Friday, April 25, 2014

Lions roared over the dry river: Venda Sun 12

The other trip - Mrisi and Giya with Jackson Hlungwani, Venda's
most renowned sculptor, at his home and studio near Elim.
A retrospective of his work was on show in Polokwane art gallery
earlier this year - he died in 2010. 
Venda Sun 12 

From Johannesburg to Mashau in Limpopo for Christmas, via the Kruger National Park
7-17 December 2004

None of us will ever visit a zoo again. We're going back to the Kruger National Park - driving up from the southern entrance to Punda Maria in the north. R remembers wild elephants passing his village, hippo and crocodiles in rivers and buffalo in the fields, when he was a child.

I went to London Zoo when I was a child. I don't remember much other than the sadness of animals in cages. I can't think of anything that better defines humanity's cruelty and foolishness or illustrates what the cold northern hemisphere has done to the southern hemisphere.

Mrisi and Giya have developed a keen sensibility, are aware of the importance of freedom of movement and thought, our relationship with the natural world. They have empathy and I hope it had something to do with their experiences in SA.

This wasn't an easy trip. The days in the Kruger were a lull before the storm. Always on my mind, in the background, were the deaths of my brother and step-father, my mother off to Florida to stay with my uncle Phil, her birthday coming up.

The Kruger intensifies everything. These emotions are channeled into lists of what we spot, the names of the animals and birds that make up this landscape. We drove to Nelspruit on Monday 6 December. We went into the Kruger at Crocodile Bridge and headed for Lower Sabie camp.

On this trip we saw one of the world's rarest birds, completely by chance, the ground hornbill. We'd picked up a sightings sheet in one of the rest camps and recognised the birds we'd put on one of our lists.

There is no substitute for the thrill of seeing two cheetah grooming each other in the sun, of watching an elephant's ears and tail for the warning signs to leave fast. As I look back on the lists of sightings, I can almost recreate that wilderness and its visceral pull. I can understand the desire to be in it and close to its true inhabitants, but I am also intensely conscious of the dangers of anthropomorphism and the bizarre modern tendency to mistake beauty for 'cute'.

The Kruger fed poems I later wrote. This journey was full of loss. I became aware of the fault-lines between R and me and the children witnessed dreadful rows. This was the most intense trip perhaps because it was the last we made as a family, even though we didn't know that at the time.

But we are still friends, 10 years on from this trip when the bush-baby in the night seemed to be expressing everything I was feeling, when Mrisi felt the fear in the goat's eyes before it was killed, when Giya built it a shrine. And later, over us all there was a blood red moon.

Nevertheless, R and I are friends and now I can laugh about the cramped shack he expected us to sleep in with its home-made rat trap - a block of wood with a nail and a hinge - on the shelf.

Tuesday 7 December

Swam in the pool under a tree full of weaver bird nests. Hot and humid. Still feel weird and out of place but there are more Africans here now - a group of Swazis in the restaurant. As we left there was an incredible storm and we were soaked in two minutes. It carried on most of the night. There was a power cut and lightning lit up the sky. We decided to wake up at 4 am.

Wednesday 8 December

3 giraffe, 3 elephants, 2 babies, 2 klipsringer and baby, fish eagle, giraffe, lone elephants.

Still raining this morning. Cold! Windy. Long drive from Lower Sabie to Tamboti tent camp 3 km from Orpen Gate....chasing guinea fowl down the road, they wouldn’t move and in front of us four elephants, several giraffes in threes and solo, three kudu crossing the road, magnificent and stately, a rather speedy tortoise, a croc’s nose by the bridge over Crocodile River.

Plenty of eagles, centipedes, warthogs on the way to Orpen, waterbuck and wildebeest near a dam, Zebra grazing with impala, a creche of baby impala in another herd. The foliage is so dense. A stork lands like a falling kite. Termite mounds built around tree trunks.

A monkey tries to attack me for my breakfast at a rest camp. Giya buys me a ring, sweetheart. We’re now in Tamboti. The tent has a veranda overlooking a dried up riverbed where apparently a hyena patrols at night. Giya saw a baboon walk along the path on our side of the fence, causing panic in me.

This place is terribly isolated. I can hear insects squeaking and birds calling. It’s still very windy. A praying mantis, mini frogs coming out of the sand. It’s 7.10 pm and already dark – we’re listening to frogs calling from the river, they’re like an old man on a PA system carried on the wind. Crickets too. Two women in the shower block confirm Giya’s sighting of the baboon – a lone male who can get into tents if the outside flaps are left unzipped when you’re out. No stars because it’s cloudy.

Thursday 9 December

Black backed jackal and cubs, two cheetah resting, giraffe and foals, wildebeest, zebra, warthog and piglets, 10 hippos in river Timbavati, five buffalo between Timbavati and road to Olifants, baboons and young crossing road by the river, lone elephants, loads of impala, including a herd crossing the fawns over the road in a group, lots of lilac breasted rollers, 2 lappet faced vultures in a tree near the Ratelpan hide, grey herons and a saddle billed stork, yellow billed hornbills and in a tree, two very, very rare  ground hornbills (male) only 1,500 of them in the world. Group of cape vultures with chicks by the side of the road, bushbuck in the camp, crocodiles from the Ratelpan hide.

Friday 10 December

Saddle billed stork, African Darter, 2 lions, grey herons, water buck, verbet monkey, warthog, wildebeest, zebra and foal, snake, hippos and calves

Kingdom of birds. Dawn. I’m sitting by the Letaba river listing to birds. It’s started to rain again. Feeling a bit grim with a cold. Lunch at Olifants camp. It’s so beautiful there and I didn’t realise there was apool. Mum left today for the States.

Wilderness. No pedestrians, few cars, vast rivers, mainly dried up, camouflage - hippos are rocks, lions are tree stumps, everything disappears into the bush and reapprears when it chooses. Prints in the mud of the road beside the river. Only the birds make themselves visible and the impala, grazing with wildebeest, safety in numbers, or zebra with giraffes.

Saturday 11 December

We drive to Shingwedzi stopping for breakfast at Mooiplass, a beautiful picnic spot with no fences and a river. Watched black and white kingfishers and were told lions had been roaring earlier on. Idyllic but I'm dosed with cough medicine and ibuprofen. When we get to Shingwedzi, it transpires I’ve got it wrong and should have been to Mopani which we passed an hour and a half earlier so we have to drive back. Mopani is the most exclusive place we’ve been, no picnic area for black people, expensive shop, vast bar overlooking the Pioneer dam but almost no-one here, a ghost town. Beautiful curved pool with rocks. The camp’s on a small hill rising out of the mopani plains, we see a vast herd of elephant eating the bushes but I’m too ill to enjoy it.

The first African sunset, though, a great red streak over the dam with hippos in the water below and as it becomes darker, a firefly by the balcony.  Chalets are like round houses but built in stone with semi circular outside kitchens and porches, thatch held up with telegraph pole round pillars, a small barbeque outside and brick paths, clean sheets and two bathrooms!

Sunday 12 December

A bird this morning is singing part of a scale, three notes descending perfectly. Pink clouds have disappeared almost immediately. The sky changes so fast.

Monday 13 December

People are animals, like the adolescent hyena asleep under a thorny acacia at midday, the herd of elephants feeding on short mopani trees. The day’s heat stretches out at eye level red as bark, red as earth and you wait by the dried up river bed for a lion’s roar, invisible, gathering the pride, and my son sees himself in the young impala bucks roaming together half admiring the old buck with his herd of females, half in awe. Pimp he calls him. And my daughter shy and brave should be in the creche  for the fawns, the black dots on their ears twitching like the bobbles in schoolgirls’ bunches. The city can distract you with its shops until you no longer see the branch which gave you a spoon or know the colour of sunrise. How a man might spot a scorpion on the road at night in the headlamps of his truck and swerve to avoid it. How when you leave the city there is a world in the air. How the birds gave us colour, the cape starling a yellow circle in the electric blue of its green plumage, how a kingfisher, without fish, will aim its beak like a jet at the head of a squirrel and we drink cans of cold beer while lions roar on the other bank of the dry river.

Tuesday 14 December

We arrived in Mashau yesterday just before 12. Said goodbye to the Kruger with 4 elephants, some kudu and buffalo, plus of course, impala. 

It’s a long drive. We drop off the bags and go straight to Louis Trichardt for shopping but it’s too hot and we’re tired. The shops close at 5 and it takes three quarters of an hour to change money. 

The bugs in the zozo are awful, thank god for mosquito nets. Cockroaches and vast numbers of flying ants, beetles, grasshoppers, crickets swarming around the light. It’s one room, neat but dark and not very clean because the floor is earth. We sleep eventually but Giya is nearly hysterical with the bugs. T, the lad from Zimbabwe who looks after the place is very young but surprisingly organized. Much neater than I’d expected and he has a sweet little puppy.

To Grace’s today. Caroline, her second girl, is getting married on Saturday. While we’re there a woman arrives who's meant to be talking to her about being a wife. R has to go and pick up his other cousin Gladys from the bus stop but is ages so I stay with Grace, totally unable to communicate other than with Mercy. Everything takes so long, life is slow. It’s nice for Giya to have a girl to play with – Grace’s youngest Randu.

Wednesday 15 December

Grace and Gladys come to Mashau in the morning. Lunch takes hours to prepare and cook. Every day I seem to be cooking for 10 or more. Then there’s endless washing up and washing clothes. I understand why so many kids go around in rags – there’s no point wearing anything remotely neat or clean because it’s dirty or wrecked in minutes.

I’m the only white person in any of the villages we visit. The landscape is lush with jacaranda trees, flat topped acacias, then big old figs, some that R doesn’t know the English name for.

It’s green and rocky, the rocks and soil are red. It’s dusty and dry. On the way to Grace’s yesterday we thought there was going to be a storm but it passed us by, just wind and forked lightning. I’m exhausted from waking up at 5.30 but last night the storm did come. The room was lit up all the time for at least an hour, with lightning. The rain on the tin room was like shingle. Pip the puppy was whimpering outside and I was lying there praying we weren’t struck, or the tree outside. R couldn’t hear me unless I shouted it was so loud.

More people around the fire in the morning - there’s a constant stream. People sit around a lot gossiping but I can’t join in. People live outside, that’s stating the obvious.

Thursday 16 December

Mum’s birthday. There’s a monkey climbing on rocks on the other side of the land. Goats are eating the mango tree. R’s started leveling a space for a house and has created a wall already. I was pissed off yesterday because he wasn’t translating anything and I had enough of sitting and grinning. There are two graves on the land he forgot to mention. Slap bang in the middle of a patch outside the house. You can’t avoid them.

Up the hill are two levels where there used to be houses, with stone walls and steps. But snakes hide in piles of stones and bricks, which is why walls have to be cemented. The undergrowth is thick, monkeys emerge in a troupe of six to 10. They’ve finished most of the mangoes so there are none for us.

It’s not as hot as the Kruger, I’ve had to wear a jumper and last night we needed blankets. It’s overcast now, very cloudy and the ground’s still damp. This morning we took a wheelbarrow to collect clay for the kids. About ten of them were hanging around making cars and everything out of clay. Kids here are skinny. They walk everywhere.

Everyone farms. There are women and little children digging early in the morning. Mr Green’s cows are in the lane every morning, udders full, with lots of calves. Goats and kids, chickens and chicks. A dog’s barking on the other side of the hill and the neighbour’s radio is going all day.

No other visitors, thank god, apart from the guys working here and kids. I haven’t seen a sunset yet but maybe because of the mountains. I rang Mum and she was surprised I think, just off for a swim.

Friday December 17

M and G went to Grace for hairdos today but little rest for me, still masses of cooking, washing up and washing. So arguments with R which went on all late afternoon and evening that make me want to leave.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Swastikas at a party in Wimpey: Venda Sun 11

Venda Sun 11
The third trip to South Africa - end November 2004 to mid January 2005

Risenga and his mother, Flora Street, Kensington
summer 2012

Rich shows the cat at the window in a shell ravaged school with terrified children, but as the notes at the back reveal, she’s a poet with a commitment to the history of ideas, the world and literature. 

This diary starts, as the others did, on the plane and with notes for a review of a collection of poetry by Adrienne Rich, The School Among the Ruins. Later, in the review for Mslexia magazine, I quote from an essay by Rich: "“My work is for people who want to imagine and claim wider horizons and carry on about them into the night, rather than rehearse the landlocked details of personal quandaries or the price for which the house next door just sold.”

There are many things I don't know about this trip when we're in the air on our way to the stopover at Dubai. I don't know it will be the last time the four of us visit together and I don't know that the next time I am in South Africa, Risenga and I will be separated. None of us knows that it will be the last time Mrisi, Giya and I see Risenga's brother Petrus. He never told us, but when we were there, he knew he had AIDS, that he was dying. 

Mrisi's in year 8 at secondary school and Giya's in her last year of primary school;  I jump through hoops again with both schools to persuade them of the importance of this trip. It already seems too short for what it's costing but as it turns out, the next time Mrisi and Giya visit, separately, they'll both be young adults. Mrisi actually turned 18 during his next trip to South Africa. 

I feel each trip places a different marker, taps into a different area of memory. The first, if it is in their memories, will be deep and probably never rise to the surface. It will live in photos and stories Risenga and I have told them. It will live in my diary, my interpretation, the poems that came out of it, which exist separate to my children. It lives too in the family that we all joined when Mrisi was born, a family from Gazankulu and Venda that ended up scattered, some in Johannesburg, some in the countryside, as were so many South African families. It's a family with strong loyalties and fault lines, a family with gaps in it and mysteries, like all families. But that trip was almost like baptising the children with the atmosphere of the southern hemisphere, imbuing them with sounds, smells, textures of the languages, fruit, giving them a sense of belonging that was tangible and could be located in Orange Farm, Palm Springs, Mashau. 

The second trip is already fading. It lives for me in 35mm photos, in Jackson's wooden fish that hangs in our kitchen, in my continuing love of Venda, my fondness for Grace, Risenga's cousin and an unshakeable memory of the sky at night. For Mrisi and Giya, this trip was their true introduction to the family, an introduction they might remember among the many sensations that this country delivers. If there's a metaphor for that trip, it's like priming wood before painting - it established a surface, I hope, for their own memories, a screen perhaps on which they could play their own thoughts of the country, the other side of their family, their heritage. I was most afraid for my children in primary school that they might feel lost, set apart, because they were so far away from the South African family, their cousins, grandma, uncles, aunts and my family in England was so sparse.

So this third trip feels like a consolidation, like proper travelling into the family and country, a trip they might go back to find solutions in, if they need to in future. It's not as if they are detached from South African culture - Risenga is a musician and they often meet his friends. But there's a seam of sadness in the lives of the South Africans who stayed.

I've just finished a poetry residency in Aldeburgh, read at the poetry festival with one of the writers I most admire, Michael Longley, and spent two weeks in solitude when I started writing my fourth collection of poetry, Commandments.

But in June 2004, my brother was killed in a plane crash and shortly before we are due to travel, my stepfather dies. We'd bought the tickets, Mum persuades us to go and books a trip to visit her brother in Florida, but I am troubled by our decision. The last few months have been traumatic.

30 November 2004

We’re in the air above Africa. We set out yesterday from home at about 4 pm and at 5ish (our time) we're swimming in Dubai airport. God how wealthy it is, gold and so much money. It just oozes wealth and how scruffy I feel. Landing this morning the sun was coming up and the sky was strips of blue and red. We were zombies and the pool was very hot so not quite refreshing.

Today we’ve been spotting spits, villages in the mountains to start with, then rivers in a delta and the Comares islands with beautiful deep blue lagoons, long sandy beaches and lines of surf. Clouds too and trying to decide what’s mainland. Last night we flew over Baghdad and Fallujah – the map was so stark, just names and mountains with a representation of our plane on it. There was an Irish pub and fake palm trees in the airport at Dubai. I was given a chicken roll when I asked for a vegetarian snack. I watched Spiderman with Mrisi and some other dreadful rubbish. I’m exhausted but the swim was a good idea.

Weds 1 December

I sleep on Risenga's mum's floor. Everything’s changed in Orange Farm. It’s like a country suburb with paved roads, space and trees. The wild, loose horses are gone, so’s the coalman. There’s a big smart school and church down the road that opens at 6 am.

Petrus met us at the airport but it was dark by the time we arrived at R’s mum's house. In the morning R looked at the car and realised the front tyres were bald. We took it back today but now we’re sitting in KFC near Southgate Mall and Soweto because the gear stick on the replacement car is broken. It’s ridiculous. The place is packed and we’ve been waiting nearly 2 hours.

The children are with Margaret and their cousins in Palm Springs. But we have to go and get them. In KFC we’re listening to inane house music and sharing a can of coke while the KFC for R’s mum and kids gets cold.

Today is World Aids Day and the South African courts have given the go ahead for two women to marry. So many people here are young. It’s energetic and buzzing.

Thursday 2 December

We’re at Ellis Park Stadium. The replacement car’s a Chevrolet with a scratch down the side but it’s newer than the other two. But the pool’s lovely and the kids are swimming with Diran. There’s a guy in the stands who’s shaking a cowbell. Were were very late back last night so it seems relaxed here, just to do nothing. R’s gone off to the shopping centre to buy an adaptor and phone card. The rand is stronger so it’s not as cheap as last time.  Everywhere we go there’s new building and loads of squatter camps but apparently they’re putting water and electricity into Orange Farm.

Friday 3 December

We went to R’s uncle in El Dorado park. All these housing developments have bizarre Spanish style names and villa architecture….We passed a place called Fun Valley and Mrisi cynically asked what that might be like. There are some amazing shops, barbers and shoe repairers.

Last night there was a terrible storm – water came in through the bedroom ceiling, just as I remembered.

I had a horrendous dream, woke up feeling disturbed and angry.  Mani’s new neighbour told us a story last night about a woman who was so angry with her husband she put sand and dirt in his food, bed, clothes – all over the house. She put a layer of dirt and water under the sheet so when he got into bed he was covered in mud. Another neighbour couldn’t stop talking about his illnesses. There’s a lot of diabetes here - too much sugar, drinking, a change in diet.

It’s hot today. Lunch was for 16, most of them children. R’s aunt, Sarah, has been staying. Thunder and forked lightning. An Afrikaner guy has opened a b&b in shacks in Soweto to give people an authentic experience.

I walk to the park and shop with Sarah and thunder’s rumbling overhead. R’s sitting at the shop with Petrus, local guys and his drum. The skin’s cracked. The rain comes at 5 pm pummeling on the roof and the heat disappears. It’s cool on my back. The children play outside when it calms down. For a while it’s all thunder and flashes, then the storm moves across the plains.

This is seventh heaven for the kids, splashing in mud and the gutter outside Mani’s house not worrying about getting dirty. Clothes dry in an hour in the midday sun.

The horse and carts are still around and the drivers look as if they’re in charge of stagecoaches. There’s something about a man with a horse and cart, especially when the horse is trotting fast, its mane’s out, the head is up and it looks proud and looked after. There are lots of celebrations this time. A wedding in Venda on December 18, Mpho’s 21st birthday tomorrow, Christmas, New Year.

Saturday 4 December

We go into Vereeniging early, I’m up at 6, too hot to sleep and do some washing so it will dry before the rain. The rain didn’t come. Vereeniging has changed totally from being a kind of white frontier town five years ago, the shopping centre’s almost exclusively full of African people. We try and change money at the bank but are told they can’t do it on a Saturday! First National Bank….The first question we’re asked is where we got our money from. So nothing’s changed.

Jo'burg seems different, more affluent, relaxed, but these country areas are going to be horrendous. So while I’m looking forward to peace and quiet, I’m dreading the looks and the hassle. I think Giya’s finding it hard being on show.

I take her to Wimpey after doing the shopping and partly so we don’t have to stand with R while he has a row with a guy making him sandals. We have a meal and I go off to buy Mrisi some mangoes. Come back and have food and then R and Petrus turn up and I go to see if the cashpoint works.

When I get back everything’s changed. A family sitting in the smoking area's having a kids' party and have face paints out. The mother and father paint swastika signs on their children's faces and the woman paints one on her own with a finger on the other cheek.

R complains to the manageress who says there’s nothing she can do about it. When we go to pay, we complain again, but she says they’ve been drinking and she couldn’t confront them. These people terrify us. They are so unpredictable and vile. I only wanted to go there to avoid having to drive into J’burg again. The roads are so busy going into the city and make me nervous.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Nits and the hair issue: Venda Sun 10

Venda Sun 10

Giya's first day at school

I am convinced that in this country I'll be able to buy a black Barbie for Giya without hours trailing around English shops asking blank faced shop assistants. Perhaps these material problems are useful reminders to me, as a mother, of many of the other issues my children are facing in Brighton, regardless of its reputation for liberalism.

Hair is one of those political metaphors used both positively and as a club. I was terribly hurt by an offhand remark made once about white women not being able to deal with their mixed race children’s' hair. I spent hours plaiting and combing and although I never mastered cane rows, I was determined they would not suffer the discomfort of permanently tangled and matted hair, or hair cut short to avoid the issue of what to do with it.

Giya managed to avoid having her hair cut at all until she was 18! She just refused. She's always had a thing about hair. When she was a toddler and Risenga cut his hair she saw him and screamed. Mrisi's hair was usually long, too and when I took their plaits out to re-do them, both my children looked like they'd walked out of the 1960s.

But there was a downside and that was another issue I never got to grips with at their primary school. Nits.

At some point during their primary years the school got rid of the nit nurse. The consequences of this for all parents are obvious, but for parents of children with hair like my two the consequences were drastic. It's hard for a school to avoid nits but to ignore the fact that some parents are not doing the regular combing that keeps them at bay is sheer stupidity.

We spent hours at this task. A nit comb's teeth need to be close together to catch the eggs and any lice that have hatched. Mrisi's curls are looser than Giya's, but both of them have inherited thick hair from Risenga and me. So once a week, each of them had to sit in the bath as it grew tepid, then cold, while Risenga or I kneeled on the bathroom floor, hands and arms slippery with conditioner, and worked our way through sections of hair, poking through the slime for evidence of egg cases or live lice.

I dreaded it when over supper at the kitchen table one of them would mention the state of a classmate's hair. Or if, on the odd occasion when I helped out in the school, I noticed the peppery signs of the eggs on either side of a child's parting. I wonder if the women who regularly put out their hands to touch the children’s' hair would have been so ready if they'd known about the insect life in the primary school canopy.

So I spent a fortune on conditioner because the cheap stuff was useless. And I worried about what was in it.

Eventually, when Mrisi went over to cornrows and I had no more responsibility for their hair, I wrote this poem.

My children’s hair

My son’s hair’s in rows
as neat as winter fields,
his wise forehead, old
as the Sussex Weald.

When he smiles I see
poppies, a bluebell wood.
When he cries, the wheat,
the Downs are lost in fog.

My daughter’s hair is wild
as the sea. It curls
and foams around her face
so when she smiles

I hear a summer beach.
When she cries, the waves
rise over the Marina wall -
an ocean, now, soaking me.

The other material issue that cropped up constantly, and still does, was the question of how to pronounce their names. I understand how difficult it is, faced with a name you are not familiar with, to get it. I have made dreadful mistakes myself; I have mixed people up when I've run workshops. Once I spent a week with a group of teenagers and mixed two girls up even on the last day because they were friends, they dressed the same and their names were unfamiliar. So I am culpable.

But Mrisi and Giya's names are pronounced phonetically. MUH RI SEE....GEE YA.
Not Morrissey, that pop singer. Not Gaia, earth mother.

I was surprised at how many teachers did not understand the phonetical explanation. That even after a period of time, particularly at secondary school, some were still getting it wrong.

Mrisi in 2013
And where all this leads is to the big issue of how mixed race children and young people are stereotyped. Even in South Africa, my seven and nine year old stood out as unusual. They were unusual in their primary school, where there were very few mixed race or black children, and they were unusual in South Africa where mixed race couples were as rare as rhinos in the Kruger.

I was and wasn't prepared for what would come. For the conversations I would have with them as teenagers, now as young adults. I can't pretend to understand the hurt and the anger that they feel sometimes.

In 2002, we still saw the bared teeth of apartheid. We saw that, in fact, on every trip and we saw it in Risenga's experience. It squatted in my relationship with Risenga, too.

But from the moment my children became adolescent, the issues of hair and pronunciation were almost irrelevant. That's when the harder stuff began.

In town with friends, shopping as teenagers do, Giya was followed regularly by in-store security. Mrisi was stopped and searched by police - he still has his first stop and search ticket. Giya too has been stopped and searched. Both have been called N***ER. Grown men leaned out of a car to shout it at Giya. Someone screamed it at Mrisi when he was on the school bus. People began to cross the road when he was walking home. When Giya talked about home at college, she realised teachers were surprised her mother was educated and her father was working. Older people who should know better want to high five them, 'talk black', talk rap.

All this is to come in January 2002. But this is the story of the search for a black Barbie in Checkers and going back to the city before we finally return to Brighton.

Saturday 26 January 2002

Driving to Pretoria. R refuses, saying I interfere. A bad start. By the time we pass Pietersberg I’m exhausted. We stop in the city and are on reasonable terms until we park and he loses it again. I take the children to the art museum where we see John Baloyi’s crocodile. We meet up eventually and he takes over, driving about 100 km. We drive into Basotho country again, mountainous and rainy. Then flat plains, then more hills. We arrive in Pretoria exhausted. What a relief to see R and S. We have a brai that evening. R cooks squash stuffed with lentils and blue cheese. I sense tension. S’s dad is staying and friends of theirs come round, including P, the new principal of a major educational organisation in SA. He used to be chairman of a key non-governmental body. He is a large man with a small wife and sits at the centre of the table holding court as if he’s used to being listened to, which of course he is. He doesn’t appear to be interested in much of what other people are saying although he tries. He spent 10 years in the UK in exile where his wife worked in local government. Now they’re mixing with diplomats and top government people, making policy about SA’s future. Anyway, the barbeque goes well.

Sunday 27 January

We go to Rosebank Mall in Johannesburg where there’s a large indoor market selling crafts and masks. It’s brilliant. On the way R has to do a radio interview about research she’s published on violence against women and children. There’s been enormous press interest.  Here’s SA’s intellectual elite. She’s driving and while she’s doing the live interview, she's negotiating a traffic jam and accident scene. 

I buy a long raffia from the Congo. We buy bracelets and beads, baskets made from electricity wire. We have lunch in a trendy café and the kids watch bushmen buskers. The portions are tiny for the price. We’re all used to eating loads. 

We’re off to J’burg in the morning. I do some washing. I’m surprised the machine is in the au pair's bedroom. 

Monday 28 January

Today's my birthday. We drive to Jo'burg and arrive at another of Risenga's friends' houses at 1ish. We’re early and go shopping in the Eastgate mall – Checkers. We have a row with a woman over a black Barbie doll. 

Much later, Risenga ended up buying a house in Kensington, in Johannesburg just round the corner from where we stayed in 2002. The last time we visited, in 2013, we went to the Eastgate mall again. If I hadn't written this diary, I would have been convinced that my memory of the black Barbie incident happened in the north, or in Vereeniging, or somewhere else anyway. But it was in the heart of Johannesburg. Admittedly, not in Southgate mall, which serves Soweto, but nevertheless....

Possibly I didn't elaborate on this row in my diary because I was sick of rows. Possibly I was sure I'd remember it. Or maybe I didn't want to remember it. But the way it has settled in my mind is that we were certain it would be easy to find one. Perhaps we were buying both the children something because it was my birthday. Who knows. But there weren't any black Barbies on the shelves so I asked a shop assistant whether it would be possible to get one in another branch.

The response nearly floored me. It was something like: why would you want something like that?

The two women at customer services had obviously been trained to a standard where they understood the demands of a post apartheid society. Checkers is now owned by Shoprite, Africa's largest food retailer.

Anyway, none of that was relevant at the time. I complained, customer services were understanding, said they'd do something about the rude shop assistant and explain why we might want a black Barbie in a country where the majority population is black.....and we left without one.


V's nice. We climb a hill at the back of her house. It’s stormy and humid. On the side of the hill we hear thunder. There’s a fantastic view of J’burg. R spends much of the afternoon in various cloak and dagger operations. I find out he’s been trying to find a penny whistle player in Soweto, but it’s a great birthday and it’s warm. This must be the first time I’ve ever had my birthday in the heat. I’m feeling really good for a change. 

Tuesday 29 January

We go to the top of the Carlton Centre and look down at the city from the tallest building in SA. Grids of streets. Remains of mines. The city seems quite small. Industrial buildings. one or two tower blocks. We go to Diagonal Street – familiar from the first trip. There’s nothing different other than the kids are older and I don’t feel so frightened. Jo'burg is very relaxed. There are loads of police around. 

Perhaps it's frame of mind. We do the same as we did before because there’s not a lot to see. We saw the Market Theatre and the square, the museum. When we arrive back they all go swimming. I’m knackered and just want a rest.

Wednesday 30 January

R and I argue. We’re taking his mother out tonight for a meal. The rest of the day I don’t want to do anything. Or at least I want him to suggest something but he can’t be bothered. V's dithering, unsure about whether she’s coming with us or not. We go to Spaza Arts, a small gallery in a house and calm down. R buys me a bottle and I buy him an early birthday present, print of a guitar player. 

Afterwards we go to the Oriental Plaza, a place where there’s some good cloth shops. We go for lunch and bump into Betty. It’s odd. She finds me in the loo and for a while I don’t recognize her. She looks so relaxed and happy. Later swimming in Rhodes Park there’s a storm. We rush out of the pool while the sky empties and the lightning flashes. The kids run around loving it. 

R is late coming back from getting his mother and Joe but there was a mix up. We go to Eastgate Mall and a Spur restaurant – western and beefy. The food’s disgusting. I’m awake most of the night with indigestion. R’s mum holds my hand. 

We eat mountains of ice cream after the meal – for four adults and 3 kids it comes to 300 r (£20). Not bad at all although Joe is stunned by the cost, of course. 

Thursday January 31

We go to the pool early in the morning. First of all there’s packing to do. We have to buy bubble wrap for the fish and the sticks. We bake in Ellis Park Stadium. It’s not until midday that I feel my skin tingling and realise, horrified, I haven’t put any sun cream on. When we get back to V's I’m like a beetroot. My legs are burning and my shoulders are sore. The airport’s packed. I can feel my face is puffy and red. I try and smear concealer on my cheeks. 
Art on the way into the city from Kensington, 2013