Thursday, February 27, 2014

Don't stop at the lights - arriving in Johannesburg 2002: Venda Sun 5

Malealea in Lesotho - Mrisi and Giya (far right of picture)
on a walk to see rock paintings, 2002

Venda Sun 5 

2-3 January 2002

Plane. 9084 km to J’burg (5644 miles). Lights in the sea below us. Non stop tv. Giya watches Princess 3 times. I watch Planet of the Apes but miss the end. Dehydrated, drink endless bottles of water but hardly go to the loo. Feel hot and bloated, dry, fingers like sausages.

Johannesburg airport – warm, not too hot but it’s still early. Pick up the car. Get lost. Risenga and I have first row. He’s panicking, revving the engine, refusing to stop at traffic lights. We drive through suburbs from airport after leaving the motorway at the wrong junction. End up in the city centre. It seems smaller, more run down. Risenga gets lost again, takes the only road he knows out, towards Soweto. Our first stop after landing is Dieplof, the shanties and shacks by the sides of the road. Mrisi can’t believe what he’s seeing. C's house, the guy R lived with. Lots of children and young girls. Wife smells of booze. Forget New Year’s so close. 

It was eight years before we could raise the money to visit again when Mrisi was coming to the end of primary school.  In my mind now, there's a lost trip with its associated diary and photo albums, a diary straddling the nursery and earliest years. I know why there isn't that trip, it was the cost. Probably, Risenga visited alone. So for Mrisi and Giya this trip in 2002 was effectively their first. It was the one that delivered impressions of the country their father came from, impressions that they don't remember fully now, but live in the subconscious.

What I remember, apart from the tense drive out of the airport when we arrived, was the long discussions with Mrisi and Giya's primary school to persuade the head of the value of taking them out of school for a month. We wanted to visit Lesotho and that would have been impossible during our summer - their winter. We didn't know at the time how that trip to Lesotho would continue to lay down stepping stones in all our lives. Of course we didn't. 

The school was difficult but persuadable if we took some work with us for them to do and agreed they'd each do a diary and scrapbook to share with teachers. There were battles over the diaries. I remember us sitting in a camp in the Kruger National Park arguing about those diaries. What little there is in them is now priceless, of course, but the teachers never looked at them or asked the children to do a presentation to the class about their trips. I couldn't understand why. 

Margaret’s waiting for us with the children, Mpho, Nkinsani, Nkateko and cousin Rhulani. Their house is neat, a perfect lawn, vine with grapes, peach trees. Bars on every window. I fall asleep in the sun exhausted, wake up baking hot. Hot all day, hot at night. 

So much to fit in and looking back on that trip I wonder why we left Margaret's so early. Margaret and Joe - Risenga's brother and his sister in law, still live in Palm Springs, not far from Risenga's mother. Since I didn't speak any South African languages, I let Risenga make the arrangements with them, with his mother, with his cousin in Limpopo. Of course I should have taken the initiative. My diaries show how many rows came out of misunderstandings, arrangements, time and tradition. But in this diary of our second trip it seems we landed, slept and were off again.

Vereeniging to change money – long drive. Hassled at the parking place by someone wanting to wash the car, R agrees. Wimpey for lunch. The town is flat, lots of 30s style buidings, a shopping centre, market, drab. Drive back to R’s mother's. Lots of sitting around. Mercy, R’s cousin’s daughter wants to be a journalist, she asks me about it. Up the next morning, Saturday at 5 am and it’s already warm. We leave by 7 to drive towards Bloemfontain where we shop, shown to the shopping centre by cops,  friendly this time. We buy stuff for Lesotho. Drive east to Maseru, start seeing mountains. It’s flat and wild, nothing but barren fields. Reach the border, it’s like nothing else, a bizarre toll and office where our passports are stamped. There’s reggae playing in a car, hats on sale and souvenirs. Maseru is run down, B tells us to wait for him at the Victoria hotel where 4 boys fight to wash the car. It freaks us all out, including R who’s become paranoid aobut security. There’s worse to come. We hang around for two hours waiting for B and another hour while he does his shopping. Leaving Maseru, B’s driving fast - it’s like the wild west. Taxis everywhere, run down lorries, shacks on both sides of the road, like a frontier town.

Argument about driving. At one point the road seems like a race track and R has the bug for driving fast. He wants to keep up, B’s being macho. No consideration that kids are in the car. Road signs painted on tin shacks and shops, every day low prices, vastly ancient adverts for Omo.

We’re staying in B’s flat at Roma University. It’s in a beautiful spot, with mountains behind, a great feel to it. But yet again a long wait for the barbeque and mosquitoes are biting by the time food is ready. Then a group of girls turn up and I’m ready for bed. They’re students. It’s okay, good for a cold bath and to clean up before we go to Malealea but we didn’t actually need to stop off there at all and it was a long way out of our way.

This diary was written in a sitting, by the looks of things, catching up on a week's worth. The trip was a catching up, too, but what were we thinking, turning up to see family and leaving straightaway? It was always a balance. On one hand the enormous cost of air fares and car hire, of places to stay - everything multiplied by four, on the other hand the family. When we thought about these trips, we wanted to see the country as well as family. I couldn't imagine going all that way, saving for years, and staying in one place. Family was important. A sense of the country's culture, ecology, history, richness, geography was also important. 

As for Lesotho - that was the bizarre legacy of the men walking with mountains in the distance. But Lesotho was the first wild place I'd ever been and I'd go back tomorrow to do the week-long trek we couldn't do then. 

The next day, Sunday, we want to leave early but of course don’t get going till 11 and then have to go into Maseru for fuel and to a friend of B’s house to pick her up. Then it’s off and as we drive out of Maseru again the road’s more and more isolated, the hills higher and higher. There are children by the sides of the road, cows, sheep. Mrisi and TJ, a Lesotho diplomat’s son who’s been in Eastbourne at school for the last 2 years, joke about and take pictures of the mountains. As we get closer the road’s rougher, lot of potholes. The place is barren, it seems incredible anyone can live here, small fields of maize and nothing else. Then a village with shop and café – plastic bags waving on long poles at a house indicating they are selling something. We reach the Gates of Paradise pass – over the hill the wind’s blowing - and at the top stop for a view of a fantastic mountain range. As good as Snowdonia seen from Anglesey, a massive valley in between.

We creep down, it’s a dirt road by now with potholes and giant ruts, we see signs for Malealea, it seems like forever before we get there, then it’s in front of us, a wire fence and gate, 10 – 15 ponies, lots of small boys and men. We’re shown into the lodge and climb out shell shocked, bumped into a stunned trance by the driving and the road. It’s like another world after Maseru and Palm Springs. We’re staying in round houses – two of them. The children immediately claim one for themselves, delighted at the space and independence. There’s a lawn and willow tree, peacocks, pea hens and chicks, a view of the mountains. It’s hot, we collapse on the beds once B and company leave. B’s sceptical about the place and recommends others. R and I are both annoyed by his attitude but R says B doesn’t like tourists. He’s an academic.

The walls are dark green, the roofs are grass, there are towels and hot showers. We can cook and there’s flowers everywhere, a bar. The houses are beautifully decorated with stones. We sleep well. Giya in with me after all. It’s so dark and it rains during the night. In the morning it’s overcast and raining still. We decide to do a walk to the bushman paintings with a guide, Mohelo, who’s studying law in Bloemfontain. It’s a gentle trek downhill through a village where Giya goes to the loo, the children come out to see us. It’s a steep climb later on as we go into the gorge, past a cave where we eat lunch.

Monday 7 Jan

By the time we come back, the cave is full of sheep sheltering from the rain but as we go down it’s sunshine and hot. The first painting’s astonishing, above a sheer drop, almost, into the gorge. It reminds me of paintings in Lascaux in France, black and red dots, hunting figures, and one huge animal in the middle. Three lots of paintings, some very faded, some white figures, some dark, some with hats on, feathers maybe on their heads. We shelter here on the way back when the thunder starts and hailstones. The river (Ribaneng) disappears. The underground tunnel further on is full of water.

A trickle of stream has become a gush – we watch it burst over the rocks we crossed, changing from white water to orange. We have to pass the children over. Mohelo carries Giya on his back. It’s hairy. Walking back we’re soaked again – soaked and dry about three times. There are crystals poking out of the earth and quartz. Mrisi’s beside himself when we find a cluster of crystal. R too finds a beautiful one.

The night is clear. We sit by a fire in the bar and a guy from Manchester shows Giya the southern cross. We are sitting below Orion’s belt. Two satellites pass overhead, we watch them come together and part.

The band plays on the first night. First we hear singing and go to look. It is the Basotho children’s choir, although most of them look like teenagers. Their voices are incredible, harmonizing fantastically. Then the band comes on. A group of six musicians and two dancers, playing home-made instruments out of oil cans. Two guitars, an instrument like a berimbau but made with a large tin can and played with a bow. Also a drum covered with rubber and played with sticks made of bits of old tyre.

The sky is what I’d hoped. But there’s still electric light and it goes out too late for me to sit and look up. I fall asleep on Mrisi’s bed while R’s at the bar talking with G, the guy who works in the office. The night’s so clear, the sunset promises a good day and it is. Later I look up by the fire, shield my eyes from the light of the flames, suddenly the sky’s milky again, so many stars, so many that I haven’t seen.

The woman from Manchester’s telling me about the tour she’s on with a guide and the time they spent in the Karroo. There's a massive group of Dutch people but it’s all a bit like a Greek taverna.

Malealea is isolated but nothing compared to what we were about to experience, although it is the place I think of when I remember Lesotho's poverty - bare feet, oversized adult clothes on thin children, plastic bags rolled up, layer by layer to make a football, everyone walking, clothes, towels, underwear thin from being scrubbed. 

I hadn't anticipated that a lesson in poverty would be one of the most enduring, from this and subsequent trips. That in so many discussions around our kitchen table in Brighton, Mrisi and Giya would voluntarily acknowledge their privilege. That when I ever dare to suggest I am poor (in UK terms), I have to pull myself back from that misconception. And it is no coincidence, I think, that after this trip we were all more immune to the power of consumer advertising.

This poverty is intensified by HIV/Aids - according to the UN Development programme, the virus affects 23% of the adult population. Like in South Africa, this means grandparents take responsibility for supporting young children since the virus has killed so many parents, who might have been wage earners, at least economically active in some way. On top of that, families have to find the money for funerals. 

People used to migrate to South Africa to work but these jobs have declined. People cultivate small areas of land to grow food, but the soil's exhausted and eroded and HIV/Aids is also robbing communities of knowledge and leaving the weakest - the young and old - with the heavy load self-sufficiency delivers.

But Paseka, drummer with Sotho Sounds, is one of the younger generation of kitchen gardeners keeping the knowledge alive. When he visited in 2013 to play at Edinburgh, we talked a lot about growing vegetables, we spent time on the allotment, he earthed up the potatoes that survived the winter and which I dug up last week. We wondered why raspberries don't grow in Lesotho. He told me that the birds are so hungry they eat the blackberries as soon as they ripen. I crushed mint, sage and lemon verbena to see if he grew them. I have no idea why this seemingly tangential thought makes me optimistic. But he'd worked out his own way of irrigating his land, drawing me a diagram of the walls and channels he created. And because at the end of the summer, Wyevale Garden Centres discount seeds by 50%, he was able to take a few back and I'm hoping for a report on some experimental crops when Sotho Sounds return to the UK this summer.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Where separation was an art: Venda Sun 4

Summer 1995 in Brighton
Venda Sun 4

Back to Gauteng

My memory of the journey back is patchy. But the sea and Cape Town relaxed us to prepare for it. We avoided being refused a place to stay by getting the number of someone who could help but she wasn't there.

By this time I imagine I was even more exhausted. I know that the gastro enteritis came back and Giya carried on crying. A new baby, the trip, put a strain on me and Risenga. We were watched constantly (this has gone on up to 2012). I felt R needed some kind of reconciliation that the country couldn't give him because he'd left.

Everything was a struggle or looked as if it was going to be. The security guards everywhere, the hours it took to change money, the bank asking where R got his pounds, not believing the stamps in his passport – Denmark, England, Ghana, Ivory Coast. So often he was taken for a foreigner, his clothes, his attitude, new trainers, big hair, baggy shorts, Che Guevara t-shirt - all this disturbed people, in a subtle way. He was just strange enough to demand a second glance, a close listening with he spoke Zulu.

I was surprised, though, that even on that first trip I had a sense of belonging, of being more than a tourist. To my children South Africa is half their heritage. It is blood, it is culture and knowing they belong. I was welcomed as a member of the family, even though I still speak no South African languages. My children's cousins call me Aunty Jackie. Being a mother was enough.

But when I'm there it is sometimes complicated. When people see a mother and child whose skin colour is different, they stop looking at features. Of course none of us experience that when we're with family in Palm Springs, or Orange Farm, in Eldorado or in Venda. But leave the cushion of the family and I have felt, at times, like a walking freak show. In Venda in 2012, a security guard at the entrance to the Albasini Dam actually congratulated R for securing me, a white woman, to have his children.

In 1994 I didn't have the distance to make light of it. In 2012 I sometimes joked that R was my guide adding (with a straight face) that he wasn't getting a tip.

It was always a delight to watch peoples' faces when we were in a line: me (white), Giya (mixed), Risenga (black) as if we were a walking educational resource. A kind of powerpoint presentation. If there was any doubt, Giya and I showed the gap in our teeth. But that was 2012.

In 1994 my extreme experiences in South Africa prepared me for what was to come in the UK as the mother of children who looked different to me. I can summon up the shout 'where did you get the white woman' from that first trip and it has a Brighton twin. Years later when the children were at school and we were in the North Laine a child, in ringing tones, asked his father, "why are those children a different colour to their mummy?"

Brighton's not multi-cultural. It's changing but Londoners still remark on the absence of black people. Mrisi and Giya had mixed race and black friends at school, but they could count them on one hand.

So when they were little, South Africa was a chance for them to see their mother, not their father, in a minority. As they grew, it became a focus for talking about race and colour. Where best, frankly, to examine those issues than in a place where hair was tested for curliness, where separation was an art?

Risenga rescued one of the old signs: NON-WHITES ONLY. It's nailed to a shelf over the stairs to the cellar. And when I feel uncomfortable in South Africa, as I do often it does me no harm to remember that sign. When anger wells up and on that first trip it did to the extent that I could have got us into trouble, I wonder at the capacity of people in that country to contain themselves.

But it's not over and what I have witnessed as my children have grown up bounces me back to those experiences in 1994, as if that first trip somehow set a standard, defined boundaries, provided a set of impressions I could call on, go back to, rethink.

February 14 1995

Remembered, back in Brighton

...we pull up opposite the petrol station, driving too fast after the long straight road through the scrub. The sun is bright, hot. I unpeel my legs from the seat, shake my shirt to allow air in, dry out the long wide patch of sweat on my back. We have a number to phone – the mother of a friend who will know where we can stay, the five of us, our two babies, your mother. It’s as if you, too, are a stranger in this country. You know the road but have never used a hotel – it wasn’t allowed before. She isn’t there. We look over the wall at a boarding house, agree that I’ll go with our son and ask if there are rooms.

The night the police were waiting is pulling me back into the car. I’m anxious as if there’s someone hiding behind that wall. Mrisi wants to try the swing in the garden, anywhere else I’d let him but here we must be careful. The man who opens the door is a big Africaaner, unshaven, wearing a vest. I ask if there are rooms, he says yes. Then I have to tell him, my husband’s black, we’re traveling  with his mother. Is that okay? It feels treacherous, asking. He laughs – it’s fine.

We look at the room, three beds, a shower, somewhere to cook outside, a fridge. We buy chicken over the road, feel they’re watching us as if we’re thieves. This time we will not go into town, none of these places have parks or shade, they have back gardens for that. There is no community, no sharing.


This isn’t a place to stay for long, there’s no reason to upack, just toothbrushes, flannels, a change of clothes. In the wardrobe there are two hangers.They’re bent wire, the kind you unravel to unblock the hoover, fish out rubber gloves from behind a radiator. My bed is high and slopes. I hold the baby tight so she doesn’t fall, sleep early, it’s soon dark.

But sometime in the small hours she slips from me, in my deep sleep I’ve let her go and she drops to the floor. The scream wakes me and I scream too, both of us terrified now and suddenly I hear your mother whooping, you shouting, fumbling for a light until we see each other, all of us dancing after midnight, the baby calm now and unhurt, laughing more than we have at any time in this country, relieved, laughing at Mani's dance, as you put away the knife still sticky with mango, laughing into the curtains, then whispering ‘ have we woken anyone else?”.


R was convinced it was a break-in, me sleeping by the window, that someone from the town had heard we were there, was chasing us away as if we had no right to be in a car traveling back to the big house and the zozo from the coast with its white beaches , the fish markets and craft markets, Langa with its wide streets and dust, the lush suburbs, farewell barbeque.

Mrisi sleeps through it all. The next day, the Africaaner tries to sell R a flag, the old one. He’s never been out of the country, doesn’t ask about us, as if he’d rather not know. He talks about the mayor, the people who steal bricks from his wall. This town is in the middle of hundreds of miles of scrub, its nearest neighbours just copies of itself. He tells us to visit the dam. The next morning at 5 we set off, seeing the sign we backtrack for a few miles until we see it over a hill, as if all the water’s been pumped from the desert, emptied into this hollow between hills for the pleasure of landlocked fishermen and sailors, around holiday houses with grass roofs and bathrooms.


Back in Johannesburg we visited Mai Mai, the market under a flyover with muti stalls and workshops making Zulu sandals, selling skins, horns where women made beaded skirts and laughing at me feeding Giya.

For sale at the side of the road, our hosts spotted a massive carving of a woman with her children.

Such a big tree, (they needed a truck to bring it back. the woman’s as tall as me but sitting with her child. It must have been cut off at ground level, a great root system below. Who knows who the sculptor is? A man was selling it by the roadside. It’s orange-brown, the features that of the wife, the baby their first.  She sits by the kitchen door, looking down the long table.


It was on that first trip, in the hire car, that the windscreen wipers failed on the flyover into the city centre. I still wake up wondering what could have happened, driving blind in torrential rain, the police taking one look at us and ordering me to follow them down a slip road, then speeding off, the lorry I just missed.

I had been introduced, in a small way, to the physical consequences of apartheid. Guns at the B&B, indifference to the danger we were in that storm, a baby and toddler in the back of the car.


I need to be gently stretched, have my fingertips rubbed, my arms and legs pulled, my scalp lifted slightly off my skull…..