Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The caretaker and policeman

Venda Sun 21

I've been reading a lot of short stories for a group I'm running for the Royal Literary Fund and what's struck me is the focus on individuals and place. Two people have stayed in my mind since South Africa 2012 - a caretaker who worked at the sacred Phiphidi falls in Venda and a policeman who was also there on a works outing- a party for the office cleaner who was leaving.

Giya and I renamed it P Diddy Falls. As the trip went on, we laughed more manically. Humour was a reaction to the relentlessness of apartheid past and present. One example: at the Albasini Dam, the man at the gate actually shook R's hand for having a white woman.

But the caretaker and policeman had their own stories to tell. The caretaker almost singlehandedly kept the rubbish at this beautiful place at bay. Normally in Venda, women are the caretakers of water (see the link to the Gaia Foundation at the end) but this man was doing what many of us would do if we saw a landmark on our doorstep being trashed. 

And the policeman was another local disillusioned by what was happening to his region. 

Saturday August 4 2012

Yesterday could have been a disaster. Thankfully we reclaim it with a trip to the Phiphidi waterfall in Sibasa. A policeman at the falls tells us SA is walking slowly in the same direction as Zimbabwe. (His words). He's standing by the top of the steps down to the falls with a beer in his hand. He's small and round in his smart jumper and trousers. He complains that Zuma's got rid of all the educated people and intellectuals and claims the education minister didn't even pass matric.

I don't know if any of this is true but he's telling a story that's become apocryphal around the fire and at casual meeting places....the politician and the tender…

We have 10 days left. The waterfalls are on the road from Sibasa, on a climb out of Thoyandou into hillier countryside, over the brow of a hill that gives us a view over the plain: another dam, the mountain range and fires.

What shifted things yesterday was a fire at the bottom of the hill. R's neighbour had set light to some grass and it got out of control in the wind. R rushed down and with Peter and Petu managed to cut grass down so it didn't spread to the scrub leading to our houses.

(I've made a note here of birdsongs: bird that sounds like a whistle, the call that sounds like 'what's your name?', the 'we are' call, a call like a wooden slide whistle kids use).

When we came back today, a woman was burning grass on her patch of land but it was still under control. The fire yesterday almost reached Petu's house.

Today we have a picnic of fried chicken and utter luxury, feta and olives for me. To get to the falls we drive down a red track, bumpy and steep, past two piles - one of cans, one of bottles. The man who later takes us to the bottom of the falls works here alone collecting people's rubbish. There are clearings in the trees, cement built barbeques and tables. Someone's built chalets and a gate at the entrance. You pay 15 rand per person and 30 rand for the car. I wasn't sure about this idea of development but the policeman's absolutely in favour. He says it stops locals from cutting all the trees down.

The first fall is the steepest. When it rains in summer this must be phenomenal, the whole gorge full and roaring. The river joins the Vaal and goes to the sea through Mozambique.

Yesterday during my loud row with R, the monkeys came to watch. They clung to the trees, sat on rocks. We were their theatre before we heard the fire below us.

We take our picnic further down to the third level, walking over a wooden walkway over dark green, still pools, to an expanse of flat rocks looking down the gorge to overhanging trees.

Last night before the moon came up red and subdued I saw the smoky clouds of the Milky Way.

A very thin man in a blue overall with red hat asks if we want a guide to the bottom. Since we have no idea how far it is, we ask him to come back later, make him a roll of avocado and banana.
He shows us a heart shaped hole in the rock. When it's full the water boils. Down to the pools where the gorge flattens out, overhung with branches. One tree has moss growing up its trunk. He tells us the sangomas collect the water that seeps from these trees.

When I ask if people swim here he says there are often ZCC (Zion Christian Church) baptisms and people drown because they can't swim. The pool under the first waterfall is deep. The water's eroded the rock in the pool into a trap. People get wedged, standing up, into a cleft and they are found like that - dead and upright. The force of water doesn't allow them to move sideways or upwards.

Back to the car. The policeman's here with a coachload of colleagues. They're all singing and someone leads prayers. The cleaner's retiring, he tells us. After the prayers, the party starts.

We stop in Thoyandou on the way back and at the Tchanguma fruit market to buy sugar cane. Giya and I listen to the heavy music outside Spar. It's about 5 pm and there's a massive speaker.
Back home we cook in the dark. I remember the monkeys again, eating red flowers from the flame tree.

Sunday August 5
This morning I'm up at dawn, have a whole ripe avocado to myself. We have nets of them. Today we're going to the Albasini Dam down the road. The sign at the entrance is Beware of Crocodiles.
"Water won't run uphill." The woman who tells me this has a degree and teaches adults who dropped out of school. She believes the local politician's lie. Since 1994 and on the day that Jacob Zuma opens an official statue of Madiba on the site where he was first arrested, the village where she lives has relied on a single waterpipe near the main road.

When I came to the village in 2002 there was no electricity. The second time in 2006, most houses had power and building had begun in earnest. In 2012 the road that leads to Thoyandou is never silent. It drowns out the birds, begins before dawn and continues through the night.

As I sit outside the round houses made from local stone, I can see security lights outside houses below. Many new buildings are like ranch bungalows. Traditional round houses are kept for cooking, or abandoned. In 2006, the local paper was full of the ANC's promise of water. Fifteen minutes drive down the road from this village is the Albasini dam. Forty five minutes up to Thoyandou there's another massive dam. There's a list of dams and water levels in the local paper, the Zoutpansberg Times.
But in these beautifully tiled new ranch houses, where kids now sit in front of the TV with mobiles just like in Brighton, water comes in 20 litre drums unless you can afford a private borehole and know a contractor who won't rip you off and run.

This rural population, rendered passive by apartheid, remains passive because tradition is the new medium of oppression. Debate is stifled in the name of tradition. The young are threatened if they question an older person about their moral or political stance. This is a beautiful region being destroyed piecemeal by cars, shopping malls, litter, wood-cutting and corruption. When it's convenient, tradition  is hauled into the back of a 4x4 to keep young people from asking difficult questions and to keep women in their place.

The woman who believes the local politician's excuse for not piping water throughout the village has already been ripped off by a borehole contractor. She also has an hour's journey to work because she has no car and there are no minibuses going in her direction. If she had a bike she could get there in 30 minutes. But women here aren't allowed to ride bikes, she says.
The vervet monkeys love these flowers

Today, as Zuma's calling on young people to be aware of their political history. Earlier I read in the paper about a local police chief facing 1,600 charges of fraud, including handing out driving licences.
PickNPay, Checkers, Spar, KFC and every international brand and retailer is writing the agenda. Builder's merchants are multiplying and profiting from an expansion of expensive looking churches. The boom in funeral directors has abated, AIDS orphans are being brought up by grandparents and great grandparents but the illness of unemployment's treated with religion and American style soaps.
So it seems there was reason in the move to install electricity before water.

Woodsmoke and mist are settling in the valley as the sun comes up. Someone's hammering.  Later I drive with Giya to Levubu Spar. We're preparing to go to the Kruger national park. Giya's chatted up in the car park. It's hot. I pack while G and R go to visit the chief. Some local kids come to visit. It's Sunday, they're escaping church. Tomorrow we need to wake up before dawn. We're heading for the Pafuri gate of the Kruger, far north, nearly at the border with Zimbabwe.
Venda women in Limpopo

Monday, January 26, 2015

Remembering Solomon on a walk to the twin peaks

Venda Sun 20

Giya at her first birthday party in Brighton

26 January 2015

I rediscovered the Jubilee library on Wednesday, realising I've been spending £2 a week in charity shops on novels which often I feel should have remained forests.  

I came away with William Maxwell's The Folded Leaf, Jean Rhys' Voyage in the Dark and Jonathan Buckley's Nostalgia. I thought one of the many benefits of the library would be the slip listing what I've borrowed to use as a record of my reading.

But, I've never kept a record of my reading. Why start? I intermittently keep a diary. There are large gaps when I don't even write in a notebook. I've never been good at routine or obsession, other than tasks necessary to grow vegetables or earn enough to live on.

I gorged on the novels I borrowed. These last few months, since September, and particularly this week when I turn 60, have been marked by the silence of the house - I'm getting used to it - by the conflict between living happily and the self-doubt writing produces, by acknowledging age. Incipient old age.

When I google 'why is there such an interest in', google comes up with: 'stem cells', 'mars' and 'ocean floor nodules'. What I was going to finish the question with was 'genealogy'.

Of course it has become big business. It seems everything converts to cash but especially data. There are careers in tracing family histories that didn't exist 20 years ago. Baby boomers like me are adrift and family history offers so many tantalising stories.
The front garden of my childhood home,
3 Stream Farm Close, Farnham,
with mum (far left), my father, brother Michael,
Aunty Mads, my grandfather, possibly Aunt Ethel,
me kneeling and the dog, Steve.
All except me and mum are now dead. 

What I wrote first was 'more interesting stories'. What I thought about writing, but didn't, was 'than the last 60 years'. That's not true, why did I think it?  

What's been most interesting about a silent house has been thinking about kindness. About how to re-read worst times - everyone has them - and to think about them differently. About realising that misery becomes a state of mind, if you let it. And I have done sometimes. Especially in winter. 

So I go back to the green diary of  2012 and this day of the trip, marking Giya's 18th, remembers one of my oldest friends, now dead. 

Thursday August 2 2012

It's a full moon and Solomon's funeral in London. Mrisi's going for us. We'll walk to the top of the mountain tonight. 

I met Solomon in September 1974 at Portsmouth Poly. I remember him telling me the family realised he'd gone blind when he asked his mother why she'd drawn the curtain across the door. A chess champion, IT genius, great swimmer, he went to a school for the blind as a small boy and after that rarely went back to Nigeria but he sent money at every opportunity. He trained as a teacher in Brent but in the great round of redundancies in the 80s, he'd only just done his probationary year. It was last in, first out for Solomon. That was his first and last full time job. He did a lot for the RNIB because he was so good at braille, sent computers to Nigeria and during apartheid he stood every day on the picket line outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square.

Solomon loved Mrisi and Giya. He visited us in Brighton often when they were little. Something tells me later that the mini typhoon last night was him, visiting SA at last. He never went, despite his years supporting the struggle.  

Giya and I spend most of the day in Mashau washing and cooking and by 5.30 in the afternoon we have our boots on, waiting for the promised trip to the mountain with twin peaks that hangs as a linocut in our front room in Brighton, with elephants in and little round houses.

It's never straightforward with R. It turns into another drive to another place he used to live, more people who looked after him. We stop on the way to pick up Randhu, Grace's daughter, say hi to a rasta friend of his, put the car in someone's yard so by the time we're on the path to the peaks it's dark and he's striding in front with his machete like it's a boot camp. Endless texts bleep from his pocket.

It's meant to be a trip to think about Solomon. 

What can I say about it, Sol? I remember when we were in Yorkshire. We wanted to walk to the top of a hill and it started to snow. We didn't think about you. You didn't want to, so you stopped and walked back down with some other people, strangers.

Maybe not getting to the twin peaks, getting lost towards the top, was some kind of tribute to you?

The moon was full and there were lights in the valley and mountain bats.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The sculptor's Venda cathedral

Venda Sun 19

Sculpture by John Baloyi, Venda,
South Africa

Neighbours of mine have just returned from Barcelona and Nick was showing me the inside of the Sagrada Familia on his phone, the light from the different coloured windows, the columns like trees. I never went inside when I visited the city because the children were little and the queues too long. But there's a lot in Gaudi that reminds me of John Baloyi a South African artist whose work we saw years ago and who, sadly, we never met. He was out when Jackson Hlungwani took us to his studio and then he was killed in a car crash. 

It's the light, the sense of space, the twisted shapes, the animals, glittering mosaics. I don't know if Baloyi knew Gaudi's work and I hope that in 2015 his studio is taken care of, preserved properly, given the status it deserves, because in 2012 it looked as if it was on the verge of complete neglect. What a scandal. 

Wednesday August 1, 2012

I'm hoping for a full dawn chorus but in the winter the birds aren't so active, apart from the cockerel. I'm disappointed.  Giya and I manage to rig up a bag shower I bought from the pound shop in Brighton. It's marginally better than washing in a bowl.

The sun comes up opposite the terrace the houses are built on, behind a range of low hills. The mist has gone. It's 10 am and already hot. A neighbour gave us two pumpkins and some Chinese leaves. We've worked out how to make toast.

John Balolyi's crocodile in the Polokwane art gallery was one of the first sculptures I saw by local artists, before Jackson took us on a tour of Limpopo studios all those years ago. I remember Baloyi's studio in the sun, brightly coloured with a giraffe chair that one of the children sat on, Jackson so proud this artist was his student, disappointed he wasn't there. The studio's still on the tourist trail, and Jackson's, but both of them are dead. We haven't the heart to go to Jackson's, it's a kind of unspoken understanding. But we decide to visit Baloyi's.

It's hard to find from Elim. The Venda Sun map is unspecific as so many of them are because proper maps just don't exist of this area. We're driving most of the time on dirt roads in the direction of Giyani, dipping into a fertile valley, houses everywhere of course, old lorries belching fumes, more new 4x4s and other top of the range cars - they're lined up in the car parks of every primary school.
At John Baloyi's studio

John Baloyi was a good friend of Vohnani Bila (poet who was with us at Christmas during our last visit) and died in a car crash. What a loss. 

His studio is a fantasy world, a warren of small rooms with painted walls, decorated with figures, patterns and in different rooms, sculptures made from long twisted branches that seem to be everywhere here. Walls with circular windows made out of car wheel hubs, large gaping faces or bodies reaching upwards. A drum with a tail and legs, another shaped into a crocodile. Orange walls with charcoal figures, a corner of local pots....the studio goes on and on, wasps nests in corridors, until you come out past a carving space to the front of the house where the walls glint with mirrors and grey tiles, the steps are mottled yellow, black, ochre, green and his widow is washing clothes in a bowl on the garden wall.

She is the woman who opened the metal gate to us, asking nothing, quietly showing us the entrance and saying it was open.

The roof of a small roundhouse is falling in and a rectangular window directs sun onto the floor. It could be a chapel in a cathedral.

In the garden there's a line of statues, grey with the weather, cracking or falling over. Nothing has been looked after. Under a tree there's another pile of Venda pots and as we stand on the step and chat, or rather, Risenga chats and we look, I see Baloyi's grave under an orange tree in the garden, buried according to local tradition, on his own land. His gravestone is polished, dark and light grey, the only thing in the garden that seems to have been looked after.
Traditional pots at the studio

It's such a depressing experience and afterwards, we're back on the dirt road to look for some of the women potters we saw with Jackson years ago. We ask a couple of women sitting in the shade of a tree. Everyone we ask says straight on on, straight, second left. The directions are never right. 

But what we don't notice is a sign at a turn off saying 13 km to the potters. It's not on the map. The pottery in Mashamba has gone it seem, so we go to the Mukondeni Pottery.

Dust. A lorry passes and there's more of it. Kids walking home from school are enveloped in it. It's on my skin, in my nose, hair, fingernails. 

Driving's hard and the car's rattling. At the tar road, heading back, we make for Louis Trichardt. It's long, straight and burning by now, mid afternoon. R needs to sort out his dongle, we need to find a Checkers for decaff coffee. We buy deodorant that claims to work for 48 hours.
Women at the Mukondeni Pottery, Venda

Outside a fish and chip shop is a bakkie full of enormous cabbages, the biggest I've seen. There are obviously no slugs here. And I haven't seen a pigeon.

The moon's virtually full and we have to cook. Later, half asleep, I hear a massive wind like a vacuum cleaner around the house, no warning, then it's gone. Tomorrow is Solomon's funeral and I won't be there.