Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The caretaker and policeman

Venda Sun 21

I've been reading a lot of short stories for a group I'm running for the Royal Literary Fund and what's struck me is the focus on individuals and place. Two people have stayed in my mind since South Africa 2012 - a caretaker who worked at the sacred Phiphidi falls in Venda and a policeman who was also there on a works outing- a party for the office cleaner who was leaving.

Giya and I renamed it P Diddy Falls. As the trip went on, we laughed more manically. Humour was a reaction to the relentlessness of apartheid past and present. One example: at the Albasini Dam, the man at the gate actually shook R's hand for having a white woman.

But the caretaker and policeman had their own stories to tell. The caretaker almost singlehandedly kept the rubbish at this beautiful place at bay. Normally in Venda, women are the caretakers of water (see the link to the Gaia Foundation at the end) but this man was doing what many of us would do if we saw a landmark on our doorstep being trashed. 

And the policeman was another local disillusioned by what was happening to his region. 

Saturday August 4 2012

Yesterday could have been a disaster. Thankfully we reclaim it with a trip to the Phiphidi waterfall in Sibasa. A policeman at the falls tells us SA is walking slowly in the same direction as Zimbabwe. (His words). He's standing by the top of the steps down to the falls with a beer in his hand. He's small and round in his smart jumper and trousers. He complains that Zuma's got rid of all the educated people and intellectuals and claims the education minister didn't even pass matric.

I don't know if any of this is true but he's telling a story that's become apocryphal around the fire and at casual meeting places....the politician and the tender…

We have 10 days left. The waterfalls are on the road from Sibasa, on a climb out of Thoyandou into hillier countryside, over the brow of a hill that gives us a view over the plain: another dam, the mountain range and fires.

What shifted things yesterday was a fire at the bottom of the hill. R's neighbour had set light to some grass and it got out of control in the wind. R rushed down and with Peter and Petu managed to cut grass down so it didn't spread to the scrub leading to our houses.

(I've made a note here of birdsongs: bird that sounds like a whistle, the call that sounds like 'what's your name?', the 'we are' call, a call like a wooden slide whistle kids use).

When we came back today, a woman was burning grass on her patch of land but it was still under control. The fire yesterday almost reached Petu's house.

Today we have a picnic of fried chicken and utter luxury, feta and olives for me. To get to the falls we drive down a red track, bumpy and steep, past two piles - one of cans, one of bottles. The man who later takes us to the bottom of the falls works here alone collecting people's rubbish. There are clearings in the trees, cement built barbeques and tables. Someone's built chalets and a gate at the entrance. You pay 15 rand per person and 30 rand for the car. I wasn't sure about this idea of development but the policeman's absolutely in favour. He says it stops locals from cutting all the trees down.

The first fall is the steepest. When it rains in summer this must be phenomenal, the whole gorge full and roaring. The river joins the Vaal and goes to the sea through Mozambique.

Yesterday during my loud row with R, the monkeys came to watch. They clung to the trees, sat on rocks. We were their theatre before we heard the fire below us.

We take our picnic further down to the third level, walking over a wooden walkway over dark green, still pools, to an expanse of flat rocks looking down the gorge to overhanging trees.

Last night before the moon came up red and subdued I saw the smoky clouds of the Milky Way.

A very thin man in a blue overall with red hat asks if we want a guide to the bottom. Since we have no idea how far it is, we ask him to come back later, make him a roll of avocado and banana.
He shows us a heart shaped hole in the rock. When it's full the water boils. Down to the pools where the gorge flattens out, overhung with branches. One tree has moss growing up its trunk. He tells us the sangomas collect the water that seeps from these trees.

When I ask if people swim here he says there are often ZCC (Zion Christian Church) baptisms and people drown because they can't swim. The pool under the first waterfall is deep. The water's eroded the rock in the pool into a trap. People get wedged, standing up, into a cleft and they are found like that - dead and upright. The force of water doesn't allow them to move sideways or upwards.

Back to the car. The policeman's here with a coachload of colleagues. They're all singing and someone leads prayers. The cleaner's retiring, he tells us. After the prayers, the party starts.

We stop in Thoyandou on the way back and at the Tchanguma fruit market to buy sugar cane. Giya and I listen to the heavy music outside Spar. It's about 5 pm and there's a massive speaker.
Back home we cook in the dark. I remember the monkeys again, eating red flowers from the flame tree.

Sunday August 5
This morning I'm up at dawn, have a whole ripe avocado to myself. We have nets of them. Today we're going to the Albasini Dam down the road. The sign at the entrance is Beware of Crocodiles.
"Water won't run uphill." The woman who tells me this has a degree and teaches adults who dropped out of school. She believes the local politician's lie. Since 1994 and on the day that Jacob Zuma opens an official statue of Madiba on the site where he was first arrested, the village where she lives has relied on a single waterpipe near the main road.

When I came to the village in 2002 there was no electricity. The second time in 2006, most houses had power and building had begun in earnest. In 2012 the road that leads to Thoyandou is never silent. It drowns out the birds, begins before dawn and continues through the night.

As I sit outside the round houses made from local stone, I can see security lights outside houses below. Many new buildings are like ranch bungalows. Traditional round houses are kept for cooking, or abandoned. In 2006, the local paper was full of the ANC's promise of water. Fifteen minutes drive down the road from this village is the Albasini dam. Forty five minutes up to Thoyandou there's another massive dam. There's a list of dams and water levels in the local paper, the Zoutpansberg Times.
But in these beautifully tiled new ranch houses, where kids now sit in front of the TV with mobiles just like in Brighton, water comes in 20 litre drums unless you can afford a private borehole and know a contractor who won't rip you off and run.

This rural population, rendered passive by apartheid, remains passive because tradition is the new medium of oppression. Debate is stifled in the name of tradition. The young are threatened if they question an older person about their moral or political stance. This is a beautiful region being destroyed piecemeal by cars, shopping malls, litter, wood-cutting and corruption. When it's convenient, tradition  is hauled into the back of a 4x4 to keep young people from asking difficult questions and to keep women in their place.

The woman who believes the local politician's excuse for not piping water throughout the village has already been ripped off by a borehole contractor. She also has an hour's journey to work because she has no car and there are no minibuses going in her direction. If she had a bike she could get there in 30 minutes. But women here aren't allowed to ride bikes, she says.
The vervet monkeys love these flowers

Today, as Zuma's calling on young people to be aware of their political history. Earlier I read in the paper about a local police chief facing 1,600 charges of fraud, including handing out driving licences.
PickNPay, Checkers, Spar, KFC and every international brand and retailer is writing the agenda. Builder's merchants are multiplying and profiting from an expansion of expensive looking churches. The boom in funeral directors has abated, AIDS orphans are being brought up by grandparents and great grandparents but the illness of unemployment's treated with religion and American style soaps.
So it seems there was reason in the move to install electricity before water.

Woodsmoke and mist are settling in the valley as the sun comes up. Someone's hammering.  Later I drive with Giya to Levubu Spar. We're preparing to go to the Kruger national park. Giya's chatted up in the car park. It's hot. I pack while G and R go to visit the chief. Some local kids come to visit. It's Sunday, they're escaping church. Tomorrow we need to wake up before dawn. We're heading for the Pafuri gate of the Kruger, far north, nearly at the border with Zimbabwe.
Venda women in Limpopo