Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Vervet monkeys and paths burned into the woods: Venda Sun 18

Venda Sun 18

Sunday July 29 2012
Morning in Mashau

We wake up at 3am to leave for Limpopo. As I'm writing I can hear Risenga shouting at the entrance to the Venda Sun. All we want is a tourist map but whoever holds the keys to the information drawer at the Thoyandou Arts and Culture centre has left with them so the map, a holy grail, is inaccessible  -although one hangs on the wall.
As we arrived in Limpopo the sun was coming up behind the mountains. We stopped at a service station for breakfast and they put bacon in my toastie.
The landscape's open, filled with short trees, some taller and flat. In the distance, always, mountains. The road's clearish, straight and fast with few stopping places.
Vast stretches of landscape are scorched from fires, some possibly controlled to burn the undergrowth, some probably caused by cigarettes thrown out of cars. There are signs everywhere about the danger of fire.
I have stopped looking at my watch. The village is how I remember it. As we drive in we see Kuti's mother Mary who's off to church and has mattressess, pots and plates for us. Then we meet four village men who immediately ask Risenga for 100 rand for village funerals.
It's foggy, drizzling and overcast on the way but closer to Louis Trichart the sky clears and although it's not warm, the sky's blue.
The track to the house is serious! Potholes, ruts, stones, grass. The grass is so long after Bo Green's house that it scratches the underneath of the car. We're so loaded down.
It's a steep climb up to the two houses and we have to light fires in both to smoke out insects. I sweep the sleeping house, the floor is red earth and dusty. It hasn't been cemented and because it's been empty so long there's a lot of loose soil. The air is red and when I blow my nose, the handkerchief is red too.
We climb the hill with everything from the car - blankets on our heads, rucksacks on our backs and when Mary's back from church, go down again to carry pots and mattresses.
I am dirty and sweaty by the time we finish. Risenga and Petu bring water, an incredible feat, up the hill - five heavy drums of water and one of them leaking badly. Water's the big issue. Thoughts of a shower, even using our Pound shop plastic pouches, are useless. A bird bath is the most we can expect, an inch of water in a bowl with a flannel that I also use to wash knickers and armpits of my tee shirt later.
The hut we sleep in has windows and a door, the other has windows with gaps and no door, plus two wasp nests, these are wasps that look more to me like big flying ants and they go straight for your eyes when they attack.
Fumigating the sleeping hut

We eat my pie, rice, tomato and onion sauce. There's no meat. I can't remember who we eat with. We arrange the sleeping hut - a rope across to hang clothes, lay out sleeping bags and blankets, and we sleep like babies.
Giya's just reminded me of the monkeys watching us from the trees as we arrive, a troupe of them on either side of the path, curious, watchful. They're little vervets with charcoal faces and big eyes.
Monday July 30
Our first morning in Mashau and R's up at dawn with Petu and Peter to cut grass along the track, around the loo and up behind the houses. There was a fire on the mountain that Bo Green managed to stop reaching the houses but it came incredibly close.  The track is burned a long way up.
I'm awake early too and go for a walk with R and Petu around the land. He says he'll create a quiet space somewhere so Giya and I can escape from visitors! Bo Green came last night after his trip to Polokwane for a ZCC meeting  all dressed up in his Sunday best with a briefcase. And there was Olga here for ages, two other girls, a small boy, Mary and her daughter - all of them needing coca cola and Sprite. Giya went with Olga to the bar to buy it. She was an object of curiosity but not in a pleasant way.
We talked about how it is here, to be stared at all the time.
Now I'm sitting with the puppy who adopted us yesterday. The monkeys have arrived in a troupe in the trees behind me. So hard to remember day to day and so much in a day.
Eventually we go to Thoyandou in the car. We buy stuff from a lovely market woman - R buys some bugs, they look like June bugs, he's never eaten before. We get some beans, a mirror, and a beautiful basket. We have lunch at a stall by the taxi rank.
We try the Venda Sun again for maps, which they have this time, so it's easier to decide what we want to do, and go back via the fruit and veg market where we're besieged by women carrying bananas, guava, pawpaw and tomatoes.
A net of avocados costs us 20 rand and on the way back detour on a dirt road to see plantations of tall straight trees, bananas with fruit protected by blue plastic sheaths, nuts, mangoes - lush big estates reaching up to the hills. The sun goes down behind a mountain, a great red ball disappearing fast and the sky stays red. The bushes on the track as we head into the valley are all stained red as if they've been fired in clay. Back onto the road for Mashau. The roadsigns point to Elim and Levubu in both directions.
It's dusk when we arrive back, Peter and Petu are waiting for us with two small boys who disappear immediately. I cook, R disappears to see a woman in the village and comes back with her two dogs. Giya shares her iPod with Petu while I burn the beans. Not even the monkeys will eat them.
The puppy 

Tuesday July 31
Last night was the first time I felt anxious when dogs started barking in the early hours. All the dogs in the village answered. R said this morning he heard bushbabies. In the morning I heard chopping. And first thing, "Nda" (hello) a voice I didn't recognise, nor did R. It was a boy, owner of the dogs, who had come to get the mother dog as he was off to hunt porcupines. He left the puppy, who's asleep next to me now after being very scared earlier.
The sun was hot when I woke up. We were thinking of walking to R's cousin, Grace but we drove. There's no electricity here so we can only charge things in the car. The rechargeable lantern lasted a night. Useless.
The newspapers we bought in Johannesburg are full of stories of corruption and dodgy tenders. Limpopo education's in the news for burning text books. Mail and Guardian journalists are being prosecuted by a government minister.
Cooking hut

There are new houses and 4x4s everywhere, then total poverty. At least the orphans, R's neighbours, have a new house. There are lots of one room government built houses but too little space left. Builders' merchants are booming. There are fewer funeral parlours but long queues at the doctor and vast number of malls - Pick and Pay, Checkers, Spar, everywhere. The women at the side of the roads must be desperate.
Traffic. I can't believe the noise coming from the road. In my memory it was quiet. I felt cheated and stressed. I tell R I hope word will get round that my cooking is rubbish and not worth dropping by for.
Walking round the land we find a tree that smells of piss, a leaf like mint growing from a wall. The flame trees are bare except for the blossom.
But we see black routes scorched into the woods. A red path. Stacks of freshly cut wood in a clearing up from the ravine - old trees being felled. The fear is that they set fires so they can get into the land. The fence is down, a man and woman are carrying enormous bundles of wood on their heads, looking nervous. Two other neighbours are cutting trees.
There was a rumour that R's land was owned by a white man, a bassie.
Now it's quiet. R and G have gone to buy meat, bread and peanut butter. The puppy's grunting. No birds are singing, it's midday. In the morning here it's misty, cold, then sunny and the butterflies come out. I've weighted a sheet on the line for shade. The avocado I put on the table to ripen was gone when I returned. It was the monkeys.
Monkeys love these blossoms

Sound travels here. Yesterday at the end of our walk R called to Giya to put the kettle on. A cock's crowing miles away. I can hear someone hammering.
Now the puppy moves with the sun out of the shade. I keep the fire hot for when they get back with the meat. I can see the line of hills I thought was one range is in fact three. The deep crevices of the furthest are shadows. The Levubu river's even more distinct. I'm looking at it through a screen of trees.
When they come back from shopping we cook chicken feet and neck, dhal and pap. By the time we've eaten it's nearly dark. Mary turns up with two more small boys, we have tea and biscuits. R realises he's lost  his dongle. The moon's nearly full. We walk down to the village leaving Giya talking to Petu, Peter and one of the small boys. In the village, the paths give off heat.
Mary's house, like most of them, is almost European in style - there's a TV, sofas, of graduations. The grandchildren are watching a soap. A local councillor has convinced most of the village that water won't run uphill.
We pass the social worker's house. It's an enormous bungalow, white tiled floors, polished cement terrace. A fire's burning in a small round house. Inside the bungalow, kids are slumped in front of the TV with mobiles, looking sulky. No-one talks. The social worker doesn't smile and looks put out by my dirty feet. She asks R for the puppy back - it's apparently hers. We'll miss it. It reminds Giya and me of Pip, the puppy from years ago, our first visit to the village and the land.
The entrance to Risenga's land on the hillside in Mashau

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

Venda Sun 17
Museum of Apartheid, Johannesburg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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