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

Monday, June 02, 2014

Writing process blog tour

Carrie Etter asked me to answer four questions about my writing process for a blog tour that appears to have started in Wales. I'm asking poet Lorna Thorpe and sculptor David Parfitt if they'll answer the same questions. All links at the end. 

What are you working on?

Poems about people who have died, continuing my collaboration with Jane Fordham -  extending our ideas on ancestor portraits - trying to write more expansively after the curtness of many of the Woman's Head as Jug poems. I am pleased to be writing again and broke through a barrier early this year when I finished a poem I'd been working on for 10 years. It's a short poem, but I had struggled so much with it, returning regularly, failing to make it happen. Now I have and it's released something psychologically, allowing me to write other poems about my father and my aunt, both dead. Really important friends, who shaped me, have died in the last couple of years. I have been writing poems about them too. 
Added to that, I have a short clutch of poems about South Africa which cross over with these elegies and trying to be more expansive, some poems about birds, and more about where I live in Brighton. What I've always been doing, although I am focusing more on death. 

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Other people could answer that better than me. I see the similarities first - how many of us approach the same subject...and then I identify the differences in metaphors, language, how it's developed. 

Perhaps, compared to some, my language is simple and ordinary. I don't like poems to be crossword puzzles or case studies in the use of synonyms. I hope that simplicity and communicating a sense of the words, as spoken, are features of my poems. 

In Woman's Head as Jug I wrote a sequence about women's jobs - there aren't too many of those, I think. And a sequence about menopause. That's also fairly unusual. But those are distinctions only in theme/subject matter. I wrote a poem called The Kitchen Floor. It started as a manifesto but took on a happier life of its own. 

Why do you write what you do?

I began to write poetry again as an adult when I was working as a journalist. It was as far removed from journalism as I could get. The poems I write are suggested by circumstances, an image, a phrase or an obsession - generally one of those things is the seed and time is the compost.

Now I continue with poetry even though the journalism's a minor part of my freelance work, because I want to get better at it, experiment. It's satisfying when I can immerse myself in the process. At other times, the allotment is equally satisfying. They work together I think, along with the demands of earning a living and learning how to adapt to an emptying home. 

How does your writing process work?

I write sporadically and in bursts. I don't write everyday at the moment but I'm thinking of changing that. I need a routine and I used to have one. I don't quite know where it went - possibly in a three year block. That was a long one, although not as long as Michael Longley's! 

My writing process is defined by a continual struggle for mental space. I write best when I've had a couple of days doing nothing, or when I've been with Jane Fordham the visual artist I collaborate with, or when I'm away. Sometimes I struggle to convince myself that writing is worthwhile. Then I walk or dig. 

I write much better when I keep away from prize givings, ignore prize lists and the social side of poetry, all of which increase my anxiety terribly. I went to a launch once in London with a couple of friends. I'd been having a terrible time. I was with someone who'd started publishing poems a long time after me. We were standing side by side. This poet is much better known and I was asked - oh, do you write too? 

After that experience, I vowed to stay away from anything literary, other than readings and festivals like Aldeburgh - which gave my writing a fantastic boost. Too often literary events are the means for maintaining a status quo or a clique of like-minded and over-opinionated people. I've met some shockers and realised they were damaging my ability to write because they thrive on promoting fear, doubt, self-interest hierarchies. 

Kindness, friends, walking, gardening, my grown up children, some reliable work to pay the bills, generosity of spirit are important. I write better when I'm happy. 

I belong to two workshop groups, one in London and one in Brighton, which give great advice on drafts. I edit constantly and even if a poem's in a book I'll edit as I read it again. I'm trying to be more expansive now, though. Many of my short poems now feel a bit cryptic. I'm reading lots of American poets who are very good at being chatty. Reading, I should have said earlier, is fundamental to my writing.