Saturday, January 28, 2012


Everyone will have their stories of her. Everyone who knew her, worked with her or was taught by her will have some little anecdote or snapshot that they will tell in tribute of her. Students discussed her endlessly, trying to pin down what she was really. People wanted to get a handle on her. They wanted words. Like Eccentric. Ethereal. Touched. Brilliant. Alchemist. Sorcerer.

For me the word that has been chiming in my head all day is lucent. She was just… lucent.

We all have our stories. These are mine.

1992: First year. End of year drama exam. I have not studied, I cannot remember much of the blur of theatre history lectures. But one of the questions is on Noh theatre, and the essay I write comes out whole, intact, as I recall her lectures on Noh. She embodied the form, breathed the detail into us, so vivid, so enraptured. I remember every precise moment.

1993. Second year. My first acting class. The moment has arrived. Class with the fabled Reza de Wet. Nervous but oh so cool students cluster on the Rhodes Theatre stage. She is  -  shell like, those Noh gestures that we’d later understand as trademark, the fragility that we’d later realise was robustness. The transparent skin. The wicked laugh. She’s telling us to listen, and to hear the mouse. There’s a mouse, she says…can you hear it? Shuffling and giggles, and then the silence as some of us get it and yes – I can hear the mouse, scratching under the floorboards. Yes, there it is, your mouse is over there, and it’s a shy mouse, or a frenetic mouse…she’s telling each person when they have heard the mouse and what kind of mouse it is.

That same lesson, the first one. 'Now stand… here on the stage. Stand…and look up at your feet. Stand….and look up at your feet.' In that one magical marvellous moment, the world swings around, and I am, I am looking up at my feet. My head is down, I am clinging on to the planet with my toes, thoughts and hair and gravity streaming out of my head, and holding on by the grace of who knows what… and then a raucous laugh as she sees it happening, and it dissolves. I am upright again.

Something deep inside me clunks into place like the sound of a safe door finding its combination lock groove. I am here, I am in the right place. Thank God I ended up studying here.

That was second year. The year she berated me for shaving off my hair. Your hair is your antenna, she tells me crossly.

1994. Third year.
While the whole country is shifting around us, the first democratic elections are being held, those wonderful photographs being taken of queues snaking outside voting stations and breaths being held about whether or not we’ll make it over the transition, I am not in South Africa. Well I am, but only in body. For the rest, I am in the Russian countryside somewhere. Outside, a cherry orchard is being threatened and I am ‘whining about going to Moscow’ as Richard E Grant memorably puts it in Withnail and I. Varya. And the joyful delight that Reza gets when we actually manage to give Yepikhodov a pair of squeaky shoes. In retrospect, I am not learning about acting, as my third year self would believe. I am learning about writing. For Reza, Chekhov was more than a muse, he was a regular visitor and adviser. But I am not learning from Chekhov. I am learning from her.

And she suggests I do an Ophelia for my 3rd year end of year piece. Together we explore a multiple-personality, nervous, crass, eager-to-please Ophelia. Too interpretive, too conceptual, it bombs. But I know she fought in my corner with the external examiner.

When Reza was supervisor for my MA our visits were not frequent. They didn’t need to be. They were potent instead. I’m not sure that she really approved of the directions my meandering research was taking me, too political for her sensibilities, I’m sure. She’d have wanted me to delve into the mysteries of the mask work I was researching (the gule wa mkulu masquerades), and I couldn’t, I had to talk about representation and identity and outsider ethnographies. But when we sat together in the office of the Anthropology department and that Professor was grilling me about why this should fall under a drama research enquiry instead of an anthropological one, she fought in my corner fiercely. Or would that be flirted? She endured the brutal espresso he prepared for us, gasping weakly for a little milk.

I will remember her in the latticed shadow of that room in her house where she saw visitors, afternoon light striking her sideways, she might have been a collection of dust-mites, she seemed to be dematerialising in the East Cape light. But also not. Also, more present than most people are capable of. She told me about a plant that she had been sitting next to for many consecutive afternoons that summer. How this plant finally, one evening, gave itself up to her, and emanated its essence to her, just released its …essence for her. Except she put it better than that.

We who liked to think we knew her thought we could see past the ethereal, chaotic, discombobulated exterior she projected, we liked to say things like, oh but that’s just for show, she’s really very grounded, its part of her mask, actually she’s really very organised. And things like that. But of course she was much better at escaping definition than any of us were at pinning one on her.

When the visiting psychic came and we were only allowed one question each, and we sat, bristling with questions in the theatre auditorium, her one question was, “what is it I need to know?” Sensible to the core, where it mattered.

She was all the stories and myths that we spun around her. And she was none of them. I recently read of Oscar Wilde that he said “What is true about a man’s life is not what he does, but the legend he creates around himself… You must never destroy legends; it is through them we’re given a glimpse of the real face of a man.” I think she got this on a fundamental level. But it was instinctive, never contrived.

Now we are colleagues, we work in the same department and fights brew and simmer about workloads and contact hours. I remember one, in particular. Not the content, just the feeling, the hot explosive feeling of a small, intimate, family vibe staff meeting where things have been left unsaid for so long and emotions simmer under the surface. And her shock, her incomprehension that these are spilling over. Of course an empty office with her name on it is more important than workloads. Of course it doesn’t matter that she hardly teaches anymore and takes mysterious time off to write plays. I get it now that my youthful arrogance has simmered away.  I also know now what that’s like, trying to juggle the student load and the desperate need to fence off the headspace for writing. It must have been an enormous strain.

In the design studio, sometime in 1999, she is cranking up the wheezy old computer that we both had access to for email. After my grandfather died I dreamed about elephants almost every night for a year. I theorise endlessly to anyone who will listen. What does it mean? What do they want? She fixes that eye on me and says, “They want you to write about them”.

And when I did, when there was a production of one of my wobbly first plays, she came to me after opening night, and asked me, laughing “Well how does it feel?” There was so much in that laugh and that question. The generosity of asking it, the understanding, the knowledge that it’s a weird, mixed up bemused feeling at best. The way she had of never actually giving feedback yet somehow imbuing you with the eye to be your own best critic.

Because today, this morning, from about 9.00am, I was hot and bothered and flustered and angry. My son was having a bad day and clingy and needy. Yesterday I discovered a script, 15 pages fragment of something I thought I had lost in the first laptop heist. A draft, a fragment, but something that is worth spending some time on. And I am berating myself, in the car, for the time lost. It’s been 16 years, I say to myself, 16 years since I graduated from honours, and where is the work? Where are the plays, the novels, the stories I was supposed to have put out there by now? And I know that it’s all about the way mundanity seeps through the cracks. Domestic creep. Choosing this over that. Grocery shopping over an hour at the desk. TV over reading. I think of Reza, and understand the fierceness that you need to protect that time. That to be a writer you need to be soft and open and whimsical, but also growling and tough and uncompromising.

And then, an hour later I hear this news. That this great mind, this lucent, embodied soul has hatched into her next phase of being. And I feel so so lucky to have had the time I did. I knew she was sick (only three months ago, it happened so quickly) but I imagined her fighting it with that quirky vitality, that cloudy luminescence.

Another random memory – 2003. I’ve not lived in Grahamstown for over a decade. It’s the end of festival, my show is done, its late at night, I’m partying at Guy’s house. Earlier that day I bought two copper snake bracelets from a hippie near the bowling club. The kind you wear high up on your arm. A healing snake. A random impulse grabs me. I head out into the cold and up the familiar road to Reza’s house, a walk I can do in my sleep coz I used to live next door to her, and –actually I run, it feels like one of those moments when the spirit grips you and you have to obey. I’m not really on popping in terms with the de Wet Reardons any more – its been ages. But there they are, awake, and talking through the festival fare that they have watched – what has been most nourishing, what’s bland and soulless. I’m breathless in the doorway, and I hand her the copper snake – “I bought this today, I didn’t know why I needed two, but here, it’s for you. It’s definitely for you.” And she graciously invited me in for a midnight cup of tea.

I will remember her smile.
I will remember those hazel-hectic eyes, one searching within, one without.
I will remember her cranky blue Mazda which she famously drove in first gear and could never reverse.
I will remember the way she tasted the words as she inhaled before speaking.
I will remember her multi-coloured coat.
I will remember the last time I saw her, at the Drostdy Arch after a Butoh performance, a couple of days before her second grandchild was born. She had that deep soul-satisfied look that she got after seeing a performance that filled her up, as if the air around her had suddenly become delicious.

And from yesterday’s Facebook tributes, these are some things that others remember:

“I'll never forget Reza stopping me on the stairs in the drama department one day. "Timothy you need to move toward light. Stay away from all this dark shit." It wasn't hollow advice and I did not miss in her sentiment a great deal of sincere concern for my soul. And that's how I saw Reza; A Sorceress deeply involved in the world on an ethereal level beyond my understanding.” –Tim Redpath

'See the art within yourself, not yourself within the art' - Reza de Wet. RIP. Thank you.

'She made her mark like a kaleidoscope' - Fernande Wybenga

And is it arrogant to ask, now that she is in the great cherry orchard in the sky, that she may pay us the occasional fleeting visit as Chekhov did with her?

Sunday, January 8, 2012


Chibembe, sometime in the late 1970's
My first writing assignment, the first to give me a fair wobble of stress and publishing angst, was an essay about my day, or about something from my daily days. It was a school assignment, back in the days when my mother home-schooled us via correspondence course. We agreed that I would write about a game drive. That was a typical thing we did, game drives. I remember the drive in sharp detail - that riverine road between Chibembe and Nsefu lodges. Scratchy tawny plains in between. We saw seven rhinos that day, including two calves. I didn't want to write the story about our game drive. I had an uneasy feeling about doing something so important as setting pen to paper and making words and a story about something so mundane as a game drive, and one in which no leopards were to be seen. Just boring old rhino. I think I overcame the problem by dictating the story to my mother and she wrote it down. I was suspicious of authorship, even at six years old.

Mfuwe Lodge, South Luangwa, circa 1982.
Mom wakes us early to look at the two male rhinos fighting. Locked in a struggle, in the middle of the sloshy, muddy lagoon. They try to circle one another at the pace of glaciers melting. They make strange noises I haven't heard rhinos make before. Its a Sight. A Gargantuan Battle, says one of the grown ups. They are there so long we eventually get bored of looking and go back to throwing wild mangoes at the monkeys.

On the Baobab road, circa 1983
A rhino has been poached. In the National Park and everything, so brazen. Its horns have been hacked out of its skull. Really there is no better use for the word. Hacked. I peer into the cavity of the vulture-shit-streaked hull. Inside, there are maggots. Many swarming, teeming, writhing maggots. Phil Berry, proper in his khakhi knee-highs, counts the number of maggot species. More than 11 different kinds of maggots in that rhino's belly.

On the Chinzombo road, mid 1980's
Patrick was always up for a wrestle or a wrangle, whether with a Land Rover wheel or a black-necked spitting cobra. Preferably an encounter that involved some kind of injury. I don't know if these moments helped him to be more successful with women than he would have otherwise been, but the arm-in-a-sling look was big with him. Naturally he was delighted to hear that a rhino calf had been spotted on the Chinzombo road. Ropes and lassoing and loading it onto the back of the vehicle and maybe a somersault in the air off its back, rodeo style. I wonder what happened to that baby rhino. Perhaps it got to the Frankfurt Zoo.

The Breakfast Table, mid 1980's
They are starting a thing called Save the Rhino Trust. My grandfather is asking us kids for catchy slogans. They will be making T shirts. They will be going on patrol and stuff, to try to catch poachers, but they also need to do something called Creating Awareness. Spreading the Message. So that other people who don't have rhinos on their back doorstep will care about the rhinos getting poached. Chantal suggests "My Horn is My Dilemma". She has to explain it to me. Even at nine years old I know that this slogan is not going to cut it.

The Wildlife offices, circa 1986
My mom and dad and David and Judy and Derek and Bev Joubert are making a documentary together. Its all arty and stylish Peter Beardish, but its about hunting and wildlife and human's fascination with killing animals. They ask permission to photograph the skulls at the Wildlife Offices. Piles and piles pf elephant and rhino skulls, picked up On Patrol. There's a photo of me sitting on the step of that piled high room of skulls. My face is sad.

A half-term break, circa 1987
Debbie swears she sees a rhino in the half light, that gloaming time when were are driving fast to get home and not really game viewing anymore and the combretum bushes obscure everything on the side of the road. We reverse to look but no-one else sees anything. I, for one, think she must have been mistaken. You never see rhino here any more. It happened so quickly. Really, before anyone could really mobilize properly or come up with a decent slogan. That was in the South Luangwa National Park, where they no longer exist. In less than a decade. It is happening in South Africa right now as we speak. It really doesn't take long. I, for one, will really miss them. But no-one has time to care.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The easy part

Disclaimer: this is part three: very long and erm, laborious.

After the walk Xoli puts on her rubber gloves again and I try not to punch her lights out while she fiddles around in the heart of the storm. Eye of the storm is what they say though, isn’t it? Still not, she tells my sinking heart. Then, she’s frowning…Sorry…her fingers probe my depths and I want to cry. She looks at me. She’s released something. There was a clench. Or something. I just went from 0 to 3 in under a second. They give racing drivers medals for stuff like that.

The next hours are a blur. Images through smeared glass. Some vomiting, some walking. Some squatting. And then: you have only progressed one cm in three hours. The world flattens out when I hear this. It’s truly discouraging. Everything is through thick sheets of glass. Underwater.

These are your options, she is saying. We can wait, walk some more, keep active. Or break the membranes … put you on an oxytocin drip to speed up the contractions. I don’t want to do that but you may have to. Something about Dr Mia and the length of time you are “allowed” to labour before they want to intervene.

They call in Elizabeth, she’s a doula. Her touch is angelic. Hands on my sacrum. Feathery stroking of hair and shoulders. Ntombi is here now. Angel. Music, sitting on the ball. Light touch brings relief, endorphins. How do you feel, asks the gentle Elizabeth. I feel like I’m on drugs. Good, she says. Beautiful, these amazing women. Bernd is relieved too, I’m aware of his unclenching. Elizabeth says I’m holding it in my shoulders each time (Of course I’m fucking holding it in my shoulders). On the ball, leaning forward. Easy. Oh, this is good, can I stay here….


This sitting business. On the ball, on the stool, leaning forward, the contractions ease off. It feels good. But, um…its not bringing the baby any bloody closer is it? I’ve got to walk again.

Bernd walks me with the patience and humour required to support a doddering geriatric. From the white wall to the hedge with yellow flowers. From the hedge with yellow flowers to the metal pole of the washing line. Step. Grind of bowlingball on pelvis. Step. Surge. Lean. Breathe. Or round the jungle gym outside, sunlight braai-ing my eyeballs. Walking around a jungle gym the size of a small bathroom feels like the Otter Trail.

Writing this now, looking at the notes I wrote a few days after, the writer in me is asking me to edit, cut, package, put in sub-headings. But the teacher in me wants you to feel it – how boring and protracted this birthing business can be.

When they check me again I’m about 5cm. We’re trying to get to ten, remember. And my waters still haven’t broken. But always, every time they check, the baby’s heartbeat steady as it was in all the weekly check-ups. Patient fellow. Another walk to Zoo Lake with the gentle Ntombi. Dimly aware of how this must appear – this strange slow animal presence, a woman squatting on the side of the road. I feel invisible though, like I’m in another dimension.

Back in the cool dark of the Genesis room (I’m hot, then cold, then thirsty then hungry then vomiting. And very very tired.) I squat. And suddenly there’s a gush. Waters breaking at last. But I’m still only five cm and only one layer of membranes has broken. Ntombi’s voice is serious now. We have to get these contractions to progress. She has to break the second layer. And the oxytocin drip. She’s worried I won’t have enough energy for the push. The push? What’s this push everyone keeps talking about? Oh yeah, I remember now. There’s a baby coming. I’m going to have to push a baby out of me.

She says to have a sleep. An afternoon nap, as it were. Bernd suggests the rainbow relaxation CD. Good idea. I sleep, dimly aware of the tickticktick of Bernd playing Quadrapop on his phone. When I wake I am determined, fresh, clear. I am going to walk around that jungle gym one more time, dammit.

Actually my sequence is totally out. I don’t know in what order this happened: sleeping, walking, Ntombi breaking the membranes, Bernd’s tense voice saying I must walk when all I can do is lie there and moo like a buffalo. Hushed voices around me. Deep in my sleep remembering Ntombi saying I must get my head in the right place for the next phase.

Yes, that’s it – that echoes in my sleep and when I wake I go walking, on my own this time. Get back to the room and the clouds part in my head. Of course. There’s a next phase. I have to do this. No one else can do this. The drip. I need the drip. Lets do it.

As she’s getting needles and tubes lined up I say, I’m scared. I have some fear.
Ok, she says. What is the fear?
That it will get too intense for me to handle.
The pain?
Yes, the pain. (yes, I will use the word. The Pain)
She tells me my Plan A pain relief is the bath: getting in the water helps.
Plan B – I can ask for Pethedine. But remember, you need to welcome the pain. You have to have the intense contractions, that’s what you need.
Ok. Ok. Lets do it.

I waddle to where Bernd is sitting outside. I’m going to do the drip, I say.
Good, he says. Everyone is concerned. I’m concerned.
Its ok, I say. Its going to be ok.

Ntombi tells me I am surfing very close to Dr Mia’s cut-off point. Or, his cut point, as it were. I don't want to be cut. Lets have tried everything, she said. I’m prepared to push it a little past that point because I know this is what you want.
Yes. This is what I want. And always, the baby’s heartbeat, so steady.

Within minutes of having the needle in the back of my hand the waves come thick and fast. Yes, its intense, but I realise that what was wrong before was that they were so irregular. Now each one lasts for exactly three breaths: the first is the gathering swell, the middle one is the peak, the third helps to ebb it away. Its just me and my breath now. No sightseeing on this heavy weather surf. Ntombi’s voice saying you need this pain its helping you. Welcome the pain. My voice, at some point, saying everyone switch off your phones. Now.

In no time, I get that need-to-poo feeling they spoke of. I want to push. And waiting for them to bustle around and fill the bath seems to take longer than the whole labour so far. I need to push Now guys, like really Now. Hurry the fuck up.

I don’t know how I got into the water but I’m here now. Candles. Cool. Yoga CD. id I ask for that? Oh look that’s weird, there’s Monica from the health store, what’s she doing here? Doula on duty. She has a night job. Hi Monica. Bernd and I touch fingertips, lock eyes. Here’s another one. In out in out in out. Done. And again.

Ok, work with the contractions, use all your energy to push as if you are going to do a poo. I hear Miranda’s voice in my head: chin into your chest and puuuuush. I breathe in and make a kind of grunty rattle sound. Ntombi says that one was in your throat. Push right down into your bum.

I’m getting it now. Three pushes per contraction and a tiny rest in between. Actually, no rest in between. Just enough time to refuel on oxygen before the next ten-footer comes bearing down on me. Bernd keeps shoving the straw in my dry mouth. I want to drink but need the air first. It takes about ten rounds before I manage to make the words: breathe first then drink.

Ntombi’s voice my anchor: “brilliant Tamara, you’re doing so well. Keep going.” The repetition bouys me along.

Change to a squat. Sometimes the wave knocks a sob out of me as it comes. Push push push, breathe, sip – and again.

Eventually a new feeling – stinging, burning. Baby’s coming says Xoli. Ntombi: Push past the ring of fire. Push past that burning ring. I know what she means but that burning ring doesn’t feel like it has a beyond. At some point I feel sure that I have done enough and can stop. Someone else must please finish up for me. I’ve done my best.

Xoli says, I can feel his head. Next time, put your fingers here and feel his head. I expect to feel more than the puny 50c coin size that I can feel. Am I only that far?

Now its serious business pushing. Ntombi’s voice, the music – the yoga CD. Long Time Sun. Ah well, so he won’t be born to that song…..

Push Tamara you're doing so well push past the burning ring you're doing so well baby’s coming.

I PUSH and I push and I push. Now I can really feel him coming. I’ve never worked so hard or wanted anything so so much. I push as if my life depends on it. My life does depend on it. So does his. Two lives. Lets go.

At some point, I know, this is it, its coming. When that round is finished, I gasp – oh no he’s gone back in!
Its ok, you’ve stretched, next time he’ll come further.
Its true. Next time he does.
And the time after that a tiny bit more.
And then many times when its just in one place. Then more.
And then they’re telling me to pant like a dog. And I do.
I push – the biggest one, like I’m trying to get an overland truck up the hill all by myself. Still not.
And then it happens. He is out. And the rest of him slithers out like a slippery fish and now they’re putting him on my chest all pink and white and yellow and red and I’m behind three layers of glass but there he is. I have done it.
Now Xoli vacuums his little nose.

Now she says “I’m not quite happy” and the world swims away from me. There’s a pause the length of the entire day. What?

The cord is around his foot, tightly wrapped three times. She unwraps it, he kicks like a foal. My baby is here. He’s on me, so quick. That was so easy, I think. Someone says what’s the time. 9.55.
Bernd cuts the cord. Red and blue gristle, like electrical wire.

Now they’ve taken him already, he’s being measured and weighed.
He’s with Bernd while they help me deliver the placenta. Its such a rich dark velvety colour, its veins like embroidered seams. I want to thank it. I understand why people worship it – it seems alive. No calcification. My date of the 17th was correct, in spite of what the gynae said.

I’m in the shower now. They check me. I haven’t torn. I stink like a beer-drinking pheromone sipping dock worker. There’s a mushy substance between my legs. I realise its my vagina. Numb. Still underwater in that glassy world. I am being taken to the bed now, where Bernd has my son. They put him on my breast.

I have nothing. No feeling no emotion no tiredness no elation no sadness no flatness. The glassy world. Bernd is in love, this I see and I know this is good. But I feel as if I have also pushed myself out into the bathwater.

Nothing will ever be the same again. I suppose I sleep. I know I phoned my mother, but when I couldn't say. When I wake my shoulders are frozen cold. I close the window. The 4 am glassy light coats the glass. I go back to bed and lie next to my baby. I am also born. I will love this child forever. A neat line divides my life into what was before, and what is now.

I have a child.

And now, a year later I know that that was the easy part.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A piece of cake

It's never taken me this long to make a cake. Every time I remember where I am in the process another contraction sweeps me away. I am also repacking the bag I packed last week because I don't trust anything that I did last week. Anything I felt before this morning must have been wrong. That phrase, take the rug out beneath your feet? Yeah, like that, except its the deserted wilderness and the whole ground is being pulled out from under me as I walk.

Everything is changing.

But I must make this cake.

Where was I?

Gluten free flour. Sugar. Butter. Where's the recipe gone? Woah. Steady now. Breathe. Did you write that one down? Its 20 minutes now in between. Or is it still 25? Did you write that last one down? Is it ten actually? Oh sod it. 150 g of butter. How much is that in Tablespoons? Where's the recipe gone? Do I have enough juice in my bag? Will I be thirsty? Am I thirsty now? Where the hell is my husband? Why isn't he writing down the contractions? I still need to make a group on my Blackberry of people to sms when .... woah. Ok. breathe. breathe. breathe.

Dammit I must finish this cake. The phone, the phone. Who gets a new phone the day before they go into labour? How does this damn thing work anyway? The timer. Time your contractions on the timer. Is that the timer or the stopwatch? What the hell is the difference? Oh shit, I'm getting stressy. Don't get stressy, be in the moment. be in the moment. Make the cake. Make the cake.

In my notebook for the 18th October 2010, it says:
"Beautiful crazy day. Blood/birth/mucus show at 9ish.
Music. baking.
Surges mostly 40 minutes apart then 30.
Sex! good sex.
Bit more blood. Is that ok?
Cake. Trying to make a bloody cake. Bernd funny and wonderful and hilarious."

There's a stringy list of times that get closer together, some in Bernd's handwriting some in mine. Then at about 6:30 they are 5 minutes apart and I write that I'm going to sms the midwife. Also: the cake is done. The cake that I started at 11 o'clock that morning. Put the cake under foil. Put the icing in the fridge. I want to be in one place now. I want to be settled. Ok Bernd, take me to Genesis.

This was a bad idea.

Note to first time birthers: do not sit. Sitting is bad. Do not sit in the front. Be on all fours on the back seat. Your baby car seat does not need to be in place yet. I guess I thought I was bringing home a baby at midnight. Or something. I guess I thought it would be a piece of cake. Car is bad. Motion is bad.

For the first time it feels like pain. Deep, knock the breath out soreness. Stop the car you fucker let me get out and walk. Wait for it to pass, this universe expanding sensation of... how to you describe a contraction? The words we have are puny: "a tightening"..."a hardening".

As the uterus moves through a surge your whole consciousness turns inwards like a sock folding itself inside out, folding in on itself. Breathe, focus, visualise. Expand.

Walking into Genesis I pause to lean at the counter before politely explaining that I am in labour and Xoli is on her way. Being the experienced midwife she is, Xoli is of course not on her way, or not immediately anyway. She had said I must only call her when the contractions are a minute or two apart. I am early. Woess. And also, the beastly car ride has slowed things down considerably. For a minute I wonder if its all true. Maybe I'd just imagined it. Maybe I can go home and eat that cake.

Instead I submit to the kindly doula on duty, who shows me where to press on the inside of my calf to help dilate the cervix. Which is of course, what we are trying to do here. But when Xoli comes with her snappy rubber gloves I hear the impossible words, "you are not dilated at all. Maybe, like your sister, you will have a slow dilation and a long labour. It could be that it's genetic. You can stay here if you want, but perhaps you should rather go home and get some sleep. I'll check you again at about 2am."

I didn't want the car. Again. But did it. With many many stop and let me get outs. At home I lay on the futon with my new Blackberry in hand and tried to time contractions. And dozed off. There is a snaky list. It seems they were about three minutes apart, sometimes more, sometimes less. They lasted 30 seconds. Or 45 seconds. or 20 seconds. Never the same.

At 2 am (after another murderous drive) she says the same thing. At 6 am the same. How is it possible that after a full night of at least as many waves as Dungeons* gets on a gnarly Sunday I have NO DILATION AT ALL?

Walking down the 200m road from Genesis to Zoo lake at 6.30 am. Leaning up against the lamp posts for contractions while commuters start their day alongside us. I say to Xoli how many do you want between here and the end of the road? She says, three. Big slow surges that I breathe through. I don't know how long or how far apart. In between I talk to her. How does it work with Notmbi, your partner, do you take shifts or work at the same time? We do both she says. I feel badly calling her because you don't have a relationship with her. But I like her, I say. It would be fine if you called her. I know Xoli is tired. She didn't sleep after 2. Didn't go home again. I am concerned about her.

Call Ntombi, I say. Apparently I will be doing this all day.

All day. In retrospect, that night was a piece of cake.

*Dungeons is a surf spot in Cape Town

An intense feeling that requires your full attention

Exactly one year ago as I write this I was soaking in the bath, observing my body start to prepare for the long haul ahead. I didn't know quite what a long haul it was going to be. I was excited. The first heady endorphins were flushing through me. I had waited long enough, I thought. I wanted to drop the fat, heavy, wriggly pawpaw I had been heaving along inside me.

A week earlier, sitting in the garden with my husband's niece, we were fantasizing about dates. The gynae's prediction of the 10th of the 10th 2010 had a great ring to it, but that date had passed without event. My calculation was the 17th. But 20.10.2010 would have been nice and symmetrical too. she's a kinaesiologist. I'll muscle test him, she said. She went through the days... 'It's the 18th', she said. I smiled and remarked that he would come when he was ready.

But still, on the night of the 17th I had had enough. I made a hot fragrant curry. I put on Johnny Clegg maskandi tunes and wiggled til midnight, bringing some euphoria into my weary bones. Early the next morning the (look away squeamish readers) mucus plug announced itself, dull period pain ache in my pelvis, endorphins making me giddy. I remembered what my yoga teacher had said: get in the bath for exactly one hour. The water will either bring the contractions along nicely or ease them off if its a false alarm.

The other thing she said was to carbo-load. And get some rest. I made pasta. I sat in the garden and giggled, marveling at how glorious the light was, the sunshine, the glowing green grass, the perfect strawberries in the strawberry patch. I smsed my friends and told them the early stage of labour was just like a mild mushroom trip. I started to make a cake. An hour between each gentle contraction, my heart swelling with a strong feeling of preparedness. I can do this. I have done the hypno-birthing course. I have done my kundalini preggie yoga. My body knows what a minute of intensity feels like, from those exercises where you hold your arms up in the air without moving. I've practiced my breathing. I've done the rainbow meditations. I've done my perineal massage and my pelvic floor exercises. I've programmed my mind not to think of the contractions as pain, not to use the word pain at all. Its an intense feeling that requires your full attention. That's what it is. I can do this. I'm ready to have an intense but enjoyable, fully natural vaginal birth without induction and without meds. Aren't I? Sure I am. Now where was I? Oh yes, I was making a cake...

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Dancer in the Dark

Once upon a time there was a little girl who wanted to be a writer. She didn't know why she wanted to be a writer but her grandmother had written books and her grandfather had written books and she pretty much knew that this should be her thing too. She thought that books were cool. She read a lot of them. She thought that a book that had her name on it as the author was about cool as it could get.

Except there was something wrong with her wiring. Whenever there was an assignment that was called "Your own composition", or "Free writing" or even just "Open topic essay" she couldn't do it. Couldn't move the pen across the page. Couldn't make the noisy clamour in her head turn into black and white or blue and white or even green and white on the page.

If someone else wrote it, that was ok. So, she dictated to her mother what her account of the Game Viewing story should be like. Her mother wrote it, and that was ok.

She would wander the fields and the pathways between the mielies and stories sprung from her like those weird jumping beans that came in the post once. She couldn't say who it was who took up residence in her and borrowed her vocal chords, but voices chattered through her like weavers at a nest building convention. Her grandmother, the one who had written books, would say of her - "there she goes again, reading, without a book."

"The thing was," she remembered, years later, to her therapist, "as long as no-one was listening, it was fine. And as long as no one was going to read it, it was fine."

It got so bad, even then, that her letters, simple letters to relatives abroad, or letters home to parents, never got sent. Decades later, cleaning out her boxes of paper treasures, she would discover these little notes. Dear Mum and Dad, we are fine, send more pocket money. Or post cards, with a hippo's bum on the back. Dear Mutti and Vati, thank you for your parcel of sweets. We are fine. Yesterday an elephant got into the vegetable garden.

Years later, with Gmail, her drafts folder, always full. Her finger hesitating over the Send button, nausea clutching her throat.

At University, deadlines made her see white. White, white, and nothing but cold, expansive blank whiteness like a dizziness, like the heroines in the 19th century novels she used to read who fainted dead away. That kind of whiteness.

Of course things got handed in. Scrambled pieces of paper - Compositions. She even got FeedBack. And survived. Even quite liked it. Even though at night sometimes her face would heat up as she recalled what an embarrassingly bad metaphor she had chosen there.

When she first heard the phrase "publish or perish" she shuddered, but held firm with the knowledge that for her at least, the phrase was "publish and perish".

Meanwhile, her notebooks filled. Sometimes she wrote in the dark so she couldn't see what she was writing. She quite liked that.

And then, the theatre. She sort of fell into it, really. In the country where she was studying they had a proud tradition of what they called "Workshopped theatre". This meant that everyone had a go at it, scrapped over it, but then one person ended up doing most of the writing and then giving the credit back to everyone else. And the best ideas always got kind of diluted, bullied, led to the chopping block by the worst ideas, Judas goats of the democratic process. She kind of liked that.

Of course she had plays that she was sole author of. Plays written at computers equipped with the delete button. The cut and paste function. The Save As function. It got so bad, that one day she counted 18 versions of the same play. 18 drafts with significant but barely distinguishable differences.

And then there was blogging. By this time she had learned to play the publish-or-perish pendulum, grabbing the vine when it swung towards a to-hell-with-it confessional exhibitionism and learned to regret the metaphors later. When the vertigo got too much she just pressed Save instead. Save. Save. Save.

Save it til later.
Save my soul.
Well saved.
Saving grace
Save me one, will ya?
Saved to drafts.
I saved you one.
Save the last dance for me.
Saving all my love for you.
Save now.
For later.

Oh fuck it.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


“You must show him, sister! You mustn't take this nonsense from him!”
My sister and I look at each other and roll our eyes. Its going to be a long journey. The women behind us in the bus are irritating us. Loud relationship counselling. Laughter. We're trying to sleep. But Musa's not irritated. He leans across from his aisle seat and starts to chat and join in the advice free-for-all.
“Just make peace with him,” he says. “All relationships are difficult. Life is too short for fighting.”

They get chatting and ask him what he does.
“I have the best job in the world,” he says. “I'm an actor. I'm so lucky. I really really love my job.” His positivity is infectious, as always. We forgive the vocal girl with the big hair and the nasal vowels behind us. We remember: we are so, so, lucky.

Its already been a long journey. From Lusaka we meandered in a borrowed car. From Livingstone we crossed the bridge at dawn and left the borrowed car at the Vic Falls hotel. Then we took the train to Bulawayo. Musa was like a kid. He was so excited. Those cool wooden cabins with all the colonial trimmings still intact, and he pulled the light cord on and off, lowered the beds and raised them again a couple of times, opened and closed the doors, checked the running water in the little basin under the fold-out table. He was so stoked. It reminded me of when Miranda took his son George game viewing and George, standing up in the back of the Landrover with a huge grin on his face, said “Ninjoya”. I'm enjoying.

We're heading to Joburg. We'll overnight in Bulawayo and then take the bus, where the irritating girls will keep us awake into the night. Then we'll spend a few days in a weird little mining theme park in the Magaliesberg. The three of us and the rest of the Report-back Africa team: two actors from each SADC country, the Theatre for Africa core team and the community conservation people from Africa Resources Trust, from Zim.

In a few months time these people will be one big family to me, but for now I'm the new joiner. My sister and Musa have already been working together for two years, making plays in dusty villages, creating images and props from thin air, funny, cheeky, provocative plays about wildlife conservation and communities that must have their share of the tourism spoils. CBNRM rolls off their tongues along with all the other fancy acronyms – Community Based Natural Resource Management. Musa and Miranda are a joyful, effective, affectionate team. I'm enjoying this time with them. Ninjoya. I want to be part of their mojo. And soon I will be.

But now its August 2000 and I could do with some relationship counselling of my own, time is speeding up like the spin cycle in the washing machine. I don't really know what lies ahead but I know it's exciting and important and I have to do it, even though it means leaving my fracturing relationship behind me for now. Its just the start. In a couple of months I will be in a small Karoo town with this crazy crew, making masks from paper tape and mobiles with dangling forests, zebras and gemsbok. We'll take great delight in pissing off the conservative locals by going to their church, a motley mixture of dark skins, light skins and coffeemelt skins, holding hands in the street and embracing outside the corner store. Soon my head will be awash with images – how to translate thorny issues, acronyms and political rhetoric into visuals that will communicate the plight of dusty villagers to men in suits in governments.

I'm just entering the Theatre for Africa fold. For Musa, its been a journey that started in 1996 when he auditioned for them in Chipata for Guardians of Eden. He can play a baboon, a lion, a feminine village beauty or a chief, all with great aplomb. There's something about him. His eyes blaze on stage, his presence sucks you in. He's one of those actors, the one you watch in the chorus line. You want to know him. Be around him. People did. Be around him. He loved it. He knew. He was lucky, and loving it. And just never arrogant.

He plays the President in A Light in the Night of President Khaya Afrikha. I forget what I make him to wear. Probably something garish in blue velvet. It doesn't matter. His eyes carry that show, and his knotted eyebrows, which make him look like he's being a great and concerned leader. But really, it's because he's trying to remember all those damn lines.

Two years later I'm living in Cape Town and he and Miranda are back home, and we're doing a show for the WSSD over email. The World Summit on Sustainable Development. Joburg. I'm sending them bits of script, scene by scene, while they're in the bush, turning it into magic. They play their hearts out to an audience of technocrats from across the world. I remember that line, the one that made people cry:
“What am I then? Am I an indigenous persons also? I thought I was the poorest of the poor.” Again those blazing eyes. As he played a hapless villager who travels to the big city to take his message to the big shots of the world.

Musa. This is not an obituary. This will never do him justice. I need a whole book. He deserves a whole book.

Fast forward to March 2010 and I'm getting on a plane to Cape Town when my phone rings. Its Musa.
“Tammy? We're here at the airport in Lusaka but we're not booked on the plane to Joburg.”
“What? But Musa your connecting flight to Cape Town leaves this evening, what's going on?”
They are en route to perform at the Out the Box festival. I'm pregnant and stressed. It seems there was a miscommunication with the funders who were supposed to book our flights. Its always a struggle with the funders these days. Funders based in European countries who cannot possibly understand what a mammoth feat it is to find a working internet connection to send passport details for five actors who have to cross rivers on their bicycles and dodge elephants and travel a whole day just to apply for their passports.

Several phonecalls and borrowed credit cards later and they arrive in Cape Town with an hour to spare for their tech run. The motley Seka crew with their patched together props and too-long bamboo poles and overweight luggage bills that weren't a line-item in the budget. Actors who are mostly farmers these days anyway, who set audiences alight when they perform but can't get food on the table for their families. And dear Musa, whose humour punches its way past the stress, whose hugs are as warm as ever. Who so loves the Q and A after a show – telling schoolkids about life in Mfuwe (yes, there really are elephants, yes, traditionally we hunt for food, but these days there are laws forbidding it, yes we have to look after trees, trees give us so much.) Musa, in front of a crowd. Ninjoya.

Dear Musa, I'm sorry, in so many ways.

That you had to do so much damn admin when you should have been acting the stages of the world. Too much stress, lately. Too much stress and not enough fun. Fun was your nature, your kernel. I'm swamped by memory and emotion. It can't be true. It must be one of your tricks.