Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Vervet monkeys and paths burned into the woods: Venda Sun 18

Venda Sun 18

Sunday July 29 2012
Morning in Mashau

We wake up at 3am to leave for Limpopo. As I'm writing I can hear Risenga shouting at the entrance to the Venda Sun. All we want is a tourist map but whoever holds the keys to the information drawer at the Thoyandou Arts and Culture centre has left with them so the map, a holy grail, is inaccessible  -although one hangs on the wall.
As we arrived in Limpopo the sun was coming up behind the mountains. We stopped at a service station for breakfast and they put bacon in my toastie.
The landscape's open, filled with short trees, some taller and flat. In the distance, always, mountains. The road's clearish, straight and fast with few stopping places.
Vast stretches of landscape are scorched from fires, some possibly controlled to burn the undergrowth, some probably caused by cigarettes thrown out of cars. There are signs everywhere about the danger of fire.
I have stopped looking at my watch. The village is how I remember it. As we drive in we see Kuti's mother Mary who's off to church and has mattressess, pots and plates for us. Then we meet four village men who immediately ask Risenga for 100 rand for village funerals.
It's foggy, drizzling and overcast on the way but closer to Louis Trichart the sky clears and although it's not warm, the sky's blue.
The track to the house is serious! Potholes, ruts, stones, grass. The grass is so long after Bo Green's house that it scratches the underneath of the car. We're so loaded down.
It's a steep climb up to the two houses and we have to light fires in both to smoke out insects. I sweep the sleeping house, the floor is red earth and dusty. It hasn't been cemented and because it's been empty so long there's a lot of loose soil. The air is red and when I blow my nose, the handkerchief is red too.
We climb the hill with everything from the car - blankets on our heads, rucksacks on our backs and when Mary's back from church, go down again to carry pots and mattresses.
I am dirty and sweaty by the time we finish. Risenga and Petu bring water, an incredible feat, up the hill - five heavy drums of water and one of them leaking badly. Water's the big issue. Thoughts of a shower, even using our Pound shop plastic pouches, are useless. A bird bath is the most we can expect, an inch of water in a bowl with a flannel that I also use to wash knickers and armpits of my tee shirt later.
The hut we sleep in has windows and a door, the other has windows with gaps and no door, plus two wasp nests, these are wasps that look more to me like big flying ants and they go straight for your eyes when they attack.
Fumigating the sleeping hut

We eat my pie, rice, tomato and onion sauce. There's no meat. I can't remember who we eat with. We arrange the sleeping hut - a rope across to hang clothes, lay out sleeping bags and blankets, and we sleep like babies.
Giya's just reminded me of the monkeys watching us from the trees as we arrive, a troupe of them on either side of the path, curious, watchful. They're little vervets with charcoal faces and big eyes.
Monday July 30
Our first morning in Mashau and R's up at dawn with Petu and Peter to cut grass along the track, around the loo and up behind the houses. There was a fire on the mountain that Bo Green managed to stop reaching the houses but it came incredibly close.  The track is burned a long way up.
I'm awake early too and go for a walk with R and Petu around the land. He says he'll create a quiet space somewhere so Giya and I can escape from visitors! Bo Green came last night after his trip to Polokwane for a ZCC meeting  all dressed up in his Sunday best with a briefcase. And there was Olga here for ages, two other girls, a small boy, Mary and her daughter - all of them needing coca cola and Sprite. Giya went with Olga to the bar to buy it. She was an object of curiosity but not in a pleasant way.
We talked about how it is here, to be stared at all the time.
Now I'm sitting with the puppy who adopted us yesterday. The monkeys have arrived in a troupe in the trees behind me. So hard to remember day to day and so much in a day.
Eventually we go to Thoyandou in the car. We buy stuff from a lovely market woman - R buys some bugs, they look like June bugs, he's never eaten before. We get some beans, a mirror, and a beautiful basket. We have lunch at a stall by the taxi rank.
We try the Venda Sun again for maps, which they have this time, so it's easier to decide what we want to do, and go back via the fruit and veg market where we're besieged by women carrying bananas, guava, pawpaw and tomatoes.
A net of avocados costs us 20 rand and on the way back detour on a dirt road to see plantations of tall straight trees, bananas with fruit protected by blue plastic sheaths, nuts, mangoes - lush big estates reaching up to the hills. The sun goes down behind a mountain, a great red ball disappearing fast and the sky stays red. The bushes on the track as we head into the valley are all stained red as if they've been fired in clay. Back onto the road for Mashau. The roadsigns point to Elim and Levubu in both directions.
It's dusk when we arrive back, Peter and Petu are waiting for us with two small boys who disappear immediately. I cook, R disappears to see a woman in the village and comes back with her two dogs. Giya shares her iPod with Petu while I burn the beans. Not even the monkeys will eat them.
The puppy 

Tuesday July 31
Last night was the first time I felt anxious when dogs started barking in the early hours. All the dogs in the village answered. R said this morning he heard bushbabies. In the morning I heard chopping. And first thing, "Nda" (hello) a voice I didn't recognise, nor did R. It was a boy, owner of the dogs, who had come to get the mother dog as he was off to hunt porcupines. He left the puppy, who's asleep next to me now after being very scared earlier.
The sun was hot when I woke up. We were thinking of walking to R's cousin, Grace but we drove. There's no electricity here so we can only charge things in the car. The rechargeable lantern lasted a night. Useless.
The newspapers we bought in Johannesburg are full of stories of corruption and dodgy tenders. Limpopo education's in the news for burning text books. Mail and Guardian journalists are being prosecuted by a government minister.
Cooking hut

There are new houses and 4x4s everywhere, then total poverty. At least the orphans, R's neighbours, have a new house. There are lots of one room government built houses but too little space left. Builders' merchants are booming. There are fewer funeral parlours but long queues at the doctor and vast number of malls - Pick and Pay, Checkers, Spar, everywhere. The women at the side of the roads must be desperate.
Traffic. I can't believe the noise coming from the road. In my memory it was quiet. I felt cheated and stressed. I tell R I hope word will get round that my cooking is rubbish and not worth dropping by for.
Walking round the land we find a tree that smells of piss, a leaf like mint growing from a wall. The flame trees are bare except for the blossom.
But we see black routes scorched into the woods. A red path. Stacks of freshly cut wood in a clearing up from the ravine - old trees being felled. The fear is that they set fires so they can get into the land. The fence is down, a man and woman are carrying enormous bundles of wood on their heads, looking nervous. Two other neighbours are cutting trees.
There was a rumour that R's land was owned by a white man, a bassie.
Now it's quiet. R and G have gone to buy meat, bread and peanut butter. The puppy's grunting. No birds are singing, it's midday. In the morning here it's misty, cold, then sunny and the butterflies come out. I've weighted a sheet on the line for shade. The avocado I put on the table to ripen was gone when I returned. It was the monkeys.
Monkeys love these blossoms

Sound travels here. Yesterday at the end of our walk R called to Giya to put the kettle on. A cock's crowing miles away. I can hear someone hammering.
Now the puppy moves with the sun out of the shade. I keep the fire hot for when they get back with the meat. I can see the line of hills I thought was one range is in fact three. The deep crevices of the furthest are shadows. The Levubu river's even more distinct. I'm looking at it through a screen of trees.
When they come back from shopping we cook chicken feet and neck, dhal and pap. By the time we've eaten it's nearly dark. Mary turns up with two more small boys, we have tea and biscuits. R realises he's lost  his dongle. The moon's nearly full. We walk down to the village leaving Giya talking to Petu, Peter and one of the small boys. In the village, the paths give off heat.
Mary's house, like most of them, is almost European in style - there's a TV, sofas, of graduations. The grandchildren are watching a soap. A local councillor has convinced most of the village that water won't run uphill.
We pass the social worker's house. It's an enormous bungalow, white tiled floors, polished cement terrace. A fire's burning in a small round house. Inside the bungalow, kids are slumped in front of the TV with mobiles, looking sulky. No-one talks. The social worker doesn't smile and looks put out by my dirty feet. She asks R for the puppy back - it's apparently hers. We'll miss it. It reminds Giya and me of Pip, the puppy from years ago, our first visit to the village and the land.
The entrance to Risenga's land on the hillside in Mashau