Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Anticipating a turning point - how the South African book is finding itself

Mrisi with Pip, the puppy, at the house in Mashau
The sun was hot on our backs yesterday as Mrisi, Giya and I sat in a row at the top of the scaffolding, painting window frames on our home in Brighton. Mrisi was playing music on his phone, mopeds went by noisily and when we took a break, a crowd of crows filled the sky in front of us for a moment and then flapped away, cawing.

A couple of days earlier, Risenga was also here, scraping, sanding, his head in the eaves. It's that time of year - autumn suggesting itself in a cold night when it would be reasonable to light a fire, even in August. There's fruit to pick, herbs to dry, jam and chutney to make.

Of course it is possible to mend a sash window yourself and make good your own house. I have been working every day on a second draft of the South African book, which I feel is turning into a different kind of travel memoir - one in which I return four times to the same place, investigating my responses to it after gaps of several years, curious about what I notice has changed.

The South African book isn't an objective analysis of this amazing country, how can it be in the circumstances, and that is now one of its most liberating factors as I write. The working title has changed from Venda Sun, which I am still attached to, to Road to the North, which is boring. I am still working from my diaries and increasingly from photo albums to help me remember, or at least, to help me describe some of the landscapes, moments, conversations that happened in 1994, 2002, 2005 and 2012.
Mashau from the hill behind Risenga's house

Those are the dates of my trips with the children and Risenga, although Mrisi didn't come on the last one.

I am looking at maps and Google earth, although neither of these are time travellers, so I have to make up some of the details I missed in 1994, 2002 or 2005. I have added and discarded linking sections in which I explain what's happened between trips. I will probably keep them out - how can I summarise eight years of our family's life?

But creating the linking chapters has at least given me a bit of a timeline, a sense of the bigger historical events happening on either side of our journeys and in one case, as we sat around a fire in Mashau.
Elephants in the Levubu River, Kruger National Park
I am checking the spelling of place names and asking Mrisi, Giya and Risenga what they remember.

Increasingly I am fascinated by memory, what I seem incapable of summoning up, by the completely different stories Risenga and I have in our heads about the same incident and then what has lodged and why. 

I couldn't find my way back to a turning on a dusty, eroded track between villages, when we'd been through a ford and wondered if we'd make it to the tar road again, but I can feel the red dust in my throat and see a lush field ahead. I can recall endless plantations of oranges and lemons beside the road near Tzaneen (I think) and a young woman in Mashau talking about how little she was paid to pack macademia nuts but I have no idea what roads we took to Lake Funduzi. 

I am pleased I came to the end of the second trip before I took a break to do the painting. I am half-way through this big re-write and the next trip, 2004/5, will be hard to go back to. It's a turning point which contains a 21st birthday, a wedding, a tsunami, a blood-red moon and an introduction to Mashau, a village at the foot of a hill where priests pray and the devout go to fast. 

Giya with Grace (front left), Mercy (front right)
and a neighbour at Caroline's wedding
in Venda