Ian and it’s a long detour through the forest, swamps and obscure paths. We find a dead glossy ibis, see wild pig droppings, more from a cat. He shows us the resurrection plant that goes green again when put in water and splits open, aloes for stings and scratches. G&M are nervous about going into the pool but eventually do, only to find we have to make our way back. On the path up the hill Mrisi is stung by a hornet and is in agony. Ian finds the nest in an old tree trunk that Mrisi must have knocked. The children are very good about wandering through the wilderness. The waterfall lodge is perched on the side of a hill but Ian says it's occupied by a couple of ‘lesbian guys’ who like to swim topless.

His specialism is conservation. Some students stay here for a month, one for two years. The rock pools are clear eventually after we walk along the river. There are big flat iron coloured rocks. Where the water’s not running the water's dark red. The children are fired by the walk. We have a brai of sausage when we get back, under the pink bush.
Baboon staring into the water
sculpture by Wilma Cruise, Johannesburg

Monday 3 January

R went to sleep in the chalet last night with Mrisi, because Ian and Ingrid were away and it would have been totally isolated.

We walked to the ridge, a cave and dried up rock pool, saw the wilderness camp, where there’s a stuffed cheetah, baboon and a darts board, plus great big fire pit and platform for looking at the sky. Seven to eight baboons look down at us from an escarpment as we try and find the path. Buck are frightened out of hiding, jump away into the bush, there are cows in the distance, a farmhouse. We see a dried up rock pool, find a cave cool as air conditioning. We climb up the ridge on paths of cacti, overhung with creepers and trees, the smell of jasmine, mpepa (like sage). A ravine plunges down from the path, quartz stones are trapped in layers of rock, ironstone eroded into sharp ridges, handholds and covered in lichen.

The call of the glossy ibis leads us back to the farmhouse. Looking at tracks, cat prints and there are caracole droppings with bits of bone in, wild pig droppings, smaller than warthog. Needing water, needing shade, we eat pretzels overlooking the valley, thunder around us in the distance, clouds gathering. The sky’s dark grey as we make our way down, Lajuma mountain above us. A moth as big as a bat is flapping around the bathroom at night. We smear aloe juice on cuts and sores, splitting open the leaf with its own spines. Bamboo walking sticks rattle down rock, my back is drenched in sweat from the rucksack, R & M are striding ahead of us. We feel fear on the mountain and as we descent, hear thunder.

Tuesday 4 January

Scrapbooks and work for the children today, catching up on diaries. Noisy glossy ibises, noisy helmeted guinea fowl, no samango monkeys, a vast moth, vast butterflies – one yellow and black, one blue and black – by the rock pool down the bottom. Resin from a pine tree trunk reminds me of incense as I rub it between my fingers. I see an orange butterfly, white butterfly with black tips, bright yellow butterfly, praying mantis on the wall by the bed. Beetle flying so noisy with a buzz as if it’s out of control.

I take the plaits out of M&G's wonderful hair.  It's too hot to go out by the time we’re ready, so we wait and have lunch. We sit in the stream, see catfish, tiny frogs. R plays his bamboo pipe like Pan on the rocks, worried by flies.

The sky’s going dark again. We have guinea fowl feathers in our hats, bash sticks in the long grass where it’s mushy, against frogs, mainly snakes. Everywhere buzzes, sings, shakes or rustles. There was mist on the ridge in the morning covering where we walked, the sun burns it off.

Giya with women from Nwamatatane before
the chief's inauguration

Wednesday 5 January

Our last day. Giya's singing in the bath. There are piles of mpepa on the table and R’s flutes. Crickets are singing high. Mrisi's still in bed. I’ve done some washing, indulging in running water and a washing line, which isn’t over a dustbowl. There's light wind in the leaves, a Venda pot in the sun and a walking stick, a stool carved from a single piece of wood. Today I won’t think .It will become so hot. I can’t walk. It will cool in the afternoon storm. The birds, trees, wind, rain will think for me.

Thursday 6 January

Back via Vivo where we think we’ll find petrol but there’s none and Vivo is just a couple of garages, a liquor store and shop, dead apart from a terrible smell of piss as you drive in. We stop off in Makhado then to Textures, more present shopping and lunch. Back to Mashau where T tells us the goat’s better because she miscarried. I spend ages repacking for tomorrow and we have a meal over the fire again. Petrus is there, Pip’s been pining. It's hot in Mashau after the mountains, relaxed though.

Venda is a region where water is sacred -
this is one of the most revered places,
the Phiphidi falls near Sibasa

Friday 7 January - 10 January

It's the chief’s inauguration in Nwamatatane. We arrive late because the drilling man turned up late to tell R he’d never be able to drill on the land. The inauguration was very late starting and there were endless speeches as I’ve come to expect. The women look wonderful and the chief tries on his leopard skin in his house beforehand, which is a treat. He looks straight at Mrisi when he’s officially made chief which Mrisi’s delighted by. We have to leave and pack. It’s hard leaving Mashau. I’m close to crying.

It's a long drive to J’burg. The children sleep, we arrive at around 10. We're staying with K for two days.

We visit Hector Pieterson’s museum and memorial in Soweto and Mandela’s house, then go back to Orange Farm after a short swim in the rain. On the first day we go shopping. Mai Mai’s interesting, Rosebank’s full of hustlers and makes me uneasy, Sandton’s crazy and too opulent. Lunch is grim. But we enjoy Mai Mai.

Vilakasi Street, Nelson Mandela's
former neighbourhood in Soweto
Orange Farm has begun to seem like home and R’s mum is happy to see us. Then there are more goodbyes the next day. Mani says a prayer for us. We don’t see Joe and Margaret but the girls come over. Then to the airport and two long flights with a Dubai stopover. Good legroom on Emirates, but a long journey with the break. It’s raining in Gatwick. Cold.

But when we came back to the UK I was haunted by the poverty we'd witnessed. Mandela of course was still alive and campaigning:

Nelson Mandela knows about poverty – for everyone in South Africa, black and white, poverty has a familiar face:  a seven year old kid selling nail clippers in a Spar car park, a grandmother who finds herself the only parent to her grandchildren, in debt to the funeral company, no cash for food or school.

On lush slopes outside any town or city, luxurious Spanish style villas spring up while below, by the main road, new settlements of one room zozos are infested with ants, cockroaches and mosquitos.

In these dusty, dry, hot villages live the children who can’t go to school because education has to be paid for, elderly women look after grandchildren whose parents are dead from HIV/AIDS, fields of maize are stunted because rain is so scarce, there’s electricity but no money for the bill. No water, no phones but always a couple of bottle stores, a funeral parlour and Coca Cola’s bright red signs.

In the rural north, the Limpopo region, where the border with Zimbabwe is just up the road, poverty and HIV/AIDS make the fantasy architecture of Sandton, Gauteng’s wealthiest area, an abomination.

Take the village of Mashau, an hour’s drive from Makhado (formerly Louis Trichart). Here, water is collected from a public standpipe in 20 gallon drums and taken home in a wheelbarrow or on the head. Wood is collected from the mountainside, cooking is done on the fire.

My partner was brought up here, now he has bought land. For our children, 2004 was a universe away from Christmas in the UK. Our one concession to tradition was a roll of tinsel which we decorated the outside of our zozo (shack) with and some cut out paper dolls. The children had two presents each. They were probably the only children in the village to open up anything that morning.

Harsh, maybe, for them as they thought of what their friends would be doing so many miles away. But what they experienced will hopefully stay with them as the world struggles with this chasm between rich and poor. They sat with a 15 year old who lives next door alone because her parents died of AIDS and her older sister was visiting a boyfriend. They played with children who make a football out of old plastic bags, who dig clay out of the field, who walk barefoot, whose slim frames are the result of not having enough to eat. These are children whose ambitions are astonishing but for whom the reality is bleak. 

The tea plantation, where there were jobs once, has closed. Land is being handed over under the restitution scheme, but there’s no money to buy tools, seeds and people do not have the skills to make the land pay.

This is a landscape of bottle stores and funeral parlours. Paradise tombstones welcomes you to Giyani, is the sign leading into one of the region’s larger towns. Every village has at least one bottle store, sometimes more. Funeral parlours pepper the landscape, but try and find a post office, access the internet, a grocery shop.

Yet this is where the wealthy go to play, paying 400 rand a night or more in a luxury lodge where they can shoot, swim, look at the stars, eat new African cuisine, buy local crafts. They will speed up to the region which calls itself Africa’s Eden, which advertises itself as an antidote to stress, in a four wheel drive or air conditioned people carrier. And in many ways it is Eden, decorated with ancient trees, pretty round houses with their elaborately painted walls and neat thatch, wandering herds of goats and light brown cows. There are plantations of bananas, mangoes and lychees, mountain retreats, rare birds and fabulous artists.

At the side of the road in the lush Levubu valley you can buy a crate of tomatoes for 20 rand. Enterprising women package them up in plastic bags to sell from their stalls. Everywhere, there is a phenomenal will to survive. But while the rich may feel the stress drop off, it is merely multiplying for the rural poor in the shape of a daily struggle to find five rand for a loaf of bread, 25 rand for a chicken, the cost of candles, a bag of maize, washing powder. While the rich complain about the stress of being time poor, the poor's days are taken up with collecting water, firewood, washing by hand, and cooking on an open fire. The time it takes to walk everywhere, to dig fields so there is at least a chance something might grow.

People living in Mashau and other villages of the Limpopo region, those in the townships, don’t need charity, they need opportunities, to take for granted access to water, education and enough food to live on. Mandela is right. "Massive poverty and obscene inequality are such terrible scourges of our times ... that they have to rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils."