Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Yesterday I was a cesspool of stuck energy and unproductivity. Sometimes the freelance lifestyle leaves you feeling cut off from people. All alone at your desk in your thoughts in your head. It wasn't that, though. Sometimes its easy to get too wrapped up in other things and to neglect being at your desk. Sometimes you crave the time alone, just being able to shut the door on the world. We've been doing some light renovations. Turning a grotty outside room into a yoga room/meditation room/gym room, depending on who you are in the house and what you think the space will be perfect for. I've been dealing with builders (well, to be fair, only one very talented easy to be around guy from Natal called Senzo), hardware store visits and the pitfalls of designing by committee. My partner and I share a house with a friend. There's a reason why playwrights favour a cast of three - more chance for triangulation, and draaamaaaa....

Anywaayyy, I needed a walk. One of the things I don't like about Joburg is the fact that its not entirely a good idea for a girl to walk on her own, and I need my walks. I come from a long line of walkers. they say its not safe. Not that I've ever been in trouble. I'm a lert, I've got a nose for danger.

I like my neighbourhood. Only been here a year. Two blocks down is Louis Botha, home to lots of Congolese, Nigerian and Zimbabwean small business owners. I love the vibe. And yes, we do hear gunshots on a Friday night quite regularly. Well, the last two days were Diwali fireworks. Two blocks in the other direction is old money and linksfield ridge, established homes with big trees. It's a neighbourhood in transition. I love it.

I don't know any better mental health maintenance system than walking. Unless maybe writing. I come from a long line of walkers. When the oil runs out we'll be ok, me and mine. We got good legs.

Kallenbach drive takes you up suddenly, a gasping thigh stretch. I have to do this, and alone. its that or eat live boyfriend for dinner. my patience is stretched tighter than a piece of legen* on a charcoal carrier's bicycle. I need to stomp. and swear.

Kallenbach drive takes you past Spanish style villas built on old Joburg mining money. Whitewashed turrets and red tiles next to the steel and glass of the late 70s mansions behind their gliding gates. It lifts you up and out of rush hour traffic faster than a cable car. And my, but Joburg is looking resplendant, the old tart. She's like an old drag queen with a new lease of life. Three soaking rains have cleared the air of pollution and standing on top of the ridge you can see all the way to the double penises of Sandton. Look out over clotted Jacaranda and hot blushes of bouganvillia. Gone is the highveld beige, mauve is in and its all foamy and delicious, puffed sleeves nogal, on the greenlined streets. The air is thick with the mating scents of flowers and birds are delirious.

Needless to say, my mood clears like carbon monoxide on a wiff of jasmine breeze.

I'll not be chatting much here in the next wee while as my computer has been making some alarming distress signals and its going to the doctor.

Thanks all of you for your sweet kind comments and feedback. It really means a lot.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Postcards across the veil

The veil is thin right now, says the wise Reya. So that's why my dreams are populated with people who have passed over. My grandfather last night, totally himself, with all his wit intact, his gurgly chuckles. Only thing strange was he was lying down in bed, which is not how I remember him, although I suppose it is how I last saw him. He was in that house I've dreamed about before - a double story with a huge pine tree outside and leaded windows, high up in that funny little attic room with a window seat. The house that, last time I dreamed of it, was stuffed full of treasures that my grandmother had left, spiling out of empty suitcases. In the dream I had to cross a river, just shallow enough to wade. There were wooden nyau masks in the long grass on the riverbank, empty eyed, but hanging there, chaperoning us across. When I got to the other side I had a vantage point and saw there was a flashflood coming. Torrents of huge angry waters barrelling towards us. I had to get us back, back to the other side before the waters came, or we would be stranded, on the wrong side. When I woke, I was sure that the river was about crossing over, to where the others are.

And its a year since dear Kevin didn't wake up.
And Teelo.

And still, I see C/Karl, all the time. And this is my letter to him.



Its years later and I still miss you. I often see your face, momentarily edited over the head of a passing stranger.

I remember, at Varsity. I met you during orientation week, noticed you immediately. Would have had a crush on you immediately, except it was more than that. It was never going to be That. Your blonde hair, the shock of your eyes, how they probed and concealed at the same time. Your slightly wounded artist look. I wouldn't know how wounded until much, much later.

Billie and I, we were best mates and went everywhere together, first and second year. We ran into you that one night on Beaufort street, you seemed as hunted as the wind that was chasing litter down towards the cathedral. We spent that evening with you – weird and magical, in your sparse little room, where was it, near Cross street? That bare floor, single chair. You were never much into possessions. That evening still haunts me, why? Only one of many otherworldly Grahamstown nights, but something stays with me still. Your eyes. All that was not said.

Years later, your bookshelf still amazed me. Your small collection of books that signalled how very very clever you were. To read them at all, much less understand them. But we knew that. Your thoughts were much too big for your head, my friend.

At my dad's place once, when I was waitressing at the Russian Tea House with Thandi and we were all a little wild. But I fought with you when you came to the house crazy eyed, opening and shutting the fridge, looking for sugar. You'd been in Hillbrow, and I got so mad. Didn't want that, knew then already it seemed so irreversable. Didn't understand.

You wanted me to. You never asked me to do what you were doing, but you wanted me to understand. So I went with you, to a bar in Hillbrow, where lost souls congregate. I wasn't frightened. It wasn't like that. I was sad. I remember the Nigerian guy who sold to you. His kind eyes, his concern. His love. I remember the very trashed white boy, stranded from the suburbs, he looked so close to death, slumped in the doorway like that.

We went to the toilets. Peach coloured walls and concrete floors, but not filthy. It wasn't like that. And the white smoke curled around your heads and you offered but didn't mind that I said no thanks.

You battled for years. Crack. Welkinol. Pinks. You went to that dreadful place that calls itself a rehab. Noupoort. Christian ubermorality, shame and guilt. Breeding house for suicides and back-on-the-wagon-as-soon-as-I'm-out-of-here derelicts. Was it a rumour, that you worked at a vet so you could swipe the ketamine? Or was that one of your jokes?

Beautiful c/karl. The way you spelt your name redolent of your ambivalence, your humour, your wanting it all. But also – the way you say it aloud. Not a stutter, but see karl. An instruction. An invitation. Did we, any of us?

I remember, in that flat on Buckingham avenue, how you started to loosen the strings holding you here, giving away what little you still owned. I lay next to you on the bed, you just wanted someone there. You couldn't say what you wanted. You gave me the little Scheherezade badge that I still wear. You gave me those two stories you had written. I said I'd do something with them. I still haven't. I held your body, so skinny, already detached, orbiting. I still didn't understand. You had glimpsed something else by then. Another way to be, or to go. I wanted to plant your feet in soil.

Long time later, Thandi told me some of your demons. I wonder why you couldn't speak to me? Now I get it, a little. How sometimes there's just too much pain and confusion too early – we get hardwired with so much pain. How the child doesn't know how to unravel this and it gets pounded down like the way they ram the earth when they build foundations. It just fuses into your psyche. If you add psycho active substances into that, I guess the path can just open up the way it did for you.

Lots of years passed before I got the news that had been sleeping in my heart. A few days before the millenium, Thandi phones me in Luangwa. On the crackly Kapani phone she tells me. Carl is dead from an overdose. I didn't feel much at the time. You and I, we'd said our goodbyes, I guess. I'd hardened part of myself to that.

But I often see your face. I blink – and it's a stranger. Are you restless, c/karl? Or is it I who has unfinished business? Those stories of yours. What shall I do with them?

I miss you. I'm having a marvellous time. I wish you were here.

Friday, October 17, 2008


I'm on a ten-day fast. More of a cleanse, actually. Its the lemonade fast. No food, just drinking this mixture of lemon juice, cayenne pepper and molasses. Morning salt water flushes. I won't bore you or gross you out with the details of what goes in and what comes out. But its giving me time to think. About food, my relationship with food. Scarcity. Security.

Have you ever been hungry? Like, I have no idea what I will eat today, tomorrow, or the unforseeable future. I'm not talking about the glib “I'm starving” most of us use as a throwaway line when its been eight hours instead of six since the last meal. I'm talking about the kind where the whole physics of your being changes and you start to self cannibalise – first on your sense of certainty, your sense of worthiness in the world. Insecurity becomes your bedrock. The weakness, the voicelessness, the unentitlement. I believe this happens with children. The child doesn't understand why there's no food, and on some level starts to blame herself, as kids do with most discomforts. The feeling that you somehow have no right to be here, because you cannot be provided for. The point at which that kicks over into survival biology, desperate foraging. Anger. The feeling of wanting to kill.

I haven't. But I've never taken food for granted, and I've never been totally secure in knowing it'll just be there. When my grandfather was running safari camps in the 1970s and 1980s in Zambia, getting supplies was a big issue, and I'm sure I picked up on the anxiety that sat in the watertable of the adults' daily lives, particularly when we were at Chibembe. There was very little available locally. No livestock coz of tsetse fly. Subsistence farmers battled against crop-raiding elephants, baboons, birds and other creatures that wanted that grain as badly as the humans did. Sure, there were professional hunters in the area who brought in meat and biltong. And I named each variety of biltong after the hunter who made it. Bill made biltong. Ziggy made ziggitong, Athol made atholtong, etc.

It was a three to four hour drive to the nearest town to stock up on essentials but when you got there they weren't always available. The truck came from Lusaka, a long day on bad road. Camp kids – low on the pecking order. Butter for clients only. Family holdback on salads today. Etc. But I knew there'd be food. I knew I could hang around the kitchens and get treats from the cooks. The veggie garden was ringed with electric fence but there were some valiant lettuces within. I loved going into the cold room - that cathedral of veggies and milk that was in reality a small brick structure fed by a diesel guzzling generator.

It was seasonal, this existence. The dry seasons in teeming wildlife country gave way to rainy seasons in Mazabuka – rich fertile farmlands in the south. This is where I learned about abundance. I had my own veggie patch and would pull sweet white onions out of the ground and crunch them whole. I'm still a bit of a forager. I eat like a baboon, snacking opportunistically all day.

But there was a time before Maz, when we stayed in Adrian's flat in a grim industrial part of lusaka where he had a limping tropical fish business. I remember all of us crowded into that little flat – me, my sister, mom, dad, Bonkar, Adrian, Giovannah. I remember reading about the Pope's attempted assassination. I remember being hungry. There was a factory nearby that produced (of all possible names) California Cookies. That smell wafting into the flat drove my sister and I half mad. I remember staring at a lonely tin of pilchards on the bare pantry shelf. Those Kaunda years when supermarkets looked like Harare supermarkets look now.

I'm controlling around food. In our little domestic sphere, I like to be the one who cooks coz then I know what I'm getting. I'm gluten intolerant, and obsessive about label reading. Now that I'm on this fast I realise too that I love to play caterer. Food is social glue, its how I create communion and community. I love to cook. I love to shop for fresh produce. Better still, to grow it. I love to feed people.

There's a wonderful book called Drive Out Hunger: The story of JJ Machobane, put together from hours of interviews, by Robert Berold. Machobane was an ordinary guy in Lesotho who pioneered incredible, simple food growing techniques – interplanting, organic fertilizers, four harvests a year – and taught them, with the aid of volunteer farmer trainers. He was amazing. He was seen as a political threat, a revolutionary, he had to go into hiding. But he was just farming, experimenting, teaching people what he learned.

He describes to Robert his formative experiences as a youth – extreme hunger that fueled an inner rage. He describes how he got so close to killing someone. And then – this extraordinary energy to grow food, to feed not just himself, his family, but anyone, everyone who wanted to work hard and do it themselves. I googled him just now and see that the FAO is now lauding his techniques.

Where am I going with all this. A hunch. A feeling that, yes, a hungry man is an angry man, but also – hunger breeds compassion, too. And action.

Its been argued time and again that the poor and hungry in Africa don't need handouts. They need access to fair markets. The old agricultural subsidies deadlock that G8 and WTO leaders never budge on. The Global Financial Meltdown that is all over TV sets and newspapers just throws into relief the massive inequities that remain on the table and will now get worse for those at the bottom of the pecking order. Its the figures that are so weird. $700 billion would clear the accumulated debts of the 49 poorest countries – twice. What was pledged for the Millenium Development Goals at the last few meetings? $16 billion. To last until 2015. When what is needed is $18 billion a year.

And we all know, its all just talk and we all say more needs to be done and we leave it in the hands of people who are not ever going to really level things out coz leveling things out means less for the rich. Its like my friend Luke once said, the cause of crime is not poverty. Its wealth.

This wasn't meant to be a rant. Just idle musings. If those grey suited men of the WTO and the G8, if they had ever been hungry. Like really really hungry, not the “I'm starving” throwaway line they use after a long stretch of negotiations before the croissants arrive. If those men had ever really felt that stomach roaring children not crying anymore hunger that is the people behind the statistics they rub together, would they? Would they still live with those policies they make?

Ah well, enough with the rant now. I'm off to make some more juice. My cellulite is fleeing, my head is clearer than its been for months. Its interesting, to have this time to reflect. We really are living in exciting times. I do think people are re-evaluating their value systems. Aluta continua.

Oh, and my lettuces are looking great. I have figured out that snails hate coffee.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Graca Machel Mandela's classified ad

I was watching a documentary last night that re-opens the investigation into Samora Machel's plane crash, 22 years ago. I remember when it happened. How we had a day off school, for national mourning in Malawi. I remember knowing it was Very Bad. I remember feeling the swell of sadness all around me as people grieved and mourned, not only the death of a great man, but someone who represented so much hope for the sub-continent, so much boldness. I remember knowing, just knowing on some collective unconscious level, that it was no accident.

At the end of the documentary, there was a shot of Madiba with his lovely Graca, saying that it was so important to re-open the investigation and get to the bottom of what really happened when that plane came down. I remarked to Bernd that she sure has good taste in men. And then we smiled at the thought of her one day, having outlived both her extraordinary husbands, having to put an ad in the lonely hearts column:

"Activist Widow seeks principled companion with struggle credentials, preferably from struggle royalty, to share stories, meals with plus/minus 100 000 adopted children. Serious commitment to principles essential. Latter day heros that have lapsed into self-enrichment and power-seeking need not apply."

But seriously, so many great leaders on this continent have been wiped out. It enrages me when I hear people catalogue the list of evil dictators in Africa as if it was somehow an intrinsic problem, without remembering that more often than not the good ones were erased by those who had 'interests' in chaos and disruption. Imagine if the Limumbas, the Saro-Wiwas the Bikos, the Hanis could live to be as old as Madiba?

Who on earth could be elegible for someone like Graca in this day and age?

By the way, since this has had a somewhat political slant, read this fantastic article on US 21st century democracy and 'mad dog Palin'. its a good one.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

mercury dance

Oh Mercury, that silver footed trickster. The one who usually oils sprockets, puts wings on envelopes and opens our throats to say the right thing at the right time. But when its retrograde, its like, take aim, throw spanner in works. Throw another and another. The time for phones to get lost and stolen, for hardrives to crash, cars to falter for no apparent reason and cheques to get lost in the mail. Now before you astro-sceptics out there go piff paff poof let me tell you - this mercury thing is an observable phenomenon. Pay attention to the mercury retrograde cycles, pay attention to your stymied negotiations, your muddied contract conversations, your computer glitches and money hold-ups. Notice any correlation? Oh yeah, I'll buy you a new flash disc if you prove me wrong.

Luckily, and this never happens, I'm having a bit of a hiatus this time round, and I've been able to do what mercury retrograde really calls for - quiet introspection, regrouping, inner delving. I've lent a sympathetic ear to my dear one who is in the midst of not one but two contract negotiations, and keeps having that "am I talking Serbo-Croatian?" feeling when engaging with the relevant parties. Don't worry, I reassure him, it'll come right after the 15th. Me, I am accepting it, this time. Not doing a lot of driving, just staying home, detoxing and biding my time. Accepting that my blogger blank is ok. That everytime I switch on the computer and my mind freezes - its ok. Its not always that I get to take this approach. Usually Mercury's backwards trail comes at a frantic busy time, and causes sparks in my life.

October 2006. I had come to the end of a gruelling season of traveling all around Zambia documenting traditional ceremonies. I had a Nokia N70 that I was very attached to. Camera, video, internet, sms, voice calls in one silver package. Oooh, I was very attached to that little device. I was SO happy to be able to connect to my email on the road. To listen to mp3s in Mwinilunga, and sms my love, who was very far away and getting more and more sulky with me as the season progressed and I still didn't come home. I could hear his lower lip dragging on the floor whenever I phoned home.

I would try to keep him up to speed: "we drove 8 hours to Solwezi. The road is great to there, but from then! Shocking. It took us twice as long to travel half the distance." and I would attempt to regale him with tales of the road. "We were welcomed by a guitarplaying chief who showered us with pineapples! We went on the boat on Lake Tanganyika with a group of fish geneticists and I left my bag on the jetty by mistake." But, it was too many worlds away to make sense or bring cheer. When I came to Joburg for fly-by visits, the privilege of sushi and crisp white wine brought a lump to my throat.

To get us through the away periods, one night we decided to record a saucy bit of shenanigans on my N73. Well, decided is a bit strong. It just kind of happened. As it does, you know. Started off as a bit of a laugh and, weell, one thing led to another. As it does. And so. I ended up with a video clip on my phone that would make a pole dancer blush.

And so the last ceremony of the season, after trekking across great swathes of Zambian landscape (that's a lot of miombo* forest, y'all) from Mpulungu to Mwinilunga, Kabompo to Katete, I plan it very cleverly so that I end up in my dear home village, Mfuwe, for the final stop - the Malaila ceremony. This is when the Kunda people gather to remember the journey of their ancestors to this fine bit of game-rich land, and they tell tales of the heroic shooting of a troublesome lion. They drink a lot of beer, eat buffalo, and have dance show-downs with those-who-have-left-for-the-city. And steal cellphones off white girls in the crowd.

Now, I used that phone at every single ceremony we went to. In towns and villages where 'poverty' is an understatement - people have very very little. But they are proud of their traditions, they welcome guests, they assure you that you are free, safe and welcome to wander. I keep the phone in the front pocket of a sort of moonbag thingy around my waist, take it out to capture a particular dance, mask or costume so that when I check my notes later I have a visual reference. Coz the photographer (yes the same one of previous posts...ze light, ze light) has wandered off somewhere else and is not looking for the same things I am. ANywaaay. It was not stolen. Until. I got home.

Standing in the crowd, watching the girls' Chisungu dance, the initiation dance they do when they come out of confinement. I did this initiation once, another story. I was revelling like everyone else. My initiation 'mother' greeted me with suprise, delight and light scolding because I had been away so long. Dear Old Cha Harry, who is one of the Chief's retinue in the procession, had barely recognised me (thought I was my mother and he had slipped back 30 years), but I was home. October heat filling my lungs, dust between my teeth, arm sore from endless handshakes. Mfuwe has changed so much since the days I was a permanent resident. It has urbanised quickly. There's money here - tourists, burgeoning industry. But I am home. Its been a long season, its been great. I reach for my phone, to call Miranda who is sick at home with a kidney infection. To share the moment. The zip on my moonbag is open, the phone is not there.

The bastards have scored!!!!!* Not only does some nimble fingered fellow now have a 9 month old Nokia N70, he also has some rather good quality home porn, and 6 months worth of research pics.

Everyone I talk to tut-tuts about how this sort of thing never used to happen, its the people from Chipata* you know, they're crooks, they steal from tourists. They don't know its you, your family...

Damn. I'm a tourist in my hometown.

I go to the police station. Station is a bit strong. Its a small block near the airport - one tiny room with bars where a drunk man is railing against the injustice of his capture. He stops as I walk past the window, and asks me for some money so that he can buy his way out. The policeman laughs, and aks how he can help. I write down in detail what happened at the Malaila ceremony. In the big ledger book that doesn't have a lot of solved cases in it. "We are only two," sighs the cop. THey should send us more help from Chipata when have the ceremony. But don't worry! We will definitely recover your phone!" Its a dance of formalities - I know they won't. I'm not sure if I want them to. I blush everytime I think of what lies behind the gallery icon.

I never did get back my Nokia N70. But I did find out later that Mercury went retrograde that very day.

So I'm keeping a low profile right now. I'm fighting a small battle against an army of snails that are working their way through my seedlings. (I believe they hate coffee). I sit and marvel at the breathsucking blue I have painted my garden wall.

And I'm not, simply not, going to think about the state of my bank account until at least Wednesday.

*Miombo: a type of woodland that stretches across southern Africa. Hardy trees that go amazing shades of orange, purple and red before the rains, and very dry and sparse during the dry season.
* A quote from Dennis Liwewe, famous Zambian football commentator, referring to the opposition team's goal.
*Chipata, nearest town, some 130km away, but the journey can take up to 4 hours on a punishing road.

Friday, October 3, 2008

guinea fowls never looked this pretty

My mother-in-law's place is so neat I feel my cells rearranging themselves guiltily whenever I step over the threshold.

My mother-in-law's place is so ordered that I'm never sure if its ok to put my bag on the floor. So colour coordinated, I feel as if I should get changed immediately to fit in with the scheme: plum cushions and cream backgrounds, russet and wine red detail and a thin line of black sewing it all together. Beaded mandalas in gold, silver and black on the cushions, matching the coasters that I'm afraid to put my coffee cup on, in case I leave a stain.

My mother-in-law's place smells so clean I'm scared to poo in her guest toilet, where the lavender-sprig toilet paper looks like it's been published by a reputable printing press.

My mother-in-law collects winged beings made of china, glass or wood. She has ducks frozen in flight across the wall, guinea fowls looking less ruffled than I've ever seen them, doves, hornbills, necking swans, gaggles of pert geese. There's a rooster nesting in a pot plant on the top shelf, and a pair of very satisfied looking ducks on either side of the bath salts. Only the teddy bears are wingless, huddling on top of the bookshelf in the guest bedroom, looking vertiginous.

My mother-in-law's little lawn is an extract from the oval grounds. Adventurous blades of grass would get snipped by nail clippers. Perfect ferns convene next to polished elephant ears, and wide-eyed pansies nod with neighbourly grace at the gentle cactuses. These plants love the Durban climate and never get that ragged brown thirsty look that Joburg plants get. The cactuses were her husband's. They have outlived him by 20 years.

My mother-in-law has a board near the phone, set about with oval frames. Each frame hugs something we have never quite managed to give her. Wedding photos and baby pics. Her other children have knitted the family lines together nicely, with their coiffed wedding hair and cute round offspring. This reveals the fact that strictly speaking, I cannot quite call her my mother-in-law. She's been decent about it these last 13 years, but it must niggle her pastor's wife sensibilities. We sleep in one room, dorm-style on single beds.

My mother-in-law's place is so neat that every time her youngest son crosses the threshold, he makes a spectacular mess - accident with coffee machine sprays grounds across white kitchen. Exploding coke bottle makes rorschach test on pale carpet. A display shelf knocked sideways - see those geese fly!

A pair of owls frown down at him as he spills his peas. This son-of-a-preacher-man is neither tidy nor punctual. He suffers from alarming bouts of lateness. I have seen him make snowstorms in his sock drawer, pant over missing keys, daily. When it's sit-down-meal time he's nowhere to be found, still fleeing the Sunday morning bells of his Lutheran childhood.

My son-of-a-preacher-man has taught me stuff, though, I can tell you. Well. Not here I can't. It wouldn't be polite.

His Mama is a wonderful woman by the way. She is devout and kind. It's just that, well, generally I'm more comfortable with a lot more chaos around me. Luckily, I have her son for that.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Where did all the money go?

I was thinking of this as a cover for the book I am doing... the UN, aid effectiveness in Africa, etc. ha. I wish.

Mind you, it works in other contexts too right now. Including personal ones.

First draft is with client, thumbs squeezed. I'm off to Durban for a wedding and a rest.