Friday, August 29, 2008

dancing emptiness

I've always been fascinated by Butoh. As a student I thrilled to those images of Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, their bodies powdered and bent, chanelling the spirit of a dying flower, a breeze tremor or an ageing old woman grasping faded memories. I adored the scary nihilism of some of Sankai Juko's work. They struck a minor chord in me that I found hard to resist.

Part of its mystery I suppose, was that fact that it was so completely inaccessible -I mean, who would ever get a chance to meet a real live Butoh performer in little old Grahamstown? The best we could hope for was to read about it, in dog-eared art and dance journals in the university library. To scavenge for images on the internet. And make up what we thought it meant. For us. For me, it had the appeal of being so unlike any of the 'dance' stuff that my drama department was obsessed with. I mean, this was the home of the First Physical Theatre Company and its host of pretentious twats who loved throwing themselves at each other, at the floor, at the walls, and then sitting on the drama steps comparing bruises, slurping down energade and talking about the vocabulary of physical theatre and how pedestrian were those with fewer bruises. Ooooh, I loathed that weekly movement class. My and all five of my left feet. Me the uncoordinated lass who preferred to live in the airy but active space between her temples. Whose body always seemed a little left behind. (Yes, I often have to stop at streetcorners, sigh patiently, hurryup, catch up... my body a lagging reluctant child. Or is the body stopping waiting for the errant mind to wind her way back... ah, I've got better at this in recent years, but its a lifelong lesson.)

For me, Butoh had all the promise of an awkward poetry, of finding your own clumsy vocabulary, and delving into the dark recesses of unconscious mind. Emptying the body. Creating deep stillness, so that from there you may investigate the universe in all its strange forms and invite your body to converse with those forms in a silent way. Squelching into the grotesque, the 'darkness' within that Hijikata so honoured. Hollowing out the joints to create crevices in the body for mysterious essences to creep into.

Of course I never found it. Instead I had to drown in the deep end of progressions and extensions or gumboot baffling rhythms in my weekly torture sessions. I who never had the option of a ballet class in my grass walled bush classroom. Who somehow missed the clapping games that little girls get to play with each other. My hand eye coordination skills extended to turning the page of a book. Ah well.

So last weekend an extraordinary gift came my way. A visiting Butoh practitioner from the Su-En school in Sweden. A distilled performance on Friday night that defies words. She danced the dance of the ostrich. How can I describe it? A scrawny, lost being that is learning to walk. A dark earthsong, naked white and strangled on the floor. A slow contracted spiral, never graceful in the sense we may expect of 'dance' and yet utterly poetic.

I wasn't going to do the workshop. After three weeks away I thought it would be too thin an ice sheet to tread, relationship-wise. Imagine my suprise when he suggested it - but why not, it'll be good for you, might help with your writing. But, er - won't you - what about - I mean its the whole weekend! That's ok. Do it. Be good for you.

So I dragged my porridgy winterbottom to class on Saturday morning. A Movement Room, oh my body reacts instantly, expecting to hang out in the back row, sheepish clumsy, wheezing... except its on the 9th floor and there's a spectacular view of Jozi, mine dumps and jittery skyline.

But no, it certainly wasn't a picnic. Whatever my romantic projections about the art form, its still dance. The site of creation is in joints and muscles. To create that emptiness they speak of you have to retrain your body - gravity lines that hold you up but are cut at the hips, the knees. You walk on bended knees, low gravity, weight in the back of your body. and you walk. and you walk. and walk. and you sweat and dizziness fills where the tension fights with poisons fights with holding patterns in back, shoulders. wrenched ankle of weeks ago screams at you from the floor. calves hum, thighs sag and flab and mind doesn't want to play.

But then theres her still voice floating towards you. 'eyes are windows. the body is erased. eyes are erased. the body is small the world is big. the world is looking through the body the body doesn't see.'

Somehow, somehow, you find this in you. the cavities that crowd with daily nonsense do empty out. the mind does quieten. the eyes do become windows. and thirty seconds of this an hour is well worth it. somehow.

I did a slow walk once. twice, actually. With James (who was also there for the workshop). And Leonard, the good doctor. We walked down High Street during the swarming heaving bustle of the 2006 National Arts Festival. This usually takes about 7 minutes, if you stroll from Drostdy Arch to the Cathedral. It took us 3 hours. Slowing your blood to the pace of a tired snail. Teaching your bones to unfold as your consciousness swims, flails, then opens up to a karoo-like vastness. And the world is still there and people say such curious things. You see the pavement as you have never seen it, its maplike scrawls, its skinlike pores. You love the pavement, as it swims up to meet you and then you are not anymore. you are the pavement, past the pavement. the breath of the person next to you, tuned to your rhythm. something as transient as a cigarette smoke curl can take an eternity to infuse your nostrils, dissolve, go back to air as you step into, through and past it. And soon this feels like the normal, the required pace of existence. You cannot comprehend why the world around you is tearing at time in this frantic grasping way. And then you don't comprehend, or need to. You just exhale. And then it hurts and your blood clogs and your hands are heavy and you can't do it for a minute longer. and then you do. and the pavement, again. and the soft noise of everyone's busyness.

So we did one of these walks on Sunday, all 20 odd of us in the workshop, in line not looking down or up just sensing the change in pace and keeping same distance between us and walking backward and knowing when. and hurting, the muscles fighting, thighs cross and ankle belligerent, cursing. To the confusion of passers by on the wits campus, who probably, as they did at rhodes, just muttered to themselves "oh, drama students" as the catch all explanation.

Oh there was more - pain and delight both. I loved the faces - the wicked child (curved closed smile, tip of tongue points out, eyes look up and cross over....ha. made you do it.) I loved the 'conditions' that you learn - investigations into the state of isness of, for example, an onion segment, always in the process of becoming. My body fought me almost every step of the way. But I take away that voice of hers. 'eyes are windows. body is erased'.

I don't think I'll ever be a butoh dancer, not for audience. But i do like that i had the chance to empty this seething brain for a few brief expansive glimmers. And really, you should try that walk sometime. Its quite a thing.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The pied piper of ghosts

A quiet little miracle happened on the 5th of august. No one saw it.

The meeting in Blantyre finishes early. I phone the driver to collect me, but a solemn voice in the phone says 'your credit is low. please load talk time.' So I walk up the road to find talk time. This road, so familiar, so embedded in my cellular memory. At first, I'm walking towards the petrol station on Chileka road. The one opposite Brereton drive, which leads towards my old school. But I find a lady selling talk time at the side of the road. We exchange greetings, then names, then stories, as one does in Malawi, with complete strangers. I have talk time now. I should phone the driver to fetch me, meet with the photographer, plan our next move. Have coffee. But some spirit has taken over my legs. My legs are remembering being 16 years old, fuelled by a saturday morning trip to town, returning to the hostel.

Now-self, responsible and anxious about the workload: Er, excuse me where are you going, we have work to do.
Other self, urgent and striding. Shhh. This is important. I have something important to do. We have time. Its at least 3 hours til your next meeting. No-one will miss you.
Now-self: yes but
That self: Shhh. Just let me do this.
Now-self: Can't you just let it be? It won't be the same. Just let the memories be memories. Don't -
Shaddup, says the other me. Just shhush.
Noisy head sushes. Looks at my feet. My dusty black shoes that look like school shoes. How many times did we walk this, me and my girls, long legs, short legs, lazy legs, slow with the heat of the tarmac, pregant with ambition, all of us. The dried brown stumps of grass clinging to the grey dust. The old red brick of the Blantyre mission to the left. The battered black sign with white writing, probably been there since the 70's. Its a curious kind of meditation now, and I let myself be there, taking it all in. The tyre repair man on the side of the road with the sign saying 'Plumbing. Funsa pano'. I am here. But I am also there. 18 years ago when I last walked this stretch of road. I know the petrol station that will appear on top of the rise is not an Oilcom anymore its a Petroda. But the majestic old Anglican cathedral where we used to take the shortcut, past the cemetery filled with long dead Scots, is still the same.

Ego-head is complaining again - 'this is silly. its indulgent.' Shush. My legs are powered by something else, following the well worn grooves in the dust. I have to do this. What? What is it you have to do? I have to go and get something. Retrieve. Someone.

The sign is the same flat smug blue it ever was, except now it says Saint Andrews International School, instead of Secondary School. Too late now. You can't turn back now theres the old staff houses didn't I spend a night there with some family after it happened? Images are downloading slowly, foggily, but theres a welling up of something very ancient and familiar in my chest, my blood. Its dread.

The gates smack me with that dry throat feeling. I'm not going to go in. Just peer in from the outside, thats all. That's enough. I tell the guard - I'm just - goiung to look. Sure. He doesn't care. I go in. There's the library, the history block. New labels - modern languages. Aint that fancy. Aah, the parking lot, where I first arrived with nervous family in the rattly old short wheel based landcruiser, all awkward in my blue checks at 12 years old, terror nesting in my belly where my parents can't see it. I'm going to walk boldly towards the main entrance like I did the day I came back to write my A-levels, defiant and with something to prove. But I see someone walking down from the boys hostel and I panic, take a short right down, past the maths block, ducking down the stairs to the field.

Empty field. The school is deserted, of course, it's holidays. But my ears are full of clamour and I see little scrawny legs in yellow tshirts doing the hurdles, the faded limewashed stripes powdery on the dried winter grass. I hear war cries. I see me and Foy, sitting on a concrete bench, sharing gossip and advice and tender friendship. My heart is literally thudding in my ears. I take a deep breath and talk to her - 'its ok. its ok, i'm here. you will never need to be an athlete. you will never need to play good tennis. it will be fine. i know its horrible now, its humiliating. they tease you. you're crap at hockey. but it really doesn't matter.
I could swear she's listening. That terrified 13 yr old who 'had her period' 3 out of 4 weeks a month, just to get out of swimming.

Suddenly I am calm. I realise just how deserted the grounds are, and that's ok, this is right. This is what I came to do.

I'm walking next to her. It's the strangest sensation. I'm comforting her. Not the ghost of her, the actual her. I've called her back to me. The girl who used to hide at the bottom of the guava trees by the cross country course. She who had to stay behind and prove something. That she was a good girl.

Times slides into itself, turns inside out.
For a brief glimpse,
for a long stretch,

I am her.
I feel it in the itchy awkwardness of my growing dangly arms. In the tight terror in my chest, the what will they think of me sweaty palms. But as I walk, past the changing room steps and the tennis courts towards the scout hut, I am suddenly comforted. I am dimly aware of a presence at my right shoulder. An older, wiser, calmer presence. Like a big sister or an angel, whispering to me that it will be ok, reminding me that i have a bigger, longer life than all of this.

The swimming pool, where battles were lost and won, where hearts blossomed with pride, and one very cheeky night we went skinny dipping with boys.

Spooled out, split off, merged, we are side by side. Its real magic. Not Harry Potter.

Past the 6th form common room, to the bottom field, where I would take solace by the white limbed bluegums. They are taller, more solid, but they speak the same whispering clacketty language. I see her lying on her back, listening to Bruce Springsteen on her yellow walkman. That year, when all the tuckshop gang friends had flown the happy crowd and gone to other schools, other lives.

Backtrack, back past the pool where Tom knocked out his tooth and won the Victor Lodorum for swimming and I realised too late I wanted to still be his girl. Back up the steps, and now the real confrontation. The hostels. I peer into the dining room, site of grey meals and jostline hungry boys. Gulp,over the threshold, past the surgery where you got the sick note for sports. Through the common room, the phone that brought crackly moments of home. Vipya dorm, Zomba dorm.

The lockers, where I got the news, late at night. "They've done a spot check, they found your bed empty, you have to go and see Mr Garbett NOW."
First Offence, the time the gate padlock was left open and we leapt out of the room in the boys hostel where we were doing homework (Serious! We were doing homework. Ok, so we had gin as well, but we were, we were sharing books...)

What fun to discover that Nina's room key at home could open the front door of the hostel. Key MC9 or some such secret number of freedom.

The hostel is too much for me. My throat closes with oppression, with the sticky smell of 200 girls living in close confinement, the fights, the bitchiness. I am heading towards my old room, but I hear someone around the corner and I turn to go. I don't want to see anyone. I am a ghost, operating through the folds of time, I can't converse. I don't go to the bottom dorm, the first dorm, where I wet my bed and spent nights trying to turn the sheets around so that they wouldn't be spotted inmorning inspection. Or the flat next door, where the Second Offence took place. Where Tom and I sat up til dawn, resolving our old hurts before he took off for Holland the next day, Expelled.

Aaah, they were picking us off one by one by then.

But I do go to the Art Block. Scene of the Third and Final Offence. Where I was courier of a small half jack of brandy, purchased by someone in the Art class the day of the Zomba field trip. Handed over to one of the Tuckshop Gang, discreetly, but not discreetly enough. I peer in.

Ghost in the window.

I stand very still and call them back to me. The fragments of old me, torn off and floating round the corridors. I am the Pied Piper to my ghost selves. They have flocked around me and are following me now, out the gates, down the road, towards the rest of my life.

Postscript - please don't misconstrue - reading this post may give you the impression that I was permanently sad, lost and abandoned at school. Not true. We had wild joyful times. We had keys, we had accomplices, we had volumes of fun. I had to leave suddenly, prematurely, and so this little bit of soul retrieval was entirely necessary. I am so very glad I went to this crazy, co-ed, multinational, rollicking school of mischief, and that of all the friendships I formed there, some are still alive, some are dormant, some recently reawakened.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Bottling time and space

Er, I am here to work, I promise.

As the Air Malawi flight started to sink down towards Jozi town I closed my eyes and tried to seal in the sights, sounds, smells and voices that I've gathered around me the last three weeks. A slight sense of panic. I've been plugged in to a massive, organically shifting reality. The slipstream of meetings and interviews, the images streaking past the fastmoving glass of the big white 4x4.

Rushed meetings: with technocrats speaking about their 'upstream' efforts to help Malawi meet the Millenium Development Goals. 'Upstream' means the stuff they do with government: a lot of meetings, a lot of documents, policy papers, positioning statements, draft bills, roadmaps for change. 'Downstream' means the stuff they do at, yes you got it - grassroots level. The actual projects, that may or may not put food in bowls, drugs in bodies and water on soil. The technocrats I speak to are fluent in their use of TLA's (three letter acronyms). They say 'there's a document you should look at - I'll share it with you..' I protest faintly 'soft copy, soft copy,' I moan, and show them my creaking backpack and hand over my flashdisc for a swift transfer of graphs, pie charts, and turgid narratives studded with capital letters.
Rushed interviews: hello, this is us and this is what we want and oh can we take a few photos? Your name again? Your story? This project helping you? Excellent. Sorry, gotta go, people at the next project waiting for us. Cheerio. And we seal ourselves up into our airconditioning and burn a few more litres of fossil fuel to get to the next one where the patient, well schooled beneficiaries await us with their songs and handclaps.
Rushed pictures: F the french fotoman glowers in the car, as we use his best morning hours to get to the project. He watches ze light bloom and ripen and spoil. By the time we arrive its all harsh light on dark skin... terrible, terrible, he mutters and grumps his way through the morning, throwaway gestures accompanied by lots of "pffff". We wish we had whole days, weeks, to really soak it in, talk to people, move with them as they do their chores. Alas, its click and go, and by the time ze light has matured into something delicious again we are on our way back. Its the rules.

As the plane dips I utter some silent spells, to try and keep it all in. There hasn't been time to write up my brimming notes. The voice recorder I brought with has failed me somehow, and the memory on the phone is full. I fear my brain is also faulty, clogged up with too much jargon. I whisper a protective spell, to keep out the assaulting montage of Joburg clutter that I know will penetrate, and I fear will displace it all. Silly. I must trust the process I've been through. The fact that while I was there I just focused on mindful listening, on being present in my shoes and my breath. That should be enough. What is worthwhile will float to the surface. Or sink to the bottom, whichever way you wanna spin the metaphor.

When I get home, to all the delights that home wraps around me, I am so grateful to myself that I tidied my desk before I left. And on my noticeboard, the great words of Rilke transcend it all:

"What birds plunge through is not the intimate space
in which you see all forms intensified
(Out in the Open, you would be denied
your self, would disappear into that vastness)

Space reaches from us and construes the world:
To know a tree, in its true element,
throw inner space around it, from that pure
abundance in you. Surround it with restraint.
It has no limits. Not til it is held
in your renouncing is it truly there."
- Rainer Maria Rilke.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The first rant

The thing is, you see.
(There was a history lecturer at Rhodes who always prefaced a long opinion blast session with that -
The thing is, you see. The thing is...
They've hired me, right. They've seen my CV. They've seen I am experienced in something called Research, a process whereby (as I understand it) one tries to find out As Much as One Can by talking to As Many People as Possible. Where you've done the reading and the desk stuff Before you go into THE FIELD. And when you are in the Field ( oh how lush and abundant it is, that field) you try to get something called Human Interest Stories, or The Picture On the Ground (of the Field). We could even say that the Picture on the Ground (or, POG) is something that can only really happen once you have the Big Picture, which you got from the Desk Review. Of the Literature.

Now strictly speaking I haven't been hired to do research. I've been hired to write. And writers, of course, are born with a special osmotic gland near their brain which acts as a usb port to and from the world, we naturally absorb all the pictures and ideas in the clients head and are able to transmit them immediately into words, all in the right sequence and looking pretty and describing Reality, not only as it Is but also as it Is According to The Client. er... Not.

The thing is, you see, that we were presented with a completely full schedule and a driver on day one. Er, wait, that makes it sound like it was organised. We were presented with a schedule that has been through many shuffles and paper incarnations and about 4 different drivers per day for the first week as the schedule mutated and different agencies tried to catch up with the mercurial communications lass whose mind does machine gun fire and who changes her mind more times in one sentence than my dad. True. Never thought it possible, but true. And a full schedule all mapped out is one thing, if its been deeply worked through, thought through and all the relevant parties engaged in decision process well before The Consultants get there. If its a case of "we don't really know what we want - you tell us" then, well then we need more time and we need to kind of know that up front. So what we have is 3 different people's ideas of what they want, the communications lass whose holding it all very close to her chest and not giving us a moment to say - oh, that looks interesting, could we perhaps fit that in tomorrow? It seems there is only one person who is allowed to change the schedule and thats Miss Rapid Fire Comms lady.

Luckily we have a very great driver who, although a little tending towards the speedy approach to road holding, (sorry mom), is a critical thinker and interested in all things pertaining to how things Should Be Done. (everyone has their take on it, of course.) So we discuss important things in the car. Like projects where money is handed out to OVCs (yes, they actually have an acronym for "orphans and vulnerable children.") or households where, say an aunt or granny is looking after lots of orphans. A bit of cash is provided, for they are Very Poor. A bit of money helps to lift them out of that cycle, get some basics so the kids can go to school and won't be seen as a burden and made to do all the hard labour, etc, you get the picture. And yet, and yet. Of course there are families who suddenly have ten orphans under their roof, especially when the big white cars pull into the village. But after a while if you talk to the neighbours they say, no she's not really looking after all those kids. No, they're not orphans. And so we come back to the issue of Research.

And the thing is, you see, we are being whisked from project to showcase project, greeted with song and dance, interview a couple of kids or mothers or grannies or teachers, who all seem very well rehearsed "oh this project has helped us a lot. before we were like this now we are like this." In one case, the whole bloody village is arranged in their little teams in front of little stations (these guys have done this a lot) and when you try to have a sensitive chat to the 17 year old girls about whether or not they really feel they can insist on condoms, her bloody chief is standing right there, and of course she's not going to tell me anything other than what's on her script. To see how its properly done, read about seka's work.
Oh dear. Must I, too, just be a take the money and run kind of writer researcher?
That's what the driver says I must do. And the photographer.

But the thing is, you see...

Friday, August 8, 2008

I've seen ten thousand smiles on the faces of children

I've listened to stories and I've kept them inside me

I shook hands with the chief and I smiled at his daughter

I've seen ladies carry buckets that are heavy with water

I've seen glowing green crops in the middle of winter

I've seen a sad mountain, no trees standing on it

And its a hard
and its hard rain that might fall. Then again it might not. Or it'll come early, but it'll stop before its meant to. Long before.

I'm not Bob Dylan, and they're not Al Gore, but farmers in Malawi know about climate change. They know better than most of us. What must it mean to watch your crop shrivel in the sun, to lose two solid months of rainfall just at that critical time when its supposed to be turning into food. Food for the whole year. All that hard work, hoeing, planting, weeding, turning into husk in the sun.

So there are small scale irrigation projects, where stream water is diverted to a big piece of land that belongs to one lot of people in the usual planting season and another lot of people in the winter, who will get two crops out of it before the rains come. Hardworking women with arm muscles I will never have. And fishfarms and goat breeding swaps and poultry. All designed to tighten food security coz on top of Malawi's most famous poverty is the added thing of the climates she's a changing.

"Yes, we have noticed this. Last year, heavy rain. Early rain. Then it stops."
In Neno, the last rainday was 28 january. Its supposed to end at least end of march. "Yes, we have noticed. The lake used to be here, now its gone back to here."
Do they know why this is happening?
They stare at me. What kind of a dumb weirdass question is that? Only God knows that.

So there's something called conservation agriculture. Sorry, that should be Conservation Agriculture. An energetic government extension worker explains it with great splashings of enthusiasm, while a group of women work on a demonstration field. You make contour ridges on last years field and instead of burning the old residue you work it into the soil, and then make little 'box ridges' the other way so that water stays in small pockets and sinks deep in. You don't weed, but put down some kind of herbicide which kills the weeds and you just dig them in. You plant. You don't weed. Next season you won't till at all but plant on the ridges just as they are. Its low on labour and people have been getting very good yields from this. The women who have tried it are very happy, and say they have much more spare time now so they can work on winter crops elsewhere instead of doing all that weeding and tilling. And the herbicide? Its fine, says the FAO extension worker. Its made by Monsanto, and they do lot of research. They say its harmless. Okaaaaaayy.

I learned a cunning new compost trick tho - a clay sealed mound. This one I will definitely try at home. Well, ze light wasn't so great that day either, but the songs were good, and F got great shots of women digging out a fishpond, showing off big time for the camera. I am getting a great collection of pictures of the photographer taking pictures of, well, everything. I'm really not one. A photographer, that is. And uploading them on the phone connection chews "maunits" as talk time is called here. So they'll come later.

And yes, we did also see beautiful glowing winter crops of maize, cabbage, beans...
Cunning irrigation plans of various kinds. A clever system for a sack garden - multi veg patch in a mielie meal sack.

And everywhere, bricks being burnt. The length and breadth of the country. All these projects have some kind of aspect where The Community must do part of it, usually - burn the bricks. With wood from where? From the hills around. But no alternative fuel sources being figured. Something is wrong with this picture.

My head is full of stories. I am a pot, brimful, anxious lest I spill some before getting it all down. I am a sponge, heavy and dripping. I need to exhale but haven't yet found the right container to squeeze it all into. Some drops here, at least, for now.

By the way, postscript - are you familiar with the real hard rain project? The guy who collected an image for every line of the song? Quite hardcore to absorb but (I think) a beautiful project. Someone who refuses to look away.

So tired, and another 7 days to go.
Ndifuna kugona manje.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Mangochi to Monkey Bay

On the 6th day we wake in Mangochi. At Club Mak no less, the overpriced option. Yvonne ChakaChaka is in town distributing mosquito nets and they've booked us here because they say the rest is full. Frustratingly, so is Norman Carr Cottage, and we were left transportless the night before so no chance to visit the beachhouse where I spent so many weekends in my yoof.

I'm not rested when I wake. Crusty and creaky joints from sitting too long in the car. Leave it to the very last minute before I winch myself out of bed almost destroying the mosquito net in the process. As I brush teeth I realise: It is not possible to go into this day without washing this hair. Damn damn I'm late again. As usual photoman F has been up for a couple hours, pacing, keeping an eye on ze light. He reminisces cheerfully as I scald my tongue on the coffee and slurp down some yoghurt. Ze light is, as usual, on its way to becoming too bright already. We must move. We move.

Into a day that is in fact suddenly very overcast. (Ze light is terrible). But the day is plump with all sorts of delights for me. A rabble of crazy children in a Community Based Childcare Centre (a CBCC, of course) who, tho it is holidays, are asked to come in for the photo op and sit in their corners and play with their stuff. They mob F, chanting at him and whooping at him and chasing him with their toys round and round a tiny dark room. "This is my dolli! This is my bisikoh! This is my dolli!" He walks backwards, faster and faster with his camera in the heart of the rowdy mass. I laugh so hard I forget to video it. These are kids being kids and its unbridled and fantastic. Too often you see solemn children in the villages - 7year olds tasked with looking after babies and chores. These ones were truly wild and it was great.

The counterpoint - the next project we went to, a community radio station in Monkey Bay, where we gathered in solemn prayer before being given a serious tour around the oneroom station. And then on to the women's listening clubs. The idea is that Dzimwe radio provides women's clubs with a radio and a tape recorder. They gather to listen to programmes on health and childcare, discuss, share concerns and then record a programme of their own, bracketed by songs they've made especially. This programme will then be aired on the same station. It was awesome. I loathe the word empowered or empowering, but these women had things seriously in hand. They are gonna change their world, one self-diagnosed TB patient at a time.

And then traveling back. An unbundling of long stored images trying to cross match with the flicker of car window scenes in front of me. I know this road in my dna but theres so much change too. From Mangochi to Monkey Bay, burgeoning development, new brick kilns every couple of hundred metres. I saw 3 baobabs on their sides, roots chopped. Felled? Surely just fallen over in the sandy soil. Surely? And roots chopped later. Something slightly shocking about a baobab lying down. Always so aloof and towering, now they suddenly seem vulnerable in the bustle of building and business all around.

And this outline of hills in the curve of the bay. How imprinted on my mind it is. I used to imagine they were made of bluegrey glass, the way you seem to peer through one layer at the one inside, which is really in front. Bluegrey hills of my youth and childhood and babyhood. I sit very still on the beach, watching the fishermen set off for the night. As a teenager I used to feel bored and closed in here. Now I reeeaaallly appreciate the stillness. I must be getting old.

As I write that, a posse of Chinese men in smart shoes and socks and jackets walk down the beach. One tries to chat me up. Asks if I am a student. I laugh. No. You rook vely young he stammers. And plitty.

Aah. cheers mate.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Friday, August 1, 2008

hippo hiatus

Well I do think I've earned this one. A brief hiatus - stranded on the Shire river while the fragmented nations send transport to us. F is downloading pics, I'm taking pics of the marvels of the Hippo Lodge decor schemes, which have come a long way since the days when we used to stop here for a thirsty coke on school trips. Gin and tonic and hippo chorus, and the connection through my phone working just fine. Sigh. Perfect.

Since yesterday my 20cm high reading pile has doubled, but no chance to read it except late at night after interviews and meetings all day. But I'm slowly figuring out what questions to ask and closer to figuring out how a few clashing expectations might be merged. There was a meeting on Wednesday between one disgruntled German fellow who clearly felt he hadn't been included enough in the communications process, and the person 'owning' the project - a communications person. Evidently a history of encrusted resentment between the two of them - tension on the verge of igniting. I thought we might have to call the Security Council. But we are back on track and the schedule, which changed at least 6 times (as in, brand new draft) this week has settled into something workable, tho the German is convinced we're looking at all the wrong things. ANywaaayy... on the road at last and out of the maze of the "UN As One" Lilongwe meetings.

This morning we went to the old refugee camp near Mwanza, the one which was started during the Mozambique war, then occupied by about 10 000 Rwandan and Burundian refugees who were moved wholescale to the camp near Lilongwe, apparently because there was this problem of transient Somalian and Ethiopian folk who use it as a stopover on their meanderings through to Mozambique, South Africa and back again. We met a handful of them at the Dzaleka camp on Tuesday. Wild boys with manic eyes from lots of khat and very delighted at the sight of me. So many stories, and sadly my camera that day was flat so couldn't capture the atmosphere of that place but it was uplifting, sad, chaotic, orderly and somehow really inspiring. I'll come back to this, coz I'm feeling more and more kinship with the subject of the stateless, the lost, the wondering or the trapped in one place. I think its going to become more and more of an issue in this region, sadly.

But here I am. Isn't that a jolly fine hippo and a marvel of a fisheagle and fish water handwashing fountain? Not to mention the glorious double sink in the dining room and the pink shiny table piece.

I hope you'll be content with these random postcards for now. There is much to say, and it will come, but for now I'm grappling with how to do a coffee table book on the UN for the UN in less than 35 days.

Bollocks. The connection is proving toooo slow to upload pics. So until I do - be advised that I am sitting in the splendour of Hippo Lodge, with painted concrete near life size hippo yawning in front of colonnade of fake graeco-roman pillars. Swooping concrete fish eage with fish in mouth is a REAL water handwashing bowl. And as the sun sets, the fountains come on, and the lights surrounding the fountain change from green, to red, to purple, and yellow. BEautifully captured in the sparkly water. Will persist with pics. And ginantonic. Cheers.