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

A walk through Hillbrow and Orange Farm at night: Venda Sun 17

Venda Sun 17
Museum of Apartheid, Johannesburg

I've been putting Christmas presents together for the family and was remembering the last trip I began writing about months ago. I'm not sure what this piece of writing will become, if anything. Some poems have already emerged from that trip in 2012 but I need to finish transcribing the last diary before I can stand back from it and assimilate it all.
In a matter of weeks I'll be 60 and it feels as if I'm moving so far away from the person who wrote these diaries, even the person I was in 2012. I've been held back, I think, by wondering what right I have to reflect on a country I've never lived in but which has had such an impact on my life. But I've decided I want to write about what's difficult, especially if I have a sense that I shouldn't be. Where does that come from? Self-censorship? Fear?
We often discuss the politics of race around our kitchen table. South Africa provides plenty of good material. Maybe these diaries live in that arena and in the discussions that don't happen elsewhere about white mothers of black children.
But they're not children anymore. They are adults. Is what I do with these diaries, then, about letting go of a borrowed place?

Tuesday 24 July 2012 
The neighbour, Patrick, came round a few moments ago asking about cutting down the palm tree which is apparently home to about 90 pigeons.  His wife also dropped in. She is proud of her electric fence.
The ibis has just flown over. It has a call like a seagull but more monotone. Its beak is as long as one of my hair clips and curved to a point in the same way. They peck the grass for worms, presumably, while the pigeons flap around cooing and shedding feathers and the tiny sparrows and weaver birds seem to spend their time singing.
A weaver bird is making a nest at the end of one of the palm fronds. Mani said that rats climb the tree and get them but I don't know if I believe her.
Maps! When we tried to buy one yesterday the bookshop said it would be useless because all the names have changed but the maps haven't been updated. So we have to ask directions. But people don't tell you road names, they say left at the third robot (light) and right, then straight on. The street names around Flora street are Dasher and Ferret. I love the hand painted signs and shop names. I love the two views from this garden, both of red hillsides, rocks and trees.
Today we go to the Museum of Apartheid, to eat in Soweto and to visit Margaret's sister.
Fallen angels outside Spaza Arts, Kensington,

We see burned marshlands, burned wasteland, fires by the side of the road, men burning tyres for heat, a broken water main, men pushing trolleys of gathered rubbish or scrap, men piled into the back of a van.
The Museum of Apartheid is next to Gold Reef City - two distinct architectures: modern, concrete, minimalist next to old, garish fairground. The big wheel of Gold Reef City stands on the skyline. The towers that announce the museum somehow blend into it.
At the entrance, tickets are randomly distributed - either white or non-white - and we go in through separate entrances. The old signs are all there, like the ones we have at home (rescued by Risenga) and passes, blown up, as reminders.
On the slope towards the museum are mirrors printed with the back view of several people. You see yourself and their backs. As you get to the top and look down you see them all from the front. All of them have a connection with the development of Johannesburg or fighting apartheid.
Most of the museum is tv, photos and text and it's oppressive after a while not to be with objects or in spaces that are domestic. But there's a red merc in the Mandela exhibition, a rugby shirt, t shirts and posters, an armoured van in the main museum, three cells, lots of wire fences and a room of nooses. It's full on, airless, exhausting.
Outside, as we're leaving, I see a small sign for William Kentridge, Goodman Gallery. There's a sculpture and pathways through cut grass. It's intriquing and beautiful after the museum and feels like a great relief to be in this natural space.
As we leave a woman's collecting leaves from a tree for her knees.
We drive to the theatre in Soweto to see if there's anything on. It's dead. We go to a restaurant in Vilakazi Street. The past is ever present. It runs alongside the car and squats in the boot, on the roof, hangs onto the door handles.
Kendell Geers, Songs of Innocence and Experience
 at the Goodman Gallery

Wednesday 25 July 2012
Heading towards Rosebank, through Yeoville, R shows us where he was nearly shot by police. We were meeting Duncan at 11 so ended up getting a minicab with cracked windscreen, seatbelts that didn't work, a taped together taxi sign that rested on the roof. Illegal as you can get. At the Goodman Gallery, "Songs of Innocence and Experience" by Kendell Geers - a barbed wire/razor wire bed, hands grasping skulls, transparent police batons arranged in a heart shape on the wall and a massive lorry tyre painted with lines by William Blake.
Then Circa on Jellicoe just up the road, to an exhibition by Wilma Cruise, the Alice Diaries - clay sculptures of animals but not really animals because they had almost human expressions, a room full of babies in clay and outside there was the most amazing terrace with a view of the city.
Finally, the Everard Read Gallery's stunning collection of SA art, which should have been in the main city art gallery. But this is private.
And then the walk home....through suburbs with flats named St Johns Wood, office blocks, walls, razor wire and lush gardens with gardeners. The traffic pollution is overwhelming, suffocating.
Eventually, with a short taxi ride, we arrive back in Yeoville and Rocky Street, notorious haunt of criminals and drug dealers - according to Risenga. We stop at the wonderful fruit and veg market and the avocados we buy are the best I've had in a long time.
We are walking back towards the house when we reach some old thirties buildings, a shouting match outside a hairdressers, and two guys appear smelling of ganja. I'm about to take a photo of the flats and one starts pissing against a tree. Risenga says something to them and we have to divert. Later he says he saw a gun.
So we skirt the Yeoville reservoir and hilltop water tower around another bare patch on the hill where a ZCC church meeting is taking place among the rubbish and loiterers. We pass a row of garages where R asks directions and is told not to go over the hill or we'll be mugged. We cut down again on a dirty and run down stretch of road and we're in Hillbrow near the Telecom tower, apparently one of the most dangerous places in Johannesburg, a 'no-go' area.
Perhaps people are just so amazed to see us, a white woman, a black man and a mixed race young woman. Afterwards we laugh about being a walking curiosity.
A view of the city of Johannesburg
at dusk, from Kensington

But the grime and rubbish is Orwellian. It is nothing to see rats jump out of the shrubbery, dead rats by the side of the road. You can walk from white walled galleries to streets that seem to have been created out of torn plastic, shoe soles and rags.
Tonight we meet Terry, R's neighbour, who's involved in a paraolympics sports club. We watch some of the match between the South African and Columbian Olympic basketball teams. There's a warm fire in the clubhouse.
Wilma Cruise, The Alice Diaries, Circa on Jellicoe

Thursday 26 July
Giya goes to Orange Farm to stay overnight with her grandma. We drive out on the motorway. A lot has changed. There are vast stretches of low one bedroomed brick houses that were built to replace acres of zozos on the plains around Johannesburg.
They sit among acres of burned grassland, sometimes still smoking, where old men collect what's left of a tree and its branches, charcoal black. On the way back the sun's setting over a curve of rooftops and through a haze of smoke from the fires, criss-crossed by wires, tv aerials and the odd tree.
R wants to show Giya El Dorado park, another estate where his uncle Harry lives. More driving. We go to a supermarket - Shop Rite - to buy food for his mother and at last I find some big boxes of matches. A big bag of biscuits, bread, milk, eggs, meat.
Orange Farm has changed, I wouldn't have known my way there. It's a random, unmarked turning off the main road in the middle of nowhere and immediately it's red earth, small shelters where something's sold, wire fences and chickens. There's a barber's in a corrugated iron cubicle and masses of schoolchildren taking up most of the road.
There are speed bumps thought, now and gravel strips across the road where electricity's been put in. More brick houses, but zozos still, too. People rent them out to Mozambicans and Zimbabweans who are there for work. R's mother gets rent for hers.
R's mum's house is spotless. She has an indoor loo and a bath but no hot water yet. It's good to see Joyce, her neighbour, who's genuinely warm and interested. And we another neighbour who's now looking after her great grandchildren.
Friday July 27
Last night I dreamed about a dead fish. The weaver birds and sparrows woke me up before dawn. And a flock of geese made a line in the sky.
I've baked pasties, made a bean and tomato salad. I washed bedding which hasn't been washed for months. I'm watching the shadow of the palm tree on the white wall moving in the wind. A sparrow's taking straw into the eaves. The weaver birds have made two nests now at the end of the palm fronds but the wind's so strong I wonder how anything could stay in there. The weaver bird's on one of the fronds now, its tail fanned out. It makes a harsh clacking. It seems to pull building material out of the frond or maybe it's starting another nest. It makes itself a perch, which also secures the nest to the frond. It's now attaching a really long bit and flown off for more. Does it weave the nest around itself? Pigeons fly in pairs. The small birds skitter through the rivers of cooing, intense low notes from the heart of the palm. The small birds sing around the edges of the fronds.
The wind's strong. There'll be a dust storm in Orange Farm. Will we find the right turning in the dark? Tonight we spend three hours in the car to pick Nkateko and Giya up from R's mum because they hung around at uni for so long it was too dark for them to come into town alone.
Wilma Cruise, Circa on Jellico

Orange Farm at night:  people walk out of the dark caught for a moment in the headlights, a flash of red, blue, green, dusty tracks, beside fences, making journeys from home to a distant bar to a mother or friend. Others stand at crossroads holding cigarettes for sale, invisible until they're close enough to touch. The road and the night roll together in the dust. A man waves a baseball bat at an empty verge, taxis drive without lights, anyone might be drunk at the wheel behind you. The dark sketches a dog, a man made into a giant by the trolley he's pulling, piled high with scavenged plastic, a woman with a suitcase on her head, thin men in tracksuits dark as the burned, charred marshlands, a woman whose child is a curve on her back - you and me, here for a moment, strangers to everyone, alive on in the headlamps, between here and there.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Lost in Pretoria - Venda Sun 16

Venda Sun 16

When Giya went off to university a couple of weekends ago, she took with her my old Minolta film camera, one I bought secondhand when I was about 25. She loves film but of course it's unreliable. The day we went to Pretoria I know she took some amazing photos. I have them in my mind, but of course they're not anywhere in my digital pics folder because they were on film. And the film was either not loaded properly (the camera's quirky) or was spoiled somehow. Those remembered/imagined photos are much more interesting that the ones I took. 

So Giya's now learning all about documentary photography at the University of South Wales in Newport on a course that has an unrivalled reputation. She will be the family recorder. She's thinking of going back to SA next summer and has firm ideas about how photography can change the way Europeans/white Americans perceive African people. 

And her leaving, Mrisi's decision to stay in London to concentrate on his music, has meant I have time now to finish pieces of writing that are nearly there in so many folders on my desktop. The Venda Sun is one of them. 

Monday 23 July 2012
We have to go to Pretoria today for R's interview. He's pacing around the house before dawn and when I get up he's asking what I want to see afterwards. I know I don't want to see the Voortrekker monument. We have a horrible and noisy row that reminds me of old times. 

But then it's calm and we set off in good time which is just as well because he doesn't have any directions to the uni so we spend a long time trying to find our way. The campus is lovely, green full of trees and courtyards. Giya and I sit and have lunch while we wait for him, enjoying the sun and talking.

The interview goes well and we head for the Union Buildings, the SA parliament on a hill overlooking the city, with a view of the Voortrekker monument, a great block on top of another hill like a massive box. There's almost no-one there, like the Art Gallery. Everyone else is in the city rushing around and there are a handful of visitors - probably more gardeners, security guards and photographers than visitors. We have our photo taken by a guy who prints them out on the spot.

We see ibis and one of the shiny green starlings. There are women selling beadwork by the carpark but no-one to buy. We get lost on our way back too, especially after Centurion. When we tried to buy a map to take us to Venda, Risenga was told it was pointless - all the names have changed, so many roads have changed that there are no reliable maps, certainly of the north. It's another of those things I have taken for granted, the ability to find a map. But it's a foreshadowing of the trouble we'll have when we go there and a reminder, too, of the trouble we've had in the past, knowing where we are and finding our way. It's almost too symbolic to bear. When he comes out of the shop shaking his head and tells me what the guy said I wonder how the country can function.

We can't find the shopping mall, there are so many and the suburbs between Johannesburg and Pretoria all look like Bracknell, run down, badly designed, the kind of places people leave. I'm driving and it's nerve wracking, particularly turning. No-one respects an indicator and it's hard to change lanes because people are overtaking on the inside, lots of them driving fast on mobiles.

The waitress at the university cafe has a sister who's a psychiatric nurse in London. The checkout woman at Checkers in Centurion has a sister in London too and she's saving up to visit her next year. At Checkers we buy South African flag camping chairs for the countryside and a grill to balance on stones for cooking. I buy a trowel and big plastic boxes to put food in, to keep it away from the ants, which are ferocious and determined in Venda. The earlier row, although horrendous and loud, has shifted some tension. I buy a bottle of red wine and when we get back I'm exhausted. 

18 years after our first visit to South Africa, when she
was just 3 months old, Giya and I pose in the same
spot in Market Square, Johannesburg. 
The pollution on the motorways is extreme. There are so many cars. Johannesburg seems to stretch forever. The landscape is dry. The tourist marketing doesn't live up to itself.

But before we arrive back we stop at R's old flat, the one he bought before the house in Kensington. At one of the garages is a group of young people and inside stacks of tree circles, slices of tree trunk. They're making beautiful chairs and the back is a black and white mosaic of Jim Morrison. A boy with dreadlocks says its part of a series on icons. I wonder what Jim Morrison has to do with South Africa. 

I've been wondering a lot about art here and as we're talking, R's friend Mervyn comes down to the garage. He's very tall and it's hard to know his age or his race. He has grey curly hair and wears a hat. We go up to his flat. R later tells me he's one of the residents who won't pay maintenance. The bath is full to the top with clothes. He's making earrings out of cans. He shows us photos of his mosaic work, a beautiful baobab tree and many others. He dismisses the mosaics outside the ABSA building, talks about a commission for a cafe in Arts on Main. 

(We don't make it to Arts on Main until the end of our trip and there's little time to explore. But I've since found out this place is one of the ways Johannesburg's rebuilding itself from the old centre - with the help of artists from all over the continent.)

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

The park is crowded, the gallery is empty but there are prayers inside and out: Venda Sun 15

Giya (l), Nkateko (r) and their grandmother in Flora Street
Venda Sun 15

This was the trip for Giya's 18th birthday. Mrisi went with R for his and I couldn't go. I have spent several weeks joking about going on holiday with my ex. I hear one of my oldest friends has died the day before we leave and I will miss his funeral. 

Johannesburg Friday 20 July 2012
7 Flora Street, Kensington

Joe, Margaret, Mpho, Nkensani and her baby Moma and Mani were all waiting in the garden. It was warm in the sun and glorious being able to sit outside, but it’s cold now so we've lit a fire. There are weaver bird nests in the palm tree and I’m sure I saw and heard a hoopoe , just one, on the neighbour’s roof.

Saturday 21 July

The birds woke me up with their watery chorus, the same sound I remember from the north, liquid, high and sweet, notes running into one another. Each room in the house has a heavy old chandelier of lights. Bare wood floors. High ceilings with plaster mouldings. I dreamed of bags of coal.

There are doors to outside but they're blocked. I'm still disturbed by every window with bars on. Every door is locked. But where are the keys? I wish I'd brought my metal teapot. On the table is a beer mug with pink and yellow roses in. The antimacassars on the sofa and chairs read RELAX AND FEEL AT HOME around a bunch of red roses. The coloured glass in the windows is the same as in the panels of my front door, but green, not pink.

Around 1 we walk into town to get Nkateko jeans from Mr Price. We walk through Kensington, past a sculpture of a bed, past Spaza Arts and straight into the old city centre, a non-stop stream of cheap bedding, cloth, textile, homeware shops. The street sellers are selling belts, single electrical elements  and coloured popcorn as well as the usual bowls of fruit and vegetables. A Shangaan woman's sitting by the garage grilling corn cobs and we buy two for 20 rand. There's a guy at Mr Price with a sub machine gun and he's pointing it into the shop, but he's just a security guard and they're collecting the takings. So we scoot around the corner to another Mr Price, in the Carlton Centre. The Carlton Centre is down at heel, how I remember the rather faded centres of Bracknell, Merthyr, Reading, built a long time ago in a time when Zimbabwe was called Rhodesia and women wore headscarves and people thought prawn cocktail and thousand island dressing exotic.

Mostly what I realised, in much the same way as noticing the impact of liberation on Vereeniging, was that the old centre of J'burg is almost exclusively black and African. It feels like a shell. Massive old industrial buidings that all once provided work are empty, or as Jo pointed out, some kind of shelter for the homeless.
The road from Kensington to the old city centre

Closer to Kensington, in another street of old shops that seem almost like toys or play sets, the artists are moving in. Main Street, the wide vast artery through the old centre, is changing. Pavement mosaics randomly appear across broken pavements.There seems to be no purpose to where they start, no doors, no meaning. They cross the pavement in a band, at an angle. Then eventually they stop. From time to time there'll be a fabulous piece of mural art on a wall, or a line of washing, a woman in a kiosk with a most amazing head, a hand painted sign or a note on a door.

It feels like a long walk back to the house. It's suddenly chilly. There are fires by the road and groups of young men. Later R suggests we go out to Melville. Suddenly no litter, no gangs of kids, just white people, retro shops, a secondhand bookshop and bars. We end up at the Loft where there's live music, a trio doing Adele covers and I'm exhausted but a glass of red wine goes down well. 

We're listening to the music and chatting or trying to and I notice a woman at a table by the window and think she looks familiar. Look again and there's a noisy emotional reunion: V a bit drunk and hugging a lot and then reminiscing about her and R growing up and being arrested together, trying to persuade us to go to Cape Town. 

Sunday 22 July

We wash and drive to Joubert Park for the J'burg art gallery. Into Hillbrow, more litter, people, chaos.
Then, on the pavement, there are hundreds of people singing. On both sides of the road are barriers and security. It's Sunday and church. We walk past groups of women in white, men in navy and white, groups of people in ZCC uniform, the metal star on a purple square of cloth.

The park is full of people and music from a big screen. Couples, cats, boys, homeless men asleep. A guy holding up a pair of jeans from a bag.

The gallery's empty. A woman explains the exhibition by the artist James Webb - a sound exhibition, the scream in one room based on Picasso's Guernica and another room of titles on white walls, titles taken from exhibits in a Nagasaki exhibition. There's a beautiful two minute video of the inside of the Oriental Plaza in Cape Town before it was demolished and an Imam singing the call to prayer. Then the main room is covered in a massive red carpet with speakers on the floor, each of them with the sound of someone praying or singing a prayer. It's incredibly calming and peaceful. What we needed. I could have lain down and listened all afternoon but we ended up driving to the Market Theatre which was closed. I imagine Sandton as the place where the other J'burg exists. Rich, white, neat, litter free.

One of R's neighbours asks us to Rosebank to see some galleries on Wednesday, including the Goodman Gallery. Exhausted, falling asleep at 6.30, I eat the remnants of the gorgonzola I brought with me. Avocado and tomato and rice salad. Grated carrot. The rest of the lentil stew.

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."

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The wedding meat's spoiled and a child's buried in the village: Venda Sun 13

Venda Sun 13

December 18-31, 2004

At Caroline's wedding - Grace (sitting, centre)
her daughters and Giya
Here is a wedding when the meat is ruined, a baking hot Christmas when a goat is slaughtered, a view of the sacred lake and a child's funeral. Imagine too, the priest on top of the hill praying, his prayers falling into the valley. For many reasons it was pivotal, emotionally charged, a turning point, all of it in extreme heat. 

December 18

Caroline’s wedding. Up at dawn to sort out clothes, wash and get ready. Hard task, looking half decent with so much red soil around, but we manage after washing in shifts. R goes to wash in the river, we’re at the church in plenty of time but it’s baking hot and they have marquees rather than use the church.

Bridesmaids are amazing in white and black dresses with Zulu shields on. They dance into the marquee where there's a frilly sofa and PA system for speeches. Then…speeches! We leave about 12.30 when the priest has been ranting for about an hour. R wants to go. We look for a café and find one miles away, very English – quiche and salads on the menu! But we stay ages and by the time we’ve gone to Louis Trichart for fuel and bread and driven back to the wedding it's over. The meat has to be thrown away because the priest went on so long. It felt like he recited most of the old Testament. The women had been preparing the food the whole day before but even in the shade meat doesn't keep. Later R and Giya took Caroline to her new home, Mrisi and I stayed behind.

Relaxing after the service
The wind increased. We had to put out the fire and we went into the zozo but it was hot inside.  The bags that line the wooden walls were rattling and rustling, lizards scampering sideways in silhouette, the door banging and monkeys shrieking, branches falling on the tin roof like stones, the mouse I disturbed nibbling my hair.

Sunday 19

We walk around the land, climb a tree, swing off a vine. Jasmine and citronella plants, cactus trees, a marula tree, rocks and twisted tree trunk, roots growing over an enormous rock. Views of the mountains, goats and cows around the village. Pip playing and getting fatter, laughing around the fire, the moon the wrong way round, sitting on its curve.

Tuesday 21

How I’ve missed listening to water, being able to turn the tap on, even in J’burg there’s a tap in the garden. We use three barrels a day we use, more maybe and it’s carried up the hill by some women in wheelbarrows. Running water, waterfalls, streams, I washed my shorts in the swimming pool, it was wonderful to swim, to be in water, to feel cool and independent.

Wednesday 22 - Friday 24

The days merge. We walk up around the land, calmer but there are flashpoints. R’s very stressed trying to do too much and I sit around not understanding. But we went to Nwamatatane to see the chief and R translated properly so I could take part in a conversation. Chief’s wife told us how she was trying to find a wife for a man in his 50s from J’burg and six women turned him down. She went from house to house but he didn’t want an older woman, he wanted a woman with one or two young kids who would see him as their father. He sounded very dodgy and she thought so too. We buy a load of fruit and veg to take there because it’s so dry and very little grows. It’s half an hour away but not fertile like this valley. The chief’s being inaugurated on 7 January.  

On Thursday we walk to the top of the mountain and there are women, kids and a priest (ZCC) praying. I can’t believe they managed to get up there. It's baking. They are staying there overnight, have water but are fasting. The spring’s dry. The priest’s making noise like an animal.
A view of Mashau from the top of the mountain

In the evening we go to Sibasa, past Thoyandou, to see the secretary to the minister in his holiday home. White villa, lawn, palm trees, swimming pool, cold beer, a toilet and proper kitchen, white sofas, TV. He’s enormous, drives a 4 x 4. The pool’s tantalizing but we have no costumes. On the way, the road’s mad. It’s dark, there are cars with no lights/one light/overtaking on blind bends/speeding. It feels lawless like Lesotho, and dark. People are everywhere, by the side of the road, invisible until the lights find them. Conversation is obscure. He talks in spin, he’s a political animal or a shark.

Friday 24

All the men have arrived for the goat slaughter. Grace and her husband and kids arrive. R goes off to Mrisi, Giya and Randu to do the shopping, buy beer and chicken. Grace starts cooking the maize meal – a vast pot on the fire – and I prepare some veg, a tomato sauce, lentil stew and salad. It’s hot and sweaty. Petrus, T and Maribathi want to kill the goat before R comes back, I stop them as they’re leaving the zozo with knives. I’m irrirated by them all. Men take the benches and go to sit at the top by the wall and do nothing, just talk. As soon as the beer arrives, they drink.

R kills the goat when he gets back and Mrisi watches. Giya makes a little shrine for it with a candle and a cross. I feel ashamed that R and I haven’t had more consideration for the kids' feelings during these horrendous few days. Cockroaches, ants, ticks, beetles, moths. I like the lizards.

Saturday 25

Petrus is here but not Grace and the kids. R goes to collect chief while I cook again. While he’s away Vonani and three others arrive. The chickens have started to smell and there are small flies all over one of them, but no eggs, so I take the risk and wash them before sticking them on the fire, hope that if they’re well enough charred they’ll be okay. Vonani’s sister and one of his friends don’t eat goat, nor do Mavis and Mavis’ friend from the village who explains that the reason so few people in the village eat goat is because a local guy used to rape them, breaking into peoples’ kraals to do it. He was eventually caught for child abuse. It reminds me of one of Vonani’s poems. His work is disturbing.

Cooper, R’s cousin is here too, chief arrives with R and Cooper and another guy who turns out to be a sangoma, who knows all about herbs. I spend much of the day cooking and washing dishes but R’s mother arrives eventually with a big box of biscuits.

Petrus gets stuck into the vodka punch that R made. Chief is heavily into the booze too. Chief was delayed because a child in the village was having a fit and he took him to hospital in Elim, but the father and boy’s uncle left the boy and the mother there so they could go back home and carry on drinking. R was appalled.

Great crowds outside bottle stores, women too with little kids. The poverty is compounded by booze. The dynamic churches offer a way out. Women are very  self-sufficient and enterprising, but men are stuck. Not all, but even the guy in Sibasa called his wife to pick up a beer can on the grass just a yard from his feet because he was too fat to lean over and pick it up.

We chase everyone away when it’s dark. Vonani and his friend Temba save the day with 2 packs of beer and ice. Vonani’s friend Temba is looking into why land reform hasn’t worked, why people are doing nothing with the land they’ve been given back. He started with the brief of seeing if it was anything to do with HIV/Aids but has already concluded it's more to do with skills and commercial approaches, access to tools and money to farm on a big scale.

Local people realise water and power are critical issues. It’s a struggle just to fetch and carry all day long and even small children carry 20 litre drums on their heads. We must use about 60 litres a day, certainly today and yesterday with all the washing up all day long, drinking and cooking and washing hands. I can see how people become ill.

As Xmas day ends we sit under a full moon and watch cars on the road to Elim and Levubu, the mountains behind.
Risenga's mother and Pip the puppy

Sunday 26

Swim in Makhado. I fall asleep in the grass by the pool. I enjoy the shower as much as the swim. It’s a long drive for this but it’s so hot it’s the best place to be and everything else takes second place, even here, though, the legacy survives.

Young men who can’t swim are harangued by an enormous Africaaner woman who looks after the pool and they are told to stay in the shallow end while younger kids and white kids do their lengths. I understand, there’s no lifeguard and she’s not capable of fishing them out of the pool if they drown.

But this place is draining. I know why R wants us to see how he was brought up and the poverty he suffered but. On the way out of the village there’s a party. R says it’s a girl’s circumcision. I can’t engage. Giya wants to know what it means but I can’t explain. R says its different here but it can’t be that different. There’s no justification for anything which goes under this name, so we don’t talk about it. Another potential flashpoint. I’ve had enough of them.

R’s mum stays at the house while we go out. She cleans the zozo. It’s immaculate when we get back. Nearly a proper night’s sleep. Giya wakes up twisted in the mosquito net. There are ants around the walls.The cow dung hasn’t really helped. In fact I think it make things worse; the ants are burrowing out of the dung floor and in places it’s already breaking up. Any scrap of food attracts them.

Monday 27 

Lake Funduzi and the Dzata ruins. A couple of wrong turns and we end up taking the main road to Louis Trichardt and through the mountains, onto the road the map shows is the way to the ruins and Funduzi. But the ruins aren’t where the map says. The map has left out villages, got roads wrong and doesn’t even mark where roads converge. It takes three hours or so to reach Dzata and there’s nothing – a gate, a wall and a security guard who says he can’t leave until his colleague arrives, so he walks up the hill a bit to fire a gun which he says will bring his colleague.

Then they call a guy from the village who’s looking after the museum. When the number 2 arrives he walks us through an avenue of cactus trees like R has on his land and explains the sap is deadly and can blind you.

He tells us Venda people were nomads who came from Congo and settled in t the mountains, that on the way they fought and captured women who carried stones for the king’s village all the way from Congo. That children were put in a drum and when it was beaten their cries sent enemies to sleep so they could be killed easily. That in Funduzi you can hear them crying – they’re in the river which doesn’t mix with the lake water.

On the way to Funduzi we go through a lush valley with hundreds of white butterflies just before we get to a tunnel. Mrisi says it should be called soul valley because once I told him about butterflies being the souls of people who’d died.  

Funduzi is off the tar road towards Sibasa in the dip between dry mountains. There are masses of villages everywhere.  People seem to be able to build wherever they want. Every sign has Coca Cola on it. The roads are bumpy. There are a few cars, reeds, cows that move out of the way reluctantly, people fishing. It’s fed by a small river which must be a torrent when it rains. There are deep gorges cut by rainwater.

It’s like a hand held out to catch rain water. It’s low, you can see marks on the rocks where the water was. We bring a bottle full of it for Mani, Giya’s idea. We’re in the car all day. Stop off at the Venda Sun on the way back but we can’t use the pool and sit on the terrace sweating, feeling grubby. Tonight we have mosquito coils which work, so we don’t all use the nets, only Giya, and it’s better because the ants and cockroaches have gone, temporarily.

Tuesday 28 Dec

I’m here alone. One of the goats was screaming, the sandy one. It was wrapped up in its rope, lying down, almost choking. I got it free and the other one escaped, I couldn’t catch it. I was worried about snakes and scorpions in the grass. Ngara the girl from next door and a little boy caught it eventually and tied it to a tree but the sandy one isn’t eating, it’s just sanding under the tree doing nothing. R has taken Giya and Mrisi to Nwamatatane to see chief and take Mani to Cooper’s house.

Now there are four kids, including Ngara, sitting in the comfy chairs chatting away and trying out English words, after I give them a tennis ball and bats to play with. My eyes are closing and I want to sleep. I woke up at dawn. The birds had brought the river. It ran over the stones in their beaks.
At Noria Mabasa's home and studio
in Venda

Weds 29 December

We book 5 nights at a mountain retreat in the Soutpansberg, about two hours away. We’re off on New Year’s Day. Last night R took me to Masia bottle store on the road to Giyani where there were 20 traditional dance groups performing. It was a dusty car park and all the dancers in woolen skirts. I was the only white person there…mlungu, baasss…hmm. A friend of R shepherded us around because I think he was aware of some tension. He was then very clear that when it was dark we needed to go. R met up with an old friend called Material. The moon was red again when we arrived back at the zozo. Last night we watched it rise, red, out of the Luonde mountain range. It’s still full. Seems to have been full for ages. We found a herb that keeps mosquitoes away. It smells like sage.

The sandy goat’s ill. R’s just fed it cooking oil which will give it the runs and hopefully sort out whatever’s bloating its stomach. G’s making a green concoction with leaves that she insists is paint. Mrisi’s been sketching and made a page of colours today from the land.

Temba invited us to a party on New year’s eve. A woman cam earlier to collect quartz stones for traditional healing but I wonder if it was an excuse to look at us. Rang mum, she’d been worried. The sky was full of stars. No moon tonight.

Thursday 30 Dec

I wake up early hearing people outside on the path to get wood. Tomorrow we have to go to the funeral of a small boy in the village. There are lots of people here with fathers who had 2 wives but it’s frowned on now. It was in the days when men had to go to Jburg to work and stayed most of the year. Brenda, the pregnant woman tells us her grandfather did that and the family eventually refused to have him back because he’d built a house in J’burg, had six kids and neglected the country family.

Pip’s running through the grass with an old cob of corn in her mouth to chew. I can hear Vho Green’s cows along the lane. The other day we saw buckets of frothy milk straight from the milking. The mountains change all the time.

Three black and white storks in the reeds at Funduzi, a red and black bird behind the zozo, yellow and black sparrows, small finch birds with red beaks, butterflies – orange and yellow, bright yellow, bright blue, black and yellow, wild citronella by the path, wild guava trees...heat rising from the path to the loo, a swarm of bluebottles.

Friday 31 Dec

Mango for breakfast, up early to see Noria Mabasa’s house. It’s down the road near Vuyani. She’s possibly the most famous in SA. One of her sculptures of Hector Pieterson has been cast in bronze. Another was commissioned by the government for the union buildings in Pretoria. It gave her enough money to build and enormous house by the river where she lives and works. At each side of the gate is a man and woman. There are people in the walls round her roundhouse and sculptures everywhere. Pots, too, traditional red, grey and white. She takes us around her place, shows us a sculpture she’s making in wood about the woman who gave birth in a tree during the Mozambique floods and another of a crocodile eating a person. She found the wood in the river after the floods. She’s busy pumping water from the Levubu for her corn as we arrive.

Back to Mashau for the boy’s funeral. We have to go to the house for a service and walk back up the hill to the grave on Vho Green’s land, just over the fence. The body’s already in the grave, we don’t see it lowered in but they fill it and cover it with cement and white stones. All the family throw in earth and the boy’s mother sits covered in a blanket. There’s no crying, just singing.

We go to Shirley Village for New Year's Eve with Vonani, his friend Temba. It’s a quiet house near Elim but we don’t arrive back at Mashau until midnight and Giya’s crying because she thought we’d be back earlier.

A list of birds we’ve seen:

pied kingfisher (bw), malachite kingfisher (turquoise & red), lilac breasted roller, ground hornbill, southern yellow hornbill, red billed hornbill, African hoopoe, euroepan swallow, pied crow (jburg) pintailed whydah (long tail) jobrug, red billed quelea, red collard widow (jburg) southern masked weaver, red winged starling, black eyed commong bulbul, yellow backed widow, melba finch, glossy starling, speckled mousebird, night jar, barn ouwl, grey louri, the go away bird, sandpipers, helmeted guinea fowl, ostrich, natal francolin, black sparrowhawk or African hawk eagle, black kite, buzzrds, martial eagle, African fish eagle, bataleur eagle, Lappet faced vulture, hammerkop, saddlebilled stork, yellow billed stork, black egret, great white egret, cattle egret, grey heron, black headed heron, goliath heron